Hitchhiking Guinea: Part One
The Border to Boke: Failure, The Taxi, and the Savior
After six weeks in Senegal, during two of which we were ready to move on, and the craziness of crossing the border, we were finally in Guinea. We had heard that Guinea takes West African insanity to the next level and we were both excited and a bit wary of this next journey. The past two weeks had been exhausting: mentally, physically, and emotionally. Now we were gearing up for something that was going to be inherently taxing and I was worried about the toll it would take on me.
However, our first ride in Guinea came quickly, much quicker than we had become accustomed to waiting in Senegal. The car was driven by a young guy who was eager to offer advice and welcome us to the country. He warned us against walking around at night because, as white people, we had a bit of a target on our backs. “Tensions are just a bit high right now.”
He was referring to the upcoming referendum, which was taking place in a few weeks. The president of ten years, Alpha Condé, had decided he needed a bit more time to pull the country out of its 62-year slump and in order to do so, the country’s constitution would have to be rewritten to allow for him to run for a third term. His justification was that Guinea was operating with an outdated constitution that didn’t reflect the modern needs of the country. Everyone we spoke to deemed this bullshit and another excuse used by yet another corrupt official. It was business as usual in Guinea and the people were tired of it.
Guinea’s first democratically elected president, Alpha Condé began his reign with promises to address the severe corruption, which had plagued the country for decades, and develop basic infrastructure, of which the population had been deprived since independence. However, 10 years after his ascension to power, Alpha Condé has failed to deliver on any of these promises and the population has taken notice.
We knew an election was coming up when we entered Guinea but we didn’t know how it would ultimately affect our time there. Our first day in the country, we found out.
We had a string of great successes getting rides after our first one picked us up. One man took us about 60 km in the back of his truck, which I was happy about, because my massive hangover had finally kicked in from inadvertently getting wasted with the Lithuanians the day before. I was not in the mood to chit chat with people (although, let’s be real, in French West Africa Gabe is the one doing most of the chit-chatting and he was in the same boat as I).
Our next ride came from a group of 3 men who kindly agreed to take us the almost 200 km to Labé, our first destination, known for its scenic, natural beauty. We spent three hours in their air-conditioned car, a dream car by Guinean standards for sure, cruising down paved roads. The last hour, however, we found ourselves on a road that was more characteristic of what we had been told to expect in Guinea. Unpaved and potholed, it was littered with broken down taxis that couldn’t make the journey. I was happy we were in the dream car.
Finally, after an hour of misery (the hangover was accentuating our discomfort with every bump in the road) we spotted pavement once again. WE MADE IT! Only about 30 km left to Labé and this road was all paved! We had forgone breakfast that morning on account of not being able to stomach anything and I was getting hungry and was already salivating over getting a big meal, splurging on a hotel for the night, and catching up on some writing and some z’s. Just a few more–
No worries, we thought. We had already been through one and it had gone smoothly and we had all of our documents in order so it should be easy.
“Everybody step out of the car,” the officer said in French. We handed over our passports as requested and the driver attempted to insist on our behalf that he was fine taking us with them but the officers were having none of it and eventually they forced our ride to continue without us.
“There is no security in Labé,” they kept telling us. “You have to continue with your friends to the next stopping point. Where is your vehicle? Where are your friends?” They assumed we were with the Budapest to Bamako Rally, the race our Lithuanian ride had been a part of. The race of 200 cars who we knew to be particularly disrespectful to local authorities and, at least in our experience, super racist towards locals in general. It had obviously caused a lot of logistical problems for the already stretched security forces.
“We are hitchhiking. We don’t have a vehicle, we travel on foot, we are not with the rally,” Gabe kept trying to explain in French but the officers were not convinced. Apparently they thought we were lying and they were not amused.
“You have to return to Gaoual with your vehicle and drive to the next meeting place. There is no security in Labé!”
We were getting nowhere, both physically due to our lack of vehicle and in trying to communicate our situation. Eventually, despite the fact that we were just repeating the same information, one officer understood what we meant.
“No, no, no,” he told the other officers, “they’re not with the rally! They’re not tourists, they’re travelers!”
