Introducing Our New Diplo-cat, Ramen

My daughter and I may have departed Guinea earlier than planned, but we have brought a little something from the country with us – our new Diplocat, Ramen Noodle.

We lost one of our diplo-kitties, Tikus, when in Malawi, and I had promised my daughter that she could get a kitten though noted, given the challenges of moving with pets, it would be best to wait until after our arrival in Guinea before we found our newest furry family member. Our Guinea kitty.

Before arriving in Conakry, I had heard there were quite a few feral kittens at the Kakimbo residences where we would live. I figured once we got a bit settled we could pick out one of those kitties. Turned out they were super feral little beasts that were nearly impossible to catch. On several occasions I found myself running around the parking garage trying to capture one. It did not seem like it was going to work out.

At a Country Team meeting where I was the new person and did not really know what to say I blurted out I was looking for a cat for my daughter if anyone had any leads. Lo and behold the Peace Corps Director announced that if I am looking for cats, she has cats. A whole bunch of them running around her front yard. Though she fed them, she isn’t really a fan of cats, but is concerned for their welfare when she would depart in two months. It sounded like a plan.

Thankfully after about a month with us Ramen was too large to hide inside the area in the back of the toilet

Therefore on July 11th, a Monday holiday in Guinea, I celebrated by taking one of my very first (rather terrifying) drives over to the Peace Corps Director’s house to capture our new kitten. We had initially planned to grab one of the older cats but the Peace Corps Director thought maybe it would be better to adopt a younger one. And just then this little orange tabby streaked in front of us and C knew that was the cat for her. With a pillow case and a can of tuna and five people we managed to corral that ball of fluff into our carrier and we took him home. We dubbed him Ramen and guesstimated his birthday to be April 1.

At home I placed the unzipped carrier in one of the bathrooms, set out a little food and a litter box, and then closed the door. Just to get him acclimated. When I looked in 20 minutes later, he was gone. He was not in the carrier. He wasn’t in the bathtub. He wasn’t in the under the sink cabinet even though I found a hole where he might have accessed it. I looked and looked in all the same completely obvious places where he obviously was not. I began to think I had imagined the whole thing – the drive down the narrow streets, the catching the kitten, everything. But then after a few hours, Ramen the kitten crawled out of a hidey hole in the back of the commode!

So here is something else about Conakry. Before I bid on the assignment I watched a Post bidding video – a recruitment video of sorts. One thing that was most definitely highlighted were the number of pets in the Embassy community — and I distinctly remember something along the lines of what a great Post Conakry is for pets. Well, uh, that might have been a slight exaggeration.

I heard there were basically two vets for the expat community – one who spoke English and one who spoke only French. I went with the former, a lovely, good-natured man who I think was doing the best he could with what he had available. But it sure did make for some interesting times.

Dr. K prepares to neuter Ramen in my living room – just another foreign service experience

I needed to get Ramen fixed so I called on Dr. K to perform the procedure. One nice thing for Conakry is the vets make house calls, even on the weekends. Dr. K arrived at my apartment with his scrubs on and carrying his vet bag on a Saturday morning. We would be conducting the procedure on the coffee table in my living room. Yes, you read that correctly. A veterinarian would be conducting a minor surgical operation in front of my television set. I brought out my tie-dyed towel from Jamaica to make it extra special…

I had not realized that I would be serving as the vet assistant. I held Ramen as the vet injected the anesthesia. I did not have a great grip and he bucked as the needle went in — probably a good thing as I learned later the vet was more than a little generous with dosing. I assisted as the vet shaved the area and also made the incisions. This was not how I had initially seen my day going. Dr. K wrapped things up with some sutures, handed me a prescription for some painkillers, and headed out.

There was no cone of shame. I wish I had known that Dr. K had very little supplies as I would have ordered one from the States and waited for its delivery before the procedure. The lack of that cone became problematic. But that came later.

I headed out to get the meds at the pharmacy, then I came home to monitor Ramen. He was loopy, like really loopy, for a what seemed a really long time. But then again normally, in the places I have been where my pets have had surgery (the U.S., Indonesia, Malawi), you drop off your pet in the morning and the veterinary staff will monitor the animal for several hours until you can pick them up in the afternoon. I would say usually I do not see my pet until 6-8 hours after the procedure. It was quite strange to see him so groggy, his eyes unfocused, his third eyelid visible.

Mealtimes started to get a little weird with Ramen around

Over the next few days Ramen seemed very off. I kept trying to give the medication as prescribed, but the pills seemed large for a 5 pound cat. I conducted a little Google sleuthing and discovered that the vet had prescribed Ramen 150 mg of doxycycline each day. I had felt bad that the pharmacy had only had 100 mg pills. Yet, it turned out the typical dosage is 2 milligrams of doxycycline per pound of body weight – or only 10 mg for a five pound cat! The vet had prescribed 15 times that dosage! Once I discovered this, three days in, I stopped giving the medication altogether. He got his energy back, but developed a weird cough. A week later he ripped out his stiches and one incision site looked bad. Online I learned that usually stiches are not even necessary for neutering. I was beginning to worry he was not going to recover from what should have been a fairly straightforward procedure.

Luckily he did.

I also had Dr. K given him his first rabies shot and microchip. Dr. K told me he had no microchips so I would have to order one and he would inject it. I bought a pack of two off Amazon. After the insertion I gave the extra one to Dr. K and he was ecstatic. He thanked me profusely. He said it was one of the best gifts he had ever been given. I wish I had ordered a ten pack.

Ramen grew on us quickly. He is the mushiest cat I have ever had. Most nights he slept draped across my daughter or curled up near her head. A couple times a week I was the lucky one to have him join me for a snooze. He was (and still is!) naughty as well. He refuses to use the cardboard cat scratchers and he and his claws kept me in terror of his ripping up the faux leather sofas in our Conakry apartment or the carpet in our Virginia housing. We have showered him with cat towers with sisal fiber joints that he does at least sometimes scratch, and I have acquired a spray water bottle for when he invariably attempts another scratch location.

He is a rather extraordinary cat. We taught him to play fetch with some small bouncy balls and now when he wants to play he will jump up to the bed or the sofa carrying one of the balls or even one of his mouse toys.

Ramen looks forward to more travels as a diplo-cat

He is also so, so good. As a young, energetic cat who gets a serious case of the zoomies twice a day I had no idea how he might respond to being cooped up in his carrier for the duration of our flight from Guinea to the United States upon our departure. Because the EU put new guidelines in place in early 2022 that require all transiting pets to meet EU pet import requirements, we could not fly through Europe. (The guidelines require a titer test for all pets coming from “countries of concern” for rabies. The test necessitates at least a three month lead time. Both the blood draw and laboratory testing for the titer would be difficult, if not impossible, in Guinea.) Therefore, we had to fly through Addis Ababa – an eight hour flight and a one hour stop in Abidjan – going in the opposite direction first. Then the 17 hour flight from Addis to Washington, DC via Dublin. All told our two cats – Kucing and Ramen – spent about 34 hours in the carriers going door to door. Ramen made not a peep.

And now we are back in the U.S. Well C, Kucing, and I are back. This is Ramen’s first time here. We lived first in temporary housing for 2 months and then moved into more permanent housing, meaning within the first year of his life Ramen has lived in four locations: Peace Corps Director’s yard, our home in Guinea, our temporary quarters in Virginia, and now our apartment in Virginia. He has a long way to go to catch up with Kucing, who has lived in six countries at a total of 14 addresses, but he is well on his way to being a proper Diplo-cat.

P.S. It turned out that the rabies and distemper shots Ramen got in Guinea were for dogs. We found out at his first vet check-up in the US. This could explain his interest in playing fetch….


Time to Come Clean: Curtailing from Conakry

There is no one path in the Foreign Service. Generalists like myself and specialists, who may work as IT, office management, medical, or security experts, will naturally have different jobs and pathways (for example security personnel have more domestic assignments that are in more places around the U.S.) and there are differences between the generalist’s cones (Political, Economic, Management, Public Affairs, and Consular), yet even within a cone there is a wide difference from one person’s career to the next. There are those who may spend most of their career overseas, rarely spending time in Washington. I know at least one person that I can point to that in a 20+ year career has done only one two-year tour in Washington. Others may spend more time in DC. Some prefer hardship posts – going from Monrovia to Haiti to Caracas and Tegucigalpa. Others somehow end up in mostly “garden” posts: from Costa Rica to Taiwan to Iceland and Latvia. Still, others like to alternate their hardship and plum postings.

One of Conakry’s many, many billboards. This is reportedly part of the country’s rebranding as the government attempts to attract tourists and investment

I have mostly pursued postings in locations often considered more challenging (though any post, even in the most developed and beautiful of locations can have its challenges). I also wanted to experience different aspects of the Foreign Service life. I have been to both Embassies (Lilongwe and Conakry and even Jakarta in my Defense Department days) and Consulates (Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai). Also, large posts (Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai) and small (Lilongwe and Conakry). I went to a post with danger pay (Ciudad Juarez had 15% danger pay at the time). I went to posts with language requirements (Ciudad Juarez, Shanghai, and Conakry) and without (Lilongwe). I went to posts that allowed for a consumable allowance to bring in additional foodstuffs and other disposable goods (Lilongwe and Conakry). I went to posts with paid-for Rest & Relaxation tickets (Shanghai, Lilongwe, Conakry). I extended at one post (Lilongwe) which resulted in doing a mid-tour home leave. And now, I have added another foreign service experience: curtailing from a post.

