Monday, January 15 8:00 a.m.
I can add bed bugs to my list of pseudo new experiences. I thought I’d seen them, experienced them before but obviously before Guinea I hadn’t. I didn’t notice them in the night shift room when I was there in Tamagaly. That’s one of the considerate things about bed bugs. They have a very light touch and their bite is painless. And in the morning I moved fast, packed, and was on the road without noticing any welts on my body. But when I unrolled my mosquito net last night, there they were, ten of the little monsters fat and bloated with my blood. I have a basic live and let live policy but I didn’t want to be responsible for introducing bed bugs to the Catholic Mission in Mamou where I’m staying and one by one I flicked them onto the cement floor and stepped on them. They died with sickening little pops essentially balloons of blood with legs. I reflected that if they hadn’t found my mosquito net irresistible to climb up and had instead dived back into the straw mattress I would never have known they were there. I also had to wonder how many bed bugs at the fote feast had in fact done just that. Perhaps these ten I’d transported up the road were but a small percentage of those who’d dined well that night. And now that I’m in Mamou, far from that straw mattress I also have to think about the Shell night shift, the two young men who sleep there every night. Are they aware of the infestation? They must be. And does it bother them? It must, though I suppose when you don’t have a choice you can get used to almost anything.
The thirty-three kilometre stretch of road from Tamagaly to Mamou passed through beautiful country, climbing and falling over hills covered in a thick growth of trees, vines, and brush. The tiny flies that have made some other days uncomfortable never materialized and I settled into my steady, slow cadence, enjoying the views and the steady flow of greetings floating up from the huts I passed in the brisk morning air.
Not far outside of Tamagaly I reached a barrage but the soldiers after a cursory interrrogation let me pass. A few kilometres further on, however, I came upon a narrow metal bridge and the single soldier guarding it was a bit more on edge. He was cradling a loaded rocket launcher and as I approached he hefted it into a firing position. And just in case any cyclist thought he could get past him by dodging one rocket he’d opened a large backpack at his feet which bristled with at least a dozen more rockets.
Ten kilometres from Tamagaly at the end of a sudden and steep descent I arrived at Konkoure itself. A large sign proudly announced that this was the seat of the sous prefecture, not that upstart Tamagaly, that overgrown truck stop. Konkoure struck me as a pleasant place. It couldn’t rustle up a cafe au lait to save its life but it was tranquil and charming, nestled in a small river valley. A small boy, “un petite,” sat beside a small table covered with his wares. I bought a loaf of bread and took a seat beside him on the bench to assemble my margarine and cheese sandwich. A steady flow of people came by clutching crumpled up “cent franc” notes. Cent francs will get you three cigarettes for your morning nicotine fix or about a third of a loaf of bread cut open and spread with mayonnaise. An older man showed me a package of matches but empty hands and empty pockets. Would I give him a small “cadeaux” so he could buy cigarettes? I misunderstood at first and told him I didn’t smoke. I know you don’t smoke you idiot, he said in French, but I do. (Well, he didn’t actually say ‘idiot.’ I just heard it in his snort.) He thanked me for the cigarettes then said, “Donnez moi la bicyclette.”
Another man asked me if I had a camera. I said I did and took advantage of the opening to produce it and take a picture of the boy with his table.
It was quite a coincidence but this man also had a small camera at home. Unfortunately he didn’t have batteries for it, and the city was so far away and perhaps I had extras?
Just before Mamou the road began a steady climb that topped off at over eight hundred meters and a barrage. The MIU’s at the barrage raised it and let me through but the officer in charge called me back. He asked for my passport but I gave him my expired driver’s license instead. His eyebrows went up a millimetre making me think he saw this laminated photo ID as more impressive than a passport. Then he asked for my vaccination booklet. He went through it page by page running his finger down the entries which stretched back quite a number of years. I don’t imagine for a second that he could actually judge whether or not all the vaccinations were up to date but if he was looking for blank pages or any skimpy entries he was disappointed. The little yellow booklet was crammed with the evidence of all the needles that had gone into my arms. He was looking at the human equivalent of a pin cushion.
