Back to the Motherland
July 23, 2003

"S'il vous plait, monsieur, My poor mom is waiting for me inside and she doesn't speak French... s'il vous plait, monsieur, can I go in?"

My United Nations identity card got me through one airport barricade, but now I was up against a hard-lipped security guard in full military regalia and the attitude to match. He found it perfectly fine for porters to be in the baggage claim area mauling my mom's luggage, though somehow I posed a security threat. It was a bad start to my perfectly laid plans to show off my new home, Africa, to my mother.

I was only three months into my contract as reporting officer for the UN World Food Programme in Guinea, a little-known and still littler-visited Francophone country on West Africa's coast. Guinea's distinctions include the rainiest city and nearly the worst economy in the world. And though there are no bean-counters on such superlatives, I would add worst drivers, stupidest pedestrians, sweetest fruit and best-cut men.

My stepfather, who has the inside scoop on travel advisories at the U.S. State Department, urged her not to come. Her friends, whose travels were limited to weekend getaways in the Bahamas, couldn't even imagine a mother's love being strong enough to chance the diseases, the heat, the unrest, the bugsˇ Even our friends of color back home said, "You go on girl, represent! You won't see us in Africa!"

But my loving mother just had to visit me. Of course, her journey had an ulterior motive: to see what I was really up to. Was I heeding the traveler's rule she had read about -- if it ain't peeled, boiled or packaged, it doesn't belong in your mouth? Was I altering my routes and routines to throw off would-be kidnappers? Was I was wearing a bike helmet? And God forbid I should need it, a condom?

I didn't have a good reputation amongst my family when it came to traveling. The night I spent stranded on a Bulgarian mountaintop after climbing the wrong peak. The undercover terrorist in Cairo I accidentally brought home. The block of hash I almost overdosed on in Kathmandu. It was my mother's prayers to an overworked guardian angel that I hadn't already ended up in a plaything in a Russian prison.

To restore my mother's faith in me, I had planned a "soft adventure"in N'Zérékoré, the heart of forested Guinea. To get from Conakry, the capital, to the far southwestern reaches of N'Zérékoré, your common traveler would have to spend a few days on the rough roads getting a massage their kidneys would never forget.WFP, however, had a comfy 12-seater plane that whisked us there over staircase waterfalls and bamboo forests in a few hours, with door-to-door chauffeur service to and fro the airport.

Arriving in N'Zérékoré, we checked into the four-star Nimba Hotel, named for Guinea's tallest mountain. Everything is relative: the hotel's electricity, we discovered, only worked from dusk to breakfast, generators being too wasteful to run all day for a handful of dignitaries' laptops. And look out, Everest -- Mt. Nimba stands at a mere 5,700 feet.

Though I had tried to shield Mom's intestinal tract from intruders with French mineral water, she spent the first night testing out the plumbing. Nevertheless, the next morning we had to get up early to tackle Nimba. I had arranged with my colleague Bangoura for a car and driver to pick us up at 9 am sharp so we would have enough time to mount Nimba before the sun did.

By 10 am, the chauffeur Bangoura had arranged hadn't showed up, and no one was answering pleas from "Charlie Zebra 89,"my UN radio handle. Two hours later, Hablos showed up with a kid driving a car twice his age. It wasn't exactly the cushy white four-wheel drive with the fancy communication systems I was used to being chauffeured around in: Look Ma, no seatbelts, shocks or speedometer. Its windshield was a splintered web that looked like it would shatter if you blew on it.

"Really, Mom, we had a nice car all picked outˇ"

She shrugged and laughed. "Sure you did. Oh, well, at least we won't have to sorry about spilling on the seats!"

Her reaction relieved and relaxed me. She had gone backpacking across Montana with my father in her younger days, after all -- it's not as if she came here to re-enact the Princess and the Pea. In any case, there was little we could do about it now.

We soon learned we had something in common with the driver. Boiro had never been to Nimba, either. We bought mushy avocado, roasted plaintains, and a six-pack of water while he asked directions. Mom shot me an are-you-sure-we-know-what-we're-doing look as Boiro turned off at a sign for the Ivory Coast, which was still recovering from a failed coup d'état. Our locale didn't stop her from snapping pictures of kids and mud huts out the window like her camera was a machine gun.

One of the only guidebooks to even mention Guinea confirmed that we were headed in the right direction. Nimba overlooks the troubled triangle where Liberia, Guinea and the Ivory Coast meet. A plant lover, I was excited to learn that more than 200 species of plants and animals called the Nimba massif home. The guidebook assured us that, for a minimal sum, local villagers would be happy to accompany hikers and share their intimate knowledge of the history, geology and botany of Nimba.

Eventually we arrived at the village at Nimba's foot, where Jean, an out-of-work iron miner with a serious case of plumber's butt, offered us his guiding services.

"I don't really know the plants, but there are some French botanists who are living on the mountain. We will go seek their help,"Jean said, or at least I think he said, if we understood each other's pidgin French correctly. I doubted Europeans would know much of the mountain's herbalistic secrets -- I was hoping to learn how to cure Mom's diarrhea with blister-bug legs boiled in baobab leaves -- but I supposed they would do.

