Sunday, January 21 7:46 a.m.
Dalaba is supposed to be a place of “beauty and repose” but though I appreciate the town’s scenic qualities I can’t quite master the repose part. I’m not sleeping well. I spend the whole night aware of the pillow and sheets and the squeaking headboard and I can’t sleep past 6:00 a.m. even though I’m quite tired.
I don’t think it’s anything to do with Dalaba per se but my own state of mind combined with the relative comfort and isolation of the Tangama Hotel. Guinea is out there and I cycle into it every day to do my shopping but as Jason said, here in the Tangama we could be anywhere in the world.
Even the aspects of Dalaba I have been experiencing were too strange to make much sense. There is a complex of buildings south of the Tangama Hotel right at the end of the road outside the gates. People call it the “villa” and the old, barely legible sign over the entrance (the complex was built in the ’30s) says it is or was some kind of government administrative center.
Whatever it is there’s a man in a scruffy “Puff Daddy” t shirt who will take you on a tour. The tour begins in a large building (from the outside it looks like a warehouse) perched on the edge of the valleys to the west. In a room at the far end he points out a raised cement platform with a bed on it. Sekou Toure slept here he tells you. He takes you into the next room and points out a sink, toilet, and bathtub. The assumption has to be that Sekou Toure used these as well. Through a couple of adjoining hallways (watch out for the sheets of peeling plaster and paint hanging down from the destroyed roof and walls) and you emerge into a large conference room. There is an ugly chair, carved, the Puff Daddy fan tells you, from a single piece of wood. No nails, he takes great pains to explain. Sensing he’s losing you at this point the tour picks up speed and in rapid succession you’re exposed to the solid cement table, the fireplace (presented as a miracle of modern technology “see how the smoke can escape up through this hole”), the wooden locks, (“a vendre! un souvenir!”), and last but certainly not least, a set of cups and bowls that World Bank President Robert McNamara once ate and drank from. These are whisked one by one from a cabinet and placed in a row on the cement table. The observant tourist will notice that the swirls in the bowls are not a decorative pattern but the finger marks of previous tourists left in the dust accumulated over the decades. “Made in China,” he tells you. This as the famous cutlery is whisked out of sight again but held momentarily upside down so you can see the label on the bottom and confirm it was genuine “Made in China” cutlery. No imitations for the president of the World Bank.
The tour ends in a separate building consisting of a single round room. Both the floor and walls are elaborately carved. There are twelve distinct designs on the wall and you are led to understand that in front of each, one of twelve “chiefs” would sit. Here and around the cement table all the decisions regarding the future of post independence Guinea were made. The key concept appears to be ‘all.’ No decisions, no matter how small, were made elsewhere. Not one. They were all made here. This fact, if not the cement table and wooden chair, is expected to overwhelm the tourist and force him to start taking pictures. When he doesn’t, the Puff Daddy fan gets a trifle annoyed. He’s mollified though when out of nowhere a second tourist shows up and instantly snaps a shot of the carved wall.
From thinking I was the only tourist in Guinea I’ve gone suddenly to the opposite end of the spectrum and now see myself once more as part of that great tribal horde which as Leonardo DiCapprio says in “The Beach” “circles the globe in search of something we haven’t tried before.” (Of course to be totally P.C. I’d have to say “traveller” instead of “tourist” the distinction is one that this tribal horde will spill blood to defend).
This change in my thinking hasn’t come about because of a sudden influx of tourists but the arrival of one young couple from Holland who I chatted with last night. They travelled all the way from Europe by Land Rover and brought with them stories of the dozens, probably hundreds of other foreigners they’ve met on the road through Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea Bissau. Now all these people live in my head as well. I can see them in my mind’s eye crawling all over West Africa on foot, on motorbikes, in buses and in 4X4’s like ants over a picnic feast. And in the middle of it all there’s me, the tiny dot in Dalaba, an ant on a bicycle.