There’s a cat asleep on a hot tin roof here in Kankan – it’s got the right idea as the end-of-dry-season heat is quite enervating. So unbearable in fact that we are now sporting matching haircuts after a humorous session at a rather ambitiously named “hairdresser” involving a blunt pair of kitchen scissors and not even an NVQ in snipping… Just in case your gegographical knowledge is getting a little hazy, we should let you know that Kankan is in Haute Guinee, in the far eastern reaches of the Republic of Guinea, about 10 degrees north of the Equator – no wonder it is getting hot! Our journey here from The Gambia, where we last updated you, has brought us into contact with some sensational landscapes and some unfeasibly friendly and hospitable folk, but we’ve also had to endure some rather bizarre cuisine and the theft of a whole lot of money and our precious camera equipment along the way…
After our lazy week in Banjul, we were keen to get on the road again and sped south through the Casamance region of Senegal and thence across the border into Guinea Bissau. Pigs rootled at the border post – a sure sign of non-Islamic culture – and the building housing passport control was riddled with bullet holes – a sure sign of the civil war that engulfed the country in the 1990’s. You’d never guess that there had recently been unrest here from the friendly ebullience of the locals, with Bom Dia ringing out from every compound as we cycled along. We suddenly realised how much our French had improved since leaving London and equally how we’d overlooked the fact that Guinea Bissau is a former Portuguese colony…with not even a phrasebook in our panniers, this left us incommunicado! In fact the locals speak Kriolu – a creole only loosely based on Portuguese in any case. No trouble learning the phrase for “give me that”, however, as within half an hour the local kids were hollering prestame eso, prestame eso while pointing at various desirable items on the bikes. From the crumbling and once beautiful capital city of Bissau we took a pirogue (a large motorised canoe) to one of the islands in the Bijagos archipelago. A dawn start and a five-hour journey brought us to the island of Bubaque – set in clear waters, fringed with mangroves and with a languid trpoical air. We caused quite a stir as we cycled 18km along the the island’s main (and only) road, with small children literally dropping everything and running shrieking into the undergrowth! We think perhaps you don’t get many westerners on bikes out there. The road certainly doesn’t see many vehicles, motorised or otherwise, and by the time we neared the southernmost tip of the island it had dwindled to a 1 metre wide strip of pitted tarmac before it abruptly ended, spilling us onto a sandy beach. And what a beach! The Praia da Bruce goes straight into the Top Ten campsites of the expedition so far – 15km of palm fringed white sand, lapped by clear water and patrolled by nothing more than a few palm-nut vultures and bands of little sandpipers, scurrying along the water line. Idyllic. A hotel lay in ruins, the French owners having pulled out when civil war and then incompetent government but an end to Guinea Bissau’s fragile tourist economy. The “guardian” of the crumbling holiday complex, a local Bijago called Carlos, told us that the proprietors hoped to return at Easter to see if it was feasible to reopen. Until then, Carlos sleeps in a disused thatched hut, cooks his fish on an open fire and draws dingy water from an on-site well – we filtered the bucketful he drew for us with excessive care! It’s all rather sad, but hopefully in time it can reopen so other foreigners can experience the place in some comfort – though hopefully not to the detriment of the local way of life….
Our idyllic island-hopping dream was cut short by the news that there were no regular pirogues travelling between the islands – we had hoped to visit at least two others – and so we boarded the Sunday pirogue back to Bissau after two nights of camping on Bubaque. This was where our troubles beagn – the two boats making the trip were each crammed with at least 150 passenegers, jerry cans of water, sacks of rice, piles of vegetables, baskets of chickens, sacks (yep, sacks) of pigs… By mid-voyage the cana (locally made cashew nut liquor) was flowing freely and the toddlers were puking and the chickens were depositing their droppings on unwary passengers. The reason for the party spirit?
Carnival! Mardi Gras is serious business in Guinea Bissau, with street parades and papier mache masks and skimpy outfits to rival Rio de Janeiro. In the chaos of unloading at the port after the six hour juorney, Luke was pushed into the water (by accident?), cutting his foot, while an opportunist snatched one of our bags and was away into the quayside corwd before we could should “thief”! Anna’s Portuguese is not too hot but loud and impassioned Spanish started to pour forth and this, coupled with tears and much hand-wringing, seemed to shock the port police into action. Within minutes we had a guard of honour and everyone leaving the port was being stopped and searched…but all too late. Soon it was pitch black and so we walked into the city, still with our guard of honour, disconsolate and dejected. The bonhomie of the carnival revellers only highlighting how miserable we felt.
