Travels

 

Notes from Treasure Island
January 29, 2003

“It's this humid in January?” I thought as I stepped off the gangway onto the tarmac. I felt like I had slipped into a steam room. My first minute in Guinea I was already doubting how long I'd last.

The runway to Conakry’s tiny airport was like a family reunion. There seemed to be no security. A crowd of well-groomed Africans in two-piece suits or bright, regal traditional gowns roamed the runway greeting arriving friends and family. I had hoped someone would come looking for me too. My boss-to-be was supposed to send me a chauffeur, but since my flight had been over a day late, I was worried that no one would be there to pick me up.

It was a great relief to see my name on an envelope on the other side of customs. I had to laugh at myself. When my boss, the mysterious Mirabella, wrote that she was sending a driver, and I imagined a dapper man in a shiny cap and suit carrying a plaque with my name on it. This was a pot-bellied Guinean guy in a World Food Programme t-shirt and jeans with my name scribbled on an envelope.

I waved and said hello, quickly realizing that he didn’t speak a word of English. Time to start pull up high-school French, long ago submerged at the bottom of my memory. I imagined with horror the driver going back to Mirabella, and telling her my French was laughable and her then calling off our agreement. I probably hadn’t felt so self-conscious since high school French, but not having ever been to Africa or worked abroad, I felt completely out of my element. Plus, given that I didn’t have a signed contract in hand yet, I felt like I still had to impress.

I tried my best to explain to the driver that I had another blind airport date – one of the directors and master drummers of the drum & dance camp I was to join for the next two weeks. I had double-booked my greeters just in case one of them fell through, which wasn’t unheard of the way my journey getting here had been. The driver got my luggage off the carousel just as a stocky, squinty-eyed man with gold chains wearing an African-printed, short-sleeved suit strolled up, smiling broadly.

“April? Oh, good! I’m Camara. We were afraid you weren’t going to make it,” he said.

Ah, English, I thought. Never had it sounded so lovely. My comfort level rose about 10 degrees.

“These all your bags? We have to cross the ocean to the island right away. Classes start tomorrow,” Camara said.

“Tonight? Cross the ocean? I already did that!” I thought. Nevertheless, I thanked and excused Mirabella’s driver, and gave myself over to Camara’s care.

Camara had a beat-up taxi waiting in the parking lot. We picked up two young men en route to the port. I wasn’t told who they were and didn’t ask. They were all jabbering in Susu, the primary local language (and ethnicity) in Conakry and its environs. What French I had was fairly useless for eavesdropping as most Conakry dwellers speak Susu amongst each other, and French only as a formality, in the media and the office, or as a neutral language for people of different ethnicities to converse.

Excluded from the conversation, I turned to watch the slow parade of activity outside my cracked window. I was immediately struck by absence, rather than by any presence. The near absence of light, for starters: there were simple bars or hair salons lit by a bare-wired bulb here and there, but otherwise the streets were dark. There was nary a neon sign, skyscraper, or other hint of urban life as I knew it. Many buildings looked ready to collapse. In fact, the whole city seemed to be haphazardly cobbled together, shacks pieced together from pieces of corrugated iron and scrap wood, the pavement abruptly stopping in spots.

Women with braided spirals, stripes, swirls and spikes adorning their scalps, dressed in swishy, bright-patterned dresses and matching headscarves, sold peeled oranges and grilled peanuts on the broken sidewalks by candlelight. They called out to their customers, laughing, as their children played barefoot in the streets, seemingly unaware of the traffic snaking around them.

We arrived at the port and boarded our pirogue, a small wooden boat that holds about a dozen people comfortably, though later I would see thrice that number stuffed aboard. The captain attached an outboard motor, and we were on our way, skimming the shore of the Atlantic I had glimpsed overhead just an hour ago.

The captain shined a flashlight ahead to make sure that he didn't cut across a fisherman's net or bump into one of the many old, rusty wrecked ships whose hulls stuck out of the water like giant tombstones. I wondered what else might be buried in these murky waters.

“You know Treasure Island? Roume, the island where we are heading, was the place in that book,” said Camara. “A slaving-Englishman was executed on the island. They say he had hidden his treasures there before he was killed, but nobody ever found them. There is another island next to Roume, Foutouba, that was also used for slaving. Later, Guinea’s first president Sekou Toure prisoned his political enemies and intellectuals there.”

I wasn’t sure if this was all true or not, but it made our journey seem all the more exciting.

