Sean Connolly, the author of the brilliant Bradt Senegal guide book, called in ten days ago. He’s a man after my own heart – given the job of updating the Sierra Leone guide, rather than fly to Freetown he decided to fly to Dakar, catch up with some mates and travel down through the Guineas and have some fun en route. After a few days of catching up, I decided to join him for a few days. There are elephants in southern Bissau – apparently – so we decided to try and find them.
We had a bit of luck, a Spanish friend, Carlos, was driving to Bissau in his new 4wd on the same day, so we hitched a ride. After lunch in Ziguinchor, we crossed the border, sailed through with Carlos’s creole language skills and hit the first town of San Domingos. Carlos knew of a toubab in town so called in after driving down some sandy potholed backtracks. Nils is a mohawked German guy who makes his living part of the year as a clown and fire eater, then rests up in Guinea Bissau. He was quite surprised when I told him that Khady used to be a fire eater and so we arranged for him to visit Abene and put on a performance sometime soon.
It was getting late and we had a fair way to go, so drove down into the sunset, stopping by the bridge over the Rio Cacheau (Cashew river) where there were huge piles of oysters. Some ladies in a shack were selling them by the rice sack full and one of these set us back less than a fiver.
It was dark as we approached Bissau city and it’s never nice to drive at night in Africa. Oncoming cars don’t bother dipping their headlights, no matter how many times you flash them, so you’re driving blind every time something approaches which is not nice with the number of unlit cyclists, goats and cows.
Our first choice of hotel was full as it usually is and so we went to Hotel Jordani which had annoyed me last time I was there – charging me for breakfast after having told us the room price was bed and breakfast. But Carlos knew the Portuguese owner and we were given a much reduced rate.
After dinner at the hotel, we went out into the night to sample the local brew, known as Bazooka, which is a pleasant draught beer reminiscent of bia hoi in Hanoi. Then Carlos and I went to one of the nightclubs, full of rather sad looking old white guys and a few young Guinean girls. A boisterous Swede at the bar immediately bought us a round of tequila and drunkenly regaled tales of his 15 years doing “something in aviation” in Sierra Leone whilst attempting to remain upright.
After coffee and a prego (Portuguese beef steak and garlic sandwich), the first job of the morning was to get a SIM card. Even here in West Africa, every country now has a complicated registration process even just to get a simple pay as you go card. It took an hour or more – the lady collecting 50p for the card painstakingly typed all of our details into an official receipt that was printed off – and we lost the will to live for a moment.
The cooks at the hotel agreed to prepare the oysters – warm water mangrove oysters are best served grilled. We went out back, as it’s a messy business, and the girl had a bbq grill fired up. We shucked, slurped, dipped and munched to our hearts content, managing to get through the entire sack, before a nice long siesta.
In the morning, I went on a short stroll around the old Portuguese quarter. Compared to the outer shanty like suburbs, this area is quiet. The buildings are beautiful but when the Portuguese left it’s as if the Africans were reluctant to move in.
I passed a row of shoe shiners, shot some pictures of the brightly coloured buildings and rotting tropically decayed ones.
Opposite the hotel Jordani is the far grander Grande Hotel. Far too exclusive for us…
And this door, spotted by Sean, doesn’t look like it’s been opened for a while.
The first time I visited Bissau, six years ago, the roof of the Presidents palace was bombed to bits with gaping holes. It’s been repaired, apparently with money from the Moroccan King, and the small park in front resembles a north African medina.
Bidding farewell to Carlos, Sean and I headed south. Given I’ve taken the main route a couple of times this year already, we looked at the map, decided an alternate route must be possible and headed into the unknown, first of all catching a ferry across to the far side of the large estuary that Bissau adjoins.
The large rusting hulk of a boat had seen better days and I wasn’t sured whether to be relieved or nervous that they insisted all passengers wore life jackets.
Leaving the boat provided classic African images.
The “village” was no more than a small jetty and collection of shacks. Thankfully we’d correctly guessed that if a boats drops lots of people in the middle of nowhere, then there must be onward transport. Given that this is Africa, it wasn’t a given. There was a motley collection of flat bed trucks decked out with narrow wooden benches and canopies made of lashed together wood and bamboo.
It took five hours or more to bump and grind our way along the jungle tracks, hanging onto the wooden poles as we nearly got bounced out. The vegetation was becoming lusher and overcrowding the narrow orange mud tracks. Villages were cut out of the jungle and these trucks provide their only lifeline to the outer world a couple of times a week.
Sometimes the villagers ignored us completely and in others crowds of excited kids screamed “branco” (white) at us. We arrived at Fulakunda which looked quite substantial on the map but in reality was a few shacks around a large dust bowl. We changed to a new truck driven by Ekomog, a Nigerian.
“I came here 22 years ago and it’s just bush, there’s nothing for me,” he said. “Can you get me a mechanics job in Abene?” We exchanged numbers and I agreed to make enquiries. He later went into a long rant about the local youth not wanting to work and just begging and asking for things, before asking me to buy him a beer, seemingly without understanding the contradiction.
