Monday, February 25, 2013

Conakry Life

There is just WAY too much to say...
We arrived at Keita’s sister’s house the first night, to be welcomed by a boney fish and onion salad dinner. Keita is a drummer friend of Kees’ who is originally from Conakry and years ago was able to flee the country as a hidden stowaway in a boat headed for Europe. His life is a book in itself.

Everyone was excited to have Aboubacar Keita home again. Keita is actually his last name but he uses it in Holland as his first. As soon as we landed back in his homeland and mother tongue of Sousou his name was once again Aboubacar.

Running on only airplane food and one hour of sleep in 36 hours, we were all more than ready to crash. We were taken to Keita’s “petite’s” house where he was still rummaging and grabbing handfuls of his belongings to clear the room for us. In this culture, they have “grand” and “petite” (big and small), which describes your rank by age. With respect such a big part of the culture here, it is easy for them to get the “little guys” to do their “dirty work”.

Our room was great! From the broken, trash filled street we passed through a metal door which is placed between two of the tightly-crammed-together, one-story brick houses. The short, narrow walkway is open to the smoggy sky above and on either side there are sharp metal roofs which come down exactly to Kees’ neck. If he wasn’t careful I’d be bringing home his decapitated head.

This walkway opens into a small courtyard with a big, leafy tree in the centre of a concrete block decorated with mosaics and used as a seat.

This small courtyard centers a small community with several rusty old doors opening into people’s homes. As was everyone else’s, our new abode was literally a square room which looked and felt more like a prison cell. A drastic change from the 4 star resorts I’d been treated to in the past few years,since the family trip. After a few minutes I embraced the filth and the claustrophobic little home as my own. Using our t-shirts as pillow cases we covered the two lumpy, “goat teeth” pillows. All that separated our flesh from the sweaty, stained mattress was a thin, grey sheet. The first couple of nights we had only that, and in our sleep we ended up between the springy mattress and sheet. I did say we embraced it, didn’t I?

Outside our room around the corner, past more sharp, low roofs we found the toilet which was easier found by smell than by flashlight. In a small structure there were three doors down an extremely narrow shoulder-squeezing passage. Kees could barely get through without shimmying down sideways and collecting cobwebs. Past the first two dark shower rooms was the toilet which reeked of African sewage. It’s actually quite amazing how distinct the smell is and how it’s definitely different than, let’s say, Asian sewage. It took me quite a while but I think I finally pin-pointed what the smell derives from. Onions! They serve onions like crazy here and after a week, I started to smell the effects.

Normally these kinds of toilets are tolerable with a big gulp of air and a quick squat, but the problem here was they never showed us where to retrieve water to flush. This can create quite a dilemma. Luckily for me I have had lots of experience in controlling my body in that department and managed to avoid ever taking a dump at our lovely dwelling. The other small problem was that when you squat you should face outwards to align the two holes, if you know what I mean, but when just peeing it was so shallow that it would splash out onto my feet. The solution was to turn around and aim the stream directly into the hole, but this left my nose only two inches from the stained, sweaty wall.

I know many would call me crazy, but honestly the compound where we stayed was impressively clean. Every morning the women are out busy as bees preparing huge meals for their families, doing laundry and scrubbing the patio with hand brooms and soapy water. I’m inclined to say the clothing here is cleaner than what we get out of a regular washing machine and the whites are abnormally white, especially for the dirty, dusty conditions of their surroundings.

I loved filming and watching the local chores of the women in our compound, grinding the meals in carved out wooden bowls, cooking cassava in metal pots on small charcoal fires or scrubbing laundry on washboards in a soapy bucket which are then wrung out and hung in trees, on the roofs or laid out on straw mats on the broken sidewalks. The country has a large Muslim population, though you wouldn’t really know except for the “Allah Akbar” call to prayer drifting through our barred up window five times a day and the big Friday prayer in the streets. Women wear traditional colorful dresses and are comfortable letting their massive, long breasts hang out when they bathe or dress. In the heat, it’s nice to be able to wear what you want, though of course I would never, out of respect, go walking in short shorts or anything too revealing. The men do not give me a bad feeling and are respectful, they don’t even stare. I feel completely safe and happy in our neighbourhood. I think a huge part of what I love about Conakry is the lack of harassment. Nobody is clinging or grabbing me wherever they please(compared to other countries that I have been too). There are very few beggars and my pathetic, little butt surely can’t be of any interest with the massive, round one’s that are bouncing down the streets.

