Travels

 

Slow Days and Smoking Dogs

Among the many things I am trying to learn here in Guinea, perhaps the most important is doing nothing. As a go-go-go kinda gal, this is a greater challenge than climbing a mountain or surviving a 12-hour workday. My homework is to pass a day in simplicity. I wake in the ice blue dawn before falling back into the darkness of a dream. I rise a few hours later and visit a friend. We joke with each other over rice and purple Guini Guini soda. His sister passes me her baby, and I peer into her black eyes, wondering where she has come from and where she will go in this life. I cycle home and read a book with Kéké purring in my lap, admiring his tiger eyes, leopard belly and tiny paws.

Nowhere else I have to be, nothing more I have to do. I try to remind myself that many a great idea was born in bed or the bathtub, that you can't run a marathon if your body isn't well rested, that you won't have anything to write about if you don't slow down enough to observe the world around you. But it's frightening sometimes, living in those empty spaces.

Ramadan really slowed life down to the pace of a dying snail. Those eternal minutes before the day's fast ended, like the clock hands were fighting molasses. I think countries like Guinea should be exempt from the Ramadan fast, as they already suffer all year long. If the point of the month is to commiserate with the poor, it should be for people like me, who don't know true suffering.

The fete marking the end of Ramadan was surprisingly quiet, feasts consumed with family and friends and clubbing for those youth who could afford it. Its customs seemed to be invented by children, who are generally exempt from the fast. Like trick-or-treaters on Halloween, kids go door to door and palm to palm saying "Sanamafou, Bon fete," whereby you have to cough up "small money." Then there's the obligatory clothes. My cook and my dance teacher both asked for money so that their kids/brothers could have new outfits. "They are bugging me every day for a new outfit for Ramadan ö all their friends will have them," said Mr. Sow, my cook, normally a very practical man. "You don't know city kids here. If they don't get money for clothes from me, they will probably steal it," said Lansana, my dance teacher. "I need to protect them from doing bad things." This was coming from two guys who barely had enough for their family's basic needs! (my cook having some ten children and two wives), without catering to the fashion demands of 10-year-olds. But who was I to dispute a cultural tradition like the Ramadan fashion parade?

I had to admit it was fun· Saroudja, his friends and I gorged on a huge meal chased with champagne I'd brought, and we went out tromping in the streets. We, too, had new clothes made for the fete, me in a tight red dress with pink and white polka-dots and Saroudja in a regal leaf-green bobo. Brothers and sisters had on matching outfits, often very sophisticated African numbers made from hand-dyed cloth. Some girls had on ridiculous pink sunglasses and frilly Western-style dresses circa Easter 1982, their older sisters in "sexy" (the local term for revealing clothes) and sale ("dirty") jeans with the fronts bleached out.

We've had another reason to fete, that being the pleasant window of weather between heavy rains and severe heat, and we've celebrated with several daytrips in the mountains.

One weekend we tackled a mountain known as Le Chien Qui Fume (the Smoking Dog). Country folk have learned to get their cut from the tourists tromping through their villages. We had to pay a local to show us where to weed through the bushes and wade through a river to pick up the path. Then a farmer uprooting peanuts demanded a fee for going up the mountain. Hardly an appropriate demand in its state, at least ö they had yet to "open" the path after the lush growth of the rainy season, when no hikers dared hit the slippery trail.

We crossed the river up to our knees, toes groping slippery rocks, hoping we didn't fall and drown our digital cameras. I zipped up the mountain like a goat, the razor grass hiding the narrow path slicing my legs and arms open. The salt of my sweat and the itch of the grass only irritated the wounds. By the day's end I looked like a whipped slave.

The Dog's dancing butterflies, running the spectrum of velvety colors, lime, lemon, coconut, sky, sun, chocolate, orange and butter, made the trip worth it. And at the end we made friends with the peanut farmer and traded him carrot sticks and corn cakes for freshly unearthed nuts.

For our next excursion, we headed to the countryside of Mamou to visit Saroudja's family. The excruciatingly long journey began with a woman run over by a taxi (the chauffeur, frightened of the consequences, jumped out of the car and ran away.) Then it took another hour to leave town as one of our passengers, an old woman with a broken leg, ate lunch and directed the loading of enough baggage to fill a freighter. Packed like eight sweaty anchovies in the car, we passed through storms, rainbows, checkpoints, infinite hills of green, becoming more achy, hungry, tired, grumpy, jumpy with each passing hour. I slept well that night, with the help of Mamou's cool mountain air.

