Travels

 

Dr. Pam in Africa!
July 23, 2003

“S’il vous plait, monsieur…. Ma pauvre Maman m’attend dedans et elle ne parle pas francais... s’il vous plait, monsieur, puis-je entrer?” My United Nations identity card got me through one airport barricade, but now I was up against a hard-lipped security guard who found it perfectly fine for porters to be in the baggage claim area mauling my mom’s luggage -- and perhaps even my mother -- but somehow I posed a security threat.

Let it be said that my stepfather with the inside scoop on travel advisories at the Pentagon, and other friends whose travels were limited to weekend getaways in the Bahamas, urged her not to come – the unrest, the disease, the heat, the war in Iraq … And that our friends of so-called color back in Virginia said, “You go on girl, represent! You won’t see us in Africa!” But courageous, loving mom that she is, Dr. Pam just had to see her baby, even if it meant taking precious little time off for a grueling Guinean adventure.

Once mom, bags and daughter were reunited, we checked into Hotel Camayenne, which I had chosen for its reliable A/C and electricity, where we had a tummy-busting buffet breakfast and a lecture entitled “”To Eat or Not to Eat” from a know-nothing New Yorker who spouted complaints about Africa and later came to me for advice and directions. Yankee Go Home!

I’m proud to say my mom ain’t no Yankee. During her stay here, she will valiantly ride the rough roads and brave bouts of diarrhea, joke with and interrogate the locals, show compassion for the hard lives of Guineans and not quibble over a few francs just because buyers have the upper hand in this hobbled economy.

Our first night we went out to the Loft, the gringo bar in town, which has a fine jazzy African house band and all the liquor you won’t find in the maquis (the little bars and restaurants found on every other corner). Being a psychologist, Mom is all questions and curiosity; for her the question is what people do and why. We played our usual game, guessing at people’s professions and preoccupations, mom dying to know if the lithe women in their slinky silkies purring at paunchy white guys were outright whores or just indirectly so.

For my chatty mom, the language barrier was perhaps harder than the heat and bumpy roads, as it’s hard to interrogate a stranger in an unknown tongue, as I well know from my work. She would say stuff in English or high-school Spanish anyhow, then get frustrated when I would blab and jest in French, excluding her. Suddenly I was on the other table, as normally I’m the one who’s lost in conversation; now I understood how hard it is for others to translate every word for me as they fly by.

Mom’s second night here, I arranged a “spectacle” for her and friends and colleagues, hiring the dance group I work with to put on a show on the roof of my friend’s building. Take all the energy that your average American expends in a lifetime, dress it up in sweat-soaked orange, green and yellow costumes, add a danced story of love, death and tradition woven together with fast drums, fancy footwork and nimble acrobatics, and you have “le spectacle.” I had seen bits of the show in rehearsal, but never in full regalia and power. I was inspired me to dance again, and made plans to start rehearsing on the weekends, when I had more time and patience.

Unfortunately I forgot a key element – lighting – and as everyone showed up fashionably late, the show didn’t get started until the sun was already diving into the ocean the roof overlooked. So soon we were just watching silhouettes and Sorrel, the director, sent out for lights to finish the show. I only saw pieces as I was up and down the seven flights of stairs to escort people to the bathroom and search out anything I could find to feed the hungry artists who even gobbled up the plain raw cabbage the cook had mistakenly put out. There was a near riot when the mob started fighting over the peanuts and chips; meanwhile someone stole bottles of fancy French wine and peppermint schnapps I had put out.

I was pleased to see my old drummer friends from the island mixing with my normally office-bound colleagues… Emmanuel, the charming French pilot grinned like an ad throughout the show, Aaron, a colleague from Kankan, mixed with the drummers, Sune, my counterpart at another UN agency, grooved in his seat, Naouar, the Tunisian food security consultant I’ve been living with, snapped tons of photos. A good time was had by all but the guard I had forgotten to pay off and the grumpy downstairs neighbor who was frantic for sleep even though it wasn’t yet 9 pm.


