This one, like a few of the last, begins on that same straw mattress, the one in Kankan, Guinea, with my mosquito net pulled shut on a sweltering afternoon. The hot season is fast approaching, and along with a biblical hailstorm of mangoes, in all of their inviting forms, it brings a strong, pressing afternoon heat which, for those who can, simply must be passed indoors.
The past few days have been biking and research. I’ve been riding my bike, and researching where I’ll ride my bike next. I have this idea, this great new idea, that I fully intend to act on, since really, it’s probably wise to act, with excitement, determination, and a strong mind, on all great new ideas. I won’t share this idea quite yet, though: it will theme a near-future post instead.
Before beginning this one, I’d like to apologize for the lack of pictures. I have some great ones–many, in fact–but the internet speeds here in Kankan simply don’t support photo upload. So, for the next few months, I kindly request your pardon: I’ll continue to blog–writing posts on my iPhone (I left my MacBook Air at Brisa’s house in Algeciras, Spain, in order to lighten up my pack, and not have it ruined by sand–there’s not much wifi around here anyway), while bouncing from internet café to internet café, where both the power and connection are always crapping out in some cruel, twisted, and torturous duet, until the “Publish” button finally works and the post goes through–but unfortunately, without pictures, for now. I’ll add them in when I get to Israel.
On January 3rd, after an early wakeup in Naomi’s flat, in Dakar’s Ouackam neighborhood, I began the crawl to Kankan. “I should be there in 3 days,” I told her. The journey is about 1,200km.
After a quick car rapide to la gare, and stocking up on water and bananas for the road, I hopped in one of the many sept-places bound for Tambacounda, in eastern Senegal.
Here’s how this works. La gare means “the station” in French, and sept-place means “seven seat,” so you arrive at the station—generally just a dusty parking lot or street corner–and find a car bound for your destination–generally these Peugeot 504 station wagons–and pack 3 in the far back, 3 in the back, and 1 in the front. It’s a tight squeeze, but compared to Guinea, where the same car goes by neuf-place, well, it’s really not so bad.
Each seat in a sept-place has a fixed price, and the driver won’t leave until all the seats are filled. So, when you hop in a half-empty car, you’re left with two options: buy up the rest of the seats yourself, or wait it out.
Fortunately, this particular sept-place was almost full, and in fact, was occupied mostly by United States Peace Corps volunteers who had, like myself, passed New Years in Dakar, and were now heading back to site near Tambacounda. We made our acquaintances, and they quickly offered me a place to sleep in their regional house for that evening. Wifi, English, and people my age who like to drink beer (not so many in West Africa, since the majority of people seem to be Muslim). I’ll take it.
The ride itself took about 8 hours, and was largely uneventful. We stopped in some villages for snacks, rice and fish, picked up the odd slab of raw meat, popped a tire rolling over a train track (we threw a football around to kill time), and arrived in Tamba just before sunset. A largely uneventful ride, as far as Africa goes.
The Peace Corps house was very college. A kitchen stockpiled with noodles, cookies, and overused kitchenware–wandered by 4 or 5 at a time, making eggs or macaroni, drinking tap water out of half-clean cups; a large cork-board with a collage of pictures–drunken nights, group shots, a pie in the face, what have you; couches for internet bumming, bunk beds, and even ~12 beds set up on the roof, complete with mosquito nets, where most people usually sleep. It was really a nice place to be, and everyone was, of course, very accommodating. As I’ve said before, the lone traveler is a very befriend-able figure.
Two of the first people I met in the house were Adrian and Haley. I told them I was hungry. “Wanna go get some warthog?,” they asked.
An hour later, and we’re sitting at a plastic table, occupying three of four seats, on the patio slash dance floor area of a bar named Baobab, with the music playing WAY too loud (Adrian asked them to turn it down), on the one-year anniversary of my trip. The next post is a personal reflection. It’s really been a ride.
