Conakry

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Guinea  ,
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Crossing the border from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea meant reverting from Portuguese back to French and the third taxi of that day dropped us in the tiny town of Sareboido. We were of two minds as to either find a large town with somewhere to sleep or to continue to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. We soon found out it didn't really matter what we wanted because at that moment no taxis were going anywhere.

Instead we found a couple of wobbly benches and sat by the dusty main road watching a couple of teams playing soccer in the dying light of the evening. Realising we had to spend the night here we found a place under a tree and tried sleeping on narrow wobbly benches, being the only way to keep clean. However the middle of the night was so cold, we made a fire with rubbish in the street and found plastic sandals gave off the most heat. 4am came and the local Imam called for prayers, while numb and tired we sat around watching the locals opening up their shops while giving us funny looks. Finally the first rays of the sun relieved our stiff joints from the cold and the nocturnal balancing act of trying not to fall of the benches.

Egg sandwiches and coffee while discussing what to do from here. We were still discussing 3 hours later when a taxi arrived and 6 other Africans appeared going to Conakry, so we left on some of the worst roads imaginable. Every so often we drove through villages and once had to cross a large river by barge before arriving at Koumbia around lunchtime.

Managed to sleep a couple of hours in the car that afternoon before arriving at Boke where the driver decided to change the brake pads. We drove on into the night and was sleeping when I was rudely awoken by a soldier demanding to see my passport. As the other Africans showed their ID cards I showed mine. Your heart always beats a bit faster when a soldier takes off with your passport. But a few minutes later it was returned and we continued.

10 minutes later another army checkpoint loomed up ahead and we followed the same procedure. I then realised that the Africans in the taxi were all passing bribes along with their ID cards to the soldiers. I asked one why? He said if you are African and want to travel you pay.

I was thinking about this system of bribes when we arrived at the third army checkpoint. This time the soldier wanted to see all my papers and then with my papers in his hand told me to pay 5000 Guinean francs. Being completely anti-bribes I told him no and Thomas 'the hairy Swede' I was travelling with was even more against the idea. This began a 20 minute debate involving myself and the driver trying to convince the soldier why we shouldn't be paying bribes.

At first I spear headed the arguments but the driver later took over launching one by one his entire arsenal of principals and any jurisprudence cases that happened to come to mind. But the shields were up and the soldier's pride was at stake. The driver then started getting into a rage from I think the culminated frustrations of many a late night checkpoint complication and its impact on his livelihood of transporting people. Before the worst could happen which would be the driver punching the soldier on the nose, I thought it prudent to pay the 80 cents bribe, declare defeat and to fight the honorary fight another day.

Back in the car no one said much and I only realised how upset the driver was when I heard him softly grumbling under his breath. Another 10 minutes and another checkpoint appeared out of the dark a kilometre up a head. This time the driver, instead of slowing down put his foot flat to the floor and the overloaded Peugeot station wagon lurched forwards. Someone in a hesitant voice said 'Look out checkpoint' but even if the driver heard he kept accelerating. With 200 meters to go the soldier started looking concerned making signs to stop. With only 100 meters the driver flashed his lights and the soldiers scrambled to raise the barrier in the nick of time before we flew past doing 120 kmph. I held my breath hoping no trigger happy soldier would try shooting out a tire, but apart from the engine decelerating I only heard the African next to me whisper 'He's gone crazy'.

Whatever the driver was feeling must have improved as at the next checkpoint we stopped and the driver explained to the soldier what he had done and no bribes were exchanged. The 6th and final checkpoint before entering Conakry asked for another bribe but I managed this time to talk the soldier out of it.

At last we were driving through the streets of Conakry at 3 in the morning. From the taxi station we were hoping to go directly to a cheap hotel, but were told not to leave the razor wire protected walls of the compound because a lot of robbers pretending to be taxi drivers worked at night. At least none of our fellow African passengers dared leave before daylight. About now I was wondering if Conakry was worth the hassles. Ended up climbing into the drivers seat of the taxi, wrapped my legs around the peddles and slept till dawn.

That morning we tried a few cheap hotels before being tipped off about a little gem only 15 minutes from the centre. Here we would stay for 7 nights. The first day I converted 300 euros into 2.6 million Guinean Francs. Being an instant millionaire was heaps of fun, especially as the largest banknote here is only worth 5000 francs. Meaning you need a bag to carry all your cash. I also applied for a visa to Sierra Leone and for Mali. Later on the fourth day Thomas found out we could get a special visa for 5 countries in one go, so got one of them to.

