Well, it didn’t start out as well as it could of, or maybe it did, and it’s just a matter of perspective. My two traveling companions and I set out from Senegal with a light backpack apiece and an optimism that only the young Peace Corps Volunteer can possess. Certain that nothing would go wrong in our travels despite the cautionary tales of hellish roads and fickle border patrol, we rumbled out of Manda, Senegal headed for Labe, Guinea in the highest spirits, hopeful that we would reach Labe by nightfall.
Perhaps you know where this is going. We were not there by night fall. We were not even there by morning. Three broken down cars and hours of waiting as the chauffeur scratched his head at the horror beneath the hood of his car does not usually lend itself to fast travel. When we did get going, I opted to sit in the trunk of the vehicle since it was a more comfortable choice than any other.
In Guinea there are absolutely no safety laws for transport. Drivers blast around corners on the edges of mountains and hope that the shrill sound of their horns will give the other unseen car enough time to move out of the way. Everything from goats to old plastic containers and of course the passengers belongings are stacked higher the height of the actual car and oncoming vehicles can be seen teetering and weaving on the narrow dirt road, almost groaning under the mountainous burden of baggage.
The same exact model used for transport in Senegal, the Renault station wagon, is called a sept place in Senegal, so named because of its capacity to seat seven passengers plus the driver. Without road laws though, why stop at seven passengers, Guinea asks. Obviously the front seat can comfortably seat two, and who really needs the emergency brake on winding mountain roads anyway? Let’s put a third passenger on top of it. And as for that middle seat? Well three is just luxurious! The doors close without any effort at all. Surely a fourth must fit somewhere. Children? No problem. Children aren’t actually people yet anyway and they fit in the smallest crevices. Whether standing between their mothers knees for the eight hour trip or jammed in the space between the ceiling and armrest in the back, children fit anywhere like tetris cubes and they don’t have to pay! Of course we’re going to need some boys to get the car started by rolling it. Start by ignition you say? What’s an ignition? No more place in the car after fourteen people? Don’t worry about a thing. These boys are experts at hanging on the 5 foot high pile of luggage on top of the vehicle. The seats are cheap, and only about one in ten boys falls off.
The craziest part, is that you might think I’m joking or at least exaggerating. I am absolutely not. And there wasn’t a bush taxi I got into that didn’t stop at least somewhere along the road to pour water on the smoking engine. For some reason, whenever I was traveling by bush taxi or neuf place as they call them in Guinea, I couldn’t help but imagine Dallas Rigler’s reaction if he were to ever to set sight on one of these cars or the conditions I was traveling in. For those of you who don’t know Dallas, and I know many of my readers do, he is an expert auto mechanic, and someone who takes pride in making sure that all the machines on the ranch are running smoothly and problem free. At least these images gave me some much needed humor along the road, so thank you Dallas.
It turned out that good humor, and maybe more importantly, laughter, was the most important thing I brought with me to Guinea. I’m not saying that I never lost my temper, because certainly I did. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to violent thoughts against my driver, much like the scene in Mean Girls when Cady launches herself across the table to tackle Regina. But there were definitely times where I wanted to cry and I laughed instead. Times when I wanted to curse and I traded a joke with my travel companions, and those are the times that made this trip absolutely worth it. Without those, all hope for a good trip would be lost. And please don’t think I didn’t have a good trip. While I am only recounting the transport situation through fascination and quite honestly, grateful awe that I made it back to Senegal in one piece, my adventure to Guinea was one of the best trips of my life.
I knew I was in for something when after three breakdowns in the first leg of our journey and not nearly to our first destination, we had to stop in a little shanty town on the side of the mountain where a fifteen year old trucker had tried to get around the line to cross the river on the ferry, couldn’t brake, and drove his truck straight into the river. This stopped traffic across the river and the road to Labe until early the next morning. These events left us stranded with nowhere to sleep comfortably and nothing but some leaf sauce and rice for dinner. It was night by the time we got stranded and the mountain of baggage was so high I couldn’t get my backpack down to get my sleeping bag out. In a predicament, I was left to wander between trying to sleep in the trunk of the car with a cardboard box pulled over me for warmth (the mountains of Guinea are cold!) and sitting around the fire with ten young Pulaar guys who must have wondered who this strange white girl speaking Pulaar was who insisted on joining them to talk way into the wee hours of the morning.
Finally we did reach our destination, disheveled and in great need of a shower, but at least prepared for how it was to travel in Guinea. I have spent way too much time focused on this first part of the journey, but I feel that it encapsulates transport in Guinea to the fullest degree, something essential to understanding the nature of this trip. While that wasn’t even the most ridiculous travel story, it is the most telling. I will not revisit the adventure of transport much after this. I guess you’ll have to ask me in person when you see me again about the other stories.