After an hour we reached the sandy shores of Roume, whose silhouette I could just barely make out in the starlight. The captain carried me off the boat, wading the few feet to shore. Before me was a white-cinderblock, U-shaped villa with a sandy courtyard: Hotel “Fore-Fote," (Foray-Fohtay), which means black-white in Susu. The drum and dance school is called this because it tried to bring the two cultures together.

"Bestaah Wishesaah!," an effeminate man wearing a Jimi Hendrix-style bandanna and a scantily-toothed grin greeted me before going back to singing and playing the goungoumba. I recognized the instrument, a simple thumb piano made from a calabash gourd with three strips of metal as keys, from an ethnomusicology class I had taken years before. The simple, gentle melody looped endlessly, a soothing lullaby. I was exhausted as I was exhilarated. It seemed as if my fate and fortune collided in this moment, hearing this simple tune to welcome me to the continent, mixed with the salty breeze rustling through the palm trees. Treasure island, indeed.

****

The sound of a wake-up bell yanked me out of my dreams, breaking the magic spell of the previous night. There was human buzz outside my small, unscreened window. I stumbled to the toilet – an enclosed hole in the ground – and discovered too late that I discovered it was BYO toilet paper on the island, which I failed to do. It was going to be a long few weeks, if this was any indication.

As I was emerging from a brisk bucket shower, a big-chested man wearing a Bob Marley tank top and a crown of dreads put out a huge, thick-padded hand – the mark of a real drummer -- and welcomed me to the camp. It was Sorel, Camara's brother. I would soon learn that Sorel lived in Denmark most of the year, and came here in the winter to help run the camp. Part of the local Rasta contingency, Sorel smoked his share of the island's low-grade ganja. I would also learn through his subtle advances and the island gossip that he was an incorrigible ladies’ man, too, despite his Barbie-doll Danish wife back home.

I met my fellow students over a breakfast of fried egg, soft baguette, packaged triangles of cheese, island-fresh pineapple, and Nescafe. Besides myself and an older music teacher from Denmark, the group was almost all from Oregon, where Camara and Sorel's adopted "Fote" son George taught African drumming: there was Rich, an easy-going, dread-locked guy whose bags were also victim to Air France; Anika, a young girl whose spongy musical mind picked up the material faster than any of us; John, a cute, curly-headed construction worker; Lauren, a youthful, semi-retired math teacher; and Luke, the problem child of the bunch, who cooked and ate every meal on his own, while we ate from communal plates.

After breakfast, we each selected a drum from Fore-Fote’s fleet of beautiful hand-carved djembes, a big goblet-shaped drum played wedged between one’s legs. Newly adopted drums over our shoulders, we walked through the village, past goat pens, crumbling cinderblock houses and laundry laid to dry on the rocks, to our “classroom”, a sandy clearing shaded by palms and banyans. We sat with our chairs in a circle, poised for action. As everyone but the Danish music teacher and I already played together in Oregon, the group launched into a rhythm without saying a word.

I hesitated, waiting for a break in the beat, then raised my hand. "I have no idea what I'm doing," I said.

Camara paired me with one of the hired musicians here, Ibrahim (aka Kozi, which means something like rhythm king in Susu), and we moved our drums to the volcanic rocks by the beach.

Patiently Kozi showed me where to put my hands and how to make the basic sounds -- the tone, slap and bass -- then walked me through accompaniments for rhythms I would soon be dancing to. I quickly got the feel of the drum as he wove other rhythms into mine, unlocking the magic of the rhythms. A good teacher he was, patient and steady and encouraging, making me repeat, repeat until the rhythms came effortlessly.

A trio of kids came around, peeling green-skinned oranges with huge knives and dancing to the beats. An encouraging sign, I thought, if they could recognize what I was playing. By learning to drum, I felt like I could speak their language. My hands ached at the end of the day. I coveted Sorel’s protective callouses.

Dance class came far more naturally to me. I turned out to be the only camper who was danced more than drummed, though even dancing had been a recent endeavor for me. Growing up, I had been too shy and self-conscious to dance. Then a “world beat” dance class I took soon after graduating from college opened up my mind and liberated my limbs. Before long, I had joined a troupe and was dancing samba in San Francisco’s Carnaval parade.
Eventually I would experiment with all kinds of dance, from Salsa to West African – part of a string of events that eventually brought me to this very island.

Our first dance class was with Allseny, the odd but charming man who had played me the Goungoumba that first magical night. He taught us an elegant choreography to the cukoo rhythm, which is used for celebration and welcoming.

