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

Guinea, West AfricaPhoto by Aaron Sharghi

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.

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April Thompson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

12 Comments for Guns, Mom and Guinea

kell 03.11.09 | 3:47 PM ET

“At last we reached Bossouís chimpanzee research center. Finally, I told myself, Mom would have the Great African Experience: a glimpse of our primate cousins in the wild”

Surely you are educated enough to know that there is more to Africa than chimps and safaris??  This gets old really fast….I’ve got news for you, not much of Africa is like what is advertised by these reservations and awful animal camps.  Most of Africa is rural, with small villages and of course the major cities as well.  Please stop romanticizing Africa within the “African Queen/Out of Africa”/Hollywood-myth context.

“Never have I been so happy to see the squalor of a third-world city.”  Dear Lord, I don’t have words for this ignorance.  Guess what, there are “third world” cities right here in the U.S.—did you know that? Ever heard of Appalachia?  The problem I have with Westerners—White Americans in particular—is this ignorance.  You go to Africa, write about your dirt-road experiences and yet your mindset still retains some very myopic thinking.

Please keep your “tales of guns” to yourself.  Africa is about so much more.

Chris 03.11.09 | 6:40 PM ET

Two points kell:
1) There is a specific definition of third world. It has nothing to do with level of development. It also means that nothing in the US is third world, by definition. Please look it up.
2) Your stereotype of “white Americans” shows far greater ignorance than anything in this article.

Jason 03.11.09 | 9:40 PM ET

Very well said Chris!

April 03.12.09 | 10:30 AM ET

Glad to see my story has sparked some controversy, but sorry to hear that my sense of humor and irony has apparently fallen flat. Kell, I encourage you to explore some of my stories from Guinea here——I think you will find a lot contrary to the stereotypes you claim I perpetuate. Thanks to all for sharing your thoughts.

allie 03.12.09 | 7:17 PM ET

“1) There is a specific definition of third world. It has nothing to do with level of development. It also means that nothing in the US is third world, by definition. Please look it up”

oh pullleeez!!!! Thank you, PROFESSOR. Westerners don’t want to admit that things are not so “First World” in their countries…I agree with kell. Also, I could give two s**ts about the so-called definition of “Third World”—it is a term coined by Eurocentrists and it completely inaccurate on many levels.  If anything, Africa—specifically ancient Egypt and other places like Timbuktu where there were centers of knowledge and architecture—are First World.  Where do you think so-called modern civilizations drew their knowledge from?? Certainly not from the Greeks—their stole their ish from the Africans.

Read a book sometime.

As for the alleged stereotyping, hey, I have seen what kell speaks of.  I cannot generalize and say all white folks that are in Africa are like this; that would be essentializing.  I will certainly check out the author’s other pieces, I’m always interested in reading about African travels.

April, you do seem fond of throwing around that “third-world” tag, though…not just in this story.  It is divisive and maintains the social, political and economic divide around the world.

April 03.12.09 | 8:55 PM ET

Actually, the term third world was coined by nehru, india’s first prime minister. I suppose I am lazy in using it as shorthand for “an economically underdeveloped area, particularly lacking in infrastructure,” which is what it means to me. Nothing to do with culture, history, tradition.

What I find interesting is that none of the Africans I know are so sensitive about these terms and depictions as outsiders seems to be… A few African friends on my e-mailing list commented back to me that they enjoyed the story, and when I mentioned the debate brewing on the posted comments to one, she had this comment: “You Americans have issues…”

Tarek 03.12.09 | 9:41 PM ET

I think kell is reactionary.  But “third world” is a tired term.  Doesn’t describe the world as it is now at all.  I don’t think it was Nehru who coined third world - I think it was a french economist since it had multiple facets - ie it made a reference to the non-aligned movement while also making a reference to old idea of the french “Third Estate” who aspired to be more.

Chris 03.12.09 | 10:07 PM ET

Allie, I believe what you just said was “I don’t care what a phrase actually means, I’m just going to judge you based on what I feel like it means and on my unfounded assumptions about you.”

Tarek, you are absolutely right that first world-second world-third world is totally outdated. I’m not particularly fond of developed-developing either, because it implies an overall superiority of countries that are considered developed.

Em 03.13.09 | 9:16 AM ET

The humor does fall a little flat. Who would not have been in touch with the chimpanzee research center ahead of time to arrange a visit? Dropping in some places is what? rude?
And the description of the hitch-hikers with guns was sparse. Who the heck were they, really???

My euro relatives think america has everything and are so surprised when they find out how third world the US is. Undeveloped. Hardly any regard for seniors. Rural places without bus service even once/twice a day. No train service to most of the country. No public restrooms or urinals in many towns. Money the God of so many people. And this is a country that thought it could limp along as a tourist destination once the manufacturing (that which makes a country great) was sent overseas. (“outsourced, now that is one way over-tired term!!!)

Hey, “Third World” may be a “tired” term, but it sure fits many aspects of america. Part of the problem i think is that our country is so big and each state a world unto its own. If we could have more cooperation, maybe we could do better in the tourist department, even as we watch our heritage buildings be torn down for the building of faux-euro shopping centers and hotels, not to mention more McDonald’s. Talk about a national cuisine LOL!!!!

This article reminded me of so many of my own travels in the old days. I was sort of poking around trying to find the interesting places without doing enough background research, but hey, we all do it our own way, which is one of the glories of being an American. We’re all tolerant of other people’s ways…..aren’t we????

Chris 03.13.09 | 10:50 AM ET

I just looked at the wikipedia (you know, the quantum encyclopedia) article about “third world” and I love the map. The first world totally had the second world surrounded. That must be why they won.

Em, I have a little bit of disagreement with two things you said (I’m not touching the third world stuff anymore). First is that the description of the hitch-hikers was sparse. It absolutely was, but it seems clear that she didn’t know who they were and was never able to find out. It is still worth including in the story, although perhaps not as part of the title. I have done the same thing myself in my very limited writing. It is hard not to include something or someone that you see that is very interesting even though you aren’t able to learn any more about them than the superficial.

The other thing is that part of the problem with the US is the differentiation between the states. That definitely causes some problems, but I think it makes the country better overall. The tenth amendment to the US Constitution really allows for a lot of freedom and individuality among the states that makes us a lot more interesting, and a lot more confusing as well. I had a friend from Japan whose father was a consultant for Japanese companies that wanted to do business in the US. I read some of his materials once and the first thing he tells companies is that there are 50 states and each one has different laws. I can imagine discussion in a Japanese boardroom along the lines of “Seriously, 50 states and they all have different laws? I don’t believe it!”

April 03.13.09 | 10:58 AM ET

Interesting these comments around the guns and hitchhikers… I actually didn’t have this in the original title, or even in the story lead, but World Hum changed it around—the old journalism credo, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

I also originally had mom taking pics out the window with her shutter going off like a machine gun like a naive tourist, and also had these European botanists we met along the way I was also poking fun at—but a lot had to get cut to get this to a web-appropriate length.

So I do I like poking fun at white America too, for the record:

Chris 03.13.09 | 11:47 AM ET

April, when I was an editor at my college newspaper I was known for strict adherence to the news article rules, except the one about length. I would add more pages and some filler content before I would cut down people’s work. I would have put your whole story in. :-) For the record, writing headlines is really, really hard. Nobody understands that until they have to do a lot of them week after week.

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