Day 202: The Wheels On The Bus Go FWAP FWAP FWAP
As the dawn was breaking ahead of us (myself and two guys from my shared taxi) we crossed over the bridge (there’s ALWAYS a bridge!) into Mali. It was a Kodak moment, I wish there had been a camera op there, Matt would have loved it. From there, we walked to the place from whence we get the bus to Bamako, the capital. The bus was sitting there waiting for us, ready to leave. Although good old WAWA was on hand to ensure things didn’t run that smoothly.
The bus waited for HOURS before it was quite ready to leave, thank you very much. Isaac, one of the guys who had shared the taxi with me from Tambacounda, translated that many of the people already waiting, had been there since yesterday. This did not bode well for our chances of getting out of here at a reasonable time.
And sure enough, when the bus did get going, it had a blow-out just a few kilometres down the road. But did that stop the bus driver? Don’t be silly – this is Africa – you just keep going and hope for the best! Unfortunately for Isaac and I, we were sitting over the wheel arch as the shredded tyre went FWAP FWAP FWAP FWAP FWAP around like an incredibly irate washing machine with a hangover. The banging was actually not too bad at the front of the bus, but where we were sitting, it was unbearable – even louder than some bone-headed scally playing the latest homoerotic dance love anthem on his mobile phone speaker on the number 61.
It also kicked up all the dust from the road, which entered the chassis through the many rusty holes it had to choose from.
Eventually (and after much ‘I say’-ing from your favourite complaining Brit here) they pulled over and tried to ‘fix’ the tyre. This involved cutting the length of tyre that was making the FWAP off the wheel. At first they tried this with a blunt axe.
Now you have to understand – these are BIG tyres – not quite the ones you have on your pushbike, they are a metal mesh covered in double-hard-bouncer rubber. You need a pneumatic drill to make a dent. A rusty old axe ain’t going to cut the mustard. But this is Africa and you just have to smile and nod and leave them to it. Eventually somebody got hold of a machete but it was just as blunt and just as useless.
Soon they struck on the idea (mine) of making a hole in the rubber, feeding through a length of rope and then driving forward, twisting the rope (and the unruly rubber) around the wheel. This was good for the next few kilometres, but then the rope broke and old FWAPpy started singing his song again.
My hair, my clothes and my bags got TOTALLY covered in dust (I looked like I’d been dragged by my horse), but we limped on… ever so sloooowly to Kayes, the first major town. It should have taken just over an hour. It took seven.
I got chatting with a couple of guys – brothers – from The Gambia. They asked me a ton of questions about Morocco, and before long spilled the beans on why – they were going to attempt to get into Europe through the Sahara.
I tried to put them off as best I could – by basically telling the truth – there are a TON of checkpoints in Western Sahara and Morocco – they’ll never make it. And I was also concerned that they might end up dying in the desert, as many who try this kind of thing often do.
But this is The African Dream. Almost everyone I meet, everyone I talk to, dreams of going to Europe and staying there. They all want my phone number so I can help them get a visa. This is what is killing Africa – the vast majority of the people are utterly desperate to leave. Not in a half-baked British ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live in New Zealand’ kind of way, but in a full-on death-or-glory affair in which the participants are willing to risk imprisonment or even their lives in pursuit of the (perceived) golden glittering Shangri-La that is Europe. This is, more than anything else, contributing to the Brain Drain that is ruining Africa’s chances of ever crawling out of it’s. I will return to this theme later.
In Kayes, we crossed the River Senegal in the most African way possible – the new bridge was down so we had to cross the ‘ford’. Now imagine driving along an invisible road, covered by over a foot of fast-moving water, in a bus with a missing tyre and no tread on the ones that remain. The river was about 400 meters across – I was convinced we were going to slide off into the brown raging torrent that teased inches from our left hand side.
My butt cheeks were clenched tighter than a tight thing, and we made it. We got to the coach station in Kayes and there I decided to stage a mutiny. This bus was just a joke. So I headed over to the GANA bus station around the corner and paid for new tickets for Isaac and I to get to Bamako on a better bus. Which might get us there in one piece, or, even better, there on time.
