Road Warrior

I’m a bit of a celebrity in Conakry, being the only white person to dare to bike around town. Sometimes complete strangers will approach me when I’m in a store or on foot and ask, “Où est le vélo? (Where’s the bike?)” All the other foreigners are in their cushy white 4x4s where they belong, or in weathered taxis, where at least they have some rusty armor to protect them.

Admittedly, cycling in Conakry is as risky as sleeping unprotected with a Liberian hooker, and about as demeaning as being one. The peanut gallery is on all fronts: the kids chanting Foté-Foté (Susu for white) like an anti-war slogan, Lebanese Romeos making kissy-kissy noises from their car windows, traffic cops trying to arrest me for driving without a license.

There seems to be a tradition here about heckling cyclists. At first I thought it was spontaneous wit, until I heard the same wisecrack a dozen times. They include the following:

Je peux t’aider?” = “Can I help you along?”
Tu peux me supporter?” = “Can you handle my weight too?”
Déplacement!” = “Taxi!”
Donne-moi ça cadeau!” = “Gimme your bike.”
C’est bon!” = “Good!”
Foté!” = “Whitey!” (repeat ad nauseum)
Tu es fatigué?” = “Are you tired?”
“I loove yoo, baybeeee!”
De courage!” = “Have courage”

I used to find that last one endearing. I am often given the de courage while engaging in physical activity, whether cycling or running from bandits. How nice, I thought, that they are encouraging me. But more and more I have come to feel like they are cheering me on in that Special Olympiad kind of way. Even the cripples outside the mosque shout it out at me. I want to make a t-shirt that proclaims “White girls can jump -- and run and bike. P.S. My name’s not Foté.” Little do these well-wishers know that I actually box large, hard-bodied men in my spare time. I could use some courage in that endeavor, but they don’t have it on tap there in the ring.

If you watched a film showing just my face as I bike down one of Conakry’s demo-derby streets, you’d probably think I were manic-depressive. Grimacing, I shout “qu’est-ce que tu fous, tu sais pas conduire!" ("What the hell are you doing, you don’t know how to drive!”) like a ranting street person as yet another taxi cuts me off, leaving me to veer into a small lake (“drainage” does not exist in local languages), splashing muddy water on my already sweat-stained work clothes.

Then a cute, shrunken old guy in a long bobo gown gives me a big thumbs-up with an infectious toothless grin; my face crinkles kindly back at him. The Kodak moment doesn’t last long; “Bête!” I yell, as a truck overloaded with Chinese rice leaves me in a black cloud that cuts my visibility and oxygen by half. My face again sweetens as some toddlers not yet old enough to say “Foté” waddle and wave at me…

I suppose my cavalry is karma. Back in the States, where cautious driving is still a living practice, I am an outlaw. Stop signs and traffic lights (neither of which exist here), in my opinion, are for the unthinking cyclist. If there’s nothing coming, why sit there wasting time or momentum? And why go the long way just because you’re faced with a one-way street? That’s why bikes are skinny – to fit between lanes.
But you can ride that way in America because you know how the rules work, and more importantly, the rules work. Like they always say in writing classes, you have to master the rules before you can learn to break them.

In Conakry, I am forced to drive on the defense because I have yet to divine the rules by which these drivers live. For example, one of the main arteries becomes a one-way drag for the morning commute, yet there are absolutely no signs to indicate this (I leave you to imagine the frightening way in which I learned this). There is also an unwritten rule that a driver has the right to barrel onto your side, forcing you into a roadside cripple or into his grill, if there is a pothole on his side of the road. And of those there are plenty, plenty, as they say in Creole.

Perhaps the only law of the lane-less Guinean road that people uphold is the one stating that you must honk before passing. And honk they do, like a band of rapid geese plotting a revolution against feather-pillow producers. The average Guinean car lacks functioning seat belts, window handles, windshield wipers, speedometers, gas gauges or even lights, but I have yet to see a car without a working horn.

The right of way here also follows a law -- Darwin’s. The guy with the biggest caboose rules the road; the UN chauffeurs sitting pretty in their land rovers have rights over the lowly driver of the “Macbana,” which is something like the corroded shell of a mini-van packed tighter than a slave ship. This right of way is taken quite literally. Once a guy tried to turn smack into me, and when I started lecturing him on right-of-way, he said “But I signaled,” quite proud of his on-road politesse.

As a cyclist, I am not quite at the bottom of this wheel-eat-wheel food chain. As there are no sidewalks in Guinea, pedestrians compete with us two-wheelers for the shoulder. This means I can run the schoolchildren in their pretty checked blue uniforms off the road, and tant pis, too bad, for them -- Gotta look out for #1 on this highway to hell. Often the older ones are little hellions, playing chicken with me, grabbing my handlebars, trying to make me flinch or yelling out one of the aforementioned slogans. So I figure better to look tough and not give them a chance to act up. Moreover, both pedestrians and cyclists must fight taxis for the fringes of the road, as they are known to veer to the shoulder without warning or clearance to pick up or drop off a passenger.

By the time I get to work -- riled up, dirty, sweaty and, on a rare occasion, bruised -- I am indignant. Every day is a struggle just to survive my daily commute. Yet no one else seems to find Guinea’s roadway customs quite so contemptible. Is it my good old American sense of entitlement, the mother of righteousness and outrage? That all countries should respect basic human rights, like the right to ride a bike to work without being attacked by rice-truck exhaust, Lebanese hustlers, traffic-cop comedians, homicidal taxi-men or high-school hoodlums? How dare I demand something so obviously unattainable. Any other way and it just wouldn’t be Guinea.


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