For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been in Guinea–the country next to Senegal. Guinea is sometimes referred to as Guinea-Conakry, as Conakry is its capital, so as not to confuse it with neighboring Guinea-Bissau, nor the Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea, nor, if your geography is really bad, Papua New Guinea, which is located in the South Pacific. Even if you’ve never heard of Guinea, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick out on a map, although, to your credit, there do seem to be quite a few “Guinea’s” out there.
Guinea is one of my “stops” for the trip: I’ve been here for 5 weeks, and I’ll be here for 5 more. In this post, and in the next, I’m gonna tell you a bit about what it’s like.
Guinea is the 8th African country in my passport, and while each is certainly unique from the next, there is one recurring theme that seems to hold true for all:
You will have your good days in Africa, and rest assured, you will have your bad ones. In this post, I’m going to paint you a picture of each.
A bad day in Guinea goes something like this:
It’s Friday, and I don’t teach on Friday, so I go to the cyber café at 10am, since it opens at 10am. I arrive, and walk through the open door.
“Can I have a ticket for the internet?”
I pay, receive ticket, and sit down at the computer, as the owner continues to sell tickets to other clients.
“Sir, the connection doesn’t work.”
“One second–let me finish with these customers.”
“But the connection doesn’t work in the first place?”
“Wait a bit, it will work in a minute.”
11:15am rolls around.
“Sir, what’s the deal.”
“It will work at noon.”
“OK. I’m going to go home and eat lunch, and I’ll be back at noon. The connection will work at noon? Promise?”
“Yes, definitely. I’ll see you at noon.”
I go home, return at noon, and sit down at the computer.
“Sir, this still doesn’t work.”
“Hmm. Wait a bit.”
“You said this would work at noon. I’ve already paid you. Have you done anything to try to fix the problem?”
“AH! Just wait a bit.”
“When will this work?”
“OK, what time?”
“2pm..3pm..4pm..something like that. Just wait a bit.”
“I’d like my money back please.”
Still in need of internet, I hop on my bike, and head into town. While the opposite lane is fully free, and while I occupy no more than the 0-10th percentile of my lane (my lane would mark the 0-50th percentile, and the opposite lane the 50th-100th percentile, horizontally, of the total paved road), both cars and motorbikes also going downtown insist on flying past me in the 10-20th percentile, coming within, say, 4 inches of me, honking incessantly the entire time, so as to do me the high courtesy of “letting me know they are there,” as if I gave a flying f*ck, and didn’t want to simply focus on the road ahead, so as not to be hit by any oncoming drivers. As if just widely swooping around me, and passing with respect and civility, and in a manner that didn’t give me a heart attack, and make me legitimately feel like my life is in danger, was so f*cking difficult.
I arrive at the next cyber café, emotionally exhausted after a 12 minute bike ride, and log on for 7 minutes, before the power cuts out.
“When will it turn back on?”
“Wait a bit. It should be back in an hour.”
I’m now hungry, so I head to the Ivorian restaurant by the gas station, which has some of the bombest rice I’ve ever tried. The previous day, when I went at 1pm, they told me they hadn’t started making the rice yet, or, in other words, they didn’t have any food.
“Has the rice started?”
“It’s already finished for the day.”
“I came yesterday at this time, and it hadn’t started. And now it’s finished?”
“Wait until tomorrow.”
“Like–this is a restaurant. If you don’t have any food, why am I able to walk through the door? Why are you even open? You make a profit on your food, or you wouldn’t sell it, and I know you buy rice in 100kg sacks, so I know you aren’t fresh out; I’m standing here with money–why don’t you just make more?”
I put my stomache aside, and instead head to “bike street,” in attempt to test-drive some different-sized bikes, since I will be buying one over the phone in the coming days.
“Hi, I want to buy a bike. Can I try this one?”
“Wait a bit. I’ll be there in a minute.”
..Continues drinking tea and talking to his friend..
5 minutes later: “Hi. How are you?”
“Hi–I want to buy a bike. Can I try this one?”
“You have to buy it first.”
“I have to buy it before trying it?”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I’ll probably buy this bike if I can just try it first (a lie, of course); don’t you want my money?”
..Resumes drinking tea and talking to friend..
“You’re useless. Bye.”
It’s now 5:45pm, and since the café further downtown starts making soft-serve ice cream at 5:00pm, I head on over, dodging more motorbikes all the while.
“Ice cream ready?”
“No–wait a bit.”
“Look, it’s been a long day. I’ll pay you 5,000GF a cup (it’s normally 3,000GF a cup–roughly $0.42USD) if we can turn this thing on right now. What do we have to do to make that happen?”
“Just wait a bit. It will be ready soon.”
Having lost all patience entirely, I hop back on my bike, and head home. Every other child I pass yells “toubaaaaab!, while every other adult stares unblinkingly at the white guy on the bike. Today, I just don’t have the nerves for all the attention. This is unfortunate, since not saying hi to every person with whom you make eye contact seems like a huge insult in Guinean culture.
On the road home, I concentrate my very hardest on not getting hit, and as I’m just about there–just about to that dirt path, the one so quiet that I can hear my tires grinding the stones–a rusted Toyota Land Cruiser roars by me, and while it could swerve to give me space, it doesn’t, forcing me to effectively dive off the road, and bringing me the closest I’ve ever been to picking up a rock, and launching it through someone’s back windshield, as I wonder, furious, and ready to hit someone–what in the name of logic, reason and civility was going on in that douchebag-motherf*cker’s head.
