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Christmas in Guinea

So we rose early Sunday morning, left the village and the football pitch behind and headed to the Border post.

The local villagers were all huddled around small fires to keep warm, kids had started to play in the morning warmth.

As we drove we spotted roundhouses and some larger square mud houses with corrugated metal roofs.

The landscape was truly verdant and dotted with roaming goats and chickens. At one point we came through a small town that was truly alive, African style….noise from blasting music and sheer volumes of people, corrugated shacks selling their wares…food, clothes and just sheer colour abound!

We basically drove through scenes like that all day before bushcamping in a quarry.

The next morning….Christmas Eve….we, again, rose early and got on the mountain road up to the Fouta Djallon

The drive was slow going as we navigated dusty, red mud roads that at points were barely wide enough for our truck, let alone when trucks and buses came down the mountain ladened with people and a huge pile of bags and possessions in a net on the roof. These vehicles usually had a young guy riding on the roof who had sunglasses and a hoodie on, whose job was to guard the bags and support the driver! They looked cool but as to how comfortable the ride was, who knows! They styled it out…even if they were sprayed red from the dust.

We finally arrived to a small town called Labé which to be honest had absolutely nothing going for it apart from excessive quantities of wooden wardrobes….if you were in the market for a grand, solid wood wardrobe then winner, anything else such as food, snacks, drinks, WiFi, cafes or restaurants….your loss!

First job before hitting the spoils of Labé was for Grant to get a haircut…in Nicola’s words his hair looked like his mother’s and it was her Christmas wish for him to cut it…so upon wandering into town we found, what can only be described as a portacabin housing, a barber on the roadside.

So we asked him to set to work on Grants mop!

First things first was to power up the exceptional dodgy generator with shocking (literally!) wiring which powered the clippers.

What then followed was a painful hour of terrible hair cutting…so much so that we left and Grant caught us up 15 minutes later!

We wandered around what there was in Labé on a wild goose chase for a supermarket, petrol station shop or corrugated shack that would have nice stuff for Christmas…to no avail….I think our sum total of goods was a chocolate milkshake, a Pepsi max, some oranges and bananas and 2 avocados! Happy Christmas indeed!!

Somewhat deflated and depressed we headed back to camp and tried to get into the Christmas spirit. I helped cook group with dinner (this time Clarissa, April and Victoria)…they were knocking up a gourmet 3 course meal for everyone as it was Christmas Eve! First course was toasted garlic bread with salsa and cabbage salad, main was a great pasta dish and pudding was pineapple.

We then spent the evening playing UNO counting down the hours until Christmas Day!

Christmas Day….well what can I say….it was a spectacularly shit day which is always disappointing for Christmas….I am not a lover of being away for Christmas anyway, as I love Christmas at home. However, the shitty location combined with the rubbish campsite, no WiFi and crap ambience made for a piss poor day! The only redeeming elements of the day were spending it with friends, giving myself a manicure and pedicure and washing half my clothes and getting them dry…all in a day….

We started the day with breakfast cooked by the crew…scrambled egg and pancetta, washed down by a choice of fruit juices.

The day was then ours to spend reading, chatting, manicuring, pedicuring and washing. A few of the group headed back into town and managed to locate a petrol station out of town with a decent shop…we considered heading out to find it also…but couldn’t be arsed.

Christmas lunch was 2 bananas and an orange…washed down by a chocolate milkshake! Whoop!

The afternoon was spent plotting our escape from the infernal boredom of the camp and Labé…the truck would stay another two days so people could go trekking in the mountains and visit a waterfall…now some of you will have followed my previous travel blogs or listened to my stories firsthand and know how much I avidly detest trekking…up mountains…in 35 degree heat…to see a waterfall! I am sure the scenery is stunning but I have trekked so many hills and mountains and seen so many waterfalls, that I feel no desire to do it again!

So Team Upgrade had decided that come Boxing Day we would leave and take a bush taxi down the mountains to Conakry, the capital of Guinea and a place the truck wasn’t going, so that we could see and experience the capital for a few days and enjoy such pleasantries as WiFi and ordering off a menu!

That was our Christmas gift…Lauretta commandeered a car through a local man that would apparently take 7 of us and bags! Excellent!

Christmas Day evening involved copious amounts of Victoria’s homemade sangria and Old Brian’s homemade mulled wine. Followed by a 3 course meal of onion soup, roasted goat and salad and fruit pies. Sadly I was limited to purely the goat and a few salad leaves as the rest wasn’t gluten free…but hey that’s life!

