As soon as I finished my month in Senegal I took off to explore the region. After some debate as to which countries to explore in this part of West Africa I decided on Guinea-Bissau, a old Portuguese colony…not really the best after a month of French…but this is West Africa, a mish mash of small-ish countries with varying languages, distinct cultures, and oddly different even though each is so close to each other.
From Dakar I took the bi-weekly ferry (Tuesday and Friday) to Casamance, 10 hours overnight on a large boat which has a party on deck, muslims praying in the corredor and people sleeping in theater seats or in private or shared rooms in peace. I chose an 8 person room and was very pleased with that choice (19,000 CFA)…you could party on deck if you wanted or relax in the room where all respected the silence in the room – I got lucky and shared with only 3 other women – (I don’t think mix dorms are an option here..that’s a private affair).
I arrived next day in the morning and stayed in Ziguinchor that day to get my Bissau visa and see some of Casamance which is quite different from northern Senegal. With the river down there it is quite the contrast from the desert landscape up North. The visa took literally 5 minutes, no forms were needed and the man talked on the phone the whole time…from that experience I gathered that where I was heading was very corrupt. I did however confuse the embassy with the house of Bissau lol and decided to walk there in the heat only to find I was not at all in the right spot and had walked for nothing more than to know the neighborhood…then i took a taxi which was great because here they were all shared and maximum 500cfa…much better then the 2000cfa in Dakar for the same distance!…so happy for this change! I had already gotten several visas while in Dakar for my trip: the first took 24 hours, the second 1 hour and this last one (this one) well 5 minutes…each told me something about the destination lol. By the way Senegal is for most visa free so it is a good base to start, visa proceses are much quicker once here and many countries have an embassy…so if you don’t want to waste time (even money) at home I recommend doing it once you are on the continent (obviously check to see if an embassy is available and make sure you can do it abroad…some have embassy but it is for residents of those countries only…and not travelers :(…)
The next morning I made my way to Bissau which is very easy…they have sept-place…aka 7 seater wagons going direct as soon as they are full (go in am because full might take longer later in the day…i have waited 1 hour 30 or more for going later in some cases) I think it cost 7000cfa maybe a bit less or a bit more….they also usually charge extra for a bag (you can negotiate that if you only have some to give or feel ripped off…) and the journey (because it is a journey!) takes about 4-5 hours. I know you might see on the map that the distance is relatively short but I tell you once you cross the border that corrupt and very poor country comes into play and roads, well they are not really kept up, at all….money goes elsewhere there…ehh.
Luckily although being a corrupt country the border was very straight forward…local country travelers pay 1000cfa to cross with ID instead of passport, I paid nothing just showed my visa…also I seem to think being a women helps when crossing borders…but I haven’t crossed the harder ones yet…(I hear the Guinea Conkary – Sierra Leon border isn’t fun at all!)
I arrived to the bus stop in Bissau which is a bit out of the city (near airport) and took a shared taxi to the center…I quickly liked the vibe of the city…the taxis and buses all the same colores was very welcoming. I was loving the shared taxi (all taxis) option continuing here (Dakar also has them but I rarely used them, big city = complex routes and shared cars aren’t taxis) and the prices (500cfa…1$) which makes me take them more (Dakar was same price I believe). I was dropped at my “hotel”…well i wasn’t sure exactly where I was going because I reserved airbnb. I had to call the host who kindly picked me up…he even offered lunch…so nice.
I planned to catch the Friday ferry to the Bijagos Islands, the most touristy place in Guinea, the next day so I spent my afternoon wandering downtown, taking in the vibe here and figuring out my ferry tickets…you can also take a local pirogue full of people across the ocean…which I heard isn’t bad – cheaper, same duration, more cramped, more sun – when seas are calm like in November when I went. I still chose the ferry, in fact it was a new boat, it’s second trip to be exact.
The boat was slow and steady and had some greek found here and there…which I found especially funny in the cafeteria where a sign still sold greek honey…well it doesn’t but there seemed no reason to remove it lol. The boat offered sandwiches and drinks (beer, wine, liqueur even) and had 3 areas, the deck (shaded), the AC cafeteria area and the front bottom deck (shaded)…you had options to sit in either spot but each had a separate price…for foreigners though only a fixed price was offered (15,000cfa) which I managed on the return to avoid paying because they wanted you to sit in AC and I way prefer the deck and managed to get that spot on my return (upper deck) which was 7000 I believe.
After about 4 hours moseying along the completely flat ocean surface we arrived (we went against the current…which is strong through the archipelago). I looked immediately for lodging, of which there were plenty of options, mostly 15,000. I really was hoping to camp but was advised against that mainly because I was a single female…I think maybe I could have on the otherside of the island where there were few people (in fact there used to be a campsite). When I arrived it was the start of high season and what that seemed to mean was 15 tourists for the island…I am sure in December it does get full though…but 15 was perfect for me! The first night a had a room but on the second night the lodge Casa Dora (very comfy & nice place) let me camp! Happy camper! I had an inflatable matteress and mosquito net and it worked perfectly!