A curtailment is the cutting short of a tour of duty. So, surprise! C and I have left Guinea.

I never thought I would curtail from a tour. I knew Guinea would not be a walk in the park, that it would have challenges, of course. Honestly, for me, that was part of the appeal. But Guinea proved much harder than I expected.

I will miss views like this from our 23rd floor Kakimbo Towers apartment. Sun near us as rain clouds gather over the mangrove forests to Conakry’s southeast. Also, the view into the Peul neighborhood behind Kakimbo, Rue de Prince, and the Bambeto traffic circle.

It is difficult to pinpoint any one thing that led to the decision as it was a combination of so many things. First and foremost: I did not arrive at this tough assignment 100%. Like many people, the COVID-19 pandemic wore me down. I pushed through the first 16 months of it in Lilongwe. Not that it was easy, but it started off novel, even oddly exciting, and we were in a country and me in a job where we had already been for over 2 1/2 years before the pandemic. Then it was back to the U.S. for Home Leave and 9 1/2 months of training on Zoom as the pandemic continued. The French language training had not been good for me. Perhaps it was the combination of online training, teachers whose style did not work for me, and pandemic fatigue, but when I headed to Conakry at the end of June 2022, I was mentally drained.

Timing is an important factor in life, and I now believe that arriving at the beginning of summer was an unfortunate one for us. After this experience, I do not think I would want to do that at any post, though in a hardship, difficult-to-staff post like Conakry, I think it was all the worse. I arrived at a gutted Embassy. The summer transfer season was already in full swing with many positions gapped as predecessors had departed and their successor not yet arrived. This included my own section. The previous Political/Economic Chief had departed in early April; her successor would not arrive until mid-August. The Economic Officer was on a two-week holiday for my first two weeks. One of our locally employed staff political assistants was in DC on training. Another was sick my first week. An eligible family member hire left a few days after my arrival with no replacement lined up. The locally employed economic assistant position was vacant for over six months. Basically, in my normally eight-person section there were two of us, and I was brand new.

I liked this painted advertisement mural and am a bit sad I never did get to try Guini Cola.

Other staff at the Embassy basically fell into three categories: short timers who had little time to talk with me as they were leaving post the next day, the next week, or two weeks later; those about to leave on long summer vacations; and those frazzled individuals covering two or more positions due to the vacancies. No one seemed to have time for us. Now for myself, I had my job. A job that I was struggling to work out as issues immediately cropped up and I had little or no information to go on and few people to ask, but still, I had something to focus on. My daughter, however, arrived at the beginning of a long summer holiday knowing no one. Twelve school-aged children in the Embassy community had just departed; only C had arrived. The remaining Embassy kids all departed on six-week holidays within two weeks of our arrival. Every last one of them. Other Guinean and expat kids in our building also took off on long holidays. I felt bad leaving my daughter at home with a brand-new nanny who spoke little English, while C spoke little French.

Once school began in late August and the vacationing kids returned, C quickly began to make friends, but that rough beginning had already colored our experience. But it was only some of the many issues.

There were also the protests. We had demonstrations in Malawi too. There were several marches against corruption starting in 2018 and then many protests against the flawed elections of May 2019. In my experience, though, there were two big differences between the Malawi protests and those we saw in Guinea: In Malawi, the demonstrations tended to occur in the old town area, on the other side of town, or in the newer part of the capital where Parliament and government ministries were located (as well as the U.S. Embassy), i.e. away from our residences; the ones in Guinea, however, were more violent and much closer to home.

Police set fire to makeshift shelters in the ravine in front of Kakimbo after forcibly removing the squatters. The acrid smoke lingered for hours.

Just a week after arriving, protests erupted around the Bambeto traffic circle over the sudden arrests of several opposition leaders. Bambeto is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Embassy and Kakimbo Towers. From our apartment, we could watch the scenes unfold down below as young protestors played a game of cat and mouse with Guinean security forces. As we heard gunfire, we received Embassy notifications that Kakimbo residents should stay away from the windows. C’s bedroom, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, faced that direction.

One might think that on the 23rd floor we would be just fine, and maybe so, but four weeks after our arrival, there were more protests around Bambeto with bullets piercing windows on the 15th and 17th floors. All in all, in our first four months in Conakry there were 11 protests that left at least 11 dead, hundreds injured, and more arrested. There was a time when a protest began on a Friday afternoon, and I was downtown at a work event. Due to traffic avoiding the main thoroughfare Rue de Prince, auxiliary roads became parking lots. It took my colleague and I nearly 2.5 hours to travel the nine miles from the Justice Ministry to the Embassy. All the while I was wondering about my daughter and nanny and if I would be able to get home. One protest day we were asked to stay away from the windows on both sides of the apartment as on one side police action involved firearms against demonstrations and on the other side police were setting fire to squatter homes in the nearby ravine.

C and I were also twice nearly blocked from entering the Kakimbo compound gates when protests erupted while we were out at school functions. We could also look down into the neighborhood behind us and, on one particularly vivid occasion, we watched the security forces in riot gear methodically moving through the winding streets, searching homes, launching tear gas, occasionally shots to the air, while we could also see persons, including children, fleeing. While I found the protests both disturbing and politically fascinating, I grew concerned with how C had become inured to the sound of small arms fire.

There was also the traffic. Oh, the traffic. It affected everything. It made shopping and work meetings held outside the Embassy or travel anywhere in or out of the city all the longer. Nearly every blog post I have written about Guinea includes a traffic-induced delay anecdote. Sometimes I found it amusing, but always I found it exhausting.

C was also struggling with some aspects of school. I had hoped the small American international school would be able to give her the individual attention she needed, but her mathematics skills, not strong to begin with and only eroded during the pandemic, were apparently too far behind for her to catch up.

It was a privilege to work on the issues that allowed me to attend the opening of the historic September 28 Massacre trial and the opening of the country’s first official shelter for trafficking victims.

It was all of this and more – the lack of domestic travel opportunities and expense of international trips (i.e. the $1400 I had to pay to change our flights to Belgium in August due to protests potentially blocking access to the airport), the lack of families in the Embassy community and the isolation that brought in general and more so as a single parent, the difficulty in finding activities outside school for C, including facing the strong likelihood of her spending several long, lonely summers, and, let me be frank, difficulties I faced in trying to keep up with all the aspects of my own portfolio of human rights and politics during a particularly fraught political period in Guinea. I had the opportunity to work on some truly fascinating issues and my little political officer heart hummed happily, but my stress levels and mental exhaustion were high. I worked extra hours in the evenings and on weekends and had trouble sleeping. The situation was untenable.

Though it was a dark time for me when this came to a head, I am glad that I reached out to folks, and I found a lot of support. Although curtailment is not talked about often, and almost seems like a dirty word, it is not uncommon. Someone in a position to know told me that there is on average a curtailment by someone, somewhere every single week. And when I shared my news with friends, I found that I knew at least a dozen people who had also curtailed at some point in their careers. Every single one of them told me that it was the right decision for them.

I do not regret C and I going to Conakry. I was able to see some amazing progress on some key issues in a country that is on the cusp of great possibilities. It remains to be seen whether the government and the people can surmount the current problems and emerge better on the other side, but the opportunities are there. For years the country has promised but not delivered a trial to hold accountable those responsible for a September 28, 2009 stadium massacre and yet on the 13th anniversary of the event the government did just that. I spent a lot of time on this issue. Trafficking in persons is also a major issue for political officers and I was able to meet with many government officials and civil society working to counter this. I also worked with a great team on the professionalization and capacity building of the country’s police force. The Guinean staff in the Political/Economic section were absolutely amazing, though I found wonderful Guineans throughout our Embassy working alongside us to improve their country. We made some great friends and, despite the short time, got out to enjoy some of the culture and beauty of Guinea.

At the end of the year, C’s school held a “winter” concert and a craft fair. As I perused the craft tables, I came across this beautiful wood carving of the Nimba, the symbol of Guinea. Versions of this goddess can be found around the capital, from a roundabout in the old town to statues in lobbies of hotels or at the airport. The Nimba is a symbol of the Baga people of coastal West Africa, with a large concentration in present-day Guinea. The Nimba represents the mother of fertility, who is a protector of pregnant women and who presides over agricultural ceremonies. The Nimba represents the joy of living and the promise of an abundant harvest.

Knowing that we would soon leave Conakry, I bought it — my sole souvenir from Guinea. It is very fitting that I carry this symbol of Guinea with me. It is a symbol of joy and promise and new beginnings. I hope for both Guinea and for me and C.

Out and About in Conakry

One of Conakry’s many roundabout decorations

I must be honest up front: Conakry is not an easy city to get out and about in. There are the challenging road conditions – unpaved and/or unlined roads, too many vehicles that lead to major traffic jams, loose interpretations of road rules, and confusing street layouts (initially I thought this illogical, but then perhaps the road system is completely logical to some?), and a dearth of activities one might find in major capitals. This is not to say there is nothing to do in Conakry — I am sure there are things going on that I have not had the chance to pursue. For instance, Conakry is known for its music and probably has an awesome music scene. My French isn’t very good, driving at night in Conakry scares the sh*t out of me, and parking in Conakry is atrocious (i.e. usually only maybe 5% of actually needed parking – a figure I just made up right now). I am generally more into pursuits like visiting museums, strolling in parks or along avenues lined with buildings with beautiful architecture, or sightseeing. None of which are in particular abundance in Conakry. And I knew that before going there. Yep, I did.