“Allseny is just going to be our teacher today, as your regular teacher won’t be coming for a few days,” George told us.
George later explained to us Allseny was once a famous dancer with the National Ballet until he flipped out -- some say it was gris-gris, the Susu equivalent of voodoo -- and was sent here with some relatives to recover some peace of mind. When persuaded to do so, Allseny still danced with extraordinary grace, precision and agility. I felt unworthy of these little impromptu performances he would hold on the sand for us. It was my first experience with the African paradox, where beauty and tragedy were so often inextricably linked.

***

While shy at first, as the camp rolled on, children from the village eventually came to watch our progress and join in the steps behind our backs.

My feet were tender from dancing barefoot three hours a day; my neck felt like it had whiplash. Many of the steps demanded that my skull move as if it was bobbing along on an ocean wave – beautiful to watch but difficult to master.

Meanwhile, the rhythms seemed to leave my head as soon as I played them and it was hard to listen for the drum cues while dancing. Yet little by little, petit à petit, I started hearing and feeling how it all fit together, in a way that I never did when I was learning dance at home. I realized I had been just learning steps before, without really understand their relationship to the music.

Kadiata, our dance teacher, was always yelling about something or another with a "don't mess with me" look in her blue-black eyes and a sassy, rotten-tooth smile. She seemed to pick on my every move, but it was all to make me a better dancer and I knew I should be grateful for it. We practiced the routines in our off-hours, adding catchphrases like “putting on socks” and “spread the butter” to remember the moves. I took quickly to the swooping bird movements prevalent in much of the choreography, and I recognized some of the fast rhythmic footwork from samba classes. Much of Brazilian music was created by West African slaves, after all.

We learned choreographies to Tiriba, a dance of masks, and Sunu, a celebration dance from the Mali/Guinea border. The earthy movements of Kounkoumba, a harvest dance, mimic the tilling of the land and spreading of seed; the soft, lilting movements of

Mani, a dance for women, resemble a gentle wave.
Still, when darkness fell, it was the doundoumba -- the strong man's dance -– that reigned.

Every night after dinner there was an informal doundoumba party, whether chez Fore-Fote or in the village. Drummers lined the courtyard, followed by a huge crowd of villagers, though many of them heeded some invisible boundary between the Fore-Fote compound and the village and stood on the outskirts of the camp grounds. The camp, held once a year, was like a three-week festival for the village, which otherwise rarely saw such excitement and so many foreigners.

The impromptu dance floor – the sandy Fore Fote courtyard -- was dominated by a few wildcats, including one wiry man who danced with an empty backpack, doing back flips and shaking like he was possessed. The island's dwarf was also an incredible dancer and the crowd roared in approval when he took the center of the drum circle. When the camp’s generator flickered off, as it often would, kids swarmed the sand, dancing and doing cartwheels. Even the young boys danced the Doundoumba like men, with arms flexed and knees high.

Afterward the drummers wandered through the crowd like minstrels with their goungoumbas, singing songs of love and brotherhood into which they would insert our names. They’d stand before us singing full-throated until we’d dropped a 500-franc note (around a quarter) into their calabash gourds, which were used for everything from food bowls to musical instruments throughout Africa.

I noticed Kozi, my drum teacher, never sang along or played with the others in these jam sessions.

“Why don’t you join them?” I asked.

“I’m a professional musician. These boys are just playing for you Fotes,” he answered proudly. It gave me just a small sense of how our presence affected the village and all who came for the camp.

Later yet, when all the music had ceased but that of the crickets and the ocean, we students would mingle with the drummers.
Swinging in hammocks under a smile of a moon, we would drink Skol beers or "Senegalese coffee," strong Chinese gunpowder tea shifted from cup to cup until it had a thick froth on top, and teach other words in Susu and English.

I marveled at how much time I spent in communal life here and how little time indoors alone, as I did at home. In spite of the rampant poverty -- garbage everywhere, no running water or electricity -- there was such a richness of culture and community, an openness and joie de vivre here that I truly appreciated.

On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to be alone on the island if one so chose. One night I tried to go to bed early in the hammock but everyone kept pulling up a stool next to it like it was a confessional.

First it was Hablai, one of the cute, young musicians, who looked like he could be a Brooklyn dance-hall rapper with his neat little dreads and Bob Marley sweatshirt, a wide smile with outspread teeth. “My life is comme ci, like this,” said Hablai, putting his hand out straight, “pas comme ça,” curving his hand off the straight path. “No ganja or drinking.”

