Monday, July 16, 2012

The Perils and Pearls of Guinea

Murphy’s Law definitely applies to my recent trip to Guinea.  It seemed as though everything that could go wrong went wrong.  It’s a beautiful country, but my friend Kayla and I had a string of bad luck.

We set off on our Guinean adventure in the front of a 4x4 truck, packed to the brim with passengers.  Not long after crossing the barge out of Kedougou, we got our first of many flat tires.  While the tire was being changed, we hiked up to the top of a steep mountain, where the rest of our car group waited at the top.  The truck made it up the mountain, and we continued on our way.  Just as dark clouds loomed overhead, another tire went flat.  All of the passengers fled the car and started running down the road to beat the rain.  Kayla and I were extremely confused about where they were running to but decided we might as well follow the crowd.  Unfortunately we weren’t fast enough, because we got caught in a massive rainstorm as we ran down the dirt road.  We took cover under a tree, trying desperately to protect our bags with our cameras in them.  Drenched in rain, we eventually realized that the other passengers were headed to another village, so we set out to find the village and wait there for the car to be fixed.  After a couple hours of sitting in the village, the truck was ready to make it to the border crossing as we finally entered Guinea. 

By this point, it was 2pm, and we had hoped to make it to the town of Labe by that evening.  If only we knew the journey that was to come.  As we entered Guinea, the roads turned into the worst I’ve ever seen.  With our fearless driver Harouna behind the wheel, we traversed rocky, mountainous terrain into the night.  The truck occasionally stopped when we got to the base of a large mountain or a huge stream, and everyone got out and forged ahead on foot.  By midnight, we were hiking up a mountain in the rain, wondering how much further we had to go.  Whenever we’d ask someone how far we had until Labe, they would always respond with “very far”.  By 2am, we finally stopped in a village, and Kayla and I sprawled out in the truck to sleep for a few hours, while the others found places in the back of the truck or on a mat on the ground.  Day 2 of the journey was not much better.  In total, we got 8 flat tires.  It became almost comical as we continued to hear tires popping on the road.  Since we only carried 2 spares on the truck, we frequently had to sit on the side of the road, waiting for another truck to help us out.  

By around 1am that night, we finally made it to Labe and were invited to sleep at Harouna’s house.  48 hours without showering did not leave us smelling good, so thankfully Harouna’s wife gave us a bucket of water in the morning.

Our time in Labe was uneventful, but the following day, we traveled to the small village of Doucki.  The highlight of the trip was hiking through the mountains in Doucki with our hilarious guide, Hassan.  He took us to some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.  I sat on a rock, overlooking and surrounded by a sea of flourishing, green trees.  

A vibrant river passed through the mountains, giving my feet a refreshing break from the heat.   On another hike, we entered “Indiana Jones World”, as Hassan refers to it.  We climbed up vines and stood between boulders in what felt like another world.  Hassan is quite the comedian and had us laughing the entire time whether he was doing impressions, juggling rocks, or just being his goofy self.  

He put us up in one of the huts on his compound and took good care of us.  If you ever visit Guinea, I highly recommend hiking with Hassan!  With all the failures we had on our trip, this was a shining success. 

From Doucki, things seemed to go downhill.  We had contacted the Peace Corps Guinea Country Director to stay at the Peace Corps Regional House in Conakry.  She told us to give her a call once we got into Conakry, since the house was difficult to find.  We left Doucki at 8am, hoping to get to Conakry by late afternoon.  Wrong again.  We squished into a 9-place, which is a station wagon that has seats for 7, but they squeeze in 9.  I was squashed up against the door as I slowly lost feeling in my leg on the ride to Pita.  From Pita, we got into another 9-place to traverse the mountains and head to Conakry.  Kayla and I quickly realized that the driver did not know how to operate a car.  We held our breath as he continually slammed on the brakes and hit the accelerator as the car made hairpin turns down the steep mountain.  We had to stop for 2 hours to fix the brakes, and then we continued into the night.  As darkness and a rainstorm set in, Kayla and I were terrified for our lives as our inexperienced driver flew down the mountain.  We made it into Conakry at 1am, and felt extremely embarrassed about having to call and wake up the Guinean Country Director.  Luckily, the director is an incredibly nice woman, and she and her husband met us at the entrance to the house in the wee hours of the morning.  We felt horrible about waking them up but so thankful to sleep in a real bed. 

In Conakry, our dream was to take out money from an ATM, eat good food, and go to the beach on one of the islands.  Being in the country’s capital, we assumed taking out money would not be difficult.  Turns out that ATM’s will either not accept Visa cards or will only let you take out the equivalent of $30 a day, which was not going to get us very far.  With attempts at multiple banks, we finally accepted that we were going to have to be on a tight budget for the rest of the trip, because we couldn’t get enough money out.  That threw our food plans out the door.  We explored the market and saved enough to eat at a nice, Vietnamese/Thai restaurant for dinner.  After eating a delicious curry, my stomach started feeling a little off.  Around 3am, it was clear that I had food poisoning and spent the rest of the night on the floor of the bathroom.  The following day, Kayla was sick with a horrible sore throat and headache, and the rain nixed our plan of going to the beach.  We decided we might as well buy our tickets to head back to Senegal since we were almost out of money. 