We did secret Santa…which was fun…I got a wonderful mini Djembe drum, which is fab and has found space in my rucksack so that I can play it at home!

We then sat around and played UNO before heading off to bed about 11pm.

Boxing Day we carried out our escape, Lauretta, Giancarlo, Martin, Nicole, Nicola, Grant and I all left the campsite and climbed into the ‘bushtaxi’ that would take us to the Capital, Conakry.

The vehicle in question looked something like ‘General Lee’ from ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ minus the bright exterior!

All our bags were piled on the roof in a net, we all climbed in and assumed an uncomfortable position…Lauretta, Giancarlo and I in the back, Grant, Martin & Nicola in the middle and Nicole in the front!

The journey took around 9 hours and the driver exposed us to exceptionally loud Guinean Gangster Rap for the whole duration!

I almost lost the will to live but anything was better than hanging out for another 24 hours at the boring campsite!

We had a really good run but about halfway through we had to pull over as we had a flat tyre! Appears to be a regular occurrence in Africa! The driver had the wheel off and the bald spare on in about 10 minutes! Giancarlo, being a car man himself and an employee at Ferrari was quick on the case, having already donned some latex gloves before the rest of us were out the car!

Eventually we rolled into the outskirts of Conakry which appeared to be every bit the city I had read about.

Excessive rubbish problem, huge mountains of plastic waste on the road side and in fields. Terrible traffic, angry traffic police and terrible driving!

We made it safely to our small beachfront hotel, run by an elderly French lady.

We got settled in, ordered fresh fish and seafood for dinner and watched the sunset over the packed beach. Locals were playing football, exercising and just milling about listening to music.

Going to bed that night, we soon learned that Guineans love their music…reggae, RnB, dance, Afrobeat and Rap….played at a trillion decibels until 4am! Happy days!

Nothing like lying in bed trying to sleep with 50 Cent’s dulcet tones booming from huge speakers right outside your room!

The next day we awoke early as we had a busy schedule..first stop was an early morning appointment at the Liberian Embassy to apply for our Liberian visas. It was a 25 minute walk from the hotel so we all headed up in convoy past people selling hideous sofas, mobile phone top up shacks, a cattle market and a small river that smelt like raw sewerage!

The guy at the Embassy proved exceptionally helpful, processed the visas and told us to go pay at the bank, bring the slip back to him and he would issue them the following day.

So we all hit the road to try and hail a taxi! Nicole, Lauretta and Giancarlo managed to grab a guy to take them and off they sped 16km to town…Nicola, Grant and I kept trying but no taxis wanted to take us…they either didn’t want to go that direction or it was too far! Eventually we flagged down a local with a minivan and jumped in the back of that…lovely man!

We met Lauretta. Giancarlo and Nicole at the bank and stood waiting in line for our turn. We all had to take a ticket…ours were 750-760 range and the number on the wall showed 450ish! Jesus!

So we settled in for a long wait…Martin went to get some cold drinks for us all, Grant & Nicole went to get mobile phone top ups and the rest of us hung around the busy bank!

Eventually Grant & Nicole reappeared having stumbled on an alternative bank branch around the corner that was for commercial transactions as opposed to everyday public! They would process our payments for the visas and almost instantly! Winner!

So we all headed over to that branch, did the formalities, got the receipt and all in half an hour!

We then headed to a French patisserie and chocolaterie called Le Damier, we ordered a selection of food, cakes, pastries, drinks and chocolate and dived in!

We hung around there for a few hours then split up so that we could get certain things done.

Grant, Nicola and Nicole headed back to the Liberian Embassy with the payment receipts so that they could finalise our Visas.

Lauretta and Giancarlo went off for a walk around town and to try and find out where the ferry ticket office was for a ferry over to a small island.

Martin and I went to the small but interesting National Museum, which has 1 room only!

After the museum Martin and I went for a brief sightseeing walk of Conakry. Not that there was much to see really!

We wandered along lively, busy roads that were full of people going about their business! Selling stuff, cleaning clothes or themselves, kids playing with a football and women in corrugated shacks cooking over buckets of fire on the pavements.

We headed in the direction of the Presidential Palace as it looked cool and the map showed a path around it with some water fountains.

We turned into the road where the entrance was shown, wandered casually through a gate only to be accosted by moody army guards who began shouting at us in French! We politely asked them where the entrance was to the palace and was it possible to enter….the response was for one guy to start shouting ‘infraction’ at us really loudly! I said ‘ok thanks, I take that as a no we can’t go in then?’ Only to then be shouted at and told to get in the office!

