To Belgium and Beyond: Part One

First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.

Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.

Belgium is waffle paradise. These looked way too sweet, but it was a pleasure just seeing them and knowing they were there, just in case

Then a week before our departure, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.

I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.

If you do not want Belgium waffles, then you gotta have Belgian fries.

All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.

Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.

On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.

The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.

Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.

C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.

Sites of Dinant

In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.

In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.

I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.

It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.

Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).

This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’ĂȘtre. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!

At the Euro Space Center solar system yard

At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.

I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.

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Arrival in Guinea: The First Four Weeks

It has been topsy-turvy since we arrived in Conakry, Guinea a little more than four weeks ago. Though I am fairly used to uprooting myself frequently (it is something I have done my entire adult life and with the U.S. government for 13 years), it never seems to get easier. I am beginning to sense it is getting harder the older I get. I had forgotten how it is to be the new employee, the person who knows nothing about the office procedures, where things are located, exactly who to ask, or the local issues. I know the mechanics of the job of course, this is not the same as the steeper learning curve I faced when I first arrived in Malawi, yet it is daunting nonetheless. My Malawi arrival was five years ago!

Surprisingly, I have seen more than a few school buses that seem American plying (ore more often haphazardly parked on) the streets of Conakry

Naturally, it is not just work that is new, it is everything. It is a lot to take in all at once. It’s a new job in a new city, in a new country, in a new region, living in new housing, driving a new (to me) car, sending C to a new school, and so on. But it is more than those things. I have to rely on other Embassy folks to help me with me with some fairly basic things. It makes me crazy not to know how to do these things, like how to set up the Internet or to get gas for the car or where to buy groceries. On our first night in our new apartment, I had to call another person from the Embassy to ask how to operate my stove! I am still a bit unsure with the oven; there is a thick instruction pamphlet on its usage, most of it is in German. Good thing I am not much of a cook!? I sure do miss knowing what is going on.

As a first impression, Conakry is a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells that assault the senses. It is lush, crowded, busy. I cannot help but compare Conakry to Lilongwe. I had hoped that nearly a year in America would curb that tendency, but while it isn’t fair, it is natural. Lilongwe is just my most recent reference point.

There seem to be few precautions for COVID-19 left here, but this billboard remains.

Conakry is bigger than Lilongwe, about double the size in population with Conakry over 2 million to Lilongwe’s 1 million. Though both cities had mostly single story or two storied buildings, there are many more taller buildings in Conakry. It’s no New York, Shanghai, or Dubai, but I have found this to be an aspect that stands out to me. Many of these buildings though leave a lot to be desired. Some are unfinished with bare cement sidings and gaping holes where balconies or windows ought to be, others still have the scaffolding, and yet they are clearly inhabited.

There are two main roads in Conakry – the Autoroute Fidel Castro and the Rue Le Prince – running more or less parallel to one another on either side of the narrow peninsula where the capital is situated. Both are two to three lanes in each direction, and the Autoroute, which was built in the 1960s, has an overpass or two. Lilongwe opened its first four lane road with overpass in early 2021, just a few months before my departure. There seems to be few rules to driving. Most roads do not have lane designations and there are almost no traffic lights. Some traffic organization is attempted with roundabouts, but the rules of them seem somewhat optional. We share the road with pedestrians, who walk on the road and cross freely as there are no sidewalks or crosswalks, and motorcycles, which are in far more abundance than in Malawi. Bicycles still were frequent in Malawi, even in Lilongwe, but I cannot say I have seen bicyclists here, and I would be rather worried for them if I did.

Billboard in Conakry regarding the transitional government, in place since the September 5 coup

My commute from home to the office is only three minutes! Short commutes seem so far to be my specialty. In Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, I was only a 10-15 minute walk from home to office, and in Malawi and Conakry I have had drives of ten minutes or less. I am glad for the short distance as I had (still have) some serious doubts about being able to drive on these roads. The only way to get to used to it though is to get out there and do it. On my first few drives I white-knuckled my way, praying the GPS was working and I would not get lost. And still I ended up on some side streets I had not intended.

