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