When we returned to old FWAPpy, they told us there was no refund on the tickets. Keep it – you need it to buy a new tyre. The cowboys who ran the bus seemed genuinely upset that we were abandoning them, and made a big show that they were going, now!, and that we’d be in Bamako very, very soon.
Pull the other one, guys.
We jumped ship and never looked back. The GANA bus had air-conditioning, television, space to spread out and all tyres necessary to complete the journey in record time.
In fact, we passed the old FWAPper before the first Checkpoint and when we had stopped and they had caught up, some more of the passengers were staging a mutiny and trying to get on our rather spanking GANA bus.
Ooh, it was all a bit Jerry Maguire. Only without the fish.
Day 203: The Shakedown
Isaac and I got to Bamako in the wee small hours, greatly relived to have made the decision to change buses. Isaac is from Ghana (and was on his way home) so he bore the brunt of the gobsmacking black-on-black prejudice that is surprisingly prevalent in West Africa – he got tapped for a bribe at every checkpoint just because he was from Ghana – an English speaking country. Mali is francophone. Bizarrely, they let me off the hook. But then I wasn’t really prepared for Guinea. Oh Crikey – Guinea.
I bid my farewells to Isaac and headed over to the other end of town to get a Bush Taxi to the border. It turned out to be a minibus and where I was told it would leave immediately, it left 4 hours later. I should point out at this juncture that in Dakar, I had about 4 hours sleep, in Gambia 2, on the Mali border 1 and last night none at all. But I was still going strong – you can’t keep a good ginger down.
So on arriving at the Guinea border, I cheerfully did all the usual formalities and headed out of bordertown towards the sept-place taxi rank. On the way, I whipped out my camera and explained where I was and all the usual palaver I mention upon entering somewhere new. It was then that a mean-faced old tyrant sitting at the side of the road started going ape-shit at me for filming him, like I was stealing his soul or something.
I tried to explain that I was just filming ME, and what was below ME (the ground), but before I could show this moronic jobsworth the footage, a border policeman had turned up on his motorbike and ordered me to get onboard. He took me back to the border, accused me of filming the border and demanded $200 and the camcorder as payment for the fine.
I made him watch back the footage which featured absolutely no shots of the border, the buildings of the border, the guards of the border or in fact nothing other than my big fat head and the ground behind me. He didn’t care. He wanted his money. He claimed that my visa had run out (actually, it had, but I skillfully changed the expiry date to 24 July from 21 July, it being the 22nd, it was, for all intents and purposes, still in season). He shouted and bawled and banged his fists and behaved quite like a child throwing a tantrum. The rat-faced jobs-worth man from the side of the road showed up, whining that he wanted his soul back or some such.
They weren’t keeping my camera and I most certainly wasn’t going to pay this ridiculous $200 fine for doing nothing less than bugger all. There is actually a government DECREE declaring that tourists ARE allowed to use cameras, for this very reason. But reason and the Guinean officials do not merry bedfellows make.
Then a guy from Cape Verde came in with his passport to get it stamped in.
Perfect timing or what? He recognised me straight away and spoke to the guys in French, telling them about me and what I was doing. We all know that my French could do with a little improvement, but I didn’t think he mentioned me getting arrested, held in jail or any of the rest of all that nonsense.
Or at least I hoped he didn’t.
So I stonewalled. They wanted to keep me there all day? Fine. I had nothing better to do. But then one of the guys who I had been exceptionally cheerful and friendly to when I entered the country came to my aid. We had bonded, as I bond with so many people around the world, over the topic of football. You would never guess I know less about football than your average girl, and neither do they – and that’s the way I like it. Anyway, the guy was wearing a Chelsea top, we chatted about the FA Cup Final and he asked the chief (for it was no less than the chief who had this bee the size of Burgundy in his bonnet) to let me off the hook.
After a little more sabre-rattling, he did just that, and I was back on my way.