Last weekend, C and I headed out on our Saturday supermarket run. Wanting a bit of a lie in, I put off leaving until the afternoon. I think that was a mistake. The roads were more congested than the week before, and within minutes we were inching along in bumper to bumper traffic. Without lane markings, people just make whatever lanes they want, and thus what is intended to be a two or three lane road can become a three or four lane road, leaving much less room to maneuver. Taxis stop when and where they want. Sometimes they get over toward the far side, sometimes not so much. A large truck also disgorged several passengers in the middle of the road – some jumping out from the cab while others came out of the back. Ahead, part of the main road was closed with a manned, makeshift blockade. Motorcycles were getting through, but no cars. There seemed no discernable reason for it. Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I started to come alive sitting there in traffic. After days in the office feeling like a fifth wheel, here were C and I OUT and ABOUT in Conakry! I have no doubt that a traffic jam like that will frustrate me to no end, but that day it let me take in life happening roadside.

My successful tool-about-town (which lasted three and a half hours for a shopping trip — I have learned that shopping here is very time consuming), I found the next day I really wanted to take a walk, and to get a little bit outside my comfort zone outside of the walls of my residential compound. Not knowing what to expect, I left C at home, and ventured up the street to the busy roundabout to check out the roadside market. I brought my camera too, in case I might see something worth capturing on film.

Colorful kola nuts for sale at the roadside market

Right off the bat I felt self conscious. I saw no other obvious foreigners taking a stroll and it did feel as if all eyes were on me. Curious, not menacing, but definitely watching. I had made sure to wear long pants and long sleeves and covered my hair, but there was no way to hide that I was not from here. There was no sidewalk so I walked along the edge of the road, careful not to get too close to the massive six foot deep drainage ditches while also keeping an ear out for traffic alongside. It being a Sunday the traffic was not too intense though the market vendors, whose stands spill on to the road, were out and had large stocks of their goods. I was not interested in the large piles of flip flops or mechanical parts, but I was glad to see the small fruit stands with good selections of pineapples, mangoes, apples, oranges, and avocado.

Woman and child at the market

But the woman at the first fruit stand, selling bananas, oranges, and surprisingly small plastic bags of popped popcorn, refused to have her photo taken. I could take one of her wares, but she would only hid behind it. And the next stand, two Muslim men, an older and a younger, dressed in traditional clothing, had an attractive display of kola nut for sale. Again, I could take a photo of the goods, but not the people. A guy wearing his wares of bright stainless steel spatulas and stirring spoons and tongs on his head also refused to be photographed. I was disappointed, but respected their wishes. A few, however, did allow. A young man working at a butcher’s was proud to stand in front of the hanging carcasses surrounded by buzzing flies while his older boss refused. And when I did a double take at a beautiful woman with her baby I fully expected a no to my ask for a photo, but she smiled shyly and said yes. Her husband also delighted that I took an interest as he proudly told me, “That’s my wife! That’s my baby!”

It was gritty. There was garbage on the streets, overflowing from bins, and clogging the drainage ditches. The detritus ranged from plastic bags and food wrappers to old clothing or tires. Just about anything turned into a waste mush by rain and time in the elements. Chickens and dogs rooted among the piles. The traffic was loud, disorderly, and often too close. And again, though some of it was shocking and sad, there was also life and activity, and I felt myself transported back to past times I walked through markets in foreign countries, mostly in my pre-State Department days. As the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, I particularly felt the tug of a memory from a walk through the streets of Jakarta near the Sunda Kelapa harbor. I smiled.

This is but a snapshot of my first few weeks in Conakry. It has been hard to capture it all because there is just so much that it is new, and I can only take in so much. I will not lie; it has not been easy. It may never be easy. But I think it will get easier.