From there it was all downhill to Mamou and I coasted into town. What I’d heard about Mamou had not been encouraging. It was referred to as an “unappetizing crossroads town.” But such generalizations are worse than useless. No one deals with an entire town at once. We each carve out a tiny piece that becomes our Mamou. We all look for different things. And if you find one person, one place, one moment that suits you then your Mamou can be just fine. You’ve just got to look for that place and recognize it when you find it.
My search, appropriately enough, began at the Shell station at the beginning of town. There I learned that the Luna Hotel was “pas propre”, not clean. The Rama Hotel by contrast was new and clean. I cycled down the main road and saw why first impressions of Mamou might not be favorable. The road was wide and charmless, lined by the usual clutter of shops, gas stations, and trucks spitting out clouds of exhaust. It was another strip but without Kindia’s chaotic appeal or Tamagaly’s bizarre qualities. But beyond that, Mamou’s residential districts were spread out over the surrounding hills giving it a nice elbow room kind of feel.
I followed the signs to the Rama which took me out the far side of town, then down three or four rough side streets. My reception at the Rama was not propitious. Two men sat in chairs near the front gate. No one else was visible and as with most places in Guinea I had no idea who was who and who to speak with. And as in most establishments the manager or staff didn’t identify themselves to me. One man gave me an unfriendly look, demanded to know what I wanted and then looked back at the ground. The other man said, “C’est mon bicyclette. C’est un cadeaux pour moi.”
He couldn’t leave this theme alone and walked up to me, put his hands on the bike, and demanded that I give it to him. It’s mine, he kept saying. It’s for me. A present for me. I told him he was a very funny man and ignored him.
The other man again demanded to know what I wanted there. I said I was interested in a room for the night. He looked back at the ground.
“C’est mon velo,” the other man loudly reminded me.
Where is the manager, “le proprietaire,” I finally asked.
Him, said the funny man and pointed at the now empty chair.
I rolled my bike away from him and parked it. I saw a sign above a door that said, ‘Reception. Access interdit a etrangers.” “You’re telling me,” I said to myself.
I stood at reception for a while till the manager reappeared and drawing on the strength of my Tamagaly vow I planted myself in front of him and told him to show me a room.
The two of us wandered around for a while till finally he opened a door and gestured me inside. I walked in, looked around, turned around, and he was gone. I found him back in his chair at the front with the funny man. How much for the room, I asked.
“Vingt cinq mille,” he replied.
“Tu est tres drole aussi,” I said and got on my bike and turned it to the exit.
“Are you going to come back?” called out the bike coveter.
“Tres drole,” I called back and cycled away.
Luckily I felt I had an ace up my sleeve. I’d heard that the Catholic Mission was clean, friendly, simple, not expensive, and though not exactly a hotel a good place to stay.
I cycled back into Mamou proper and right beside the Luna Hotel I saw a large Catholic church. The gates weren’t locked and I rolled my bike onto the large shady grounds. There was a church, a school, (with a Mickey Mouse decor) and a third building. Here I went from door to door till I roused a friendly young man dozing in a chair.
It was touch and go whether I would get a room.
“Ce n’est pas un hotel,” he reminded me.
I assured him that I knew that, had very simple expectations, and would cause no trouble. The problem I think was not that he didn’t want me to stay but that he felt it wouldn’t be comfortable for me.
The irony was that this place was perfect in every respect, not only in terms of what it did have (quiet pleasant grounds, privacy, a water source) but also in what it didn’t have (funny men, restaurants with loud TV’s, revving engines). The room was large with a bed, table and chair, and four large windows. It opened onto a balcony where I could cook and which had a view over the wall into the street.
The price was right too whatever I could pay. I was so happy to have this home in Mamou I offered 10,000/night, probably twice what he would have accepted, but an amount I was happy to pay. I don’t know exactly what the mandate of this mission is but it has a charitable air and I feel sure the money will be put to good use and not go “dans le poche” as it usually does in Guinea.
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