Tuesday, February 13 – 8:00 a.m. Labe
Every once in a while in the life of a cyclist a day comes along that is like a gift. Yesterday was such a day.
It started early for me as usual. I woke up before sunrise, did battle with the legions of spiders that had moved in on me during the night and quietly shifted my gear and bicycle outside. The chickens in the coop stirred nervously but no one else in the household was awake and moving yet. I’d said my goodbyes to my mystery host the night before and without waking anyone up started pedalling up Lelouma’s wide empty street. A young boy crossed the road ahead of me with a large tray of freshly baked bread on his head. I bought a long loaf, tore off a chunk, and continued on my way munching on this still-warm breakfast.
On my map I had a choice between two roads but according to my informants in Lelouma I had no choice at all. One of the roads was “completement gati.” Perversely that made me want to go that way just to see what they meant when they said it was a really bad road (“totally f******” might be a better translation). But I decided to trust them since they also called the road I’d taken from Telimele “completement gati” and there I have to agree with them.
It turned out to be a wise decision, not because the road condition was good (which it was) but because for the first thirty kilometres it wound through wonderful scenery and for a change even the villages through which it passed were of interest. Most were nestled pleasantly in the bottoms of river valleys. One was even thrown up the side of a striking hill and the mosque was perched dramatically halfway up, its spires visible through the trees.
There were several fast descents and corresponding long hauls back up and the grades were still too steep for me to cycle comfortably (or at all) and I was pushing the bike again. But with the relatively smooth road surface it was not the wrenching process of before. And most surprising of all the weather had changed. A strong wind was blowing and clouds filled the sky blocking the intense rays of the sun. It had all the hallmarks of a brisk autumn day and my spirits soared with the wind. It was, of course, a headwind. A cyclist’s wind is always a headwind. Tailwinds are just a myth. But that didn’t bother me at all. Any wind was a welcome change and a headwind a small price to pay for the coolness and interest that the clouds provided. It was a trade I was glad to make.
In a way the day felt like a goodbye to the Fouta Djalon. The road passed under tall rocky cliffs and gave up views of many more, some of which I’d cycled around and over in the previous days. Below and above the cliffs the land rolled and twisted offering all kinds of intriguing nooks and crannies where villages hid.
I knew, however, that my destination, Labe, was on relatively flat land surrounded by undulating grassy plains. Labe was also the largest town in the Fouta and was where the paved road began again, promising to be a much more impersonal and fast moving place compared to the frontier like towns I’d come through. These few kilometres then, were my last taste of what made the Fouta Djalon a unique area in Guinea and being aware of this I moved slowly and stopped often to admire the settings.
I felt a small pang of regret. Regret that I hadn’t done enough, seen enough, experienced enough before leaving the Fouta Djalon behind. But it’s always that way and though there was much I hadn’t done (I was thinking particularly of a largish village to village hike) it felt like it was time to move on and I was looking forward to new horizons, whatever they might be after Labe.
My last afternoon and night in Lelouma was in its way a fitting conclusion to my Fouta experience, both full of interest and very bizarre. I went for a walk around the town in the afternoon, defying that blazing sun which had driven everyone else inside. More than ever Lelouma felt like a ghost town, an abandoned mining town, or a town in the wild west holding its breath as the gunslinger walked alone down the center of the wide avenue, waiting for the fireworks to begin. The difference is I don’t think there is ever any fireworks in Lelouma except for the riot of color and activity on the Sunday market day.
The comparison with a mining town comes from the row upon row of barracks like structures that defined the market area. Each unit had a number over the door. Most of the wide doors were closed with stout iron bars padlocked across them. When I first saw them I assumed they were dwellings because people were lounging on the ground in front of them and I concluded they were temporary housing built once upon a time for the employees of a mine or other large industrial concern. The company had moved on but the people remained. I asked my mystery host about this but he didn’t know. He did tell me, however, that these rows of identical buildings were not homes at all but market stalls that were rented out. He himself was a retailer and sold clothing out of one of these units.
In the evening I ducked through an opening into the interior of the market itself. I was following the instructions of the cook from “the” restaurant who could only summon culinary skills to again make me oily spaghetti with mayonnaise. (The elaborate wall menu was apparently only for photo ops.) I asked after rice and he directed me “La bas” which appeared to be located inside the market.
I reflected that if “La bas” had been there it had since moved on. All the market units were as heavily barred as before and the rickety stalls in the interior were empty. The only life apparent were a group of men playing cards and a number of cows contentedly perusing the garbage left behind from market day.
Two men broke away from the card game and made a beeline towards me. One man was large and well dressed, the other his skinny and poorly dressed sidekick. The big man stuck his round face with its intense eyes a few inches from mine and backed me up into a set of wooden posts holding up the thatch and debris roof. He stuck a finger directly into my chest and said in French, “I want to talk to you. What are you doing here?”
My life practically flashed in front of my eyes. I stared into those piggy eyes, uncomfortably close to mine, and sweat started to form in my armpits. So help me all I could think of was Idi Amin, the stuff of many Western nightmares. Put some mirrored sunglasses on this guy and I would have been running for my life.
