Thursday, June 01, 2006

90 km from Banfele to St Petersburg

The first part of May was all about Alex encouraging Guinean private sector growth by buying rice and sauce in every town except Banfele…I biked all major roads into my site: Anne, a Kankan-based third year, and I biked from Kankan to Baro for the semi famous “fete de la mere”(50 k), then to Kourrousa (23 k) and on to Banfele (75k). We then headed down the crappy, stunning Kisidougou road (2 day 140 k) parted ways in Kisi, I visited a Volunteer in Faranah and biked home from there (85 k done at she-man warp speed).
Cruising down what for all intents and purposes was a small cliff, across a river and up a deeply grooved sand-and-bedrock mountain, I wondered aloud to Anne what exactly they meant by ‘Kisidougou “ROAD”’. Skinny athletic Anne could practice yoga-lotus position, munch on her paranoidly large stash of cookies and sardines, and contemplate signing up for the tour de france, all while careening down a gravelly gorge. Alex, on the contrary, handlebars gripped with unseen force, eyes boring into each menacing, death-trap-concealing pebble, wondered if she shouldn’t have sought out more benedictions from her village chief before heading out. But that grueling first day of 90 km the scenery changed instantly from dry brush to bright green sub-tropical forests, with baobab, coconut, and nere trees climbing so improbably high as to dwarf villages into dolls houses, and infuse an aura of magic into each first glimpse of village. Tucked into a hill, framed in the trees, a cluster of conical huts emerges with not a single relic from this era. Naked kids dance around, yelling tubabu to announce our arrival to any unobservant 2-year-old who are not already having a cow, women carrying long bamboo polls for mango harvesting stop and stare, and a requisite cluster of proudly indigent men look up from their intensive tea-drinking, smoking, and radio-listening to “saluer” from their bench beneath the stunning village baobab tree. With characteristic generosity, we are given pump water, mangos, and the always-delectable unhomogenized milk with sugar (although the preponderance of this last one might cause me to pass a kidney stone by the time you receive this).
At dusk, nearly catatonic from exhaustion, Anne and I roll into Albariah and muster our remaining charm. Following some exemplary malinke salutations, we banter about our Superhuman feats of strength---the 90 k we’ve just biked—, the incomparable beauty of the Albariah Sous-prefecture, the unparalleled and FRANKLY nationally renowned Centre de Sante, oh, and the fact that we need a place to stay. “Uh, HUH” is the consistent response, that incredibly validating, highly contagious, but not necessarily promising Guinean affirmation sound.
It gets dark and begins to pour. Some kids make a move towards Anne’s money pouch. A smiling official approaches us but demands an “ordre de mission” (official work papers). He leaves when we can’t produce them. “We might have to bribe them,” Anne whispers, uneasy, as we huddle on the bed lent us by a vender-lady as rain pounds the tin roof.
Presently we are lead to the Sous-Prefet, who motions for us to jump in his stunning, I-play-the-DC-lottery-and-win-or-steal-from-the-federal-coffers-and-walk 4 X 4. I am elated. Anne is still nervous. And with reason—instead of heading into town, the Sous-prefet calmly turns off the main road into the brushy darkness as the rain obscures the headlight glow.
“This is one of those Peace Corps-cover-up-Volunteers-deaths that my mom writes me about, (when she’s not asking about the food or whether I’ve met a nice Jewish boy with Medecins Sans Frontiers),” I think. In fact, this is the part where I profess my ambiguously platonic love to Anne(drew?), we disappear, our images are broadcast the world over while our families launch a Natalie-Holloway-esque search except not for as long because we are not nearly as attractive.
Just then, a gate appears in the headlights with a Cyrillic phrase written on it, like the label on a cheap Russian vodka bottle (always a good omen for recent college grads). We have arrived at a Russian gold mine where a tough, energetic old Director, and a kind, lonely, doctor receive us warmly. At that moment, the tragedy/hypocrisy of accepting shelter from the very sort of enterprise I vehemently opposed in Ecuador was only vaguely apparent to me; relief—mixed with the comforts of ELECTRICITY, RUNNING WATER, SALAD, and CLEAN SHEETS--all but purged me of my ideals.
After a lovely breakfast, sore but well rested and relieved of the cumbersome weight of social conscience, we knock off the remaining 50 k with ease, and arrived in Kisi by early afternoon.