Saturday, July 29, 2006

[Travelogue] A trip to Guinea: part 3

Note: Gambia RPCV Mike Shepard embarked on a backpacking trip across West Africa following the end of his service. Below is an account of his trip to Guinea. The original can be found in his blog along with stories from other parts of his trip. This account is reposted with Mike's permission. Because of length, this will be posted in three parts. Part one can be found here and part two is here.

A Trip to Guinea (part 3)

By Mike Shepard, RPCV Gambia 2003-05

By three o’clock in the afternoon they came back from their hikes with Hassan apologizing that he forgot I was sick and would have prepared for lunch to be delivered to me earlier. I was feeling a lot better and could now join them relaxing in the hammock without the overwhelming feeling to fall asleep. A late lunch was served and we sat in our respective hammocks lounging around.

In the evening I was well enough to go on one of the small hikes. Sarah was up for it also, but Lisa wanted to continue reading her book. Out of the list of small hikes to do we chose the Hyena’s Rock. Now, keep in mind that I hadn’t read the description of the hikes yet, and so as we’re walking along with Hassan pointing in some direction naming an animal or boat that the rocks resemble I didn’t think they were talking about the rocks, I though they were talking about the clouds! I was getting so frustrated because I couldn’t see any of these images in the clouds that they so obviously could see.

Hassan: “See it? A duck. A duck taking a drink with his neck down.”
Sarah: “Oh yeah! I see it!” as she’s looking at the proper rock
Me: “I don’t see it!” as I’m looking at a patch of clouds that reminds me of nothing but a cotton ball. I’m straining my imagination trying to make that cotton ball look not only like a duck, but a duck with his head down taking drink. It still looked like a cotton ball to me.

This lasted the entire hour-long hike! It wasn’t until we were heading back when Hassan pointed obviously to a rock, with no clouds in the sky in that direction, and said what it looked like.

“Oh! You’ve been looking at the ROCKS!”

Sarah gave me a look as if I just said the stupidest thing in the world: “What did you THINK we were looking at?”

“The clouds! I couldn’t see any of these things you guys were talking about! All I saw throughout the whole trip was cotton ball after cotton ball” By now I wanted to do the hike over again to see the duck taking a drink of water, an boat sailing along, a tiger sleeping and all the other crazy rock formations that I never saw. But we were heading back to camp. It wasn’t until I got back did I read all the descriptions of the hikes and realized where the look came from when I said they’ve been looking at the rocks the whole time.

After dinner, when the sun was setting, Hassan brought out the radio and announced
“You carry”
“I carry what?”
“No, your carry”
“Your Kerry is on the radio.”
“Oh! Kerry! I thought you said carry”
“I did”
“No, ah… never mind”
“Kerry, your Presidential candidate. He will be on the radio tonight. The democrats have their convention tonight and are going to nominate him. He will give a speech.”

He laid down the radio on the table while we just relaxed in the hammocks. It was the BBC World News along with other BBC radio broadcasts. One of them was an 83-year old who wanted some machine of his fixed. The customer service representative said something to the affect of it was ten years old and should be malfunctioning by now. His retort? “I’m 83 and haven’t malfunction yet!”

Being four or five hours ahead of Eastern Time we had some time to wait until the broadcast. By the two hour mark I called it a night. Sarah and Lisa followed ten minutes later. Hassan continued listening throughout the night and heard Kerry’s broadcast, along with other world news the BBC is so good as giving out.

Day two of hiking began at nine in the morning. The caves were today. Hassan came over to announce “B.B.O.W.” and left. I looked at Sarah, Sarah looked at Lisa, Lisa looked back at me. Before we could exchange a word of confusion Hassan came back again with a smile on his face “Bring Bottle of Water”

Although feeling a lot better than the day before I still kept my own water bottle. Sarah and Lisa were sharing one. We put both bottles in Lisa’s backpack and Sarah started carrying it. Each person would take an hour’s turn with the backpack.

Within fifteen minutes we’re walking down into the valley. Time and time again we had to walk sideways or else we would slip. Green trees, shrubs, and boulders stretched for miles in every direction. Not a single village could be seen among the rolling hills.

We began talking to Hassan on the way down. I do not know how the conversation progressed to this point, but somehow religion came up. His belief about religion, expressed in one sentence, made everyone laugh. The context of the sentence was not that he didn’t want to talk about, but he was expressing his viewpoint of why many people have different religions. He said: “To me, religion is like going to the bathroom. It’s personal.”

For an hour we explored the landscape; hiking up and down trails; leaning over cliffs to get a better picture; trying to climb small boulders. The caves we explored didn’t go in very deep, maybe about 50 feet or so with no maze-like paths. Just an opening for the one room filled with cool air, huge spider webs the size of hammocks, and the mist of the nearby waterfall coming in. After a few hours we’re getting closer and closer to the edge of a cliff. Finally we’re at the edge, still walking along it, until we reached a wall. Hassan grabbed the wall and slowly edged his way around it and then started climbing up it. We all stood there with Sarah being the first to speak

“Hassan, where are you going?”

“I’m going home!” was his reply as he climbed more of the rock waving us to follow.

By this time we’re all quite a bit nervous. To our left is a 2000 foot drop and to our right is the wall we have to climb. Hassan went as slow as he could, helping each one of us in turn. He made sure he was positioned in a stable place where he could lend a hand and help pull us up if need be. For the first climb Sarah was the first to go, then Lisa, then finally me. The second climb Sarah went first, with Lisa second, and again me last. The problem I had was I was wearing jeans. I didn’t know we would have to do any rock-climbing and thought it would be maybe a few roughs trails here and there but no 2000 foot drops planned. The jeans kept me from extending my legs as far as I wanted to find a good footing. Hassan held on to my right hand as my left hand was on a rock, one foot positioned on another rock and my right foot trying to find a place. After I thought I found a stable place the rock I was holding on came loose, my feet slipped and Hassan quickly pulled me up while I’m kicking the sides of the rocks trying to get some friction to help him pull me up. After that, in order to reach the top we had to contort ourselves through openings of the rocks, it some cases shifting 180 or bending close to 90 backwards in order to complete them.

As we sat down to relax we all agreed not to do this hike again. The beginning was fun, but the end to get home was a killer. Hassan explained that this wasn’t the original way home for the trail. He changed it a month or so back to make it more challenging. Basically it was sort of a test. The most popular trail is “Shoots n’ Ladders” but he has to decided whether the people can handle climbing down wet rocks next to a waterfall down a cliff. And so, if you could handle this small climb (which in all honesty only took about half-an-hour) you could do Shoots n’ Ladders.

I may be sounding like we were on the verge of death, which wasn’t the case. The cliffs were right next to us, yes; but we went extremely slow one foot at a time always with Hassan keeping a hold of us at the most difficult parts. When a part became too difficult for someone he would find another way up for them, which might mean backtracking for five minutes or so and then catching up to group while he found an easier path going up.

When we made it back to site we all collapsed in our respective hammocks not wanting to move. The hike itself didn’t exhaust us, just the half-hour of climbing at the end scared us all half-to-death. Hassan’s wife came by with our late lunch. We were all eager to eat and lifted up the lid to see eight globulars of something. We’re having fufu for lunch. After eating and relaxing Lisa made the comment she only had one globular fufu, with Sarah commenting she only had two. I realized we started with eight.

“There is no way I had five globulars!”

Half teasing they repeated again again “Glob hogger! Glob hogger! ” with me jokingly responding “I’m not a glob hogger!”

Lisa went back to reading her book, while Sarah and I prepared for the afternoon hike. We chose “Indiana Jones.” Hassan took us down a different set of trails. We were now on the other side of the mountain then we were for the caves. This trail was the funniest so far. Vines you could climb, others you could swing on, rocks you had to jump over to cross a river, small crevasses you had to climb through, and even a natural swimming pool at the end which Hassan called the Jacuzzi. Both Sarah and I jumped in and enjoyed the cold water much more so then the hot sun.

On the way back we stopped to have our picture taken overlooking the hills and mountains. We each sat back-to-back arms folded in a triumphant pose. What was a spur-of-the-moment picture ended up being one of the best pictures of the entire trip.

We each called it a day relatively early and went to bed eager to do the hardest trail, “Shoots ‘n Ladders” the next morning. The day after we would head home. While relaxing the night before we made a comment that we forgot to bring any games, except for a deck of cards. Hassan went to his house and brought out a chess / backgammon board he had. Although we appreciated the gesture we were all too tired to play and went to bed. At nine in the morning as we were eating breakfast getting ready to go two vans pulled up. We heard English and saw, through the low overhang of the hut, people in shorts. Put those two together and it spells tourists. Hassan went to meet up with them and then came back to tell us he couldn’t take us on our hike today as the tourists wrote him a month ago saying they were coming on this day but he forgot about it.

The tourists came to the hut to relax a bit. The first one came in with a big warm “Good-morning!” which Sarah replied “Ah! An American!” as he turned around showing his t-shirt with a maple leaf and in big letter “CANADA” written across it. He smiled at the obvious missed hint, “Close, Canadian.”

It turned out they weren’t tourists at all. They were a group of missionaries that travel country to country every few years, in the meantime rotating people in their group who come and go. They live in a country long enough to learn the local language and then translate the bible into that language. They were currently working on a Fula edition of the New Testament and were surprised that Lisa could speak Fula. Within a few minutes they realized both people had different dialects and were discussing the differences among the two Fula dialects from Gambia to Guinea.

The twelve of them went with Hassan for their all-day hike while we sat in the hammocks wondering what to do for the rest of the day. Not too long after they left it started to rain and only then were we glad they showed up and took our day of hiking away. The downpour continued for an hour before it let up. Sarah was getting annoyed that a whole day was being wasted and verbally telling us so. I was laying their playing Boggle, Lisa was smoking away reading her book, while Sarah ranted on.

Sarah: “I’m sorry I’m being such a bitch about this.”

Lisa: “No problem. We’re each doing something. I’m puffing along, Mike’s playing Boggle, and your bitching.”

There was a pause before she continued,

“It sort of reminds me of that one song in ‘Chicago’. Pop, Six, Squish, Uh uh, Cicero, Lipschitz! Except now it’s Puff Puff, Boggle Boggle, Bitch Bitch.”

We all laughed as it went further

Lisa: “Puff Puff”

I’m still concentrating on the Boggle game but heard the whole conversation and knew what she was trying to do: “Boggle Boggle”

Sarah joined in “Bitch Bitch!”

“Puff Puff”

“Boggle Boggle”

“Bitch Bitch!”

Lisa then took the lead, changing the lyrics to fit the hike the previous day
“We had to climb it /
We had to climb it /
We to climb the hill /
If you would have seen it /
You would have known that /
You would have done the same”

“Puff Puff”

“Boggle Boggle”

“Bitch Bitch!”

