Guns, Mom and Guinea
Travel Stories: April Thompson wanted to show off her new West African home to her mother. Nothing could go wrong, right?
03.11.09 | 9:27 AM ET
The car coughed and wheezed as it ground to a halt at the checkpoint.
“Did you see the guns those guys packed back there?” Mom asked.
“No, but I saw the guns those guys were packing on their biceps,” I quipped, trying to lighten the mood. But mom’s anxiety stirred up my own.
Perhaps we should have checked IDs before we gave these mountain men a ride, but I knew how hard transportation was to come by in these parts. Oh, did I know—that’s partly why my perfectly laid plans to show off my new home to my mother had gotten off course.
I was only three months into my contract as reporting officer for a UN agency in Guinea, a Francophone country on West Africa’s coast.
My stepfather, a Pentagon employee with the inside scoop on State Department travel advisories, urged my mother not to come. Her friends, whose travels were limited to weekend getaways in the Bahamas, couldn’t imagine a mother’s love being strong enough to chance the diseases, the heat, the unrest, the bugs. But my loving mother just had to visit me.
Of course, her journey had an ulterior motive: to see what I was really up to. Was I heeding the traveler’s rule she had read about? (“If it ain’t peeled, boiled or packaged, it doesn’t belong in your mouth.”) Was I altering my routines to throw off would-be kidnappers? Was I was wearing a bike helmet? And, God forbid I should need it, carrying a condom?
I didn’t have a good reputation in my family when it came to traveling. I once spent the night stranded on a Bulgarian mountaintop after climbing the wrong peak. I accidentally brought a terrorist home from Cairo. And I nearly overdosed on a block of hash in Kathmandu. But my mother was known to get in a bit of trouble herself. I recall having to carry her out of a Napa Valley winery after she’d tasted a Chardonnay too many, and one of my favorite family photos shows her play-handcuffed by a flirtatious cop outside a San Francisco salsa club.
Since Mom’s international travel experiences were limited, she was sure only her prayers to an overworked guardian angel had kept me out of a third-world prison. But for all her hand-wringing, I knew from the way she bragged about her daring daughter to strangers in elevators that she admired my globetrotting and didn’t mind occasionally being dragged along for the ride, as long as there was air-conditioning and bottled water.
As a compromise between our travel styles, I had planned a “soft adventure” in N’Zérékoré, the heart of forested Guinea. We checked into the four-star Nimba Hotel, named for Guinea’s tallest mountain. That’s when things started going downhill. The hotel’s electricity, we discovered, only worked from dusk to breakfast. And though I had tried to shield Mom’s intestinal tract with French mineral water, she spent the first night acquainting herself with the hotel toilet. Nevertheless, the next morning we had to get up early to tackle 5,700-foot Mount Nimba. I had arranged for a car and driver to pick us up at 9 a.m. so we could summit Nimba before the sun did. It would be the perfect way to kick off Mom’s visit, I thought.
By 10 a.m. the chauffeur hadn’t shown up. Another two hours passed before my colleague Hablos showed up with a kid named Boiro, our newly appointed driver. The car wasn’t exactly the cushy four-wheel drive with the fancy communication systems I was used to being chauffeured in: there were no seat belts, shocks or a speedometer. Its windshield was a splintered web that looked like it would shatter if you blew on it.
We soon learned we had something in common with the driver—Boiro had never been to Nimba, either. But eventually we arrived at the village at Nimba’s foot, where Jean, an out-of-work iron miner with a serious case of plumber’s butt, offered us his guiding services.
Setting off on the trail, we soon left Jean behind in the heat and dust.