Friday, January 28, 2005

From The Third World To The Fourth

I went out to the gare routiere in Bissau and waited while the sept place filled up. The Peugeut 505 is a large standard issue station wagon: The first seat is shotgun and is nice and comfortable. The second and third placed are on the right and the left of the middle, and are also pretty good. The fourth one is in the middle middle, straddling two seats, and is arguably more uncomfortable than numbers five, six, and seven, which are crowded on the last row. There was a little contretemps on this trip because some fat lady didn't want to sit in the back where she belonged.

Anyhow, the ride upcountry to Gabu was suitably tropical, though it got drier as we moved inland. When we got there I reflected on how 'large town' is even more a misnomer in Africa than is 'city'. It's almost literally just a wide spot in the road, and a very, very basic one at that. 'Shops' are usually small, dingy, dirt floored, and dark. People are massively walking everywhere. And what can you expect when a Coca Cola costs almost literally more than a day's wage?

I confirmed a seat for the next morning's trip to Conakry, and rolled on over to the only hotel in town, where a generator kicked on at six pm for the evening's light and fan. And went to bed around nine.

Now I had discovered Banana Milk, an indestructible dairy drink that is such a refreshing alternative to fizzy pop, just a few hours earlier. And I had immediately drunk one and a half liters of the stuff. Which, since my body wasn't used to nutrition any more, wasn't such a good idea. I awoke at 1 am with diarrhea, which is never a good idea when you're about to be sitting in a car for 24 hours, and dutifully drank the Pepto Bismol that my wife had insisted on me taking. That seemed to work, but now I ended up staying awake the rest of the night, which is an even worse idea.

So I groggily showed up at eight am for my sept place, and then at ten when we loaded up to start out had the unpleasant surprise that in Guinea (where I was headed) they do a neuf place, and four people are squashed in the middle row. Not only that, but although I am usually gargantuan in the rest of the world, and even though most Africans are suitably small and scrawny, some of them are quite big, and I had the good fortune of sharing my seat with a large six foot three one.

Down the road we went, a rather potholed one, then turned off onto a dirt track that was actually better. We got to a 1000 foot wide river that was the border and waited for a half an hour for the cable ferry guys to decide to come over for us. When they finally did they came very, very slowly.

My suspicions were confirmed when they arrived: they were moving it forward by turning and turning a hand crank. We loaded up and headed back, with four guys sweating and churning in the hot sun. I was even dragooned in to help towards the end.

Then up the hill and on into Guinea. By the time it was all said and done it was about one thirty. Except now we had two guys riding on the roof.

The road continued through a dry forest, with lots of dead underbush and brown leaves. It looked ever so much like driving through a flat eastern US forest during a hot November day, again during a drought. Except for the occasional goats or medium horned cows, or the traditional little huts, now sometimes even made with something other than cinder blocks.

Around four we came up to a stop sign, turned right, and now we were on a nice wide Guinean main dirt road. We were also at our first real, though small, Guinean town, and there was a colorful throng of ladies, probably celebrting a wedding, singing and dancing down the street. We stopped for a few minutes for food.

As before, road quality varied from pretty good to not so good. Also around now hills started to appear for the first time since Morocco, and it's funny how a few hills can make a place start looking interesting. The occasional palm didn't hurt either. As the sun sank we were still heading south towards Boke, me having now spent eight hours perched in between three other guys, with none of us having room to breathe.

Pavement and the bright lights of Boke appeared about eight thirty. We were now five hours from Conakry. Then the lights went out; then the trip started going downhill.

I had been bounced around, stuck in place, hot, and unable to sleep all day. Now we had a flat tire, and, goodness gracious, so was the spare. By the time they were both fixed in the pitch darkness by a local tire guy, it was ten thirty. We started driving, and at eleven fifteen there was another flat. Then twenty minutes after that the muffler fell off. We took about thirty minutes dropping a guy off, and so it was about one when we got to around fifty kilometers of Conakry.

And then we hit the nighttime Guinea police roadblocks. Everybody had to produce every obscure document possible. At the first one they hit a Liberian girl up for a two dollar fine. At the second they hit the other Liberian girl up. At the third they hit up both Liberians and me. By the sixth roadblock in about fifteen kilometers it was getting pretty old.

We stopped and dozed a bit until 5 am when the roadblocks are lifted and traffic starts up again. Then it was into Conakry and the first industrial looking stuff--all totally beaten up--that I'd seen so far in West Africa. Then waiting at the 'garage' area until 8, when taxis started showing up. Then a ride to my pension.

Which turned out to be the nicest resting place I've been to yet, owned by a retired French lady, air conditioned, and right by a palmy beach. (Okay, it's not a beach any more. She says that the poor people carted it all off a bucket at a time so as to make bad, salty concrete.)

But I wasn't done yet, because it was Friday morning, and if I didn't want to wait until Monday I had to hurry on down to the Mali and Sierra Leone embassies to procure visas. That was done pretty painlessly, and then it was noon and back for at least a few minutes rest.


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