Posted by: sean | May 8, 2008

Franco. Phone.

The jungle strangled the dusty road. Plompington asked the driver to stop so she could ask for directions from a Liberian half-immersed in the foliage. Excuse me, is this the road to Guinea? The Liberian nodded slowly as though to say, “Yes…and this is really the only road around here, so you should probably know where you are headed by now…” In the backseat I giggled and tried to infuse the situation with some context. Plompington, I hope you realized that you just nonchalantly asked that man how to drive to Guinea – when will you ever do that again?! She blushed, the driver kicked it into first gear and we bumped forward.

Surrounding VoijamaWe were just north of Voinjama, a scenic town set snug amidst sloping hills. The Liberian staff noted how ‘cold’ it was in Lofa. I forewent with their jackets and woolen hats, opting instead for shorts and a t-shirt that promised to wick the sweat off my skin – to each their own. For the past few days we had been running a workshop for county prosecutors and it was high time for Guilty Tourist Mode (GTM). I suggested that we head to the border. (For the sake of anonymity in this dangerous digital age in which we live, I have assigned my fellow Guilty Tourists subtle aliases.) Plompington (an older American attorney), Frizbee (a retired American Judge), and B-Scat (a partner at a Canadian law firm) wanted to know what we would do at the Guinean border. I mentioned something about contemplating our navels and doing jumping jacks in Liberia AND Guinea. We set off.

The problem with a backcountry border is that there isn’t necessarily a backcountry border. After a while, we came to a frontier town welcoming us to Liberia. Odd. We were just in Liberia… Had we somehow ventured into Guinea without knowing? We continued and came across a Guinean flagpole, a string border fence and a pavilion with Guinean officers lounging inside. B-Scat leapt out of the truck and aimed his camera with deft aplomb – GTM time! – at which point we heard frantic screaming from the be-officered pavilion. Uh oh.

The officers had us enter the pavilion and take a seat. They riddled us with questions in French, and as fate would have it, none of us spoke French. Merde. It was clear from their body language that we had some ‘splaining to do. We tried our best to ‘splain with exaggerated gestures that we were friendly – dare we say the friendliest people on the planet. Unfortunately, the officers weren’t in a mood for charades. As Frizbee waved his arms in what I suppose is the universal sign for FRIEND, I began to survey the scene for an exit strategy. I could call for help! I had the Solicitor General’s phone number, surely we’d be safe! Or, if worst came to worst, we could book it to the truck and speed off – I mean, what could the officers really do? Le crème of le crème don’t tend to be assigned to guard backcountry borders… I sprang into subtle action. Sliiiiiiiiide. I took out my mobile – no service. Twiiiiiiiist. I glanced over my shoulder to eye our truck – guards were milling about, our driver trying to keep them from looking in the trunk. I looked at the officer’s feet and saw a rocket launcher and an automatic something-or-other propped against the chair. You tend to prop things against chairs that you have used recently or plan to use soon (right now, for example, I have a Foreman grill propped against my chair. I have just made a delicious melt and plan to do so again very, very soon). A rocket launcher? How were Plompington, Frizbee, B-Scat, and I going to get out of this one?

Ten minutes of miscommunication. The officer was growing more frustrated.

Something French something French something French Español something French

Wait! Did he just say Español?

Español! Español! Si! Si!

Frizbee had spent time working for a gold mine in South America and I had spent time in a verb conjugation factory – Spanish we could do! We began to talk in the most respectful “Usted form” we could muster. They riddled us with questions in Spanish.

Where are you from?

The United States.

A long dramatic pause. Well, there are many united states. Mexico, Canada…Guinea is a united state, which ‘united state’ are you from?

The United States of America.

I see. Americans. He wasn’t too happy and asked the next logical question:

Do you know Salvador Allende?

Yes? No? (What do you want to hear?!)

I liked Salvador Allende. (In a tone that implied that we had personally killed the man)

So did we! So much. What a pity.

He continued to ask us loaded questions for half an hour. We found out that we were actually about five miles into Guinea at a checkpoint; the signs welcoming us to Liberia had been pointed the wrong way. We also discovered that our officer had picked up his Spanish while working in Cuba in the 1970s. We loved Castro, it was a huge coincidence! In fact, as we continued talking it dawned on me that I’ve never met a man with whom I shared so many exact opinions! What were the odds? We were slowly befriending him, nodding emphatically and taking great pain to tell him how beautiful the border of Guinea was. Seriously, the rope fence is ingenious, you almost don’t even need the rocket launcher now. We had buttered him up; it was time to test the water.

Weeeellll, look at the time…. It’s getting late, is it alright if we leave now?

You can leave anytime you want, you are strangers.

Funny thing is that he said this in a manner that made it very clear that we were not welcome to leave. Plompington wanted us to ask the officer if it was alright for us to take pictures. Frizbee shot her an incredulous look. Did she not realize the situation we were in?

The officer asked us if we liked peanuts.

Um. They’re, like, only our FAVORITE! Why, we were just talking about how much we loved peanuts before we got here.

He produced a bowl of peanuts and Frizbee saw an opening to play the subtle get-out-of-jail bribe card.

Oh no. You don’t have to give us these. Can we pay you for them?

No, you don’t have to pay, you are strangers.

It was still unclear if we were supposed to offer a bribe. Through exchanged looks Frizbee and I decided that if he wanted a bribe, he would ask. He couldn’t say that we hadn’t lobbed up a softball bribe offer. We nodded some more and agreed with his opinions before we tested the water again.

So… it alright if we leave now?

You can leave anytime, you are strangers.

Again, said in a manner that was very open-ended. We slowly stood and Frizbee whispered in my ear. Let’s get the fuck out of here, right now. I couldn’t have agreed more. Plompington asked again if she could take a picture, gesturing to her camera. Our jaws dropped, but the officers let her take one of them. Back in the truck, Plompington and B-Scat didn’t quite grasp the potentially disastrous situation we had just escaped. Seemed like you guys were getting along and talking about things… Yes. Getting along swimmingly… We were in Francophone Africa and had been saved only by our ability to phone our inner (Francisco) Francos.


  1. Nice to know that your time in Spain was well worth our investment….but did you have to mention the rocket launcher? Your mom will be wondering when the next wooden floored airplane departs.

  2. Ha! I had the same exact experience at that border… except that I, of course, speak French as well as fluent Malinké. Jacques really is a hospitable SOB, isn’t he? It’s like they say in Guinea: “Ni ithiga ukwire yerie ngwenje.” Or, “You are telling a stone to prepare for a haircut.”

  3. Verb conjugation factory. Hahaha.

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