The Road (More or) Less Traveled

Once the solar panels were up and running, Nimba had a little more time to explore Guinea outside of the winding, traffic-clogged road between Bagatai and Madina in Conakry. Bearing in mind the famous effects of the old "all work and no play" adage, Nimba hit the road to see the sights and experience some of the prettiest places Guinea has to offer. In the passages below, we share some of our traveler's tales - road trip, anyone?

While there are images of Guinea's current leader, President Alpha Conde, even more apparent is Guinea's obvious obsession with our American commander-in-chief. (Only slightly more ubiquitous an icon is Tupac - may he rest in peace - and, for reasons at least slightly less justified, Tony Parker.)
As with seemingly every errand in Guinea, we would be remiss to travel sans entourage. Accompanying Nimba on our voyage were sixteen dancers from the workshop, eight, or ten, maybe thirteen drummers (or so, it was difficult to get a head count), two lady cooks, Youssouf, his trusty driver, and a few miscellaneous and friendly tag-alongs as well as bags, lapas, pots, a guitar, cups, cups, plates, water bottles, drums of all sorts, and just about everything else except the kitchen sink and the neighbor's rooster - which nobody really missed anyway. We packed everything into the car and the kind of small rented bus commonly seen packed to the gills and stacked high above the roof, and, for better or for worse, merrily - sweatily - set out for our journey. 
Of course, no trip in Guinea is complete without a healthy dose of car trouble. Luckily for Nimba, our Guinean counterparts were also handy on-the-spot mechanics. A simple thing like a dead battery in an old bus didn't even phase them, and jumper cables? Quoi? These guys are way ahead. We're not real sure of the step-by-step particulars, but somehow they got the bus back up and running in less time than it takes to get a sunburn standing on the road.
During one such delay - and there were many, each with its own special you-can't-write-this-stuff litany of details - we made a few friends. These curious friends enjoyed the drums almost as much as they enjoyed our camera...
By turns, our unscheduled pit stops left us with time to kill in places that could turn any travel SNAFU into a pleasant hour, like this one, on the road to the mountain city of Kindia. Lovely!


Eating on the road? No problem, but if you were expecting made-to-order sandwiches, fries or greasy chicken in sacks, think again. Road food in Guinea was both abundant and fresh. Our car would pause at a seemingly arbitrary spot and in seconds, we were surrounded by people selling warm gateaux in plastic buckets atop their heads, peeled oranges you suck the juice from, pineapples, bananas, a delicious fruit with a forgettable name in velvety soft brown pods from local trees, frozen bissap treats in plastic bags, roasted cassava, sweet popcorn balls, or spicy fried mussels wrapped in brown paper. In addition, you could almost always stop and ask Madame what she has cooking that day, and be treated to a communally-eaten feast of rice and sauce, keke and fish, barbecued meat on skewers, or even a freshly hacked up chicken cooked to near-burnt perfection in front of your eyes and topped with onions, mayonnaise and bright orange Maggi. A far cry from curly fries and a double cheeseburger, non?

For Nimba, we took advantage of the exquisite fruit stands along the way and loaded up on watermelon, pineapples, bananas, oranges, and few out-of-season mangoes to take with us to the hotel in Kindia. There, Maimouna and Fatim would set up their outdoor kitchen with expert efficiency and proceed to feed us just as they would at home at Bagatai. Even after countless delays, multiple car troubles and bad roads, it's no wonder Mohamed, le chaffeur, is smiling, considering the delicious vittles to come!

Proceeding with Caution

The journey to Kindia wasn't all sweets and treats. There were also some unexpected - and considerably less pleasant - stops along the way. Military and police checkpoints are common in Guinea, and while such encounters are not generally serious, they are to be handled with care. In the city, they mostly want to check your trunk to make sure you're an upstanding, weapon-free citizen, but will also attempt to intimidate you into relinquishing your Guinea francs into their own uniformed pockets. Out on the road to Kindia, though, officers were much more insistent (and probably hungrier). At one such checkpoint, tensions rose over who we were (organisation des artistes, eh? Show us your papers!) to the point that we had to prove our musical chops by literally singing and clapping around the officer, until he was satisfied with our performance and dismissed us with a toothy smile and a wave of his hand. Annoyed but relieved, off we went through the tree trunk barricade and made our way down the road. 