I also felt the beginning of anger. Anger that once again I was out just innocently looking for some rice and this gendarme or prefect or sous prefect or whatever variety of MIU he turned out to be was making it his business to harass me and prove his own importance.
I answered his questions as best I could, holding my anger in check, waiting till the situation became clearer and I knew who I was dealing with. His questions came rapidfire, every second one accompanied with another tap on my chest. I felt like I was on trial, under arrest, being interrogated. All that was missing was the bright light in my eyes and for the skinny sidekick to assume the role of the good cop.
The questions, however, slowly drifted away from hard core matters of identification, papers, purposes, destinations, and origins and moved into what I though were decidedly strange waters like what sports I played, what my philosophy of life was, and whether I thought international aid efforts were effective when they didn’t reach the “peasants” at the village level.
With growing relief and amusement I realized that Mr. Diane was not in any way an official or MIU. He was a philosophy teacher and when he said he wanted to talk to me he meant just that. He saw a foreigner and thought it was a good opportunity to exchange ideas on culture, philosophy, and the meaning of life. That he came on like a demonic dump truck with murder in its heart was I suppose just this unfortunate habit that many Guineans had.
Once it became clear who Mr. Diane was I settled into the exchange and enjoyed it immensely. He had a knack for communication and his French was clear and precise. He watched my face and when he saw signs of incomprehension he switched to different words and repeated himself till I understood. He had great plans for me and outlined in detail how I was going to become Guinea’s John the Baptist. I, he said, had “seen” Guinea (this was accompanied with the finger to eye hypnotizing gesture), the cities and the villages. I could return to Canada and tell people what I had seen, could help direct aid efforts so that it reached the people who really needed help. I tried once or twice to introduce my own ambivalent views on the subject but was overwhelmed by his enthusiasm and didn’t put up a fight as he laid out my future tasks. The bookshelves would be filled with my memories and a renaissance would flower in Guinea.
I cringed when I thought of my journal tucked into my pocket and wondered what he would make of my actual impressions of Guinea which had made it onto paper. I don’t think he would appreciate my perspective, the “dumb white guy on a bike” approach.
Mr. Diane finally left me with a promise that he would look me up in Labe if I was still there when he came to town on Wednesday.
I searched a bit more on my own for a place to get some food but admitted defeat and tapped into the small boy network. The petite led me down a bewildering series of back alleys and deposited me in front of a shack from which the enticing smell of cooking meat arose. It was quite dark by then and I found a seat on a bench by the light of a kerosene lantern. A big plate of rice and meat was put in front of me and I laughed again at the various faces that these Guinean towns presented. There appears to be nothing there, no food, no entertainment, no water, no toilets. But when you know the right questions to ask it’s all there. When you know where to look things can be found. The trick appears to be to realize how literal Guineans can be. If I asked for a restaurant I’d be told there was only one, “the” restaurant. My informants wouldn’t make the logical leap necessary to realize I was just looking for food. And even asking for food might get a negative reply or they might say that food can be found in Labe but not in Lelouma. It simply doesn’t occur that I might be looking for this place, the shack where everybody eats, the shack with 500-FG plates of feh de manioc. I still don’t know the magic words to produce these shacks but at the end of my Fouta experience I at least know to keep asking and in as many ways as possible until someone finally realizes that “hey, the dumb white guy on a bike eats rice” and a petite is dispatched to show me the way.
My arrival in Labe was, as expected, a bit of a shock. There was suddenly a choice of hotels and I got thoroughly lost searching for them, cycling down busy streets with heavy traffic and lots of people shouting to get my attention. That’s not to say Labe is a big city. Conakry is the only place in Guinea you could call that. But compared to Lelouma and Douki it’s a metropolis and by the time I was settled into my new home I was quite spooked and skittish, the country bumpkin in the big city.
I wouldn’t stay even a day but just outside Labe the unthinkable happened and I got a flat tire. It’s unthinkable because I deliberately purchased the most massive tires and tubes I could find and then lined the tires with bullet proof Mr. Tuffy kevlar. Nothing short of an armour piercing bullet could have punctured that tire. I assumed it had to be something else, perhaps something serious and I was right. The tube, though made from extremely thick rubber and probably totally thorn proof as advertised, was also apparently shoddily made and an entire seam holding the tube together had simply let go. I also noticed that the valve stem had been nearly sawed through by the edges of the hole in the rim that it sticks through. If the seam hadn’t separated, the valve stem would have failed in a short time anyway. This was serious because unlike a puncture a split seam or severed valve stem can’t be repaired and the tube was now garbage leaving me with only two tubes, the one in the front tire and my spare. And the tube in the front tire is the same brand as the one that failed meaning it is likely to go at any time. Which would leave me stuck unless here in Labe I can track down some tubes that will serve. That is my task for today and I will likely cycle down to Pita or all the way back to Dalaba tomorrow.
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