“Uh-huh...”

“I want to marry one woman and have two kids, no more. I know too many problems of having many wives.”

“I have to sleep, okay?”

“But not until I get to Europe and make money to have a nice house.”

Bonne nuit, Hablai.”

As I finally started to doze, “Guy,” a man who grew up with Camara and now acted as the camp’s guardian, sauntered over in his funky patchwork suit and baseball cap.

“Eveline,” he called out, tittering his nervous, gravelly laugh.
Guy called me that because of a novel by that name he once read that had an April in it.

“Mmm?” I mumbled without opening my eyes, hoping he’d get the hint.

“What do you think about so seriously here?”

“I'm sleeping, Guy.”

“Yes, are you thinking about America, Eveline?”

When Guy gave up on me, finally it was the chevre (goat) calling for mama, tethered to a nearby tree. It was to be sacrificed for a ceremony tomorrow, and it seemed to know it, by the way it was loudly bleating over the ocean waves. I longed for an air-conditioned room with a “do not disturb” sign on it.

***

The Fore Fote operation left no man behind (women were another story), employing a whole community, if only for a few weeks.
There was a man who sold drinks, a couple of men to clean the area and fetch water for our bucket showers, a young man to do laundry (25 cents a garment), two cooks, and a handful of dance teachers and musicians. Many of the musicians hanging around the camp weren't hired by Fore Fote, however -- they came over from Conakry looking for money, connections, girlfriends, fun.

As the guys got to know us more, they approached us with requests to buy them beers or marry them. Being the sole unattached female, I was quite in demand. Everyone wanted to take the easy way out: marry a white chick and leave the country. Though I could understand their wanting to escape to a better life, it was exasperating to be on the receiving end, as I had been not only here but through Asia, South America and the Middle East. At the same time, it was an ego boost to have my pick of handsome men who all had biceps and chests modeled from Michelangelo's David.

I preferred to throw off the gold-diggers and spend my time with Kozi, who also wanted to go to America, but was more soft-spoken about it. After my drum lessons with Kozi, which we held on a fallen tree overlooking the pirogues idling on the shore, we would talk about everything from culture to tradition, God to Michael Jackson, my promising career to Kozi’s seemingly dead-end life.

“I could drum for 100 years here and never be able to make enough money,” Kozi said.

“Well, in the States you could probably drum for a thousand years and not even have enough to rent a New York apartment,” I countered. No one here ever seemed to understand that life wasn’t all peaches in the U.S., either. Many musicians in the States played in subways for spare change in their cases, much as these young men did with their calabashes.

One day after morning drumming class Kozi and I went walking in the hills. A tall, over-eager young guy with neat long braids they called “Horny Rasta” followed us without an invitation. He was always smiling and waving at me during class, and trying a bit too hard to be my friend, though he had volunteered to me that he didn’t want to marry a white woman like all the others. Eventually Horny Rasta got tired and turned back, while Kozi and I scrambled on rocks up to the top of the island's single mountain, where we could see the lay of the land.

Later Horny Rasta pulled me aside.

“Kozi has a wife and child back in Conakry. Camara said to me that you shouldn't talk with him outside of class,” he said.

It sounded preposterous, but what did I really know about Kozi? This wouldn’t be the first time I’d been had by a sweet-talking man.

I decided to face it head on. “Kozi, Horny Rasta told me that you have a wife and kids. Is this true?” I asked accusingly.

Kozi laughed. “Did you believe that guy? Everyone knows he is crazy. That is why they call him Honi. It’s a kind of pigeon in Susu. They call him that because his mind is always flying,” he explained.

I laughed and explained my mistake of Honi versus Horny – what an appropriate double entendre.

Later Honi would chase me down, asking me to be his girlfriend. When that didn’t get anywhere, he went to John, asking him to "give me April."

One morning soon after, Kozi told me he did not sleep well -- he could only think of me. I had been waiting for this moment. In fact, I had felt myself falling for him too, but I knew that cool island breezes could go to a girl’s head. I was going in Guinea for at least six months, and didn’t need to rush into things. “I like to take things slow and light,” I said. “We have to be good friends here. We must be prudent.”

“Okay. I want to be with you. I will wait however long I have to,” he said with a snake-charming smile.