But I lived in Malawi for four years, and its capital, Lilongwe, was not rich in my favorite free-time pursuits either. And I still really enjoyed my time there. Like in Lilongwe, I needed to find those things that did make Conakry interesting. First, I saw the many differences between it and Lilongwe. Conakry’s population is about twice that of Lilongwe – packed into a narrow peninsula. It is a lot more developed than Lilongwe as well. I do not have the actual stats, but I would say there are more streets in Conakry, particularly wider ones with center strips and street lights. There is just way more light in general. While in Lilongwe after the sun goes down, the city is fairly dark; in Conakry it is lit up like a Christmas tree at night. I can stand on my 23rd-floor balcony and see the lights dotting the peninsula. It’s a lovely view and another thing that makes Conakry different from Lilongwe. In Malawi’s capital, there are few buildings more than two stories tall. Though Kakimbo Towers, where I live, is by far the tallest building in Conakry (and in all of Guinea, and in most of West Africa), it is by no means the only high-rise. Apartment buildings of six, eight, or ten stories abound across the city. They are not all in good shape, some are only partially finished though people still live there, but they are there in greater numbers than Lilongwe.

Billboards with the President of the Transition are commonplace throughout the capital

Signs. I kind of have a thing with signs. I wrote about them in Malawi, where there were some, but they were nowhere near in abundance as they are in Conakry. There are billboards all over the city advertising products, upcoming events, and political slogans. The most ubiquitous signs are those that feature the President of the Transition, Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya, who led the overthrow of the previous president in September 2021. His visage stares out from the biggest billboards in the most prominent locations — sometimes even draped over the Palace of the People, where the country’s legislative body meets — as a constant reminder to the populace that he and his ruling government are keeping the country and its people in mind. Unlike in Malawi where political billboards seem to hang in place for months or even years until they weathered away, these featuring the current president are replaced every few weeks.

Just a small example of the incredible shop and service paintings

My favorite signs in Conakry though were the hand-painted ones. Many times they came without any text, which made me think the depictions were for those who could not read. The illiteracy rate of Guinea is quite high – according to several indices, it ranks among the lowest ten literate populations in the world with only around 45% of those above the age of 15 able to read. I only realized after arriving in Guinea that my nanny/housekeeper was illiterate when she only sent me voice messages and did not respond to messages I wrote. There were often hand-painted signs outside barber and beauty salons showing several hairstyles. Most police stations had painted signs of police officers (though usually they seemed to be portrayed with guns or wearing riot gear, so I do not know how that would help a citizen feel confident about going to the police). There were sometimes signs outside restaurants with paintings of some of the available dishes. There was a chair store with a painting of a chair — very helpful, I think! I wish I had been able to get more photos. I often planned to spend a day doing so, but many were on the sides of buildings that had little space to stop a car. I suppose I could have done it the Guinean way – just stop my car in the middle of the road and if it blocked traffic, then so be it – but I just did not feel comfortable with that.

The stunning Grand Mosque of Conakry. My photos could not really do it justice.

There were a few places to see in the capital. With the end of the rainy season, I really wanted to get out more. When a visitor for Washington came to Conakry and one of our locally employed staff offered to take him on out for some Saturday sightseeing, I asked if my daughter and I could go along. C and I were thrilled to have a chance to visit the Conakry Grand Mosque, the fourth largest mosque on the continent and the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. The mosque can accommodate as many as 25,000 worshippers at a time. Although the mosque was officially closed for renovations, my local staff member had an in — his father is actually a high-ranking official at the mosque.

OK. Honestly, C was a little less enthused about our outing that day. As we drove up she perked up a bit, but as can be expected from a 10-year-old asked, “How long will we be here?” But once inside her tune changed. She could not quite believe the size. And though the outside of the mosque is lovely, it is the inside space that is truly breathtaking. Although the Grand Imam himself was not in residence, several of his staff were and they gave us a brief audience and a personal tour. That made the visit even more special.

Next to the Grand Mosque is the Botanical Garden, established in 1897 by the French botanist Auguste Chevalier. Though our guide told us that the garden is at least half its original size, with space cleared for the Grand Mosque and a cemetery, but it is still rather incredible that the garden still exists in the jam-packed chaotic narrow Kaloum peninsula. It is an oasis of greenery. At the front, there was still some construction related to renovations, with a pile of framed glass windows and wooden beams leaning against a large steel dumpster. Playing among all that were two monkeys. Wild monkeys in the center of Conakry! Our guide led us away from the entrance along a dirt pathway. Unlike other botanical gardens I have visited, there were no flowers, just trees (though happen to be a huge fan of trees). The whole place had a very untamed vibe. Not entirely uncared for, but minimally so. Though in a way, that was part of the charm. It was like being in a real forest and a little unbelievable as the area is hemmed in by busy roads. Yet, even in the center of the garden, the tall trees and thick underbrush made one feel far from the disorder just outside its walls.

On another occasion, C and I went to see acrobats at the Keita Fodeba Center for the Acrobatic Arts at work. Guinea has become a country where the circus arts are well known. I read that in the late 80s a French cinematographer wanted to make a movie about an African circus and upon finding there were none he helped to found one in Conakry and then filmed a documentary (Circus Baobab, 2001). Circus Baobab became a success, touring the globe, and has spawned other Guinean circuses. One of them, Amoukanama, performed on America’s Got Talent in 2022. The Keita Fodeba Acrobatic center has been recruiting and training street children and youth to train in acrobatics since 1998. The graduates of these Guinean circuses are able to work with major circuses, like Cirque du Soleil, around the world.

A month or so before the Community Liaison Officer at the Embassy had arranged for an Embassy outing to the Center, but C and I were unavailable that weekend. I asked a local friend when the troupe practiced, and he gave me the information. On a Saturday morning C and I set out in our car for the 28th of September Stadium. I knew and could see on the map the training center was located very close to the stadium grounds. Getting there turned out to be another matter completely.

Given the regularity of chaos on Conakry’s streets, it is perhaps no surprise that Google Maps is not the most accurate. It is amazing it works at all, but often the roads it sends one on may be closed for construction or aren’t really much of a road at all. We circled around and around the vicinity, but I struggled to actually get there. We were to be there at 10:30 am and we had left home around 10, giving us a good half an hour to drive the 5 miles from our apartment complex to the stadium. 10:30 came and went, as did 11, as I drove in circles nearby. We ended up on a narrow road — it would be two lanes except one side was basically parking. A two-way street with only enough space for one way. This led to some creative driving. We were blocked at one point by an oncoming driver choosing to force his way through. He signaled for me to just pull over to the right a little – of course, the right had a one-foot wide, one-foot deep drainage ditch. After getting out of that mess with the help of some bystanders (who thought the other driver in the wrong – a small win!), we came to a T-junction where the two-way road was also narrowed to one with the presence of a busy market and hundreds of pedestrians. Lucky for me there was a traffic cop there who assisted my successful push through there. Though at this point I could see we were very close to the stadium, Google Maps said we would have to go around again. No way! I saw a government with parking and banking on my diplomatic license plates, I asked and was granted permission to park there. A random person in the parking lot agreed to take C and I on foot the rest of the way.

Only a small simple sign indicates inside this building are where some of Guinea’s next best acrobats train

We crossed an expansive and dusty parking area around the stadium to a non-descript concrete building with a large steel garage-like door. We had arrived at the Center. Our guide took his leave and C and I stepped inside. There were a few cheap plastic chairs set up to the side of a large faded, well-worn mat. A few other foreigners were seated in some of the chairs. C and I sat in some empty ones. An older gentleman approached us to ask if we were from the Embassy and I said we were. Apparently, they had been waiting for our arrival to begin rehearsals! Some musicians took their seats at the back and began a drumbeat while other performers stood to their right to dance and chant. Then the acrobats began to take to the mat. We saw displays of tumbling, cartwheels and flips, the corde lisse or aerial rope, juggling, contortionism, and more. There was no air conditioning and no fancy equipment and that which they did have had most certainly seen better days. Yet the performers obviously put a lot of time and passion into their practice to become some of the best acrobats in the world. It was a stunning performance.

C and I tried to make the most of our time out and about in Conakry. It was certainly frustrating at times (perhaps an understatement), but generally worth it.

The Fast(ish) and the Furious: Driving in Conakry

A typical Conakry traffic situation with cars going every which way however they want. I am just trying to go straight out of a roundabout…

I used to think traffic in Malawi was, hmmmm, how do I say? Interesting? My daughter learned all the bad words from sitting in the back seat while I drove around Lilongwe. Traffic in Malawi, my friends, was nothing compared to Conakry. I laugh now thinking back to it. How did I think Lilongwe was challenging? I have certainly been in locations where there was similarly interesting traffic – Hanoi, Delhi, Mombasa come to mind – but I was not a driver in those locations. Conakry really tested me. The State Department’s required Foreign Affairs/Counter Threat (FACT) course, lovingly referred to as “Crash and Bang” for its defensive driving and shooting components (though over the years the weapons familiarization portion has gradually been reduced), really came in handy in Conakry.

Conakry has more roads in general and wider, two-lane roads than Lilongwe. But Conakry is also more chaotic. There are more vehicles: more large trucks, more taxis (there really were not taxis in Lilongwe, but in Conakry, there are a plethora of these distinctive sedans painted in the red, yellow, and green colors of the Guinean flag), and motorcycles. So. Many. Motorcycles.