Thinking my troubles were now behind me, I headed to the Bush Taxi ‘station’. There wasn’t a Taxi going until 6pm. It was now 12 noon, and I didn’t really want to be hanging around all day and travelling at night. I tried to get a shared taxi to the next town, Siguiri, but the taxi drivers didn’t want to let me do that, because they would lose the trick. So they did everything in their powers to stop me. After a while of circular conversations, the guy from Cape Verde turned up with his two mates. They wanted to do the same thing as me, and the taxi drivers tried to stop them too. In the end, they got someone to take them to Siguiri, but for some reason Billy-No-Mates here was not invited along for the ride. I left the taxi area and attempted to get a private vehicle to take me, just to get out of this nasty, aggressive bear-pit. The taxi drivers did not like me doing this. They did not like it one bit.
Then one of the taxi drivers broke rank and agreed to take me, but I didn’t get into the car in time. Another driver dragged him out of the car and they started fighting. Like, really fighting. I sat down and drank a Coke while the other drivers held them back from each other, screaming in the local dialect that I couldn’t hope (or much care) to understand.
Eventually, the taxi drivers reached a compromise – one of them could take me to Siguiri. What a bloody stupid waste of time and excess of bravado. I felt like Teacher from the Bash Street Kids.
I arrived in Siguiri pretty quickly (it wasn’t far) having given a free ride to a soldier who needed to get to the hospital to see his son (I was dubious, but what the hell). Once there, I was dead lucky – there was one space left in the sept-place taxi going to Conakry, the capital. Once I was on board it would leave right away. Groovy. Only this battered old Peugeot 407 was more of a neuf-place. I had to share the front seat with this other guy who pretty much took up the whole bloody seat, so I spent the first few hours of the journey sitting on the handbrake.
And the road was terrible – riddled with potholes, our driver (whose lip was fully split all the way up to his nose – I hate to be shallow, but it made me wince just looking at him) did his best and was remarkably careful compared with your typical gung-ho Bush Taxi driver, but the car was just not up to it. I could tell by the way he had to pump the brakes to get us to slow down that we had a problem, but by nightfall we had pulled over in a town and we were having the wheel taken off and mysterious things were being done in the name of car maintenance.
After a while we hit the road again. But only for five minutes. We then turned back and more tyre changing/brake pumping followed. We waited a good two hours. The journey was supposed to be 12-15 hours. This was already turning into an epic.
After the driver was happy (although with his mouth so messed up, I don’t know how one could tell) we set off again. For a few hours. And then we stopped.
I’m not supposed to be travelling these parts at night. And here I was – in the dead of night, with a laptop, a camcorder and a stack of cash – trying to get to sleep in the middle of nowhere.
Day 204: Guinea: Foul.
The morning dragged by as the driver and his little mechanic that he had summoned from a nearby village took the front left tyre off (again) replaced the bearings – seriously – and then stuffed everything back into place. If it didn’t fit, they would bang it until it did. Then the tyre was plonked back on and the brakes were tested – nope, still not working properly, no chance of an emergency stop then.
But by now it was midday and the occupants of the taxi were getting decidedly ratty, so we set off again. Given the state of the brakes (and the fact that the car was held together with bubblegum) he took it easy. But that meant that the journey took all day. And then some.
Something I may not have made you aware of is the sheer number of police/army checkpoints in West Africa. There is one every few miles. They all want to see your papers and, if possible, a bribe. You think Gatso speed cameras are an affront to your human rights? Check these guys out. They one of the main reasons West Africa is so poor, so I endeavour to give these parasites as little Johnny Cash as possible. Some countries are worse than others – in Guinea they are anonymous, unaccountable and they don’t even have a set uniform. Just nip into an Army Surplus store and buy yourself some fatigues with US ARMY written on it, cross out US ARMY with a marker pen and ta-daaa! A Guinean Army Uniform. True.
By and large, I kept up my anti-bribery stance and made it a good way to Conakry without paying a single uniformed thief a penny. The people I met on the road (with the positive exception of taxi-touts, policemen and army types) were all really good-natured types with time for a chat and a smile. It’s therefore a shame that Guinea is now in the rather exclusive club of countries that I would not return to for love nor money. Put it this way, there is only one other and I guess you can figure out which one it is.
