There I was, I had somehow I found myself in Paris, France; the most unlikely of destinations for a traveller such as myself. I love the city, but even amidst its physical beauty and romantic atmosphere I found myself drifting away to a more exotic, less explored, part of the world.
From my street side café table I flipped through the pages of a French-language travel magazine and was stopped by a spread of beautiful green landscapes of which stunning red rock presses through and tremendous waterfalls tumble. The title of the article quickly found its way on to my list of things to do in West Africa: trekking the Fouta Djallon.
Today, I’ve arrived in Labe, Guinea some four months after reading about this magical place. I’ve arrived a little beaten and bruised. A stretch of tough roads, heavy rains and a mild bout with malaria have gotten the best of me over the past few weeks. But my spirits are reinvigorated by the friendly smiles and beautiful vistas of Labe.
As I meet my guide Cellou he immediately tempers my expectations while heightening them all at the same time.
“It is the heart of the rainy season, so we can’t get to the biggest waterfall,” he says in strongly accented French with a hint of an apology traced across his face. “But, the good news is that the two waterfalls we will see should have more water running through them than ever.”
After a series of taxi rides we arrive at a village that marks the end of the road and the true start to our adventure. We are immediately confronted by the warmth of rural Guinea; each person we pass shares a warm “Yarame”, a smile, and a welcome.
The truth is that whenever I’ve found myself in these really rural parts of Africa, be it in Mauritania or here, I’ve only ever found friendliness accompanied by a healthy dose of curiosity.
As we trek further and further from modern comforts, the trail dissipates to a mere path of ankle-deep water trough waist-deep grasses. The occasional rocky outcrop gives us some semblance of reprieve, but the truth is that once you’re wet there’s hardly a reason to try to stay dry.
A rush of water can be heard off in the distance. Amidst the heavy rains that are now falling, if it weren’t for the steady nature of the sound, it could almost be mistaken for thunder. As we step up a patch of loose stone and a wave of misty air hits me in the face there is no doubt the force is coming from an impressive amount of water flowing from a black rock cliff.
I will spend the next three days trekking to waterfalls like this, but in the end its not the water nor the beautiful landscapes that have captured my affection, but the people.
The villages are dominated by round mud huts capped with impressive thatched roofs. Kids run and laugh through the walkways, racing hand-pushed homemade model cars and old motorcycle tires. They can’t help but come up to me, shy as can be, and ask for me to take their photo; I oblige.
Women dominate town life as most of the men have moved on to the city. They work in the fields pulling rice from the damp soils, they ground nuts, they wash clothing in the river, and the mind the handfuls of children who race off an complete chores for them on command. Whenever a new person walks by there is always a welcome, a handshake, and a smile to accompany them.
As we leave the Fouta Djallon and make our way back to the city, I can’t help but be excited to explore more of rural West Africa. So far it is the city that has gotten the best of me. But at the same time I need the city as it’s really been the only place to access the internet.
It’s finding that balance between struggling through the cities to get work done and getting out of them to find grounding that is so difficult to find. I guess at the end of the day, everyone struggles with that, regardless of what they do for work; and I truly believe that finding that balance is the true key to happiness. We need to work to earn a living, but also to lead us to appreciate these moments of peace and serenity a little bit more.