Sometimes when I’m in a situation in Guinea that is extremely frustrating, stressful, physically painful, dangerous or outright ridiculous, I often console myself by thinking of how it will make a great story later. I’ve amassed so many of these moments that I often joke with my mom that I could write a whole book one day. Maybe I will.
The following will be an excerpt from my future book
I had spent a wonderful week visiting neighboring Senegal (for reasons which constitute an entirely new blog). I had planned to travel by car, but due to visa difficulties for Americans at the land border, I had to fly. The new “biometric visa” (read: fingerprints) is apparently too sophisticated for the land border folk, so I had to acquire the visa in the Dakar airport. To travel back to Guinea, though, I could go by road. I was excited to see the different landscape of Senegal – arid, sandy desert. I’d even heard tell of camels. I was lucky enough to be traveling back to Guinea with another PCV, so I felt it was going to be a great adventure.
Great adventure it was.
Arrival at the bustling taxi station in Dakar, tons of men were trying to grab our bags and get us to get into their cars, never mind if they were going to the right destination or not. We successfully fought them off until we got into the heart of the station and found the Conakry cars. We had bought our tickets in advance, so there were no worries about not getting a seat (in what I thought was going to be a car). Finding the man who sold my ticket, he promptly informs me that my friend and I won’t be traveling together because she bought her ticket from some other guy. It seemed like a simple exchange of tickets could arrange the situation, but he would have none of it. He grabbed me by the arm and showed me my seat…which was on a giant bus…which was being loaded with about 8000 pounds of luggage on top.
My friend was actually on the same bus, but her seat was about ten rows behind me, so not likely that we would be able to chat. The bus might at one point have been nice, but now it was dilapidated and falling apart, and the last-minute welding of things under the hood didn’t seem like a good sign. There used to be an aisle on the bus, but now there were fold-out seats which had been attached to every row, making it virtually impossible for anyone in the middle to get in our out without climbing over people. I mostly milled around the bus waiting for it to fill up…for two hours. All the while, though, I was still excited for this adventure.
The only picture I bothered to take
It dawned on me, as I reflected on this trip, that I actually had no idea where this bus was taking us, how long it would take to get wherever we were going, and if the bus stopped for bathroom breaks. It was a curious thought. I decided not to drink any more water as a precaution.
At about 8:30pm it seemed that we might be on our way. Many of us had been sitting on the bus for quite some time and there were no open windows. Stuffy and hot would be an understatement. I was thankful that at least I was sitting in the front row and the front door to the bus was open (and would remain wide open the entire trip). There were at least 60 people on the bus and more seemed to be filling up every last square inch of space. A fight broke out in the middle of the bus over who reserved which seat and it started to get pretty heated. A guy in the back complained to the driver, “For the love of God, it’s hot in here, buy us some water.” People’s luggage was being handed-off in every direction, looking for spaces in overhead compartments, under seats, on laps…The top half of an oscillating fan was handed our way. It seemed that this ride was going to be a bit rough, but as I always do, I tried to look at things on the bright side, “at least I’m at the front of the bus and there aren’t any fights up here.”
When I turned back to look at the front of the bus I noticed that the space was quickly filling with hawkers selling their wares. As they turned one way and another I had to duck as their backpacks, shoulder bags, hand bags and trash bags overflowing with merchandise would swing towards my head. They squished infinitely closer and closer to my face as they shouted and reached towards the back of the bus trying to sell flashlights, condensed milk, key chains, sugar, watches, phone chargers, cookies, flip-flops, bananas, hats and other assorted products. Why on Earth would anyone urgently need condensed milk for this bus trip…I have no idea. And what could you possibly do with a phone charger unless it could harness the power of our collective B.O.?
By far the worst hawker was the perfume salesman who, in an attempt to allure prospective buyers, sprayed a sample on any exposed part of skin he saw, namely, in the front row. The front row quickly became the front lines of defense against the attacking merchandise. I expertly dodged the perfume spray, crouching over my arms to cover them. Just when I thought I was clear, another perfume salesman was aiming at a different angle and I dodged again; perfume was coming at all angles. At this moment I thought of my mom, who utterly despises perfume and essentially anything scented. In order to keep thinking positively, I thought, “At least I’m not my mom.” Though I was successful in escaping the perfume bombardment, I later found out that my backpack had gotten caught in the crossfire, as it smelled of pungent flowery chemicals for a week.
As I’m dodging perfume spritzes, oscillating fans, merchandise, elbows, babies, and backpacks from all angles, the girl sitting next to me gets into a heated discussion with one of the salespeople. It quickly escalates and, dumping her bag in my lap, she attempts to climb over the railing in front of our seats to fight him. The whole thing took place in Wolof, so I had no idea what was going on, I just tried not to get punched.