So Martin and I get taken into an office where the guy continues to babble in French whilst repeatedly shouting ‘infraction’. We played dumb and pretended not to speak French! He wanted to know why we were there and what we were doing! He didn’t quite comprehend we were tourists and were just taking a sightseeing walk of Conakry! I can quite believe he didn’t believe us, as there were no other tourists there and the only other white people they may have come across would be diplomats or aid workers!

So, anyway, we continued to play dumb and pretend we didn’t understand him and couldn’t communicate to him. Eventually after a few more ‘INFRACTION’s we were able to say thanks and leave! Hoping we wouldn’t get shot in the back!

10 seconds after walking away we heard the sound of approaching sirens and saw a cavalcade of motorbikes and army guys round the corner…unsure as to whether they were after us or not we wandered on quickly towards the waterfront to try and locate the ferry ticket office.

The waterfront was awash with people, fishermen and young guys who apparently could get us to the island cheaper than the ferry and could we come see their boats! Yawn!

After 5 minutes of wafting them away we bumped into Lauretta and Giancarlo who had so far failed on their attempt to locate the ferry ticket office also!

We wandered together to the main hub of the waterfront, all the while pursued by an aggressive boat salesman who kept banging on about his boat!

Lauretta found an army guy (thankfully not Infraction man) and he lead us to where we could talk to someone about a boat to the island!

We ended up back where we started with Mr Aggy Boat salesman who then proceeded to lead us out into the sea on a narrow concrete jetty!

The jetty was rammed with guys going about fishing business and then trying to sell their services and boat to Lauretta! Martin and I hung back as it was too busy and I refused to walk into the narrow gauntlet of irritating guys.

Next thing I know there is a huge commotion over at the jetty and all we see is Giancarlo’s head poking up from the brown, plastic filled water! Martin dashed over to try and assist and managed to get Giancarlo pulled out of the water.

Lauretta came bowling towards me hurling French insults like a banshee, a sopping Giancarlo followed behind with Martin trying to rescue his camera for him and Mr Aggy boat man who was now going mental at everyone else for pushing his potential client into the water, therefore negating any sale at all! It was a hilarious sight to behold!

After such excitement the four of us headed to Obama Bar, a wooden stilted shack over the water, so that Giancarlo could lay out all his possessions to dry and we could get a drink!

Phew…what a day!

Friday saw us head back to the Liberian embassy to successfully collect our visas which was a huge relief.

We then came back, dropped Nicole, Grant and our passports off. They had been tasked with waiting for a man to come to showcase a vehicle that we were trying to commandeer to take us all to Sierra Leone the following day!!

The rest of us jumped in a taxi and headed into town to a stadium to try and locate a group of street kids that have formed a famous acrobatic troupe!

We located them in a metal warehouse and managed to get a private 20 minute show of their amazing skills!

After the acrobats we met with Nicole and Grant in Le Damier and spent the rest of the afternoon in there drinking hot chocolate and eating pastries and chocolate!

Whilst we were swanning around, Lauretta, Giancarlo and Martin had headed off in the ferry to the nearby island to check out the flora and fauna.

We met them later in the evening at the Obama bar for a quick drink before we headed back in 2 taxis.

The drive back was properly mental and for me one of the memorable nights in Africa! The traffic was stationery and it took us an age to get back, the streets were alive though, nowhere has that been clearer than that night in Conakry! There were people walking either side of the traffic, motorbikes whizzing inbetween the cars, loud booming music coming from various speakers, it was hot and humid, dusty, smoky from the burning of rubbish alongside the road, there were people living in corrugated huts on the pavements, they were all cooking food outside on the pavement, the kids were playing in the street! Literally all life was there! It totally overwhelmed your 5 senses! When we did finally get moving I had an overwhelming urge to stand up in the car, stick my head out the window into the noisy, hot, smoky night and shout ‘woohoo’!

I am not sure Nicole, Grant or Nicola agreed with my sentiment as they remained quiet and less swept up in the moment! I think they thought I had had too much sun!! Haha

Upon arriving at the hotel we had to do some negotiating with some dodgy businessman to pay for a private minibus an driver who would take us all to Freetown in Sierra Leone in the morning.

Negotiations successfully completed and Martin in receipt of the minibus keys (to ensure he hadn’t done a runner with our cash and the minibus), we headed to bed as we had a 4.30am alarm call for our journey to Sierra Leone!

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