Monday, February 10, 2014

Guinea 2012

Guinea 2011/2012


I arrived in Conakry the evening of the 24th, and made my way to a very charming guesthouse right on the beach, run by Madame Ghussien, a lovely 76 year old woman originally from Avignon. 

Conveniently just across the street is one of the largest nightclubs in Conakry. Given that it was a holiday, I ventured out wading through the heaving mass of twenty-somethings on the dancefloor to sit at the bar and have a couple of beers. It felt like a proper introduction to a city whose supposed only redeeming quality is the reputation of its nightlife.

Today I managed to get my visa for Guinea Bissau quite easily, but the embassy for Sierra Leone was still closed for the holiday, so the decision on whether to take a quick trip down to Freetown has been put off for another day.

Belated Merry Christmas to you all,


I invite you all to join me in ignoring the news coming out of Guinea Bissau...


I would like to point out that the fighting there broke out at exactly the moment I was getting my visa.

But not to worry. I like to consider myself intrepid, but not foolhardy. Just as I didn't go into the Congo to climb the Nyirigongo volcano because I was advised against it due to the fighting there, so I will wait at least a bit before going into Guinea Bissau.

The visa for Sierra Leone was going to take three days, so I'm going to take my chances at the border. I'll be traveling with a Sierra Leone man I met at the embassy who insists (seemingly credibly) that he will be able to get me the visa at the border, something that is supposed to be possible of late.

Freetown here I come.


Go through a fence one time, and it's a lifetime with a collar.

Back in Freetown, the first time I've ever returned to a place, and it's amazing how comfortable and at home I feel here. Sliding through traffic on the back of a moto, telling my driver to slow down because "I didn't come to Sierra Leone to die", laughter and a saner speed the response, feels like the most natural thing.

I can no longer say that I've never paid a bribe in Africa, but I did make incredibly good time from Conakry to Freetown. But it was an interesting day. John, the Sierra Leonean fellow I met at the embassy in Conakry, had purchased a newer Nissan there, and was in the process of "importing" it into Sierra Leone. You say smuggle, he says import. He's quite the gregarious guy, and while that can sometimes send up red flags for me, this time I felt it was genuine, so I agreed to his offer of a ride with him to Freetown, if things go smoothly about five hours distance. He helped me secure my visa, granted in a matter of minutes with my first greasing of a palm, and then we set off. "We" being John, myself, and the three men he was traveling with. I had definitely put myself at their mercy, more than I generally do so quickly, but again, I had a good feeling about John. I had a moment of doubt though, after it was announced that we were going stop for "chop", or a meal, and the five of us got out of the car, deep in a neighborhood of Conakry, and made our way down a series of winding back allies. It briefly occurred to me that if they had mal-intent, there would be nothing to stop them in this anonymous little corner of the city. But we eventually emerged into a  courtyard, and entered a living room filled with shy smiling children. It was the home of John's "bother" who lived in Conakry, and was doing the driving and negotiating on the guinea side of the border. Spicy fish-balls in sauce over rice were served in a communal bowl, and then we were quickly back in the car, and off for the border.

One of the advantages of traveling in Guinea in a car that is about to exit the country, is that you can ignore the efforts of the police to pull you over to extract a bribe, even when they are standing and leaning against your hood, demanding that you stop. Buck the car forward a couple of times, and they get right out of your way. Let them take the number of the plate, it will be meaningless in a matter of hours. Explaining this to me evoked great laughter in the car. 

As we drove along (the first of our companions exiting the car just on the outskirts of Conakry) John resisted all of my efforts to offer money for petrol, but was quite happy to allow me to pay the small bribes required at each of the army checkpoints. Slowly I got the full story from him. Their ruse was that rather than exporting the car, they were presenting me as having hired them to drive into Sierra Leone, thus avoiding the extreme extortion that would have come had the soldiers at the checkpoints known the truth. In return for that, he was offering me a free ride. It would have been nice to have been able to agree to playing that role in advance, but having witnessed the efficacy of the plan at several checkpoints, it seemed harmless enough. The very last checkpoint, just feet from the border, after already having passed customs and immigration on the guinea-side, was apparently the greatest hurdle. John and his two remaining men got out of the car, asking me to remain. Then began 45 minutes of hard bargaining, at times jovial, and at others with hard faces and raised voices, and then back again to jovial, all with much gesturing back to me and the car. John is a bit of an artist. 