Chimpanzees and mountains and tailors, oh my... The next day we took the WFP plane to N’Zerekore, back in the forests of the southwest. Though Mom was sick all night, our first morning we were up early to tackle Mt. Nimba, Guinea’s tallest mountain though not really so tall. An hour went by and the chauffeur that Bac, a WFP colleague, had arranged hadn’t showed up, and no one was answering my radio pleas from “Charlie Whiskey 49” (my co-sign, if anyone cares to call me on a UN Codan radio). Two hours later, Bac showed up with a young kid driving an old car with no seatbelts, windshield wipers, door or window handles, or shocks. We soon learned the driver had never been to Nimba, either, though he assured us we would find the way.

We stopped to buy mushy avocado, roasted plaintains, lethally strong cigarettes and lots of water and ask directions before turning off toward the Ivory Coast. Mom snapped photos of all the village kiddies en route, happy that here people are a bit more relaxed about photos. (In Conakry, she was forbidden from her photojournalistic exploits, as people are a bit paranoid, perhaps thinking photographers to be spies.) Mom coveted the quintessential African photo of women carrying jugs of water, stacks of cloth, bottles of peanuts, you name it on her head, though she never got it.

Eventually we arrived at the village at the foot of Nimba, where an out-of-work miner with a serious case of plumber’s butt offered us his guiding services. After dropping off a gas can full of “white wine,” i.e., palm brew reeking like fermented feet, we started up the route in our trusty dusty vehicle, the rocky, windy path made more for goat hooves than worn rubber. At the next “station” up, we met a plump French couple I would have ever pegged as backwoods vets, but here they were, sunburns radiating beneath their khaki vests carrying GPS systems and animal ID books though it was doubtful much actually still stalked these woods.

Setting off on the trail, we left our guide Phillipe behind in the heat and dust within moments, leaving me to carry the backpack laden with 5 liters of water. Hearts pounding, we wound our way up the old mining road, completely exposed to the sun as it was flanked only by grass and a few token trees, the rest being huddled in the valleys where the trail didn’t go though all the birds did. We hardly saw any flora or fauna other than a remarkable variety of butterflies, the most beautiful being blue with golden stripes and orange targets on its wings that would have made Nabokov and my grandma gasp. When they would stop and open their wings to reveal their beauty, it made the crazy trip worthwhile.

Meanwhile Mom, out for the good sport award, was suffering from near heat exhaustion and a bladder infection that had her squatting in the steamy grass every few minutes. Under the circumstances, we decided to forego the top and set back down. It wasn’t until we were two-thirds down that we “caught up” with our guide, mom and I joking that he had our back – way back. He did show us the toothbrush tree, fed us wild grapes with bitter eggplant skin, and told us the names of minerals streaking the rocks sunset colors (though he could have told me the local word for booger and I would have just repeated it with feigned fascination). And he valiantly carried the bag, now void of its heft, downhill.

Our sweet, stoic driver was waiting for us at the bottom, swatting at a relentless storm of no-see-ums like his arms were windshield wipers. Our last tourist stop was an abandoned shack filled with cylinders of marbleized ore extracted with machines that left the area with all the foreign money, once it became clear that Guinea was not going to finance its railroad after all.

We picked up three of our guide’s friends and a couple dozen packs of expired water, our guide suddenly deciding to come along for the rest of the road trip to sell the water in Conakry. It wasn’t until after we get stopped at a checkpoint that mom asked me if I saw the rifle-looking thing they packed in with the water.

Having a bit of extra time, we decided to take the roller-coaster road to Bossou to see the famous chimps that lurk in the bush there. Mom had to stop and pee in the bushes every few bumps; our prissy guide complained of a backache from the road; the driver wasn’t saying a word. When we at last reached Bossou’s chimp research center, the director took us back to his office, put out his official nameplate, and said, “Je suis desole, mais c’est le jour du marche. Aucun de gens qui s’occupent de chimpanzees ne sont la maintenant.” I.e., no chimps today.

Immediately we do the road in reverse; soon after hitting the paved roads again, the rains come. At this point we realized mom’s window didn’t roll up and the windshield wipers didn’t work. Our driver rolled “doucement” (carefully) and put on his hazards as rain smeared across the splintered windshield. When we would hit dry pockets, he would zoom off to try to escape the next torrent. We were all silent and white knuckled until we finally made it home and could raise glasses to another day of survival.

