Always in the deep woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is an ancient fear of the unknown and is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. -- Wendell Berry

The TRIP: GUINEA - wonkifong --> MALI - bamako, djenne, douentza, Dogon Country --> Burkina Faso - ouagadougou, bobo-dioulasso, bala, ouagadougou --> GHANA - tamale, mole national park, tamale, yeji, volta lake ferry, akosombo, accra, green turtle lodge, elmina, cape coast, accra, hohoe and wli falls --> TOGO - kpalime, atakpame, lome --> BENIN - cotonu (transport stop) --> NIGER - niamey, tahoua, agadez, camel trek in aiir mtns, niamey --> BENIN (abomey, grand popo, ouidah, ganvie, cotonou) --> CAMEROON (douala, buea, top of Mt Cameroon, limbe, sangelima, yaounde, kribi, douala) --> MAURITANIA (nouakchott, atar, chinguetti, camels into the sahara, terjit, choume, ride the coal train, nouadhibou) --> MOROCCO (western sahara, dakhla, agadir, essaouira, marrakesh, imlil, summit of jebel toubkal, fes, chefchaouen) --> cross the Strait of Gibraltar --> Malaga, Spain --> fly to Geneva, Switzerland --> Les Grangettes, France
Click for a map. Updated April 30, 2007

vendredi, août 18, 2006

The Ride Home (August 12, 2006)

In the best of situations, travel in Guinea is an adventure. Public transport involves haggling with a taxi driver then cramming oneself into a cab for a ride that could result in personal injury at any time. Taxis themselves vary from “decent” condition to “I can’t believe that thing actually moves!”
Today’s adventure started with four other stagieres as we began the return home to Forecariah from Conakry after the week of site visits. Leaving the Peace Corps compound is like stepping back into another world where the five of us were completely out of place with our full backpacks attached to our backs. (We haven’t figured out how to carry everything on our head yet.) Our travel itinerary seemed simple enough: catch a cab to Bambeto (a taxi station in Conakry) then another cab to Forecariah. Perfect! We would be out of Conakry in a half-hour. The first let was straight-forward. We quickly “displaced,” meaning we bought all the seats in the six person cab though we were only five, and were on our way to Bambeto. The taxi driver let us out and pointed us in the direction of the gare, or taxi station.
Interesting side note: an effect of an oral society is that most things are not printed or published in a written way. This means that almost all prices are both negotiable and likely to increase rapidly at the site of five Americans walking towards a merchant. This means that I am never sure if I am getting a good deal on an item or if I am being completely ripped off (even after I have talked the person down several hundred Guinean Francs). This being said, it’s advantageous to have an idea of a price before beginning “the game.”
The taxi. The goal of a Guinean taxi driver is to get as much money per rides as he can. This is achieved by either cramming more people into a car than the manufacturers though would be humanly possible or by having people pay for the “empty” slots. The driver will not leave until all slots are paid for. For comparison, a small Honda Civic type car will typically hold at least six people plus the driver. Coming into Bambeto, we had an idea of the price. Theoretically, each person should pay 11,000 Guinean Francs.
Immediately upon walking into the gare, we were accosted by people: “Where are you going?” “Will you displace the taxi?” “There are five of you. Pay for the 6th seat and we can leave now.” We were the center of attention and the going rate was 25,000 Guinean Francs per person. After discussions with several people, it appeared that this price was not going to change (known as wonderful coordination by the people trying to rip off Americans). In desperation, I asked someone what a single person would do to find a ride to Forecariah since not everyone can displace a taxi. The man replied that we had to go to the taxi gare in Medina, which was the market we visited the previous day. In disgust, we walked out to find another taxi to take us there. Two minutes later, several men raced towards us yelling “Forecariah! Forecariah!” One trick in the bargaining game is to leave the merchant. Since a lower price is better than no sale at all this tactic will sometimes result in a lower price. They dropped to price to 20,000 GF/person which was still too high for us. It was important that we get to Medina.
We hailed a cab and began haggling on the price it would cost to get us to the Medina gare.
“15,000” d’accord (ok) – we pile in

A drive back across town, including a detour to avoid a police check point finally got us to Medina.
“Watch each other. This place was not too friendly to us yesterday,” we remind each other as the cab pulls to a stop in the middle of a busy street to let us out. We grab our bags and one of us pays the man. Suddenly, trouble came rushing towards us as if just released from one of our bags.
“I said the price was 20,000 GF.”
I began arguing with the driver – it’s amazing how quickly French can fly with a little adrenaline. As we argue, a crowd slowly begins to crowd around us. I can feel the pressure of the people, heat and humidity bearing town on the five of us. The nearest street vendor takes our side as he questions whether the price was agreed on before we got into the cab.
“Yes,” I say. “The driver said 20,000. We said 15,000 and his associate agreed so we got in.”
“He doesn’t count,” retorted the driver. “I’m the boss.”
This interchange continues to go in circles. With the crowd steadily growing, we decide that the easiest and quickest option is to pay the extra 5,000 and get out of there. After two taxi mishaps, we enter the Medina gare frustrated and apprehensive. What will be the next taxi experience? At least we were in the right place. Fares given to us were 11,000 GF. Just as expected! Happy that our switch to Medina dropped the price, we agree to ride in the taxi. Backpacks came off and we began to pile them into the miniscule hatchback trunk.
“It will be 3,000 GF per bag,” a helper informs us.
“C’est impossible,” groans a stagiere.
“No,” I continue, “we came to Conakry with the same bags and did not have to pay. We are not paying this time.”
“2,500,” he replies.
“No way. It was free last time and it’s going to be free this time.”
“But, we will get in trouble at the police barricade,” he attempts to reason even though he knows that the police could care less about whether we paid for the bags to be in the car or not. The police only try to extort money from people in their own manner.
“We came through the barricade last time with no problem. We will not pay extra.”
He finally relents and our bags are packed. The tickets are bought, which are necessary to guarantee transport to our final destination. If the car were to break down, a distinct possibility, it becomes the driver’s responsibility to find the passengers a way to their destinations. We cram ourselves into the taxi and prepare for the ride.
It may be hard to picture what our taxi looks like. To start with, imagine an old-school Subaru station wagon. Not the Outback, but a few models prior. The hatchback “trunk space” has been shrunk by placing a second row of seats behind the typical back seat. Now, the car is ready to contain nine people plus a driver: the driver in his front bucket seat, two passengers in the other bucket seat, four in the “middle” row, and three in the bonus section. I find myself in the back row for the upcoming 2.5 hour ride. It’s funny that only a little over a month ago I though economy seats on an airline were cramped. Perspective can change so fast…
Fortunately, the ride has little adventure with the exception of a prolonged stop at the police barricade while the police scrutinized the ID cards of the five Americans. (There was no mention of the bags.) My legs and butt were extremely excited when the bridge to Forecariah came into sight. The ride was finally over. Maybe next time some chickens will be in the car as well!