Another time, we were instructed in a barking tone that invited little argument to step out of the car - never a good sign - only to be made to walk across the barricade and scurry back into the car on the other side, a mere ten feet away. 

Kindia, aka the Most Beautiful Place on Earth

Welcome to La Voile de la Mariee in Kindia, where all the bumpy perils of the road melt away and visitors find themselves in mountain jungle paradise of waterfalls and giant bamboo. It is unspeakably peaceful and cool here at La Voile, with Kindia proper just a few red dirt miles away. (Kindia, by the way, is also famous for its giant fabric market, where no-nonsense women haggle relentlessly over myriad swaths of brightly colored prints and lepi, the sought-after striped indigo cloth made in the region.) 
Tucked back a little ways down a tree-lined path, Kindia makes for the perfect retreat from the din and smog of the traffic and diesel generators of Conakry. The trees are at times filled with squawking birds and monkeys, as any tropical forest ought to be, but they tend to be scared off by human presence and the noise of the drums that invariably accompany them. The waterfall makes for beguiling acoustics for classes and performances as the drum beats bounce off the rock wall behind the falls and sound as if they come from deep within the cliff or possibly the center of the earth. 
The refreshing pool beneath the La Voile is the perfect place for cooling one's heels...
... which is all the better after dance class. (The dogged participants of Youssouf's workshop literally danced EVERYWHERE they went.) It is easy to see why Kindia is a classic destination for similar workshops and tourists alike. 
Another attraction are the finely carved statues and charming knick-knacks made by a kindly (and quite reasonably priced) woods-dwelling gentleman. 

Just Married

Nimba was also lucky enough to witness the wedding of lead drummer Abdoulaye and American dancer Jacqui - truly a match made in heaven - complete with mosque proceedings, a decadent dance party and feast, and, of course, a bang-up doundounba, the typical Guinean get-together, slightly different for each occasion, but always with showy dancing and impressive drumming from all involved. 
Everybody dances at a doundounba, tall and short, young and old. We all knew Youssouf can get down, but how does she shake it with all that balanced on her head? 

Beauty by Boat

Just off the coast of Conakry are a handful of islands that rival the world's most exquisite tropical destinations. One such island, accessible via an hour's boat ride from the harbor downtown, is called Roume, and is a predictably popular destination for foreigners and Guineans alike in need of some Rasta-inspired r&r. Dreadlocked gentlemen slosh through the gentle surf to meet the boats skimming in to carry discerning ladies to the beach and lead them through a glorious jungle to the other side of the island, where they emerge onto a white sand beach replete with perfect waves and grass cabanas. 

