Sunday, December 31 – 2:30 p.m. Mambiya
I imagine somewhere in the world there is a place more grim and dismal than the tiny room that was produced for me in Mambiya but I’d hate to think what it would be like. A Turkish prison perhaps? I could have continued on and completed the final forty kilometres to Kindia – I had the time – but I’m still babying my knees along and am in no hurry. The forty-three kilometres from Coyah to here were all uphill and when I pulled into Mambiya the sun was getting very strong and my instincts told me it was time to stop.
I also thought of it as an experiment in small town Guinea. Here was a typical roadside town large enough to be on the map but like most Guinean towns without a hotel. If I stopped here could I find a place to sleep? Could I find prepared food? Or would I have to camp and make my own food? For that matter would I be allowed to camp?
My first stop was a pleasant one. Some women were selling oranges under a shady enclosure next door to a mosque. You could buy the oranges in bulk to take away or you could buy oranges that had been semi peeled (three for one hundred francs). I’ve never had the time or patience to buy oranges, peel them, chew the pulp for twenty minutes, and spit out seeds for the next twenty. But these semi peeled oranges are meant to be squeezed and drunk, not eaten. The rind is partially sliced away with delicate and neat knife strokes till the orange is totally bald and practically a work of art. When you buy them they lop off a tiny circle from the top exposing the pulp inside. This circle is placed against your mouth and teeth and you suck hard while turning the orange and delicately squeezing it with your fingers. The locals do this so neatly that not a drop is spilled. I just mash the whole thing into my face and suck like a Hoover. But even so, after forty-three kilometres of hard climbing each orange was a shot of pure heaven and I ran through six of them, more oranges than I’d eaten in the previous ten years.
Closer to ‘downtown’ Mambiya I stopped to chat with a young man selling the carcass of a small deer. Its throat was slit wide open and it was hanging from a tree by its hind legs. He wanted 10,000 francs for the animal. That seemed fair considering earlier in the day I’d seen a man selling a giant rodent like animal for 6,000. (I asked him the name of the rodent but he didn’t know. It was simply ‘viande’ meat.) These roadside butcher shops are quite common and they often sell dressed meat. Unfortunately they weren’t in the habit of carving the meat from the bone. When you want a certain sized chunk they simply smash off a piece with a big cutlass, cutting through bone and all. Cooks in restaurants do the same and every meat dish ends up with bone splinters throughout.
People who buy this meat sling it onto the hood of their car or tie it to the front bumper. Cars with giant slabs of bloody meat on the hood and windshield are a common sight. Why they do this I don’t know but I imagine it’s actually cleaner than inside the vehicles and perhaps the wind keeps the flies off.
In Mambiya proper I saw a place that looked like it might be a kind of bar. There were no signs but there were a lot of men loafing about and where there’s Guinean men loafing there’s sure to be alcohol. I pulled up and was immediately taken under the wing of the resident Sierra Leonian refugee (who spoke English). I hope one day to arrive in a place without such ‘help’ because it always brings with it men in uniforms and other men talking about “papers” and “documents”. But it was relatively painless and very quickly there was a bustling and a sweeping as my ‘room’ was being prepared.
When they showed it to me I really had to bite my tongue to keep the sarcastic comments in. They proudly said something like, “C’est tres bien, non?” The obvious response was “non.” It’s one of those rooms where you think you’d be better off sleeping in a ditch at the side of the road, one of those rooms where you don’t let yourself look too carefully at the walls and ceiling. There are things there you’re better off not knowing about. The piece de resistance here is the bed. It’s so disgusting it’s hard to describe. There is a covering of a sort, made of torn burlap sacks sewn together, but beyond that words fail me. It isn’t so much dirty as having been made entirely out of dirt. My normal response in such situations is to sleep on the floor but there too I face some problems. I think I’d wake up, if I managed to sleep at all, tied to the floor a la Gulliver by the armies of spiders and lizards that are leapfrogging around me as I write.