The boat would return Sunday afternoon so I made the most of my time on the island. My first day I had an amazing exploratory run through part of a village, played superman with 2 children I ran into on the path with arms open as I passed (couldn’t resist), through a cashew forest, over the airport runway and to a beach at sunset…one of the most amazing runs to date…i also walked some that day. Ha
The following day I rented a bike and headed to the nearly secluded beach on the opposite side of the island (Praia de Bruce). Bike 5,000 cfa for the day – ride 13 miles to the neverending clean beach all for you, priceless ha ha. Since it was so ‘far away’ I spent the whole day there…2 hotels exist there so lunch and water available (check but it’s definitely open in season)…water was warm and there were a few makeshift beach huts so cooling and chilling was definitely possible. The water can be swam in but in the archipelago you must shuffle your feet to enter to avoid stings from rays that hide in the muddy floor. The ride concluded on the same beach I saw the sunset the night before (yes, so amazing I returned)…watching possible drug related flights to and from the airport, the nightly catch arriving to what seemed to be a millionaire’s house in front of the beach with 2 baobob trees (likely related to drugs too). I say this because Guinea is known as the gateway for drug traffic from Latam to Europe (specifically the islands)…being a corrupt, poor country and closest to S. America…drugs seem to enter without problem or local attention since money tends to rule in a corrupt world 😦 and doesn’t help the actual residents at all. Meanwhile, the sunset was spectacular every night reflecting on the calmest ocean I think I have ever seen!
My final day was left with…a long swim and some kayaking to check out a bit of the island just in front (rental from Saldo Mar, also nice place with great view to stay or eat…Spanish owner so naturally I visited nightly for food and Spanish speaking)…before leaving.
The ferry back had many more people. People who were on the many other islands were headed back too. The same tourists I arrived with plus many researchers who finished projects were headed back…whom I found to be a good chunk of the visitors to the archipelago (researching tribes, turtles, plants, birds, etc). I also found it interesting that French and Polish tourists are the most common visitor instead of the Portuguese although I met more from Portugal when I was there…hum
I spent 1 more night in Bissau (at airbnb again but I also recommend Pensão Creola), ran in the am then headed by sept-place to Cacheu, a recommendation from a priest I met on the ferry. I wanted to see more of the country and understand the culture and people a bit more and not just its tourist spots. I only planned to stay a week in the country…not enough time obviously to see a country but I didn’t want to leave having only seen the city and touristy islands either. I desired something more off the beaten path and to experience a village and Cacheu was the perfect spot. Cacheu is North toward the border, historically important, agriculturally important and there was a national park. The town sits along a river and was the first port of entry for the Portuguese. It was their first colony in Africa and where many, many slaves were sent from :(. The only hotel was the lodge of the national park (2km out of town) but they are building 2 hotels in the center…maybe they will be done by the time you visit. Seems like it will be Guinea’s next tourist destination, as it should be due to the history and well the road to there was the best I’d experienced in the country and also gorgeously lined with massive trees that sent you back in time with their grandeur, shade and occasional bike or motorbike passing by (mystical especially at sunrise and sunset with a golden light or mist filtering through them).
I enjoyed it here and ended up staying a few nights. I was the only tourist. There was plenty going on too…in fact my first evening an entourage of the presidential candidates came through…there was also the portuguese fort and first church in the country…both cute and petite, the museum on slavery was very informative but only in Portuguese, the forest and villages in the area made for excellent evening walks or runs and the national park although I didn’t find it the best nor that easily accessible It did have many tribal people located inside that I got the chance to visit and get my first encounter with African Traditional Religion – animist – belief in the spirit realm.
When I arrived to town though the story was different. I wanted to stay 1 night and take a boat the next day. I arrived to quickly learned there was no hotel (I did know about the Park lodge but I’d passed it already…). I learned the boat was at 6 am the next morning (I later learned that it is more of local fisherman boats every other day) and in doing so met a group of men by the dock, one offered me a ride to the lodge which was very helpful since transport was more long distance and taxis forget it so I said yes but I needed time to see the museum and fort…lol…when I returned and got in his car I realized he was part of the presidential campaign, that the candidate was on his way here and that the candidate and himself were from this town and related…he kindly gave me a ride out. Seeing the location I asked about food…so back into town we went (there were stores just not restaurants). There was 1 restaurant called `Há comida’ (there’s food) and of course they had none (it was late 3 pm) lol so We looked for anything we could find…there was bread and there was spam or sardines…I got lucky that when the candidate arrived someone appeared with bananas on their head and I got those too. Dinner would be sardines and bread while breakfast on the boat would be bread with chocolate spread and bananas of course. This meal plan doubled since I decided over night that I would stay and take a car out instead…I didn’t see the museum because it was closed on Mondays (when i visited) and the national park was not within walking distance like I thought…I hadn’t done anything I had planned there yet so it was stupid to leave already plus rooms were cheap and I enjoyed the town so I stayed….except the food I kept arriving late for…by the third day I wanted real food.
