After spending our first four months in Guinea during the very wet rainy season, it was high time to get out of Conakry when November and the dry season rolled around.
My first opportunity to travel beyond the capital’s borders was in early November when a program officer came out from Washington to visit some sites where his bureau had funded programming. As the supervisor of his program assistant at the Embassy, I would get to visit all the sites and attend all the meetings as well.
As part of the trip, we would be visiting two national police academies. One is in Dubreka, about an hour outside of Conakry (on a good traffic day, which I suspect are few and far between) and the other in Boffa, about 140 kilometers north of Conakry, which according to Google takes only three hours from Conakry except I have not found Google driving estimates here to be particularly accurate.
Given that, in reality it takes quite a bit longer to get to these locations, we would need to overnight near the academy in Boffa and stay at one of the few, if only, places in the area: the Hotel Bel Air, located another hour past Boffa, on the coast. I had read somewhere that this was a great hotel on Guinea’s best beach and had hoped to visit while in Guinea. As I was not so keen on a long drive, going there for work then would give me a chance to check it out.
After our visit to the academy in Dubreka, our driver headed north to Boffa. Road conditions in Guinea are not great, but the further we drove from Conakry, the better the roads seemed to get. They were narrow, no shoulders, few lines, but far fewer potholes in the countryside. Similar to Malawi, the roads zipped through the middle of small villages with little to set them back from the traffic.
On a few occasions there was some dramatic and beautiful scenery, sometimes though you had to look beyond the immediate vicinity to see it. In the photo above with the craggy rock jutting out of a green hill, I was standing in a truck stop. It wasn’t much, just about a dozen long-haul semis parked in a muddy layby while their drivers took a break. My shoes were sinking in the muck and the drivers appeared amused at either my taking a photo of anything or that I was there at all. But with just the right angle and some cropping, you would not really know.
I do not remember too much of the drive to Bel Air as we had a lot of camaraderie in the car. I recall lots of green though. Sometimes the woody green of dense trees alongside the road, sometimes the emerald green of grass and palms by a river, and sometimes the chartreuse of towering grass framing the road. And the one-car bridge. I was pretty impressed with it. Malawi didn’t have any bridges that were quite so solid. After three hours or so of driving we arrived at what seemed like it might have once been the Hotel Bel Air, though now long past its glory.
We drove around a circular drive to the entrance. Not a single other vehicle was in the parking lot. The large lobby was deserted. Not a person in sight. No one came out from the reception desk even after we called “hello” multiple times. The lobby had large windows that let in the afternoon light, but it was clear the electricity was off as the corners of the high ceiling were dark. We walked down a large hallway that seemed eerily sterile and abandoned. We stepped out on to a back patio facing the Atlantic. Only stagnant water about a foot deep lay at the bottom of the pool. Behind us the building façade was stripped to the concrete, with the second-floor rooms missing not only their balconies but their whole back wall. So, yeah, things were not looking too promising.
But a man, who introduced himself as the manager, appeared from the standalone bar located a short walk from the patio. The Embassy program assistant said we had a booking but expressed reservations about the hotel and our being able to procure dinner. The manager assured us it would be no problem.
He asked us to follow him to our rooms. We ascended a staircase and walked down a darkened hallway. The ceiling was removed to expose pipes, wooden crossbeams, wires and, the nests of what I later determined were swifts. The Shining anyone? The manager told us that only two of the rooms had a hot shower mechanism but that all the air conditioning units would work once the power came on in a few hours. The hotel only runs electricity from 6 PM at night to 8 AM the next morning. We were glad to hear it. Though I was once a backpacker who stayed in many a simple, unairconditioned room in steamy tropical locales and managed, I have grown very soft.
After getting ourselves settled, we meet the manager back at the patio to pre-order our dinner. We have a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. It’s like being on an airplane as there is no indication of how these options will be prepared or with what. Because I am just a tad picky with my chicken, I ask if any of the chicken available is breast meat. The manager says no, they do not have that. This is not the first time this has happened here but I wonder, as a chicken streaks across the beach in front of me, where do all the chicken breasts go if no place has them on offer? No matter, with low expectations I picked the beef.
While placing our dinner orders in the bar area, a small pack of very hopeful pups came to stand near us. I do not know what came over me — maybe just trying to find some joy in this somewhat odd place? — but I named two of them Carlsberg and Jameson. When I decided to take a walk along the beach, C and J trotted after me, tongues lolling. I just did a bit of walking and a bit of sitting and meditating as the waves rolled in. Then I returned to the room to do a bit of reading. Although my room was supposedly one of the ones with hot water, I could not figure it out for the life of me, so I enjoyed the first cool water bucket shower I have had in some time. It was actually refreshing and made me think of all the times I had done that before, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Around 7 PM, I met my two companions for dinner on the patio. Though warm, there was a lovely breeze, and we could hear the waves and the rustling of wind through the palms. We had views of a starry sky and the dark empty swimming pool. Carlsberg and Jameson stood vigil nearby. My beef arrived and it was remarkably good. My companions enjoyed their fish and chicken. This weird, mostly abandoned place had turned out some nice meals and service. I called my daughter, who was staying over with friends. She was none too happy with me for having left her while I went on this adventure. She told me she wished she were there and to describe the hotel. I had to tell her, laughing, that she was not missing anything. She thought Carlsberg and Jameson were cute though and that all things considered she would rather have been able to come with me.
Retiring to my room I was happy to see the electricity was on and the air conditioning working well. The mosquito net hung limply from the ceiling with no frame, so I just wrapped it around me. Though the air conditioning unit was somewhat noisy it was more of a white noise and I could still hear the waves outside. I fell asleep.
I could not believe how well I slept. I am not a great sleeper, often prone to insomnia, and the tour in Guinea had thus far been more stressful than not. Imagine my surprise when one of my best nights of slumber would be at this hollowed-out hotel.
I opened the balcony doors and stepped out. The droning of the overworked air conditioner that had left a puddle over most of the balcony could not drown out the sounds of the sea and the dozens of swifts conducting aerial tricks over the beach. I love the view from my sky-high apartment in Conakry, but I missed the sounds of birds that I could hear every morning from my screened-in porch in Malawi. Bel Air was the first time I had heard this many birds in Guinea. I did not rush down to breakfast. I wanted to drink in the dulcet sounds, and store them, so I could recall them and feel calm later, when back in the chaos of Conakry.
We had a full day ahead of us. A visit to the national police academy in Boffa and then the long drive back to Conakry. The visit went very well and though long the drive was doable with such great companions. We laughed how no matter what in the future we would remember this trip together, we will always have the Hotel Bel Air. As much as C had wanted to join me, I knew this was not a trip I would have liked to do with her. I am grateful though I had this opportunity to see at least a small part of Guinea outside the capital.