2011. január 7., péntek

welcome to the jungle

Wild green border crossing
Adventures in the jungle and administrative labyrinth of the Guinea-Sierra Leone border zone

For some reason I thought after Guinea that my African trip will be no longer adventurous but as usual, I was wrong. Three days ago I went out at dawn to the taxi terminal in Bamako, from where cars depart to Kankan, Guinea with 11 passengers in each car. To be make my trip more successful, I found a good guy from Sierra Leone who was going to the same direction as I, Kono.

Earlier I checked what the clever guidebooks write about my imaginary route. Because on the map it looks great that there is a route from A to B, but what kind of obstacles I have to overcome there, of course, does not appear on the map. My plan was to enter from the north to Sierra Leone. The 'Holy Planet' says that Sierra border officers sometimes do not accept the valid visa, and force the tourists (not much crazy bastard are coming this way) to buy another one for 100 euro. My passport is full, so that’s not a risk that I’ll have to take. Then it says roads are really shitty there, and there is hardly any traffic. But the best advice is to avoid it by far. This aroused my curiosity just sufficiently, so I decided to see this unrecommended place for myself . It was not a difficult decision. Plan B was to take a 20 to 24 hours taxi ride back to Conakry, Guinea, stay for the night, leave the next morning by another taxi to Freetown, then up to the northeast. So that’s a three-day trip, in addition I have to go back to the wonderful Conakry, while the other way takes only two days. I was thinking if all goes smoothly, I will win one day, and if I encounter more adventure, that will be a plus.

Everything went perfectly to the Guinean Kankan. I have seen a thousand and one horribly ugly city in my life, but Kankan beats them all. The situation and the scenery are like a city after nuclear attack: ground floors, everything destroyed, nihilism with a university – I guess not many international visitor professor come by. So we started from Kankan for Kissidougou the 180 km far away, and thought that we can still comfortably get there before dark. We couldn’t … There was only one taxi and I was really surprised that the car tire can hold the car’s weight. We could start it up only by pushing. The model was Opel Kadett 1.3, those of you who know this type also know that this is rather not a huge car, but nine people easily fit in. I don’t want to glorify this trip, we made the 180 miles over 9 hours, with nine brake downs. It had three punctures, furrows couldn’t be seen in the spare wheel, and the rubber was so thin that I could see the textile under it. Secondly, there was no wrench, or lift in the car. The last blow-out was fatal, so I started to hitchhike in the middle of the night with my Sierra buddy, Solomon. He was with me since morning, and constantly translating what the locals were talking among themselves in bambara and in other languages. I was not so happy about this, because as it turned out, a couple of times they wanted to rob me (at the Bamako taxi terminal a team was laughing at me, and one guy came towards me, saying ‘he's mine’ ... but wasn’t :-) At one of the brake downs the passengers were contemplating whether to give a call to the police or the bad guys who would practically rob me on the roadside at night. That is why Solomon insisted on a quick hitchhike, although I initially wanted to walk. In Guinea the local custom is that if someone is in trouble, especially when he or she is a foreigner, they look at first what they can get out of it, they take it and they leave you. This has been said by many travelers, and I also had the impression that their love of money is simply unscrupulous. Here in Sierra Leone people hate Guineans, exactly for this reason. In this country, it is inconceivable that someone does not help when you are in trouble. I’m asking constantly how much does it cost, and should I pay immediately, but the answer is always ‘take it easy’, ‘money doesn’t matter’. But they are the same poor guys as Guineans. Despite this, I never been cheated although I initially paid for the poor fellows with five thousand notes, but they gave back the exact change to the last penny. I asked a couple of Sierras what’s the reason behind this huge difference in mentality between the two neighboring countries. Not surprisingly, the colonialism of the British rule was the explanation. The French must have gotten something terribly wrong.

Before Kissidougou, at a military checkpoint the situation started to get rough. At first they picked a fight because they said I haven’t got all the vaccines but it’s not true. I’m sure the soldier who began to turn the pages of my vaccination book has never seen so many letters at the same time. Finally, after half an hour discussion we compromised with 15 thousand francs, ca. EUR 2.5 – he started from 40 thousand. It’s all great that the new president (from captain to president - this career is better than al-Gaddafi’s) promises to eliminate the corruption. (Since then that president Moussa Dadis Camara was shot in head he survived but he lost his power). Guineans want to believe in him, but I’m sure that future generations will still have this burden.

In Kissidougou another danger lurked, the unscrupulous accommodation providers, passed on the information about our arrival. So following Solomon's advice we tried to move on in the night to the border town of Guéckédou. Only one car went into that direction, a military jeep, which cost 3 Euros (ca. 15 thousand francs), and we put our stuff to the back of the pickup with ten other guys. The first time the commander asked 15 thousand francs, but when I gave it in his hand, he said it was too little, and he assured me, it will be much better for me if I gave an extra 5 thousand. There was not much argument against this... We managed to leave around 2 a.m. on terrible roads – I was lucky I had a good place: I was sitting in the backside of the plateau with my legs were hanging down. But at least the idiot and drunk soldiers haven’t hassled with us at the military checkpoints. Around 3 a.m. we stopped for an hour, then I felt into a deep sleep. For an adventure it was perfect: almost full moon, traveling in the jungle on the plateau of a jeep...

