Friday, June 19, 2009

“Planning” a Trip to Guinea

(written April/2009)
I am sitting on my bed pouring over the Guinea Chapter in The Rough Guide to West Africa, like it matters. There are notes in the margins, highlights, even comments scrawled in my binder, as though the facts about prices, decent hotels, and good bike rides will make my trip better. I close the book. I’ve been to Guinea, why am I doing this? Nothing I could possibly do with a guidebook—place it under a wobbly table or memorize it--could affect my trip in any way.
In the Western world, what they tell you is true: bad things happen to good people who don’t plan. A thriving community of conniving, unscrupulous evildoers pounce on good people who don’t check their tire pressure, don’t book hotel reservations in advance, don’t buy luggage insurance or those handy, irredeemably tacky money-hiding fanny packs.
In Guinea, no one believes in this adage, not because they are backwards, but because it doesn’t hold true there. Plan and spend as you like in Guinea, unaccounted, bizarre things, often of a biblical character, occur that can subvert your plans, big time. Dust storms, floods, pre-Islamic ceremonies, sudden deaths, snakes, strikes, inflation, illnesses, any sort of element from a Magical realism novel, could smite you without warning, humbling you into phrases like “It is in God’s hands,” “Man proposes but God disposes,” and “if it happened, it must be for the best.”
Once on the way from my village to Kourrousa, the barge that usually carried us across the river ran out of gas and began slowly to float down the river, thudding against the banks of the Niger as the women screamed and grasped at branches. Twice that same night, muddy roads and a steady downpour caused me to fall under a motorcycle. A few months later, my neighbor was bitten by a snake while milking a cow and promptly died.
Bad things occur with no warning, but the opposite is true too. You can impulsively jump on a notion to travel across the country with no money, and no plans and magically, through the goodness of people you meet, and thanks to the absence of unscrupulous evildoers that pounce on hapless adventurers elsewhere, it works out. That same night on the Niger, I slept at a stranger’s house many miles short of where I had planned on ending up, and made one of the few Guinean friends with whom I am still in touch. A world without consequences, a world where saying “it’s in God’s hands” is not a cop-out so much as a statement of fact.
I exaggerate, of course. There is a time when the “It’s-in-God’- hands” mentality is a sorry excuse for inaction that perpetuates the awful things that do occur so regularly. Once, very early in my Peace Corps service, traveling by bush taxi to Conakry, our car puttered to a halt as we came upon a bus slanted into a ditch. Several dead bodies covered with cloths lay beside it. Flies buzzed and landed. The bus’s other passengers cried quietly, or sat and stared at the road, waiting for Conakry-bound cars with vacant spots. My car took one of them. It had been a collision, she explained. Among the dead was a woman who was traveling to Conakry to meet her fiancé, who was arriving from France after years abroad. “God didn’t will it,” she explained, and I grimaced.
Peter Hessler, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in China and writer of River Town: Two Years on the Yangzte River, posits that this is why volunteers go on to “achieve” little in life. Forced to adjust to regularized chaos, he says, they can no longer see action as tied to results, nor failure as the result of inaction. In this world, struggling to prove a correlation between input and output is too frustrating. So volunteers often give up, sit back, and (ironically) prove the rule, that man is mostly powerless to determine his destiny.
But hope exists and, wonderfully, it is irrational. The people who do manage to change things manage to forgo reason, the reason that tells them their efforts will likely fail. Instead they rely on their convictions, irrational gut-instincts that their efforts could change something. (And while these convictions ARE irrational, the only guaranteed way to fail is never to try). So we have heard of these people: the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, the Isaac Newton, the Louis Pasteur, etc.
So when will someone demand or undertake to ensure better roads, better drivers, safety standards for cars and cargo carriage in Guinea? When will there appear journalists, op-ed writers, politicians and NGO’s that draw international attention to these awful accidents in a way that foments action, in a way that allows most Guineans to mock those who say “It’s in God’s hands” for blinding themselves to their own agency? If Peace Corps volunteers themselves, the supposed change-agents, can adopt these attitudes themselves, the magnitude of the challenge is clear. But hope, wonderfully, is irrational, and though I will soon give up on planning this trip, I hope that Guinea will one day become a place where all manners of planning are richly rewarded.


Blogger Alexandre Correia said...

Hello Alex!

How long are you in Africa? I'm traveling around the world since more than 20 years and I use to go to Africa several times a year. Normally, people from the "First World" (I'm portuguese) needs a lot of time to have experience enough to discovery the african way of life and the mentalities. You made a nice "picture" (please read commentary), showing that age isn't really fundamental to have experience. In fact, I know some 40's like me that never learn.

Alexandre Correia

PS - I'm sorry about my english. Probably, is full of errors. But, if you can read in portuguese, I invite you to read me in I hope you enjoy my stories about traveling around the world.

7:31 AM  

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