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.


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