They all gave us this look of “why didn’t you say so!” and continued to explain the situation. They couldn’t let us continue because there was too much unrest at the moment due to the referendum. The last police checkpoint we had passed through so smoothly should have stopped our car and gotten us out there. As it was, we had no other option but to return to Gaoual, a town a few kilometers south of where our last ride had originally picked us up, and continue through the country on a completely different route.
Once again, we were having to backtrack over a hundred kilometers to get somewhere we weren’t trying to go. We explained that we didn’t have a car, nor did we have any money as we were planning on pulling out cash from an ATM in Labé. After much deliberation, they agreed to pay for a taxi for us to return to Gaoual. The soldier who had defended us would be coming along as well, presumably to give a talking to to the officers who had slacked on their duties earlier.
A taxi came by soon enough and we piled in to go back down the atrocious road in a car seemingly less equipped to handle the conditions. Fortunately, despite the facade of the car, the driver was a professional (or a crazy, careless nut!) Either way, we made it back to Gaoual in a fraction of the time it had taken us to get there, which was good because I was feeling super faint from so much activity and so little lunch.
Back in Gaoual, we had more police to talk to and everyone was confused. The confusion was only heightened when the taxi driver demanded his payment and everyone turned to us for the money.
“You have to pay your taxi!” they shouted at us.
“We don’t have any money–“
“YOU HAVE TO PAY! YOU CANNOT DO THIS IN THIS COUNTRY! EVERYBODY PAYS FOR THE TAXI!” one particularly stone-faced officer shouted.
We were trying to explain our predicament, which had obviously not been communicated as properly as we had been told it had been when we left the last checkpoint. Big surprise. Finally, our soldier friend stepped in and controversy ensued over who was responsible for paying this poor taxi driver who was just trying to continue making his rounds.
“You have to go with the driver to Koundara because that is the closest ATM,” the head officer yelled at us.
Back to Koundara. That was another 100 km and was the first town after the border. Essentially, we would have traveled all day to go 20 km AND pay $15 for a taxi we hadn’t asked to be hailed for us. There had to be another way.
“We were told by the last officers that you guys would cover the cost of this taxi. If that wasn’t the case we would have just hitchhiked back here like we told you we have been doing since Morocco.” We were pushing the envelope and we knew it but the thought of backtracking even more was almost too much to take! Between Senegal and now here, we were both prepared to duke it out as much as possible to avoid losing one more kilometer.
This provoked quite the reaction among the police but it was not so much directed at us as it was to other officers. WHO TOLD THESE WHITIES WE WERE PAYING FOR THEIR TAXI!
Soon a phone was handed to Gabe and one of the numerous head honchos we had spoken to throughout the day was on the other end. The message was clear: pay the taxi or get sent back to Senegal.
We suddenly remembered we had one more potential ace-in-the-hole. Through our sleep deprivation, hangovers, exhaustion, and all of the commotion of the day, we had failed to realize we still had some Senegalese currency on us and asked if we could convert that with them….
Problem solved. We converted the 10,000 CFA we had into Guinean francs and were $1 short of what they were asking. Yet, when we went to hand the money we had over to the officer, he placed it back in our hands.
“You keep this,” he said, all of a sudden with a smile on his face.
What the fuck…? It didn’t make any sense. Two seconds ago we were being threatened with deportation back to Senegal over a handful of money and now we were having a laugh? Apparently whoever had said he would pay the taxi had coughed up the money and we were now being told we were free to go…as soon as the commissioner arrived.
I was so confused and so brain dead and was not looking forward to meeting another authority figure. The officer who had told us to keep the money was now interested in our travel methods and life in Canada. They were amused when we showed off the three words we had learned in Pular, one of the many different local languages spoken in Guinea. We even managed to win over the stone-faced officer who had continued to interrupt us earlier when we were attempting to explain ourselves.
We were told that everything was all good but that the commissioner was going to come and give us a ride to Gaoual so we could continue on our way. We insisted we were fine with walking and that it wasn’t necessary to bother him, but they still had our passports firmly in their grasp. We weren’t going to convince them.
Finally, the commissioner showed up along with his driver and a man sitting in the back seat of their pickup holding a live rooster. Everyone was now all smiles and the commissioner greeted us jovially and places our things in the back. All of the officers shook our hands and thanked us (it’s very common for people here to thank you for no apparent reason. I think it is just a sign of respect.)
