Bypassing the red tape in Conakry

The flight on an “Royal Air Maroc” plane from Banjul to Conakry was short and comfortable. Well, as comfortable as it gets, leaving in the middle of the night and arriving in the wee hours at Conakry airport. Yes, we had our visas, didn’t have any duty-free items over the limit. So, our expectation was to clear the administrative wall swiftly upon arrival. Well, almost… Just before exit to the luggage belt, we spotted a lady in a nurse uniform, who checked the yellow-fever certificate of all arriving passengers. This was fine with me, since I had the required document. But Evgeny whispered to me that he had no such certificate.

Waterfalls in Guinea
Waterfalls in Guinea

The yellow fever certificate drama

Desperately needing a rest in a bed, adrenaline kicked in and I asked him to stay behind me and wait at the small counter which separated the cleared passengers in the luggage area from the people waiting to be processed. The “Yellow-Fever Lady” took a very long look at my old, wrinkled and scotch-taped vaccine certificate which had already two passport numbers with a strike-through as I was travelling now on the third passport since I had this certificate. Finally, I got the ok from her, went to the baggage area and around the counter where Evgeny stood on the other side. Casually talking to him, I handed him my certificate. He nodded “Are you sure? I don’t think it will work…” I hissed that I needed a bed and that I was tired – and that I was not in the mood to negotiate anything with officials. Perplexed, he walked with his passport and my certificate to the lady. She seemed not to recognize the badly looking certificate from before. She flipped through the certificate pages backwards and forward – unable to match the Cyrillic name on the passport to the name on the certificate. Eventually she gave up and waved Evgeny through, probably she was annoyed about her lack of knowing the Russian letters.

At the Conakry beach
At the Conakry beach

Downtown Conakry

Luckily, finding a taxi and the subsequent hotel in Conakry was easy. Although the receptionist was eager to have a lengthy chat, we finally made it to our room where we slept for three hours before heading downtown. Our primary focus was the Mali embassy in Conakry, where we applied for Evgeny’s visa. The visa here was cheaper and easier to obtain than in Russia and – most importantly – it was granted within an hour. Back in Russia, the Mali embassy requires peculiar documents, such as invitations by a travel agency and bank statements – before they enter a three week visa processing. After traveling to so many countries, Evgeny and I have stopped thinking about logic when it comes to visas. While waiting for the visa, we spotted a supermarket who carried “Baltika” beer. Sheer joy for my Russian friend! We decided to buy some “Baltika” and sat down in front of the entrance chatting and drinking beer. Locals were smiling at the two crazy white men and some of them went inside to buy “Baltika” as well and joined us, eager to know where we came from and where we were heading to. This is a perfect example of an uneventful moment, that somehow sticks as good memory.

After getting the visa from the Mali embassy, we visited the rest of Conakry by foot and taxi – and then went on to organize a driver and a car for our next day’s journey to Bamako, Mali. We went to a huge parking lot, where hundreds of taxis, buses and drivers were waiting for customers to various destinations throughout Guinea. It looked the same as back in Dakar, but this time we were doing the exercise of finding transport in daylight .- at least at the beginning. As I am bad in negotiating prices, I left this to Evgeny – who doesn’t speak a word of French. He negotiated hard and worked out a good price, while I listened to the comments and tactics of the drivers sticking around us. To finalize the deal, Evgeny called me and I finished the trade by confirming the “terms and conditions” in French. This is where people started to smile and figured out our tactics. And then, I realized that by the time, it was pitch dark again. Like back in Dakar. Not really a place to hang around too long.

Market people
Market people

The Sept Place vehicles

Long distance taxis in Guinea are called “sept place” (seven seater), which are – for the most – Peugeot station wagons fitted with extra seats in the back of the car. Our driver already had a huge pile of goods secured on the roof that he needed to transport to Bamako. We bought the seven seats of his taxi, which was a good deal for him as well as for us. The distance between Conakry and Bamako is roughly 500 km, but parts of the road in Guinea are in very bad shape. According to our driver, the trip would take more than one full day, requiring one night rest en route. This is why he asked for a “junior driver” to come with us and assist him driving. As we left early next morning, the road outside Conakry went empty of traffic and landscape gave way to a very beautiful, green jungle forest.

Along the road we stopped at various scenic waterfalls, most notably the “Voile de la Mariée”, where we spotted no other people and experienced raw nature in action. Further north, towards the evening, the road started to be full of potholes.  Our driver stopped the car and “junior driver” (I estimated him to be maximum 16 years old) took over the wheel. He missed some potholes. I decided to stay awake and be ready to take over the wheel as his driving was quite erratic and insecure. Luckily, we were running out of gas and arrived at a small town at around 1 am. I knew that we now would have to have a rest, since gas stations in the African countryside aren’t usually open during the night. While sleeping in the car, other vehicles arrived and by dawn, the square next to the gas station was filled by buses, trucks and cars. Heavy shouting and negotiation started among the drivers, which seemed to establish the order in which everyone would get fuel.

Loading our taxi
Loading our taxi

Soon we were back on the road again driving towards the Kourémalé border crossing, where we would leave Guinea and enter Mali. The landscape slowly changed and the jungle forest gave way to agricultural land. Arriving at Kourémalé, border control was swift, except for – the Yellow-Fever certificate. As we were ordered to go inside a building to show the vaccination document, Evgeny and I split up again and we did sequential processing with one certificate as before in Conakry.

Again, we were lucky and were cleared by all involved customs agents. But we both decided that we needed to do something about this missing document before our next border crossing. Around noon time, we arrived at a busy bus park at the outskirts of Bamako. There, we paid our driver, got a local SIM card for the street sellers – and soon we were on our way to downtown Bamako in search for a guest house.

But that’s another blog story to come soon…