The families in our little community were extremely friendly and we were always greeted with big smiles and a happy “bonjour”. I’ve been craving to get back out and experience the world and other cultures, not just hide behind the comfortable, safe bubble of resorts and packaged tours. I was more than ready to go on an adventure. This was not in the same league as the backpacking I did with the family but it was exactly what I needed! It has been a trip with the perfect balance of cultural immersion, interaction with locals, getting dirty and back to basics but with the freedom to buy comforts such as sitting in a restaurant and eating freshly prepare food, instead of tinned sardines or spam on bread or paying for a private boat instead of piling in with 50 locals and waiting 3 hours to leave. Yes, part of me feels shame and mixed after all the time and effort we spent to save those fifty cents. But this is only a 2-week trip and Kees and I value time more than money this time.

Money changing has been done with the guys walking the streets with their backpacks full of money. A 50-euro note is quickly changed from the car window into a thick wad of decaying, pirate-like Guinea Francs. Taking pictures has been a conflict. Some people, like those in our compound, are excited and begging for us to take photos of and with them, but on the streets it can be complicated. On the first day exploring Conakry a guy started pointing and yelling at us about Kees’ camera. Not understanding what he was saying we were grateful for Keita who stepped in.
This turned into a huge, sweat flying battle which drew a big crowd. The guy, who turned out to be the captain of Interpol, secret police, promptly threatened to take us to the station. Keita was shaking with rage, screaming defensively like a cat cornered by dogs. Returning the favor, Keita threatened the captain and two uniformed police, to call his friend the colonel as he reached for his phone. Of course, this was a bluff but seemed to work. Luckily from experience I know these fights nearly always defuse as quickly as they escalate. At the end of this heated shouting match, the captain gave Keita his number, in case of an emergency to bail him out. Not even 24 hours on the continent and we’re already getting threatened to be thrown in jail. Having seen this episode more than my fair share before, it was really nice to confirm that it wasn’t always my crazy family causing scenes and “picking fights”. Witnessing another incident a couple days later of a big argument at the harbour was a good lesson for me. Perhaps those times when I felt we were being reckless in our travels wasn't so bad as yelling is not taken in the same way here as it would be at home. It is just the way things are done here, one second there’s a huge argument, the next the guys are trading numbers and shaking hands. The circumstances are just completely different.
We have been fortunate with Keita as our guide because he speaks the language, sorts all of our needs and drives us from place to place in Kees’ old jeep that couldn’t pass its yearly road test in Holland anymore. Keita bought the jeep from him and shipped it from Holland to Guinea. The European junker upgraded his value as it is a status symbol in Conakry.

Kids of all ages make teams for soccer in the streets, half deflated balls fly in front of traffic and players dash out in front of cars. Such sights as kids rolling tires across the road with a stick on the inner rim or dads crossing the street with his son’s hand in one hand, an upturned duck in the other are not uncommon.

The market in our neighbourhood is big and beautiful with all its colors though I think we only managed a couple of sneaky photos before everyone completely turned against us. We most often eat chicken or fish with french-fries and a mainly onion based salad BUT the wonderful thing is they are big on vinegar. The salad dressing one of the nights was so potent I don’t think anyone outside of my immediate family would have been physically capable of eating it. After being deprived of vinegar in Holland, where they eat mayo on fries, I doused everything with the vinegar bottle on the table until it was empty almost every time.


After a few days in Conakry, we decided to take a boat and stay 3-4 day days on our beautiful, laid-back island Kassa. Oh ya, I still have a lot to explain!!!



At 2:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow savannah fun trip!!!!!!
great blog!
I can picture and feel everything you say... always

At 12:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Savannah and Kees! Very glad to have you back safely! So glad you enjoyed yourselves so much!! What a great adventure! Can't wait to hear more Savannah!

At 9:48 PM , Blogger The Watkins said...

The most disturbing thing about the whole blog is the onions....

At 10:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ammon, I really don't know how you survived. Not liking the worlds most popular vegetables is crazy. Onions and tomatoes yummmm.

At 9:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh, you guys all make me feel inclined to write a comment too! Just need one from Sky and we'll be complete. Next blog is coming SOON!!!

At 5:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Savannah,as usual your adventures are amazing and your pictures Awe me.I seriously loved the photo of the lady on tip toe in Conakry?? Mellie

At 10:30 PM , Anonymous Andrew Jason said...

Nice page indeed. Thanks a lot for having what you’ve got in here. Impressive indeed. We all have our own experiences. It definitely teaches all the lessons we need to learn! Traveling provides an education in life that you cannot obtain in any other way. so keep the travelling, it gets the creative mind flowing!

At 10:43 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"surely can’t be of any interest with the massive, round one’s that are bouncing down the streets." LOL That cracked me up! oh and aawww your butts is not "pathetic" btw.. just incredibly "petite" in comparison!!
You certainly are a Watkins with the vinegar cravings.. my mouth watered as I read about the food drenched in vinegar! YUM!
Awesome blog.


At 5:00 PM , Blogger Travel said...

Loved reading this post, funny, clear and easy to follow,

Have Safe and Happy Travels


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