Spent a year in French language early on in the CIA. A classmate there – Joe – picked up fluent Frog a tiny little bit better than I did. They sent him to Conakry, Guinea. Me, they sent to an English-speaking place in West Africa.
In the late 1970s there was nothing to do in Conakry, Guinea. Well in fact there ain’t ever anything to do in Conakry, Guinea.
So Joe came over to where I was for what we have always described as “a lost weekend” because we just can’t remember it all.
It had much to do with Joe and me sitting at the back of dingy, out-of-the-way bars in the sea port capital city where I was posted, with a bottle of rot gut liquor on the table between us and two dirty glasses. No ice, ‘cause the local water was bad and you’d get sick from parasites. Just liquor straight out of dirty glasses.
We had diplomatic postings Joe and I, and I’m sure we kept our dip passports in our back-pockets; though walking the wild side of that tenderloin area was not your usual jaunt for young diplomats, even undercover CIA spies. We were slumming, just for the sure hell of it.
I remember way back when I first met Joe he told me his father was bad to drink and it was Joe’s early job to go out when his Dad was on a bender and bring him back home. There was one time he was doing this and it was raining like a sumbitch and the whole proposition really got difficult as Joe drove his dead-dunk Dad home. He was 13 years old. Or something like that.
I didn’t look like I had been a prize-winning child either, so despite our day job, we didn’t stand out in the west African dives. We didn’t make eye contact with a lot of people. We would drink and talk and every once in a while go piss out the back door.
The bars were always dark as I remember it, there was always noise, from local bands or people talking loud. Working girls were mixed between local talent and Eastern Europeans/Middle East blondes, ‘cause West African men-of-means liked blondes.
Joe remembers something about me stalking some Syrian bar maid. Of this I have no recollection. We both remember some contact with a West African transsexual or “Tranny” who I introduced to a fellow I knew slightly and the last we saw of the pair they were locked in some passionate kiss in a back corner of a bar next to a small hostel. There was a full-bodied Lebanese girl Joe has trouble remembering that I… well I’m not goin’ to say what. And there were other women. And men. And some people between genders. And things that happened. And laughs. Lot of laughs.
We mingled seamlessly with Ghanaians, Nigerians, Liberians, Bossa tribesmen, Middle Easterners, Indians, Muslim Mandingo, Zairians, folks speaking strange dialects from Ouagadougou and Timbuktu… all shades of people. Vibrant jungle music always coming from somewhere, often in the distance. All smells. All shapes. All kind of smiles. And looks of anger. Wild dancers and people who just stood in the shadows, silently amazed at the action which was so different from the bush.
I was thinking about writing up that “lost weekend” comparing it to a trip I took when I was 15 years old to Havana Cuba, the summer before Castro came to power. I often tell people I ran away from home with a buddy from Wilson, North Carolina and we ended up in Cuba to make it sound sort of Tom Sawyer, but in fact what I did was to concoct this elaborate ruse with my parents that allowed me out of Southern Pines for a few days and Allen Page – who is in fact from Wilson – and I thumbed down to Florida and took a plane over to Havana. Stayed 3 days and 2 nights. In the bar area by the port across from the Morro Castle. Standing still for years thereafter, I could remember what happened every hour we were there… but comparing our West Africa “lost week” to Havana would be difficult what with my written acc’ts of the Cuban get-away so sketchy and my memory not what it used to be.
And I’m not goin’ to compare the West African deep dive into hard-core barroom crawling and drinking, to say, Vientiane, Laos where I lived in the early 1970. Powerfully adventurous and unique watering holes there: Places like The White Rose and LuLu’s… whiskey-soaked, bawdy Asian evening emporiums like no other places in the world. Where some of the joints went back to French Foreign Legion days, when real warriors gathered.
And I’m not goin’ to compare West Africa to Saigon there in the waning months of that city’s sinful era, when I would transit going from the Delta – where I worked – to Taipei, Taiwan – where Brenda and the kids lived. I’m not going to tell you what Izzy Freedman, an old Air America friend and neighbor from Udorn, Thailand, did when I was with him during those times, or much about John Sandel and I going to bars off TuDo or out towards Tan So Nhut Airport, where when we walked in, we would be the only people there equipped with ding dongs – the rest being unemployed bar girls by the dozens – who would rush us and it was always John who would say, “5 dollars to the first girl to take off all her clothes.”
There was quite a lot of entertainment value to those $5s we spent that way. Sort of the Asian lap dance of the period.
Nope I’m going to leave the West African lost week-end to your imaginations mostly. Just remember that there for a time me and my buddy Joe were light skinned Africans. We drank a lot of rot gut, disappeared for a couple/three days into semi-dark bars in an African sea port, assimilated and had the time of our lives.
Like Cuba and Vientiane and Saigon, but different.