Guinea was previously colonised by the French and was incorporated into French West Africa. In 1958 all French colonies had to choose between autonomy as separate countries in a Franco-African community or immediate independence. Guinea was the only country to choose immediate independence when a Mr Sekou Toure gave his famous speech saying Guinea preferred 'freedom in poverty to prosperity in chains'. Don't know if this was a great decision because all French administration and French citizens left with heaps of capital and the economy collapsed. Then the government tried communist techniques going as far as initialising a cultural revolution. But they had to reverse policies when 1 million Guineans fled the country.

Mr Toure like so many other Africa leaders went a bit nuts and gave all important positions in his government to people from his tribe and treated cruelly any opposition party then went as far as declaring that the Peul tribe were trying to overthrow the government resulting in mass arrests, torture and executions.

Mr Toure had a heart attack in 1984 which resulted in a coup and Mr Conte became the new president. He did some good things like implementing a constitution allowing opposition parties but then at each election since stacked the cards in his favour. To the point that during the 1998 elections, the leader of the opposition was arrested and charged with 'attempting to overthrow the government'. Now ever since passing a referendum in 2001 that removed the two term limit for presidencies Mr Conte has set himself up as dictator for life.

Conakry the capital with its 2 million people was one of France's largest ports in west Africa but there really isn't much to see or do now. The streets are full of rubbish and have open sewers that can reek. But most of the people are friendly and food and accommodation is rather cheap. I averaged 14 euros a day.

When we were not making visa applications or picking up passports, we tried discovering Conakry. The National Museum was small and badly run, but had the most excellent masks, some taller then I. All three palaces didn't accept visitors so you could only look from the outside. A day trip was planned for the islands of Los but didn't come off because it played havoc with the visa applications. Checked out the local fair grounds but had to pay to gain access to stalls selling toys, clothes and various souvenirs all of which I had up till now tried hard to avoid. The pillar commemorating the 1956 fight for independence I personally though impressive with a statue and sculptured scenes of Africans up and armed, fighting for solidarity and all that communist jazz. The only other decent monument was the futuristic looking grand mosque.

All night on nation TV there are very corny local music clips, filmed on cheap video cameras and look like home movies gone bad. This provided good entertainment for us and while strolling through a park one day we came across a whole lot of dancing girls and guys in a video shoot. We sat around and talked to a few of them. The girls were all dancing away when a couple of the guys got into an argument and started holding each other by the shoulder and began punching each other in the head. This went on for awhile and I started to realise that I was getting use to seeing violence.

Like Bissau the people on the street stare at you a fare bit. Like Bissau the people are divided into the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Most of the flamboyant flash cars driving around are not owned by Europeans while the 'have nots' do live in some pretty horrid conditions. Guilty by white skin association, the average Guinean 'have not' I suspect has absolutely no idea what I earn a year so their imagination takes flight. Chances are I live in a mansion, drive a Porsche and my pockets are bulging with wads of US dollars. As a result when the hotel manager's daughter caught malaria we were the obvious people to help pay for medication. Also when some alleged policemen saw us snapping the rubbish tip that is their beach, they flashed a badge and took my passport. After 20 minutes of discussion, one wanted 7 euros and the other wanted the opportunity to study sociology in a European university. I just debated with them till an honest soldier came and forced them to give my passport back. But the reality is while I don't have a mansion or a Porsche, I earn more in a week then they in a year so can't help wondering how I would react in their place.

Early one morning we went looking for taxis heading to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Previously I wouldn't have considered Sierra Leone in my travel plans, but having met a few travellers heading that way and having read the latest Lonely Planet describing it as 'one of West Africa's safest destinations' I thought this is my opportunity to go. We promptly found a taxi leaving for Palmlap, (the last town before the border) and sat four and a baby in the back of a sedan for three hours bouncing in and out of potholes the size of swimming pools.
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Comments

starlagurl
starlagurl on

Great blog post on Guinea!
Guinea is in the news lately because of a coup. So, I featured your blog in the TravelPod company blog today (again): http://blog.travelpod.com

Louise Brown
TravelPod Community Manager

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