Guinea – Time is money

West Africa is intense. Chaotic. It fills you with a kind of hate-love where often the hate takes over the love (however, after leaving we know that it is the love that will remain). We had experienced these feelings in West Africa before arriving in Guinea and we suspected that Guinea would be the same, but even more. More intense, more chaos. And it turned out to be true.

We arrived to the border between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau already with our minds set on not being able to go all the way to our Couchsurfer as we had planned that day. We had hoped to be at the border around nine in the morning and now it was already twelve. There were no other options than taking a motorcycle taxi between the borders, something we had been able to avoid until then. Our first motorcycle taxi ride in Guinea was speedy, bumpy and made us scared, but at least we arrived at the other side in one piece. The border guard was very friendly, but asked a lot of personal questions about why we are not married yet and told Anna to hurry up and have children. He himself already had four children with his twenty eight years old wife – that was the African and right way to go, he said. We have met many guards, militaries and polices asking personal questions and wanting our contact information for private use. For us it is always a little weird to get those requests from a (usually armed) person in duty.

We aimed at spending the night in a small town called Koundara and we found a sept-place going there. A sept-place is a normal car where they have put an extra seat in the back so that six passengers can sit in two rows in the car and one in the front next to the driver. In Guinea however it turned out that the same cars don’t take seven passengers but at least nine. We sat three grown-ups and one child on the back row, four grown-ups squeezes themselves in at the middle row and in the passenger seat next to the driver not less than three grown-ups sat. This meant we were eleven human beings in the car and apart from this two men also sat on the roof together with a huge pile of luggage. The road was extremely bad, the worst road we ever drove on and the driver had to stop several times next to small rivers to fill a container with water to pour on the engine to cool it down. When we arrived in Koundara we found a cheap hotel and spent the evening eating fruits (avocado season!) and listening to the heavy rainfalls.

The following morning we woke up early to catch the first car towards a city called Labé. When reaching the bus station at half past seven we thought we had good chances of getting an early start. However, our car did not leave until a few hours later even though it got filled quite fast. We were as many in the car as the day before with the addition that this time the exhausts from the car leaked into the passenger area, making it difficult to breath. We finally arrived in Labé in the late afternoon and had to take a motorcycle taxi to another station to take another car to the small city Pita and finally reach our couchsurfer. Pita lies in the Fouta Djallon region, famous for its green mountains and beautiful views. We had planned to do some hiking in the area and just be in the nature.

Our Couchsurfer, Karl, is 64 years old and originally from Germany. He has lived abroad for the largest part of his life and has a very interesting past as a missionary for the group Children of God. Karl married a Guinean woman eight years ago and they together have three children. There were many opinions and lifestyle views we did not share with Karl, but it was very interesting to meet him and get his perspective on things. It seemed like Karl was happy to spend time with two Europeans and we spent a lot of time listening to his stories.

We stayed with Karl for two nights and during our day in Pita we went hiking. Karl had suggested for us to hike to a waterfall called the Kinkon cascade. To get to see the waterfall we had to pay a military guy a shady “entrance fee” which we were not sure was official. Since we have decided to not pay any bribes during this trip it did not feel very good, but we are not sure where the line is drawn between bribery and fraud. At least the waterfall and the river were beautiful sights.

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We had been warned about hiking and even visiting the area in the rainy season and while on the hike to the waterfall we talked about that the warnings had been exaggerated. However, on the way back it started raining, a lot. The dark clouds suddenly covered the previously blue sky and a cloud burst so big and so long that we’ve never seen anything alike begun. We hid with two boys under a roof for a while but finally decided that we would have to get through the rain to get back home. The roads had turned into rivers, taking gravel and stones along and sometimes we were not sure if we would be able to cross without getting swiped off our feet. Part of the journey back we got a lift with a very nice Chinese-Guinean family but it was even difficult for the car to get out to the main road. The last stretch to Karl’s house we waded in more than knee deep water with lightning flashing around us hitting targets very close by. Back in the safety Karl told us that this was one of the biggest rainfalls he and his wife had ever seen, so it might not always be that bad, but at least we got some more respect for how the rainy season can be.

That evening Anna got another round of stomach sickness which continued in the morning. We had originally planned to hike and camp in the mountains around the city Dalaba, but due to Anna’s stomach and the rain that continued to fall, we decided to check into an hotel instead. The hotel is known to have a beautiful view of the scenery. Too bad it was so cloudy and misty that all we saw was white.

It was around this time we started to get fed up of Guinea, West Africa and travelling in general which made everything very difficult mentally. Each day became even more exhausting than the day before, which we already had agreed was one of the most exhausting days on the trip so far. We were tired of waiting, tired of extremely crowded cars, tired of having diarrhea, tired of never having any privacy, tired of never getting to choose anything for ourselves and tired of life in general.

Trying to keep our mood up we walked down to the main road the next morning (after actually getting a glimpse of the mountain scenery) and were very happy to quickly get two seats in a car already on its way to Guinea’s capital Conakry. The trip turned out to be one of its kind. The 320 kilometers ended up to take more than nine hours to travel and the trip contained, apart from being very crowded as usually, hitting a sheep, waiting to cross a temporary bridge and seeing drivers around us loose their minds and start fist fights. In the evening we reached Conakry being very happy that we had survived the long and dangerous journey.