The rest of the afternoon was smooth sailing after that. It broke the ice, we were no longer upset we missed the day of hiking and we laughed for most of the afternoon telling jokes or hearing crazy stories from Lisa growing up and getting in trouble; or what was more like the case of trying not to get caught. The rain started up again, died again, and continued for a third time. By mid-afternoon we were quite glad we didn’t go hiking that day. Not so much because of the rain, although that was a good deterrent, but because the hike is considered challenging when there’s no rain; and impassable if it is raining.

Around noon Sarah and I got out the chess set and played a few games. The last time we played, when I got invited to go on the trip with them I had won three games in a row. Today wasn’t my day I lost three games in a row. We were now even.

By three in the afternoon the Canadians came back, soaking wet, but they enjoyed their hike. They thanked Hassan and paid him his fee, said goobye to us and got back in their vans to head home. We called Hassan over and explained that since today we couldn’t go on the hikes, we would extend our stay for one more day if we got that day for free. He agreed to it and we planned on the Shoots ‘n Ladders hike the next morning bright and early.

With the tourists gone and no one else showing up the trip seemed a green-light the next morning. Hassan announced we were going and we followed behind him. Each of the previous trails began with going around the compound to the backside and basically hiking through his “backyard”. This hike required us to go through his wife’s compound and to head in the opposite direction of all the other hikes.

As we were passing a small group of compounds an elderly woman came to greet us as we passed. She smiled showing what was left of her teeth and spoke proverbs in Fula as Hassan translated. She thanked us for visiting Doucki and hoped we received what we were looking for. She then started telling us a story of the power of Allah. Being very old and little she couldn’t reach the avocados that were growing next to her hut. She prayed to Allah one night for him to help. Later that night a huge storm came through and knocked down the avocado tree. All the roots were exposed except for one main one that stayed in the ground. The tree lays on its side and still grows to this day, with the avocados growing each year in arms reach for her to enjoy. Her prayers were answered, she said.

We continued along the path, picking up a second guide as we went along. He never gave his name out and Hassan never introduced him, but he walked behind all of us. For the first few hours the trail was easy and I was wondering when it was going to become difficult. The only difficult part so far was crossing a creek that twenty feet downstream became a small waterfall. The flow was so great that you had to use your arms to help pull you along a rope they stretched across. You could feel the force on your feet and each step was as difficult as the last.

About a half-hour after the creek we came across a small waterfall and started to climb down next to it. At some points along the waterfall wooden structures, made of branches of twigs, laid across two boulders and we had crawl on top of them to get to the next landing. After we finished climbing down that waterfall another, yet bigger one, came along. Little did I realize this was the beginning of the difficult part. The rocks were full of moss, were wet because of the waterfall, and we’re climbing downhill. I’m a bit nervous when it comes to a loss of friction (when friction is needed) and so each step for me was a balancing act of trying to stay on there short enough not to slip but long enough to get the other foot someplace else. At some points we had to hug the wall and climb down penguin-style as no other space allowed otherwise.

Ten minutes later we’re at our first wooden ladder; the first of nine. It’s not so much as a ladder, but a bunch of sticks, twigs, and branches all tied together going from one rock to another that otherwise would be impassable. Later that day I asked Hassan if he put those together for the tourists. They were made years ago by the villagers who travel up and down those paths everyday. About every three months or so a twig or branch is replaced as it rots away, but other then that those branches are the only way those people can get from the top of hill to the valley, and vice versa, without going 10 miles out of their way.

As we were going down I’m beginning to not like this part of the trail and would, if I could, to chose another way to go back. I told Hassan my concern, with his reply being: “That’s impossible. We’re only going half-way down. There’s only one way back up, the same way we came.” With that he pointed up at the twig ladders we just climbed down, still being soaked by the waterfall.

After more than an hour climbing down the rocks, twigs ladders, loosing your footing a few times, grabbing onto branches, and other crazy stuff we reached the half-way point. The path curved around the hill, away from the waterfall, to overlook more of the valley and even see the rest of the hills stretching across the distance. We stayed there for only ten minutes, taking a few pictures and drinking some water before turning around to start the climb up. Going uphill, I found, was a lot easier than downhill. I was still the last one in line, in some cases knees shaking like a polariod. This time around the ladders were no problem, as I could see my footing each time and knew where they were. The casual slipping and occasional lost footing still kept me wearisome throughout the trip up.

The guide who came along and stayed behind us helped me along while the rest of the group went up ahead. We caught up to them about ten minutes after climbing back up, when we reached the creek we had to pass. They were on the other side putting back on their shoes. I had my Chaco’s on and just started crossing. This being our last hike I realized that not once did I wear the shoes I brought along and they were, in fact, dead weight on the bag.

On the way home Hassan just went crazy. He started shaking his arms every which directions and taking off his rain jacket and shirts. His repeated words explained everything: “The ants! The ants!” Throughout each hike we had to be mindful of the ants and quickly stepped away from them; or if we accidentally stepped on them to quickly brush them off or jump in a creek. Hassan, now with no shirt on, had ants over his back with bite marks throughout. Lisa had to help him pluck the ants off his back.

While resting on the hammocks back at camp a few hours later Hassan told us we should come over to his balcony to watch the sunset. Lisa was the first to get up, then Sarah and I joined. We sat on the balcony, looking outward into the valley as the sun set perfectly between two hills. A few trees were in the way, but the colors the sky became made up for it. While we sat, watching the sun and listening to the BBC, a group of voices were heard in the distance. Hassan had visitors. More tourists. This time a group of about a dozen French hikers, around our age. Not wanting to lose our hammocks we ran back to lay down while Hassan showed them around the camp. Being twelve of them there was not enough room until after we left. As such, some took up the other hut he had while the rest stayed in an empty room in his house. None of them came over and we all had our dinner separately.

Seeing the French hikers I was reminded of growing up seeing pictures of twenty-year-olds exploring the world, going on hiking trips for months or years, and thinking to myself “How can they afford, time wise, to do that?” But yet, here I was, half-way through my service doing the exact same thing I only saw pictures of. I am now one of those guys, and I now see how people can afford it; both time wise and monetary wise. This entire trip costing no more than $200, since we did nothing very touristy.

The next morning while we were getting ready to leave, the French tourists were enjoying their breakfast getting ready for their day of hiking. We paid Hassan our fees, 20,000GF/person/night. This amounted to $40 a person, by far our biggest expense. For Hassan, just receiving $120 implies his tourism business is quite a good one! (Not to mention he had 12 French tourists waiting for hikes, and took a dozen American/Canadian hiking the day before). The GDP/per capita of Guinea is $2,100 compared to $37,800 for the U.S. This is interesting since according the CIA Worldfactbook, the Gini Index of Guinea is very nearly equal to that of the U.S [40.3 vs 40.8], so both countries have roughly the same degree of inequality in the distribution of family income, just the range is different.

At the entrance to his compound a car backed up and we were told we could get in. Even though this was a public transportation car, we didn’t have to flag down a car; or better yet wait hours on end for one. This car would take us to Pita for the same price. At Pita a driver asked where we were going and we answered “Labe” where he quickly said to follow him. We were approaching his car when other drivers asked where we were going as well. The first driver brushed them off saying he got us first and therefore would take us. We looked over at the other cars, realized they were going to Labe as well, and better yet, they were half-full. Less waiting! We left the first driver to join the others, to the amusement of our new driver who was now laughing at our old one.

A few hours later we arrived in Labe on the same street we were at days earlier. Lisa walked over to the leather store across the street to pick up her shoes she asked them to make the last time we were there. With no surprise, they hadn’t even started on them. Why make a new pair of shoes, when there is a hundred here the customer could choose from? Because we’d pay extra for custom-made! The idea of customer service, both in restaurants and other areas of industry aren’t up to par with the U.S., except maybe the tourist regions Not expecting them to be completed anyway Lisa just shrugged it off with indifference.

We turned the corner to head back to the store with the Mars bars. We made our mistake earlier and we weren’t going to repeat it. As we’re purchasing our Mars bars, the same three men were sitting watching the TV. This time it was top twenty pop songs in the U.K. We stood there watching the videos and enjoying a real candy bar, as opposed to the fake one earlier. After watching about five videos we left to get some breakfast and find the car park going to back to

The place we had breakfast was an open-air rest area where a half-dozen women where serving everything from coos, rice, soup, bread, and other local items. We put our bags down and enjoyed our morning bowl of rice while a military solider, weapons and all, sat next to us also enjoying his breakfast. A passing taxi agreed to take us to the proper car park for 1000 GF each. Ten minutes after getting into the cab we’re at the other side of Labe at the proper car park.

A man approached us and asked where we were going. We replied “Basse, The Gambia” in which he replied “This car here, will take you to; only 40,000 GF”. Sarah argued the price was a way too much, until they pulled out receipts with the 40,000 already printed on them. The price was non-negotiable. We each paid the dues, collected a receipt, and gave them our bags. We knew we wouldn’t be leaving for a few hours. At eleven o’clock in the morning Sarah asked the guy “Where’s a bar? Drinks?”

He took us two blocks away to what was most likely the only bar in that side of town. No tourist would ever realize this was a bar. No signs hung outside, and no details outside illustrated this was where the drinks where. There was, in fact, no door; only strings of fabric hanging down separated the inside from the outside. Our guide excused himself saying he would get us when the car was about to leave. Through the ‘door’ was a room, about 15 feet long and six feet wide. Benches went along three sides of them while a TV/DVD player was on the fourth, next to the door. A table sat in front of each bench leaving only enough room for one person to go between the two tables separating the two sides. The twelve-year old bartender was busy serving drinks.

Across the ceiling hung those triangle frabic things that string across the room that you usually see at car dealerships. They were advertising “Skol” beer. We all thought it was Guinean so Sarah and Lisa ordered one. The twelve-year walked over to the refrigerator and got two bottles and opened them for them. While we read the label the kid walked back to the refrigerator to get bottles of liquor for the Guineans sitting across the room. Skol beer is not from Guinea, but Brazil!

I’m sitting right next to the opening to the outside world (I can’t really count it as a door, could I?) while Sarah sat to my left and Lisa to hers. Two feet away was the TV playing an old movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, later found out to be “Cyborg”. Everyone was mesmerized by the movie, which was dubbed in French. Without knowing any French I was able to grasp the story line by just the bad acting alone. When the main bad-guy came running after Van Damme screaming, in what seemed like every scene, the bar would be full of laughter.

Sarah and Lisa ordered another beer. The bartender was not only kept busy by getting everyone their drinks but also kicking the kids out of the doorway who were trying to watch the movie from the outside. When “Cyborg” was done, they took out the DVD and put another one in. This time it was “Firestorm” starring Howie Long. I never knew Howie Long was in movies, I imagined him in those TV commercials with Teri Hatcher for Radio Shack. This one was also dubbed in French but had English subtitles. We watched the entire 89 minute movie, because we nothing else to do. The girls ordered another beer as I went to check on the car. “Three more people” they told me. Back to the bar.

