West Side Boys Story

Readers of my last blog, who did not immediately unsubscribe after reading it, will be pleased to hear that things have improved since I wrote it. I am once again sitting on a beautiful, mostly clean, mostly hassle-free beach, this time in Sierra Leone. I’m still not with any other travellers but my optimism has been reinvigorated by an encounter in Guinea, ironically the dodgiest place I’ve been yet.

Freetown Couchsurfing Meetup on River #2 Beach.

My saviours were three young French women, whom I shall hereafter refer to as ‘girls’, (Even though they are all far too old to fit into this category, society has deemed it acceptable to refer to women of any age as girls (or little girls or babies, especially in love songs) which I find worrying and try to avoid doing), and they couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Crossing the border from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea, I was told there was no regular transport due to some French word I didn’t understand, and that I had to take an expensive motorbike taxi to the next town. Of course, I assumed this was a lie to overcharge me and offered the driver half his first price. He accepted. I felt vindicated. 50km of bumpy dirt track later, at night, at speed, without a helmet, and with two stops to inflate the front tyre and one to change it completely, I arrived in Koundara.

There, in my super-expensive-yet-visually-derelict two-room hotel, I was once more told there was no onward transport due to this ‘greve’. I finally remembered I had a translator app on my phone and worked out this meant a general strike, and furthermore that the incumbent 81-year old president was proposing to change the constitution to allow himself a third term, and that the people were angry and ready to be violent towards each other. In other words, the usual African stuff. (It was a good app.)

Local entertainment outside my hotel, Koundara

I spent the following day killing time and hoping transport would be forthcoming, and that’s when I met the three girls from Brittany. At last – decent conversation! While we initially agreed to travel to the next town, Labe, together and maybe look into some hiking, what actually happened was we ended up fleeing Central Guinea under cover of darkness, after demonstrations in Labe resulted in three deaths and unofficial highwaymen dragging logs across the roads to extort passing travellers.

We were advised to stay put, not that we had much chance as we were between two such barricades. Some locals claimed it was fine and others that we should wait a few days then get the hell out of Dodge. The French embassy were more circumspect and told us not to risk even leaving the hotel. Trekking was off, either way, so we commissioned a brave driver to attempt to take us to Conakry, the capital. Predictably we were stopped at the very first barrier by young scallywags with sticks, machetes and axes (and one slightly underwhelming one with a hacksaw blade) demanding ten times more than the locals were having to pay. There was some animated discussion between them and the driver and for a second it all got a bit hectic.

I must point out here that despite its reputation, and the ridiculous admonitions of government travel websites (‘Reconsider your need to travel’, indeed. I’m a dromomaniac!), I had not felt in danger anywhere I had been so far in West Africa. I’m no fool; I can sense when I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be, when I accidentally walk into the wrong neighbourhood, and I skedaddle. I’m gone. That hasn’t happened. Additionally, almost everyone I’ve met has been super-nice and friendly and helpful. Like, across the board. And if you’ve read either of my books you’ll know I don’t sugar-coat my opinions of the locals, unlike most bloggers. I can’t even remember being overcharged that often, since Morocco, at least.

How to burn your own country to the ground - charcoalise it!

Anyway, it all got a bit heated and we turned around, sharpish. The trouble then was that we couldn’t access a bank from our bolthole, and we didn’t have enough cash for another night in the hotel plus the driver the next day. One of the locals, just a guy who overheard us talking, was so worried for us and our diminishing funds that he demanded we stay at his house, which was actually only a room with a bed for himself and his wife and child, and just enough floor space for the four of us. It’s what you’d call an ‘authentic homestay’. It was fun.

The next morning at 4am we snuck out of town. The youths manning the barricades were still in bed so we got out of the trouble zone by 8am and were home free. Well, until we got to the outskirts of Conakry and were gouged by the regular police. I had wondered why a general strike justified the implementation of highway robbery, and now I realised the kids were just following the example set by the cops. Terrific.

My saviours and our local Conakry host. Phew!

Fortunately, I had three companions throughout this wild ride, both for company and to help translate what the hell was going on. While Guinea as a whole (and Guinea-Bissau for that matter) was a politically broken, rubbish strewn 'sh*thole country' (to quote the petulant Tango monster currently reversing the US back to the last century) it proved that location doesn't matter as long as the company is good.

Then I came here, to a country riven in the last couple of decades by horrific civil war, marauding rebel bands with a penchant for maiming and child soldiers, and the Ebola outbreak that thwarted my original attempt to do this trip, four years ago. (Was it that long?!) I loved it immediately! So much cleaner than any sub-Saharan country so far, vibrant and colourful and all those cliches, and very friendly to boot. I met up twice with the Freetown Couchsurfing mob, who were very welcoming, and this has certainly inspired me to make more of an effort.

While my social interaction tank has been temporarily topped-up, I’ve been actively trying to find other travellers rather than just hoping I’ll bump into them. I’ve looked on several travel buddy websites, but with little success. They seem to be mostly local girls looking for hook-ups or scammers posing as local girls looking for hook-ups. I’m trying to coincide with some Hash House Harrier clubs but so far no dates have lined up. I joined a W. Africa Facebook travellers group, and I believe there’s a WhatsApp group as well. Hopefully one or more of these will pay off, and garner that chance meeting with a super-cool backpacker who is going my way, and at my speed. Fingers crossed.

The wad of Guinean Francs for the driver to smuggle us out of Labe

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