Tourist sites don't really exist in Guinea. Instead one must be content to explore the marketplace, a living museum of African novelties. I wandered around Mamou like a curious child, examining homemade soap balls, the leather protection fetishes sold by the marabouts, tomato soup-like palm oil sold in old bottles, women scrubbing the innards out of calabash gourds, incense smelling like a Catholic church.

Saroudja's family was quite a crew ö Saroudja's fat aunt and refined uncle visiting from Kissidougou; his crazy little grandma dancing around and yelling at the fat Tantie; and another vielle (literally "old" but meant respectfully here) who was gravely worried that I wouldn't be able to eat 'their' food. Also among their numbers were a prowling calico, a dozen tweetering chicks and black baby goats so adorable you could just pinch their furry little cheeks.

I ground peanut butter and pounded corn for our dinner of cornmush and peanut sauce, chores to them but fun for me. His Tantie tortured us with hourly feeding sessions of bananas, oranges, rice, sour "cow's milk," peanuts, and a lamb head. When she left the room I made Saroudja chow down for the both of us while I chewed on a pretend lamb ear.

As darkness fell, drums galloped in the distance. We went to the source to find two crazy characters wailing on flutes, another piddling on a drum and a fourth giving testimonies on behalf of the crowd and collecting donations, which went directly to Skol beers. The candlelit magic that took me back to so many other nights where the absence of electricity gave everything its own glow· Waking mid-night to the starriest skies in a tiny Bolivian village in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Sleeping in a Buddhist monastery in the shadow of Mount Everest. Eating pita bread fresh out of a Bedouin's "sand oven" in the Sahara. Sometimes I replay the highlights of my life and find it is richer than any movie or dream.

Next day we left loaded with live chickens, baby bananas, watermelon-sized cucumbers and so many blessings. Saroudja's aunt kept squeezing my arms and legs, saying aninke aninke aninke, thank you thank you thank you, for befriending her boy.

25 people squeezed in the minibus for the windy eight-hour ride through kelly-green countryside. Our soundtrack was a Guinean rap tape someone kept blasting again and again. I was suffocating in the corner and our window wouldn't stay open. I was nuts by the time we got to kilometer 35 - city limits - and yet we had a few more hours to get home, as the traffic was solid as an ice cap for hours and miles. I felt like the subject of Munch's "The Scream".

Unfortunately I've been feeling that way more often than not these days. The duck horns constantly quacking at me, the idiotic pedestrians that walk n'importe comment in the streets, asshole drivers passing with reckless abandon, the kissy noises people make to get one's attention, the general wealth of stupidity here· I have noticed with great horror that I have started to become an angry, intolerant person, lashing out at anyone who disrespects the Western sense of time or tranquility.

That said, I report with glee that I'm leaving here for Ohio tomorrow for a brief Christmas family reunion. I'm incidentally escaping Guinea's first presidential election in seven years. Lansana Conte, a general who has been president since overthrowing Guinea's devastating dictator, Sekou Toure, is determined to stay in power until his last breath. The last election, Lansana took it upon himself to change the constitution to do away with term limits. This election will prove no fairer, as the government outright controls the radio and TV here, and in any case, the only other approved candidate is a relative unknown and buddy of Conte. This time he will have to find a loophole around a clause that says that the president cannot be disabled (he's practically on his deathbed with diabetes and its complications, and has hardly traveled in months). The whole thing is such a farce that even the European Union has spoken out against it, refusing to fund the election or ! send observers.

Yet he has inaugurated a huge new mosque in one of Conakry's sister cities, given priority to rice vessels coming in the port to lower mounting prices (meanwhile a boat loaded with food for the refugees got stuck several weeks in the port) and all the other usual road repairs and other reelection ploys. I should rather say a ploy to placate the people from supporting any kind of upheaval. The government has even been imprisoning potential rabblerousers within the military ranks.

In spite of my misgivings, I've decided to stick it out here for another year. I have a one-month assignment with Winrock, a US-based NGO that works in the environmental cadre. After that, I have lined up (if the UN resident coordinator approves the idea, as it is not an existing post) a year with the Mano River Women's Peace Network. The group works throughout the region to broker peace deals, fight for a women's voice in politics and train village women in conflict resolution, among other things. The approach earned them a UN Human Rights award earlier this month (http://www.un.org/events/humanrights/awards.html). The president, Guinea's former minister of social and women's affairs, is a no-nonsense, action-oriented woman who I hope will be a refreshing change from some of the talkaholic bureaucrats I've had to deal with. Wish me luck!


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