A new movie! It’s now “Executive Target” with Roy Scheider. No English subtitles and so I’m lost to the subtleties of the plot, but the basic scheme I’m getting. Halfway through this third and final movie our guide showed up saying we’re ready to go. But what does he do? He sat down and started watching the movie! After a few minutes he got up and walked us back to the car park.

The car we put our bags on top of was not there, but a new car was, with the top all covered up. Concerning we’d be leaving without our bags we asked to see them. This required two men climbing on top of the car, untying the secure rope, undraping the sheets and searching through the luggage to find out bags. All three bags were there and we got in the vehicle. I was told to sit up-front, with two other people besides the driver. A bit crowded. There was one small advantage to this location: whenever we stopped I was always the first passenger out of the car, and because of my location I had to be the last one back in. I got the longest break each time! Lisa and Sarah sat behind me, with two other people; four people sat behind them; and two more sat in the trunk. Fourteen people for a car that’s suppose to take only eight. As I said before, a bit crowded. By the way, this doesn’t include two or three kids sitting on their parent’s laps.

We left the car park and Labe at four in the afternoon. Around seven or eight we stopped along the road with other cars. We had just crossed a small bridge and all the men got out, bringing their prayer rugs with them. It was prayer time and we had to wait. As the Muslim men prayed we sat on the bumper of the car talking to the Christian men and women. With 85% of the country being Muslim the other 15% basically just has to go with the flow.

With everyone back in the car we headed out again. The driver was quite in a rush and was going over the potholes, which were filled with mud, with relative ease. Up ahead a line of lights showed across a bend in the road. I sat in the front seat trying to figure out what it could be. They were all red lights, so at first thought maybe the back end of a long string of cars. Similar to the end of “Field of Dreams” or “Pay it Forward” which end with cars converging to a central location. While we sped forward it became clear the lights did not belong to a bunch of cars, but three trucks slowly going over pothole over pothole. Our driver tried to pass the first, but the driver of the truck refused to let him pass. We’re now half-on the road, half off trying to pass this truck. Traffic is coming the other way and our driver had to give up and retreat again. Eventually he was able to pass the first of the three trucks. The same routine happened for the other two, with the drivers exchanging yellings in their respective local languages with me in the middle of the yelling.

About a mile down the road we passed a sign that had no words just an illustration of a car falling into a river. Before I could quite understood what that meant we had to stop. Not so much because we’d fall into a river, but because of the twenty cars before us waiting to cross that river. There was only one ferry and it could only take two cars at a time. In other words, we’re going to be here for a while! The time now is 9:30pm. Sarah, Lisa, and I made a bet when we’d finally cross the river. I was the most optimistic of the three of us, with only a two hour wait. Sarah had us going at 12:30 in the morning, while Lisa said 1:30.

We walked the twenty car lengths to check out the ferry. It was only then I knew I would lose the bet. The ferry was hand-pulled. We walked back halfway to the car and stopped at the run-down coffee shop. The bench sank in the mud as the fire to heat the water grew in the background. The owner had bread and individual Nescafe packets to sell; which with sweetened condensed milk makes a pretty good coffee. As we sat it began to ran so we drank more.

After about an hour and a half everyone was getting tired. It had stopped raining so Sarah took up the hood of the car, while I sat in the front seat with Lisa in the back. After a short nap we all got awoken to commotion, the cars were moving forward a distance. Sarah jumped off the hood and got in the car. We moved twenty feet before we stopped. It was only then that Sarah realized she left her glasses on the hood of the car. She got out and tried finding them nearby, borrowing a flashlight from a random Guinean man. They were no-where to be found. Understandably she got upset while going back and forth that twenty feet. The Guineans were trying to figure out why she was so upset and searching under their cars with a flashlight. It took Lisa to explain it to them

“She lost her glasses.”

“Where are you going?”


“You can get glasses there.”

“These are specially made ones. Very expensive”

They still didn’t quite understand why that should matter so much, but the next sentence Lisa said had them searching with us: “They were American doctor prescription.”

After that we had three Guineans helping us, I had a flashlight, Lisa had one, Sarah was no where to be found. We never did find her glasses. If you are a volunteer and you misplace your glasses Peace Corps will replace one pair for free during your two year service. Sarah had just finished her service two days before our trip and so a replacement pair now had to come out of her pocket.

We crossed the ferry at 12:30 in the morning with all three of us pulling on the rope to bring it across. Half of the people in the car are now dozing off to sleep, with me on the way there. Only a half-hour after crossing a loud noise was heard underneath the car, the muffler had broken loose. The driver got out, so did the entire front row (including myself) to assess the situation. The driver took out a knife and cut some rope off that was used to keep the luggage on top. He tried to tie the muffler back on, but the rope wasn’t long enough and he couldn’t cut anymore off without jeopardizing luggage falling off. Out he came under the car, holding the muffler, telling me to open the trunk where he was going to throw it down for later. When I went to open the trunk I forgot about the two people sitting back there, now sleeping, and for a brief second the shock of two dead bodies came in my head as if I was Don Corleone or Tony Soprano. Late at night, in the middle of nowhere, raining, with two bodies in the trunk. The driver threw the muffler on them and before they woke up and replied the door was shut. (The trunk wasn’t an enclosed compartment, but more like a luggage area in the back)

If you weren’t awake already, you were by the time the car started. Not a single person in the car, and probably anywhere in the world, could sleep through that noise. I’m nodding in and out of sleep only seconds at a time, if at all. An hour later he finally pulled over in a small village where there was a mechanic. It’s now past two in the morning. Other drivers are outside drinking their coffee, eating bread, and some playing checkers with one another. All by candle-light in small shacks as it was still raining. I didn’t care about the rain anymore and just laid down on a bench trying to get some sleep. I had time on my side as I was always the last one in the car, besides the driver.

A half-hour went by when the driver announced the muffler was fixed and we’re going. I got inside and went to sleep. Throughout the five hours of sleep I was getting only briefly did I get waken up a few times. Each time I saw the rain pouring down on the road, an order of magnitude more then when I was laying on the bench; the car driving over pot-hole over pot-hole ignoring all reasoning that there were sides to roads (cars going the other direction did the same). Mud was flying all over the car and into the windshield as the wipers tried to clean it off in time before the next splash from the potholes. Once I turned around and only saw one other person awake.

At seven in the morning we had our first stop since fixing the muffler. Everyone was too tired and too crowded to move, so to someone watching us get out of the car it might have looked like fourteen three-toes sloths moving around. We were told the Senegalese border was about an hour away. Without finding anything to eat we got back into the car. The next hour everyone was up and awake waiting for the border check to appear.

When we entered the border area everyone was told to get out of the car. The guards then checked the drivers ID and waved him through. The next checked the passengers IDs with each one only given a second or two glance at their Senegalese, Guinean, or Gambian ID. Us three remained until last. Before he even asked for our ID the guard waved us inside. Sarah exchanged greetings with the man behind the desk, all in French, while he asked for all of our passports. He took each one in turn, made sure we had the proper Guinean visa (finally someone checked we had that $40 visa on us!) wrote all our information in a book and gave them back to us. During this process our driver came back seeing how we were doing. Everyone was waiting for us on the other side of the border. Finally our passports were stamped and we were let through. The driver walked with us to the car. “Almost home,” I thought, “just one more border.”

At eleven in the morning our car reached the end of the road and was at a cross-road. The driver started to turn to his left, but then pulled over and told us three to get out. What? Out came the French and the Fula. That corner was the closest he was going to The Gambia, with the border about a half-hour down the road to the right. We needed to get another car to get there. After nineteen hours in the car we got out for good. Nineteen hours in one car. Now, people in the US do road-trips all the time; some of them going twenty-four hours plus – and you are driving. The time is more, that is true. However, there’s some pros and cons to take into consideration.

In the US you have your own seat, in Africa you’re sharing it with three other people. In the US, the roads are smooth and go on forever, in Africa they are full of pot-holes the size of Montana and the roads remind you of the outline to French Curves used in drafting. In the US, there is a dotted line in the middle of the road to distinguish your side from the on-coming traffic side, in Africa you’re playing chicken with every passing car (see note above about potholes the size of Montana). In the US you have an air-conditioned car, or worse you have to roll down the windows; in Africa there is no such thing as an air conditioned car for public transportation and if you roll down your windows you’re going to have to take a shower afterwards your so filthy. In the US there’s McDonalds or rest areas within five miles of anywhere you are currently, in Africa you’d be lucky for a cockroach-infested pit-latrine.

I would rather be the driver in the US for a twenty-four-hour road trip then a passenger in Africa for nineteen hours. However, having said that, and having done both options, I now have a new found appreciation for the US road system. No more complaining of Michigan road construction or detours because of it. At least they’re fixing the roads!

Here we were standing on the crossroads in the rain. I flagged down a passing motorist and asked if he was going to Velingara. This was the same town we road into two weeks ago coming right out of Basse. He said he was and told us to hop in. This wasn’t a taxi but as you learn so often here is that you don’t pass up a chance for a ride. He drove us the half-hour to Velingara, even stopping a few times to make sure he was headed in the right direction for the car park we need. Upon arrival he refused any amount of payment, even when we offered more than what a taxi would charge for the same trip. We thanked him for the ride and went to buy our tickets back to Basse.

The road from Velingara to Basse is about an hour’s length in time. When the car park manager tried charging Sarah 100 CFA (~18 cents) more for her bag she was about to just walk the way home. She couldn’t understand why they didn’t charge Lisa or I for our luggage, and we figured it was just a joke that went a bit too far. Nevertheless, we all made it in the car without anyone being overpaid. At the Gambian border all bags were ordered to be searched. I was the first one in line and put my bag on his desk. He immediately saw the Peace Corps luggage tag on my bag:

“You are Peace Corps?”
“Wow. [Wollof: yes]”
“All three of you are Peace Corps?”
“OK, you can go”

He hadn’t even unzipped my bag or anything. We were allowed back on the truck before anyone else and had to wait while all the other bags were searched.

In mid-afternoon we arrived back in the Basse Peace Corps Regional House. The trip, for me, being 99% completed. Throughout the whole two weeks I hadn’t shaved, and so when I walked in one of the volunteers that was there said “Mike, you look like an young idealist Michael Moore!” I took it as it was suppose to be, a compliment, but still shaved within the hour.

I stayed in Basse that night and the next before heading home to Fajara, that trip being another nine hour road-trip. Word travels fast in Peace Corps and the moment I walked into the office people were asking about my trip; even the employees at the Post Office asked when I went the next day to get the mail!

In all it was a great trip and I’m glad I did it, despite being spur-of-the-moment.

