Wednesday, February 06, 2008

In and Out of Guinea

Lots of transport lately. It's been a rough ride. We had to catch the boat out of Bolama and immediately switched to an overcrowded minibus up to Gabu, Guinea-Bissau. It's a nothing town really (though it looked quite strange with all the big vultures in the garbage piles instead of the usual goats, as well as vultures all over the trees and on top of the buildings watching us). It's like being in a creepy western movie, dirt streets and all.
The following morning (after the usual massive amount of hassle) we caught an overcrowded (they put 9 people in a 7 seater and one of them was a huge lady) Peugeot to the border on a very bumpy and slow road. Had to change transport 2 more times but we were being lied to and messed with too much at the border and we had been dealing with crap all morning so decided to walk across the border and the 13km to the next town. Usually when we threaten to walk and stand up the driver will change his price or some other drivers will come over and we'll get a better deal. Not this time. It's good to know that we are serious when we threaten such things. We walked 13km (at least that far, because some said it was 15km) in 40C on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. One side of the road had a handful of deminers (of landmines) at work while the other side had grass fires burning away. On we marched. The Guinean border guards thought we were out of our minds but they were nice enough. We weren't really prepared so were almost out of water when we passed a small village. All the kids in the village came running out to the road to see us and follow for a bit so we just stopped for a rest and let them come to us. That took a while because they were so afraid. It was pretty funny to watch as 20 little kids (mostly girls) slowly inched forward to come meet us. Must be the first time any foreigners have been walking along the road for them to meet. When one of them finally got the nerve to come up and shake hands with mom, the ice finally broke and they all came forward in a rush. A few old men came by too and one of them led me through the village to the well to get our water bottles filled. The wells are new looking, sealed, foot-pump wells. Good to see some aid work has been successfully accomplished out here. It was an interesting experience and after finally limping in to Sareboido we caught another bush taxi to Koundara to spend the night. Why do all the cheap hotels seem to be in the back of nightclubs? Not busy or good nightclubs, just ones that are loud and hard to sleep through. Grrr...
The following day was an 8 hour ride in another crowded bush taxi to get to Labe. I don't know if I can really call it crowded though, it is much worse than that. In Guinea it is the norm. Guinea seems to have the West African record for vehicle overloading and that is just the way it is. 10+ inside a 7 seater and more on the roof. If you want the car to yourself you have to pay for 9 seats, it's the minimum required for them to leave. Then, on top of the overcrowding, the cars are some of the worst ever and the roads are often nonexistent dirt roads like this one to Labe. Bump, bump, bump with everyone squishing you into the walls of the car. Good thing I'm skinny. The most interesting part of the drive was the little winch-powered ferry for a couple of cars across a tiny stream and all the mushroom-shaped dirt mounds on the fields. They were black termite nests apparently.
Labe was a dump. Lots of garbage and not nearly as nice as the little villages nearby. We were in Labe when we posted the last blogs as it was the first time we were in a place with internet and had time to do anything. Things in Guinea tend to be a little cheaper than elsewhere in W. Africa and they have their own currency which you have to trade for sort of on the black market. There are guys with big wads of cash at certain shops or hanging around the taxi stands and a you will come away with a nice sized stack of bills at the end. The cheap hotels are exactly that. Horrible little dives with the dimmest lightbulbs ever (if any) and some seriously nasty bathrooms. Perfect for a horror and torture film. The one in Labe made me laugh because it showed us how far dad has come along since his first days in Jordan where he thought those bathrooms were bad. Seems like paradise now. In one place we were at we used the bathroom, someone had written "Ghetto Death Row" across the wall. Seemed pretty accurate. We have had almost only bucket showers since leaving Morocco, Mali being the only exception. Because of blisters on certain feet, we were in Labe a little longer than we wanted before heading off to a small village called Doucki.
The whole area of northwestern Guinea is called the Fouta Djalon, with Labe being the main administrative centre. The Fouta Djalon is the most popular area with tourists because it is an attractive mountainous area, good for hikes and village walks. Guinea doesn't see a lot of tourists these days because it has been having political problems with strikes and demonstrations the past year or so. Guinea hasn't had the same kind of ethnic violence that its neighbours have had because of a strong nationalistic attitude which has kept them out of civil war in the past and hopefully into the future, as they will be quick to tell you. They are very Muslim and speak French so we were back to the usual.
Doucki was recommended to us as a great place to hike. There is a guy, Hassan, in the tiny village there that has a small guesthouse and leads hikes around the area. It's a bit expensive but has been very popular with Peace Corps Volunteers and the odd tourist over the years. We were the first people there in a week and immediately after arrival got on with a short hike to show us the area. Doucki is right by the edge of a large canyon but because of the Harmattan (the dusty winds from the Sahara at this time of year that make everything really hazy and the skies grey), the views were not very good. I was expecting the Harmattan a little earlier but this is the first time it has really interfered with what we were doing. (It has actually given us the excuse to not do as much in the area and we have scrapped a few other hiking and mountain plans in the area since there isn't much point.) We spent the next two days there doing hikes in the area. All were pretty long and Hassan is quite the character. He makes acronyms out of everything and will hike up mountains with a water bottle balanced on his head. He has tons of energy so we spent all day being way too active. It was really nice to be out in the fresh air and get some excercise and with hike names like "Wet and Wild", "Indiana Jones Adventure" and "Chutes and Ladders" we were in and out of the waterfalls and streams, swinging on vines, climbing little rope ladders up cliffs and even got so see some baboons too. Nice but not relaxing. From Doucki we made our way down to Mamou, an important crossroads town. Another grungy and dark town with not much going for it, but we were stuck there because we were trying to get transport directly to Sierra Leone from there rather than heading down to Conakry, the capital, and taking the main road.