Jean insisted that we drive up the mountain's first third before hitting the trail, and so we started up the rocky, windy path, made more for goat hooves than worn rubber. We politely declined Jean's offer of "white wine,"palm brew reeking like fermented feet served from an old gas can, on the grounds that we didn't want to dehydrate ourselves.

At the next "station"up, we met a plump French couple with radiant sunburns. Their khaki vests were laden with GPS systems and animal ID books, though they had yet to identify anything more than humans drunk on palm wine and the roosters that roused them from their hangovers. "Sorry, we don't know nothing about ze plants here,"said Sophie. "We cherche ze animals."

So much for Plan B.

Setting off on the trail, we left Jean behind in the heat and dust within moments, forcing me to carry the backpack laden with 5 liters of water. Jean had probably put as much time with his palm wine as Mom had on her Stairmaster, so it was easy to see how he could have trouble keeping up.

Hearts pounding, we wound our way up the old mining road, completely exposed to the equatorial sun as the trail was flanked only by grass. I had expected to hike through lush, magical thickets, being in the Forested Guinea and all. Yet Nimba's few trees were huddled in valleys where the trail didn't go though all the birds I'd hoped to see did.

The heat didn't bother the butterflies, though. They danced around us, showing off their velvety wings colored, lime, butter, sky, sun, and chocolate. The most beautiful was blue with golden stripes and orange targets that would have made Nabokov and my grandma gasp. When they would stop and flirt with us, their open wings revealing their beauty, it made the trip worthwhile.

Meanwhile Mom, out for the good sport award, was quietly suffering from a bladder infection that had her squatting in the steamy grass every few minutes. Under the circumstances, we decided to forego the top and started to descend. It wasn't until we were two-thirds down that we "caught up"with our guide. "He had our backs, alright -- way back,"I quipped.

Jean did show us a toothbrush tree, fed us wild grapes with bitter eggplant skin, and named the 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 iron ore extracted with machines that went home with their investors' Euros, once it became clear that Guinea was not going to finish its railroad.

"Normally it is customary now to give something to the guide,"said Jean as he held out our parting gift, a hunk of ore.

Grudgingly we handed him a folded wad of small bills. Jean had earned an Honorable Mention for the Good Sport Award, after all. We could have easily collapsed from heat exhaustion on our ascent, and he would have had some explaining to do to the local authorities, not to mention carrying more than a backpack full of water.

As we boarded our taxi, so did Jean, three of his friends and a couple dozen packs of expired bottled water. Our guide had spontaneously decided to profit from our presence by riding to N'Zérékoré to sell last year's swill. The other guys were just going "up aways."We were saving Nimba's delicate environment by carpooling, I told myself.

Having a bit of extra time and emboldened by Mom's easy-going attitude, I asked our driver to take the roller-coaster road to Bossou. Endangered chimps known to use stone tools lurk in Boussou's bush, and I wasn't going to leave the area without seeing something wilder than a grape.

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. We got stopped at a checkpoint and mom asked me if I saw the rifle-looking thing they packed in with the water. I assured her it was just a heat-induced mirage.

Every minute I felt more ashamed and regretful: what kind of a daughter was I, torturing my mother's bladder in such an extreme fashion? What would she make of my reformed adventurism now? I already knew I would have some explaining to do to my stepfather. Only a photo of the chimps juggling stone axes behind their backs could redeem this decision.

At last we reached Bossou's chimpanzee research center. Its director took us back to his office, put out his official nameplate and ran through the customary greetings that are a prelude to any serious discussion in Africa.

"The family -- ça va bien? They go well?"

"Very well, Dieu merci. This is my mother!"

"Ah, Madame! Your stay in Guinea -- ça va bien?"

"Say "tres bien, merci,'"I whispered.

"Tray bien!" she answered proudly.

"And the day -- it's passing well?"

"Tres bien passé, merci. But do you think we can see the chimps?"

"Je suis désolé, mais c'est le jour du marché,"he said. "Les gens qui s'occupent de chimpanzees ne sont pas là maintenant."

Translation: no chimps today.

Mom was nonplussed, not having expected much and worrying more about the trip back, but I was crestfallen. I had wanted things to go according to plan so badly I refused to acknowledge that the universe might not telepathically receive and carry out my wishes.

Immediately we did the road in reverse. Thankfully the rain waited until we had hit the paved roads. At this point we realized mom's window didn't roll up and the windshield wipers didn't work. To his credit, our driver, runner-up to the Good Sport Award, rolled "doucement" (carefully) and put on his hazards as rain smeared across the splintered windshield. When we would hit a dry pocket, he would zoom off to try and outrun the next torrent.

We all sat in nervous silence -- even our dark-skinned driver had turned white-knuckled -- until we finally made it to the city limits of N'Zérékoré. Never have I been so happy to see the squalor of a third-world city.

Back in the bar of our cushy-chaired hotel, Mom and I raised glasses to another day of survival.

"Tomorrow, we'll just go shopping and take it easy, okay??"I said.

She polished off her Skol and lit up a Cosmos. The traveler's rule had nothing to say about local beer and cigarettes. "I suppose you'll take me to buy some nice black-market blood diamonds?"

I shrugged and smiled sheepishly. This was not the first of our dubious adventures, and we both knew it wouldn't be the last, not with me as a daughter.

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