Our next days, though only spent shopping, would be even more intense -- sweating over endless reams of cloth and cases of jewelry and stacks of cassettes, trying to cut a bulk deal… As translator, I end up negotiating, which I dread like the rainy season. We have clothes tailor-made for all our friends and family, chancing it without their measurements. One of the tailor’s assistants, a tall lean Liberian, stood in as our standard model: “Yes, tall like him but fat! His waist, but big chest! No slit here – you know what slit means?” We drew diagrams, hoping they’d magically get it all right, telepathically channel the leg lengths and bust sizes of our American friends.

Just as I’m getting used to having my mommy around, she’s gone, leaving me with sacks of hand cream, odor eaters, pulp fiction, Tobelrone, Stevie Wonder CDs and other Western delights she had lugged halfway across the planet for me. But as a toddler clinging to a blankie well knows, there is no substitute for the real thing. At least soon I will have my cook-maid guy in my new place who makes my bed and salads just they way I like them. I even successfully teach him how to make Thai curry, getting tired of riz gras and sauce feuille, the staple Guinean dishes.

***
As I edge toward my 30th birthday, I feel something in the stars steering me into a new career, my ideal to be working on development projects that fight poverty and support women and the environment. In N’Zerekore, we met a charming Guinean named Pierre, now working as the hotel’s accountant but trained as an economist. He wants to put in place a program of microcredit, to encourage a “human economy.” It’s refreshing to hear this term here, a term coined by the likes of Hazel Henderson back in the 70s that is now all the rage in America’s sustainable business circles.

The following weekend a lean, brown sugar-eyed boy whispered to me in Conakry’s arboretum, a universe of tall, winding, wisely trees with small hard red seeds, creeping vines and gigantic pods that brought me back to life’s mystery. Bouboucar showed me around the labyrinth of green and brown, being happily dwarfed by the towering trees looking over stinky trash heaps he called “compost”, rivaled only by his pungent body odor.

Within the arboretum (not quite so organized as that, but for lack of a better word), each family has a chunk of space for their leafed wares – hibiscus, fox tail, coffee, avocado, bougainvillea and countless others whose names I forgot before I could remember them. But with no water, so many plants dying… Each family had kicked in money to try to create a small reservoir, but the money ran out before they could finish building it. Ideas erupt in my brain – having them write up a plea for funds to send to NGOs in Conakry, hitting up plant lovers at home, giving them an interest-free loan, training them as botanical guides and offering their services to tourists.

He showed me saplings he’s tending for a tree plantation, arriving in the wee hours to water them for his aged father before heading off to school. But most excitedly he tells me about his latest venture – chickens. He already has 300 chicks but needs materials to build pens… 25 bucks is all he needs, certainly not a sum I’d miss. But why not put him to work in my garden? Quickly I call up Kassem, my Lebanese landlord, and get him a job fixing up a garden for my “villa,” though Kassem treats his workers less than humanely and I fear I’m just throwing him into the lion’s jaws.

It gives me hope at least to see kids like this, taking charge, building dreams… So many Guineans have giving up on making anything of themselves, resigned to what little they have, cynical about the corruption in Guinea’s government and business worlds. I would love to join with the likes of Pierre and start up some kind of microcredit project here for people like Bouboucar who just need a little boost to get started with a small business.

***

My apartment-to-be is not ready for April fool’s (April fish – Poisson d’Avril – in French) as promised, but I do move in time for my birthday, blessing it with incense a friend sends from Seattle and dancing around the house naked to Nina Simone -- enfin je suis chez moi, at last I am home, though home without an address, as I’m not even sure my road has a name.

My new home is on the grounds of the old Nigerian embassy, which is now in shambles; my view is of its rubble and the muscle men who work daily til dark to fix it up. Every day for weeks I yell at my landlord to fix everything – the door handle is broken, water doesn’t floor properly, the air conditioner is wimpy… Demain, insh’allah, tomorrow, if god is willing, he says, but God isn’t in the plumbing business last time I checked.

Still I realize how lucky I am compared to the guardian, who is temporarily living in the old embassy building with his wife (who amuses me endlessly by greeting me topless with the three-part finger-snap Guinean handshake) and kids, without light, furniture, stove, fridge, and all the other things I take for granted. I realize how ingrained is our capitalist thinking that if you have money, you have the rights to something, if not, the world owes you nothing.

