Tuesday, January 9 6:00 a.m.
Yesterday was a day spent in a search for the mysterious land of “la bas.” I don’t know if this is a Guinean French word or if it exists in France as well but as far as I can tell it means “there” or “over there” or “down there.” Whatever it translates as it is a wondrous place, a land of plenty where everything is in great supply and all right at your fingertips. All you have to do is figure out where La bas is.
All I wanted was some kerosene for my stove and some toilet paper for my eternally running nose. Kerosene? No problem. La bas. Toilet paper? You can find it La bas. Where? La bas!
Um, right. La bas.
In point of fact kerosene is not all that easy to figure out even if I knew where La bas was. First I had to figure out what it was called. And I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to put the wrong fuel in my stove, use the wrong jet and have the thing blow up.
By then I was pretty sure that what I would call gas they would call “essence.”
‘Pour une voiture?” I’d question, trying to get it straight in my head. For a car?
“Vous voulez une taxi?” You want a taxi?
“Non, non, non. L’essence. Est ce que l’essence est pour une voiture?” Is “essence” for a car?
“L’essence?” he’d query while looking at my bicycle.
“Le mot ‘essence’, qu’est ce que c’est? Ca veux dire quoi?” What does ‘essence’ mean?
“C’est un velo, non?” Isn’t this a bike?
Thank you. I know. La bas.
I was less sure of my ground when I seemed to be learning that in fact what I call kerosene (no Guinean could wrap their tongue around that) the French call what the British would call ‘essence’ petrol. And if that isn’t clear then you should head straight for La bas where someone will be able to help you.
If there were some manufacturer’s labels (something actually written down) I could figure all this out but I was dealing with an amused assortment of street sellers who sold their wares in whatever empty bottles and containers they could lay their hands on. Everyone was busy siphoning and funnelling various smelly liquids from one container to another, some clear glass, others smoky glass, others light impermeable dirty glass. All of them told me to go to La bas.
The immaculate Elf gas station on the corner was even less helpful. Their tanks had run completely dry and all the Elves in their smart blue uniforms stood near the pumps (enjoying themselves hugely I might add) waggling big fingers in the emphatic negative at every hopeful car, truck, or motorcycle that drew up. I tried to ask them my questions about gas kerosene essence petrol but all I got was a chorus of waggling fingers and of course the helpful advice to head straight for La bas.
It shouldn’t have been so difficult. I’d already gotten one fill up of kerosene in Kindia. But this was from a small boy, a ‘petite’, summoned in that magical way that Guineans have by Mohammed the receptionist at the Buffet de la Gare. I suspect that these small boys actually come from the land of La bas and if I could master the art of conjuring them up (and then making them go away again like demons they aren’t easily banished once brought forth) all my supply problems would disappear. But this network of small boys is not easily tapped into. I watch how the Guineans do it but I can’t duplicate the process. You have to know the right incantations, the proper names to call and in which direction to call them. And there are no shortcuts.
I’ve tried to watch from which direction these emissaries from the land of La bas emerge and where they go once their errand is performed but they’re either too fast or I’m distracted at the critical moment and when next I look they’ve vanished. I’ve tried to go with them but the Guineans won’t let me and force me to sit down and wait. “The small boys will bring the items from La bas to you. There is no need to go to La bas yourself.”
It’s all said in a very soothing voice and I start to wonder if the location of La bas is being deliberately kept from me. Perhaps they don’t want me to know where it is. The evidence certainly points that way.
I tried to ask Mohammed where I could find this small boy, the one who had brought me exactly the right amount of kerosene I needed in a milk bottle.
“La bas,” said Mohammed and he pointed just outside the entrance to the Buffet. I went outside three times with new instructions from Mohammed but saw nothing of this boy (I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him anyway) or his mother and family that Mohammed told me was right there.
“La bas. Everybody knows. Just ask.”
I told the tale of my search for kerosene and toilet paper (also unsuccessful) to Ashaki and Phd last night. They were just on their way out to get something to eat and invited me along. They said we’d stop at La bas along the way.
We hadn’t even pulled out of the gates to the Buffet and onto the street before Phd brought the Mazda to a halt. In the dark, lit by a flickering candle flame was an old woman with a small boy, my small boy, sitting beside her. Like a conjurer she produced a funnel and the same precisely sized milk bottle filled with kerosene. Then down the street, at the first shop we saw we found stacks of little packets of kleenex. Not toilet paper but close enough.
La bas, it appeared, was not so much a place as a state of mind, a time, a mood, a certain atmosphere. Search in the right way at the right time and everything can be found. Try to force it and La bas will be forever just out of reach.