The commissioner was a well-educated man having studied in Russia for a while. At the dawn of independence, France had given its colonies a choice: they could remain under French dominion but with large amounts of autonomy or vote for complete independence. All of the colonies except one voted to remain. Guinea chose flat-out independence and France severed all ties with them (they even burned leftover medicine in the hospitals instead of leaving it for the Guineans.) The Cold War was heating up at this point and Russia decided Guinea would be a perfect proxy and so the new socialist republic cozied up to the communist powerhouse and a series of exchanges, including in education, ensued…for a time.
The commissioner had enjoyed his time in Russia but was now looking to go elsewhere, maybe even to Canada or the US. In Senegal we noticed that a lot of people were saving up to get to Europe. In Guinea, almost every single person we spoke to (including high ranking senior officials like the commissioner) was looking for a visa elsewhere. The Guinean infrastructure is almost nonexistent and the prospect of the powers that be doing much to improve the situation isn’t looking promising. The people, it seemed, have given up on Guinea; they are looking for a way out.
We arrived in Gaoual and the commissioner insisted we stay in a hotel for the night. We tried over and over to convey that we would prefer to camp and not spend the money on a hotel.
“It’s not a problem,” he said, “I’ll get you a good price.”
He still had our passports in hand and was obviously not giving them back unless we decided to stay at the hotel so we acquiesced and contented ourselves with the forced Treat Ourselves night we would now be having.
The commissioner left and said he just needed to take some of our information down but that he would bring our passports back later. When nighttime came and he still hadn’t returned I knew that he wouldn’t be back until the next morning and that he was going to personally see to our departure.
The assumption was correct and the next morning he arrived to take us to the taxi station. “The road is so bad,” he insisted. “You cannot hitchhike on it because no cars go down it. You have to take a taxi to Boke and from there, the road gets better and you can hitchhike, but from here it is impossible.”
We understood what was going on. The night before I had looked up Labé to see what was going on and why we hadn’t been allowed to go there. One month before, there had been protests in the city. One person had been shot and killed by police. The situation was still super unstable and police hadn’t fully regained control of the protesters they were calling insurgents. This was the reason why we hadn’t been allowed to cross the border near Dindefello. It was why we had been turned around the day before. Now, the instability was the reason the commissioner wasn’t allowing us to hitchhike. Boke was out of his jurisdiction. Once we got there, our fate was off his hands; however, while we were still in his province, his job was on the line if anything happened to us. We would be taking a taxi and he was going to personally see to it that we did.
Unfortunately for us, the taxi was expensive, even with the commissioner getting us local prices. At 8 euro a ticket I was surprised locals could even afford to travel this way. We got to the station at 11 a.m. and the commissioner spoke to the head taxi operator, the man with the phone, about making sure we both got the front seat.
In Africa, a 5-seater sedan is not full unless it is carrying at least 11 people inside. Two people share the front seat, four people go in the back, and four more people go in the makeshift row that gets placed in the trunk. Then, of course, you have the driver. All of the luggage gets placed on the top of the car, where at least one, but usually two, assistants sit for the duration of the journey. The front seat is apparently the coveted space and I could tell we had ruffled a few feathers when the commissioner got us dibs on it.
We knew how shitty public transportation was in Africa. It’s hot, crowded, and takes forever. We were preparing ourselves for a wait but did not expect that wait to last 11 hours. We sat at the bus station all day, becoming increasingly irate at why it was taking this long. We counted the people going to Boke. 7. Okay, not bad, we thought. We had been told we were waiting for a full car before leaving but surely 7 people was an adequate number? After all, it was already 2 pm. If anyone was planning on going to Boke, they would be here by now.
Wrong. 7 people is not a full car. We would have to wait for more passengers.
Around 4 pm Gabe asked the Man With The Phone if more people didn’t show up today, would we wait until tomorrow?
“No, no, no,” he assured us. “We will leave today around 6 pm.”
People were getting restless but nobody was at the level of insanity Gabe and I were getting to. I felt the eyes on us as Gabe repeatedly asked the Man With The Phone questions we knew would not get answered.