We seem to be doing something wrong these days because we always seem to want to go out and get food when there is none available. We seem to be on a different hunger schedule or something. Food is really bad at night as the people switch from rice and sauce to mostly meat. They were also serving guts soup which Sky made the mistake of trying and nearly made all of us sick just to look at. We eat a lot of bread and processed cheese or spam.
Getting out of Guinea turned out to be tougher than getting in. We had to wait 8 hours for a 4WD to fill up to leave for Kabala, Sierra Leone. It never did fill up and we paid a little extra to get the thing moving. What a messed up ride. The electrical wires inside started burning up before we even got out of town and we had to go to some guy's house to fill up with diesel because there was none left at any of the stations. The road is a very seldomly used dirt track through the bush, up in the mountains and we had to do it at night. It would never be done with anything other than a 4WD because we were totally offroading. 13 hours to go ~150km. The worst part was that we had to go through 3 checkposts on the Guinean side and several on the Sierra Leone side before making it to Kabala. The Guinean guys were the worst I've ever had to deal with and we had to put up with a lot of crap at each stop. It is our policy to not pay bribes but they pretty much held our passports ransom and made a huge fuss about not letting us through. Apparently everyone has to pay to get through on this road but they were being extra retarded for us. Our drivers paid just to not have to deal with it all. Again we see that they are just making their own lives worse. The only time they ever seem to be in a hurry is when you could pay to solve their problem. We intended to wait and see what would happen but they paid way over the odds too quickly and then got themselves in trouble with the guards wanting even more. And they had to do this at each stop. Wow. Now the guards think that we paid them and the next time they see foreigners they will charge the next group a fortune too. All because our drivers decided to be in a hurry. We never did get a stamp out of Guinea because the head guard wanted us to pay him to do it. We told him only the entry one was important and he couldn't keep us in his country forever. So no stamp but we did escape. I'd been liking Guinea up until that point. The people were generally more easy going and less likely to rip you off but last impressions are important too. We had no problems on the SL side other than waking up the guards to let us through. Sky, mom and Savannah swear they saw a lion on the side of the road while we were driving too. Could be, as there is supposed to be a fair amount of wildlife in these parts if you get remote enough and we were very remote.
Kabala was a nice and quiet town. Probably the friendliest yet. I am happy to be in an English-speaking country once again though it is a little tough to understand their accent and use of words sometimes. English is still a second language for them and when they talk to each other they will use a mix but with the english part on such a wierd cadence sometimes that you don't even realize that they are speaking English again. We spent a day in Kabala recovering since we had had no sleep and arrived at 6am. Had to track down the immigration offical to get our passports stamped in. It is kind of scary when you go to the police station to ask for the immigration guy and they have no idea what you are talking about and randomly point you toward some home to ask there, and then when you come back a couple hours later you find the guy sitting with some of the police outside the station wearing a tie that says immigration. Hmmm.... Not very well coordinated. The guy's office was a tiny little cell in a separate building with nothing in it but the desk, chairs, 5 file folders and a couple rubber stamps. He was pretty surprised to see us. As you can imagine there are few tourists in Sierra Leone these days and even fewer crossing in such remote areas. We are now in Freetown but that will have to wait.


At 8:44 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okat so I was getting stressed and tired just reading that blog. Not because it was long ( no such thing to me) but Holy crap, was there a point at which you though 'oh crap we're screwed'? Cause I would've come a bit unglued with all the hassles, and the bribes....
The nightime trip into the mountains sounded like so much fun, just made me want to get out of the blog cause it couldn't get worse, one of those I had to shut my eyes things. But shutting my eyes was making it hard to see the print.
Great Blog!!!!!!
Big Bear Hugs to All
Big Bear

At 11:21 AM , Blogger Tiuku said...

<<< It is our policy to not pay bribes but they pretty much held our passports ransom and made a huge fuss about not letting us through. Apparently everyone has to pay to get through on this road. >>>

I thought that your policy is try to pay as little as possible for anything. And isn't there a saying that one should follow the local culture every where one goes? So maybe one should just adopt to bribes in Africa? Isn't it strange that foreigners who can afford paying bribes, don't pay them, but local who can't afford, pay them?

I don't know, I am just asking. I never got this far in Africa; probably because I was uncomfortable with the idea of all the trouble of making the journey. It chilled me to read this post. But you made it!


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