Greetings from Guinea. This post, like the previous one, has been written from my hotel room in the town of Labe. There is Internet connection here, albeit very slow, which is the first I’ve come across since leaving Bissau two weeks ago. Not in the hotel I should note. I’m surprised there is even electricity. There isn’t much of the time. My room and the rest of the hotel give the impression that there have been very few people staying here in recent months. It has that musty airless smell of an attic. If there ever was a cleaner, he or she has not been working for a while. A family of large cockroaches has moved in during the interim. Most have now disappeared under my foot, except the largest, who is particularly nimble. I realised last night he is actually a mouse.

At least my room has a window. It overlooks what at first glance appears to be a car scrap-yard. This is Labe’s public transport hub. Battered seven-seater Peuguot and Renault estates dominate. Typically there would be a hive of activity out there on that red-laterite forecourt, but at the moment it is eerily quiet.

Today is an important one for the country’s 9.5 million population. They get to vote for a new President. I’m told there are 24 candidates. How about that for choice! I almost cycled straight into a political gathering when I crossed the border a week ago. It’s not the safest place to be. Young men waving flags and banners were speeding around town on their motorbikes, whilst a swelling crowd of people vociferously awaited whoever it was that was arriving. I decided it much wiser to lay low until it had finished, later emerging from my hotel to watch England in another unconvincing display against Algeria.

I escaped into the mountains soon after. The Fouta Djalon isn’t one of the World’s great mountain ranges, but with the humidity, heat, incessant flies and pretty dire roads they make for a challenging ride. Oh, and the rains have begun, which adds an extra level of interest. After many months seeing lifeless shades of brown and yellow, nature is now positively exploding in a riot of greenery at the roadside.

After the rain 

The rain doesn’t come unannounced. One gets the pleasure of seeing and hearing an orchestra in the sky first. Usually there is a light show in the distance to begin with, followed by a series of drum rolls. This is merely a rehearsal before the main act and can go on for hours. Late afternoon and early evening are currently the favoured times for the performance to commence. The best seat in the house is one with a covered roof. I don’t have great confidence in my 3-season yellow spaceship withstanding a serious African downpour.

A few nights ago I was lucky enough to watch it from a Primary school. The clouds had been darkening all afternoon and wherever the sun was behind them it was soon going to set. A plaque on the wall of the school showed it had been built in 2004 by a German-financed project. The building was locked and apart from a few nearby huts it appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense jungle. Judging by the insect-life in the outside latrine I also guessed it hadn’t been open for some time. I peered through an iron-grill window and saw the date May 12th written on a blackboard. Summer holidays must start early here.

The school was visible from the road and it had been the wide concrete and corrugate-covered veranda that I wanted to stake my claim on for the night. Not wishing to set up camp without permission I asked two nearby women walking on the road. Unfortunately the Pula for “Where is your chief” is not in my note-book. It ought to be for I didn’t feel 100% safe without the headman’s permission. I assumed the torch that shone out between downpours in the darkness several hours later would be my man. Instead it was a teenage boy wearing a Chelsea football shirt with a rifle across his back. I should note that guns are not that uncommon out in the mountains here, where young men head out into the jungle for the day to hunt. Regardless of that, meeting a nervous teenager in the dark with a gun does not make for the most restful of nights. Fortunately it passed without incident and my friend returned the next morning so I could take a better look at his gun.

Rifle boy and friends 

Out in the Guinean countryside there appears little political tension. People, mostly women, are out preparing and planting the land with manioc, lifting themselves up from this back-breaking work to greet, wave, laugh, and question the white man who is riding a bicycle. My progress with speaking Pula wins far more smiles than it does with French out here. Say hello (‘jarama’, ‘tanala’), ask how their family is (Nuk ben guri ma?), their work (Nu lee gima?), complain that it’s hot (Heeno wooli), riding a bicycle is difficult (Nosati), that you’re tired (Meetampi) and anything else you can remember and you’ll soon make friends. Gone are the demands for cadeau. People here don’t see many white faces. It’s very refreshing after Senegal and gets my vote for friendliness.

There is next to no traffic on the roads in northern Guinea. I say roads, but much of the time they are merely tracks through the jungle or resemble the surface of a river-bed, often both. I spent a good amount of time pushing my bike for the first few days as I climbed up to 1500m and the town of Mali-ville. On a clear day you can look down into Senegal and the upper reaches of the River Gambia from here.

Climbing through the Fouta Djalon mountains

By all accounts and appearances Guinea is as economically crippled, undeveloped and unstable as it’s Portuguese speaking neighbour. Hardly any electricity, no running water and what concrete fabric exists is in serious decay and disrepair. The only construction I have seen taking place in the last week was that of an enormous mosque, impressive not just because of its size, but the fact that the entire edifice was being supported by an intricate scaffolding of wooden poles. I’m guessing it is Saudi-financed.

Several Policemen stopped me as I rode into the outskirts of Labe. Following nothing but smiles and waves from people further north, their demeanour was altogether different. They weren’t smiling. It’s the first sign that all may not be safe for me at this time in the country. After one scrutinised my passport then demanded to see my vaccination certificates, another (drunken) wanted to search through my bags. I steered the conversation to football and began speaking in English, telling them I was a teacher. The mood changed as each vied for my attention in showing off what they could say. I congratulated them, apologised for having no reward for their efforts, before putting my vaccination cards away (the first time I’ve ever had to show them) and being given the nod that I could pedal off.

Something makes me think this may be more common on the road from here to the capital – Conakry. It’s hard to predict what the post-election mood will be like, and my French is far from fluent to confidently gauge the topic. Plotting a straighter course to Sierra Leone may be a better option. Whichever way I go there’s sure to be more mountains and rain.

On an additional note, next month I will be helping to distribute the mosquito nets which many of you kind people have paid for. First I have to get myself to southern Sierra Leone. Right in the middle of the country’s rainy season malaria is at it’s most prevalent during this time. The roads are also likely to be at their worst. I can hardly wait. If you would like to make a donation and see your nets distributed, please show your support here.

Road to Labe