After finishing my work in Guinea, I took a few days to travel around the country, to see the Fouta Djalon region that people rate so highly. But I had forgotten how difficult it is to travel in this part of Africa, and my itinerary began to look way too optimistic.
On the first day I tried to get to the bus/taxi station early, to get the journey to Kankan, and from there to Dabola, over as quickly as possible. However no-one at my hotel was around, and my bill had to be prepared by hand, so I was late leaving. Then after a half-hour’s walk I finally got to the station a little after 7:30. The early taxi was already full and preparing to depart, and I was the first person in the queue for the next one. For those who have not travelled in this region I should explain that taxis (old Peugeots) usually operate on a fixed route basis, and the driver will not depart until all possible places have been filled. This means two (occasionally three) in the front passenger seat and four in the row behind, and lots of luggage on the roof.
If I have no fixed timetable I am quite good at dealing with this type of situation now. I know that I should choose a seat and put something (a cheap item of clothing) on it to save it, and then go and find a place in the shade to wait. There is no point asking what time the taxi will leave, no point in repeatedly looking at your watch – you just have to be patient.
I don’t tend to get out a book at such times as that would take me away from the place I am trying to experience. Instead I just sit and watch the life around: the women manning little stalls selling coffee, bread, oranges; the wandering salesmen with armfuls of men’s shirts, towels, steering wheel covers, fake perfumes, or whatever else they bought at the market earlier in the morning, hoping to make a small margin from those without the time or energy to go to the market; small children selling tissues, sweets and toothpaste; the occasional blind beggar with an obligatory small child to lead them around while they sing their prayers for alms; and assorted unemployed youths and women with babies on their backs passing through or hanging around. It is very entertaining, particularly if you enjoy looking at the women’s clothes and hairstyles.
Eventually there is movement in the taxi. My little rucksack on the roof is shoved aside to make room for big 50kg sacks of rice and bunches of plantains being loaded. The driver revs the engine and we start to get in. It is a tight fit as we all squeeze up, some of the women having to accommodate babies as well as more bunches of plantains and other packages.
Then the driver gets out and wanders off, followed soon after by most of the passengers. It was just one of those mysterious false starts that happen every so often, that I have never really understood. But it is at least usually the start of the departure process; usually we are gone within the next hour.
About an hour later we do set off. I squeeze my knees back into place and wedge my shirt against a sharp pointy bit in the seat back, to get as comfortable as possible. We back out of our parking place and go around the corner – where we stop. I think we may be getting some air put into the tyres. A couple of passengers wander off again. I get out to stretch my legs (one foot was already going numb), then jump back in quickly as the driver revs the engine and we go again. This time we drive back to our original parking place...
To cut a very long story short, we finally left at 13:00, and a journey that I had been advised should take three hours took six, so by the time I got to the first destination on my schedule it was already dark and therefore too late to actually see the place.
The next morning I was at the station by 6:00, as advised, by the driver didn’t even arrive until 7:00 and we did not reach our full complement of passengers until 11:00. We then had an hour of mechanical work on the car – and the second destination on my schedule went the same way as the first…