Like most of Senegal, Tambacounda has both a Christian and Muslim population. The Christians eat meat, and the Muslims don’t. There’s lots of warthogs around, which are therefore in high supply and low demand, so for the meat-eaters, it’s a common, inexpensive dish. My warthog came in the form of sautéed warthog cubes, with some onions and peppers to round it all out. It tasted like beef steak, and is something I would eat again. It was a good first warthog.
Next, we went to another bar to meet up with some other volunteers–another “Africa-bar,” I’ll call it. Africa-bars, at least the ones that aren’t geared towards expats in capital cities, seem to all have a similar feel: low, dingy, lemon-lime lights–a rusted, crackly TV playing European soccer–a few locals, who all probably show up most every night (the town drunks, basically)–maybe one woman, who is probably working behind the bar–plastic tables and plastic chairs–and just no discernible superfluity, personal assumption, nor granular trace of coziness. Most are powered by generators, and once in a while, believe it or not, Africa-bars can actually be quite charming.
Exhausted from the day’s journey, and pretty interested to see what Peace Corps volunteers actually do, I began to ask if I could tag along with anyone the following day (instead of continuing into Guinea), and check out some of the projects. “Wait for James,” they said, “he’d be great for this.”
Soon after, in walks James: a young kid from Pittsburgh, to whom I’d actually sent a CouchRequest a few days prior, in anticipation of an overnight rest in Tamba. We spoke for a minute, and he quickly agreed to let me come along. “Hey Will, you’re traveling the world, can I buy you a beer?,” he then asked.
The following day, James and I grabbed bikes from the house (all PC volunteers, at least in Senegal and Guinea, are given bikes), and headed out to one of the farms at which James works. Basically, his job is to facilitate new initiatives on the farm–anything from new irrigation systems, new crops, experimental planting techniques, etc–providing advice, inspiration, general mentorship, and never money. In this way, after his two years of service, James leaves the farmer, and the community, hopefully more enlightened, driven, and capable than when he first arrived; “a man taught to cook fish on the beach in Nouakchott,” essentially.
After introducing me to the farmer, James walked me around the farm, and gave me the run-down: the new irrigation system to be implanted, and how it will work, what crops grow in what seasons, what crops Senegal enjoys, where they come from, and things like that.
In addition, James explained a rather interesting paradox regarding Senegal’s rice production and consumption. I paraphrase:
The main dish in Senegalese cuisine is rice and fish. Senegal produces a lot of rice itself, most of which is long-grain rice, which is healthier than short-grain. When the French came in and took over Senegal, they brought short-grain rice, to which the Senegalese took a strong liking. The main dish, rice and fish, is almost always short-grain rice. So, while Senegal produces tons of rice, but only the long-grain variety (which is, again, healthier), they end up importing all of the short-grain rice, from Thailand, to satisfy the national taste. This inevitably makes things more complicated, and more expensive than they should be. Switch back to short-grain, guys!
I left the farm with a stronger appreciation for farming itself. So much of the world is still agrarian, for two main reasons, which are kind of one in the same: first, sometimes farming is the only source of income available, and second, humans will always need to eat. I made a mental note to read some books on agrarian economics–that stuff is so important. As we move from horse-drawn carriages to amphibious Hummers, from rotary phones to iPhone 10’s, one thing will always remain constant: people gotta eat.
The next morning, I was finally Guinea-bound. My destination was Koundara, a town roughly 85km from Tambacounda, but given that I had to cross a border, and that this is Africa (T.I.A.), the 85km makes for a full day’s journey.
I woke up around 6am, and left la gare around 7:30. My first destination was Manda, an easy 25km away, just shy of the border.
I arrived in Manda around 8:45, and bought my seat for Koundara. Although still in Senegal, the sept-place had already become a neuf-place, as the driver was probably Guinean. I was the 6th person in the car–only 3 seats to go.
