Perfect Strangers

Our detour through Guinea takes us to an overnight stop in a small city with the funky name of N’Zerekore (N’Z for short) in the region of Guinée Forestière. As it is just another random stop along the route, we don’t have high expectations. Little do we know what awaits us in N’Zerekore.

It is another long day’s journey from Monrovia that morning: 5 hours (including flat tire) to Ganta; 1.5 hours in Ganta waiting for the taxi to fill; 30 minutes to the border; 2 hours for border formalities; 30 minutes to Diéké; 1 hour in Diéké waiting for a taxi to show up; then 2 hours (on a bad road) to N’Zerekore. The border is a parade through various officials (police, army, immigration, customs, medical). On the Guinean side, for the first time during our journey, we are demanded seriously for a bribe. The policeman glances at our passports and says matter-of-factly “dix-mille, dix-mille”. This repeats itself when we pass through customs. We launch into a speech about how we are students (which we have started putting on our documents in West Africa), we have already paid a lot of money for the visas, etc., etc. Fortunately, after listening to us in a bored fashion for a few minutes, the officials wave us through. Welcome back to Guinea!

We arrive in N’Zerekore just after dark. We have read that there is a Catholic Mission with rooms, and ask our taxi driver to drop us there. We knock on the gate and wait anxiously, hoping that there will be space for us. The gate is soon opened by an elderly man (the guardian), who leads us to the spacious first floor balcony of the Mission’s guesthouse and tells us to wait while he calls the man in charge.

It starts to rain, it starts to pour. Through the pouring rain, we see a motorcycle pull up and hear a man run up the stairs. The person in charge is not at all what we have expected! Up the stairs runs Pierre-Etienne, a young French accountant who is working for the Church in N’Zerekore, and who immediately makes us feel welcome with his warm smile and sense of humour. Within a few sentences, Pierre-Etienne has opened a few cans of beer he has in the kitchen, and invited us to his friend’s house for the evening. “My friend has white wine,” he says. And when we ask whether there is somewhere that we can buy something to eat, he answers, “Don’t worry, I think my friend will feed you, too.”

We drop our bags in the room, which is spacious and clean. As soon as the rain slows, we head out into N’Zerekore. After a short walk through muddy, dark streets, we arrive at a gate painted with the bright red logo of Cellcom, a mobile network company. A guard opens the gate and we enter, walking around to an entrance at the back of the property.

The door opens, and we feel as if we are staring into another world. Inside is a haven of bright, spotless, air-conditioned comfort. But the most welcome sight of all is the friendly face that greets us: a trim and stylish man named Noam, who rushes off to bring us clean towels when he sees our condition. We feel rather self-conscious about our unfashionable muddy state, but are soon put to ease by a few glasses of white wine and heaping plates of spaghetti. By the end of the evening (which finishes late, past midnight), Noam has convinced us to come stay at his house the following night.

The next morning, we walk with our backpacks to Noam’s house. The day is spent talking, reading, writing, and helping (but mostly watching) Noam prepare for the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashannah. He has a list of dishes and recipes from his mother, and according to her instructions, he prepares roasted eggplant dip, meatballs, vegetables, and fruit with honey. That evening, we set the table for the Rosh Hashannah meal (including an extra place setting according to tradition). Noam recites the prayers, explaining to us the meaning of each course of the dinner. A little later, Pierre Etienne (who has been delayed by another rainstorm) comes over with a bottle of French red wine.

preparing for the Rosh Hashannah meal

preparing for the Rosh Hashannah meal

the table set for Rosh Hashannah

the table set for Rosh Hashannah

beginning the meal with prayers

enjoying French wine... it's been so long!

enjoying French wine… it’s been so long!

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happy travellers

packing again, to get back on the road

packing again, to get back on the road

The next morning, Noam drops us at the gare routiere at 8am to catch a taxi to the Cote d’Ivoire border at Sipilou. But the minibus takes ages to fill, and by 11am we realize that there is no chance of making it to the border before nightfall. Noam comes back to the rescue, picking us up and depositing us at his house, in-between his busy day at work. We spend another day in N’Zerekore, and plan an earlier start the next morning.

We arrived in N’Zerekore with little expectations. Certainly, the last thing we expected when we checked into the Catholic Mission guesthouse was to end up celebrating Rosh Hashannah amongst new friends. After three nights in this unexpected place, we head back on the road, a muddy track through the rubber tree plantations and bamboo forests of Guinée Forestière – scrubbed clean, well fed, and with our spirits refreshed, thanks to our perfect strangers of N’Zerekore.

travelling onwards through Guinée Forestière

travelling onwards through Guinée Forestière