Just a wee road obstacle. Do not worry about this five-foot deep ditch on the side of the road with no barriers that can swallow your car. Not a problem….

Any city might struggle with the volume of vehicles in Conakry. But a city with poor infrastructure, where most two-lane roads have no lane markings, no shoulders, no crosswalks, no sidewalks, few traffic lights, and all kinds of obstructions on the road, really struggles with this. Add in drivers that seem to do whatever they want… If you want to stop suddenly in the middle of the road to let out or pick up passengers or just wait, go right ahead. Too tired to go up to the next roundabout to turn around? Just drive down the road against traffic, no problem! Basically, too many vehicles, haphazard traffic conditions, and a lack of road etiquette spell very challenging driving conditions.

I am sure accidents like this, right outside my residence, happen frequently. I am just surprised I have not seen more of them.

For instance, when I depart out of my residential compound when there is significant traffic (a very regular occurrence) there are guards who stop traffic to let us out. Though the guard may stop one lane of traffic, inevitably the car behind that one, or the one behind the second one, immediately decides this is BS waiting and pulls around the stopped vehicle. The guard usually then stops this car, but back in the line, someone else has decided they don’t want to wait in lane one or lane two and then tries to go around both cars. This road is about four lanes wide. Well, it would be if there were any lane markings, which there are not. But at times cars will build up to four across in one direction as each person tries to get ahead of everyone else. This then, naturally, causes difficulties for the traffic going in the other direction. On very bad days this can lead to a standstill. I called one of my colleagues once who informed me she had been sitting in her car “one minute from the Embassy” for approximately 30 minutes, barely inching forward. On another day my colleague and I were heading to the grand opening of an event, and it took us one hour to move three kilometers. Something that should have taken five minutes. When we finally reached the end, we could see no reason for the backup. It was just one of those special Conakry traffic days. (Luckily though things often start late in Conakry, and we were mostly on time)

Photo of a Conakry road. You might think I took this photo from the side of the road, but you would be wrong. I am in a vehicle, also on the road.

In the U.S., some drivers facing a similar predicament, might just drive on to the shoulder and skirt around those blocking the lane. Except there are often no shoulders. Or the auxiliary lane is cut off from the rest of the road by a two foot wide, five foot deep cement ditch with zero protective barriers to stop a car from driving into them. There are some areas where the road is paved between the two to allow drivers to get onto that side road, but you may end up driving for awhile before you can get back on. These ditches are so deep that informal mechanics use these to conduct under carriage work – having a car carefully use a paved crossing to maneuver their car so that tires are on either side of the drainage ditch and the mechanic gets into the ditch to work on the underside of the car.

I guess one positive of Conakry traffic is it is hard to get up any real speed. With so many cars jostling for space on the road, pedestrians darting across at any location, speed bumps, dips, and random obstacles on the road, when most accidents occur they are generally scrapes and fender benders. When my daughter and I were returning from tennis at her school one day, we got caught in a traffic jam that turned the 6.6 kilometer (4.1 mile), 15 minute drive into an over an hour ordeal. Inching along and jockeying to keep ahead of cars and motorbikes that take any hesitation as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull ahead, it was maddening. Due to some road construction we were diverted onto a makeshift road, though one better than 90% of the roads in Conakry. Although the state of the road was good, there were simply too many cars on it trying to get out a narrow opening to another road. A driver in a taxi next to my car decided that he was going to forge ahead and cut me off. Instead he scraped against my car and got stuck. Traffic police, who I had not noticed at all before, suddenly appeared and tried to get the driver to back up. That only led to more scraping against my vehicle. The police tried to get me to back up, but I was completely hemmed in by the taxi and a horde of motorcyclists right on my bumper. I had a few inches to my right alongside a barrier and the police directed me to slightly turn that way. This gave the taxi the chance to get off my bumper and he sped away. The police pushed in my bumper and gave me the thumbs up sign. And here is the amazing bit: I didn’t yell. I didn’t say one bad word. I just returned the thumbs up sign and drove home. It was all just so inevitable.

Creative driving in Conakry. On the left: the guy hanging outside the back of the truck and furniture for sale placed directly on the roadside; on the right: I have to get this large ungainly wooden thing home so I will just strap it to the top of my taxi.

There is a lot of creativity to driving in Conakry. I have got to hand it to some folks for their ingenuity, but some things just are just downright dangerous. See the guy hanging out the back of the panel van? I cannot say he is the only person I have seen doing this. And the large piece of furniture strapped haphazardly to the top of that taxi? Yawn, so commonplace. And I 100% know that these kinds of innovative means of transporting goods and people is not, by any stretch of the imagination, limited to Guinea. There just seems an extra layer of hutzpah added here. For example, when I lived in Indonesia in 2007, I watched a father place his slightly sized son, maybe 10 years old?, on the back of a motorcycle holding on to newly bought large television set, still in its box, and then motor off. I feared for the kid who could barely wrap his skinny arms around the box. One speed bump would surely knock him backwards as his little bum sat on the very back of the seat and he was not anchored to his father in any way, just holding on to the unwieldy box. However, one day in Conakry, at a particularly messed up under-construction intersection, I saw a motorcycle swerve between my car and the one in front of us. The passenger, a middle aged woman wearing a bright orange patterned west African style dress, perched on the back of the bike clutching a large unboxed television. As another car roared into the fray, trying to maneuver in front of me, the motorcycle swerved again and the woman nearly lost her balance on the bike and her grip on the television. As she grabbed for the television she let forth a string of curses aimed at the car, gesticulating angrily with her head and a few fingers of one hand. Hutzpah.

For some reason the city has opted to start construction on many of the roads in Conakry all at the same time. This is not just my complaint, I have heard it from expats and Guineans alike. No doubt the roads could use a facelift, it just does not make much sense to do it all at the same time, that only contributes more to the gridlock. Much of the construction is on the main roads forcing drivers to take to the side streets, which are often in worse shape. Side roads are often unpaved. They are generally more narrow and are hemmed in by pedestrians, businesses or homes, pop-up markets, and random piles of stuff. The stuff could be mud, garbage, construction materials (not for roads, but for buildings), whatever. There are often more speed bumps (or what is left of speed bumps), more potholes (some that could swallow up cars), just more life and obstacles in general.

On my first drives in Conakry, the GPS led me down a side street that may have once been two lanes but was at the time in the throes of a busy market with hundreds of hawkers and customers milling around and motorcycles zipping everywhere they wanted. It had easily become a single lane. The road ended in a T-junction that I needed to turn on to, except the majority of the end of the road was blocked by a three to four foot pile of garbage. Motorcycles were easily getting by, but for me to squeeze through I needed half my car to go up and over. This was my introduction to Conakry driving. Wowsers.

Some roads are just dirt, but not just dirt. They are rocky strewn hills. Seriously, I think the Guinean government could make a pretty penny having Ford and Chevy film their tough truck commercials making their way down Conakry side streets.

Burning tire barricade ahead means a protest is starting

In addition to just the every day fun on Conakry roads and the construction, there are also the protests that can throw a spanner in the works of a commute. On many protest day we had advance warning and telework was an option. With protests often happening in and around the Bambeto traffic circle, I had a bird’s eye view of the demonstrators and police doing their delicate dance of throwing rocks then running and the thumbs and smoke plumes of tear gas or the cracks of firearms. But sometimes protests are a bit more spontaneous. Driving home twice from my daughter’s school, myself and all my fellow drivers heading in a certain direction were confronted by the sight, smell, and burning taste of black smoke from a burning tire barricade blocking our way to Bambeto. I watched as vehicle after vehicle made u-turns (often in the middle of the street without looking, thanks guys!), but I actually needed to continue forward to get into my residential complex. The route is also the most direct to the airport and to one of Conakry’s major thoroughfares, the Rue Le Prince.

My daughter and I did make it home but many others were stranded in massive traffic jams. Three people from the Embassy were stuck in traffic for SIX hours. Two people missed their flights out of the country.

Every drive in Conakry is an adventure. Getting behind the wheel is not for the faint of heart. But you know what? I am so glad that I did it. I found there were many expats who opted not to drive at all. And I throw no shade, none, I get it. I just did not want to be at the mercy of the Embassy motorpool schedule or needing to hire some driver. I am not afraid to drive in Conakry. There were some white knuckle moments for sure. I was often annoyed. But there were also days I found a great sense of satisfaction for getting myself from Point A to Point B by driving my own car. I can say that sometimes I even enjoyed myself.

Adventures in Conakry Grocery Shopping

Heading to the local supermarkets can tell you something about a place – the prices, the availability or scarcity of certain products, and unexpected items. The first time to the supermarkets in a new country is eye-opening. Having previously written about grocery shopping in Shanghai and Malawi, I knew I would want to write about my food acquisition adventures in Conakry.

First things first: Guinean currency. When nice and crisp, the bills are beautiful and colorful. They also have lots and lots and lots of zeroes. One US dollar is equal to about 8600 Guinean francs, so you find yourself carrying around a lot of cash. The coupon holder I used to carry my large stacks of Malawian kwacha once again made its appearance as my wallet. Although there are more denominations of Guinean francs than Malawian kwacha, the smaller bills are few and far between. In my experience, most people use only the 5,000-, 10,000-, and 20,000- franc bills. If what you owe is between those, it usually just gets rounded up or down.