3.5 hours later, and I’m still waiting, with 3 seats still to fill. I read the first 60 pages of a new book (Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, since finished, very good), got a baguette filled with scrambled eggs, onions, and potatoes, and actually spoke a bunch of Spanish for some reason–there were a bunch of Senegalese guys speaking Spanish. One of the guys, with whom I chatted for a good hour, spoke eight languages, perfectly, numbered Spanish, French, Malinke, Susu, Pular, and three other West African languages I’ve since forgotten. He’s gotta learn English, though!–that’s the most important one, these days. Seriously.
Around 12:30pm, we’d had enough. Myself and three of the other guys decided to split the costs for the remaining seats, and off we went.
The car starts moving, and 8 feet later, the driver pulls over, and gets out of the car. More waiting. Then moving again. It smelled like campfires, I wrote in my notes. 200 more feet. Then stopped again. A passerby hands the guy sitting next to me, through the window, a blue, crumply, empty plastic cookies bag, full of cash. Classic. Moving again. People are cold. I put a stray metal screw through a piece in the gutted metal door, and manually crank the window shut–a hand-cranked window, without the plastic crank itself.
As we approach the Guinean border, the scenery begins to change: cement huts with straw roofs, and a whole lot of mango trees. This is Guinea, I’d later learn.
We arrived at the border around 1pm, and were told that they’re closed ’til 2. Africa. I eat some lamb with onions under a straw roof–killing time and escaping the sun. More Shock Doctrine as well, and a bit more Spanish. More waiting too.
Around 2:45, and we get to cross. I’m of course singled out, being the white guy, and have to sit in your token cement border shack for 20 minutes while the officer meanders on in. No problems though, and with the visa already in my passport (got it in Morocco), I moved through rather quickly.
We arrived in Koundara as the sun began to set. I was half-hoping my Spanish-speaking friend would offer me a place to sleep, but alas, he was making the overnight push all the way to Labé–my destination for the following day–and I was on my own. I exchanged some money, receiving a fat stack of bills in exchange for my 50 euro note (1 Euro = ~11,000 Guinean Francs), asked some people to point me towards a hotel, and began to walk.
En route to the hotel, and only having had my foot on Guinean soil for a mere 15 minutes, I hear the now unmistakeable “viens manger!” (come eat! in English) from a family on the left. Hungry, and with 6 wide smiles beaming in my direction, I wearily stomped through the brush, and onto the family porch.
The house itself was artistic, and while I’ve never been, it seemed very “Havanan”: a large, crumbling, 1-story house, more wide then tall, yellow and green paint flaking from the outer walls, sparsely decorated on the inside and most windows missing, and with a large front porch, where the majority of family time is inevitably spent.
The mother and father pulled out a table for me, and the daughter brought the rest. A large jug of water, a large bowl of rice, and an even bigger bowl of some sort of fish/beef/peppers orchestration. She reminded me of the daughter from Inglorious Bastards, I remarked in my notes. “Go fetch me the water for my wash, and then go find your sisters!”
After dinner, the father suggested we go to the soccer game unfolding down the street. I told him I’d check into the hotel first, and then meet him at the field.
The hotel was not so far–100 meters further, maybe. I walked inside and got sorted: $4 for a queen size bed, in a borderline deplorable room. No electricity, no mosquito net, and no running water either, and if I looked under the browning, concaved mattress (I didn’t), I fully anticipated there being a strong collection of used condoms. It was a disgusting place.
I locked my things, and made my way to the field. I saw a few kids sitting on a high, crumbling wall, staring peacefully out at the game they so love–the kids from the Sandlot at an MLB game, type scene. Their backs were to me, and they looked onward. There were two smaller boys trying to hop up as well, but were tragically too small, and like the heroic, unexpected, and once more heroic white-skinned warrior-man materializing out of a dusty orange evening, I helped them up myself. I then propped my own bum up on the ledge, and holy shit: there were like 3,000 people, packing the stands and lining the edges of the field, screaming in madness and utter mayhem. “What the hell is going on,” I asked, leaning over towards the other kids on the ledge. “It’s the prefecture versus the army!” Straight out of The Longest Yard.