Finally they got the approval they needed, and returned to the car, barely able to conceal their glee until we were out of sight. Apparently the ruse had been a great success. Our Guinea driver accepted his payment, bid farewell, and we crossed over to quickly make it through the formalities on the Leone side and then flew quickly on towards Freetown. We would have made record time, but in Waterloo, just at the base of the peninsula, as we stopped for fuel, a young taxi driver backed his car into the side of our Nissan. Here I saw John in high-dunder, which resulted in the other driver handing over his keys so that our remaining companion could drive his taxi to John's home where he would keep it until the damage to his car was repaired (by the owner of the taxi). 

Quite an entertaining day.

Overall, I found John to be quite charismatic and entertaining, but I do think it wise to keep him at a bit of a distance. This morning when a young man who worked at the downtown hotel where I was staying introduced himself, said that he was a friend of John's, and that he had been asked to keep an eye on me, I began to wonder if my joking accusations that he was "mafia" might have had a bit of truth to them, despite the huge laughter they evoked.

The continued news out of Bissau means I'll probably be spending a bit more time in Sierra Leone than I had planned, and so will likely get out to the peninsula to see my friends Jane and Tito, and probably stop back in York as well. I may get to Bissau yet though, if things continue to settle out.


After a couple of nights in Freetown, I headed back out to the peninsula and stayed with my friends Jane and Tito at their rustic but very comfortable lodge right on the water at Black Johnson beach. It's just as beautiful as I remember it from last year, and particularly enjoyable because of the ties Jane and Tito have forged with the local village. What that meant for New Year's was that Tito's large speakers and stereo, along with a generator, were hauled up the hill to the village so that the party could commence. Everybody dancing with everybody, the good times only interupted so that everybody could weigh in on the marital troubles of a village man, who was needing to choose between his current and former wives, both present, the former apparently much more popular than the current. The issue was temporarily resolved when the current wife fell down drunk, split her chin, and finally passed out. Everybody then got back to the dancing.
After stumbling back down the hill to bed, I woke up groggy the next morning and headed to the open roofed toilet, sitting there, I looked up, and was shocked to see Kalimba, who I had last seen going strong on the dance floor just a few hours before, and whom I'm sure had hardly slept, thirty feet up a palm tree, harvesting I'm not sure what. I went back to bed.
Marital issues are of course a favorite topic. Sitting back in the kitchen, drinking palm wine with the two cooks, Abby and Monica, the conversation of course turned to my own marital status. Shocked to hear that I'm single, and skeptical of my explanations of why, they quickly concluded that the issue lay not with any of the women I've dated but rather was due to the fact that I must have problems, likely mental problems. Ouch! Abby was willing to concede that maybe I only had "small" problems, and offered to find me a Leone woman, assuring me that she would explain to her my "condition" beforehand. Glad that's all sorted out.
The trip back up to Conakry in share taxis was no where near as fast or comfortable as the trip down in the Nissan, but was full of all the joys and challenges of west african travel. On the Leone leg up to Kambia, I was perched in the front of a mini van, sitting next to a young mother and her toddler son, who spent a fare portion of the trip trying to rub the tattoo off my forearm. When I dozed off, he shook me awake, demanding my attention. He finally gave in and fell asleep with his head in my lap, waking just in time to be enthralled by the large crowd chasing a elaborately costumed "devil" out of Kambia as we arrived.
The border crossing was made easily on the Leone side, and then with only one demand for a small bribe from the customs inspector on the Guinea side.
A multitude of small bribes later, and I was in Conakry, absorbing the news about the continued fighting in Bissau, and so slowly letting go of my hopes to head up there.
I'll head up to the highlands here in Guinea first, instead of last, and decide from there.

