Wandering West Africa
There’s something deeply satisfying about the path to your hotel room being a beach. You begin to forget your shoes, and sometimes your clothes, and wander around barefoot in a bathing suit . So it is at Ponta Anchaca on Rubane Island in the Bijagos Archipelago of Guinea-Bissau, the Christmas getaway I shared with Amee.
After a Herculean effort to get there (see Planes, Boats and Automobiles) we slipped easily into relaxation mode, stirring from our books only to spend a couple of hours eating at various times of the day. We estimated we spent about a third of our waking day eating there. Being a French resort, the food is a focus – lots of it and quite rich. I was happy with a daily diet of fresh fish but Amee struggled to find enough vegetarian variety. We finally resorted to a special shopping trip for canned chickpeas we had spotted at the supermarket on another island. And Amee discovered that flirting with the chef is the best way to get exactly what she wants for dinner.
Getting in a boat to do your shopping has a certain appeal. Almost as much appeal as getting in a boat to head to the discothèque. 11.30pm on Xmas Eve saw me wading through the water with the staff (for some reason I am the only guest interested in doing this) and speedboating off to the metropolis of Bubaque for a night on the town. Of course, town consists of one bar (complete with one bottle of whiskey on the shelf and no other alcohol in sight) and it is necessary to climb a rusty ladder (low-tide) and step over a family of goats in order to make it there!
We do sometimes stir from our sunloungers on other occassions as well. The villages we visit are incredibly poor but filled with sweet kids who hang off our fingertips and ask us to take photos. And we venture to islands even more deserted and are amused to find three course meals served to us there as well. I long for my kayak.
Too soon, it is back to the mainland for a couple of nights on the wide beaches of Cap Skirring in southern Senegal before heading to Abene, a tiny village hosting a famous music festival. By now we think we have perfected West African public transport but we are surprised again when our last ride turns out to be on the back of a motorcycle – mototaxis are very popular here and we soon have our favorite guys who whisk us around. If you ever get the opportunity to see a Djembe Ballet performance, jump at it. A blur of drums, the most unbelievable high energy dancers in colorful costumes, men on stilts and clowns – it is truly fantastic.
The next day Amee returns to London for New Years (see www.ameechande.com for her photos) and I decide to ditch the huge beach party at Abene and spend a somewhat quieter New Years with my friends at Sandele back in The Gambia. A quick sneak back over the border, the pleasure of surprise and another great private Djembe ballet performance around the campfire on the beach. I spend the night camping out in a shack on the beach…
Dawn arrives and it is time to set off on my own for the first real solo backpack style traveling of this trip. My destination is Labe in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea – a beautiful place but one not easy to get to. New Years Day sees me on a 10 hour journey just to get to my starting place at Diaboue in Senegal. From Diaboue there is a sept-place that goes directly to Labe. The sept-place is the public transport of choice in West Africa – a seven passenger shared taxi that leaves when full. The seat you get depends on when you buy your ticket.
Anticipating a long wait but wanting to get a decent seat, I arrive at the sept-place station in Diaboue at 8.00am and am told I am the fourth customer. Only three to go I think. Maybe a couple of hours wait. Silly me! Eight hours later we finally leave and I understand why it took so long to fill those last three seats. Seven does not mean seven in Guinea – seven means however many people you think you can physically squish into the car or put on the roof. When we leave we are 15 adults, three children and some live poultry. Yes you read that right and believe me – these cars don’t even fit seven plus driver comfortably. Ask me over a drink one time and I’ll describe the logistics of how to fit 18 people plus luggage plus livestock in a car designed for eight!
One advantage of waiting eight hours for your taxi to leave is that you get the chance to meet your other passengers. I am promptly adopted by Bashir, a 20 year old Guinean kid who becomes my immediate self-appointed protector. His whole mission becomes making sure that I am well fed and comfortable on this trip. As it turns out he was the first passenger and so has dibs on the coveted seat next to the driver. Given that we actually need to fit three passengers plus the driver into this space normally meant for one passenger plus driver, it is not quite as coveted as anticipated. However he argues loudly that I be allowed to sit in front and, for this, I am eternally grateful. While still extremely squishy with four of us, it at least allowed me to stretch my legs a little.
A few kilometers after we leave we take an unsignposted righthand turn onto a dirt track – this, it appears, is the transnational highway to Guinea. We drive, and drive some more, and go through borders that are merely shacks on the side of the road, and drive some more and go through four police checks in 10 km, and drive some more. We stop, have passenger mutinies about the overcrowding that takes an hour to resolve (I’m still not sure how) and drive some more. Suddenly at 3.30am we stop again in a tiny village and everyone piles out, lies down on the side of the road (literally) and promptly goes to sleep! I’m a little bewildered but once again my friend comes to my rescue and finds me a straw mat to sleep on and gives me his extremely warm blanket. He waves my feeble protests away and goes to sleep and shiver elsewhere (it is actually quite cold). Again, I am eternally grateful.
20 hours after we set off we arrive in Labe. Luckily, I am immediately charmed and the trip is all worthwhile. It’s a bustling provincial town with wonderful daily market life and lots of cool mototaxi guys all over town. In fact I am charmed by all Guinea – I nickname it “Guinea the giving” because everywhere I go people insist on giving me things. The schoolkids on the way to school in their villages insist on giving me their oranges, my fellow taxi riders buy me peanuts and give me more oranges, guys in internet cafes buy me food and drink because they see I don’t eat lunch, I’m given bracelets and rings so I have souvenirs of Guinea and the people I meet. I even speak on the phone to random relatives of people I meet who want to introduce me (yes – in French!).
I spend most of my time in a tiny village of about 300 people called Doucki. Perched on the top of a rock escarpment leading to a huge canyon, the surrounding scenery is fantastic with some of the best hiking in West Africa. Every hike, led by the colourful Hassan Bah, involves great rock formations, beautiful waterfalls and refreshing swimming holes but the highlight is a long day called “Chutes and Ladders” – climbing down the sides of cliffs and back up numerous ladders made of twisted vines. It’s not for the faint of heart but a definite adrenaline rush. While I came for the hiking, the unexpected bonus was getting to enjoy village life – living in a traditional hut, eating traditional meals (lots of rice with various sauces made of peanut and potato leaves) and watching the locals go about their daily lives. Once again, I was adopted and invited into homes for copious amounts of tea and the women insisted they braid my hair – African style. While it looked ridiculous on me, it was extremely practical in the heat!
Two more days of travel (and waiting for travel), adopted by yet another Guinean who steered me through confusing border formalities, sees me arrive in Sierra Leone. Tomorrow I leave to hike and canoe across the southern part of the country from the Guinean border to the coast with a group of other travellers. I’ll be out of touch for a few weeks but should have lots of adventures to report on my return.
Click on any photo to launch a slideshow of the images…