“Everything takes forever here in Guinea,” I complained to my mom.
“Well, what exactly takes forever?”
“I dunno, but it’s like if we go to town to buy a pineapple, like, 12 people have to come and then we have to make all these stops along the way and then we usually get in a car accident AND run out of gas.”
Today was no exception. Although we were on the moped so there were just two of us. Sana and I were heading down to somewhere near the airport where you can exchange money on the side of the road in what appears to me to be a shady operation.
After much negotiation, Sana exchanges my dollars for Guinean francs and we start to head home in what just might be the most efficient outing the city of Conakry has ever seen.
We’re slowly navigating between mini-buses and taxis in a jumbled pile-up when a police officer steps in front of us and stops us. He literally walks in front of the vehicle and puts his hand on the handle bars.
The officer says something. Sana says something in return. The officer says something to me in French, but as we know, I don’t actually speak French, so I just stare at him, waiting for a cue from Sana. Obviously we are in trouble for something, but I have zero clues what that might be. As far as I know, the only thing that is explicitly illegal in this country is stealing stuff. Clearly, there aren’t traffic laws.
After a lot of back and forth, Sana gets off the bike and I follow suit. The officer personally walks the bike out of the intersection, down a dirt road, and straight into the police station. I give Sana a questioning look. Somehow Sana and I are always able to communicate with a combination of very basic French words and sign language. Apparently, we have no license or registration. Or something similar.
The officer parks the bike in a garage and says we have to pay 50,000 Guinean francs to get it back. Sana argues and discusses and tries to negotiate. He also knows I have a lot more than that in my purse, but he doesn’t ask for it. I don’t offer right away because I’m suspicious that my white-ness is not helping his negotiating, and I don’t want to pay above market price because of it.
Eventually he gives up and calls his dad. “My dad’s on his way,” he communicates to me in our special language.
Sana’s dad is a military man. I had met him once before on base. He’s also a friendly man who knew two phrases in English. He had greeted me and asked for my name in passable English. I wondered if he was going to bring us money or if he was maybe a better negotiator. It seemed like a lot of work to figure out how to ask that in French, so instead Sana took my hand and we walked across the street to a restaurant.
I got some cold water while Sana talked to the waitress about our situation. I can often tell what people are talking about even if I can’t understand the words. I looked around the restaurant at the two occupied tables. Must be tough to run a restaurant during Ramadan, I thought. I wondered if my fellow eaters were secretly being judged by their server for not being devout. Was I being judged for drinking my icy water? It was the only money the establishment would be making that month.
Having practiced extreme patience for two weeks now and having nearly mastered the art of sleeping anytime anywhere, when my bag-o-water had run dry, I laid my head down on the white plastic table and napped.
I woke up at some point and everything was exactly as I had left it. The lady was still leisurely serving one or two tables. Sana was still sitting across from me. “Ton pere?” I asked. Sana shook his head… not yet.
So we sat there. I flipped through the Shakira notebook on the table: it was the restaurant’s financials. Sana’s phone rang. He talked for a few minutes and then hung up. “Ton pere?” Still no.
After what felt like six more hours, but was probably more like forty-five minutes later, a man in a flowy white tunic runs around the corner, says something to us, and motions for us to come with him. I have no idea who this man is or how he knows who we are, but Sana and I follow him. We walk back across the street to the station and talk to another officer. And then another one. Sana pulls me aside and motions to my purse. “Trois,” he says and holds up three fingers. This means, “Please give me three 10,000 franc bills,” in our language. It is understood that he is going to make an offer.
I give him the bills. I don’t really know how much money it is, but I know that US-dollars wise, it’s not unreasonable. Sana follows one of the officers and I stay behind. Another twenty minutes of negotiating, and the moped is released!
We get home a half hour later, and I decide that I’m an idiot to be spending money in a country without having some idea of the exchange rate. I log onto the internet and Google it: the police wanted the equivalent of $6.87 US; we had negotiated them down to $4.12.
I could have paid $2.75 more and been home two hours earlier. White or not, it would have been worth every penny.