Hitchhiking Guinea: Part Two
Boke to Conakry
We wanted to leave Boke early, as we usually do on big hitchhiking days. However, we still had people to say goodbye to: Ballack, our new best friend who had saved us $100 in phone repairs, and Abdoulaye, our Couchsurfing host who had been so kind to us. We also needed to re-up on our toilet paper supply, which meant going to the one store in town that sold it. Our errands took longer than we expected but we still managed to leave before the day got too hot.
Our first ride was in a truck from a few guys who were extra curious about our adventure. They were stunned we had managed to make it all this way from Morocco and wanted to take pictures and exchange numbers with us.
We got dropped off in a relatively large town and walked to the outskirts and sought shade under the only tree for ages, which was out front of a family’s house. We smiled and waved and the kids came and greeted us timidly and hung back watching us attempt to flag down rides.
It was slow going. Many cars stopped but all wanted compensation. At one point a man offered to take us for 10,000 GMF (about $1) each and I was mildly annoyed when Gabe refused. We had been standing in the spot for maybe an hour and I was already feeling guilty about not paying for rides in such a poor country. But Gabe made a good point that nobody has to stop for us and they are going to their destinations anyways, with or without us as passengers.
Eventually we scored a ride from two guys in a lorry truck. They were headed to the mines and offered to take us with them to their turnoff.
Working for the mines seems to be one of the only jobs in Guinea that pays any money. We had met a miner, Peter, in Boke who said he made 1,000,000 GNF/month (about $100) working for the bauxite mine. Guinea holds potentially up to one half of all bauxite reserves in the world. Bauxite is the raw material used to make aluminium and foreign companies have been exploiting the country for decades to control a piece of the bauxite pie.
Peter worked for a Chinese company, SMB-Winning, and he was very vocal about his dissatisfaction with the working conditions. The Chinese write up contracts with the Guinean government and give them a lump sum of cash for the rights to the mine. The government takes that money and distributes it as they see fit, including dishing out salaries for the miners. Out of the billions of dollars that gets given to the government by foreign companies, the miners still make measly wages and work grueling hours under garbage conditions.
The two guys giving us a ride didn’t seem as irritated as Peter about their lot in life. They drove the truck, which was much nicer than any truck we had ridden in in Senegal. They stopped for some palm wine and again later to buy water and energy drinks and, without our knowledge, a baguette and two cans of sardines for Gabe and me. We tried to refuse the gift but the driver insisted he had bought it for us so in order not to be rude, we gratefully accepted.
They dropped us off and we took pictures in front of the truck with another guy who was at the turnoff, presumably another miner. The three men attempted to flag down some rides for us. They didn’t have any luck and we assured them we would be okay. We didn’t want to run the risk of them flagging down (and paying for) a taxi thereby forcing us into another potentially 13 hour ride!
The next few rides came quickly and we were making great time. We got picked up by a relatively full taxi (even by African standards) but they agreed to take us with them for free. One guy hopped on the roof to make room for us in the car. Standard African procedure.
We got dropped off in Boffa, a small town on the coast about 100 km away from our destination of Dubreka. After waiting a few minutes some kids driving a tuktuk approached us offering to give us a ride for 12,000 GNF. Getting into the game early.
Soon after, another lorry truck on its way to Conakry came by and agreed to take us with them. We got a few kilometers down the road before we got stuck in a massive traffic jam.
“Is this normal?” we asked the driver.
“There is a bottleneck up ahead so they alternate opening roads for people to pass through.” We had hit it at the wrong time.
Around 45 minutes later, the line began to move and a mad dash ensued with every car racing to overtake the others to ensure they got through the bottleneck before they closed the road again. Even our lorry driver was attempting to overtake vehicles!
We passed through the bottleneck, which ended up being a series of dilapidated bridges spanning stunning rivers. Guinea is so broken and yet, so beautiful.
We cruised through the picturesque countryside for a few more hours and arrived in Dubreka at nightfall. Our ride dropped us off in the center of town and we decided to walk to a hotel we had read about to see if we could throw up the hammock.
Dubreka is well-known in Guinea for it’s breathtaking waterfalls and the 1000-meter mountain called Le Chien Qui Fume (The Dog Who Smokes). We had wanted to come here to spend a few days hanging out in the lush nature before being thrown in the chaos we had heard was Conakry.
It was already too late at night to try and find a place to bush camp. We were too far in the city and too unfamiliar with the terrain to feel comfortable picking a spot where we wouldn’t get fucked with. So we decided to walk to the hotel, which bore the same name as the mountain, and hoped to get a beer at the restaurant advertised on the billboard we spotted.
However, when we arrived at the hotel a little past 8 pm, the whole place was dark and empty save for one security guard. We asked if it was possible to just throw up our hammock for the night.
200,000 GNF, they told us. About $20. There was no way we were going to pay that for two trees so we told them we were willing to pay a tenth of the price but they wouldn’t go for it. We had to find somewhere else.