At that moment, what seemed like the entire “stadium” noticed that a white guy had entered their midst, and started yelling for me to hop down onto the sidelines. I jumped, and given that the ledge was high enough to make for an uncomfortable crotch womp upon landing–I sorely grabbed my crotch upon landing–and the crowd went nuts.
Next–laughing, smiling and jeering–they cleared out a space for me right on the goal line: a front-row seat for their honorary white-guy, and a perfect introduction to Guinea. Needless to say, with the circus of screaming fans, I never found the dad.
Back at the hotel, and after a cold, headlamp-lit bucket shower, I went to the reception/bar for a beer. On the surface, the place was cool, and with character: cement benches painted red, gigantic speakers thumping salsa, red Christmas lights, a straw roof painted white on the inside, Guiness cardboards and Heineken stickers, meat skewers being grilled outside, and a bunch of posters shouting Ba Cissoko – Mandingo Groove–his great new CD, probably.
That was the surface–cool and with character. However, as I sipped my lukewarm, label-less beer (probably Flag), and began to look around at the few girls (and one guy) that were in the place, tossing a faint smile in their direction, and receiving that lingering look in return that I now know all too well, I quickly realized what was very likely to really be going on: this place was a brothel, and with Avicii-concert-quality speakers blasting salsa music that had no intention of surrender, it was a brothel that would be keeping me up all night. But alas, This Is Africa, and you really just can’t expect to win ’em all.
I arrived at la gare the following morning at 7:15am, and we got moving at 11:30. Thanks again for that Kindle, Evan–it’s saving my life. Our vehicle was a fully-gutted (except for the seats) tin box with a motor, packed with 11 people (it’s meant to hold 7), plus a driver, with myself squashed against the middle-row window–my seat of choice.
Labé is about 230km from Koundara–a full day’s journey under the best of conditions. The first 85km of the road we drove was good–paved and well-maintained. Then, almost out of nowhere, the road just nosedives into the forest, and for the remaining 145km, you’re left to negociate a red-dirt road, with plenty of potholes, dodging cows and a passing trucks. To be clear, it’s not exactly a boulder field that you’re driving through, but after a while, the potholes unfailingly illicit a groaning f*ck offf with each thump and dive, which is sure happen at least six times a minute.
Our car overheated roughly 15 times. The hood would start smoking, and the driver would get out, open the lid, and just dump water on the engine until it cooled off. In addition, at roughly 8:00pm, with a pitch black sky and only 30 daunting kilometers from Labé (night travel in West Africa is not recommended), and having just taken break in a small town roughly 20 minutes prior, we ran out of gas. I mention the town part because our driver should have certainly sorted the fuel while we were all wandering around eating beef skewers, obviously.
Not to worry, though. As everyone grumbles their way out of the car, the driver starts to hitchhike back to town, hopping on the back of the first passing truck. The passengers were left to wait it out, complaining idly under a brilliant sky, and wondering if we’d actually make it to Labé before the next morning. Myself, well I wandered away from the pack, and threw on my go-too “woo-sah” song, Weird Fishes by Radiohead, and just stared up at the painting above, trying to make the best of I all.
Around 9:30, and we finally arrived in Labé. The Peace Corps volunteers in Tamba had put me in touch with a volunteer, Derek, who had quickly and warmly accepted my “hey, got some floor space for me?” text earlier that morning. Derek was from California, on his second PC tour (his first was in Botswana), which is called Response. The only difference here, for me at least, is that Response members are actually employed by the UN, meaning that Derek had a massive house all to himself, complete with 24-hour security/on-command laundry team, and a guest bedroom just for me, where I hastily splashed my stuff, threw two of the couch cushions on the floor, opened my sleeping bag, and crashed for a long snooze.