Our Couchsurfer in Conakry turned out to be a very nice man. John is originally from Sierra Leone but he has lived most of his life in Guinea. John surprised us by knowing a lot about western culture and western customs without ever traveling out of West Africa. We got very impressed by John for being so knowledgeable, generous and friendly.

We knew the next day would be another tough day since we were going to apply for the Sierra Leona visa. We had just realised that there would be a public holiday the following two days and since we really did not feel like spending too much time in Conakry, which is not really known to be charming city, we needed to get through the visa procedural as well as getting the visa on the same day. For this, we woke up early, but it turned out that John did not want us to go by ourselves and insisted on driving us. Unfortunately he had punctured one of his tires, which had to be fixed before we could leave and on the way to the mechanic he got another puncture on a second tire. It all turned out to be much more complicated than we had imagined, but we finally arrived to the Sierra Leonean embassy. The procedure to obtain the visa to Sierra Leone is quite complicated and expensive. After getting some information at the embassy we had to rush away to a specific bank on the other side of town to pay 100 USD per person at a bank account. First, it was an adventure getting to the bank in the rain and crazy traffic on motorcycle taxis and secondly it was a story itself to exchange Guinean dollars to USD. We finally managed to get through the bank process getting a receipt. After heading back to the embassy we had to provide them our application, the receipt, a hotel reservation, passport copy, copy of vaccination certificate and passport photo. All in two copies. And finally to get the visa the same day we had to pay 50 USD extra as an unofficial “express fee”. The visa turned out to be a simple stamp with a little information filled in. It cannot have taken more than five minutes to complete and costed almost nothing for them…

Since being sick in Pita Anna’s stomach was not really working with her and the whole time while applying for the Sierra Leone visa we also had to find ways to visit toilets. After obtaining the visa we decided that it might be time to go to a clinic to check her for malaria and parasites. This was after we had done some extra reading about malaria and seen that the symptoms can be vague but still lead to severe illness in 24 hours. John helped us out again and drove us to a German clinic where Anna got to see a doctor and take some tests. The test results all turned out to be fine a few days later so maybe we were too worried (but better safe than sorry).

We spent a nice last evening with John and the next day we woke up early to leave Conakry. Our next stop was Boffa, a few hours north west of Conakry. There we were going to visit Axel, Anna’s friend Ale’s little brother. We were very excited to see a familiar face and to speak Swedish with someone for the first time in a very long while!

Leaving Conakry was easier said than done. It happened to be the day for the second Eid celebration and since 85 percent of the Guinean population are Muslims, the feast affected the whole town. Many roads were blocked and filled with praying people or people walking to their prayers. Some one-way-lanes turned into two way lanes since the other one was blocked and suddenly everyone drove on the left hand side of the road and it felt like we would frontal crash into other cars all the time since everyone that was driving was confused and stressed out.

Finally we managed to leave town and could take a car to Boffa. In 2013 Axel decided to cycle all the way from Sweden to Guinea. After six month on the road he arrived and started growing fruit trees. Later he bought some land, got married to Marthe and had a child, Felix. Now they all live together with Marthe’s five years old daughter Lotti and some relatives. We spent two nights with Axel and his family and enjoyed speaking Swedish, seeing the impressive garden and cooling down by taking refreshing baths in the river.

When we left Boffa early the next morning we knew we had a very long day in front of us. We were aiming on reaching Freetown in Sierra Leone the next day before the night would fall. Surprisingly the transportation was for once efficient and we did not have to wait long before getting a car that would take us to the border. When getting closer to the border we were stopped many times at police checkpoints. We had started to talk to a man from Sierra Leone sitting next to us and we noticed that he and many of the other passengers payed bribes at almost all of the checkpoint. The passengers had for example to pay a fee for not having brought their Guinean id-cards and at another point the men where discretely taken out of the car where they had to pay some more money. When the same thing happened to us, the police checked our passports very slowly and asked us stupid questions we just waited for a few minutes until they realised we were not going to pay them anything and they let us go. It seems like many foreigners are doing the same and that have made the police treat them different. We noticed that the locals were expected to pay bribes more often than us, but at the same time they never tried to fight it as we did and this is creating a negative spiral. However, it must be more exhausting to live with the system in your daily life and always having to fight for your rights.

We thought a lot about the concept of time while traveling through Guinea. On the cover of one taxi driver’s driving license it was written “time is money”. Very true, but in a different way than you first think. For the police time really is money, if they take extra time looking at the documents they will be paid by the drivers or passengers. This is very interesting in a country where the same people have no problem at all waiting three hours for a car to fill up before departure. While being on the road it is also a mystery why it is worth for the driver to do very dangerous overtakings to save a few seconds.

To travel through Guinea was very exhausting. While we had a few very nice experiences and met some interesting people most days ended up being mentally demanding. We are now relieved to have entered Sierra Leone with hopes of a more relaxed and less chaotic atmosphere. Boy, were we wrong…

GuineaNights spent in Guinea. Red = staying with hosts, Blue = staying in hotel/hostel. One bed = one night, Two beds = several nights.

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