“Do you have any idea as to when we might leave?”
“When we have enough people.”
“Right, but if we don’t have enough people by the end of the day, will we have to wait until tomorrow to leave?”
“People always come.”
It was not looking promising and the people at the station were looking at us like the privileged white people we were. Coming from the West with our superiority complex about how life should work. I felt them thinking, “Welcome to Africa. This is how it works here.” But I wanted to shout at people, YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THIS! PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS INEFFICIENT! But to them, this is the way it works. You show up and you wait. How else are you going to get places?
Of course, for us, that question had a very obvious answer: hitchhike. But the commissioner had laid out very explicit instructions to the Man With The Phone and he did not budge when we asked, numerous times, for our money back. I kept thinking of all of the solutions to this problem: have more than one taxi company that competes for passengers; instead of only taking one car per day to each destination, run multiple routes and drop people off along the way. But these thoughts were futile. People were resigned to this method. They had never experienced anything else.
Guineans are not big fans of change and it makes sense. Every time the country attempts to enact change on a large scale, it had severe consequences for the people involved. In 2009, protesters gathered at a stadium in Conakry to protest the military junta that had taken control of the government in the absence of the president at the time. They were demanding change and the military, on orders from the government, open fired live ammunition at protesters trapped inside. 157 people were killed. Change is dangerous for people in Guinea. There is rarely a day when electricity doesn’t cut out (in some places it only runs between the hours of 6 pm and 5 am). The roads are varying degrees of shit. Rent gets raised indiscriminately. Public school is a joke and private school is too expensive for the majority of citizens to send their kids to. And yet, things don’t change because changing things involves literally risking your life.
But I was still pissed about waiting 11 hours for the taxi. At one point, Gabe left to see if he could find us some beers. Something to take the edge off. He found a guy walking the streets with a bottle of Pastis who showed him the way to the local palm wine distributors. In any West African country, palm wine is the best bang-for-your-buck booze there is. Ranging between 20-50 cents a liter, you really can’t get a stronger buzz for cheaper. The guys wanted Gabe to stay longer but he told them he needed to get back in case the taxi was ready to leave. They laughed. “Okay, but if it doesn’t leave today, come back and see us!”
We began to ask people around how long it usually took to get to Boke. It was less than 200 km away and GoogleMaps said it should take around 5 hours, which, of course, means nothing in Africa. We knew the road was bad, but just how bad was it actually?
“It’s so bad,” one guy told us.
It was a shitty road even by Guinean standards. Great.
“So it takes about 5 hours? Maybe a bit more?” we asked the same guy.
“Sometimes 8, sometimes 10, maybe more. It depends.”
We were fucked and we knew it. The palm wine started to go down a lot easier after that discussion.
Finally around 9 p.m. we began loading up to go. After another hour, we were crammed inside the car and heading down the dusty road into the night.
I hate driving at night, even back home. In Africa, I know there are no safety standards, the roads are shit, the drivers are crazy, and the dirt roads make it impossible to see anything.
This is why you travel with Valium.
However, even the Valium didn’t help us on this occasion and both Gabe and I reckoned we might have even made a mistake taking one. Instead we should have just accepted the fact that we weren’t going to sleep and try to stay up all night like it seemed the other, veteran passengers did.
Even just writing this is giving me flashbacks to how terrible the journey was. It was blisteringly hot, especially the next day when we were still driving through the mid-morning sun. There was a thick layer of dust over everything and with every bump, which happened incessantly, a huge plume would waft over everything sending me into a coughing fit.
The road itself was less of a road and more of a dried up river bed complete with boulders and crevasses that would demolish even the sturdiest of tires. Our poor car was buckling under the weight of 13 people and all of their shit. It had been put through the ringer for the past 12 hours in conditions that seemed almost designed to break a vehicle and it obviously wasn’t this car’s first voyage down this road.
Sometime in the morning I caved and wanted to check out a map to see exactly where we were. Our driver seemed to be intentionally taking his time. He would occasionally slow the car down and stare aimlessly out of the window. Pulling into towns, he would stop and talk to people. I began to wonder if he was getting paid by the hour. I reached for our phone to sneak a peak at our progress but when I pulled it our the screen was black and blue and was glitching like crazy.