Funny thing.

Yesterday was an extremely frustrating day. I was trying to organize transport up to the border with Guinea-Bissau, having decided that things had settled down there enough for me to venture in as planned, but one thing after another went wrong until I realized that it was to late in the day to head out. My irritation was palpable, feeling like I had wasted a day. I instead caught a taxi here to Labe, and popped into this internet cafe to check the news one more time before heading out in the morning. Good thing. The president of GB died yesterday, after months of poor health. If my transport plans had gone smoothly instead of sideways, I would have been crossing the border completely unaware of their newly leaderless condition. Given their recent coup attempt, it means that the threshold of my risk tolerance has been crossed. The coup attempt was a result of different factions of the military struggling over the profits from drug smuggling, and the death of the president makes it too potentially volatile for me.

To bad really, who knows when I'll get a chance to get out to the islands off Bissau again.

Instead, tomorrow I'll be headed out on a seven-day trek here in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea, not really a hardship, so I'm not complaining. There's an organization here that has set up simple camps in villages, a day's walk apart, similar to the trekking I did in Ethiopia. Hopefully I won't encounter any sand fleas.

The hiking I've already done has been spectacular, deep slot canyons with streams rushing through them, waterfalls bursting off cliffs to form swimming holes at the bottem, beautifully sculpted and painted Fula villages perched on the edge of the cliffs, it's worked for me.

Guinea has been easy to travel in, at least once I got away from the military checkpoints around Conakry. The shakedowns were constant, the payoff mostly just to avoid delay. At one stop they did actually have a large book, full of the details of foreign travelers. The officer there flipped through my passport, then dutifully recorded the details of my five-year-old visa for Uzbekistan.

People are generally surprised and delighted to find that I'm joining them in packing into the fleet of Peugot station wagons that are the primary means of transport here, and I do mean packing: three in front, four in back, and four more in the far back, then several on the roof, and more jammed inside if possible. For long trips, I generally buy two places, it only seems fair, given my size.

My first night in Dalaba, last week, I checked into my room late after the long trip from Conakry, and then immediately headed to the outdoor bar for dinner. Most of the rest of the hotel was filled by a traveling senior military officer, and his entourage of aides (slightly less senior officers themselves), who were lounging around the bar. The officer was truly senior, given that he was a veteran of the Vietnam war, that is, the French war in Vietnam. After I ate, the entourage gathered around me, and turned out to be as friendly and eager to practice their english as any teenagers I've encountered on this trip, who have been legion. I ended up drinking with them all night, not paying for a thing, and really enjoying their company. The next day, they headed north on their "mission", and I lingered around Dalaba. A day later, when I was checking into my hotel in Labe, there lounging on the veranda were the general and his "boys", needless to say, another night of drinking ensued. This time, while we were still sober, they insisted on giving me their phone numbers, instructing me to call if I had "any problems at all" in Guinea. I had assumed I would use them when crossing the notoriously corrupt border into Bissau, but now I'm actually a bit eager to encounter another military checkpoint, so that I can make a phone call.

The "boys" thought I looked like Arnold Swartznegger, common enough, given my size and the dearth of white people for purposes of comparison, but what really caught me off gaurd was the moto driver here in Labe who had seen me walking around town, and told me after he picked me up that he had thought I was Chinese. Really?

Hope you all are well,


There's nothing like having a beautiful swim at the base of a small waterfall in the evening, and then the next morning seeing the track of a massive boa constrictor ("tres gran serpant") going into that same pool, to make the skin crawl on this highly snake phobic geezer. I was already a bit on edge after being told at the onset of my week's walk "oui, boucoup de mambo verde, et un peu de noir" (lots of green mambos, and a few black), and then within an hour seeing our first black snake slithering across the path. Thankfully not a mambo though, and also thankfully the only actual sighting we had (we did however see a coyote-sized, jet-black cat running up the trail in front of us, then up into the cliffs. Not sure what it was...).