Almost a week went by as we strove to contact home, sort out insurance claims and cheer oursleves up – all in a city with no reliable electricity supply, intermittent phone lines and a three-day public holiday in full swing. The one country where we haven’t spoken the language! The one country where there is not a single cash machine – of course we had been carrying a month’s money, conscientiously withdrawn from an ATM in Ziguinchor in southern Senegal. Enough money to see us through to Mali. All gone, together with our digital SLR, lenses, memory cards full of photos of Casamance and Bubaque… We foudn the Honorary British Consul (in fact a Dutchman) tucked away in the head office of an import-export company called Mavegro. With a dusty Austin Martin and a hovercraft under a tarpaulin in the yard, it was like something out of a James Bond film, but the man himself was very kind and helpful. Appeals on local radio and exhaustive enquiries by the police yielded nothing, however. We’re still waiting to see if the insurance will pay up for everything but in the meantime are feeling pretty grateful that we weren’t injured in the robbery and that most of what we have lost can be replaced…you’ll just have to take our word for it about the beauty of that beach, though….
So on 12th February, resupplied with cash via a costly and complicated Western Union transfer(thanks Mum and Dad!), we put foot to pedal once again and headed east through quiet groves of cashew nut trees and tidy little villages where more pigs rootled in the dust. There’s quite an Amazonian feel to Guinea Bissau – perhaps it’s the Portuguese heritage and the verdant vegetation and noisy parrots flying by?
The houses are large, rectangular structures topped off with wonderful droopy thatched roofs – they look a little like they need their fringes trimming! Collecting our exit stamp from a border post that looked like any other house – we nearly cycled straight past – we said Te logo to Guine Bissau and tackled a pretty appalling track through wild woodland that allegedly led to the Guinean border. After 12km of heaving the bikes over ruts and sloughing into powdery troughs in the road we skidded down a steep bank and found ourselves facing the Riu Koliba. Peering across to the far bank we were relieved to see a heap of rusted metal that might be a ferry and, lo and behold, after about an hour it began to clank a bit like a Cirle Line train and inched its way across to our side – hand hauled by four men. The underwater chain clanked over a toothed cog on deck – painfully slow progress! Later that afternoon, we reached the Guinean border post, where the official had had one too many glasses of cana at lunchtime and half-heartedly tried to extract a bribe. Polite yet FIRM insistence (back in French-speaking zones, phew) that our papers were in order meant that we left without having to pay a single franc. We left, in fact, rather hurriedly in case the guards drunkenness took a turn for the worse!
It proved to be an unfair introduction to Guinea, which has been a revelation. For the last two weeks we have cycled from the western border through the highland Fouta Djalon region and then down into the grasslands of Haute Guinee. For almost 300km, until we reached the outskirts of Labe in the hilly heartland of the country, the “road” was a dirt piste, winding through hushed woodlands and mist-shrouded valleys, dramatic black cliffs rising steeply up from the rolling grassy plains where the woodland gave way. The odd monkey scampered across our path every day and huge-horned charcoal and ochre coloured cows stood munching on the corners, like sentinels – best to keep the bovine between you and the drop on the steeper sections! 20km could easily pass without us seeing a vehicle – and 20km takes a long time when you are creeping up hills at
7kph and stopping to wow and admire each spectacular new vista every few minutes. Tiny villages of round, mudbrick huts nestled in the valleys, bustling with activity on market day, with piles of avocados, oranges, potatoes and aubergines laid out on the streets. Somehow Anna managed to get food poisoning from this plethora of fresh produce – we suspect some fermented tomatoes – and as she was being violently sick in the forest as we camped that night, we vaguely registered that it was Valentine’s Day….the romance of foreign travel, eh. You sort of forget to be ill in a place like the Fouta Djalon, though, with everyone greeting us with delighted cries of Djarama – the Fula word for hello. – The ladies had a lovely way of exclaiming aaayeeeeeee and raising their arms with hands clasped together as they greeted us! Before reaching Labe we had to ford a river (good job we bought those waterproof panniers after all), repair a punctured sleeping mat (excellent entertainment for a local family) and rescue our towel after a nocturnal bandit (a cow) took off with it! So we thought we deserved a little rest in Labe!