The poop icing on a shit cake. Our phone was fucked.
We passed the next few hours at our breaking point, trying not to take it out on each other. Four 4 months it had basically been just us. Together. Everyday. The last few days in Senegal we had started to feel like the lack of any kind of separation was getting to us and we talked about how we could address that to make sure each one of us got the space we needed to maintain good mental health. Yet here we were, smushed together in a hot, dusty vehicle, sleep deprived after having wasted an entire day at a bus station waiting for an expensive taxi we didn’t want to take in the first place, watching our taxi get overtaken by lorry trucks and packed buses, now with a broken phone we would have to spend more money getting fixed or replaced.
It was tense.
Finally, around 11 am, we arrived in Boke. 13 hours after we left Gaoual, 24 hours after we had arrived at the bus station.
Never again, we both said.
It had been the longest and least productive 48 hours we had ever had. So much red tape, so much wasted time, so much unnecessary backtracking. We were exhausted. And yet, we still had a broken phone we needed to fix and a Couchsurfing host we needed to contact.
We got to the center of town and managed to find a phone repair shack. The guy inside told us it would cost about $50 to fix the phone but right as we were discussing the price the boss walked up.
“It will cost $100 to fix the phone. This guy doesn’t know the price, I’m the boss.” He introduced himself as Ballack.
$100 was well out of our budget and we figured we could find a new phone for way cheaper than that. Besides, we just needed an internet machine, nothing fancy. However, after scanning the area, the cheapest internet machine we found was still going to set us back $75 and we figured we could probably haggle with the repair boss and get the price of repairing our screen down to that. We went back to negotiate.
“Samsung screens are expensive to fix,” Ballack told us. “I can try to get a used screen for $75 from Conakry but they are out of stock right now.” He had a solution, though. “Why don’t you take this phone,” he suggested, handing us a brand new Samsung A-20, “to borrow while you’re in Boke? That way you don’t have to be without a phone while you’re here.”
We were shocked. What’s the catch? There had to be some sort of strings attached to this arrangement. But Ballack insisted he didn’t need it right then and he’d be happy to lend it to us.
Finally, a bit of luck, we thought. We discussed the cost of repairing the phone and our other options and came up with a proposition for Ballack: we would offer to give him our old phone for free and see if he would sell us the A-20 for $50. The next day we went to him with our offer.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Just keep the phone.”
“I don’t need it, I have another phone here and I have a computer at home. Just keep it, it is no problem.”
We insisted we give him something for the phone. We couldn’t possibly just keep it for free. The online retail cost for even a used one was over $100. Ballack laughed.
“Okay, just give me whatever you want for it.”
“What do you mean, ‘whatever we want’? Like $1 or $100?”
“Whatever you want.”
We asked him if 50$ would suffice. “If you want”, he said. “Even just 1 cent is fine.” Stunned, we left to pull out money from the ATM, $50 of which we would bring back to Ballack for the phone.
However, when we arrived back at his shop and tried to put the money in his hand, he refused to take it.
“I want to do something nice for you guys. I don’t need the phone but you do, just keep it.”
We tried to insist for a bit longer but we were beginning to attract a crowd and so eventually we gave up and accepted the generous gift.
We were floored.
Here is this Guinean guy who sells phones for a living and has the opportunity to make $100 off some Western tourists and instead just gives them a free piece of technology rendering his paid services unnecessary. He can’t make that much money, probably has a family to support and yet takes pity on our situation enough to do us this huge favor that directly takes money out of his pocket. We were basically strangers. What an absolute legend!
During our stay in Boke, we brought Ballack and his wife out with us and treated them to sodas and juice (they didn’t drink booze) while we watched football together. Before we left Gabe went to the market and bought him a gift, a Juventus football jersey he couldn’t refuse. The jersey had no name or number on it so Ballack said that he would put “Gabriel” on the back. His kindness was staggering.
Ballack still calls Gabe, weeks later, and Gabe always answers even though they have the same conversation: how are you, how’s the family, where are you? He was one of the nicest people we have ever met and we have realized that this, not the shit roads or the inefficient services or the 13 hour taxi rides, is really what is characteristic about Guinea.