At times I get depressed here, feeling the difference between an apartment building, where you may live alone but at least have the sense of people around you, and an isolated house where it’s just me and the guardians. Though I can hear children playing, singing and reciting the Koran on the other side of my wall, they seem so far away.

To add to my one-woman family, I steal two small scruffy kitties from their momma at a local restaurant. One promptly runs away never to come home; the other escapes the house after a few days hiding under the bed and refusing the cat food I’ve put out, perhaps waiting for the fish and rice scraps it got at the restaurant.

Two of the guardian’s boys finally get the hutzpah to come sit on my stoop – the elder one sat there watching me for an hour as I looked into the mysterious void we call a computer, then asked, “You’re alone here. Why can’t we come and live with you?” I give him a brand-new pair of shoes, a birthday present from a colleague, when he tells me he can’t go to school anymore because his shoes are broken. It seems like such a small offering in the face of the poverty here, but hopefully better than nothing.

My place has some nice touches, like a deck tiled with white and brown mosaics and semi-circular stairs, but the bathroom is worse than the Psycho shower scene -- the toilet, tub and sink in a wretched shade of blue last seen in the ’70s on the eyelids of disco chicks. Kassam promises to change the harsh fluorescent lighting and replace the dingy fabric on the wicker furniture, but it’s all a long time coming.

It’s just another chapter in the lesson book entitled “Letting Go of Having Things the Way I Want Them,” as well as its companion book “Clearly Stating the Things I Want Before It’s Too Late.” Either I spend precious endless hours doing things myself or I trust it to someone who’s bound to get it wrong (like my other young charge, a bike mechanic by night, student by day – who installs this god-awful “bell,” a police siren with four settings loud as a truck horn.)

Whatever my petty troubles, I have found an outlet and obsession to ease them: a boxing ‘gym’, where I am welcomed warmly, given a mouth guard (lavender or green?) and put to work until I’m hot pink and huffy puffy. The gym, in addition to the usual dusty cement floors and ancient graying paint, and iron bars on the windows, is festooned with photos of “boxeuse” like myself, pouting with painted, bruised lips and posing with their big red gloves. When I remarked on the posters, the trainers responded with pride, not seeing the irony – there’s nothing but male steel here, besides the director’s 9th grade daughter. The posters seem more like the pin-ups you see in auto body shops of chicks with melon breasts on motorbikes than truly celebrating the female athlete.

I will start training there every day I can; this becomes my daily sado-masochistic treat. After a few weeks on the bags, they let me in the ring with a small guy and told him to go easy on me. Happily they treat me like an equal and call out “faible!” (weak) when I throw a sissy punch. The guys are rather childish, being proper jocks, though their sculpted bodies invite primal fantasies… I can’t help but to peek when they strip down to their undies to weigh in.

Other than a few female colleagues I cocktail with from time to time, I mainly go out with the guys, like my drummer friend Lamine from the island. We hang out at his family house from time to time, where I dance with the girls and do karate with the boys and climb into the long, open arms of an apple tree (the courtyard shared between houses here always seems to have at least this God-given luxury). Getting a hold of Lamine is always difficult, as only his sister has a phone and she can’t call me on it because she never has any money. Like so many of the women I meet here, she seems so tough and yet tender, resigned to a probable life of poverty yet still dreaming of another life, whose design shows in the curvy red gown she wears when I invite her and Lamine out dancing.

Lamine is kind of like a big brother, bodyguard protection so I can run freely in the streets on cool nights, yet a kid, in that he doesn’t have any money of his own, not even enough for transport to come see me. Our friendship is difficult on this point, as it puts in my face the uncomfortable fact I constantly struggle with of being relatively rich in a very poor country… I make 30 times as much as he or the average guy makes here, yet I know that making him dependent on handouts from me isn’t exactly a sustainable solution either, and a poor basis for a friendship.

Day by day, petit a petit, molding into this new life, heat, stress and dirt and all. I am starting to feel at home, truly happy to be here, aware that I won’t be here forever and that being here a gift I can’t afford to ignore. If anything, more than missing reliable electricity and telephones, I feel the lack of deep companionship and creativity, the awe that comes from slow attention and observation, from taking walks and measuring breaths, that comes when the banyan tree you pass everyday pops out at you and says hello, as unforgettable as the girl next door.


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