Guinea - Part 1

Trip Start Sep 08, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Friday, January 12, 2007

My New Year was spent in Guinea. Two days after my visit to Guinea, the country has exploded into anarchy and mass public protests. This is a coincidence. As things stand now, nobody will be visiting Guinea for a while, which is a shame because it is one of the most beautiful countries I have had the pleasure of visiting. 
Landscapes dominated by jagged mountain ranges, acres of tropical rainforests and spectacular waterfalls, vibrant music and drumming traditions, friendly and welcoming people. And best of all no tourists.

I very nearly didn't make it Guinea at all. A planned quiet evening the night before was thwarted by the arrival of a bunch of volunteers who had heard I had cunningly "tidied away" the leftover alcohol remaining from the VSO xmas party and were selflessly determined that I should not suffer the burden of having to drink it alone.  It was a sorry band of travelers who dragged their asses to the airport early the next morning. I found myself with a less-than-practical assortment of items in my luggage that included things that had seemed reasonable at the time (such as a flashing tiara) at the expense of more dull items such as my credit cards or resident's permit allowing me back into Gambia. In retrospect I should have packed before drinking.

I have never had the opportunity to explore Banjul airport before. I hope I never have such an opportunity again. There is nothing to do there.  The only thing of any curiosity was the absolutely dazzling lack of interest in security. The airport official was playing Snake on his phone as my bags went through the scanner and he paid as much attention to them as he did the customers popping in and out of the gate to buy cans of soft drinks from the only open café. The holding area included an outside patio right next to the runway and about 30 feet from a largely unwatched plane. There was a 6 feet wire fence separating us from the plane to thwart people from simply strolling over and boarding it, but the fence included a gate secured only by a flimsy and rusted padlock that would have proved little of hindrance to any enterprising rebel with a pair of pliers. I comforted myself with the thought that would-be terrorists generally seem to prefer more of a challenge.

My worst fears about Slok Air were realized when I boarded the plane. During the safety demonstration we were informed that the plane did not stretch to carrying life jackets so in the event that we crashed on water, we were to cling onto our seat cushions. No joke. They had even thoughtfully sewn on handholds. My rising terror at this announcement was not calmed even by the safety illustration card in the seat pocket which showed a picture of a man beaming from ear to ear as he bobbed around on his cushion in the waterlogged wreckage of his plane.

I found Conakry, the capital city of Guinea, completely overwhelming. The sheer size and volume is just something so far removed from my experiences in Gambia that I just couldn't cope with it. God help me if I move back to London in the future. Our only reason for being there was to sort out logistical issues such as changing money illegally (the only way) which was exciting as it made me a millionaire for the first time in my life.

Guinea has virtually no tourists - something to do with its bloodthirsty history and inaccessibility. In 1958 when France offered its colonies the option of staying within the Franco-African community, Guinea was the only country to stick two fingers up at the French and demand immediate independence. Furious, the French evacuated, taking their money with them and as a parting gesture, tore up the infrastructure they had built, on the way out. Between the subsequent frosty relations with the West and the "Reign of Terror" period in the 1970s when thousands of people were tortured and murdered by the increasingly paranoid leader of the time, Guinea has never made it onto any "top family holiday destinations" list.

Consequently the national tourist office is not exactly high profile - to reach it we had to wander down a back street, climb up the fire escape, roam through a myriad of twisting corridors and then finally burst in through an unmarked door to find it. Our entrance came as somewhat of a shock to the lonely employee sitting inside, who after getting over his fright, was thrilled to see us. I wouldn't be surprised if we were the first people to come through his door all year.
The only sign that this was indeed the tourist office was the Blue-Peter-style collage of magazine photos of Guinea on the wall that I suspect he had made himself to while away the isolating hours. He had nothing so useful as a map or brochure to offer us, but he did photocopy for us the "Order du Mission" - a letter signed by various political heavyweights that promises tourists unhindered passage through the country, which he assured us should see off a good proportion of the extortion attempts that the military would make on us along the way. Thus armed, we declined his forlorn pleas to stay and chat, and left him to his solitude.

To be continued....
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starlagurl on

Great blog post on Guinea!
Guinea is in the news lately because of a coup. So, I featured your blog in the TravelPod company blog today:

Louise Brown
TravelPod Community Manager

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