Monday, January 28, 2008

Bolama Bijagos, Guinea-Bissau

Success!! I am happy to announce that the family has finally found an African country that they all enjoyed. But first we had to get there....
After a tough goodbye we left The Gambia in a very rundown Peugeot 7-seater station wagon (called a bush-taxi out here and the main form of transport). These things are often in a horrendous state of decay and with the state of the roads factored in, you're very surprised or very lucky when you reach your destination without breaking down. Then, in the biggest joke of all time, we got stopped by the police at one of their ubiquitous checks and guess what, they are testing the vehicles for safety! Can you say money grab? Ok, so that is how it all works here in Africa and we all know it. The price of transport is actually quite high compared to other poor countries around the world because they have to factor in the bribes along the way. That way we don't get hassled on the ride, just the drivers do and things move along a lot smoother and quicker. Of course if it were a real safety check we would not be continuing, but after they check the brakes (by having him stop in the sand after rolling a couple feet) and the turning signals and telling me with full sincerity that they were doing all this for my personal safety we were on our way again. Never mind the lack of mirrors, seat belts or even the skill of these reckless drivers who may or may not actually have licences. Once the driver pays the "fine", my life is apparently no longer in danger. Did I mention that we were stopped twice for these safety checks, only a few km apart? One checked the blinkers and the other the brakes. Safety, right, uh huh, I totally believe it. Good thing we are being looked after out here. Your prayers are still welcome and much needed.
The final stretch to the border was horrible but we had no problems with the border guards once again and in very un-Senegal fashion, we had good roads to Ziguinchor, the capital of the southern Senegal Casamance region. My theory is that the roads are in better shape because the Casamance region recently (only a few years ago) had a strong separatist rebellion and roads tend to be better maintained when the military has to move around quickly to put the stomp down on some people. I refer to the good roads in Rajastan, India (near Pakistan should they military have to do something) or in Afghanistan (perhaps the only thing successfully modernized since 9/11) and a few other places I've been. In true Senegalese fashion we were immediately hassled by touts on arrival in Ziguinchor as they followed us to the hotel and proceeded to wait around outside to annoy us again later. Senegal truly is the worst of the hassle countries thus far in West Africa and I am not sorry at all that we have just passed through. We also had our most expensive room in Africa so far too, a whopping $10 each!
The following morning we had to continue to argue and fight with the transport people to get a ride. The sad thing is that they are such blatant and obvious liars and we have to deal with this every single time we want to go somewhere. The Peugeots have a set price per seat, which is fine, but then they do the rich foreigner ripoff thing with our baggage fee. Some of them will try to nearly double the cost of the ride, while locals pay nothing or pennies for the same. Then they will try and get us to buy out the rest of the car so we can leave immediately and claim we'll be there for hours because other cars have to fill first, etc., stuff that couldn't possibly be true. More often than not we will wait 2 hours before we finally leave, not because we are waiting for the final passengers to fill the car up, but because we are more stubborn than they are. It usually works, though I think some members of our "itinerant cabal" are ready to kill me.
Then, across the border was something like a paradise for us, Guinea-Bissau. Not surprisingly it became a family favourite because it is the least touristy country we've been to in a long time. It is less touristy than the others because it wasn't until as recently as 2005 that the country became stable enough again for people to visit. They had one of those typically African civil war things going on. Too bad, because it is really nice.
We entered the tropical rain forest zone, though it isn't the "jungle" that you are thinking of. It's just more densely vegetated than before, with a lot of underbrush so you really wouldn't get very far walking around. Tall grasses, tall palms, lots of other trees as well as sections of flood plains and short mangrove forests, though none of it really looks original anymore. We had our first river crossing by ferry and started seeing tons of pigs again. Why? This country is far less Muslim than it's neighbours. Why? Because it was one of only a few Portuguese colonies in Africa and the Portuguese are much better at converting the locals to Christianity (because they were more violent about it than the other colonial powers). This means that we were now in a country where we don't speak any of the language because they speak Portuguese or Criollo (a mix of old Portuguese and African). Never before have I wished for French more.... Fortunately, the people were very friendly and helpful and I've noticed that there are a lot of displaced English-speakers around here from Sierra Leone or Liberia or workers from Gambia or Ghana so someone can usually help us out a bit. In true ex-war-torn-country-with-no-tourists fashion, accommodation is expensive here so we had no intention of staying in Bissau, the capital. It actually looked ok but we are definitely in need of the quieter side of Africa at the moment. Our goal was to get into the capital early enough that we could catch a boat to the Bijagos islands, the country's only tourist attraction. We were lucky and as an example of how nice the people can be, we got a ride in a public minibus and the guys not only went out of the way off their route (after dropping the other passengers off) to get us right to the port, but they even stopped and started asking around for the boat to make sure it was the right section of the port. Eventually they found someone that could speak English and then they just left us without demanding more money or anything. It was just good old hospitality and friendly people helping us out.
