Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hot Season Trip – Guinea (part 1)

Keeping with my usual timeliness of things – I’m finally sitting down to write this about 3 weeks after I’ve returned from my trip… Thus is Africa – I suppose the lack of a sense of urgency has had its impression on me. In any event, here is my tale (or at least the start of it since I’m not planning to post the entire story now).

During the months of late February to early June, Mali becomes unbearably hot for most normal/rational human beings. Life essentially stops; and everyone commits all their energies to coping with the heat – coping because that is all you can do, you can’t deal with it, you can only suffer through. Having lived through most of the hot season last year, I knew better… I did what my privileged self was able to: leave. This time I had saved up my vacation and left for the entire month of May – anywhere else but the stifling heat of Mali.

For my escape: I choose a loop taking me Southwest to the beautifully lush Fouta Djalon region of Guinea, South to war-torn Sierra Leone, north-east-south-skipping through Guinea for a moment into-fragile Cote d’Ivoire before turning back North to Mali. Overall, it took me just over a month – traveling the first half with a fellow volunteer, Chris Bentley – before parting ways and continuing on my own. It was an amazing voyage and one that not many people have the fortune to experience – all told, I didn’t see a single tourist, not one in an entire month+. There were the odd foreign NGO workers or expats but I didn’t come across one traveler in any of the three countries I passed. This is also where, now that I am safely home, I suggest you take a look at the US State Department’s travel advisories for those places... And without further ado, below follows my experience in Guinea.

Chris and I met in Bamako and early the next morning crammed ourselves into a Peugeot 504 – a sort of station-wagon – known as a “sept place,” meaning seven places. However, being were we are and gas as expensive as it is, it is normal to see the driver plus three passengers in the front, four in the middle, four in the back, 2 in the trunk for a grand total of 14 – yet that isn’t even including the 2-6 people riding on the roof! In any case, sept-place is a little misleading. The first third of the journey was on a newly paved road that might as well be considered an autobahn in West Africa and was fairly painless (other than the discomfort of sitting three of us in the far back between the rear wheels).

From there on the experience went downhill – not in the literal sense, we actually gained elevation. Our driver was trying to drive from Bamako all the way to Guinea’s capital, Conakry in one day – a trip that would take almost 24 hours. As the road condition gradually deteriorated and became increasingly curvier and more pot-holed, he tried to maintain the same speed from the autobahn portion before. Our frequent protests to his irrational speed and driving style (trying to avoid every pothole is impossible, you have to pick your losses or at least slow down!) went unheeded. It was one of those cases when you wanted to just get out and take another car but knew if you did, you could be marooned for days in an isolated village. We arrived unscathed almost 13 hours later in Mamou before continuing to our destination of Dalaba where we were to commence our thorough enjoyment of the cooler climate... I went from taking up to six showers a night to stay cool in Mali to needing a thick wool refugee blanket to stay warm!

Exhausted from the previous day’s journey, we didn’t rise from our slumber until almost 11am – something that would have been impossible just the day before in Mali’s heat. We strolled out of the Tangama Hotel and had a gander around this beautiful little town surrounded by hills and greenery… It was quite refreshing after over six-months of brown and dust in Mali. After a nice walk around town (I found Capri-Sun!), we stumbled upon the tourist-information center and rashly organized a hike out to the Garaya Waterfalls. We hiked this in an afternoon but would recommend a full day or at least ¾ day, having lunch there. Our guide helped us navigate the meandering tracks through the hills and gave us what could only be termed a culinary tour in that he frequently would grab a hanging fruit off a nearby tree and hand it to us to eat. Other than a few mangos, I can say that they were nothing like what’s found in western markets – my favorite being a large purple grape-ish looking one that smelled and tasted like lavender.

The next day we found Katy, a Peace Corps volunteer focusing on tourism - meaning we had lots to talk about. For lunch, we found some “Kaba” a sort of boiled corn stew that, after adding a little pepper, was almost identical to something found in Latin America – delicious! After a stroll through Villa Jeannine, the old colonial administrative complex, we hopped on transport going north a few hours to Labe. Below is a time-lapse video I took along the way (taking 1 frame a second, compressed into 15 frames/sec for playback – I love my new camera!). You probably wouldn’t notice, but Guinea was unique among West African countries in that there are no ‘check-points’ throughout the country. Being from the west, this wouldn’t even register except maybe for a few Europeans who remember before the Schengen Zone. I can hardly express how much these ‘check-points’ inhibit life over here and thus what a relief it was to go without them.

Now well connected into the Guinea PCV community, we called and were met at the carpark by Jim, a small business volunteer in Labe. He immediately took us to their PC house where a small gathering of local volunteers were relaxing before heading to a training in Mamou – a town we passed through only days before. As they were just reaching their first three months at site, there was a lot of wisdom to transfer and general information to exchange over pizza at a local hotel.

Early the next morning, we were off once again to Timbi-Madina, a small village off the road between Labe and Pita that is the gateway to the Samba/Saala Waterfall. Although it meant we couldn’t go out to the falls the same day, the cool – in fact cold – weather was a relief and gave us a respite from our unremitting travel. In reality, it was probably only 70F but to us it felt far colder and provided a good excuse to sit around and drink hot tea. We stayed once again with a Guinea PCV and had a lot to talk about. She was a “G-vac” volunteer, meaning she had been evacuated from Guinea in January 2007 but was compassionate enough to return and complete her service in this still fragile country. Having spent a little time in the US before returning, she had a few movies and we were able to get through the first half of Knocked-Up before the power went out and her laptop battery died.

With the weather cleared and sunny, we borrowed some old-school Huffy bikes from a missionary neighbor friend of hers and set off on the 15km ride to the waterfall. After strapping water and lunch to the bikes, it was a gradual uphill accent before a steep 3km down to the falls – a bit scary with the Huffy’s intermittently working brakes. We first headed for the lookout before looping back around to swim in an upper pool and jumping off the various smaller falls. By early afternoon, we’d called it a day and rode, or rather pushed our bikes up the first 3km before coasting the remainder back to Timbi-Madina. Exploiting our new friend’s cooking ability we made some glorious guacamole and lentil chili before retiring for the day.

A quick trip back up to Labe and back down to Pita, we set off for the next chapter of our adventure along the remote road to Telimeli – but for that you’re going to have to wait as this post is getting lengthy not to mention the giant wall of dust bearing down on Segou (not good for computers)…

To be continued…

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Back in Segou safe and sound

Just online for a minute - wanted to let you all know I'm back in Segou. I'll start editing my photos and try and upload them as soon as I can!

Where I've Been...