The thing is, Jackie, Will, and I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into when we agreed, quite spontaneously I might add, to join a group of Guinean Peace Corps Volunteers on their Christmas/New Year’s expedition to Mt. Nimba. For example, I didn’t think to look at where Mt. Nimba actually was on the map. It was in Guinea and that was enough for me. Turns out Guinea, especially with the minimum maintenance-esque roads, is expansive and Mt. Nimba was on the frontier of Liberia and Ivory Coast, past the entire country of Sierra Leone, at the very bottom of Guinea in the mysterious region known as The Forest. We didn’t know anyone on the trip besides ourselves and the person from Guinea who had invited us who I’d only met briefly. So you can see, there were a lot of places the trip could have gone wrong beyond transport.
In reality, the group we met up with was perfect. They are dynamic, fun, and enthusiastic people who I consider now to be close friends. Most of them are headed to Senegal in the next month for the West African Conference in Dakar, and we will happily return the favor of hosts. They accepted us immediately into their group as three of their own and never made us feel like Senegalese outsiders. The fifteen of us made the Mt. Nimba team and it was two weeks we spent together exploring the relatively unknown Forest region. Peace Corps volunteers have only been recently reintroduced to Guinea and there are no placements in the southern Forest region due to isolation and roads so bad, any kind of serious injury or illness could be fatal to a Peace Corps volunteer placed there. Due to these circumstances, we were all new to The Forest and this gave the whole trip a kind of mysterious and magical foundation on which we based our explorations.
All of us were equally delighted by the beautiful scenery, from the banana trees that grew like weeds in the ditches along the roads to the abundant palm trees and tropical forests so thick that it was a shock to see the curious faces of grey beret monkeys peering through the foliage. The forest people themselves felt like a new kind of discovery. Their characteristics were different than the light and dainty Pulaars in the north or the broad and handsome Malinke people to the east. They were darker, with open somber faces and something that looked like carefully hidden pride behind their eyes. The forest people hold not only the respect and awe of foreigners such as ourselves, but also to the other Guineans. The forest people are said to know the mystical secrets of the trees and mountains. They also are said to be more educated because the diversity of languages in the area makes the learning of French essential to any kind of regional communication. To me, walking through the rocky narrow marketplaces, they seemed to glide with grace and dignity in their mud cloth fabric, a beautiful coarsely woven brown cloth, stained with dark brown mud in intricate and varying patterns.
Everything about the forest enchanted me and after a dinner and merrymaking with our new Guinea volunteer friends in N’Zerecore on that first night, the bad aftertaste of a less than comfortable travel experience prior was soon forgotten. The main reason we had all gathered at the very bottom of the country in the first place, was of course, to climb the great Mt. Nimba. Although it is the highest mountain in Guinea, it was only approximately 5,000 feet, a climbable height for a group of fifteen decently out-of-shape and malnourished Peace Corps volunteers with limited gear.
To begin our journey we packed into public transport to the small town of Lola, which we would use as our “base camp” about an hour outside of N’Zerecore. Lola was a fitting name to the town as it was picturesque in only the way country villages around the world can be. Palms swayed in the slight winter wind on the dusty red dirt road that led from the modest marketplace to our even more modest hotel. The hotel was perfect for poor Peace Corps Volunteers. It had rooms equipped with bathrooms for bucket baths and beds big enough for three people to squeeze. More importantly, it had a pleasant balcony to spend the evenings, a staff that was patient with rowdy Americans, and beer that was constant and plentiful, if not always quite cold. Every day we crossed a crude cement bridge where the women of the village brought their children and laundry both to wash in the current of a small stream from the mountains.
We wanted to climb Nimba on Christmas, but as many in the forest region are Christians, we were told it would be best to wait until the next few days. We didn’t mind. We were content exploring Lola, from the bar made out of palm fronds where locals bought us rounds of sulfuric, cabbagey palm wine for sharing Christmas with them to the marketplace bustling with traffic even on Christmas Day. Some of the more ambitious members of our crew took it upon themselves to organize Christmas dinner so that in the evening we had chicken in sauce with vegetables over rice and a side of sweet potato fries. It was an American/Guinean Christmas and if I couldn’t be home, this was a good second option.
Within the next couple days and with all the expected obstacles of doing anything touristic in a place as unwelcoming to tourists as Guinea, we finally began our hike. We had left a little later than we hoped, but with four guides from the local village at the foot of Nimba we started up the mountain. It was a brisk 4 and half hour hike through woods that cut across mountain streams and finally broke into a savannah as we reached higher elevations. As far as I could tell we were basically going straight up and there were places where we actually had to free climb up ninety degree rock faces. I was exhilarated and felt a feeling of great anticipation as we reached the summit. When I grabbed my last handful of savannah grass and heaved myself over the crest of the last hill I lay there and looked around me. The dark green forest seemed to go on forever and it was both a blessing and a curse that the day was foggy. I couldn’t honestly see that much for scenery, but I didn’t want the clouds to clear off because I knew it had made the rigorous hike much easier. The African sun is a killer when it’s completely exposed. The guides pointed out that if the mist cleared we could see into both Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
After many Christmas pictures and a small nap in the grass, it was time to go back down and since we had started out late we were losing daylight fast. The way back down was almost harder than the way up because it was a constant struggle to slip down the steep incline on the loose red rocks that comprised most of the trail. We were very lucky to all arrive safely back at the village, even though we got down an hour after dark. Mission accomplished.