Tourists all go to a town called Bubaque, but we'd missed the boat so we caught a different boat (~60ft covered canoa filled with cargo including motorbikes and a cow, with the people sitting on the sides and a couple of guys in the back bailing the leakage) to Bolama. Bolama is a different and closer island, taking only 3 hours to get to, and the town of Bolama was the Portuguese capital of their colony here until 1941. The island itself is not very touristed but the captain of the boat (a Gambian that spoke English) assured us that we wouldn't have a problem finding a place to stay, etc. As soon as we arrived he made sure we were taken to the very simple and only hotel in town and basically told a local cousin of his to watch over us. His cousin was a guy of 26 with a stutter (very common around here lately) that teaches English part time at the private school here. That doesn't mean his English is very good, but it made a world of a difference for us to have a local guide.
Bolama was really great. Basically a small town that has been left to decay. The first bit is colonial Portuguese style but then it has been left in such a state of decay that all the buildings have been abandoned and are falling apart. Some even have trees growing out of them. It would've looked really nice back in the day. They even had streetlights and medians and sidewalks and nice big buildings, but it is just a dirt road now and everything is overgrown with pigs and trashed cars sitting in the middle of what were once nice squares beside the empty fountains. Speaking of cars, there is almost no traffic at all here, only the occasional motorbike and there is a pickup truck or two kicking around as well. Behind the colonial section is a more traditional village where the people actually live. Mud brick homes plastered over and the usual thatch or corrugated metal roofing. It's all kept quite clean though which is a nice change.
Because the transport was sporadic and we were enjoying the calm so much we ended up staying a week in Bolama. They have no power and we were on a noisy generator for a couple hours each night. They also don't really have much in the way of food and we kept going to the nurse's house every night for fish and rice as well as greasy eggs and bread for breakfast. Our guide was kind enough to set that up for us. And we had no hassle.
Where to begin on the island? Hmmm.... We have seen the biggest spider of the trip, in my bathroom of course! Major flight of the bats every night at dusk, don't know what they eat because there are no bugs anywhere, it's amazing to be able to run around without mosquitoes or flies attacking you all the time. They also have huge termite mounds though those are common throughout the region, reaching up to about 10ft high and 5ft in diameter though I've seen bigger. I've never seen such bright moonlight in my life. The full moon was so strong you could almost read by it. The water is really warm and salty and we went swimming a couple of times. That's actually pretty funny because it is a 3km walk (one-way) to the beach and most of the day the tide is way out so it isn't worth going over there so we ended up just jumping off the pier. This draws a big crowd of course because not only were we the only tourists in town (with our lily-white, sexy bods) but they don't swim. How can a people live on an island and be in boats all the time and not swim? That just seems like a really bad idea. Of course there are a lot of drownings here because the boats have accidents all the time too and no life jackets. I don't even know how they drown either because the water is so salty that we were floating without even thinking about it. Aside from the fish, they have a lot of little coconuts, papayas and cashew nuts. Have you ever wondered where a cashew comes from? They come from huge trees but there is also a large, fleshy, juicy fruit on top and they burn the shell off to get the nut out. Guinea-Bissau is "famous" (like anyone knows where this country is or has even heard of it) for its cashews and we even saw a cashew factory. They drink lots of palm wine, tapped from the sap at the top of the tree and a cashew wine from the fruit. Sky says the cashew wine is better. Dirt cheap too.
Our guide, Domingos was with us all the time. Got us up in the morning and went out with Sky and Bre to the little nightclub to cause chaos in the local social circles every night. He did it all from the kindness of his heart, and because hanging out with white people is such a big social boost here apparently. He also wanted to practice his English because the only tourists are Portuguese really. Apparently all English speakers are honest and rich so we are very popular. The mind set out here is odd and we try to tell them that we are just people like them but no, that can't be possible. At least they weren't begging openly but there is a lot of the "we're waiting for someone superior to come along and help us" kind of attitude out here in Africa in general. Definitely a different mentality from poor countries on other continents that I've experienced. We did go to his English classes on one of the days. That was an eye opener. Very similar and yet different from our experience in China. Here they have almost no resources and nothing but empty space in the classroom other than the desks and a chalkboard. No textbooks, decor, etc. The kids weren't nearly as disciplined either but then they do want to learn. A very significant and noticeable decline in the number of female students at the higher levels too which is not very surprising really. The students basically knew no English so we made it more of a quick cultural exchange with Domingos translating the questions and answers. A very common question was what were we going to do to help them and when would others send aid and books, etc. They really know nothing of the world so I tried to focus on a more uplifting message of hope and hard work. I don't like this waiting for sympathy attitude. It won't do them any good.
Leaving and heading into Guinea, where we are now, is a different story.
Ammon

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