My new Sierra Leonian friend announced his intention to stick to me like glue. We would do things together and stay together every minute until I left for Kindia the next morning. The prospect didn’t please me and I employed hints to buy some ‘down’ time but he was impervious to hints. Not happy about it but without a choice I retreated into my room and closed the door. This is possible because there’s a tiny window, almost a hatch, in the far wall. I propped it open with a large wooden spoon (which for inexplicable reasons lay in a pile of refuse in the corner), moved my bicycle into the pool of light, and am writing once more on my rear pannier rack. There is a path leading right past my window and every few seconds a new head pops into view like a new photo in a frame except these photos smile and laugh and call out “ca va?” before dashing off.
The true test of a cycling day is whether it’s sustainable, whether you could do it again and again on successive days without falling to pieces. From that point of view this day was a failure. I stink to high heaven, I’m hungry, I’m uncomfortable, I have no privacy and worst of all, little control over my life, certainly no understanding of it. That doesn’t mean every day has to be this way. I just planned it very poorly.
A large part of the problem is that I left Coyah without breakfast and without really provisioning myself well. That came about because last night I had a small falling out with Ali. Not a falling out exactly, more of a less than satisfactory ending to our time together.
The evening started in a small bar on Coyah’s main road. I’d asked Ali to join me there for a farewell beer. I got the impression he wasn’t enthused about the idea but he didn’t say anything and off we went.
A few minutes after we sat down, Ali’s “femme” (thump thump), Aisha, came in with another woman. I was surprised to see Aisha but pleased. She was as full of energy as Ali but happier and quicker to laugh.
She introduced the woman as her sister and in full “idiot” mode I said, “Oh, then you must speak English, too.” Aisha was from Sierra Leone and spoke English. Therefore her sister would be from Sierra Leone and would speak English as well. But not only wasn’t she Aisha’s sister (in Guinea ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ can mean anything from cousin to a person just met on the street that you like) she wasn’t even a relative let alone from Sierra Leone. She was a prostitute and as she herself so aptly put it “would like to love Monsieur Douglas.”
It bothered me that Aisha could so totally misread me that she would, completely unprompted, bring me a prostitute and introduce her as her sister. (And me, being the village idiot, had already bought everybody including her a beer which in Guinea-speak is the opening move in engaging the services of a prostitute.) It bothered me enough that when back at their house Ali gently chastised her for her behavior I was vaguely pleased. To “cherchez les femmes” (thump thump), he said, was not a part of Monsieur Douglas’ program in Guinea.
My pleasure turned to chagrin, however, when he got to the rest of the argument. She had erred he said not in bringing me a prostitute but in bringing me one dressed in glasses, a baseball cap and jeans. That’s how “les femmes” (thump thump) in Canada look. Monsieur Douglas can have all the women he wants that look like that. She should have brought me a prostitute dressed in traditional African clothes.
Ali and I talked for a while but he seemed to have something on his mind and our conversation didn’t flow as it had on previous evenings. I didn’t think much of it because Ali certainly had moods that came and went and I figured this was just one of his inexplicable moods. After arranging to meet Ali in the morning for breakfast before I left I got up and started to make my way through the dark roads back to my hotel.
I hadn’t gotten very far, however, before Ali came running up behind me. He said he would walk me back to my hotel. We walked in silence for a minute and then he came out with what had been bothering him all night. He said that because of the bike ride we’d gone on he’d contracted some kind of illness and needed to go see a doctor. But of course he didn’t have any money and wanted me to give him 30,000 francs. He felt it was only fair since the bike ride which had caused this mystery illness was for my benefit.
I was disappointed that Ali would at the last minute pull such a transparent Condeesque stunt and told Ali as much. I felt we’d gotten to know each other relatively well during my time in Coyah, at least well enough that I could talk straight with him. But Ali would have none of it and insisted that I, his friend, a friend with the power to do so was refusing to help him in his hour of need.
It was an unfortunate incident and forces me against my inclination to look at the last few days in a new light. Of course I’d had my suspicions of Ali before this. But his company had truly made my stay in Coyah much more interesting and I wasn’t going to begrudge him some wheeling and dealing.