Despite the resulting anxiety, I managed to have a fantastic week walking in the stikingly beautiful Fouta Djallon. Up and down cliffs, over wobbly bamboo bridges, and across hot plateaus, our destination usually a cool grotto with a waterfall (and often troops of monkeys scampering away as we approached), where we would have lunch and a siesta during the heat of the day (my hammock proving popular) 

before heading to a village for the night. With my guide/chef Ly (living under the constant threat of castration by his girlfriend if she ever learns that he's strayed), my cook/porter Amadou (AKA: "Mr. Lover Lover", tall, dignified, and apparently irresistable to women, he seemed to have a girlfriend in every village), and my porter/cook Mamadou (with two wives already, he'd gladly give them both up for one American wife) I finally had my own entourage! 

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Fouta Trekking Aventure is a local org that has set up a network of places to stay in the local villages, with a portion of their revenue going back to the community, for them to spend as they see fit, which ensures a warm welcome, from the already friendly Fula, because they know that your being there is directly making their lives just that much better. I can now say that I have a bit more insight of life in the home of a man with four wives (seemingly quite harmonious, with household tasks shared, including caring for the MANY babies). A typical morning scene found me brushing my teeth and seeing the our blind elderly host making his way down the path to the kitchen hut. I went out and greeted him, then led him by arm to his seat under the tree, where we chatted about US politics while Ly and company prepared our breakfast. 

FTA has only one english speaking guide who was busy with another group (surprised by the influx of english speaking clients that has resulted from their glowing mention in the last Lonely Planet, they are a bit overwhelmed. Ly and two other guides are headed to The Gambia during the upcoming rainy season to learn English), so it was a French immersion week for me. Not sure how much better I got though.

A task for most days was finding a chicken to buy, which when discovered, would be hung from a pack until it made it's way into the pot that night, and then our large shared platter for dinner, eaten as we squatted around a mat on the ground.

I'll readily admit I'm enough of a pervert that when we came upon a group of young women doing laundry at a stream, bare-breasted and in the full bloom of youth, I suddenly manufactured multiple questions about anything that came to mind, just to prolong the encounter. I don't think I made anyone uncomfortable...

The Fula have a ritualised multiple level system of greetings, which both slow your progress, and add greatly to experience as you feel genuinely and warmly welcomed. My mastering just the first two levels resulted in an enormous level of good will. Of course, with the help of my entourage, I also mastered some less family friendly phrases. Let's just leave it with the understanding that ladies, if a Fula boy ever comes up to you and says "gee-woe, aree po-kay" you should slap him. Hard. And later, for good measure, you should probably send your father and brothers out looking for him with the long knives (that is, unless he happens to strike your fancy...).

Fouta Ferry Girls

I'm now back in Conakry, readjusting to the heat and humidity after the cool dry weather in the highlands. I'll stay here over the weekend, enjoying the beach scene out here in Ratoma in the evenings, then the music clubs at night. Another attraction for me here, is the acrobatic school I visited last time. On the one hand it's a very serious school, touring internationally, and with it's star performers being plucked out by circuses around the world, on the other hand, it's a program for homeless youth teaching them the benefits of practice and hard work. I spent most of a day with them a couple of weeks ago, and am looking forward to returning tomorrow, when they are putting on an informal performance.

Next week I'll head up to Sobane, a beach spot that's been recommended. Then it's back to Conakry next weekend to fly home on Sunday.

Hope you all are well!


Under a full moon

My feet are definitely proving to be my weakest link, and I'm not talking about how a friend advised me to keep them concealed until the last possible moment if I wanted to have any luck with the ladies (I'm always willing to take dating advice from hot lesbians, thanks Michelle). No, I'm talking about how a blisters under blisters under blisters kept me close to medical care in Freetown last year, and about how a ruptured tendon kept me out of the mountains last summer and contemplating reconstructive surgery in the fall (but gave me not a peep of trouble while trekking), and how now another foot problem has kept me lingering near the Clinic Pasteur in Conakry.