Friday, July 28, 2006

[Travelogue] A trip to Guinea: part 2

Note: Gambia RPCV Mike Shepard embarked on a backpacking trip across West Africa following the end of his service. Below is an account of his trip to Guinea. The original can be found in his blog along with stories from other parts of his trip. This account is reposted with Mike's permission. Because of length, this will be posted in three parts. Part one can be found here.

A Trip to Guinea (part 2)

By Mike Shepard, RPCV Gambia 2003-05

Arriving back in the village I realized how big the mountain was in front of the village. We arrived during the night and couldn’t see the mountain in front of us. I now saw it in all it’s glory. The top part was covered in fog and you couldn’t see the summit. Maybe the description makes it bigger than it actually was, but it was quite impressive. The town we were heading to, Mali, is on top of Mount Loura; one of highest mountain in Guinea with an elevation of 5,046 ft. (The highest mountain being Mount Nimba at 5748 ft.) Mali is popularly known as Mali-ville so as not to confuse it with the country of Mali.

While waiting for the small boys to finish their breakfast the father refilled our water bottles and Nalgenes. This time the water was crystal clear. We weren’t quite sure what source of water we were served the night before, but the water just obtained was a whole lot better. After some picture taking of the mountains we had to climb we headed out. I had my backpack across my back while the two boys had the girls backpacks balanced on their heads. They were in the lead, following by Gibi, then us three behind. Within fifteen minutes we lost sight of the two boys while we struggled to keep up. The day before was about 60% uphill and the rest smooth plateau or going downhill. We didn’t know it at the time of setting out, but today was going to be 95% uphill. We were not looking forward to twelve-hours of uphill climbing, in some cases on all fours because of the gradient; this was alleviated a lot when Gibi phrased what he said the day before in a different manner. He wasn’t saying it would take twelve hours, but that we would be there by the twelfth hour of the day – noon. Now we could see how he could make it back to Dindifello by nightfall; it was shorter then we imaged, he would be going downhill most of the way, it would be only him, and he had no luggage to carry around.

Halfway up the hill we see the boys resting on a rock waiting for us, at the top of the hill! Women carrying babies on their backs and bowls of food or clothes on their head passed us on their way down, greeting us as we rested after each big hurdle. The boys were playing at the top, running around and joking. The girls realized they’ve been had. This trip up this hill and to Mali-ville was nothing for these boys, or anyone in the village. The next closest village from Chiange is Mali-ville and so the locals transverse these paths everyday. Up the mountain, pass the cliffs, down the steep parts, up wooden ladders, across rocky barriers – all in the days work of these people! And more likely than not they could carry a whole lot heavier stuff than we were. This was proven when we finally reached the summit and the boys were taking a cat-nap, not a bit of sweat on them.

After the first big climb we gestured to Gibi with our hands that it should be downhill from now on. He countered by holding his fingers together in an upward direction. We shook our heads no and held ours in a downward direction. He held his up one more time and then counted: 1,2,3,4,5. We had five more summits to climb! He finally got the point across that none were as steep nor hard as the one we just finished and after the fifth one it would be a smooth walk to Mali-ville. We counted down each summit we finished. At some of the steepest parts, where you needed your arms to pull you up, Gibi would take my backpack from me and race ahead to the next safe landing and wait for us to catch up. The boys, still not breaking a sweat, balanced the girls bags on their heads the entire time while climbing and only briefly would they wear them like backpacks, when the terrain asked for it.

Despite our initial fears of a twelve-hour uphill hike, we arrived in Mali-ville a little past two o’clock in the afternoon. The boys led us directly to a small restaurant near the car-park at the other edge of town. American description of a small restaurant: A ma-n-pa shop, maybe up to ten tables, the owners serve you or maybe they have one waiter/waitress. Guinean description of a small restaurant: A one-man-deal. You enter a room the size of a walk-in-closet. A table is leaned against one wall with a bench on the other side of it. Room enough for four people. Directly in front of the door rests another bench, just by itself. The kitchen is a gas-tank with a burner on top located in the corner of the room. From any location in the room the cook/server/owner can serve your bowl of rice within an arms reach. The door is always open to let out the heat.

Us three took up the whole bench, with our stuff laid out outside. The boys left without saying goodbye. Today was a walk in the park for them, they greeted other kids along the way to the edge of town and even played with their peers before they left. They’ve been here before multiple times and it showed. Gibi sat patiently for the rest of his payment. We bought him lunch, paid him the rest of his money and he went on his way as well.

The volunteers we ran into in Tamba assured us there was a volunteer living in Mali. If this was true, we could stay at their place for the night, have something to eat, clean up, and head out the next morning. A few problems: We didn’t catch the volunteers name or whether they were male or female. Both Sarah and Lisa were asking in their respective languages where the Peace Corps volunteer was to no avail. Then came, “Where is the white person?” That seemed to work and they started talking about this one woman who lived there. This woman turned out not to be a volunteer but some elderly French woman who lived and worked there. Finally, after close to a half-hour trying to ask questions and gesturing to our skin, peace corps logos on our bags, and other identifying marks we could go by it became clear that there was in fact a volunteer living there – but he’s on vacation, in Mali; the country.

Another boy, around ten years old, started hanging around with us and was quite helpful. He spoke only French and so primarily conversed with Sarah. While trying to fiqure out where to stay he led us to the Tourism Bureau. This consisted of one small room in the middle of town. If it wasn’t for the “Office du Tourisme de Mali” sign you would think the door led into a small bidick. We caused a little stir trying to all cram into the room, with local residents huddled against the door checking out the new tourist. The man behind the counter politely asked us to sign in and then proudly displayed some number on the wall. It was the number of visitors Mali received each year, and they were always increasing. I always enjoy a good statistic and asked if I could jot down the number. Without hesitation he proudly said yes and even scrambled to try and find a pen and paper for me:

Nov – Dec. 1999: 28 visitors
Jan. – Dec. 2000: 60 visitors
Jan. – Dec. 2001: 107 visitors
Jan. – Dec. 2002: 218 visitors
Jan. – Dec. 2003: 286 visitors

With our free lodging on vacation in Mali we had a chose of two hotels. One of them was a regular hotel for the tourists; the other was at the edge of town, might not be open, had only three rooms and a bed was all you were provided with. We went with the second choice. The boy who helped us out continued to do so and walked with us to the edge of town showing us where the hotel was. It was called “Auberage Indigo.”

The hotel was separate into two halves. The first, to the left, was the three rooms. The first room had one bed, the second had three, and the third also had three. To the right was the kitchen, and the in the middle was an open-air patio with the manager playing cards and drinking atai with his friends. We chose the room farthest away and put down our stuff. Now came the negotiations for paying for the room. The manager didn’t believe the prices we quoted from seeing in the tourism bureau.

After about an half-hour of negotiations our fare was settled. We would pay 13000GF total to stay there with an additional 2000GF for him to get us dinner. The kitchen had no food and so the 2000GF was for him to go into town and buy a bowl of rice, some sauce, and coffee. The equivalent in US Dollars of each share of 5000GF is about $2.50. The ten postcards I bought at the tourism bureau cost exactly twice the amount I paid for a hotel room and dinner.

The manager prepared hot water for us to take a shower while we each took turns taking cat-naps in the room. After an hour or so the manager came by and asked if we wanted anything. We told him no thanks and he left. Another hour later we’re getting hungry and went to ask the manager where our food was.

“You said you didn’t want anything.”

“We didn’t know you were going into town!”

“I asked if you wanted anything, you said no.”

“You knew exactly what we wanted for dinner. If we would have known you were going into town we would have given you the money for it. You never said you were going into town, and if you knew that was going to be the only time you should have asked for the money”

This continued for another ten minutes. By now it was downpouring! He finally agreed to go back into town, on his bike, to get us dinner. We felt a little guilty making him go out in the rain, but dinner was part of the deal we negotiated hours earlier and the miscommunication of him already going into town was not helpful. Before he left I asked if I could look at the registrar he had. This book, like a regular registration book you see in the states, was over three years old and still not even halfway filled.

Flipping through the pages I saw tourists from a half-dozen European countries, a few African countries, and of course America. All of the Americans were volunteers from other countries, except of course their friends or family from back home who came along. We spotted a few names we recognized, some dating three years back. To tell how we knew them, Sarah just completed her two-year service a few days before we left for Guinea; some of the names on the registration were volunteers who helped with her training.

Another interesting name we saw was Tom Morgan, the previous Country Director for The Gambia! That was a pleasant surprise to see a country director roughing it as much as the volunteers. This hotel had no bathroom, no showers, no food, just beds and maybe lights if the electricity worked. Not only that but he had to get here somewhere and that’s no easy feat by itself.

Finally the manager came back, soaking wet, with a bowl of rice and individual serving size portions of Nescafe. We invited him to eat with us but he refused saying he already ate when he was in town the first time. We didn’t say anything when that made us think “When he was eating, didn’t he think we needed food?” I’m shivering while eating my rice and drinking the hot coffee. Who would have thought to bring a long-sleeve sweatshirt to West Africa? I’m drapped in the bedsheet. Having a cold bucket bath earlier in the night didn’t help either.

The next morning our alarms woke us up at 5:45 in the morning. We wanted to on the road by six to reach the car-park by 6:30. The cars usually leave around seven in the morning. By a quarter after six we’re finally on the way out, with me having a cold. The car going to Labe was waiting in the car park for more people to show up. The car is made for eight people: a driver, a passenger, three passengers in the back, and three more in the way back. We left with eleven. The driver, two front passengers, four passenger in the back (including us three), and four more in the way back.

After paying the 10,000GF each for the ride and bags, and being squeezed in like a can of sardines the car did the stunt-driver-like ride down the mountain. The road was as wide as maybe one and half car widths. Upon passing cars and trucks going the other way we screeched past each other with only inches to spare – on both sides. On one side was the passing car, the other side the edge of the road down the cliff. After about twenty minutes of keeping our eyes open to the max in a panic we relaxed, as no other person in the cab was the least bit concerned. For the rest of the ride we either just talked, played Boggle, or took naps without worrying what was two feet to our right. The two and half hour car ride ended with us pulling into Labe.

Labe is the 7th most populated town in Guinea. The first six are Conakry (the capital), Nzerekore, Kankan, Kindia, Mamou, and Siguiri. The main road in was dirt, with pothole similar to the size in The Gambia; however as soon as we reached the main road in town it became paved. By this time I’m too tired and sick to move much. I sounded like I not only had a frog in my throat, but he had a frog in his as well. It reminded me of the mythology question of what holds up the earth? An elephant. What holds up the elephant? Another elephant. And what hold up that elephant? It’s elephants all the way down! Well, for me it sounded like it was frogs all the way down!

There was an Internet café two blocks away, around the corner of the car park. Having been worried for the past few days about the extra vacation days I wanted to let Yamai (my APCD, and therefore my direct supervisor at Peace Corps) know. Unfortunately, the Internet wasn’t working and therefore all three computers were taking up by Guineans playing Solitaire. Walking back to the garage we passed this one shop in which three old men were watching television. They were watching a French-dubbed version of the 2002 movie “The Tuxedo” starring Jackie Chang and Jennifer Love Hewitt. We couldn’t help ourselves but watch for a while. This was only a problem for Lisa. I already had seen the movie, and Sarah understood French.

