Wednesday, January 3 8:00 a.m.
Yesterday was another sick day. I don’t know what it was but it started when I arrived in Kindia with a low grade fever and the fever stayed with me all day and was joined by the usual assortment of stomach problems. I was tired beyond belief and couldn’t move which was fine because every time I moved I felt nauseous. The situation wasn’t helped much by my room here at the Buffet which is essentially a giant oven. The sun shines directly on the steel door which radiates heat like a furnace. The roof is corrugated tin which does the same and the temperature in my room climbed to forty degrees centigrade.
They have air conditioned rooms but I don’t think any of the units are working. And even if they were there isn’t much electricity to run them. It comes on sporadically and only for short periods of time. I picture some mad old man in a room somewhere flipping switches at random.
When I checked in the desk clerk, Mohammed, mentioned the air conditioned rooms but only in passing. He wrote down a list of prices starting at 35,000 francs/night and going down to 10,000 francs/night. But somehow he skipped through all the other prices and concentrated on the 10,000 franc rooms. I assumed they were the only rooms still in existence and the one he showed me, other than the radiating steel, lack of electricity (which again hardly matters because the light switches don’t work anyway), and lack of water suited me fine. It’s something of a railway car with three long rooms attached lengthwise. There’s a small room at the front which is perfect for my bike, a large room with bed, table, and chair, and then an attached bathroom. Mohammed explained that all of Kindia was without water right now but that a young man, Amadou, would keep the bucket filled for me.
When we returned to reception, however, there was some kind of a problem and Mohammed stalled on the registration process. He kept mentioning that the room cost 10,000 francs/night. I nodded and waited for him to continue. Finally it came out that Mohammed was waiting for me to bargain him down.
“How much can you pay?” he asked.
I said that 10,000/night was fine with me.
“No, no, no,” said Mohammed. “How much can you pay?”
Then he explained how the process worked. He picked up the room key fob and used it to illustrate.
“In the market you want to buy this. The man says 10,000 francs. You say that is too much and tell him what you can pay, for example, 7,000 francs.”
About that time the owner of the hotel walked past and Mohammed called him into reception to demonstrate to this dim witted Canadian how it was done.
“I told this man the room costs 10,000 francs but he says that is too high and wants a discount.”
The owner pointed out that they sometimes used their own generator for electricity and gasoline was expensive.
Mohammed understood this but he pointed out that I wasn’t a rich man.
“He has no car, only a bicycle.”
Eventually the owner said he could go as low as 7,000. Mohammed turned to me and I said that was fine. I think Mohammed was hoping for a counter offer but for a first lesson it was okay and we all agreed on 7,000 francs.
The thing is that I’ve never had much patience for bargaining especially when the original price seems fair to me or the item in question so small that the savings hardly seem worth the effort of bargaining. Luckily it seems that in Guinea if you don’t bargain they’ll often do it for you. It happened a second time last night.
I’d finally managed to drag myself out of my room in search of food. I was still sick but I had to eat something and figured I’d have my usual sick diet of plain rice and bananas. I started at the restaurant here at the Buffet de la Gare but the ‘buffet’ is not well named, and they couldn’t help me out. I’d visited them before but found no one who seemed willing or able to talk about food in any form. I asked this time if they could rustle up a plate of plain rice.
“Non,” was the answer not surprisingly.
“Pas du riz?” I said more as a sad statement than a question.
“Pas du riz,” she confirmed.
If my French was up to sarcasm I might have mentioned that this lack of rice was strange considering I saw her and all the other people at the hotel eating out of huge communal cauldrons of rice twice a day. But I didn’t bother and resigned myself to walking all the way to Le Relax.
It was dark again, the electricity having been out all day, but I knew my way around now and had thought to bring a flashlight. The woman who runs Le Relax was very helpful and listened carefully as I explained I wanted only plain rice. She showed me that the rice she had left was old and dry, practically powder, but she moistened it and heated it for me.
On the way back I stopped at the first little table that had bananas. My stomach was gurgling ominously and I was in no mood to dally. I wanted to grab the bananas and run but that isn’t the way.
“C’est combien?” I asked. How much?
“Cent francs par un,” the woman replied. 100 francs each.
“Bon,” I said. “Je voudrais cinq s’ils vous plait.” Five, please.
This was going pretty well I thought as I counted out five bananas in a bunch and tore them free. But it wasn’t to be. These bananas were on the small side and had been in the sun all day and weren’t of the best quality. One hundred francs each was too high. That was just their opening bid. Didn’t I want to examine the bananas? Didn’t I want to look at those bananas at the other table which were bigger and not so dry?
Well, no, I didn’t. I wanted these bananas and here’s my money.
The woman took the 1000 franc note and stood there puzzled. Then, like Mohammed, she started to bargain herself down and by the time she was done I got five different, better bananas, for 250 francs. Unfortunately this meant that she didn’t have the correct change. Did any of the other banana people? No. No one had any change. I was invited to sit on the bench while she went off into the darkness.
“What do you want here?” a man asked.
“What’s the problem?” joined in another.
Soon there was a banana focus group surrounding me in the dark. Stomach cramps came and went, my frazzled brain couldn’t cope and if I’d had the energy I would have simply taken my bananas and forgotten about the change. But I reflected that if I did that who knew what effect it would have on the banana people and their society? Such an unprecedented thing as not only not bargaining but then leaving without waiting for your change might have a devastating impact. I sat tight and waited.
After what felt like an hour but was probably fifteen minutes the woman returned and thrust a crumpled bunch of bills and coins into my hand. I turned to leave but there was another uproar. Wasn’t I even going to count it? My God, they seemed to be saying to each other, didn’t this poor boy’s mother teach him anything? What is he doing out here in the real world all by himself?
I flicked on my flashlight and made a show of looking at the money in my hand. In truth even in the light of day I had trouble telling the difference between the various bills. Not because they’re similar but because they’re so old as to be practically illegible. The oldest bills can be so faded and dirty and worn that they feel like tissue paper in your hand. And for some reason I still haven’t cured myself of the unfortunate habit of smelling them. Yup, they still stink, I think each time I put the latest crumpled wad to my nose.