I had decided to head out to the islands off Conakry, instead of up to Sobane, and had organized the boat out there for the next day, when I took a closer look at the spot on my foot that was giving me pain, thinking it was from a residual blister I got while trekking in the Fouta. I found instead that a deep fissure had opened in the new skin under the old blister, and that it was looking inflamed. Shit!

The next morning I canceled the boat, and instead made my way to the clinic, had it cleaned out, was given a course of Cipro, and told to return in a few days to see if it was widening, in which case I'll require stitches. Shit!

Ah well, I've actually fallen into an incredibly comfortable routine here in Conakry. I'm staying at a hotel out in Ratoma that's owned and run by incredibly friendly (and english speaking) Liberians. It 's not listed in any guides, and I get the impression that they have had very few western guests, so they give every indication that they are truely delighted that I'm staying with them. Every morning I wander down and join the crowds of men sipping strong coffee from tiny cups at a roadside shack, and then shift over to a breakfast stall where the lovely Fatima makes me a sandwich, and is amicably tolerant of my clumsy attempts at flirtation. I poke around a bit during the days, doing a bit of bartering for carvings, then head out to the beach at Rogobane in the late afternoon, usually joined by one of the guys I met at the acrobatic school. It's a full on southern california beach scene there, with volleyball and soccer, terrace bars and restaurants, and a stage set up with a booming sound system. Of late, the stage has been a venue for a giant video screen showing the various matches from the Africa Cup. Conakry is truely in the grip of football fever. When any given match is on, every available screen has a huge crowd around it, and the entire neighborhood erupts with any dramatic play, and that's when Guinea's not playing. Last night durning the Guinea-Mali match, things truely reached a fever pitch. Parades of fans clogged the streets for hours before the match began, and during, the entire city came to a fervid halt. I was glad to be close to my hotel as it became apparent that Mali was going to pull out a 1-0 win. This morning over coffee the conversations were still passionate as each element of the game was gone over in detail. I kept to myself my opinion that Guinea was out-gunned by Mali, then turned dirty in response (one obviously intentional cleating to the lower back was particularly awful).

My mastering of the nasty bits of Pula has proven to be a bonding experience with my Fula taxi drivers around town. When I tell them that I speak a bit of Pula, then break out the "gee-moe, aree po-kay" the response is amazingly consistent: a moment of slack-jawed astonishment, then 5-10 minutes of uproarious laughter. One guy had to pull over, he was laughing so hard.

I spent a couple of mornings at the acrobatic school, which has been a real highlight. During their practices, I join the row of prospective students (mostly street kids) sitting on benches observing. During the performance last Saturday moring, I was joined on the benches instead by a group of Chinese dignataries (but never mistaken for being amongst their number). The Chinese  were potential donors for what at this point I'm convinced is a very worthwhile effort. After the performance they presented the school with a million GF (about a 140USD), to much excitement from the performers. After the Chinese left, I slipped the the director of the school another million GF, trying to be discrete, but he would have none of it, and gathered the perfomers around to announce the second donation. I'm not particularly fond of being that sort of center of attention, but it was definitely gratifying (in hindsight, I should have made it 1.1 million, just to out-do the Chinese).

Hope you all are well, see some of you soon,


The gash isn't healing quickly, but it's not widening either, so no stitches. I did manage to make it out to the islands for one night, after my last visit to the clinic, wanted at least a bit of beach time before I headed home. It was pretty relaxing, but my foot still kept me from doing much walking around. Good thing, cuz as much as I've enjoyed Conakry, I was going a little stir crazy, again largely because I couldn't walk around that much. I did manage to catch one more performance of the acrobatic school as well, fantastic fun, although the sheer physicality of it all does leave one feeling a bit decrepit, at least me anyway. The drive of the kids is inspiring. At the practices, after a 45 minute stretch of grueling group exercises, when I would have been dropped in a heap  the corner (even if I wasn't decrepit) nearly all the kids broke out into their own individual exercises with hardly a pause.

I fly out on a red-eye for London via Paris tonight, then on to Seattle tomorrow.

Hope you all are well,



  1. Hi dear,

    would you please tell me the name of waterfall its images has posted above.


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