One of the things that everyone suggests you do while in Kindia is visit the Pasteur Institute (affectionately called ‘Pastoria’) located six kilometres out of town on the road to Telimele. Founded in 1925, Pastoria was established to develop human vaccines through primate research. It was here that the tuberculosis test was discovered.
I cycled the six kilometres one day without any idea of what to expect. Everyone suggested I go there but no one knew exactly why or if it was even open to unannounced visitors. I found the large gates firmly closed and locked but the small boy network was in place and one of them emerged to point out a side path. I turned my bike down the path and cycled along in first gear, small boys appearing at every junction to point the way. They knew where I wanted to go even if I didn’t.
The grounds of Pastoria were quite extensive but the section where the small boys guided me was falling apart and no one was about. One building was entirely without doors, windows, or even a roof. Off to my right was a long series of dismal cages. A single baboon occupied one of them. He didn’t appear lonely or bored. He just watched me cycle past with that eye but no head movement that makes monkeys and baboons seem so human and intelligent.
At the end of the cages I found three men resting in the shade. I took them to be groundskeepers and I learned through them that Pastoria no longer worked with primates but with snakes, venomous snakes to be exact. The building at the end (with windows, locked doors, and roof thankfully) was the serpentorium where the venomous snakes were kept. Unfortunately the man with the key was sick that day. I should come back on Monday. Then the entire staff would be present and I could see the snakes plus scientific research. This happened everywhere I gathered. They pointed all around us. “La bas, la bas, beaucoup recherche scientifique. Beaucoup.” La bas was quite a place.
When I returned on Monday Pastoria looked, if anything, even more deserted. No scientific research going on anywhere. I cycled slowly down the same path as before. The baboon was in the exact same spot in his cage and watched me as intently as before. The only difference was that the gate to the crocodile pen was missing. One of the groundskeepers had proudly shown me “les grandes crocodiles” on my first visit. I could have sworn there had been a gate. Now it was gone and I kept one eye on the grandest crocodile who lay with jaws wide open quite near the gateless opening. I was glad to see his eyes did not track my movements like the baboon’s.
At the end of the path was the serpentorium and as I approached its silent bulk my imagination began to take over. The scene was altogether too much like “Jurassic Park” for my tastes. The fences were down, the raptors had escaped, and it was quiet. Too quiet.
With no one visible I turned the bike around and cycled to the other end of Pastoria where I found the buildings in much better repair and I even heard some crashing and banging sounds coming from one of them. A moment later one of my groundskeepers emerged holding a chunk of what used to be an air conditioner. His appearance broke the spell and a half dozen people emerged from hiding and a half dozen more arrived by scooter, among them the man with the key to the serpentorium.
To get into the rooms involved removing two massive padlocks and a solid iron bar. I began to wonder what kind of powerful serpents they kept in these rooms but then I realized the locks and bars were meant not to keep the serpents in but to keep the curious out and keep them from getting hurt. That they could get hurt was immediately apparent.
The first cage that came into view as my eyes adjusted to the gloom held a tiny green snake, a mamba, the first I’d ever seen. One bite, the groundskeeper said, and five minutes later I’d be dead.
The next cage over, a much larger one, held a cobra, a very angry cobra which I guessed was at least eight feet long. It popped up into classic cobra attack mode as I approached. Maybe it was the mood of the day. More likely it was the sheer size of the cobra’s expanded hood but I was rooted to the spot. I literally felt the cliche of my feet frozen in place, unable to move or tear my eyes away from the snake.
Between me and the cobra was a light screen, easily strong enough to contain it but I had to wonder just how old that screen was, how rusted and how many cobras before this one had smashed its body against it in a rage. As this one did repeatedly, scaring me a year closer to my grave.
After each strike it went back into attack posture. I tried to find a distance that the cobra wouldn’t find threatening. “How about Toronto?” the cobra said as it struck again, putting a visible dent in the screen.
I’m not normally timid nor given to irrational fears about animals but I’d had just about enough and made sure the door was at my back and not the dim interior of the room. I could literally see in my mind the day when the screen finally gave way and some hapless tourist got it right in the neck.
The sense of dread and danger stayed with me into the next room so that when the groundskeeper hooked the python, clearly intending to pull it out of the cage and put it into my arms, I told him that it wasn’t necessary. An understatement if ever there was one. And there was some logic in my fear. I’d seen people on TV with pythons coiled harmlessly around their necks and bodies. But those pythons moved slowly and sluggishly, not like this big fellow who moved around his cage like greased lightning. This was the real thing, a python who moved fast and purposefully and I was in no mood to trust the judgement of a Guinean that to hold it was “safe.” I’d seen the way they drive and the vehicles and loads that they considered safe.
