My flight arrived at 2:00 in the morning with the kind craziness and chaos only west Africa can claim. Hundreds of passengers with health papers scrawling their names and trying to ram their baskets through impossible passageways.
Welcome to Guinea.
I readied myself for the barrage of taxi drivers that I knew would be waiting to pounce on me as soon as I exited the baggage claim. I wasn’t that concerned. I had a plan. After years of travel, I know better than to arrive in a country this off-the-grid in the middle of the night without having a driver set to pick me up. The hotel had assured me that they had everything all taken care of. Hotel… ha ha. That’s funny.
As you might have guessed, there was no one sent to pick me up. In spite of me confirming this repeatedly, there was an email message to call a someone there when I arrived. It was obvious I had woken up whoever the number belonged to and he spoke no English. It wasn’t French either, but some native language that could have been any of seven different African dialects. As I tried to communicate, a well spoken man came to me and asked how he could help me. He talked to the sleepy man on the phone and then promised he’d negotiate a taxi for me.
At this point I hadn’t changed money so all I had was the dollars I’d hidden in my money belt and a debit card I normally use for ATMs.. Guinea’s currency is nearly 9,000 francs to $1, so theres a sizable stack of cash you’ve got to lug around if you’re changing $100. Changing money was my least favorite scenario, but one always needs a plan B.
A fight broke out next to the taxi. It turned out to be caused over the two people who saw me first and the question of who should have first dibs on shaking down the dumb white tourist. It took only a few moments to discover this was because of my new found friend. He was a hustler who had lured me out in the rain to jump the taxi line and get himself a nice commission. Meanwhile, the rain kept pouring down and I could see and hear junky beat-up cars honking, and hundreds of people who looked like they had no reason to be there. It made Dante’s inferno look inviting.
I also discovered that the conversations my “helper” had with the hotel rep didn’t seem to involve directions and it wasn’t really about getting me to my hotel at all. These personal assistants had grown into a staff of four people expecting a tip for talking to me and arranging a taxi ride that I could have done on my own with a map and calculator.
The driver wanted money up front. At least that’s what I was told by the English speaking guy so he could get his cut before we sped off. I decided it best to leave my growing posse and get some cash. Flashing cash is not anything you want to do in a country like this at 2 am, but I had to have some money. As expected, neither of the ATMs worked, so I changed $100 as subtly as I could with one of the hawkers. By subtle, I mean counting stacks of 2000 franc bills like some drug dealer in front of hundreds of onlookers. Everyone knew exactly how much money I was changing and seemed to me to be mentally spending it. A new “helper” came up who “worked for the airport” and claimed he had a personal stake in my safety and would personally ride along with me to make sure I was safely delivered to my hotel. He also claimed to have lived in South Dakota for while. My BS detector said “liar”, so I asked him where. “In the US” he replied. He thought South Dakota was a city.
My posse of hustlers now numbered at least six people- I had already pocketed the cash I changed and had alluded to the fact that that was the only money I had brought with me. I pulled out what seemed to be the right amount to pay the driver and gave him his 200,000 F. Of course the translator had to count it out and keep a few thousand for his commission. There was $6 in francs left in my hand to “tip” him and the second guy. From nowhere, I felt a hand on my shoulder as two burly cops appeared in camouflage uniforms with machine guns. I thought they were there to help, but they tried to physically wrest the money out of my hand. Was everyone in on this? If you can’t trust the police, you’re screwed. I needed to my get out of there before a trigger got pulled.
I told them no. I intimated it was the last of my money and it was going to the hustlers who’d invested 20 hard minutes shaking me down. The cops were insistent. I avoided looking at them, circled around the car, hopped in the back and locked the door. There was some sounds of muttering and dissatisfaction. The same kind of feeling you get when you walk through a square full of pigeons with a baguette and don’t share with them. Everybody hoped to get something because that’s what tourists are for. The nerve of me!
To my relief the taxi driver got in the car and turned the key. Nothing happened. The battery was dead. Losing my money was one thing, but the guys with guns had thrown me off balance. I didn’t want another round with them.
Suddenly the hustlers were back. Helping the driver push start the car, no less. They had value after all! It took a few tries, but the engine finally sputtered to life. I hoped the driver knew where he was taking me and I called the hotel rep again just to make sure. I also had pulled a map off the app to pinpoint the place where we were headed. We rode down a horrible potholed dirt road. The car had no headlights. The only light at all was a fuel warning letting the driver know we were dangerously low on gas. We drove through giant mud holes shaking the frame with ever bump.
The road was pitch black dark and there were very few lights ahead.My spidey sense was tingling and I started wondering if maybe I might be being set up for a robbery. There were at least half a dozen people who knew where I wanted to go, knew I had no idea where I was going, or what they were saying. Plus, all of them knew I had at least $80 on me. In some countries, you can get whacked for half of that. The driver stopped the car on the dark road and jumped out with the key. I heard him yelling at someone and trying to get their attention. I readied myself for my door to fly open and be greeted by an unwelcome guest. I couldn’t see anything out the window but I heard someone jiggling my door. Listening more carefully than my imagination would allow, I realized what happened. We were out of gas and he was buying some from a random man along the way. The sounds near my car door were him dispensing the fuel into the tank.
The hotel appeared to be getting closer on the map, but there was no sign of civilization. The driver stopped again where we were supposed to turn but didn’t know how to read a map. I’ve found that a surprising amount of drivers in other countries are illiterate or don’t understand maps. They can’t understand a representation of a place, only spoken directions.
At my insistence we turned down a road that looked even less like a road and drove until it stopped. There was nothing that remotely resembled a hotel. He got out and started banging on the metal gate and three young African boys appeared. “Is this Hakaba?” I asked. One nodded his head as if he understood. The place was pitch black dark and obviously had no electricity. I wondered if it ever had electricity. I used my dying phone’s flashlight to wander up the stairs in this dark building. It was sweltering and the bedroom had nothing but a bed without a blanket. I felt like I was part of the Blair Witch project rather than a hotel guest.
I locked myself in the room knowing it would be light in a few hours and this nightmare would be over. Outside a pack of dogs barked incessantly.
The next morning I booked a hotel in the city with my phone’s remaining charge and hired a motorcycle taxi to drive me there. It took an hour of crazy traffic, but now I have electricity, AC, water, and there’s a store nearby. I set up my tour to start tomorrow. I’m not going to try and do these countries without some help. So, happy ending!