Finally, I arrive home. Starving, I’m served rice with peanut sauce for dinner for the 4th time that week. Dirty, I take my bucket shower. Feeling a bit ill–maybe from the frustration, or maybe from the sauce–I take my shorts off, boxers off, and t-shirt off, and, sweating, squat over the ceramic latrine, and poop out something faintly tinged with blood. Lastly, tired, I settle down on my straw mattress, lay down on my straw pillow, pull my mosquito net closed, and retire to a sweaty sleep, wondering, ever so slightly, what the hell I’m doing here in the first place.
That’s a bad day in Guinea.
Now, deep breaths–here’s what a good one looks like:
It’s Saturday, and I wake up to my 6:00am alarm, in order to get an early start on a long day’s bike ride. I stretch on the prayer rug next to my bed, eat a truly fantastic baguette with cheese, and hit the road before the sun comes up.
By 7:30am, the sun begins to rise. It’s the same as every morning: ruby-red, a bit larger than I’m used to, and with crisply defined edges–a massive, Jovial (in the “of Jupiter” sense) grapefruit, floating in the sky.
As I approach the 10km mark (from town), I see a path, and decide to go exploring. I dip off, and instantly feel the beauty: there’s no cars anymore! In addition, no more than 3 minutes later, I get that “lost in the woods” feeling, as I’m completely surrounded by mango trees (which look like giant Zoombinis–remember the computer game?), looming baobab trees, bulls, singing birds, farmland, Acacia trees, and a bit of red dust.
I bike for another half-hour, and in the middle of it all, I find a village: a cropping of about 50 huts, all made of homemade cinder blocks, homemade cement, and straw roofs, surrounded by more mango trees, and the odd papaya tree. I get off my bike, and all of the kids begin to jump up and down, smile, and run towards me. Toubab!
Out of 40 people now standing in front of me, all beaming, all genuinely elated to have me in their midst (this white guy came all the way from America or Europe just to ride a bike into our middle-of-the-forest village?), there’s one person who happens to speak French (most villagers don’t speak French), who immediately invites me to eat couscous (hands only) with the rest of the village. Meanwhile, one of the women fetches me two large papayas, each a different type, just to see which one I like best.
I eat, smiling with the children, trying to make jokes even though they speak Malinke, and I don’t. As I finish, and go to fetch my bike, I see that one of the villagers has already moved it right to my feet. I get back on the trail, as the entire village, in unison and warm smiles, waves goodbye.
Around 11am, I make it to the 40km mark, where there’s a police checkpoint under a large mango tree. I pull over, park my bike, and begin to chat with the officers, and the women making food.
I ask how much the oranges cost, and one officer says: “No worries, it’s all on me. Take as many as you like.” Next, he refills my water, hands me a few bags of peanuts, and insists that I try some of the fried forest-bananas being passed around.
We all chat a bit more, joking about America, and I hop on my bike and head towards home. “One more orange for the road,” the officer says.
On the road home, I pass villages, waving villagers, and even the odd monkey swinging from mango tree to mango tree. I pull over in a village closer to home, greet the beaming children in a wood-hut cafe, and am quickly served water, coffee, and banana bubble gum. We chat about bush life, Guinea, and, once more, what it’s like in that crazy wonderland known as the United States. I get up to leave, as the mob urges me to stay, and once more wave goodbye.
Guinea might not be so bad after all.
A few kilometers later, and my bike breaks down. The first four people that pass me all stop, and within 45 seconds, I have a team of mechanics, with tools, fixing my bike for me. I’m back on the road in five minutes.
Once in town, and hungry, I try a new cafe.
“What’s for lunch?”
“We have coffee and bread.”
“Well, what’s that you’re eating?”
“Rice with onion sauce. Here, please take the rest–I’m full.”
“Can I pay you for this?”
“No no. My treat!”
More kindness. And it doesn’t stop there.
It’s almost dark, and I head home. I pass a family plucking mangoes from a tree, and I ask if I can buy some. All of the children run out, ecstatically and warmly shouting toubab!, and excitedly tell their parents to grab the white guy some mangoes.
“Can I pay you for these?”
“No no. My treat. You’ll pay us back, somehow, someday. Enjoy!”
That night, I go to a bar with some Peace Corps volunteers, and some Guineans. The place we go to is basically closed, but for us, they pump up the music, turn on the lights, and start wheeling out beer, liquor, and food. We dance, laugh, and sing until about 3:00am, and all have a great time. The Guineans are impossibly friendly, and are so happy to have met us. At the end of the night, they insist on picking up the whole tab.
I awake the following morning, after having spent the night in a Peace Corps hut, and find that my sandals, which I had broken just as we were heading to the bar the previous evening, and had left on the porch, were fully repaired by one of the neighbors, just to do me a favor.
Does this stuff happen in my country?
I finally return home, do some reading, and take a long, afternoon nap–smiling, energetic, and thoroughly content to be where I am.
That is a good day in Guinea.
On the whole, the Africa I know doesn’t exactly make for the “easiest” of travel. You have your good days, and you have your bad days, but in the end, I think all who really travel Africa leave with more amazing memories than not. Besides, bloody poop doesn’t last forever.
I’ll talk much more Guinea in the next post; I had intended to do it all in this one, but it got pretty long, pretty quick! Next one coming shortly.
Today was a pretty good day,