Tired from the journey, I resolved to hang out in Labé the following day. I wandered the market, a labyrinthine collage of dresses, vegetables, and homemade peanut butter, as well as meandered the outskirts of the city, where I chanced about a half-built mosque, cement skeleton only, which I entered and ascended until the staircase ended, and then climbed up a rickety ladder made of sticks and ties up onto the roof. The view of Labé was like that of Kankan: a few mosques, a river, and lots of mango trees.
From Labé, one can take cars straight to Kankan, but the journey is more than a day, and when night falls, the driver often stops the car, has everyone sleep on the side of the road, and then restarts when the sunlight returns. No thanks. Instead, I decided to break the journey up into two parts, crashing the night with yet another PC volunteer, hooked up by Derek (you can see the trend beginning to form here), in her hut in Bissikrima, maybe 180km away.
My first car left for Mamou around 8:00am, and arrived around 11:00am. Then, I grabbed another car for Dabola, buying my ticket at 11, and leaving around 3:30pm. Thank god for that Kindle.
This ride was a bit interesting as well. First, no one oreally spoke French, so I sat there talking to nobody as the whole car yacked away in Pular, of which I don’t understand a single word. Second, I had my very first “crier”: a young child looked at me, and being the first white person he’d probably ever seen, he started crying uncontrollably. He’d then hide behind a door, pop out again to stare, and then start crying even harder. It was utterly hilarious. Third, this ride was interesting because I saw a car on the road with its trunk strapped down with a rope, and a young kid lying across said trunk, with his legs also under the rope, so as to hold him down too. Some of the stuff that goes on in these bush taxis is just so far beyond laughably dangerous: 7 people on the roof of a car, 3 hanging off the back, 12 more inside, and with so much stuff strapped to the roof (rice, fruit, oil drums, chickens, goats, cows, Fanta, literally whatever) that the car itself looks like the basket of a hot air balloon by comparison, is a rather common sight. Lastly, as the driver stopped to pray just as the sun was setting, I saw this massive, post-apocalyptic-looking bush fire in the distance, whose smoke was even more accentuated by the dusky light. It put me a bit on edge. However, as drove right towards it, I realized it was just Africans burning trash as Africans do, in their time-tested “controlled” fashion. Whatever–this thing was still huge, and pretty scary looking.
We arrived in Dabola around 9pm, and after a steak salad and a water, I took one more taxi 25km to Bissikrima (the share-taxis to Bissi, which held 6, were finished for the day, so I was forced to pay a driver for all 6 seats for the way there, and all 6 seats for his way back, amounting to like $14, about which I was not thrilled), where I finally arrived around 10:30pm. Betsy made me some tea upon arrival–nice girl.
The next day, I again wasn’t moving. Instead, Betsy and I slept in (she was off work), went hiking, took some pictures, got a bit lost, braved some mystery berries given to us by passing village children, and tried not to get eaten by bugs. We then met up with a few more PC volunteers, including a visiting family from Seattle, with whom we ate lunch–potato salads with Fanta–and then dinner–pasta with veggies from the market–and finally, went to a clandestine bar buried in the woods–4 huts, a generator, and a meat skewer lady, where we drank the few remaining beers (one of the guys rides his motorcycle 25km back to Dabola to restock when they run out), as well as gin mixed with grapefruit juice, from grapefruits we picked from the tree overheard. Certainly another Africa bar, but definitely one of the more charming ones.
The next day, 8 days after leaving Dakar, Betsy, myself, Momo and Jesse took a car to Kankan (they go up once a month), and 7 hours later, with the warm welcome of cold ice cream from a restaurant down the street from their house, we finally arrived. As I said in a previous post, this was a hell of a journey in its own rite.
Apologies for the length, but it was an eventful 8 days. The next post will be a personal reflection–where Ill challenge myself to produce something markedly eloquent. It should be a good one.
From Kankan, on a painfully empty stomach,