What has Guinea done to afford such an affront to its reputation? Well, after a record-breaking 36 hours on the (bumpy, pothole joke of a) road, we arrived on the outskirts of Conakry. I had been tremendously uncomfortable since the start of the journey and I’d had precious little sleep over the previous week, never mind that last 36 hours. It was 3.30am. At a ubiquitous checkpoint, we were all asked to get out of the car, which we did, all ten of us.
We were then taken into a small army building at the side of the road, they checked our ‘papers’ and I got ready to get back in the car. But then they explained that there was a fine to pay. 200,000 Guinea Francs.
For allowing two people to share the front seat.
They had to be kidding.
But they weren’t.
And lorks-a-lordy, guess who had to pay? What a bunch of evil, greedy, brick-thick child-men. Oh yeah, here comes whitey from the magic land where they wipe their behinds on fivers and have wheelie bins made of gold; let’s fleece him for everything he’s got. There was no way I was going to give these armed thugs a penny, even if their AK-47s looked a bit scary.
I explained that 200,000GF was ALL the Guinea Francs I had. We don’t care. We just want the money. I explained that it was the middle of the night and I can’t pay for a hotel without the Francs – I would have to wander the (dangerous) streets until dawn. We don’t care. We just want the money. I explained that if they took all of my money, I would leave immediately for Sierra Leone and tell everyone I know what happened to me and to never to visit Guinea. We don’t care. We just want the money.
We argued the toss for over an hour. I tried to get their names, the name of the unit, a receipt for the ‘fine’. The swines just laughed. I told them that I was going to write a letter to the British Ambassador and the Minister of Tourism. They couldn’t give a damn. Fine, they said, just give us the money. We just want the money.
This is Guinea.
My opinion? The second-worst country in the world.
Gary, the American in Cape Verde, described Guinea as ‘a nasty little police state’, which I’m sorry to report is utterly accurate. It’s sad – the people of Guinea are as sweet-natured as anyone you could possibly hope to meet. But while Big Brother runs the show, it’s not going to be on anyone sensible’s travel itinerary. It’s a decrepit hole run by decrepit people, rotten people – the worst of humanity. The capital is a sorry mess, there is no discernable infrastructure and the people eek out an meagre existence on the margins in defiance of the will of the government, who would much prefer it if they just died.
In 1958, Charles de Gaulle offered the French colonies in West Africa a choice between autonomy as separate countries in a Franco-African community or immediate independence. Sekou Touré declared that Guinea preferred ‘freedom in poverty to prosperity in chains’ and was the only leader to reject de Gaulle’s proposal.
Well, Guinea has the poverty in spades. Shame they didn’t work so hard to achieve the ‘freedom’ bit of that epigram. The people of Guinea are little more than slaves to the whims of whichever megalomaniac dictator managed to seize power by murdering the last chap. And, while the police run the state with impunity, nothing is going to change.
A nasty little police state. I was probably the first tourist they had had all year, and what do they do? The police steal all my money in the middle of the night.
I wasn’t going to cave in, but there were two young mothers with babies. The police were willing to keep them there all night if necessary. I offered to wait there until morning and pay them then – if they would just let the others go. They refused my offer and said that they would arrest the driver. They started taking his belt and his shoelaces (Cape Verde all over again) and so I coughed up my cash.
I hope it brings them nothing but bad luck and misery – eternally.
Poverty in chains. Well done, Guinea, we’re all really proud of all that you’ve achieved, you rotten little basket-case dictatorship.
Day 205: The Freetown Roast
I took off into the night, disgusted at all things Guinea, but I was caught up by the taxi driver who begged me to let him take me into the city – it wasn’t safe he said, bandits. The guy that I was sharing my seat with gave it up and sat in the back of the car. We got to the middle of Conakry around 5am. The driver let me snooze for a couple of hours in the taxi, but by now it was pouring down with rain and as there was a inch gap at the top of the door, my right arm was getting remarkably wet. I grabbed my bags and jumped into a ‘petit’ (town) taxi which would take me to the place that I could get a Bush Taxi to the border with Sierra Leone. The driver (predictably) tried to rip me off massively – he drove me just around the corner and then demanded ten Euro. Silly man, incurring my wrath in the mood I was in.
