Thursday, July 30th,
Labe, 0700 - Ibro, Damba, Daniel, driver Mamadou and I got started bright and early on our trip back to the capitol, leaving the hotel promptly at 7. Monica had gone back to the village she's posted to the day before to pack for her upcoming trip to the Peace Corps training village near Conakry (to welcome a new group of volunteers), and had told me she'd be waiting by "the orange sign" by the road junction to Doumba -- which I knew well because last year's project had been in Doumba. She estimated it would take us about 45 minutes to get there. Also I only realized in the morning that while Monica and I had come up with this plan we hadn't really shared it with the others apparently, so it was news to Ibro we were giving Monica a ride.
The morning was clear and quiet as we sped down the road past the lsat buildings of Labe, over a small river, past foliage and bush ... and twenty minutes later we were rocketing through the Doumba junction. "wait wait wait!" I exclaimed, "we're supposed to meet Monica here!" I made them turn around and go back but they were very doubtful she would be there, saying it was nowhere near Sintali, where she's posted, and after one return pass we were on our way, me wishing I had had Monica tell the plan to one of them so they'd have had a clearer understanding of it.
Continuing to text with Monica via whatsapp we established she might actually have meant a different junction that also leads to Doumba and we got there closer to the predeicted 45 minute travel time. She wasn't there, and we were just about to go continue on to the nearby town of Pita for breakfast and then come back when I saw her coming up the side road in a taxi. So she joined us, and now with six people we were a spot crowded. But hey, I think we counted 13 (THIRTEEN) people in one of the local taxis (a regular sedan style car, with three people in the front, four in the backseat, two more behind the back seat, and four people actually riding on top). Apparently Conakry has no bus system, so to get from Labe to the capitol as a local your only option is to pile into one of these overcrowded taxis for the 350km trip, and breakdowns are the norm.
Stopped in at a little shop for breakfast. We were after omelettes but the guy "didn't have eggs," which was kind of a mystery since there were literally people selling eggs all around us. We discussed the oddity of that people in Guinea will often decide they "don't do" some type of business, like buy or sell eggs, and no matter how much business sense it makes can't be budged. Or if you buy a coke or something and it comes in a glass bottle you can't leave the shop with it because they get cash back for the glass bottle -- which is good that they're all about recycling but annoying you have to finish your drink there. So you offer to pay them more so you can take away the glass bottle and sometimes they might go for it, but sometimes they might insist that no you simply cannot take the glass bottle away from their premises no matter how much you offer.
Mamou, 1400 - After several hours of winding through the green mountains of Guinea we came to the town of Mamou and dropped Damba off at his house, tucked into a backstreet of Mamou. A gaggle of little girls (nieces?) ran up to hug his leg as soon as they say him. From there we proceeded just to the edge of town to where the college of forestry is tucked away in a way that somehow makes it feel like you're not near a large town at all but just in a secluded grove. Here we found another landcruiser identical to ours, with the Organization's logo, waiting. We had met up with another project and Ibro would be hopping from us to them. The American volunteer in this case was an old professor with spectacles, working on some kind of occupational survey. After a short chat with them we were off! Now with only four in the car: Daniel, Monica, myself and the driver.
The ENATEF school of Forestry in 2014
Kindia, 1600 - On our way to Kindia we passed a police checkpoint where they made our driver show them all his papers and even unload all the luggage in the back so they could confirm there was a fire extinguisher there. Meanwhile their rigorous safety inspecting didn't seem to apply to the taxis puttering by with piles of people on the roof. The driver grumbled that really they knew NGOs like us are always in complaince but were hoping we'd bribe them to get out of the hassle.
A few hours later (these times are very approximate) we came to the town of Kindia and stopped for lunch. Just past Kinda there was a waterfall called the Eaux de Khaleesi -- "the waters of Khaleesi." Another volunteer last year had reported it was awesome so I had insisted we plan on stopping there. Just prior to the waterfall we made a stop, the driver announced his wife had come up here for her sister's graduation and so we'd be picking her up to take her back to Conakry. So we stopped by some buildings by the side of the road and picked her up, and let me tell you, I think she was one of the most gorgeous women I'd seen in all of Guinea. And she didn't speak any English but she seemed sweet. She works as a nurse. Driver Mamadou has definitely done alright for himself!
