For Thanksgiving, another Embassy family (the D’s) invited C and I to join them for an overnight stay on the Ile de Roume or Roume Island. As a family of two that spends a lot of time overseas, we are not particularly traditional when it comes to the holiday and we had no other plans, so we welcomed the chance to spend time with friends while getting out of the city.
Roume Island (sometimes spelled Room) is the smallest of the three main islands of the Iles de Los archipelago, located just a few kilometers from Guinea’s capital. Conakry was initially established on the island of Tombo, one of the Ile de Los that is now connected to the Kaloum peninsula by a causeway. There is some interesting history to the islands. Their names are derived from early Portuguese navigators who called them Ilhas des Idolos (Islands of the Idols). The British controlled the islands from 1818 to 1904, when they were ceded to the French.
On Thursday morning, we followed the D family’s car to Le Petit Bateau marina in Kaloum. We were to take a boat to Roume at 10 AM, but we were clearly already on island time or Guinea time or perhaps Guinea Island Time, as we did not begin the 45 minute boat ride until 11:30. We landed on Roume at a quarter past noon, jumping into the calf high water to wade on to the shore and then walking five minutes across the narrowest part of the island to the Hotel Le Sogue.
Here we had basic bungalows perched on the hillside. C and I shared a room with both a single and double bed, though only the larger of the two had a mosquito net above it. We had a well-water fed shower where we could get a good trickle going, after they turned on the pump. Once the hotel managers turned on the electricity, we were able to use it for a single bulb in the bathroom, a small bedside lamp, an outlet to charge my phone, and an electric fan. The room reminded me of my backpacking days. Simple, but more than sufficient for one night at the beach.
Knowing it might take awhile to get lunch, we ordered just after our arrival. The menu, presented on a chalkboard, had 7 or 8 choices, but all but one included seafood, which C and I do not eat. No surprise of course given our location! Lucky for us they also had chicken. While waiting, the kids changed into their suits and went to play on the beach and in the surf. I went to sit on my balcony where I could read and listen to the waves. My fellow parents divided themselves between the beach and the restaurant veranda.
I do not want to oversell the Hotel Le Sogue, its beach, or Roume Island. I have stayed at nicer places on nicer islands, including in Africa, such as the Blue Zebra or Mumbo Island in Malawi. Unfortunately, there was a fair amount of trash on the side of the island where we landed, both on the land and in the water, though the beach in front of the Hotel Le Sogue was clearly taken care of well. Yet as I sat on my porch looking out at beautiful palms and the wide expanse of sand and listened to the rhythmic rolling of the waves and the sounds of our kids laughing, I felt quite content.
We did not get lunch until 2:30 PM. No worries as by that time we were on island time too. We dined on our fish or chicken with chips and salad on tables in a sandy clearing surrounded by palms.
After lunch the kids and one parent headed back to the waves. I was pretty impressed that my very fair skinned daughter stayed out as long as she did in the water. I was even more impressed that we applied sunscreen in sufficient quantities that she did not get a sunburn.
I did not get in the water, choosing instead to spend some more time on my balcony reading or just walking along the beach. Truth be told, I am not exactly sure what kept be occupied from the time after lunch until dinner. There was no phone service or internet on the Le Sogue side of the island, so we were not connected. That though was the beauty. There is not a load of things to do in Conakry, but it is loud, crowded, chaotic. There is little to do on Ile de Roume, but it was an entirely different kind of little to do.
In the evening, after dark, we had our dinner together in the open-air restaurant. Easy conversation and laughs among friends. Unfortunately, the lights attracted insects, in particular, blister beetles. I have since read that the blister beetle is common in North America, but I had never heard of them until arriving in Guinea. Just a few weeks ago our Health Unit warned employees that the blister beetle season was upon us. Blister beetles secret a burning chemical when threatened or squeezed so we were warned to make sure not to indiscriminately slap at an insect but to brush it off, just in case it might be a blister beetle.
After a whole host of blister beetles made their appearance, we started to lose interest in remaining in the dining room. When one landed on my daughter’s hair, she screamed and cried, and that was it — time to retire to the rooms even though it was only a little after eight in the evening. I read some by the weak, flickering light in the room, then C and I went to sleep, sharing the one double bed so we could both cocoon ourselves in the mosquito net that hung limply from the ceiling (there was no mosquito net frame). However, I had trouble falling asleep as I kept imagining blister beetles crawling on me, sensing a sting. (Fun fact: I have since learned that the blisters and skin rash from a blister beetle’s secretion takes 24 to 48 hours to form. Guess what? We did get blister beetled! Ouch!)
The next day, after a lazy morning drinking in the mesmerizing rocking of the waves and chowing down on a breakfast of omelets and fresh fruit, myself, C, AD and her son AD2 opted to take a guided hike through the village and up one of the island’s hills for a view of the neighboring Tamara Island. We were well prepared for two days on a beach with our shorts and flip flops, but ill-prepared for any sort of hiking beyond a stroll. And by “we” I mean mostly me. I mean, we were all dressed more or less the same, but it was I who struggled the most.
We started with a short three minute walk to the other side of the island where the boat had landed, then we skirted past the other hotel, then along a rocky, but easy, trail to the village. For a small island a little more than 4 square miles, the village appeared remarkably well appointed with a good number of houses, shops, a school, a community center, and plenty of goats and chickens.
Through the village we went and on the other side we tramped through a makeshift trash heap in a clearing and then began to ascend the hill. We followed a slight trail through the underbrush under palm trees. Already quite warm, the sweat began pouring down my face, trickling down my arms and legs. It did not take long for my t-shirt to become soaked through and my flip flops slick. As we passed the tree line and started up on boulders, I fell further and further behind. Although my flip flops had a good grip on the bottom, my feet were so slick with sweat that I could barely keep them on, especially when trying to climb on rocks. One of our guides, a young 20-something with a stutter, stayed with me the whole time, offering his hand to pull me up rock after rock and eventually offering me his flip flops, which were too large but less slippery.