The bicycle rental fee for example was ridiculously high and I had little doubt it was inflated so that Ali could pocket a share. There were also some strange interactions going on between Ali and the owner of the Marianne Hotel and I suspect that Ali had tried, whether successfuly or not, to get a commission since it was his cousin who had brought me there to begin with. (I do hope, however, that our Ramadan Day donation through the Imam to the poor of Coyah was on the level. It has to be. I can’t imagine, certainly don’t want to imagine, Ali sneaking back in the dark later that night to get his cut from the Imam, who would have had to have been in on it. I particularly can’t imagine it because Ali told this story to many people, how I’d not only made a personal “sacrifice” as it was called but made a sacrifice on his and his family’s behalf. One man to whom Ali told the story ruefully said he wished I’d met him and not Ali. He, too, had not been able to make the traditional Ramadan sacrifice and now had to make up for it by fasting for an additional six days.)
I stopped at Ali’s house to say goodbye this morning and to see if he was still interested in that breakfast. I found him wrapped up in a jacket, shivering, and he looked at me with not very friendly eyes. He shook my offered hand but couldn’t resist having the last reproachful word, a final effort to pull some cash out of my pocket and put it in his. “I am very, very sick,” he said, “and now I can’t go to the doctor.”
I had no answer to that and pedalled away.
4:30 p.m. The Carrefoure
“Carrefoure” is French for intersection but it’s Mambiya speak for “the place you have to go to get food.” It really is an intersection. A road comes out of the northwest and joins up with the main Conakry Kindia road. I assume there is a mine of some kind because from my map it looks like this road goes absolutely nowhere.
Around this intersection a kind of truck stop community has grown up. In my usual fashion I moved from place to place inquiring after food. There was none. In some frustration I asked one restaurant owner if there was any food in all of Guinea. He actually said there wasn’t.
Finally I decided to get a bit more proactive and quit asking about food and simply find it. I cycled to a group of market stalls, parked my bike, marched up to the first set of pots I saw, and lifted the lids.
“Ah ha!” I cried in English to the bemused woman. “Victory! I’ve found food. You’ve been hiding it!”
In one pot there was a large amount of cooked rice and in the other a bubbling fish sauce. I wish I could take a polaroid of this and use that to show people what I’m looking for. My words certainly don’t get the message across though I’m convinced it isn’t a problem of language. “Riz sauce” is not that complicated and besides, people repeat it back to me. They say things like “pas du riz, pas du sauce.” But they must mean something else. Either that or there is a nation wide conspiracy to keep visiting cyclists lean and mean.
But I’m now well fed and content, and all for 500 francs. Oddly enough a young man from Mambiya appeared partway through my meal. He roared up on a tiny bicycle and plopped down beside me on the bamboo bench absolutely drenched in sweat. He was sweating so hard he had little waterfalls falling in front of each eye.
“Pourquoi vous etes ici?” I asked him, not entirely pleased at being followed. This same waterfall boy had come into my room uninvited in Mambiya. I’d opened the door to my room because it had gotten far too hot with just the window open. Waterfall Boy came in, sat on the dirt bed and started talking.
I’m open to these kinds of intrusions because I’m still feeling my way through life in Guinea. I can’t judge who people are and what their role might be. In the case of Waterfall Boy I thought he might be part of the family that ran the bar. At least he seemed concerned for my welfare. He asked if I was hungry and if I needed food. I was extremely hungry and eagerly agreed to his suggestion that a woman in the town prepare me a big plate of food. I swear the words “riz sauce” came up again and again.
Ten minutes later he came back with a friend carrying about twenty bananas. He put the bananas on the dirt bed, smiled, patted his stomach and asked if I was happy now. What could I do but say yes? I bought five of the bananas but didn’t even bother to try and find out what had happened to the plate of “riz sauce.”