Tuesday, January 9 9:00 p.m.
Think back to the worst haircut you’ve ever had. Conjure up that growing sense of panic as the hairstylist is butchering your hair. You want to jump out of the chair, stop the whole process, and run away before more damage is done. You have to physically restrain yourself as rivulets of sweat begin to run from your armpits. Hair grows back you reassure yourself.
Now imagine not just the worst haircut you’ve ever had but the absolute worst haircut possible performed by the most incompetent fumbling madman who ever wielded a set of rusty hair clippers and dull household scissors. Welcome to Kindia. Welcome to my world.
I wanted my hair cut simply because it was too long for this heat. I planned on getting it done while in Kindia which shouldn’t have been a problem because hair cutting places, ‘coutures,’ are one thing that Kindia has an abundance of. I suppose the reason for that is that just about anybody who can afford a pair of scissors and a razor blade can call themselves a barber and set up shop. It’s a way of making money open to anybody.
Luckily there isn’t a lot of skill required to cut a Guinean man’s hair. It’s simply a matter of using a clipper to cut it close to the head and then sharpening up the edges with a razor. If as a child you were reasonably good at coloring inside the lines, well you can cut hair with the best of them.
I delayed for several days because nothing that I saw in any of these barber shops or being done by any barber on the street made me think they had even the slightest idea of how to deal with a fote’s hair.
I eventually threw myself on the mercy of Phd’s advice and he said that all of these barbers could cut hair like mine and that no one of them was better than another. We happened to be just leaving Le Relax restaurant and I pointed out a set of three young men wielding clippers just across the street in the shade of a building.
“So those guys can cut my hair as well as anybody in town?”
“Sure,” said Phd.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m particularly vain or even picky about my hair. In Canada I don’t even want to talk about it with the hairstylist. I just give an idea of how much to take off and then let them do whatever they want. I suppose, like most Canadians, I imagined a lot of it was common sense and that perhaps even I could cut hair based on watching it being done all these years. That you really do have to know what you’re doing is now as apparent to me as it was that this particular clipper wielder didn’t have a clue.
He started with a big old nasty set of electric clippers and more or less jammed it into my head at random. He seemed quite surprised when it clogged with my thick hair and sucked it away from my head like a vacuum cleaner. He just turned it off each time, twisted and pulled it free of my hair, and then not knowing what else to do simply stuck it back in again.
He was equally mystified at the way all this hair fell into my eyes, nose, and mouth, making me cough and sneeze. He made no attempt to help me out or send the hair away from my face. I turned to Phd for moral support and sympathy but he saw nothing wrong. He thought the madman was doing a wizard job.
After about ten minutes of this even the madman knew that just jamming the clippers into my head wasn’t working. He switched to a lighter touch and kind of dabbed at my head, pulling the clippers down the back. Sometimes it cut the hair right to the root and my skull. Other times it missed and trimmed a millimetre off the end of one curling clump. My head began to look like an irregular pile of Leggo bricks.
I have to admire the Madman’s charade of total confidence. He never said the Guinean equivalent of “oops.” He never frowned or even hesitated. He simply switched tactics and tools at random giving the impression it was going exactly as he planned. For a while he used a combination scissors and clippers but all that did was send a fine spray of clippings into my ears. Here he was willing to help me out and every once in a while dug into one of my ears with a finger. I appreciated the thought if not the long and dirty fingernails.
Now came the scissors and he wielded them like hedge clippers, falling back on his experience with Guinean men and simply moving around my head and trying to cut the edges smooth. To achieve this he cut across in straight lines like he was drawing squares and rectangles. Unfortunately for him my hair is not straight and regular. He kept finding new hair underneath the hair he’d just cut and when it came straight under his comb it was longer than the edge. Much of his clipper jamming and dabbing now went to waste as he cut back shorter and shorter not happy until he’d achieved the effect he wanted. My head still looked like a pile of Leggo bricks but now in a near perfect helmet shape.
“I’m Jim Carrey in ‘Dumb and Dumber,'” I said to myself in the mirror.
I was honestly surprised that neither Phd nor any of the spectators saw anything wrong. I’m sure the Madman had never cut a fote’s hair before, had never even considered the theory of it but he had at least seen fotes before. Around the cracked mirror were stickers of various American movie stars. There was Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Chuck Norris, and good old Stallone with biceps bulged out as Rocky. I looked at myself in the mirror, then at these pictures. I didn’t look remotely like any of them.
When the ordeal was over Phd shook my hand, said “merci,” and told me how good I looked.