Even after six months, I am constantly getting confused about the currency. I advertised something for sale on an expat site listing it for 20,000 francs and the response was overwhelming. Well, no wonder. Here I was selling a brand new, never opened digital scale for a little over $2. I had meant to advertise it for 200,000!

On my first ever grocery trip my tally came to 3,029,725 francs! That is $350 and it made sense for a first-time shopping trip to get everything from cleaning supplies to condiments and spices to fruits, veggies, and meat, but wow, looking at all those numbers kind of threw me.

I find grocery shopping in Conakry both a tedious exercise and a bit of a scavenger hunt game. Due to the traffic, I generally only go out to the store once a week on Saturday mornings, unless it is “Sanitation Saturday” — that is the first Saturday of the month when, by order of the government, the roads are supposed to be clear of traffic so the city can conduct street cleaning. Each week I go to at least two supermarkets – the A to Z Express and the Coccinelle on Rue de Donka – because I cannot get everything I want at one place. Like in Malawi, the supermarkets I frequent are run by Lebanese and Indian proprietors. I find A to Z Express to be better for meat and cheeses, frozen foods, and freshly baked bread. I go to A to Z Express first (pass the North Korean Embassy, then take the first exit on the roundabout, then take a U-turn at the first opportunity, then skirt into the A to Z Express parking lot). After A to Z Express, I head back up the Rue de Donka towards home, take the second exit from the roundabout, past the Shell station, and then into the Coccinelle parking lot. Coccinelle is better for fruits and vegetables. The selection is often limited, but this is the place to get imported favorites like broccoli and berries.

For these imported goodies one does pay a very pretty penny.

There are locally grown fruits and vegetables that are plentiful in Conakry’s roadside markets. One can easily find potatoes, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce, and oranges, avocados, apples, pears, grapes, pineapples, bananas, mangos, and watermelon. I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed with the quality and variety to be found alongside Conakry’s streets. My nanny/housekeeper volunteered, nay, insisted, that she could get these fruits and vegetables for me. This seemed easiest at first, but sometimes I would forget to ask her. After a while, I decided I could stop at these stands myself whenever I saw them and had a yearning for fresh produce. But I bought a pineapple at one that was not so great, and my housekeeper used that to point out that if I wanted the good stuff at the best prices, then I should send her. Most of the time I do, but every so often I cannot seem to help myself as I pass a makeshift stand with some delicious-looking fruit and figure — I can drive around Conakry all by myself, surely I can buy some fruit, right?

Fruits and vegetables that are not widely available domestically are imported from Europe and can cost quite a lot more than prices at home. In the photo above I have two capsicums – one red, one yellow – for 94,600 francs ($11), a head of broccoli for 139,750 francs ($16.20), a small container of raspberries or blueberries for 95,000 francs ($11), and a small container of strawberries for 175,000 francs ($20).

Roadside fruit stands in Conakry

Here are some other crazy prices I have paid for imported items:

  • 2 nectarines for 130,350 francs ($15.12)
  • 6 pears for 145,750 ($16.91)
  • 0.19 kg of cherries for 104,500 francs ($12.12)
  • 2 pomegranates 298,750 francs ($34.66)
  • 8 small apricots 243,000 francs ($28.19)
  • 300 g of Philadelphia cream cheese 137,000 francs ($15.89)
  • 1 kg of frozen breaded chicken breast 251,000 francs ($29.12)
  • 4 slices of deli chicken 112,000 francs ($13)
  • 1 pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream 160,000 francs ($18.56)

The upside is that presently U.S. diplomats serving in Conakry receive an additional cost of living adjustment to help defray these costs.

Prices were just one part of the Conakry shopping challenges. Similar to in Malawi, there were a few items that I was so excited to find in town and then after a month or so the items disappeared from the shelves and I never found them again. For instance, I found frozen rosti, sort of like American hash browns. They were so, so good. And then they were no more. More painful to me though was the Diet Coke tease as I may have a wee bit of hankering for the caffeinated beverage. (I don’t drink coffee) Before arriving in Guinea I had checked in with my social sponsor about the availability of Diet Coke or Coke Light. She told me that I would have no problem finding it. And I didn’t, for the first couple of weeks. Then it was nowhere to be found. I used to be a Diet Coke purist, but things were getting dicey. Luckily, I found some Coke Zero, sometimes. And the small Employee Association store at the Embassy sometimes had (and I have no clue why) Spar supermarket brand “American diet cola” and “American cola zero.” Whatever it took. But in the last couple of weeks even those had become scarce. When we first arrived, we also found Dr. Pepper, my daughter’s favorite soda, but that too has disappeared from the shelves.

Cheese, glorious cheese – this could be anywhere in Europe, but no, its in downtown Conakry

On occasion I have sought out other shopping locales. Prima Center is basically Conakry’s only mall. It is open-air with some small shops, and restaurants (including a frozen yogurt place!). It is anchored by a Walmat-ish supermarket that is, at least for me, more miss than hit. I found Diet Coke there back in the early boon days and, very surprisingly, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Prima also has a pretty good selection of cheese. But those were really the only items that drew me to Prima.

I had also heard rumors of and seen on my Google Maps the “American Food Store.” One day I decided to stop by, which turned out to be harder than expected. The store is located just off Rue de Donka but on a side road that is blocked from entry right in front of the store. To reach the store one has to turn off Rue de Donka several blocks before in order to access the side road. When I visited the grille gates were down over the windows and there was a one-foot wide and several-foot deep ditch directly in front of the store. Frankly, it looked abandoned.

The parking, or I guess what best passed for parking, was a dirt and rock-strewn square lot behind the building. Several cars were already haphazardly parked leaving me an overgrown grass area sandwiched between a partially crumbling cement wall and a narrow dirt road. As I struggled to get into the space, I considered just giving up and driving off. Yet I am glad I eventually managed and headed into the store.

Looks can be deceiving. The seemingly abandoned American Food Store has surprising goodies inside and the Prima Shopping Center supermarket looks fancy from outside, but the there are often empty shelves.

It was a little slice of Americana inside. Though September, the store was decorated for July 4th. Maybe it is American Independence Day every day at the American Food Store? The shelves were also full of quintessential American brands such as McCormick pure vanilla extract, Domino sugar, A1 steak sauce, and Pillsbury cake mixes and icing. My daughter C was happy to see items like Caprisun juice pouches, Swiss Miss hot cocoa, and Hershey’s syrup. Despite these goodies, I only went once. The traffic, having already stopped at two supermarkets, and the parking issue were enough to keep me away.

Ultimately, I found Guinean supermarkets stocked better than expected but shopping still presented many challenges that took quickly took the fun out of the adventure and turned it into a tiresome chore. Thank goodness for the mini-mart located in our housing at Kakimbo Towers as it let me quickly pick up staples like milk, cheese, eggs, bread, and the like without having to deal with the traffic or supermarkets. The shopping in Conakry was okay, but not a highlight.

Maf Village and Sierra Leone

Shells galore on Tokeh Beach, Sierra Leone

When I had to cancel my previously scheduled two-week Christmas-time R&R (for reasons which will be revealed in the not so distant future), I wondered if I would have any getaway at all at the end of the year. I had a bunch of use or lose leave (we can only carry over a set amount of leave in a given year to the next and any that is over that is forfeited if not used or donated by the end of the year) and a hankering to spend it somewhere other than my apartment. I played with ideas of traveling to Senegal or Cote d’Ivoire for a week but frankly, I did not think I was up for that level of planning and time away. As luck would have it, friends of ours in Conakry asked if we were up to join them for a trip to Maf Village and on to Tokeh Beach in Sierra Leone for a few days. It was just what C and I needed. Some time with friends, a chance to see a bit more of Guinea and venture into a neighboring country, but without a big investment in time. Driving across borders in West Africa. Oh boy, an adventure!

Early on December 19 we met up to begin our caravan. Maf Village is in Maferiyah, Guinea, just over 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Conakry. As all distances in Guinea are, this too is misleading. One might think that drive would take no more than an hour given some stop and go traffic in the capital. Unfortunately, one would be quite wrong. It took about three hours to drive that distance.

Light of sunrise at Maf Village

The problem is mostly Conakry, which as far as traffic and roads go is rather a mess. And that, my friend, is a major understatement. Yet truth be told, I hardly remember the first hour getting out of Conakry, probably as I was so excited about the prospect of this getaway, and perhaps, I am getting used to the madness? We took the N1 (National Road 1) from the heart of Conakry until it met the N4 just outside of Coyah, in the Kindia Region. Here there is major construction underway that one day will likely make this drive more pleasant but for the time being only made the road more narrow, crowded, and chaotic.

The Maf Village bar where we watched the World Cup final

I lost sight of my friend’s car, and the GPS told me to make a left that I should not have, right there smack in the middle of the chaos zone where motorcycles, taxis, passenger cars, semis, construction vehicles, and pedestrians vied for right of way in an unmarked dirt zone that served as the temporary alternative roadway. Luckily my friends called me to tell me of my error right away, but it would prove difficult to turn around in that area. Except I summoned my inner Guinean Driver and turned around where I wanted and got back on track quickly.

Once we turned on to the N4 it was as if we had been transported to another country. The road is paved; there are painted lanes and shoulders, and a glaring lack of potholes. What wizardry was this? The last bit of our drive to Maf Village went by quickly.

Maf Village is a lodging and activity location. This is where schools have field trips. There is the swimming pool and guided hikes but also horseback riding, a game room, an obstacle course, Guinea’s only bowling alley, exotic animals such as a monkey, ostriches, peacocks, and some baby crocodiles, and a large garden where they grow a significant amount of their own food.