It was nearing 9:30pm and, mind you, the bus still hadn’t moved. My legs were already tired from sitting in the cramped seat. I was sweaty and thirsty, but dared not drink. I finally gave up and admitted to myself the realities of my situation, “this is going to be the worst trip ever.”
But, the bus did eventually move, and bit by bit, the hawkers jumped off the moving bus. I felt a sweet relief as the wind blew in from the wide open door – I just had to be careful my bag didn’t roll out. We weren’t yet completely outside of the city, so we hit a few traffic jams, which, with our wide open door, invited in more hawkers. Thankfully no more perfume salesmen. People were constantly jumping on and off our moving bus; I’m pretty sure that some weren’t actually selling anything but were just hitchhiking.
I quickly made an alliance with the two women sitting on either side of me, including the one who almost got in a fight. We agreed to look after each other’s bags, to let each other sleep on each other’s shoulders, and to share our possessions: bananas, bread, fish and toothpaste. Between one of the women and me was the seat reserved for the bus apprentice – a teenage kid who would jump out of the bus to help maneuver in traffic, negotiate at police checkpoints, and locate missing passengers. Since he was out of his seat a lot, it made for the only empty seat on the bus – the most prized possession any Senegalese bus passenger can dream of. The women next to the seat, the man behind the seat and I all claimed a small portion to stretch our legs out, even if only a few extra inches.
We did end up making a few bathroom stops, during which I would literally run out of the bus, find the nearest hole in the ground, or sometimes bush, and pee as quickly as I could, fearing that the bus would leave me behind. And in fact, people did get left behind at almost every stop. Usually the driver would rev the engine letting people know that they needed to be on the bus, then he would start moving slowly so people would have to jump on. As we would get going, someone in the back would inevitable say, “Um…there’s an empty seat next to me…” at which point the driver would stop and the apprentice would jump out and run back to find the missing person.
Unfortunately, because it was pitch black outside, I actually didn’t get to see any of the Senegalese countryside (reminder: the whole point of driving instead of flying). The bus continued through the night and morning. At about 7am, we stopped for a bathroom break, where I attempted to do the only thing that could make me feel less like an animal: brush my teeth. This was actually the highlight of my trip. We continued on, until about 11am when the bus arrived at a taxi station a few kilometers north of the Guinean border. The 8000 pounds of luggage on top of the bus were unloaded and subsequently repacked on the tops of about seven different Peugeot taxis for the next leg of the trip. In the meantime, I was able to catch up with my friend, eat a picnic lunch with my alliance ladies, and try to reduce the swelling in my feet.
By noon, our taxi was ready to go. I got a spot in the back with two other people and my feet on the wheel hump. The roof was too low, so I had to tilt my head sideways for the remainder of the trip. We went about 100ft when the driver informed us that, actually, his car was broken, so we were stopping at a mechanic. He assured us that it was good, that it means the car will be in good enough shape to handle the roads in Guinea – which are not at all like the roads in Senegal. So, we waited for 45 minutes for the repairs and then continued on our way. Once again, we drove another 100ft and the driver decides that actually, he can’t take us. He reassured us that he’s called his friend to come pick us up and take us the rest of the way. We clamber back out of the car and wait on the side of the road, not actually believing that anyone is coming for us. Meanwhile, the rest of the taxis filled with bus passengers zoom by us, pitying us and secretly thanking God that they didn’t get stuck in our taxi. The hour spent on the side of the road however did offer us some quality bonding time during which we each took turns complaining about how terrible our chauffeur was.
Eventually the other driver did come and once again we repacked the rooftop luggage and re-settled into our places. Over the next 30 minutes we got in and out of the car at four different border crossings, all of which caused a huge delay because of my American passport and the need apparently to hand write all of the information from my passport and visa (including my place of birth) in their notebooks. One border crossing guy took five minutes just to find his glasses so that he could read my passport, and another five minutes to locate the notebook in which he was supposed to write.
We continued into Guinea, the landscape transforming beautifully into lush forests and hills. It felt great to be back in Guinea…until my head started banging against the window once the paved road ended. For the next 12 hours, we rode on the muddiest, dustiest, bumpiest road in the world, I’m sure of it. The road was practically corrugated. There are no other words to describe how bad this road is, only the proof given by the bruises on my head and legs which were continually jostled and banged against the bare metal interior of the car.
Either by forced will or perhaps by concussion, I have already forgotten most of this leg of the trip. What I do know is that I did eventually make it to my site in Guinea, at about 3am with an orange dirt layer on my skin that could pass for a bad spray tan. Thirty six hours non-stop. I smelled so bad that I almost wished the perfume salesman had gotten me.