It was just a short drive off the main road. At the location itself a nice looking little hotel was under construction, a number of bungalows seemed complete. We paid an entry fee of about a dollar a person and a guide with a hard hat took us down the trail. Despite the development of the site the first area we were led to had an entirely broken bridge we had to cross very precariously walking on just two planks. There was a fair bit of water crashing over a short falls here but I was kind of thinking "this is NOT as cool as the other volunteer had made it sound like" and was pondering whether we had time for me to drag the group to the "Wedding Veil Falls" I had visited previously -- I was still in kind of host mode trying to show Daniel the best parts of Guinea, and Monica as well hadn't been to the waterfalls. But then the guide announced "and now for the main suite!" and led us across a meadow to a locked gate. Unlocking it, he led us down a series of steps curving down amongst big mossy trees. Mamadou (driver)'s wife continued along with us even though she was wearing high heels! At the bottom of the steps the trail continued meandering maybe 100 feet along the gnarled roots and frequent little streams of water and then reached a small waterfall comign from a cliff high above and slippery rocks. Continuing along the base of the cliff we approached a growing roar and finally came to a large pool where a truly huge waterfall was falling. There was a wooden boardwalk positioned opposite the waterfall but the water level was unusually high and we'd have to wade to get to it ... which Monica, the tour guide, and I did. Because the boardwalk was exposed to constant mist the steps leading up to it were green with algae and so slimy I could get literally not traction at all -- I had to maintain three solid points of contact and have my foot up against a crack or something, practically crawling up the boardwalk. Once in the middle there was a dry space and now directly across from the waterfall we could appreciate that this was indeed an epic waterfall.
Conakry, 1800 - on the edge of town we came by the driver's house and dropped off his wife, and his two young children came running out to give him a hug. Then we continued on slogging through rush hour traffic. Conakry is a long peninsula and our hotel was at the far end of it. We could have been home in maybe half an hour if there was no traffic but instead the hours stretched on one after the other. At one point we watched a pick up truck practically DISAPPEAR into a pothole, that was pretty alarming. That thing had to be three to four feet deep and the size of a car, the unsuspecting pickup go one wheel in and went over, half in the hole with the bottom of its chassis resting on the edge of the pothole and its wheels spinning in contact with nothing.
Conakry, 2100 - On a quiet street just blocks from our hotel we came across a barricade across half the street that said "HALT" on it. The driver stopped and looked around. There didn't seem to be anyone around, there were cars driving on the other side, and this was the way he wanted to go. So after a minute or two of thinking about it he proceeded past it. Immediately there was a whistle and he stopped as a soldier came to the window and started yelling at him. Then the soldier asked to see the car's paperwork, and inspect our luggage. The driver was visibly grumpy with all this, and things seemed to escalate between him and the soldiers. Daniel says he saw a soldier slap him, and the driver later reported he could smell alcohol on their breath ... which is really scandalous in a muslim country where no one EVER drinks.
We were hoping it would blow over but they took him into custody, making him sit on the bench with them, and continued to argue with him. I distinctly heard the words "500,000," presumably they were trying to get a $50 bribe from him. One of the soldiers talked to me in a friendly manner trying to say in very broken English that there wouldn't have been a problem except that the driver is being so argumentative. I'm sure he was hoping that by playing the good cop in a sort of "good cop bad cop" routine maybe I'd offer to give him some money to make up for my driver's argumentativeness and it would all go away. Daniel and I were told we were free to go, and I kind of suspected if we left they might release Mamadou since their hopes of a bribe would be over, but I also couldn't just walk away and leave him there. I intentionally didn't let on to the guards that I could speak any French at all, because if they can't negotiate with you they can't ask for a bribe. My phone wasn't working, reception is terrible in Conakry, but Daniel called Ibro, who called up the pipeline to USAID, which called up the pipeline to the US Embassy, whom I talked to briefly, and then they called someone in the Guinean military who called the garrison commander who called the unit captain... after awhile a person with military bearing but looking like he had just been called out of bed emerged from the darkness and addressed the soldiers in a posture of parade rest with his hands behind his back. His tone was not angry or chastising, just kind of "these are announcements" and the soldiers listened attentively. They all saluted and the man disappeared into the darkness. Shortly later, Mamadou was released and we continued on our way.
In related news, Daniel mentioned that when he first arrived Ibro had told him "there's a police station down the block this way ... avoid it if you want to avoid trouble."
And just ten minutes later we were at our hotel finally!
Up next, the epic 89 hour trip home, complete with cancelled flights, being stranded in strange new African cities, violent bouts of puking, and maybe even a little romance!
Thursday, July 30th,