Thursday, April 20, 2006

Guinea gets its own

I did all the calculations in my mind, and decided that I had left Guinean transport in the dust. I had cleverly managed to avoid most of its nastiness -- after a week spent in-country, all I had had to suffer through was a Peace Corps ride and two hitched lifts in 4x4s. The only thing that remained was the trip from Kankan to Bamako on a road which, as the only sign of progress in the past three years, had been paved. It was an easy ride, they told me. Shouldn't take more than 6 or 7 hours. So 11:00am found me sitting in the Kankan taxi park, book in hand, confident that I would be eating dinner in Bamako. All that remained was for the taxi to fill up.

There are clearly many, many things I've forgotten about Guinea. The taxi, of course, did not fill up. I waited at that station for 9 hours, during which time they moved us to a minibus, loaded and unloaded and reloaded luggage on the roof, waited around for the driver to show up, waited some more while he disappeared again, and generally wasted time until 8:00pm. By that time I was spitting nails, furious at the thought of having to get into Bamako in the middle of the night. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. After taking our time filling the gas tank and stopping for a leisurely coffee break in Siguri, We rolled up to the Mali border at 12:30 -- half an hour after it had closed.

Along the way we stopped in a small village to investigate a fatal traffic accident. Leafy branches had been piled on the road to block off the scene, and crowds of people were milling around in the moonlight. They were gathered in front of the little white Peugeot that had struck down a villager, and in the center of the group old men with white beards were speaking softly and gesturing toward something on the ground. I tried to get closer, but as I craned my neck to see I felt a hand on my elbow pulling me back. It was a man from my minibus. "Let's go," he whispered. "You don't want to see that."

The border post was manned by 3 or 4 tired customs officials in navy blue uniforms. They sat languidly on the steps of the office or lounged on bamboo beds in the courtyard. This was the night shift, and after midnight there was nothing to do but listen to the radio and turn people away. Our minibus parked outside the office and my fellow passengers scattered into the night. I didn't feel like going anywhere at all, so I parked myself on a step, chatted to the bored officers and talked them into letting me crash on one of the bamboo beds. By 1:30 we were all sleeping fitfully under the stars: me, several men and women in uniform, and a guard who had left a car radio blasting to keep him awake. He looked particularly peaceful snoring on a bench next to me when I woke up to the morning prayer call.

What with customs drama, roadblocks and random shopping stops (someone wanted mangoes, someone else needed onions), we didn't get into Bamako until 11:00am the next day -- a full 24 hours after I had arrived at the Kankan taxi park.


Julian said...

Ha, i know the Kankan waiting game well! Like yourself I needed to get to Bamako from Guinea as my girlfriend was flying in that eve. I remember leaving Kerouane at 6am to get to Kankan in good time. This way I would easily get a space in a full taxi and be in Bamako in plenty of time. I think I made it to Kankan around 9am, just in time to see the last full taxi depart. After a lot of shouting and swapping of my luggage from one roof rack to another, i eventually settled on a taxi which would take me there "soon". Hours later having walked around Kankan's mosque, shopped in the markets and drank a luxurious coke, I returned to find one other passenger wanting to leave for bamako. it was now 13:00!! With little other choice we decided to pay for the whole taxi ourselves. My travelling companion was from Liberia and of dubious proffession. He had a brief case full of god-know-what which he would dip into everytime he needed some dollars! We then proceeded to get fleeced for every cent we had in every type of currency, as the taxi Don knew we needed to leave that day. Ouch.
Thanks to my travel partner, we got stopped at every border control where he systematically bribed every official. I clearly remember the final checkpoint where the official demanded he looked into the Liberian's briefcase. "christ" i thought, am finally going to get to see what's in the 'pulp fiction'-esk briefcase. I winced as the lid popped open, half expecting to see a case full of guns, drugs or diamonds (or marsellus' sole). To my up most suprise and relief, it was full of clothes. God knows where he hid the wad of dollars he pulled out.
We arrived in Bamako around 7pm, leaving me and hour to spare to get to the airport. To be fair to my Liberian friend, he did sort me out with a taxi into town and i did make it to Bamako a lot cheaper and faster than i would have otherwise. he wasn't soo bad after all, though to this day I have reservations and doubts about his "student" occupation.
I guess the moral of both our stories is to fly to Mali from Guinea or else go by anyother means which do not involve Kankan!!

Hilary Heuler said...

Yeah, though the beauty of it is that it's really got nothing to do with Kankan (or the Malinke, despite what some people might tell you) -- this IS the typical Guinea bush taxi experience. Everywhere. Sometimes even leaving Conakry. I'm actually amazed you made it to the airport in time, though you did miss the lovely nocturnal scene at the border ;) Oh well, next time . . .