Right next to the television was an assortment of candy and chocolates. After hiking for a few days and now being surrounded by sweets we all searched for a Snickers. None to be found. Our choice came down to either Mars bar, or a generic rice-crispy type chocolate which had a three-for-one special; perfect for the three of us! And so we bought the generic chocolate bars. Bad mistake. As soon as each one of us took our first bite we realized this wasn’t chocolate. It looked like chocolate, but it sure didn’t taste like it. We looked at the ingredients. No chocolate, or cocoa or any variation of chocolate was listed; in any language! What kind of candy bar is this! It didn’t make my stomach any much better and I just sat in the car watching our bags as they went shopping for the next hour while waiting for the car to Pita to fill up.

After a while they came back empty-handed and we sat in the car, again waiting for three more people to show up. In the meantime I’m worried about Administration and those three extra days, making sure they know of it beforehand. Sarah finally convinces me to call them. An international call; just exactly what I’d like to make using my vacation money. Nonetheless, she gave me the Peace Corps office number and I crossed the street to the telecentre.

The telecentre consisted of one lone employee with one phone, with three chairs in the room and he’s sitting on one of them. I gave him the number I liked to dial saying it was “Gambie”, French for “The Gambia”. He told me it would cost 3000GF a minute, or roughly $1.50. I hoped it would only take a minute or two and approved for him to make the connection. Little did I realize that I had my calling-card information in my backpack, but the odds were against me for two reasons even if I had remembered. I didn’t know the access number to connect to AT&T from the Guinea (only The Gambia I knew); and I doubted this guy knew it.

For some unknown reason, in order to make an international call he had to dial 1-4 a half-dozen times. His fingers are going back and forth; 1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4. No connection. He tries again, 1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4-1-4; again no connection. Four more times he tries this 1-4 combination until finally he hears an international dial tone. As he is now dialing the number I gave him Lisa yelled to me from the car saying three people just showed up and the car is ready to go. Instead of everybody waiting for people to show up, they are now all waiting on me to make a phone call which, technically, hasn’t even been connected through yet. I yelled back to Lisa “two minutes!” before turning to the telecenter operator. He finished dialing the number, waited a few seconds and announced “Busy.” Before he had a chance to try again on the 1-4 combination I quickly thanked him and ran across the street to jump in the car. No less than five seconds after I’m in the driver shifted the car into first and we were off on the hour ride to Pita. The ride cost what would have been a little more than minute on the phone, 3500 GF.

Sarah and I passed the time along by playing Boggle, while Lisa read her book “Angels and Demons”. The author is Dan Brown, which is the same as “The Da Vinci Code”; in fact, “Angels and Demons” is a prequel to the popular Da Vinci code book. Both Sarah and I had read “Angels and Demons” and would tease Lisa by asking such questions as “Has the clowns appeared yet?” There are no clowns anywhere in the book and we made sure not to give anything away, but still had some fun with it.

One thing bugged me when playing Boggle. During one game the word “ROSE” counted, but four games later it wouldn’t count it as a valid word. Something odd was going on I thought. If the game truly had an internal dictionary then the word should have counted for both games, not just for one. I shrugged it off until later when I had time to either figure it out, or completely forget it about and not care.

By the end of the hour and roughly the same time we arrived in Pita I was more like a zombie. I just wanted to go to sleep, lie down for a bit and get this cold over with. When we arrived in Pita I felt like I was observing the world from the outside and just going with the flow.

“Oh, they’re getting out the car. I better follow” I thought as we stopped in Pita. While just standing there I noticed another thing: “Ah, they are paying him. I must do the same” My conversation skills just dropped an order of magnitude and a very good comparison to Frankenstein walking around moaning could be made – granted, with a frog in his throat.

The main street in town was filled with these little one-room shops. Some had fabric, others had spare parts for automobiles, while some where small restaurants or coffee-shops. After we dropped our bags down at one of the coffee shops Sarah watched them as Lisa and I walked down the road to find a telecenter to call Peace Corps. I’m still out of it and almost a few times walked myself into a ditch. We passed sandwich ladies along the way, and men selling anything and everything from mirrors to toothpaste to bread and other edible items.

After Lisa asked a few times in Fula where the telecenter was we finally found it on the edge of town across the street from where we were. I walked in while Lisa found something to eat. A lady was sitting in the customer’s chair, while I sat in the waiting chair. We were both waiting for the owner to show up from somewhere, most likely from lunch. After fifteen minutes it started it rain and within a minute the owner showed up running through the door trying to get out of the rain.

The woman waved for me to go first and I handed him the number I wanted to dial along with mentioning it was to The Gambia. He smiled at the prospect of making 3000GF a minute for however long I was going to be on the phone and most likely hoped I would just chat away for a half-hour or so. I intended the conversation to be short as possible with as little as chit-chat as possible.

He repeated the 1-4 combo again and typed in my number. It was ringing! He handed me the phone and clicked the timer when I connected. The connection was terrible and the receptionist couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I’m repeating everything a minimum of three times. Finally the receptionist gets Famara on the phone. He’s the main receptionist during the day and his English is perfect as he went to school in the US. I again asked to speak to Yamai and he immediately understood, apologized for the delay, and made the connection. Yamai wasn’t in. Not wanting to waste anymore time I ask then to be transferred to the volunteer lounge to just get the message across to a volunteer to have them tell her later on. Famara transferred the call to the lounge and after a few seconds someone answered.

“This is Mike calling from Guinea, who’s this?”
“This is Mike. Who is this?”
“Kate, can you tell Fatou that I will not be coming back the third but on the sixth”
“Tell Fatou what?”
“This is a terrible connection! I won’t be coming back on the third but on the sixth”
“Mike, all I heard was ‘I won’t be coming back on the third but on the ……’ “
“Yes! Six!”
“Yes!! Also, tell Barbara to reschedule my dental appointment for anytime the following week.”
“Tell Barbara what?”

I groaned at the prospect of not only having to repeat myself because of the connection, but also because I looked at the clock and three minutes had passed. Finally, after another minute, the entire message was delivered, repeated and confirmed. I hung up the phone with the thought that that was the worst connection of a phone call I had every had. The man behind the counter smiled as he took out the calculator and multiplied 3000GF by 4 minutes while I pulled out all the money I had in my wallet and went through my bag trying to find more.

Although only $6 that money can go a very long way. I only had about 7000 GF in my wallet, after the car ride, thinking that would be enough for the next car ride and maybe a snack in between. I’m not good in economics but I found an interesting fact while living here in West Africa. Most people, especially when traveling mostly through Europe, encounter a smaller degree of purchasing-power but we have an order of magnitude more in-your-face obvious acknowledgement of it. For instance, one American dollar is worth roughly 30 Gambian Dalasi. However, on the streets of Banjul that thirty dalasi can buy you more here then the equivalent items in America. Across the street from the Peace Corps office is a little chop-shop called “Omar’s”. We can order a plate of rice, with sauce, and a piece of chicken on top for 17 Dalasi. You couldn’t buy the equivalent of that in the US for fifty cents! With the equivalent of the $6 I gave him for my phone call he could probably buy dinner for his entire family. While talking to volunteers when I returned I found that a popular, and quick and easy, way to figure out the purchasing power of a country is to use the “Big-Mac”-index. I hadn’t seen a Big-Mac since leaving DC!

I left the telecenter shaking my head with a frown on my face while he waved me goodbye, smiling, telling me to have a nice day in a language I didn’t understand. Lisa was just outside under the over-hang not trying to get wet from the rain. I explained why it took so long while we dashed across the street to get back to Sarah and our supplies down the road. A few minutes after we arrived at the coffee-shop it really began to downpour. We ordered three coffees to just wait out the rain. The shop was open-air and only the huge over-hang was keeping us dry as we sat drinking. Sarah was busy reading a West African guide book by Lonely Planet, while Lisa kept on reading her “Angels and Demons” book while I zonked out, despite the extra potent coffee, and took a nap just sitting there.
Within a half-hour the rains let up and the sky cleared for while, until the next batch of rain would come later on. We took this to our advantage and went to find the car park. Local taxis asked where we were going and when the reply of “Doucki” was given they gave the reply that no cars are going to Doucki and therefore we have to rent one of them out. They are hoping you either don’t know about the garage park, or don’t know how to find local transportation to where you want to go, and so would rent them out for a tourist price. We knew better. I fell for it once my first month after being sworn in trying to get to Banjul of all places. There is always some car going to Banjul!

After walking down the road for a block or so, and asking directions along the way we found the garage park. Sarah and Lisa did the negotiating, as usual, in their respective languages while I stood there going with the flow. A car would be stopping at Doucki on its way to Dalabi but it was for 5000GF. They tried to convince him that Doucki is only half-way and so therefore we should only have to pay half the amount. No deal. Elderly women were creeping into the car taking potential spots, filling the car to near capacity.

Throughout the entire negotiations I hadn’t said a word (Frankenstein with a frog in his throat, remember?) but decided I better point out that the car is nearly full and we better get going and just pay the 5000GF to guarantee we would get to Doucki that day. And so we all bit the bullet, paid the man his fare, and tried to find a seat. Sarah and Lisa somehow managed to get front-row, along with another person and the driver. Sarah was the closest to the door with Lisa to her left. I, on the other hand, was behind Sarah crammed with four elderly women in a space meant for only three people.

The rain had let out but the roads were still swamped with mud. The windows to car were broken and were stuck in the down position. When you try to grab the windows and pull them up they would stay for a second and by the next bump crash down again. There were no handles to roll down the windows, as they probably broke off years earlier. Along the way to Doucki the front-door burst open as we went over another bump. Sarah screamed as her and the other bodies in the front seat, with nothing holding them back, began to be pushed out of the car. She grabbed the arm handle of the inside of the car, and with the other hand quickly grabbed the door and slammed it shut before they all flew out. The elderly women in the back gave a big laugh before giving a little cheer for her quick thinking.

The two hour car ride ended right on the outskirts of Doucki. The car would be continuing without us but this was our stop. The tent that we had so grudgingly been tagging along we almost forgot to get it out of the van. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had actually used the tent once; but carrying it everyone became a joking burden that we started taking turns.

At the junction the van sped away while we stood there trying to figure out if the road we were now looking at was the correct road to take. We were told that Hassan Bah, or future tour guide in Doucki, was a short kilometer walk down a dirt road where they dropped you off. The road we looked down was dirt, but it had a huge gate going across it, with planks of wood on top of that, with vines growing around it. Not too inviting. We were assured that was the correct path to take by some Guinean man sitting by the road who smiled, acknowledged non-verbally that he understood we were tourists looking for Hassan, pointed down the road, nodded, and then waved his hand around as if shooing us away. With that being a positive confirmation we climbed the fence and walked down the path.