In Labe we changed some of our Western Union money – our stash of cash now well guarded after the Bissau mishap. And then we realised that that border guard didn’t do so badly after all – he had “helped” us change about GBP5 worth of Central African Francs (the currency common to many of the West African countries we are travelling through) for which we got 20 000 Guinean Francs. Suddenly in Labe, people were falling over themselves to offer us 30 000….inflation may be out of control here but it’s not running at 50% over the course of less than a week! We had foolishly been basing our estimations on our late-2003 guidebook when the rate was only 3500 to the pound. The bank notes reflect this crazy increase – the LARGEST denomination is 5000 francs (less than GBP1) while the tiny and invariably damp and crumpled 100 franc notes work out at about 2 pence! So, erm, it was probably not the wisest decision to change GBP100 by candlelight – we walked out of the shop with a stack of notes the size of a brick, paranoid we had lost a zero somewhere in the calculations, and quickly retreated to our hotel to count and recount and divide the wads into manageable parcels! It’s just as well life here is so cheap. For one of those
5000 franc notes (less than a quid, remember), you can go to the market and buy 30 oranges, 10 mangoes, 10 bananas, 2 avocadoes, a few handfuls of roasted peanuts and still have enough change to call in at the bakery for two huge fresh-from-the-oven baguettes. I have to go on….Rice and sauce will set you back 20p, a bag of half a dozen doughnuts is 5p and a morning shot of espresso is 4p. It’s no good – we’ll never be able to pay for a meal in London again without recoiling in horror and working out how many months you could live for here in Guinea for the same cost! We asked the money-changer if the spiralling inflation had made life harder and his reply, with a laugh, was – “No, we’re African. We don’t need money to live!”. People are certainly poor here by Western standards, but then this is not the West, and so teh “standard of living” perhaps can’t be measured in the same way. No doubt that life is hard, and conditions are basic, but there is an abundance of food and the general impression we get is not one of overwhelming or desperate poverty.
We seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time for festivals – Ramadan in Morocco, Tabaski in The Gambia, Carnival in Bissau and then we found ourselves in the strongly Muslim Fouta Djalon for the Islamic New Year celebrations. The feast is called Al-Hijra, though the local name sounded a lot like jam butty to me, and seemed to involve sacrificing a lot of chickens, sheep and goats. Everyone was also festooned in beautiful robes and, thus dressed in Sunday best, went to greet each and every member of their family. Over the weekend of the 19th/20th of February, the streets were thronged with people engaged in this greeting ritual, carrying parcels of meat wrapped in banana leaves. Several chickens were tethered to the roofracks of passing cars, in various states of not-quite-deadness, while other vehicles had lumps of raw meat, sometimes whole limbs, lashed to the bonnet. Very weird. We didn’t feel too hungry at lunchtime that day… In the small town of Dalaba, after nightfall, we came across groups of children “carol singing” – pockets bulging with sweets and other cadeaux they had collected. Meanwhile, youngsters who considered themselves past carol singing age had congregated in a shack-cum-bar on the edge of town. The bar, complete with rotating disco ball, cool-ish bottles of beer and a trio of passionate if not exactly talented musicians, was just coming to life at 9pm. We managed an hour of drum and maraca msuic at close quarters before we had to escape for the sake of our eardrums!
A beautiful four day ride (on tarmac – hurrah) brought us through lovely hilly country to the town of Faranah. Exhilerating long downhills and perfect roads made us think we had been momentarily transported back to the quiet backroads of France! Our first month through the French countryside has by now attained something like mythical status – a time of clean campsites and endless brioche – we still long for fresh pain-au-chocolat and juicy peaches and chilled Rose! Food here is fresh and plentiful though, so we can’t grumble too much. They do have some funny meals though, and in the course of a typical day a Guinean might eat the following…Breakfast – a bowl of black-eyed beans with onion, tomato, mayonnaise and banana, washed down with a mug of coffee made with half a pint of disgusting sticky goo (tinned sweetened milk) and a splash of hot water. Lunch – cassava gloop (like mashed potato meets wallpaper paste) with sauce made from oil and offal judging by the smell. Dinner – a plate of rice (enriched with grit – watch your teeth) with sauce feuille (okra leaf and fish sauce) or if you’re lucky, braised “rabbit” or “goat”…though we wonder what they do with those monkeys we’ve seen being shot in the forest. Sometimes Anna is glad she is a veggie – you can’t go too far wrong with omelette and chips. Funnily enough, we cook for oursleves rather a lot.
We escaped the heat of Faranah, rejoining the piste for more wild and unkempt woodland regions, skirting a National Park through which the embryonic River Niger flows, and coming across little villages every 10km or so, where the kids were falling over each other to fill our water bottles from the pump, present us with bunches of bananas etc. In every village, we were forced to stop for lengthy exchanging of pleasantries – now we’re in yet another language zone so it’s Inikay, Inikay and not Djarama any more – and on one occasion a policeman insisted on paying for our omelette sandwiches. Back in Kankan, we are once again closer to “civilsation” and, after speeding off to the internet cafe, Luke is happily gloating following news of Wales’ third consecutive victory in the Six Nations Championship! In a week we will be out of Guinea, crossing into our eleventh country – Mali – and looking forward to exploring the fabulous-sounding towns of Djenne and Mopti as well as spending ten days with Luke’s mum and dad, who are flying out to meet us in Bamako. We’re hoping they recognise us at the airport!