Thursday February 8 5:23 a.m.
I had dinner with Jessica and Greg last night but it wasn’t a success. I don’t know why but conversationally speaking we didn’t hit it off. Perhaps it’s because of a difference in our ages. I’m probably twice their age. I didn’t think of that till now but I wonder if it’s much more apparent to them and they were uncomfortable around the old geezer. It could also be because they resent my intrusion on their own personal Guinean experience. I can understand that. I know I would find it very difficult and probably impossible to do what Jessica is doing (mainly because I gather that Guinean students are quite badly behaved). To keep motivated I’d have to imagine that what I was doing was special, unique, a private experience. It would disturb my equilibrium to have people from my world dropping by. I’d lose my focus.
But oddly enough I think the real reason we never got comfortable was that our experiences are so different. I approached them as fellow Westerners in Guinea but we really aren’t “fellow” anything. They’re Peace Corps and I think even though the Peace Corps is supposed to broaden horizons it in a way narrows them. Jessica and Greg would have more in common with Peace Corps volunteers in India than a tourist in Guinea. Being part of such an organization is a very intense experience probably much more intense than even they realize now. Everything about them screams Peace Corps and they have difficulty relating to anyone who isn’t Peace Corps, to anyone who can’t speak the Peace Corps lingo, who hasn’t had the Peace Corps experience. For them being a PCV will end up being a stronger part of them than having lived in Guinea.
But I still enjoyed meeting them and Jessica did provide me with a good destination for a day trip. She mentioned that about fifteen kilometres outside of town on the road to Gaoual near the village of Sogoroya there is a complex of caves that were once inhabited in prehistoric times and still had paintings on the walls. She said that it must be a special place because “even the Guineans” have tried to preserve and protect it. Fortunately or unfortunately she hasn’t been there herself and so couldn’t tell me much more about them nor how to get there. She said that everybody knows about them and all I had to do was ask any Guinean.
I’d heard that story before and I tested her statement by asking the English teacher, Mr. Barry, who had joined us for dinner, about these famous caves. He had no idea what I was talking about. Caves? What caves? Back at the hotel I asked a number of people and got the same blank response.
I would have dismissed the caves from my mind at this point except I suddenly remembered that Tom Forest in Mamou had also said something about caves near Telimele, caves that his children had really loved. With that encouragement I approached two more men at the hotel who were sitting in chairs outside. The first man had no idea what I was babbling about but the second man appeared to know all about them. “Les Cavernes prehistorique,” he said. “C’est tres, tres touristique.” When his companion still professed ignorance he berated him. “The caves dummy,” he seemed to be saying. “We learned all about them in school. Don’t you remember or were you sleeping that day?”
With that confirmation I decided to stay in Telimele and make a day out of going to find these caves. I can’t possibly pass up a chance to see a classic Guinean “site touristique.” (These were the words I used that triggered the man’s memory. “Oh, those caves! The touristy ones! Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”)
Thursday, February 8 3:00 p.m.
I left when the sun had just emerged over the horizon. The taxis-brousse were already lined up and filling up with their nightmarish loads. Wheelbarrows of freshly baked bread stood around them. I picked up a long loaf, tore it in half to fit in my pannier bag, and turned my bike down the hill leading towards Gaoual and Lelouma or in my case the “site touristique.”
Whatever the caves turned out to be like it was wonderful to be on the bike in the cool morning. The further I descended the colder it got till when I reached the river (where Jessica had taught Greg how to wash clothes against the rocks) I could see my breath. I passed a barrage but whoever was in charge of it was too sleepy to deal with me and didn’t even bother to emerge from the hut. Which suited me just fine.
The rough road cruised along a ridge giving fine views of the hills all around. As usual I was totally turned around and lost. Mountains have that effect on me. I tried to fix the various peaks and ridges in my mind and see how the road moved through them but it was hopeless. The mountains looked different from different angles and if I glanced away once I’d forget which was which.
I was trying to keep an open mind about these caves. I wanted to find them of course but I was aware that I might not and tried to cultivate a state of mind where the search, the journey, was the thing. But it was all so much hocus pocus and when I tried to put Jessica’s advice into practice (“Just ask anyone”) and got only blank stares and incomprehension I heaved an inner sigh. Here we go again.
I tried out all the vocabulary at my disposal (admittedly meagre) but came up blank. I asked after “des cavernes,” “des grottes,” “site touristique,” “site prehistorique,” and some other verbal gymnastics about little houses in the mountains with paintings on the walls. Old paintings. But nothing worked. Ironically there were one or two occasions when I thought I saw a glimmer of understanding and they said something back. “Oh, you mean dippsydoodle.” But then I didn’t know what they were saying. I might have been looking for dippsydoodle. How could I know? I didn’t know what this place was called or if it even had a name. I could only shrug and continue on my way keeping one eye open for the giant billboard reading “Prehistoric Caves! 500 Meters. Children Admitted Free on Weekends.”
The billboard didn’t materialize of course but by chance I stumbled across a local doctor on his way to work by bicycle. He understood me perfectly and he set a quick pace down a couple kilometres of trails and brought me to the cliff where the caves were located. I thanked him, gave him a “cadeaux,” and he left me there.
These cliffs, just past the village of Sogoroya, had actually been visible for a long time and I’d guessed that the caves had to be there. If I hadn’t found a guide I was going to set out cross country on my own. But it’s a good thing I didn’t. Even if I’d found the caves I wouldn’t have recognized them. They weren’t true caves but deep fissures in the cliff, almost exactly like the stone cathedral at Douki but smaller and with a sand floor instead of a stream. And the paintings, pointed out by the doctor before he left, were actually shallow lines dug into the soft stone. They showed none of the stereotypical “hunting a bison” kind of image I was expecting but were simple geometric shapes, mostly just rows of the letter “v” over and over again. I tested the doctor by pointing out a set of marks that clearly said “Mama” and he dismissed them as not old. “Les enfants,” he said.
When the doctor left I sat on a boulder munching my bread and cheese and trying to conjure up some atmosphere. I was surprisingly successful and soon had a satisfying “Quest for Fire” type fantasy going on. The caves weren’t what I was expecting but the site itself was very pleasant and the large sandy spaces under the overhanging rock struck me as perfect camping spots. And if this place had that effect on me why not on my ancestors thousands of years ago? A camp fire here and there. And on a rainy day why not scratch some symbols on the walls?