Upon arrival into Buba, we found the best bar in town, next to a ruined building and decorated with monkey skulls.
The guest house was a little less “bush” and the verandah provided lovely views:
Gabi, a Romanian, and her Guinean husband, had created a gorgeous little slice of paradise with a lovely garden. Outside my room was a calabash tree – they never fail to astonish me. I wonder how long it’ll take for mine (currently about 30cm tall) will take to grow like this?
Each calabash gourd is about the size of a football. Then I noticed these interesting looking cacti:
We spent a few days mooching around, drinking bazookas and relaxing into Buba time. It seemed impossible to get down to the national park without either a 4wd or a lot of money, so the elephants would have to wait.
During our investigations we visited the headquarters of the local national park where we spotted this chap in a cage. Apparently he’s regular let out, but it seemed astonishing that national park staff were keeping him here.
That evening, whilst eating fish and rice, the next table was served something slightly more exotic:
That’s right folks, monkey soup complete with head. The proprietress told us they regularly served monkeys and there seemed no awareness that bush meat like this was a factor in the spread of ebola in neighbouring Republic of Guinea.
If those photos distressed you, please focus on the next one to erase the memories:
One day we went up to the garage for a car to the nearby Salthino falls. Here’s Sean killing time whilst waiting for the minibus to fill:
The water was gorgeous and we both swam in the rapids of this beautiful spot. I was swimming in my shorts, had no change of clothes and so decided that taking them off and wringing them out was a good idea. I found a big rock, crouched behind it, looked around, saw no one and started to remove the shorts. Almost immediately I heard shrieks of very enthusiastic laughter and looked up to see a bunch of school girls about 50 metres away – they’d been hidden in the shadows. They probably thought I was doing something else given I was crouching and removing my shorts. As I hurriedly pulled them back up, the shrieks continued and the girls, about 13 or 14 years old, came running down almost doubling over in laughter, whilst I helplessly stood there feeling embarrassed. They were on their way home from school and asked me for pens. Mildly concerned they might rush home and report me as a flasher to angry parents, I handed over some coins to equip them for school.
We spent a last night at the Mendes Mendes bar and avoided eating monkey. We were out of luck when we asked for the monkey skulls – I’d explained about the soup on the phone to Khady and once she’d established I hadn’t eaten monkey (for she finds the idea as equally abhorrent as most westerners do), she told me to bring the skulls back as they’re powerful medicine. Instead we had a couple of bazookas and some stew (non-primate, I think) before returning as we were both exhausted and had an early start.
In the morning, facebook told me that it was my birthday. It had been at the back of my mind, but as they’re so rarely celebrated here, I don’t really bother with it these days. Instead, I took a long distance trip on Guinean public transport. Sean was leaving me, to head south into Guinea and then Sierra Leone. We bid each other farewell and then I waited for the Bissau car to fill. After a couple of coffees I was still the only passenger. Sod this, I made some enquiries and gathered I could rent the entire car for about £25 and leave right away. That was my birthday present to myself sorted. The windscreen had more cracks than regular glass and the whole thing looked like it about to fall apart, but the driver wasn’t a maniac so all was good.
He dropped me in the centre of town and I treated myself to a pizza before heading to Cuntum where my friend Andy lives. He’s a German guy that runs a minibus business, transports cashews and farms chickens. We sat in his compound talking about making a living here in West Africa, whilst his parrot crawled all over me.
In the evening we went for grilled pork at a Balanta bar and then a tour of clubs in the centre of town. At the first, Tropicana, we drank caipirinha’s made with local cana rum, watched frenetic dancing and checked out the wall art. This one (Sida is French for Aids) is sending slightly mixed messages, I feel.
I awoke early and eager to reach home was at the gare routiere by 7am and jumped into a bus to Ziguinchor. Interestingly, the apprentice was a woman. The apprentice is normally a lad who hangs on the back, collects cash, runs back and forth to police check points and calls out for customers. I was a little surprised when she turned and spoke to me in good English. It turned out she called Jah and was Guinean but had lived in Gambia, transporting and selling palm oil.
“I did that for six years and with the profit I bought this bus” she told me. “It’s true, I’m perhaps the only woman working on the buses. The police are so surprised they never cause me problems, they just laugh!”
Eventually I reached home to a warm welcome – and to see the gate was nearly finished. One friend asked if it is a tribute to Trump.
Although I had little desire to celebrate my birthday, Khady had other ideas. A large group gathered in the evening and a cake, complete with a firework on top (it went off before I could photo it) was brought out as everyone sang Happy birthday three times – in French, English and Diola.
Then Domong domong came on – a great little group featuring Khady’s cousin Sheriff. They opened with a drumming rendition of happy birthday, followed by ninke nanka, saliba and other favourites. The dancing was as manic as always and we partied into the night.