Then in Guéckédou it all became apocalyptic. A friend of Solomon was coming for him by motorbike to take us over the border to Kono. I asked how much, he said 80 thousand. We were in Guinea; so I thought he meant Guinean francs which equal EUR 16. This amount of money seemed realistic enough for a four-hour motorbike ride on cruel terrain – later it turned out he didn’t mean Guinean Franc but Leonie which is worth double. Between the two countries there is no traffic practically; not too many options remained for me anyway. Choosing the regular road would have meant bribing the soldiers at every checkpoint of course, so taking of the advice of Solomon’s friend we went into the jungle, taking the hidden trails, across tiny villages on foot paths. This has to worth everything, I love to ride, and this was the most beautiful jungle I've ever seen. All the women were walking around half naked, they were not shy and all the men were muscular.

By the time we were shaking for three hours on the paths, the ride started to become suspicious. As it turned out Solomon’s purpose was to go over the green border, namely the illegal border crossings. We found a boat man, who fortunately was not willing to take us across the river, only if we call a border guards who inspects us. Within half an hour we found two border guards, who searched all our packages piece by piece (my small bag was forgotten, although my camera with the pictures from the border, and all my currency was in there ...)

Solomon later assured me that because the soldiers were very interested in what I was doing there, he explained to them that I’m researching the illnesses of jungle animals. Since I had a laptop, they simply believed that I’m doing some scientific work. He was spreading the same story in the village. It was the perfect cover story, except that my journalist business card was in my pocket. Shit. Still they would not let me through, and asked for € 25 bribe. That was too much, so after a long discussion with Solomon we gave four Euros. They took the money and told us that we will not go through here, and that we have to go back to where we started three hours ago. Of course none of us felt like turning back so we took another one hour long motor ride in the jungle and we looked for another boatman. I’ve said from the beginning that I will need an exit stamp in my passport, or if not, then at least an entry stamp to be able to leave the country, but the answer was alsways the same: ‘no problem’.

When we found another boatman, I knew I will never get an exit or an entry stamp. I had two choices: stay alone in the jungle and take a path back to the villages to ask where to go, but I wasn’t so enthusiastic about it after four hours of riding - and I can’t walk this distance in one day.

The problem was that if I ran into a Guinean border patrol, it would have been really hard to explain in French what I was looking for with a laptop and camera in the jungle at this border, and how I got there, far away from everything. The other option was the illegal border crossing, and then what will be will be - I need not say that I chose this one.

Fortunately, the Guineans did not realize my presence – it had been a bigger problem, because they may ‘rob’ me fully and let me leave only for ransom. I never wanted to try a Guinean jungle prison… We passed the border across the river, we also took the motorbike in the small boat and we continued our journey in Sierra Leone… till the first police station where the Sierra jungle patrol asked for my documents. Solomon tried to save the situation; he generally helped a lot, but still, I got into this situation because of him. If we would have made it clear from the beginning that we take the illegal path, I would have left him immediately. The patrol’s first reaction was that now I am really in big trouble, and it will cost a lot, or I’ll be deported. After a long discussion and bargain we agreed in 100 Euros – they wanted much more but I didn’t have much more. For this money the policeman wrote a letter to the police chief of Kono that I entered into the country in their company, but I don’t have any stamp from the authorities. Solomon argued that I shouldn't give them money, he may have been right. But he is at home, knows the way, and I am a stranger in a completely foreign country. In this part of Africa the white man without money at most is victim, perhaps a potential source of funds, so I paid. If I try to return, I go much worse and much more expensive.

Finally, after 6 hours of riding we arrived to Kono. The distance wasn’t that much, but the roads ... They rather seemed like natural formations, such as washouts, other then something man-made. Only motorbikes can travel, or maybe you could risk it by a 4WD with 15-20 kilometers per hour. In a couple places the motorbike got stuck, and then we were walking up on a cruel uphill, in the sultry heat. Sierra Leone is the world record holder in this respect: it is the world's least-cold country. Not since the invention of the thermometer was colder than19 degrees measured here. Reportedly.

And then a few words about my affair. In the evening Solomon went to the police chief, who is a good friend of him to soften him up a bit. He took my passport and 150 thousand Leonie, ca. 40 Euros. Finally he reached an agreement, although the normal price of this service (extra stamp illegally) is 500 thousand Leoni, which is 130 Euro - it's sort of the same amount to what the police and the boss got all in all.

If we look at it, the amount is even less, since the Guineans attempts 25 Euro in the first place. That is an optimistic estimate, and there would be no way of surviving this stuff without a fee of 30 Euro corruptions. And we didn’t even add the fee of the Sierra guards who also take away a visa fees, as Holy Planet and Bradt reported. In other words, financially I was in the same situation, as if all happens on "regular" way. I paid for a expensive motorbike tour in the jungle with guide and chauffeur, and actually it was worth it. Now only 15 Euros left, the nearest ATM is for a one-day trip, if it works at all. If not, I’m at the mercy of the Western Union. So the Lonely Planet was right: avoid it...

Solomon came back with my passport in the morning, with the news to pay 20 Euro extra, so I had to go to the Western Union. In return, I received a stamp, which is valid a month to go anywhere in the country, and plus I entered into Sierra Leone at Kono. The only one problem could be the Guinean border guards if they find out that the exit stamp is missing. However I am not afraid, because I have more than 100 stamps, including Guinea's exit stamp (to Mali). Second, they are an illiterate, unskilled and stupid ragtag army there, that there is no way for them to realize the trick, especially if they get a little bit of money. This Is Africa – this is the way to do business here.

How I left the country that’s an other story…

2 megjegyzés:

Névtelen írta...

Hát, én csodállak az utazási képességedért. Komolyan, szinte hihetetlen. Minden jót!

András from hungary, aki otthon ül.

Névtelen írta...

Általában én is otthon ülök, de van egy pár százalék, amikor épp nem. Ez is egyfajta függőség:)