At last we reached the top. I had honestly started to think I might not make it and it was very humbling. In all it had only taken 30 minutes, but it had felt longer. We spent some time enjoying the view and then began our climb down. I gave up on shoes entirely, having a much better purchase on the rocks in my bare feet, until we reached the grassland. We were all happy to arrive back at the Le Sogue hotel at noon, to either wash ourselves in water from a bucket filled the night before or jump into the sea.
By noon, our lunch should have been ready or nearing ready as we had ordered after breakfast because it had taken so long the day before. However, we were told around 1 PM that lunch was not being prepared as the boat bringing the supplies from the mainland had broken down. All they had were french fries, so that is what everyone had. Though originally the hotel scheduled our return boat at 4 PM, we asked to leave an hour earlier given that without lunch we would want to get back to Conakry sooner.
Though we were ready at 3 PM, the hotel staff only began to take our belongings to the boat at 3:30 and there we sat for on the small beach for an hour as first two men bailed out water from the boat and then until our last mystery guest arrived. We started our journey at 4:30 PM.
About 30 minutes into our journey, when we were halfway between Kassa Island and Conakry, the motor stopped. Initially, I thought it might be a joke, like the boat guys were having a bit of fun with us given the boat with our food from the mainland had also broken down. They were not. The motor had died. It seemed they had used the same boat and motor as the one that had stalled earlier in the day. We made the usual jokes about swimming to shore or flagging down a passing fisherman. It was very amusing at first. After 20 minutes it was a little less so as it was now after 5 PM and the sun was beginning its descent. The boat guys assured us they had called for assistance, that someone was on their way, but it was unclear when that person, if someone had even been called, would arrive.
My friend messaged the Embassy’s security officer just to let him know that we were adrift in Sangareya Bay. Not that he could do anything, but it felt good letting someone know. At least we had cell and data service so I could tell all my friends and family hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away that I was stranded on a boat in West Africa. The boat guys dropped anchor to keep us from floating further away and they kept trying to rope start the motor. It would sometimes start, almost catch, and then die away. After forty minutes (with no rescue boat in sight) the finally caught and we pulled up anchor and headed toward shore. We let the security officer we were on our way again.
We made it a few more minutes, just inside the harbor, when we broke down again. It took only 10 minutes to get it started again this time and it was at this point the rescue speed boat zipped up. As we were moving, the rescue boat just circled around us and left. Seriously, it left! If I were the driver of the rescue boat I might have hung around, followed the boat with the problematic motor until they got back to port. I guess that is not how things roll in Guinea. No surprise then when we broke down again.
Luckily our rescue boat was not too far away. We figured we would need to transfer to the smaller boat and he would zip us back, probably in two shifts. But no, instead he towed us. Somehow it worked and we made it back before sunset. We were all still in pretty good spirits, but I think that would have changed had we still been out on the water after dark. Our kids were gifted with a great story to wow their classmates with for years to come.
This should have been the end of the story. I wish it were. But we still had to drive home. I had never driven in the city after dark. Driving in Conakry is challenging even on days with little traffic and in bright daylight. Most roads have no lane markings. Most have potholes. More present conditions more like off roading, more dirt and mud than asphalt. Most motorcyclists, of which there are many, obey no laws.
Our planned route out from the port area was blocked. Apparently, after 6 PM the normally two way road becomes one way, and not the way we wanted to go. We were stopped for more than 10 minutes unable to move or turn around with a steady stream of semis driving towards us, inching past us. At last someone did a little traffic directing and we were able to turn around and try again as we bumped down several side streets until we reached the N1. Traffic was bumper to bumper and aggressive, as usual, and in the melee I lost track of our friends.
I though at first to follow the N1 down to the roundabout near the airport and then the T2 which would take us directly back to our apartment. Except the government is doing a massive construction project at the Bambeto traffic circle right by our apartment and I was not sure of the way anymore. I turned off the N1 and the GPS led me along dark, narrow, bumpy side streets. Had it been daylight I could have been in a Toyota RAV4 or Goodyear tire commercial demonstrating my all-terrain driving prowess. Motorcycles circled us like sharks, dodging and weaving in all directions.
At last we made it to Rue de Prince. I was not sure my next move as it also led to Bambeto Circle or what was left of it. I followed some rogue cars to the circle, an active construction site, and slowly squeezed my way down a makeshift path between the construction pit and shops while surrounded by motorcycles. It is absolutely amazing we were not hit by any of them. But to get back to my apartment I had to take a newly built detour road and as I turned to enter the one way road, a cement mixer roared out, going the wrong way, and stopped just inches from my car. Its grill was all I could see out of my windshield, it was that close. And I lost it. I leaned on my horn for what seemed like a minute yelling “Aaaaarrrrrrrreeeeeetttttt!!” Why French came to me at this moment when so often I am at a loss for French vocabulary, I do not know, but it seemed appropriate. The truck stopped. I was able to inch around it and then made the last short drive home inching along with more traffic. By this point my daughter is sobbing and I am cursing. It took us two hours to drive home a distance of 13 kilometers (8 miles).
Guinea sure knows how to deliver. I am well on my way to a gold medal in the Guinea Experiences Games. Get doused with blister beetle acid? Check. Get stranded on a boat off shore? Check. Narrowly miss getting pulverized by a truck driving the wrong way? Check. I never know what Guinea has in store for us next.