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!

a day in the life...

The sun is up, as is the neighbor's rooster, and sprinkles down in dappled designs through the raffia mats shading the courtyard at Bagatai. You can hear the soft swish-swish of someone's straw broom as she sweeps the octagonal concrete tiles clean as the compound gently percolates into activity. While guests at Bagatai stretch sleepily over Nescafe laced with viscous sweetened condensed milk, the kitchen has already been bustling for hours, the fresh fruit and eggs and perfectly crusty-soft baguettes purchased from the market nearby long before their waking.
The sparkly morning idyll is suddenly pierced by the authoritative thwap! of drummers tuning up. Anyone still sleeping is soon compelled to rise as the drums call the dancers of Bagatai to attention. The miscellaneous figures who had dotted the courtyard in cheerful conversation or child's game begin coalesce into a formation of brightly colored fabrics and the palpably rising potential energy of bodies in preparation for movement. The drummers play their pulsating call, the teacher takes their place at a central point of focus, and thus, dance class begins.
While we at Nimba were hustling to and fro from the welder to Madina to the roof and back again, the primary regulator of everyone's day was the twice-daily occurrence of the dance classes that make up the backbone of Youssouf Koumbassa's Annual Dance & Drum Workshop, which was held at Bagatai concurrently with Nimba's maiden voyage. Twice a day, for 2 1/2 hours at at a time, the courtyard of Bagatai was transformed into a sweaty mass of rhythmic concentration as 20+ dancers, foreign and local alike, honed their focus towards Youssouf's exquisite brand of Guinea-style West African dance.

watch kakilambe, a mask dance from the baga susu people of boke, here:

It's no wonder that people travel to Conakry from all over the world "just" to dance in Youssouf's workshop. Youssouf has an illustrious background in Guinea West African dance and drum and is a compelling, committed teacher. Throughout the workshop, he seemed to transform his newer students from eager-yet-awkward novices into capable, educated movers and his more advanced level devotees into stunningly expressive, graceful and powerful dancers. Youssouf's workshop is one of the oldest cultural immersion dance intensives in Conakry and this year, 16 dancers came from the United States, Brazil, Holland, Spain and even New Zealand to deepen their technique and knowledge and soak up whatever they could of Youssouf's exquisite grace, deep knowledge and good vibes.
The dancers were dogged in their commitment, practicing at all hours and having class wherever they went, from the courtyard at Bagatai to a giant bamboo grove at the base of a waterfall in Kindia to the sandy beaches of Roume Island.
Youssouf concerned his classes not only with correct technique, tireless repetition and expressivity; but also prioritized knowing the name of the rhythm, the people to whom it is credited, its traditional purpose, and place of its origin. Take Sorsonet, a complexly syncopated rhythm with a rather showy movement vocabulary from the Baga-Susu people of Boke. After breaking down into meticulous detail core movements from his legacy of ballet-style choreography, Youssouf tells the class that the athletic femininity of the dance steps stem from Sorsonet's importance as part of an initiation ritual for younger women and girls into the passed-down knowledge of their female elders. (Sorsonet, by the way, is also known as a dance for Nimba, who is not only a national symbol of Guinea, but a Baga fertility goddess. You can see a depiction of her on the walls of Bagatai behind the drummers in the Kakilambe video above. Adding another layer of meaning and import, the very word "Guinee" means "woman" or "wife" in Susu.)

riding along with "the african cowboy"

Serious as the study of West African dance is, Youssouf is also known for his penchant for fun. He's always impeccably dressed and preferred a particularly charming cowboy hat, purchased in Texas so you know it's the real deal, paired with matching belt buckle and white leather boots.
On breezy evenings (our Guinean friends tended to refer to the 70 degree nights as chilly, remarking "chiin belee" or "il fait froid!) he might walk everybody down to Bar Vietnam, aka The Blue Light Bar, which is essentially a shack of boards on the docks of Nongo with a reliable generator (read: cold beer and Guinean MTV) and a ceiling made of mats somehow stapled together with bottle caps.

There he delighted in buying a round of Cokes or Guiluxe (the Guinean equivalent of Budweiser with a shiny label depicting the flag on each bottle) for everyone, dancing, of course, to all the hits (some of which he recorded himself!)
Throughout the workshop, local artists and students danced alongside the newcomers to create a multi-level dance class that culminated in a magnificent performance on a carefully swept dirt floor stage replete with live drums, red gold and green costumes, and luminous smiles. The men danced with painted faces among interludes of narrative scenes, drum solos and even a fire-eater. Salyea, who was normally our soft-spoken and smiley local master teacher, danced in a headdress and masculine splendor while flames licked across his glistening arms until he swallowed the fire in huge, seemingly palatable, gulps. Two dancers from the workshop swayed across the stage with calabashes of water atop their heads in a dramatic scene of bringing water to a thirsty man, later dancing to a fever pitch in time with with the batterie of drummers. After the show, the sweaty, sun-kissed performers drank cold Fantas and Cokes and danced with their audience and scores of neighborhood kids until it was time to sleep, rise in the morning and start all over again.

Hope you enjoyed the read, and stay tuned for more trip stories from Nimba!