Anyway, without having to wait too long, a taxi driver offered to take me all the way to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, as in Diamonds from. He had some people to pick up on the way, but I could have the whole front seat to myself. Fair enough. So we travelled around Conakry for a bit (it didn’t get any more appealing), picked up a lovely chap from North London and his family. He had been visiting friends in Conakry, but his family was from Sierra Leone. He assured me that once I got across the border, I would be welcomed with opened arms.
Crikey, I had no idea how right he was!
The first thing you see as you enter Sierra Leone is a HUGE sign (clearly mocking the Guineans on the other side of the border) that says FIGHT CORRUPTION! Over the border, the first Sierra Leone guy heartily shook my hand and welcomed me into his country. As did the next guy, and the next.
Make no mistake, the Sierra Leoneans LOVE the British. Every time I got my passport out, their eyes would light up and they would flash me a smile.
This outpouring of affection might seem a little incongruous to anyone schooled to believe that all the British did before World War II was run around the world planting flags and enslaving the natives, so a little history lesson might be in order.
During the American War of Independence, the British offered any slave who fought on our side their freedom as payment for their services. America, unfortunately, won the war and demanded all property that had been British, be handed over to the snotty little Yank upstarts. That included the slaves that the British had promised to liberate.
The British dug their heels in. An Englishman’s word is his honour and all that jazz. Washington, that great defender of the slave trade, is said to have stormed out of the meeting. The British got their way. Some of the slaves were re-located to London, and others to Nova Scotia. But they faced immense hardships and prejudice on the streets and so William Wilberforce and his philanthropic mates bought a bit of land in West Africa from a local chief and established The Province of Freedom – which would eventually become Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
The liberated slaves from London and Nova Scotia were relocated to the settlement where they could live as free and equal men (and women, I guess). Then once Britain became the first country in the world to outlaw slavery in 1807, any American, French, Portuguese or Spanish slave ships that they had intercepted off the West Coast would have ‘cargo’ set free in the Province of Freedom. This practice continued for fifty years until the American Civil War finally proved that man was right, god was wrong and slavery is grossly immoral.
That’s how Sierra Leone got started, and so the British got off on the right foot with the place – some Leoneans even protested against independence in 1961. But then the war came in the 1990s. A conflict that started in neighbouring Liberia, brought a group of thugs over the border, who then set up the RUF – a gang of evils who, financed by blood diamonds, set about raping and murdering with impunity. The government was too weak to take them on, and the rebels managed to push all the way to the capital – thousands died, many more where maimed and injured. Disgracefully, both sides used child soldiers to fight for them. The poor kids were usually forcefully jacked up on heroin and made to commit unspeakable acts; I think we’ve all heard about this dark episode of West African history.
Tony Blair, in one of his more lucid moments as premier, decided enough was enough and sent in a number of British troops. From what people have told me, just the sight of a properly uniformed and equipped British soldier made the rebels ruin their pants and run away. The nightmare was over.
Although Nigeria and the UN were involved in restoring peace to the beleaguered nation, it is the British that they seem to remember with most fondness – as I learned from just about everyone that I spoke to. If anyone who was deployed to Sierra Leone is reading this, Thank You. You did us proud.
We reached the capital just before nightfall. Freetown is amazing – it’s like no capital city I’ve ever seen – all set out on the hillsides which run down to the sea. The roads are predictably shambolic and hilarious, and getting across town is a mission in itself. But before too long, I was enjoying the hospitality of Paul and Helga, friends of my girlfriend’s sister’s husband’s mate Matt. Six Degrees? Oh yeah baby.
And guess what – after the Odyssey week to end all Odyssey weeks, after the backache, buttache, walletache and heartache of the last five days, Helga gave me something for which there were just no words to express my appreciation.
Roast chicken, roast potatoes, boiled veg and mmm… gravy.
I almost cried.