In many places, Maf Village might not be all that, but in Guinea, it is the bee’s knees. It offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

We only had one night at Maf Village. We enjoyed some lunch and then the kids swam in the pool and I had a pedicure at the newly opened (and nicely air-conditioned) spa. Then we all gathered in the bar area to watch the World Cup finals. We were rooting for Argentina and it sure was an exciting match. It was really great to be with friends and a few others yelling at a tv and cheering.

Following the game we took a walking tour of the property to see where they raise animals and grow crops and for some reason have a pair of ostriches. We then had dinner and the kids played ping pong afterwards.

Approaching the Guinean-Sierra Leone border and, are you kidding me, Sierra Leone has toll plazas?

The next morning, I enjoyed the sounds of songbirds in the early morning light with a hint of a plateau in the distance through the Harmattan haze. It had been a long time since I had heard birds like that, since perhaps my wonderful yard in Malawi. We have an amazing view from our apartment in Conakry, but we have no yard, I rarely hear birdsong. I hear the train, the call to prayer, cars and trucks honking on the road, heavy machinery from the nearby construction site, and dance parties from below, but not birds and insects. I closed my eyes and listened. I had a good ten minutes before the spluttering of a motorcycle sliced through.

We had breakfast, packed up, and started our drive to the border with Sierra Leone. I have to tell you I was pretty excited, giddy even. I tried to think of the last time I had driven across an international border. Sure, I had this past summer from Belgium to Luxembourg and back, but driving across EU borders is not the same. Then there was when I served in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and crossed back and forth the border to and from the U.S. But not the same as self-driving across a border in West Africa.

Tokeh Beach looking toward Freetown

The border was a little confusing. Makeshift rope barriers guarded by a single guy are all that keeps one from just driving across without going through immigration (well, and the threat of being caught). Signage in the building could leave most wanting, but as there were no lines to speak of and we stood out, we were quickly met by people wishing to help us. But we needed to ascertain if those people were official or not. A man who looked a bit dodgy but did have a badge on around his neck that he flashed at us, led us through the door marked “Do not enter. Officials only” and into an office where we all sat down in front of a desk. There sat a man with a computer, passport scanner, and camera. Seemed official enough as he scanned our passports one by one, asked us a few questions, typed up some information, then stamped us out of Guinea. I could not recall having ever sat down at immigration before.

We went back out to our cars. The guy lowered the rope to let us drive through to the other side where we parked and did the same thing on the Sierra Leone side. Once again, we were approached by a person who did not appear to be official but turned out to be. She also led us past the windows and into her office. Here though there were no computers or scanners, just two large ledger books. One was labeled in large capital letters in black permanent marker “Non-Citizens Incoming” and the other “Non-Citizens Outgoing.” I was surprised by the technology available on the Guinean side that the Sierra Leones did not have. After getting our Sierra Leone entry stamp we then had to have our “lassez passer” documentation for our vehicles checked. Then we were free and clear to continue to Tokeh Beach.

The road from the border nearly all the way to Tokeh Beach, about an hour outside of Freetown, was amazing. Paved, lane makings, shoulders, and mostly pot-hole free. We drove through two toll plazas where we paid 4 Leones (less than a quarter) to continue.

Finding Tokeh Beach Resort took a little extra effort as we got close the map lost its accuracy. But a wrong turn and some discussion with a local had us following said person as he lead us on a motorcycle taxi. Our initial reaction to Tokeh Beach Resort was not great. After the long drive and the fancy website, we had been expecting more, but it turned out a to be a very nice place to stay.

Sunset and sunrise at Tokeh Beach

There is another place to stay on Tokeh Beach ironically named The Place and it is really a nice-looking place, but it is popular and noisy. Tokeh Beach Sands on the other hand is quiet. I am a fan of quiet. We enjoyed the food, had great company, and just soaked in the sound of the waves on the powdery white sand beach. The sand is so fine that it squeaks as you walk across it. The pool turned out to be in the sister Tokeh Beach Palms about a 10-minute walk down the beach. No worries, the kids played in the surf for hours on end. I read. I wrote in my journal. I walked on the beach. I watched the kids and the waves. I thought about driving the hour to the chimpanzee sanctuary but then thought better of it. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was already where I wanted to be.

The electricity is only on at the resort from 6:30 PM to 7:30 AM. You do not really need it otherwise. Sure, the bathroom was poorly lit/had no window so using the restroom or taking a shower during the day may involve some fumbling about in the dark or finding a large katydid on the faucet as you turn it on (as my daughter C found out. Great lungs for shrieking that one. C, not the katydid), but otherwise we were fine. The power overnight let us run the A/C so we could sleep and charge our devices.

This might not be a great commentary on the 2021 dream…or is it? A dream destroyed or a dream battered but hanging on? Hmmmmm… I just loved the composition.

After two glorious days of doing nearly nothing by the water, it was time for us to pack up and make the drive back to Conakry. Though this time we would do the reverse, thus going from good roads, to great roads, and then crappy roads the closer we got to the Guinean capital, the 48 hours of white sand and ocean waves must have done the trick because despite, the seven hours it took us to get home, I still felt content when we got there. Neither the long drive nor the tedious border crossing nor the stop-and-go crowded mania of the Coyah-to-Conakry interchange construction brought me down. Not even the special gift I got from Sierra Leone — a bizarre allergic reaction to a likely mosquito bite that left six inches of my left forearm swollen and super itchy — dampened my spirit. (Though once in Conakry I drove straight to the Embassy Health Unit to have that forearm thingy looked at and acquire some topical Benadryl). The adventure was worth it.

Mini Guinea Getaways: Soumba Falls

Close up of Soumba Falls at high volume

In my efforts to finally get out and about in Guinea, I was pleased to learn that our Community Liaison Office (the “CLO” – a catchall office that provides welcome information for newcomers, puts together holiday events, and organizes tours and gatherings) was organizing an Embassy outing to Soumba Falls in November. I knew there were not a lot of tourist sites in Guinea long before arriving (and many that do exist require a lot more creativity and resourcefulness to get to), but Soumba was in all the Embassy information – Post video and welcome letter – so the CLO trip was both fortuitous and expected.

As the rainy season had just ended the falls would be flowing well. I had heard that months after the rains, the falls would be little more than a trickle. This was the time to go.

A gorgeous sunrise as we leave our residence spells a good start to the day

We were to meet at the U.S. Embassy at 7 AM to travel to board the buses that would take us to the Les Cascades de Soumba. Originally, I thought we would all drive in a caravan, and though I do generally enjoy driving, I was a little apprehensive about making this one so I was quite happy to hear about the buses.

The falls are located just under 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the U.S. Embassy in Conakry though drive times vary considerably depending on traffic. It should be an hour drive at most, but online the quotes on TripAdvisor range from an hour and 30 minutes to “less than two hours.” The CLO had estimated a two hour drive with us all arriving around 9 AM. Unfortunately, it took THREE HOURS that Saturday morning! Sigh. Oh, Guinea.

A cemetery along the way with an amusing sign. Though it turns out that most cemeteries in Guinea have this saying “Nous Etions Comme Vous, Vous Serez Comme Nous!” (“We once were like you, you will be like us!”)

At first, it did not seem so long as people chatted away with one another or snoozed. And we could also look out at the sights along the road. Most of the time it was just to see the muddy roads, the crush of cars and trucks vying for dominance on the streets, and unattractive, poorly built buildings fronting the road. The cement of the structures coated in Guinean dust, and the clothing of many of the people on the street having been washed repeatedly in less than clean water, well, everything just takes on the same monochromatic reddish dirt color. Still, on occasion, there are surprises such as the cemetery sign above and the Donald Trump School (Le Groupe Scolaire de Donald Trump), of which I am quite sorry I did not get a photo.

At long last the buses limped into the parking area of Soumba Falls and we all gladly stumbled out of the buses.

We had a choice of two possible hikes in the area. One, that the CLO had organized last year, was just an out-and-back along the same road we had driven in on, with some side excursions alongside the river. Frankly, it did not seem all that appealing to walk along the dirt track we had just journeyed along on wheels even with the promise of a view or two of flowing water, so everyone hiking opted to take the other, unknown, route.

C hiking through the tall grass at Soumba Falls

I would love to write that the hike was a-ma-zing, but it wasn’t. It was okay. The colors of the tall grass were almost wheat-like against the taller green shrubs and the deep green of distant hills and a bright blue sky. Ok, so there were some highlights. But it was really warm, the grass high and scratchy, the trail almost imperceptible that it deserved to be in air quotes (“trail”), and there were several areas where plants with large thorns had to be held back for us to pass, but we still ended up with cuts on our legs and arms and small burrs on our shoes.

The “trail” did not really lead anywhere, just out to an overgrown area near a stagnant part of the upper river where crocodiles were languidly lying in wait beneath the surface. Or so we were told as barely any of us could get a good look at the water through the deep foliage. The two guides led us back the same way, which given the lack of sights the first time through did not give us all something to look forward to. Or rather the guides tried to lead us back the way we came, but they got a little lost at first, taking us first a shortcut that turned out to end in a barbed fence we could not cross, so we had to backtrack. Therefore, I have to air quote our “guides” and the “shortcut” as well.