After a day of relaxing on the beach, nibbling freshly caught grilled fish and sweet cassava cooked in banana leaves, Nimba set sail at sunset for a beautiful, albeit rather pokey, ride back to the mainland. 
We hope you enjoyed reading about our trip and that someday you, too, can come along for the ride... Until then, happy trails!
After a brief respite from our solar duties and a few impromptu dance parties, it was back to work for the tireless Nimba team. We had most of what we needed up on the roof. Now it was just a matter of putting the pieces together. As with almost everything in Guinea, this was not as simple as it sounds.
First of all, the operation was not entirely located on the roof. We had to find a safe, out-of-the-way place in the house to set up a bank of batteries and the inverter - a funny little box that coverts the DC (direct current) electricity produced by the panels into good ol' appliance-friendly AC (alternating current). AC/DC - yes, like the Australian rock band. We'll spare you the universe of applicable puns on their song lyrics we're thinking of right now. Trust us.)
So, we found a snug corner just off of the living room perfect for stashing the little power station and called in a carpenter to build a cabinet to house the equipment. When the carpenter arrived, guess what? The power went out. Undaunted, the carpenter rained down sawdust as he merrily sawed away at 2x4s in the dark, aided by a slightly more disconcerted Fronsy. A few hours and no missing limbs later, the cabinet was completed. Another testament to Conakry's wealth of innovative and expert craftsmen - although it should be noted that sawing wood in the dark might more accurately be classified as an Olympic sport. 
Meanwhile, Mohamed and El Hadj were charged with the perilous task of pouring the acid into the batteries. Surrounded by 20 liters of corrosive acid, they hunkered down behind the house and set to work. Onlookers watched silently as each bottle was slowly drained into the batteries. As they painstakingly emptied the twentieth liter, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Battery bank was injury-free and ready to go! 
The batteries had to sit for 24 hours to equalize, giving us plenty of time to get our roof on. Unwrapping our packed-for-the-apocalypse solar modules was a job in itself. Knives and other dubious sharp instruments were wielded to penetrate the countless layers of protective material. Apparently, bubble wrap is a bit of a novelty in Guinea (with a postal system that is under the weather at best, it's no wonder - things don't get mailed too often in these parts). Amid much joyous snapping, crackling and popping from the smaller residents of Bagatai, we managed to free the panels and put them where they should be - in the sun.
Compared with all of the the prep work, installing the panels is the easy part. The racking system is relatively simple to assemble (provided, of course, that you have all the right bolts) - a bit like an Erector Set. Throw in the fact that for over a week, everyone had been casting longing stares at the two large wrapped parcels leaning against the wall (especially on hot nights when the power went out) and you have panels that, thanks to El Hadj and Company, were set up with lightning speed.
Finally in place, the seemingly inert panels were now veritable flurries of subatomic activity. In order to capture all those willy-nilly electrons, we had to wire the panels to the battery bank, otherwise known as "downtown". Solar installer extrordinaire, El Hadj, had prepared the wires earlier so the team simply measured the panels' output and connected the final wires. But we still had to wait for the batteries to charge. Oh, delayed gratification!
Later in the hot, sticky Conakry afternoon, we decided to check the system during the scheduled grid power outage. A switch was flipped, and it worked! The fans and lights of Bagatai flickered on in a glorious display of wattage. Dance class screeched to a halt as everyone bounded into the house ecstatic and in disbelief. The ubiquitous drumming was replaced with jubilant whooping, hugging and even a few joyful tears. That evening, Youssouf held a (somewhat) solar-powered dance party in celebration of our initial success. The batteries were not yet charged enough to run for very long, so actually only the first few songs were solar-powered, but when everybody is shaking their rumps, who's really counting?

Problem Solving

Story over. Most of the work completed, right? Not exactly. The PV array at Bagatai is not large enough to completely replace the power from the grid. Instead it supplements, helping to fill in the 18-hour gaps between grid service. A few days after the install, we realized that moving the panels to the roof of the other house could increase energy production as there is space to manually rotate the panels during the day to follow the path of the sun.
Trial and error - here we come! Picking up the entire shebang and moving it was not as difficult as one might think. The panels were already mounted on the rack and we had plenty of muscle in the house. Most of the work lay in simply rewiring the system. The panels got a new roof and there they remain. Three times a day, Bagatai solar experts-in-residence, Baba and Parmati, diligently shift the rack a few degrees to capture maximum sunlight. 

Getting Schooled

OK, so now everything is in place. Job done? Finished? Time to kick back with a nice, lukewarm Guiluxe? Almost. Nimba had one crucial task to complete - filling in the folks of Bagatai about the bizarre people who had been scuttling across their roof and other wacky changes their home had undergone in the preceding weeks. We held a rooftop workshop covering energy efficiency, the nuts and bolts of their PV system and how to maximize the potential of the panels. With Youssouf acting as translator and Fronsy brandishing many homemade illustrations, a grand and educational time was had by all.
Thanks to the attention and ingenuity of our Guinean friends, Nimba was able to complete our first renewable energy mission in-country. In the process, we managed to learn as much as we set out to teach.
Now, where's that Guiluxe?