I was shocked that a place obviously lacking in business would turn down 20,000 GNF when they literally would have to do nothing to earn the money. Regardless, we still needed to find a place to stay and it was getting late.
We walked around asking people if they knew a place we could camp for the night and finally we met Mr. Ba, a kind school teacher/security guard who offered us a place to put our things.
“My house is only a house and a terrace so there is no place for your hammock but your stuff will be safe and you can get it tomorrow when you leave,” he told us. We went with him to meet his family and drop our things but within a few minutes of conversation in his living room he offered to let us sleep on the floor for the night. His two wives moved the furniture out of the way to make space for us and we thanked them both.
Even though polygamy is illegal in Guinea, it is still widely practiced. The majority of the population is Muslim and there are obviously very few people checking to make sure people are abiding by the law. We had stayed with two Guineans so far and both had multiple wives.
We had told Mr. Ba that we had wanted to hike the mountain and check out some waterfalls while we were in Dubreka so he called up a few local guys who agreed to take us the next day for 100,000 GNF ($10). It was a full day’s budget for us but we were still in the spirit of paying it forward from the favor Ballack had done us back in Boke.
The next morning we woke up early and got started on what we were told was a 3 hour hike up the mountain. We were with an entourage of insanely fit, young Guinean guys who had done the hike multiple times before.
“People only go up it two times a year,” we were told. “New Years and Bob Marley’s birthday.”
We were warned the hike was difficult but we both were confident in our abilities having been hitchhiking with all of our shit for four months. They weren’t joking about the difficulty of the hike, though, and by the time we were at the top, I was exhausted. I wasn’t struggling as much as I thought I would be and it was the first time I’ve done a super difficult hike and not at some point doubted my ability to make it to the top.
We sat in the shade, ate sardine sandwiches and took the opportunity to ask the guys how they felt about the upcoming referendum. Not one person was down with it. They kept talking about how Alpha Condé had not kept a single promise he had made. They said he had been complicit in the 2009 massacre and was in the pockets of the mining corporations.
Eventually talk of politics got old and the guys left the shade to get one last look at the view before we headed down. We had heard that from the top of the mountain you could get a great view of the entire bay and even see Conakry and the islands. However, today, the pollution from the mines was too thick and we could barely see passed Dubreka.
The way down the mountain proved to be much more difficult than the way up and during the last leg I found myself crouched on my hands and butt basically sliding down the steep, rock laden path. My legs had lost their ability to do their job and I had reached the point of the hike where I tell myself this is it, this is my home now.
Somehow, I managed to keep going and we made it to the bottom in one piece. The guys wanted to show us the waterfall and cool off as well so we made our way there and stopped off to grab a bottle of palm wine along the way.
The waterfall was glorious, even in its diminished pre-rainy season state. The mountain was visible in the background and I was in awe of the fact that no more than a few hours ago we had been standing at the top of it.
We bid our friends farewell and went to a bar we had seen on our way to the waterfall. Palm wine was great but nothing hits the spot after a killer workout like a cold beer.
The bar was obviously a local go-to spot and all walks of life were present: old men, young women, police officers, and one particularly notable man who introduced himself as Crazy-Crazy.
Crazy-Crazy had been living in California for 19 years and this was his first trip back to Guinea. He was a musician and was keen on partying and it seemed like every time we turned around a new round of beers had been bought for us. He was already half-lit by this point and kept showering us with praise.
“I love you people!” he would exclaim. “I live in you people’s country for 19 years, man! Now you people are in my country, it’s so cute, man! I love you people. You are my people! Nobody will mess with you while you are in my country!”
He wasn’t kidding. At one point we looked over at him firing up a joint while sitting with a group of cops. He brought it over to us while introducing us to a police officer he had grown up with.
“Nobody will mess with you people! If someone even breathes on you I will fucking kill them! I show you, man!” We insisted we appreciated the assistance but that a demonstration was not necessary. He gave us his card and made sure we took down his number in case we needed anything.
Crazy-Crazy was the epitome of the Guinean living abroad returning home. I wondered what his life was like in California and whether or not he was happy or successful. I imagined that a man with his kind of energy would crush it is California, especially as a percussion teacher, which he was. He was living the dream of all Guineans and he was back, not to show off his wealth but to share the experience with his old friends. Living in the States had given Crazy-Crazy a chance to improve his financial standing but I had a feeling he was still the same person 19 years ago when he left.
The next morning we braced ourselves for the madness that would be getting into Conakry. We got an early start, expecting to be waiting a while for a ride; however, the first lorry truck we flagged down stopped for us and took us the rest of the way to the city. We had read before that lorries will rarely stop for you and yet we had already scored quite a few rides in them. The truck drivers have the same schedule in Guinea as they do in Senegal, which is rough: 7 days a week, 11 months a year. They drive the same routes everyday, back and forth. I imagine this is why they don’t mind picking up hitchhikers, though. Anything to break the monotony.
Conakry is only about 35 km in length but it is congested and chaotic. We knew navigating around the city was going to be rough but we had another week or so in the city so we were just going to have to get used to it.