The “guides” had told us the trek would take an hour. I should have air quoted the “hour” as well, though I didn’t believe them from the get-go. At least ninety minutes after we set out (though I think it was longer) we arrived back at the falls sweaty and grateful for a chance to cool off in the water.

The CLO had pre-ordered everyone’s lunch from the restaurant (well, I mean “restaurant” – it was more a giant smoke grill) that overlooks the falls. Unfortunately, at noon the food (either beef, chicken, or fish – we did not get more details than that) was nowhere close to being done. I cannot say for sure the cooks had even begun. I suspect not.

As everyone who had been in Guinea for at least a month knew that it was unlikely we would be seeing our food orders in the near term, we opted to swim before lunch. Good call.

My daughter, her friends, and their mom ran to get changed into their suits and slipped into the shallow pool at the end closest the “restaurant.” Just above there was a natural water slide created by the gushing falls and some smooth rocks. We counseled our kids to swim quickly to the side after the slide as the strong current and a bit of an undertow had the potential to sweep them quickly into a roped-off area. Apparently, there used to be signs warning of some potential death should one pass the rope line, whether by water or crocodiles or other was not all clear. However, though I went in search of the sign for photographic purposes, it had fallen and been shoved deep into the crook of a tree from which I could not yank it out. So much for a warning. Or a fun photo.

But we knew to stay away from the rope line. We also knew there were other possible risks — our health professionals had warned us all to avoid swimming in the falls due to the possibility of contracting Bilharzia, otherwise known as Schistosomiasis, from parasitic worms that live in snails that hang out in contaminated freshwater around Africa. Generally, these beasties are found in stagnant water though our medical practitioners warned that there is potential even in fast-flowing waters. We crossed our fingers and toes and put positive vibes out into the universe and then took our chances. Hopefully, we were lucky.

Wide view of Soumba Falls in its gushing glory

Around two in the afternoon to the “restaurant” began handing out some of the pre-ordered meals. Perhaps they had not anticipated such a large group in addition to some other visitors? How that might be the case since we had called ahead and it was a gorgeous and hot weekend at the beginning of the dry season, I fail to understand, but it was what it was and one has to learn to temper expectations in Guinea. By the time everyone had eaten we were well past our expected departure time, but what was there to be done for it? Luckily, I guess, the return drive took only two and a half hours. Ha! Still over what it should have been but it felt short given what it could have been.

All in all, I am glad we went when we did. The waters were high and fast and the falls resplendent in their gushing glory. The waters were cool and refreshing. The grilled chicken and chips were not bad. We were experiencing it as a group, with friends, and as much as I like to do independent travel, I did not want to be negotiating that drive or the meal on my own. I was grateful to have someone else handling those details.

Mini Guinea Getaways: Boffa

Bel Air Beach, Guinea

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.

On the road to Boffa

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.

My new friend Carlsberg on Bel Air Beach

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 fa├žade 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.

Not creepy at all….

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.

The beach at the Hotel Bel Air in late afternoon

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.

The view from my balcony – of swifts, beach, and sea

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.

Conakry: Living the High Life

Conakry’s Kakimbo Towers stand out

Housing at overseas post is crucial. Where you live can really make or break an assignment. If one’s place is isolated from most or all of the Embassy/Consulate community, or makes for a long commute to the Embassy/Consulate or the school, or the place is especially dark or a myriad of repairs are necessary, these could all make one’s tour more challenging. I believe that at more difficult posts, the housing is even more important.

I have had pretty good luck with my housing. Though I have not always been assigned my first choice from the housing questionnaire and there were certainly times I experienced some housing envy (I am especially looking at you Jakarta), each of my government assigned homes have been very good. In Conakry, we hit the proverbial lottery and were placed in the capital’s most exclusive address: the Kakimbo Residences.

Also known as the les tours jumelles de Kakimbo or the Twin Towers of Kakimbo, the four-year old building stands 100 meters (328 feet) tall with 27 floors. It is the tallest building in Guinea by a long shot and is one of the tallest in West Africa. In my not very scientific online research I found only three other countries in the region with taller buildings – Nigeria, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire – and only 20 countries on the African continent with a taller structure. Guinea may be one of the poorest countries in the world (despite its vast and mostly untapped natural resources), but it has put itself on the map with the Kakimbo Towers.

A bird’s eye view of the Bambeto area of Conarky; the green field just before the sea is the airport; mangroves to the back left

We do not live on the 27th floor, but we are close to the top. We have tremendous views across both sides of the peninsula. From one side we can see the runway of the Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport, a mere three kilometers away, and watch the few planes take off and land. We can see the blue waters of the sea and the seemingly empty green mangroves that border the packed city.

Though Conakry is not known to have a lot of green space, from our height we can see a surprising amount of trees. In the neighborhood directly behind our building we watch life go on down below. We watch school kids in uniform walking down the dusty streets. We see games of soccer on those same roads — the players just pick up the ball when cars pass by and then resume the game as the vehicle passes. We see laundry being hung to dry.

The Bambeto traffic circle is often a bottleneck. The three kilometers to the airport can take an hour or more to drive. That was before the construction began to turn that traffic circle into an overpass; Now it is even worse. Before heading to the supermarket or the Embassy I can get an idea of how backed up the traffic is with a quick glance out the window.

On protest days, we watch as the crowds of youth surge from the side streets on to the main Rue Le Prince. There we can watch the demonstration play out in real time but in miniature. Youth advancing and throwing. Then the trucks of the police and gendarmerie advancing; tear gas canisters emitting smoke. The protestors running to the side streets. Then youth slinking back out to challenge the law enforcement again. Makeshift barriers of tires set alight. Back and forth.

It can feel odd observing all of these goings on from on high.

A 180 degree view from my balcony toward the northern part of the Kaloum peninsula

On the other side of the apartment the views are no less spectacular. My legs always feel a wee bit jelly-like as I step out on our balcony. It is a long way down! Looking out though one can see so much greenery – a massive, verdant ravine stands between the Kakimbo property and that of the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To our right we can watch dawn break over the distant hills where the peninsula broadens and meets Kindia prefecture and to the left see the setting sun swiftly sink into the sea in a bed of cotton candy pink clouds. From high above we can also see the deep red of Guinea’s soil that produces so much in the way of the fruits and vegetables we see in roadside markets. Much of the exposed earth near Kakimbo though is obviously being cleared for plots where government buildings will be moving from the crowded historic heart of downtown Conakry. In just four months I have watched two new roads through these areas be prepared, graded, paved, and opened.

From our apartment I feel I can see Conakry’s potential spread out before me. From that height, most everything looks beautiful, innocuous, possible.

View through the clouds – just some of the ravine, some shapes of buildings with early morning lights, and the tip of the radio tower are visible.

We are often in the clouds. I have looked out more than once and seen wet streets below but no precipitation, and assumed any rain had stopped, only to go downstairs and find it is pouring. As we were above the clouds, we didn’t see the rain.

Storms have a way of magnifying around Kakimbo. In Shanghai, we lived on the 19th floor of a 30 story building, but there were similarly tall buildings all around us. Here though, Kakimbo stands solitary. Nothing else is as tall for miles. When the wind really whips up, the clouds fly past the windows, and drafts send high pitched whistles through the apartment. The air pressure pops panels in the ceiling of the bathrooms. In our early months, in the height of the rainy season, I could not sleep through the night for all the odd creaks and groans and whistles.

Despite the height, it is not all that quiet. Sounds float up easily. Conakry is a real city. It is a busy, chaotic place. In Lilongwe, our single story ranch style home not far from the city center, was often quiet in the evenings. The noises were that of nature, of night birds singing, bats flying, the whirl of termites in the early months of the rainy season. Cars were rare in the evenings. Here, however, the traffic seems non-stop. Certainly weekdays and daytime hours are the busiest, but I can look out at any time of the night and find a steady stream of vehicles on the roads below. Their tinny, angry beeps reaching my ears at all hours.

Dawn sweeps across Conakry

There are pleasant sounds too. Roosters crowing, when far enough away, have a lovely ring. There must be many roosters in the neighborhood behind Kakimbo. Also goats, as I regularly hear their soft bleating, usually on weekends as I putter around my kitchen making breakfast. Guinea is a majority Muslim country and the competing calls to prayer of nearby mosques drift and linger in the air. I have not always had a warm relationship with the adhan. I recall in particular being brusquely woken at 4 am by a pre-recorded muezzin call broadcast loudly on a scratchy megaphone in the mosque next to my cheap accommodation in western Java. But here, with the height, it is euphonious.

There is also a commuter train, the “Conakry Express,” which transports folks from the Conakry suburbs to the tip of the Kaloum peninsula. There is a stop at the western end of the ravine and the train’s whistle as it approaches and leaves the station is audible from my apartment. I have lived near trains before – in Georgia and Japan – and just the right amount of distance can turn the drawn-out “toot-toot” into something soothing.

Our swimming pool with water features and the authentic Thai massage room

The amenities of the Kakimbo are without match in Conakry. There are two restaurants; one stand alone at the entrance to the grounds where weddings, happy hours, and other events are regularly held and another on the 27th floor of the East Tower. There is a large pool divided one part into swimming lanes and the other graced with water features – from submerged chaise lounges with massaging jets to power showers. Next to the pool is a sauna and a hammam. Below the pool are the tennis courts, basketball court, and sand volleyball court.