***

Given all the romantic drama on the island, I finally decided to stick with the women and children. In the afternoons I played soccer with the kids, making several goals for Fore Fote though the kids outraced me even barefoot. The girls put dembes (cornrow braids) in my hair; in return I put stickers on their nails.

Having my hair plaited in the village was a chance to witness the ebb and flow of island life: the kids sauntering home from school in their blue and pink checked school uniforms, followed by the bald-headed schoolteacher in his crisp pink shirt; women stripping palm fronds for brooms, breastfeeding their infants and looking after huge cauldrons of rice; and girls beading bracelets and helping their moms with the wash. Clucking chickens were always underfoot and Fore-Fote-checkered magpies overhead.

The islanders greeted me with bon soir (French for good evening, though Guineans say it any time of day) and inouwali (Susu meaning both hello and thank you). Women would offer me palm nuts that turned my lips and fingers the color of mustard. I sampled many novel treats during my walks through the village, including the sweet, tart fruit of the baobab and the bitter, stimulating kola nut that is the African equivalent of the olive branch, a peace offering that seals all deals and accompanies all rites.

Several of the girls joined my shadow, including Fanta, a young girl with an unforgettably sweet, bright smile, and a warmth and gentleness revealed in the way she wordlessly taught me dance steps. I took another cute girl under my wing who was stomped on by the other island kids that rove around together like a gang of Oliver Twist orphans.

The girls started coming around looking for me every night after dinner. Guy always tried to shoo them away and I had to coax them back. We formed a circle and entered it in pairs, doing short songs and dances they taught me. It was nice to be amongst girls, knowing they wanted nothing from me but my simple presence and attention.

They would feel my hair like I was a bunny rabbit in a petting zoo, telling me how pretty I was. Not that I was bad looking, but I knew that they would think that about any light-skinned, blue-eyed girl who paid them any mind. It made me feel uncomfortable more than flattered. And yet these girls were so stunning, the way their blazing black eyes shone out from their radiant skin, the way they danced like their spirits were on fire. And yet they were entirely innocent of their beauty, making them all the more so. I hoped that someday they would realize their worth, and not let a man doubt or degrade their value.

The weekend before the camp’s end, I took a boat to meet my colleagues at the UN World Food Program. It was a jarring sensation, leaving the port’s stench of fish, garbage and sewage for the cushy chairs and sleek wooden sculptures in the air-conditioned lobby of the Novotel, where Mirabella was awaiting me.

I was shocked to discover that my boss was a slender, elegant Italian blond in stiletto heels. I laughed inwardly at my naïveté, thinking that my boss could have been a Guinean woman. I would later realize that the UN never hired local people for top management: at best they were Africans from other nations, but always international staff.

Her boyfriend Jean, an older French guy, seemed like a pleasant character in a novel set in colonial times. We made our way up to his hotel apartment, which had a fully stocked bar and a balcony overlooking the ocean.

“Cocktail?” Jean asked, pouring Mirabella a gin and tonic.

“My stomach is bothering me, and I don’t like to drink on an empty stomach. Thanks anyway,” I said.

“Oh, you must take a pastis, then. It is the best for stomach problem,” he said.

I doubted anise liqueur would do anything for Doundoumba’s Revenge, but I accepted and pretended to sip. We had conversed thus far in English – I was shy and worried about my pidgen French, though I knew I could only put it off for so long.

I suddenly felt painfully aware of the smudges on my clothes – cotton casuals, the best I had in my suitcase – compared to my colleagues in fine linens and gold jewelry. I felt like Cinderella at the country club, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

They took me out to Restaurant Conakry, a French bistro attended by a well-groomed African maitre'd, where we feasted on escargots, steak frites and frog legs. Serge, its owner, pulled away from his soccer game to settle a quibble between Mirabella and Jean on the difference between creme caramel and creme brulée.

“So, how is your dance camp? We go to the island on the weekends for fun, but I had never heard of this camp. How did you find it?” Mirabella asked, genuinely interested.

“Oh, I found it on the internet, actually. It is turning out to be a great experience,” I said. How could I explain what I had been leaving the past two weeks? How I felt like I was leaving one dream for another? What would this woman think of my getting cozy with illiterate drummer boys?

It was a contrast that would haunt me my time here… I felt the divide between the life I had been living, living like a local, and being part of another caste, one that I felt that Jean and Mirabella were genuinely welcoming me into here.

Mirabella paid for my $250 hotel room at the Novotel and a private pirogue back to Roume, the seas so windy my skin was speckled white with salt when I finally disembarked to revel in my final island days.

 

 

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