Ten minutes later Hassan Bah greeted us at the entrance to his compound. With only a few greetings being exchanged he had us placed. “You are from The Gambia? Peace Corps, yes?” The Peace Corps guess the odds were in his favor, but the country of origin took some understanding of dialects. The dialect of Fula that Lisa used was Gambian, which differed ever so slightly from Guinean. Hence he was able to place us. Later I found out he was fluent in many language, with English being one of them. French, Spanish, Fula, and Creole being the others.

Hassan showed us to the main hut. It was about fifteen feet diameter with five hammocks surrounding the inside perimeter, similar to a hexagon with the sixth side being the entrance. In the middle was a small table and three chairs. In order to get into the hut you must bend down so much that you think the weight of your bag would flip over your head and make you complete a summersault. We dropped our bags and collapsed on the hammocks. We didn’t know it at the time but the hammock we each chose would be the same hammock we’d individually used throughout the whole week. It’s primarily the same principle of picking seats the first day of class and not having a seating-chart, most students just pick the same seat over again. I had the one directly across from the entrance while Sarah was to my left and Lisa to my right.

A few minutes passed before Hassan showed up again to show us our rooms. I’m nearly passed out on the hammock and was slowly getting up. Sarah told Hassan “Mike is sick” in which he replied “Ah! M.I.S.” We just opened Pandora’s box of his acronym style of talking. I agreed to M.I.S. and followed along behind him. We walked the twenty feet to the next hut, in which he pulled a key from his pocket and opened the lock. Inside was a bunk-bed set-up with each bed being a double. The ladder barely fit in the circular room and was squeezed against the wall. Sarah and Lisa took the top while I had the whole bottom bed to myself. As we thanked him he turned to look at me and said:

“For what?”
“Number six.”
“Lance Armstrong, number six” he said as he pointed to my USPS hat I had on. I didn’t know Lance Armstrong had won the race until he told us. I accepted the undeserved compliment before again crashing on the bed for a while.

After resting a bit we walked back to the resting hut where we met another tourist named Ton. “It’s sounds like Tony, but without the ‘y’” he said. At first we thought it was spelled Tone, but no ‘e’ in his name either. He was from Europe somewhere and was leaving the very next morning. No other people were there besides us. Dinner was served within the hour, a bowl of rice with sauce; before I called it a night at an early time of seven-thirty.

As I was sleeping Sarah and Lisa talked to Hassan for a while and he eventually brought out his photo-album of pictures with guests and explanations of the hikes. Although I wasn’t able to read them until the next night, here is what they read:

Who is Hassan Bah?

Hassan Bah, your host and tour guide during your stay in Doucki, was born in 1962 in Sierra Leone. His family’s roots are in Guinea, though, and his father was born and raised in Doucki. In addition to completing high school in Sierra Leone (where his teachers included Peace Corps Volunteers), Hassan also earned an auto mechanics certification.

Leaving Sierra Leone in 1983, Hassan worked in hospitality for the Zaire Embassy in Mauritania for just over a year and in the process learned French. He then embarked for the Canary Islands where he spent the next 7 years as sea-going mechanic. His seaman’s life gave him the opportunity to travel to Morocco and Norway, as well as to learn Spanish (his favorite language).

In 1992, Hassan joined his family, who had since resettled in Doucki. He began his work as a community health agent at this time, educating himself in disease prevention through reading. In addition to health education, Hassan regularly visits Doucki’s valley, where he provides medicine to those with very limited access to health resources.

In 1998, Hassan met Adam Lebou, a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Donghol Touma Center, 13 kilometers from Doucki. Adam later moved to Doucki, where he built the hut that many Doucki guests stay in during their visit. The seeds for Hassan’s tourism business were planted when he gave Adam and many of his Peace Corps friends and American guests hiking tours of Doucki. Word of Hassan’s hospitality and Doucki’s beauty spread, and now Hassan welcomes visitors throughout the year.

Hassan’s family is also an integral part of his tourism efforts. Brother Theirno Maju coordinates transportation from Doucki’s carrefour. Brother Abdoulrahim is an assistant tour guide as is his nephew, Alhassane. Also critical to Doucki’s success are the chefs! Hassan’s wife, Moimouna, mother, Oumar Sudo and sister-in-law, Mamadou Binta prepare the meals. One can easily predict that Hassan’s son, Mamadou Taibou, born in 2000, will grow up hiking!

Hassan’s vision for your stay is for you to feel “at home, man” and to be part of the community. He greatly enjoys visiting with his guests and not only during the hikes, but also while just relaxing in the hammocks, exchanging ideas and experiences.

Enjoy Doucki and enjoy getting to know Hassan and his family!

The Grand Canyon (Leye – Sere)

4km Round-Trip. Easy Hike but with some steep terrain A must-see, especially if you only have an hour or so to spare!

The Valley (Eiendeh)

20km Round-Trip. Count on a maximum of 3 hours to hike down. Difficult hike. Especially beautiful in the rainy season when the Kokulo River is full.

Hyena’s Rock (Tountin Bonodji)

4km Round-Trip. Easy Hike. Lots of large rock formations to discover and name.

The Bob Marley Stage (Fawre Kare)

14 km Round-Trip. A moderate hike, which brings you about half-way down into Doucki’s valley. Features waterfalls, stunning overlooks and a small cave. Good camping spot.

Chutes n’ Ladders (Balan)

16 km Round Trip. Difficult hike! Not for the faint of heart or foot! Most beautiful in the rainy season but also the most challenging – slippery ladders! It will bring out the Indiana Jones in you!

Vulture’s Rock (Petteh Djiga)

9km Round-Trip. Easy hike with a dramatic waterfall and rock formations. Enjoy a refreshing swim between the months of June and December!

Indiana Jones World (Chanji)

5km Round-Trip. Moderate to difficult hike, depending on the Indi in you! A trip into Doucki’s rainforest – swing on vines, crawl between boulders and enjoy a swirl in the Jacuzzi pool!

Wet n’ Wild (Sampirin)

13 km Round-Trip. An easy but long hike. Water, water, water! Lots of fun whether you want a long swim or just to get your feet wet. Meet King-Kong along the way.

The Caves (Lento)

8km Round-Trip, moderate hike. A limestone world of rock formations. Peer into and/or explore (if you dare!) caves of various dimensions.

After reading the whole descriptions of the hikes, they decided to do the Grand Canyon and Valley hike the next morning. Depending on how I felt would determine if I joined them or not. The next morning I knew the answer would be a no. Although better than the day before I needed one more day to rest. As they prepared for their nine o’clock hike I pulled the covers in more and slept in. Two hours later I awoke and just stared at the ceiling. I was too sick to go on a hike, but well enough to get bored of being sick. Needed something to do. I thought about the Boggle game and how ‘ROSE’ was accepted in one game but not another. That bugged me to no end and had to figure it out now that I had the time and so I reached for the Boggle game, a pad of paper and pen.

For a one player game you can hold down the left-hand button for a few seconds to end the game prematurely. The computer would then tell you what the maximum number of points were possible for that board and show you a preview of the list of words you missed. If I ended every game prematurely I could get six games done in one minute as opposed to one game for every three minutes when the timer buzzed you out. All I needed was the maximum points for each game, to see if there was a pattern or not.

After keeping track of over 800 games throughout the next few hours I had it figured out. The Boggle Electronic hand-held game, while seeming to have an endless array of boards is actually quite restrictive. No internal dictionary is present and no randomization of letters happen. There are, in fact, only 200 distinct games that can occur. Each game is preprogrammed in order with acceptable words alongside. A valid word in one game may not be acceptable in another. For example, the word “ROSE” is valid for both of the following boards that can appear:


However, the word “ROSE” is accepted for the former board, but not the latter. This also turns out to be quite odd as the latter board is the board with the highest maximum score of all possible boards preprogrammed, with a maximum score of 313 points. Among all those valid words, “ROSE” is not among them. (A side note: After I got back to Kombo, I found on the Internet an on-line Boggle solver. The game to the right has technically 254 words you can make with total points of 583, almost double the electronic game board maximum points. This includes both the missing word of “ROSE” and the nine-letter word “REGISTRAR”)

Despite being made up of 200 distinct boards the game actually cycles through 201 games. This happens because one board, namely


Is preprogrammed twice side-by-side.

Even though there are eight isomorphic arrangements of letters for each board, without changing the structure of the board (i.e., rotations of 90 or 180 degrees, and/or reflections) only two such arrangements seem to happen. A given board, from the table of 200 possible boards, may differ from the board on the screen by either a 90-degree rotation clockwise or counterclockwise. The possible rotations of 180 degrees and mirror reflections were not noticed in any game.

The cycling of the boards was not interrupted by the game being turned off; a board being reset; the board being played twice; switching from one player to two player (or vice versa). The only thing that affected the order in which the boards appeared was if the entire game was reset with the button on the back of the console.

Of the 200 distinct games, the highest maximum score is 313 points; the lowest is 6, and the average is about 80 points. The top five letters that occur are (in order) E,T,O,A,I; with the bottom five being Q,J,K,X,C.

When you have nothing to do, and a lot of time to do it, you have the time to do something that in any other circumstance would be a complete waste of your time. For example, cracking the Boggle game board. I have no apologies.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

[Travelogue] A trip to Guinea: part 1

Note: Gambia RPCV Mike Shepard embarked on a backpacking trip across West Africa following the end of his service. Below is an account of his trip to Guinea. The original can be found in his blog along with stories from other parts of his trip. This account is reposted with Mike's permission. Because of length, this will be posted in three parts.

A Trip to Guinea

By Mike Shepard, RPCV Gambia 2003-05

There’s nothing more frantic then deciding to go on an international hiking trip less than a week before departure. While playing a game of chess with Sarah Stewart at the Hostel on a Saturday she got talking about her trip to Guinea leaving the next Saturday. Lisa Silva, another volunteer, was coming along. Sarah asked if I wanted to come along. I thought for a second, before saying “sure.” That was the start of my adventure.

By Monday morning I’m running around the Peace Corps office obtaining signatures. Before leaving for vacation you must get it approved by no less than four people. They are: your supervisor at work; Fatou, who among many other things keeps track of your vacation days left; your APCD, who in this case was Yamai for Education sector; and last but not least, the Country Director. By the end of the day I had three out of four. Diana refused to sign unless I printed out the travel advisory warning for Guinea and attach them to the sheet. By the time I did that she already left for the day.

The next morning I went with Sarah to Banjul to obtain the 30-day visa. When asked how we were paying, he was quite disappointed when we said “Gambian Dalasi” as opposed to “American Dollars” since there was a lot of change to give back. For $40 we had two pictures taken, our passports withheld for a day, and told to come back the next day to pick them up. By the time I got back from Banjul Diana signed off on my vacation and by Wednesday morning, when I picked up the visa, I was good to go!