On the first basement floor there is a gym, squash court, karaoke room, and a yoga/dance room. For games there are pool tables, ping pong tables, foosball, and those basketball games you find in arcades where you have to sink as many baskets within a certain amount of time. But here the coins are included, thus unlimited games are free. I have spent quite a bit of time down there perfecting my arcade free throw. I plan to sweep the tickets next time I am at a Dave & Busters. There is also a Thai massage room with actual masseuses from Thailand here on one year working visas. And on the first floor there is a mini mart. Shopping is time consuming with the traffic and the need to go to two or three stores to get maybe half of what you need for at least three times the price it would be at home. To be able to get the basics from salt to soy sauce, bread to bottled water, or toilet paper and shampoo, milk and eggs just downstairs makes life in Conakry a wee bit easier.

Living in Kakimbo has many advantages, though disadvantages too. Not all is rosy here. The electricity goes out about once a day for example. Twice all the outlets on one side of the apartment stopped working. There are those wild winds whipping around the building during storms and sometimes stray bullets from police actions against protests. One is in Conakry and yet oddly removed. Though I freely acknowledge this I am also quite sure that living here was the best decision for C and I.

A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part Two

At Cabo de Roca, the end of Europe

This is the second of two posts about my birthday trip from Guinea to Portugal.

Thankfully, the day after my action-packed, wee bit frustrating birthday my daughter recovered from her stomach bug. We were leaving beach town Cascais for the heart of Lisbon. Before doing so, we caught another Uber (the message here is that Uber is very, very convenient in and around Lisbon) to Cabo de Roca, the windswept rocky coast that is the westernmost point of the European continent. A few years ago, C and I had visited the southern most point-ish place in Africa (because many brochures say the Cape of Good Hope is it, when its actually Cape Agulhas; we were close), so it seemed fitting. I was not quite prepared for the height of the cliffs and the cold air sweeping off the Atlantic, but the glimpses we were afforded when the clouds shifted were breathtaking.

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957).

Fountain and theater on Rossio Square

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957). We purchased a 48-hour Lisbon card at the Tourist Information center on Commerce Square and then retraced our steps back to the hotel for an early evening in.

Belem Tower

The next day we were to be up bright and early so we could use our Lisbon Card for free transportation to and included entry to the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Belem. Although both sites do not open until 10 AM, as many sites in Lisbon have a later start than most Americans are used to, I still was unsuccessful in my plan. We just got started a bit late, then got on the bus going in the wrong direction, and the bus took longer to wind its way to Belem. By the time we arrived it was 10:30 AM and there was already a significant line outside the Jeronimos Monastery. The Lisbon Card advertised a “fast track” entrance to the monastery but the two guys manning the ticket purchase area had themselves a hearty laugh at my expense when I asked about it. Thinking back to that line at Pena Palace, I just could not bring myself to join the queue.

Monument to the Discoveries

I made the executive decision to skip it for the day and instead head over to Belem Tower. I figured that there might be a similar line there as well, and then I would have to do some hard thinking about what we were going to do that day. Imagine my surprise when we approached the iconic 16th century fortification, that there was no line at all. None. I began to wonder if it were closed given it was a public holiday (Republic Day). But it was open. I could not believe out luck. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly last as the stairwell to the tower’s top terrace, hailed online as the crown of any visit, was closed for no discernible reason. I found no explanation at the site itself or online. Still, it was another beautiful day and we were visiting one of Portugal’s most recognizable historic buildings.

As it was close by, we then walked over to the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive sculpture commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery with figures of Henry the Navigator and Vasca de Gama and 32 other Portuguese explorers along the river where many of their vessels set out on their journeys.

The Madre de Deus Convent at the National Tile Museum

We hopped on the 15E tram to head back down to Commerce Square where we did the 20-minute Virtual Reality experience at the Lisbon Story Center. With that it feels like you are flying over the key locations of Lisbon, Sintra, and Cascais, which was pretty fun since we had just visited nearly all of those sites recently. We got lunch and then rounded out our day with a visit to the National Tile Museum. The glazed ceramic tiles, or azulejos, can be found all over Portugal, in and on public buildings and private homes. The National Tile Museum incorporates the 16th century Madre de Deus Convent. It’s church is an extravagant display of carved exotic wood, golden framed paintings, and exquisite tile work. It is overwhelming and stunning. When we lucky the chapel was open during our visit.

The following day we headed first to the monastery. This time leaving earlier, on the correct bus, and arriving thirty minutes before the 10 AM opening. It was a completely different scene — we were one of the first in line and though there were a good number of people milling around, there was not the two long lines to get into the monastery’s cloister and the adjacent Church of Santa Maria. Instead of two guys laughing at my asking about the Lisbon Card’s “fast” line, we were actually let in to the cloisters at 9:45. I do not know if this happens regularly or not, but it wonderful to be some of the first people inside for the day.

The cloisters of the Jeronimos Monastery

The cloisters are breathtaking. There is zero doubt as to why UNESCO declared the monastery and the Tower of Belem as world heritage sites. The stone craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the architecture… I have run out of superlatives for this post. We saw so many beautiful sites on our trip but the cloisters were hands down my favorite. We also visited the Church of Santa Maria, which includes the tomb of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

We once again headed back to Commerce Square, stopping briefly to check out the Pasteis de Belem, which has been making Lisbon’s famous pastel de nata, an egg custard tart, since 1837. I had planned for us to give this Portuguese dessert delicacy a try there at the shop, but the lines out the door and down the block had made me change my mind. The tart was ubiquitous in and around Lisbon. Each of our hotels had them out for breakfast. Many restaurants had them on the menu. Pastry shops around town sold them. So we did have one and it was flaky and creamy and so, so good. But it was probably not the original, and that’s okay.

Back at Commerce Square we went into the Lisbon Story Center, an interactive museum where visitors follow a set route through the museum with a headset that told the history of the city. Though some displays were a little campy, overall it was really well done.

Some views from our walks including the Santa Justa Lift (center)

Then we walked. And walked. And walked. Lisbon is a city built on hills and walking can be challenging but also rewarding with something beautiful on every block. We walked a lot during our trip in Portugal and it felt wonderful. I have always loved walking and it really hits me how much so when we are at a Post where we are unable to walk much. Conakry is one of those places. With few to no sidewalks, few shoulders and often deep ditches next to the road, and high vehicle traffic that will take as much road space as possible, we do not walk. I am grateful my 10-year old is usually up for walking during our holidays as I am.

Because of the hills, Lisbon has also built quite a few public transportation options to include the metro, trams (or trolleys), tram-like funiculars, and even one elevator – the Santa Justa Lift, inaugurated in 1901. With a strong desire to get around on our own two feet we did not use much of the transport — the bus and trolley a few times, and the lift, which is also a tourist attraction.

I had debated about taking a day trip from Lisbon to Obidos or Evora, both of which I had visited 20 years before and unlike Lisbon I actually remember some of. However, every time I looked at the train or tour options, I did not feel strongly about going. Honestly, the move and settling phase of Guinea has been challenging and tiring and I did not want my vacation to be more of the same. There was plenty to keep us happy and occupied right in Lisbon.

With that in mind I booked us a two hour tuk-tuk tour of the city’s street art. We had already seen (or planned to still see) most of the historic sights on foot or by Uber, so I wanted to do something a little different. And after we had seen the comic art murals of Brussels, I loved the idea of seeing something similar in Lisbon.

Some of my favorite Lisbon murals

It was a great tour on yet another beautiful, warm day. We saw mostly painted murals but there were also tiles, stenciled art, and stylized graffiti. The tour included getting us to some neighborhoods and viewpoints that we would not have likely gotten to on foot. I also loved that our guide was a former investment banker who after some 25 years of the grind retired and now motors tourists around in eco-friendly tuk-tuks. If it were not for Lisbon’s narrow streets and tricky parking situations, I might have put in an application.

After some lunch we then headed up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a mid-11th century Moorish fortification that overlooks Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. In the park, that affords gorgeous views toward the sea, peacocks roam. C and I were flagging some. We were gung-ho about walking, but we had done quite a lot and we might have also been getting a wee bit tired of castles (it is possible!). But we enjoyed the visit and the ice cream that helped give us strength to walk back down the hill and back to our hotel.

Our final day in Lisbon, we visited yet one more palace, the 18th century Queluz National Palace, which took us briefly back into the Sintra district. C and I had been looking online at the top castles and palaces in the world and one listed Queluz. It did not seem wrong to miss out it when it was so close. To my untrained eye it seemed similarly decorated as the Pena Palace but with larger rooms, less furnishings, and far fewer tourists. The highlights for me were the extraordinarily tiled canal, the Don Quixote room where a former Portuguese king had both been born and died, and the fountain of Neptune.

Queluz Palace

There was no use denying though that we had exceeded our palace viewing threshold. In fact, as incredulous as it seemed, I was beginning to miss our Conakry apartment, our cats, the joy of a quiet weekend with no pressure to get out and sightsee.

We made one last stop at the 18th century Aqueducto des Aguas Livres, part of the Museum of Water that showcases the fascinating efforts to bring drinking water to the city. We walked along the top of the aqueduct about a kilometer out and back and then once again walked back to our hotel with a stop for lunch.

C enjoyed seeing another part of Europe and declared that she liked Lisbon even more than Brussels. She even said that perhaps she would like to retire there. Though at 10, it might be a wee bit premature for her to be contemplating retirement. I am so glad I chose to spend my special birthday in and around Lisbon. As a backpacker 20 years ago I had not given nearly enough time to the city, and I feel this trip rectified that mistake.