Even though our muscles were aching, we set out on another adventure the very next day. We were up and headed to a vine bridge we had heard was rumored to be in a village about an hour away. I was tired and the road as always was terrible, and I couldn’t help but secretly hope this “vine bridge” was worth all the hype. It was better.
The bridge was so intricately made that it was hard to believe that villagers who I’m assuming hadn’t taken an engineering class in their life managed to build such a strong and effective bridge and out of the vines that grew their jungle no less! It stretched a good 50 ft across the river and hung about 5 feet above the water at its lowest point. The locals did mention that during the rainy season and the river rose, it came above some parts of the bridge.
The history and culture around the bridge was fascinating to learn, since it plays a huge role in the initiation of village men and is as the center of village lore. The villagers believe that every year when its time to re-strengthen the bridge, the river devil comes from the water and puts the first vine at the highest point of the tree on which it is hung. Only a privileged group of village men, chosen by the river devil are allowed to watch this event and all of them have a tattoo on their chest that marks them as one of the chosen. When village boys come of age they have to be chosen by the river devil to help with the bridge, anyone who is not called is not allowed to help.
It was a beautiful bridge like something about of a story book and as I walked across it, I almost couldn’t believe it was real and that real people had managed to build it and keep up its maintenance for well over 50 years. It swayed gently, but I felt that the vines intertwining and strengthening each other under my feet were sturdy and trustworthy enough to cross.
After the bridge day we splurged on a little nicer hotel so that we had access to a pool and the discotech next door which was promised to be the best party in town. Expecting that this would be our last big night out in Guinea, we went out big, clad in sparkling silver spandex and big hopes for a great 2013!
When it was time to finally go home, I couldn’t quite make myself leave Guinea yet. We had worked so hard to get there and the roads were so terrible that I was determined to make everything out of the trip because I am not probably going back. After an invitation to go see yet another region within Guinea this time on the Eastern side of the country, Jackie and I took a couple of our friends up on the offer and traveled with them to their sites while Will made his long way home.
It ended up being a relaxing week with our new Guinea Peace Corps friends and always a pleasure to see the way other Peace Corps volunteers live and work in their own communities. There’s nothing like having a Peace Corps host so if you ever get the chance (hint hint) take it while you can!
Jackie and I finally made our slow way home and on the last stop a town called Douke, I did some of the best hiking I have ever done in my life. An eccentric little Pulaar man named Hassan Baa had set up a campement in his home with the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer about 10 years ago. Due to his education in English speaking Sierra Leone and his constant contact with American Peace Corps Volunteers over the years, his English was perfect and hilarious. He was the perfect end to the trip and took up on hikes that led us to unbelievable boulder formations dubbed the “Indian Jones Rocks” to a waterfall coming straight out of the mountainside where we were able to take a refreshing bath after many days of bone aching, dusty Guinea road travel. I am not nearly doing justice to this final piece of the trip, but if you ever make it to Guinea, it is worth stopping and taking Hassan up on his offer to show you a thing or two. I climbed vines and rock faces, hung upside down like a monkey and slid on my belly into caves. It was a natural jungle gym, a place to contemplate life, and a joy to hike. Thank you Hassan!
Now this blog is getting long and I’m sure my readers are getting as tired as I am of it. What I can say for sure, is that my last three weeks in Guinea was one of the wildest adventures I’ve ever had and while I wouldn’t recommend it in the least as a vacation per say, for those with the restless soul, those seeking out a place to test themselves and to find a bit of adventure, for those wanderers addicted to discovering unturned stones and un-tread trails, Guinea welcomes you with open arms.
I hope everyone had a wonderful restful holiday season with their family and friends. 2013 is sure to be one of our best years yet, Inshallah! I am back in Sinchurio working hard to prepare my farmers compost and tree sack orders before I head out on yet another adventure to Cap Verde, an island chain off the coast of West Africa, for the infamous Carnival festival! And before that, it can’t be true, but I will be turning 24 next Sunday. Bacari Yatta Badde, my new and most beloved counterpart, has promised to throw me a birthday party. He is calling in a drumming and singing troupe and will also slaughter a goat! The only thing that would make the party better would be the presence of one of my oldest and dearest friends from Callaway, the great Greg Spangler, who is actually turning 24 today! Happy Birthday Greg, I love you and can’t wait for our 24th year together.