As this vacation was spur-of-the-moment I decided to keep the announcement of it as such as well, for shock value. The only people that knew I was going were Sarah, Lisa, and administration. The rest of the week I went about my business as if nothing was planned.

On Friday Sarah and Lisa left for Farafenni. I was going to leave the next day and meet up with them in Basse. Birthdays are a big event here and a reason to celebrate. That Friday we were celebrating Kate L.’s birthday by going for pizza in SeneGambia. Most everyone who was in town joined in and we even had to get another table as we filled up the longest one already. After going to bar afterwards, we called it a night and I announced “See you in two weeks!” and left to go home to pack.

The next morning I met up with Braden at the Hostel and we left together. He was going to Bansang, on the way to Basse, and would be dropping off along the way. We shared a town-trip to the garage park, with some unexpected surprises. It rained the night before and so the potholes were filled in with mud and water. As the taxi slowed down to go through a pothole, water began sipping in as if there was no floor at all. After your feet were wet enough you might as well have jumped in the pool the taxi started going out of the pothole and the water receded. The only evidence that water was in the car was your feet were now brown with mud. Repeat that twenty times.

The ghelli-ghelli to Basse cost D130 with a little extra for bags. Some volunteers, as I found out later, fight to the death of not paying for their bags; neither Braden nor I cared that much and just paid the D25. After waiting two hours for the van to fill up we headed out at nine in the morning. After stopping for a half-hour in Soma for lunch, and dropping Braden off in Bansang, I arrived in Basse twelve-hours later at nine at night. This would not be the longest car-trip I would take in the next two weeks.

As I walking down the only main road, heading out-of-town (towards the Peace Corps House) I heard American voices at a restaurant. When you hear English with an American accent in the middle of no-where you have a near certainty chance it’s Peace Corps. Bag in hand I walked over to where they were eating, and without seeing who they are just asked: “Got room for one more?” Luckily, as chance was on my side, it was Peace Corps and not some random American tourists who just had a stranger ask if he could join them. Sarah was there, along with Lisa, Jordan, and other volunteers; all eating their chicken, the only thing on the menu at Fatou’s restaurant.

I saw a Gambian among them and introduced myself.
“You don’t recognize me do you?” he asked. Now usually when a Gambian says that, more likely then not it’s a scam and their using your doubt to get some money. “It’s me, Lamin, your neighbour” They would say. I fell once for it. However, here he was just sitting with over volunteers so I knew I honestly should know him.

He continued: “I live two meters away from you! In the main house.” I still didn’t recognize him, but knew he was telling the truth. I only met him once for not more than five seconds as I passed through the gate going out.

“You live in the house that old woman used to live in.”


“I don’t know her name.”

By then Sarah got involved:

“Wait a minute! You just yelled at him for not recognizing you when he just moved in a week before, yet you didn’t even know the name of the woman who lived there for two years beforehand!”

He mumbled something before going back eating his dinner.

During the meal the discussion of birthdays came up. Both Kate L.’s and Tatjana’s was that Sunday and Matt Selinske’s was on Monday. Vickie asked if I had my financial calculator with me, since it can figure out exactly how old you are to the day. Earlier, a few months ago, when birthdays came up before I typed in Jordan’s birthday and that day happened to be her 8,888th day. We needed a reason to celebrate so that was it and we all went out to celebrate her 8,888th day. As such, when someone is 8,888 days old it is somewhat of an inside joke.

That calculator happened to be in my bag, as I didn’t unpack it and quickly figured out how old Matt was. Then, by request by Vickie, to figure out when in the future he will be 8,888 days old. Thursday November 25th, Thanksgiving! If we didn’t have a reason to celebrate because it’s Thanksgiving, we do now!

Sarah looked over and noticed I had the calculator:
“Mike, you brought a calculator on a hiking trip?”
“Not really; just didn’t unpack it”
“When are we EVER going to need a calculator when we’re hiking?”
“I don’t know!”
“OK, but no doing calculus on this trip!”
“OK, no problem.” [Easier said then done. I found myself during one dreadfully long car ride figuring out mentally problems that dealt with the exponential distribution in regards to radioactive decay.]

After dinner we went down the street a little to another bar before calling it a night. While getting ready to go to sleep Sarah and Lisa were reviewing the trip with me. I knew we were going to do hiking at Doucki but was quite surprised to learn we were actually hiking into Guinea itself! I was up for it, but just jokingly said: “Hiking into Guinea? No one said anything about doing verbs that start with an ‘h’! I think ‘hiking’ starts with an ‘h’” Blank stares came my way for a few seconds before they realized I was joking and was perfectly set on the two-day hike into Guinea, despite being a surprise.

The day before they left Kombo I had given Sarah my money to exchange for me. The entire trip would cost less than $200, I was told, and so that as much as I brought. Sarah handed me a plastic bag filled with different currencies. She had exchanged it to the following:

$83 = 2,490 Dalasis
$72 = 160,000 Guinean Franc
$45 = 25,000 CFA
TOTAL= $200

The next morning, Sunday, some volunteers were getting ready to go to church while Sarah, Lisa, and I got ready to head out. Apparently I had the smallest bag, but it weighed the most. We couldn’t figure out how that could be since both of the girls were carrying books with them. Another volunteer, Kathy, let us borrow her two-person tent for a just in case and so Sarah held on to that. My tennis shoes hung down the back of my backpack, as they would for the entire two weeks. I never used them once and they were just dead weight for the entire trip.

We went to the bidick, bought five loaves of bread, some cheese and canned chicken and set out for the car park. Sarah exchanged some of my money on Saturday so I now had Gambian Dalasi, Senegalese Francs, and Guinean Francs. At the car park they accepted any of the currencies in any proportion of the payment. We could either pay D50 or 1000 CFA (Senegalese Francs). After paying we waited. The car does not move an inch unless every available seat is taken and paid for. On good days you might leave in an hour (this excludes city transportation when the whole car fills up in less than a blink of an eye); however on a bad day you might not leave at all. This was a mediocre day and it only took two and half-hours.

The truck had three people in the front (including the driver) and 11 people in the back. Five each were facing one another with one seating on a piece of wood between the two rows, near the front of the car. This didn’t include the two aparante’s who are riding on top of the truck. I’m right behind the front passenger seat, Sarah is behind the driver and a Gambian between us. It made for playing electronic Boggle along the way a bit difficult. After each turn we had to bring our arm outside the car, over the top of the driver’s cabin and reach for the other side where the other person’s arm grabbed the game.

After about an hour we reached the Gambia / Senegal border and everyone got out. Our passports were stamped and we walked back to the car which already passed through the border. Another hour later we arrived in Velingara, Senegal. From there we got a taxi (CFA 250/person + CFA200 for bags) to the Tamba garage park to get a car to Tamba. From the car park we got another ride to Tamba, costing only 1500CFA with 500CFA total for all our bags.

At Tamba was where another long wait happened. During the wait we saw a guy dressed in a Tom Petty T-Shirt speaking English to girl – they must be Peace Corps! They were volunteers from Senegal and were heading to the regional house in Kedougou to stay the night. Our original plan was try to make it to Dinndefelou in one day, but time was running out so we asked them how to get to the regional house and let them go on their way. It was around lunchtime and so we arranged for a bowl of rice and sauce to be delivered to us while we waited. All three of us were eating out of one bowl until Lisa jumped up, ran across street yelling “They’re taking our bags!” and chased after some guy holding her bag carrying it someplace. It turned out they weren’t taking them at all, but moving them to the car that would be taking us to Kedougou as the driver of our old car either decided not to go or couldn’t be found. This new driver would take us for 3500CFA.

The ride to Kedougou took around three hours and by this time it was getting dark. Not only was it getting dark but also beginning to rain. All four windows were down and each handle was broken off. The driver took out a wrench and started using the wrench for extra torque to turn the handle to roll up his window. After his window was closed he pass it on to the front-seat passenger. After he was done he passed it to Sarah. By the time I finally received the wrench the wind and rain is blowing into my face so hard that the kid sitting behind me is using his textbooks to block his face. When the rain subsided we passed the wrench along, in exactly the opposite order, to roll down the windows. This would not be the first time in this trip where wrenches were passed.

We convinced the driver to drop us off directly at the Peace Corps house for an additional 1000CFA. He eagerly agreed, drove two blocks, made one turn, announced we’re here and asked for his 1000CFA. That was the quickest 1000CFA he was going to get in a while. It was during that five-minute ride to the house that I realized I submitted the wrong dates for the vacation. Both Sarah and Lisa had told me we would be back on the 3rd, and so that was when I put the end of the vacation days. They switched it to the sixth, both thinking the other person told me. I needed to let PC Administration know as soon as possible about those three extra days, but it would be days before we would be near a phone or Internet café. Since I wasn’t going to be back by the sixth I also needed to reschedule my one-year dental check up that I would be missing. Everyone in our group just completed their first year and so medical check ups were required.
Also along that brief ride we saw how much excitement television can bring. One shop had an old black-and-white television hooked up to a car battery. In front of the TV were the elders, sitting in chairs. Behind them were the men and women sitting on the floor and behind them were the children trying to squeeze their way through the people. Over thirty people were huddled around one television set, most likely watching an old classic American movie in a language they don’t understand.

A week after I got back from the trip I was talking to Vickie about July 22nd. It was on that day, ten years ago, that Jammeh became President by a coup d’etat. He celebrated his ten-year anniversary by making a tour of his country. When Jammeh came to Georgetown, Vickie’s site, it was the first time in months they had electricity. Vickie came home one day to her host family watching television. For over a year she’s been at that site she never knew her family had a television set! The excitement died down as the electricity went off when Jammeh left the town, and her family put the television set away for the next time they could use it.

The guards at the Peace Corps office in Kedogou let us in and we walked into the main building. When I say building, it’s more like a shack. Unlike our regional houses in The Gambia, this one was separate shacks separated from one another. The main shack was next to the “relaxing” shack (with the hammocks); which was across the street from the guards shack, the bathroom shack, and the sleeping shack. There was a sign announcing “Centre De Formation Communautaire Du Corps De La Paix” which the only thing I recognized was the French for “Peace Corps” as “Corps de La Paix”.

The volunteers that were there were nice to a point. They showed us where we could sleep, take a shower, etc. but then kindly reminded us that it was a 1000CFA a night per person to stay there. The place where we slept was an open structure that had tarps hanging down for walls. Mattresses were on the floor and one light bulb tried to light up the entire room. Within an hour of arriving we were fast asleep ready to wake up at the crack of dawn the next day to try and get to Dindifello, where our hike would start.

The next morning, at six, we headed out to the garage park. Along the way we met someone on a bicycle and we asked him for directions. He pointed down the road and just said “It is there.” As we were walking down the road we see something that could be a garage park but we weren’t sure. That same guy, now riding the other way, passed us with one word “Yes.” We found the garage park.