The following morning, we left Conakry in a 9-place.  Among the 9 passengers in the crammed station wagon, 4 of them were obese women that we affectionately refer to as “Cheb Mamas”.  Counting the driver and his apprentice, we had 11 people squeezed like sardines into the car for our 2-day journey back to Senegal.  The apprentice lay in the trunk, and Kayla and I were so squished, we could barely breathe.  These Cheb Mamas clearly should have bought more than 1 seat for themselves, but we were still able to close the doors of the car with everyone inside.  Of course, the Cheb Mamas had to frequently chow down, and the one sitting to my left brought several fish in her bag as a snack. These fish started smelling very questionable after being in a hot car all day.  She would whip out her jar of mayonnaise and grab handfuls to spread all over her fish.  As she continually spit out bones into her bag, I got sprayed.  The roads were once again less than ideal, so carsickness became an issue, and one of the Cheb Mamas puked out the window as we drove, since the driver wouldn’t stop.  The driver also wouldn’t stop harassing Kayla and I and asking where our husbands were.  During a rainstorm, something wet was dripping onto my head, which I assumed was rain.  When we got out of the car a few hours later to eat, I realized that the gasoline canister that had been carelessly tossed onto the roof had leaked into the car and onto my head.  I not only had gasoline in my hair, but I had been touching my hair and then wiping sweat off of my face, giving my face a nice oily sheen.  I was pissed at this point since I smelled like a gas station.  I asked if the driver could take my bag down from the top of the car so I could get my shampoo out and try to wash some of the gasoline out of my hair.  The bags were supposedly wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain, but when I got my bag off the roof, everything inside was sopping wet, and my clothes smelled like mold.  Unable to get the gas smell out of my hair, I gave up and just got back into the car, hoping this car ride would be over as soon as possible.  Driving into the night along rocky, pot holed roads, smelling like gasoline and being subjected to blaring Guinean music, I could not wait to get back to Senegal.  I felt like I was being tortured as we suffocated in this car for 24 hours.  It was a test of how “zen” Kayla and I could stay when all we wanted to do was scream.  Around 1am, we slept at the border and crossed into Senegal once it got light again.  That was by far the worst car ride I’ve ever had in my life, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Kedougou. 

My souvenirs from this trip are a bag of moldy clothes and hair that still smells like gasoline.  I tried putting baby powder, baking soda, and an olive oil and honey mixture into it with no success.  Hopefully the smell fades soon, because I’m repelling my friends.

Transport was the bane of this trip, but as we sat through every breakdown, beautiful mountains and lush forests surrounded us.  It was a trade off, but I enjoyed exploring another country.  That being said, I’m content to stay put in Kedougou and not squeeze into another car for a long time!


  1. Wow--this has truly got to be the ultimate road trip from hell! I thoroughly enjoyed every colorful and harrowing detail and was alternately cringing and laughing as I read this. Sure am impressed you and Kayla managed to forge on and stay upbeat--and I'm relieved you both made it back safely :)
    Thanks for another first rate blog!
    xoxox Mom

    P.S. Have you tried rinsing your hair with tomato juice?

  2. This is like one of those "I thought it could not get worse, then it did..." type of stories. The pictures are great. I think you take the cake in any cocktail party chats about road trips!

  3. Hi Marielle---Hard to know whether to laugh or cry, but I am extremely happy you got back in one kerosene soaked piece. I was introduced to a guy last year in Liberia who worked for two years in Conakry for an NGO; he laughingly described it as 'the A#%&ole of West Africa'. Sounds like you might agree with him. Anja and I just got back from a 420 mile bike trip along the Danube, crossing from Germany into Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. We had zero problems and zero flats....we never even pumped up the tires. Thanks for giving me some perspective! xox/Kevin

  4. Kevin, wow, a 420 mile bike trip?!? That sounds incredible! Do you have pictures posted anywhere? Glad to hear you didn't have any problems or flats! Unfortunately, biking here involves LOTS of flats. I hear that you're headed to Nepal soon! I'd love to hear about the trip. You doing a blog or email list?

    1. Hi Marielle-There are pics up on both the bike ride and Nepal on Facebook. Sadly, I bailed on the Nepal trip after 8 days....I just felt the organization I/we were volunteering to help didn't care enough about our well being. Phil and the rest of the group 'carried on', so maybe I'm a wimp, but really I was very upset. On the other hand, reading your blogs (mice, scorpions, barfing, sweating, latrines....well, you're in another world, dear girl). As my German friends say.....voll Respekt! Keep it all up; it's a wonderful adventure you'll have to remember all your life. XO/Kevin