My quest for food now became a communal affair and as far as I could tell my choices in Mambiya were limited to bananas and/or canned sardines. (I wouldn’t have believed I was hearing right about the canned sardines except I’d seen empty tins lying everywhere at the side of the roads, mainly at the sites of breakdowns. I’ve begun to look at these sites with something of an archaeological eye. By the number of empty sardine tins, oily rags, and oil soaked sheets of cardboard I can make a rough guess as to how serious the breakdown had been and how many hours or days it had taken to get parts and make the repairs.) There were no restaurants of any kind and the women with the huge plates of rice that I was salivating over had utterly vanished, abducted by aliens perhaps.
The Carrefoure seemed my only hope. The problem was that no one could agree on just how far away this Guinean equivalent of a food court was. After the day I’d had I was in no mood to cycle for another hour just to find that the Carrefoure was a myth. Waterfall Boy argued strongly it wasn’t even a kilometre away. His friend who’d brought the bananas said it was two, maybe even three. I made a snap decision to go there no matter how far it was. I really needed to eat and it seemed the only way to bring the discussion to a close and clear my room of the crowd that now filled it.
Waterfall Boy accompanied me to the main road and actually started to jog beside me. I didn’t know if this was overly energetic hosting or madness but I didn’t care. I made it clear I was going alone, put some pressure on the pedals, and zoomed away. It’s a good thing I did because the Carrefoure was over four kilometres away, the sun was still brutally hot, and Waterfall Boy, if he’d attempted to run that distance would likely have sweated away entirely. On my return I’d have found nothing but a patch of wet ground with his signature ball cap and Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey in the center.
New Year’s Eve in Mambiya. I think there are definitely worse places to be. Mambiya has no electricity (a blackout starting its sixth year apparently) and the darkness means the stars are perfectly visible overhead. The occasional car or truck races past down the road, its headlights sweeping through the trees. When it’s gone the darkness settles back around you like an old sweatshirt. Mambiya feels cut off, set aside in a good way from all that frenetic to and fro.
I sat outside with the man who runs this bar. His name sounds exactly like Enternet to my ears and is therefore easy to remember. He doesn’t speak English but he is a man of few words in any language. We sat in comfortable silence sipping from glasses of locally made palm wine while the sun went down and the stars came out. Once I spotted a satellite race past and I had the usual maudlin pseudo philosophical thoughts about how people all over the world are staring at the same stars, the same sliver of new moon and being watched over by the same satellite whether they know it or not.
The mood was ruined somewhat when Enternet decided it was time to turn on his battery powered tape player. It’s a bar after all and it’s New Year’s Eve. The volume started at nice, rose up through loud, entered distorted, and shot out the other side into painful before Enternet was satisfied. In Guinea as in so many places the belief appears to be that if you can still hear music through the distortion and your ears aren’t actually bleeding then it’s not loud enough.
But there was still a beat and a beat is irresistible to a Guinean. People would emerge from the darkness on their way to somewhere else but in the dim candlelight of the bar they’d be seized by the beat and begin to shuffle and snap their fingers and wave their arms. With effort they’d break free and dance away into the night, only to be replaced by a new arrival. A woman set up a food stall just outside the gates and made several trips back and forth in front of me, fingers snapping, hips gyrating, a chorus line of food preparation.
I don’t know if there will be a big celebration here or not. It’s not even clear to me that anyone in Mambiya knows or cares that it is the last day of the year and according to some the true end of the millennium. But I do know that there is no way I’ll be awake for the moment the clocks turn over to the new year. The sun and the climb up to Mambiya has sucked the life out of me. I barely had the energy to put aside my cup of palm wine and come inside to prepare my bed. Now that I’ve constructed a little clean nest in the middle of this dirt I don’t think I’ll go back outside.
I thought of several ways to make myself comfortable and hit on a simple but effective way. I simply took out my tent and draped it over the entire bed. The floor of the tent normally rests on the ground, on dirt, so why not on a bed made of dirt? Then I had the relatively clean top material on which to lie down and my mosquito net to keep out the clouds of mosquitos and the spiders and I have a little home.