Our breakfast at the garage park consisted of egg sandwich and a cup of coffee. After around two hours waiting for the car to fill up we began to consider just renting a car out for ourselves. There are Sept Place (cars that have seven seats) to rent out but none of them wanted to take us because it rained the night before and the roads were bad. We either had a choice of waiting for our 13-passenger van to fill up, or buying all the seats and telling the driver to go. Each seat was 700CFA. Sarah was doing the arithmetic long hand on a scrap piece of paper while I just stared at her smiling. After a while she looked up, said “What?”, and I asked “Would you like a calculator?” with a smile.

She was sitting in the front seat and calculator in hand tried to explain to the driver what we wanted to do. She’s multiplying, dividing, subtracting (some people were already in the van), etc. Before her explanation was finished the driver had a huge smile on his face, turned the ignition and was jumping in his seat ready to go. After three hours of waiting we finally were able to head out, it only cost us 4000CFA each.

The four-hour trip was the most relaxing we had in any public transportation vehicle in Africa. Sarah had the whole front seat, I was able to lay down on the back seat, Lisa was able to do the same with the other back row, while those who paid their fare share of 700CFA sat in the remainder of the seats. They were quite happy, as they thought they wouldn’t be able to go that day until we bought the vehicle. It was one of those “Toubob moments” where you don’t really want to flash money around, as you’re suppose to be living within their means; but we were on vacation and didn’t want to waste a day of vacation time by doing nothing except waiting for transport, when for $8 we could get going that day.

By midday we arrived in Dinndefelou. This was our starting point for our hike into Guinea, all we needed was a guide. French tourists were there enjoying their lunch, served by the staff, while we ate some bread we took with us with some cheese spread across it. The Asian green tea called Atai was served to us while we talked to the staff in Fula and French. After resting for an hour or so we were ready to get going but they said a guide wouldn’t be available until tomorrow. Sarah spoke to them in French trying to buy a guide that would leave that day. They kept on changing their prices, getting more and more expensive; before we all just gave up and started walking away to the trail.

“Wait! You will get lost. There are many trails. You need a guide.”

“We tried buying a guide. You kept on changing the prices.”

“Ok, ok. 15,000 CFA for both days.”

Sarah asked if that was ok for us. It would be 5,000 CFA per person for both days. That’s equivalent for about $10. We were arguing over an increase of maybe a dollar or two per person, which is not a lot of money to the average American tourist – but it makes a big difference to us.

Being tired of waiting she said “Fine. 15,000. But we leave NOW NOW!” with the last part being mostly a command.

The guy agreed, yelled at someone else, and our guide, Gibi, came running out of nowhere. He was ready to go, NOW NOW, carrying nothing with him. No food, no water, no backpack, no change of clothes. Nothing! But he was ready to go!

We stood together with the mountain behind our backs for a “before” pictures. Ten minutes later we had our first break and had a picture been taken then it could have very well have been an “after” picture! Climbing the first hill was rough, as we were not used to it and did not know what to expect. After every ten minutes we took a five-minute break, each time telling Gibi “Setta Setta”, which is Fula for “small small”. We needed our small-small break. Each time Gibi would just lean against a rock, maybe give a yawn or two (not out of exhaustion, but more likely mere boredom) and just wait until we were ready to continue.

While we were in Basse planning the trip we read in Lonely Planet that some people biked the trail we were now climbing, they just paid someone to carry their bike up the first hill and the rest is either flat plains or downhill. While climbing we couldn’t believe anyone would want to carry a bike up, we had a hard enough time alone with just our backpacks. Around three quarters of the way uphill we met a Senegalese man going down, carrying his bicycle along.

Finally reaching the top our only big climb of the day was over with. Sarah asked if Gibi wouldn’t mind taking the tent from now on, and before he could offer a price she offered 1000CFA. He quickly agreed and we continued down the path, with Sarah’s load a little lighter. On top of the hill was a lone hut, with no neighbors. A quarter mile away was a pasture full of termite mounds that reminded us of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and that any minute now aliens would pop out of them and attack us. A dazzle of pictures followed until the amazement died off and we continued along our way.

An hour later Gibi stopped with no apparent reason. We were on a trail that was just about to go down a small hill. Near the top, where Gibi stopped, was a dark small dirt trail going roughly perpendicular to the trail. At that time I was right behind Gibi and nearly ran into him as he suddenly stopped. Sarah and Lisa were a little ways behind and Gibi waited for them to catch up before he explained why he stopped. It was the border. Take one more step, across the dirt trail, and you’re in Guinea. At first we were worried a little bit that this meant he couldn’t continue, and would have to leave us while he stayed in Senegal. Our worries were put to rest when he asked, in Fula, whether we wanted him to take our pictures for us. He knew tourists liked pictures and moments like this and was just stopping for us. And so there I am, in a picture, sitting on a dirt trail that disappears behind me going down. When I had the pictures developed I couldn’t even remember why I was sitting on a dirt trail, until I remembered we crossed the border and that was it! No border guard came popping out the bushes to check our visas and so far the $40 seemed like wasted money. We actually wanted someone to check our $40 visa; that’s a lot of Dalasi we spent on it!

For dinner we stopped by a creek and had a few pieces of the bread we bought in Basse, along with cheese spread. One of our water bottles became empty and Gibi asked if he could have the empty bottle. We didn’t see anything wrong with that so we gave it to him, whereupon he washed it out and hid it in a pile of bushes. This was for his return trip home. He said it was going to be tomorrow, but also said tomorrow was going to be a twelve hour hike; which left us both a bit dreadful and confused as to how he’ll make it back in one day.

Throughout the hike we all talked about random events, university life, etc. One story is quite interesting: Before joining Peace Corps Sarah served as a student teacher for fourth and fifth graders. At one point during the school year the students had to write a report on an animal. At the school library she caught a group of boys laughing in the corner looking at National Geographic. Knowing full well they weren’t researching elephants or other African animals she confiscated the magazine. They were laughing while looking at topless African women. Flash-forward nine months later. She’s now teaching fourth and fifth grade here in Africa and they have to do another type of report. A group of boys were laughing in the corner looking at an American magazine. Upon confiscating this magazine, she realized they were not laughing at topless American women; but laughing at American women in swimsuits showing their knees! Just like in the US where women being topless in public is a huge deal but showing their knees is considered nothing out the ordinary; the exact opposite is true here. The point to the story? Children act the same everywhere.

A few hours later we arrived in a village. We thought this was the village we were going to spend the night at and we relaxing a bit before Gibi told us our village was a two hour hike away and we were just resting. Kids playing on stilts helped walk us out of the village and onto the path again. An hour and a half later we heard cows in the distance. When you hear cows, you know there are Fulas around, and where there are Fulas there is a village. This was our village for the night, by the name of Chiange.

By the time we arrived it was pitch-black. The stars were shining above the mountains as the fog covered the uppermost layer of them, hiding their true elevation. Knowing we were out of water Gibi asked the local boys to fetch us some. What came back was more yellowish brown than clear, along with a few small floating objects. At first we weren’t sure if it was just the light of the flashlights making it look yellow, or if it was in fact yellow water. When they were pouring it into our Nalgenes we knew it was the latter. Sarah asked in French, Lisa asked if Fula, while both doing handmotions, whether this water came from the well or a pump. Both doing hand-motions of bringing up water from the well, or pumping water to further illustrate their question. I sat there listening, watching, and drinking the water. Gibi assured us it was from a pump, but we weren’t too sure. We drank nonetheless.

For dinner they served us a bowl of very hot cous-cous with even hotter sauce. No spoons were available and we went back to training of eating with our hands. For the first ten minutes or so we all ate like birds, taking only a few bits at a time since it was so hot our hands weren’t used to it. By the end of the ten minutes we were doing handfuls making up for a whole day of not eating much.

Gibi showed us where we could take a shower, or more correctly, a bucket bath. After eating and cleaning up we all called it a night. The father of the compound was nice enough to let us used his hut while for the night he would sleep with his wife. As is the custom for most villages every adult as their own hut, married or not. Gibi found another place to sleep while us three crammed into one bed before crashing for the night.

The stupid chickens and roosters woke us up earlier then we wanted or anticipated. A bowl of cous-cous was again served for breakfast. As we were packing for the day we felt like we should give the family something for putting us up for the night. None of us could think of an appropriate amount and so we asked Gibi to ask the host father to write down a price. What he wrote caused a bit of confusion. The number didn’t make any sense. It would make sense if we were in Senegal and it was in denomination of CFA’s, but we were in Guinea; and the amount he wrote, if taking in GF was a bit too low. After figuring out he was indeed talking in CFA’s an agreeable price was reached within a minute. We each paid him 500 CFA for his hospitality. The equivalent of one U.S. dollar.

Another thing had to be negotiated, and that for the small boys. Neither Sarah nor Lisa wanted to carry their bags another foot and were willing to pay a small boy each to carry their bags the rest of the trip. The term “small boy” is used throughout Gambia as meaning any male, teenage or younger, who you could command or buy out to do some of your chores. Need some more sugar for your tea? Get a small boy to get it for you. Need someone to fetch your water? Hire a small boy. Or in this case, need someone to carry your twenty pound bag for the rest of the day, up a mountain? Hire a small boy!

The father recruited two of his sons, not older then twelve or thirteen, to be the “small boys” in this situation. As they lifted the bags with their hands the father asked if it was too heavy for them, both said no. The girls felt a little guilty since they thought the acquisition of two “small boys” would in reality be two men, not two twelve-year olds. The two boys agreed to the journey and set out to get their shoes and eat their breakfast. While eating a price was agreed upon. Sarah and Lisa would pay each boy 2000CFA for the day. Around four dollars. We all knew, from past experiences, that any money one individual receives in the family goes towards the entire family; and so, even though they paid the boys their share the girls knew not a single franc would be spent by them and all 2000 franc would be returned to the family upon their return.

A funny thing happened before heading out. I needed to use the latrine, but couldn’t find one. Ninety-percent of the time they are right next to where you take a bucket bath, but no such hole existed. As I don’t speak French nor Fula I had to ask Lisa to ask Gibi where one was. He didn’t understand what she was trying to say. Sarah tried in French to no avail. Finally, exasperated Lisa just did the motions of squatting and imagining pulling her pants down. He understood! He went out to talk to the father, came back and told me to follow him. Each step we took was farther than I expected. At first I thought it might be around the compound, then maybe in another compound, then a few steps later maybe at the edge of the village. We’re now past the village, hopped the fence and are now walking down a dirt path. Ok, maybe they have one far away from the village to take away the smell or use as compost. Further down the path, and into the forest Gibi just stopped and waved his hand in no particular direction other than the trees. He nodded and walked back while I wondered if they truly understood what I asked for.