Tuesday, December 26 2:00 p.m.
Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit, perhaps it was the bicycle, perhaps everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve spoken to is wrong but I had no problems whatever cycling the remaining twenty-three kilometres to Coyah. Even the dreaded kilometre 36 roadblock at the Dubreka/Coyah junction was as pleasant an official encounter as I’ve ever had.
The day began when I opened my eyes inside my mosquito net cocoon scanning its gauzy walls for spiders. I’d engaged in a war with a large and fast one the night before. It had disappeared behind the headboard of the bed and I left it there. But when I crawled inside my mosquito net and stretched out on the bed I spotted the monster an inch from my foot and inside the net. I shrieked and leapt out. It was a perfectly harmless spider but try telling that to my deep set spider phobia. This time I was very careful (I certainly didn’t want him scurrying inside my sleeping sheet or the torn up mattress) and brought my flip flop down and crushed him. Amazing the difference in size between a spider with all its eight legs spread out and a crushed one. Once it’s crushed and curled into a harmless ball you wonder what all the fuss was about.
My room at the hotel was a good example of the ramshackle variety. It had once had stuff like a bathroom with toilet, sink, mirror, shower and door plus a big bed. But the toilet was smashed beyond recognition, the innards of the water tank ripped out and scattered around the room. The door to the bathroom was still there but also torn loose and simply leaning against a wall with a set of keys still stuck in the key slot. The sink was nowhere to be found and the mirror a spider web of cracks. The frame of the once-proud bed consisted now of irregular slats over which I had to spread my body carefully to keep from falling through. The mattress was a piece of foam with a tissue thin sheet thrown haphazardly over the center. It was the kind of awful brown foam that squeaked against your skin and I spent the night constantly rearranging myself.
I showered by taking a bucket bath, shaved using the fun house image staring back at me from the mirror shards, and loaded up the bike, disappointed that my load hadn’t shrunk during the night.
The woman of the hotel was awake and I let her know I was ready to leave and would like my “identity card” back. Getting it back meant waking up the man of the hotel who stumbled out of his room looking much the worse for wear because, the woman told me, of a night of dancing and debauchery.
Debauchery is much on the mind of Guinean men, in particular “les femmes,” indicated by thumping a closed fist on your chest where breasts would be. I find it an amusing gesture since the word “femme” is hardly unclear. I’d seen this gesture throughout my stay in Conakry and then on my first day on the road. I’d pulled into the beckoning shade of a roadside cafe only to find no cafe but four young men deep in a discussion of the Koran. They set aside their books for the duration of my visit and set about interrogating me (rather harshly I thought) on my plans and particularly what I was going to do about “les femmes” on my trip. Thump thump. Their approach paralleled how one might question an astronaut. Going to the moon is all well and good but what are you going to do about air?
The man who worked at the hotel asked me the same questions. I wasn’t sure if this was in the spirit of cultural discovery or was an offer to pimp for me. I spoke as if I assumed the former but couched my answers so that he knew I was ruling out the latter. The Mouse joined us later and the first time he had me alone he started in on the same topic. Les femmes. Thump thump. L’amour.
Next to les femmes (thump thump) the next most popular topic of discussion is of course money, the lack of it, and how they can emigrate to Canada to get it. I’ve been here but a brief time but I’m already profoundly tired of that topic. But sometimes it takes an amusing turn as when the Mouse pulled out an American hundred dollar bill and asked me if I thought it was real. It was totally dark in the courtyard where we were sitting but by the light of my tiny flashlight I could instantly see it was counterfeit (a fact I’m sure the Mouse was well aware of he just wanted to see if I would be fooled and if I could be fooled he could fool someone else and pass it on). The basic parts of the hundred dollar bill were there but all the security features (the embedded line, the changing colors and the hidden picture of Franklin) were blatantly missing. I said I wasn’t an expert but to me the bill looked counterfeit.
When I rolled my bike out of the gates of the hotel I saw a single soldier sitting underneath the trees across the road, the site of my first almost shakedown. He looked at me but then looked away. Too early to bother with a “blanc.”
It was somewhat earlier than my first day’s departure time, overcast, cooler, and much more comfortable and my spirits soared as I cycled along. I foresee a time when just as in Ethiopia I’ll be leaving at dawn and earlier.
The traffic wasn’t as bad as closer to Conakry but I still kept my eyes moving between the traffic ahead and in my rear view mirrors, the traffic coming up behind. I think this kind of vigilance is expected of us smaller vehicles. One time a massive dump truck cut its engines and simply drifted into me on its way to its turn off. The driver saw me but didn’t seem to care. It was my job to see where he wanted to go and brake or speed up to get out of his way. If I wanted to be bicycle jam on the road that was none of his concern.
At kilomtre 36 (the Guineans call it “Trente Six”) I held my breath as I cycled into a congested intersection with soldiers and policemen all around. I was called over by a man sitting in a chair near a rope barricade which could be raised or lowered depending on the luck of the draw and whether the vehicle was to be pulled over or let through.
Sweating absolute buckets from the heat I followed the man into a small room with “immigration” written over the door. He was polite, friendly, and totally professional, concerned it appeared, solely with filling out a register with the information from my passport. He was at times unsure which piece of data was which and which was relevant but compensated by writing everything down. When he was finished he handed back my passport and wished me a pleasant journey. I apologized for the pools of sweat I’d left on both the chair and desk and cycled away, waiting for the shouts that never came. Twice more I came upon these rope barricades but the soldiers lowered the rope and waved me on. I didn’t dare smile or gloat about how easy it was I didn’t want to bring bad luck down on my head (and I knew that these roadblocks were much tougher on the traffic going into Conakry than leaving it) but I did let a brief thought of Conde into my head, Conde and his letter, Conde and his endless parade of cyclists turned back or arrested at the dreaded Trente Six.
My arrival in Coyah was a jarring and sobering experience. The downtown section was busy with vehicles and pedestrians and market sellers. I wove through it all keeping my eyes peeled for a hotel sign of some kind, of any kind. Suddenly about twenty feet in front of me a young boy ran out into the street. Too late he saw the white car bearing down on him. Like a thousand squirrels I’d seen in Canada I saw him make a split second decision whether to turn back or whether he could make it and should keep running. He chose to run. And he would have made it by an inch but the driver saw him and reacted by swerving away. He’d guessed the boy was going to stop. When he realized he’d guessed wrong he hit the brakes hard but it was too late. He hit the boy square on who flew straight up into the windshield, bounced off, and spun upside down through the air to smash off the side of a parked van and then hit the ground. (The instant he was airborne between car and van went into my mind in that slow motion way such events have.) Time stopped for a moment when the boy was on the ground. Then he raised his head and began to scream and crowds closed around him and he was lost to view.