Day two was an early morning trying to figure out how to get to the park…I walked around and asked for a path…found a guy to help with my mission ha ha he was in the area finishing a solar power project in another village in the area and was heading home…I was offered a job…’Guinea could use you!’…and then we found the right contacts, the only way was by canoe (quickest) or motorbike with the park ranger. He said he could drive me out on motorbike for 20,000 cfa plus gas (3 liters at 1800cfa) and I was set. The guy helping me gave me his contact (if anyone is interested in Solar power in Africa in a poor country that needs help…let me know) and we said bye once a sept-place had space for him…there was no rush.
I loved the village, the main street was the life of town, people walked and biked it all day and night (cautious of the crazy cars/motos zipping by)…I also did… enjoying the many ‘branco’ callings as I passed everywhere…’white person’ in portuguese…even at night when you think no one sees you and then you realize you probably look like a ghost to everyone…so white in the light of the full moon…lol.
The park was worth a visit for the money because the villagers were so nice and untouched…it didn’t phase them that I was even there they just went on with their day, no ‘branco’ calls, nothing. Each village had like 4-7 families, each in a big house,…women had several children by 18, men worked the fields and women were with children or cooking/cleaning …or simple life chilling on the porch chatting. We came to see the ‘mato sagrado’ like sacred temples of these villagers, each village had one and each had one responsible person. In the first village the man was out working the field and didn’t answer his phone so two children were told to take us to him…we walked through the forest, along the swamp, salt fields, and across a reed bridge before we got a hold of him to meet us. I enjoyed the walk a lot because it allowed me to understand more of village life.
Once back to the houses we were informed that the Mato Sagrado couldn’t be visited by women 😦 nooo… all this effort to learn now (2 hours on bike to get there + 1 hour walk) lol. He did point them out to us…they were trees…I was not expecting this but the trees were huge and beautiful in the sunlight…the palm tree with a bench was for the women and the huge tree covered in vines was for men, we were allowed to the entrance where you saw just the benches. He was kind enough to explain a bit, they don’t use the mato sagrado a lot just for ceremonies and everyone contributes money to buy the stuff needed…drinks and food, etc. The park ranger wasn’t allowed in either because besides being a man one needed to be part of the religion (have had a ceremony of initiation) to enter. At the responsables house there were wooden motifs of men half buried in the ground, in this case there were 3, each represented a member of his family who were the previous responsable for the ‘mato sagrado’. We didn’t waste more of his time so we said bye and we headed to the next village on our way back. We found a group of men chatting under a tree there and they welcomed us, we exchanged names and I found out which was the responsable here. He was the most talkative one but he would not show us the mato nor point it out. We just weren’t allowed. I walked around the village of 4 houses and talked to the kids but found little evidence except the house of the responsable with the same statues…this time just one representing his father. I wanted to try another town but the ranger said it would be the same, they were very cautious and protective about the mato and it is likely we wouldn’t see anything and waste more time so I agreed to just head back…besides I’d just be looking at trees anyway ha ha. Interesting trip out there and my first of many encounters with this type of religion as I travel in Africa…it spread from here to Casamance…next door literally plus many parts of Africa had nomadic people and only recently divided into separate countries (still many more in Africa are yet to divide).
My time in Guinea was a challenge as I switched languages and tried to remember my Portuguese (it takes me 2-3 days to switch mentally a language.) I learned that without much practice over the years I was using much more Portuñol (Spanish/Portuguese mix) and a lost in translation version of French while I switched and that although my time was short there Portuguese came back fairly quickly 🙂 making a switch back to French days later another challenge.
It was interesting to see the political campaign taking place, lots of cars on parade through the country speeding and driving reckless from town to town as if they owned the road and no one mattered…disgusting way to show your people you care…nearly running them over and leaving lots of dust in their faces…roads were bad enough without them. Their method of dancing as part of the campaign in towns to help people remember their name definitely was a cool and local way to do it (nothing politicians would think to do in my country for people to remember them, yet it is quite effective I believe if culturally relevant). Also entering the country I was cautious of this election since the UN recently stepped in and told the current president to not postpone elections or funding would be cut for them…the current president recently tried to fire the prime minister and there was some major issues around it…it is time for change…between 12 candidates the people don’t see change coming but are voting and elections are quite the hot topic…they see that the same robbery, inefficiency and mindlessness about the people will continue…the first election was the 24 of November but no party’s candidate recieved the 50% needed to win so voting carries into December (curreent president is totally out though)…winner is decided on December 29th…