The crossing of the ocean from the old capital, Bolama, to the current capital, Bissau isn’t exactly comfortable. The open boat pitches and bangs, and every so often I’m sprayed with saltwater. Guide, Innocencio says I’m lucky; it’s usually worse than this and everyone gets absolutely soaked.
This being a country of Portuguese influence, the caipirinha is a popular drink. Innocencio buys us one each from a fast food bar. He explains that he feels he had to buy something as I went and used the toilets. What else other than a cocktail at eleven in the morning? It’s very good and comes in at less than a euro.
So, the old part of town, more very faded Portuguese town houses, grass growing in the gutters, the Fortaleza d’Amura (still being used by the military), the Presidential Palace (no photos allowed), the Peace Monument and the bustling market is viewed through a soporific haze. This is a very poor country and there is little (other than the palace) that appears to be well maintained. And even that has war damage on its neo-classical façade.
Innocencio is departing today. He only filled in for the recalcitrant Mountaga, but he’s done a good job. At our last lunch together, he tells me that the British are well regarded here. If someone is strong, they are described as ‘Britanicos.’
My hotel is the old barracks for high ranking Portuguese officers. I’m not sure it’s been decorated since then.
For my next leg, I have another new guide, Augusto, a new driver, Maladho, and a lovely big, if slightly battered Landcruiser. The air conditioning leaks and drips on my feet, as well as anything else I leave in the footwell. I’m being transporting east towards the border with Guinea-Conakry. It’s more paddy fields, more oblong houses and more road peppered with huge potholes, so more time teetering on the crumbling verges than on what remains of the tarmac.
There are also more police checks today and the officials are being more ‘rigorous’. Lights, hazard lights. fire extinguisher. Christmas is coming up and their pay is poor. It’s in their interests to find something wrong and it’s slow progress. (The teachers haven’t been paid at all this month, so they’re going on strike.)
Bafeta is the second city in Guinea-Bissau. The word Bafeta means high tide; it’s at the beginning of the huge Geba estuary. Bafeta has another abandoned old town and the balconied dilapidated houses even have a dovecote looking onto the river. And there’s also a deserted Arab style market, crenelated pink walls and tiered shelving inside. It would be a perfect place to display the goods now on offer in the roadside stalls alongside the main road, the vendors squatting in the dirt with their wares.
The Malinke region is the home of the griots, traditional musicians and storytellers. In a village here I witness a performance - xylophones with calabash sound boxes, tom toms and dancing. The story is told modern style, using a megaphone. And the women all dance, the young girls wiggling their hips with rather too much skill and enthusiasm. It’s great fun. As before, the whole village turns out to watch and I’m the one and only visitor.
A seven-a.m. start with a chilly rising sun as it’s going to be a long day. The villagers sit in large circles round their fires drinking coffee and chatting; it seems a pleasant way to start the day. Everyone I’ve encountered since Suga has been extremely friendly. The majority tribe round these parts are the Fulani and they seem overjoyed when we stop to poke around their traditional circular thatched houses ( very low doors at times) and very happy to be photographed digging mud for bricks or sorting peanuts, the ladies clad in bright cotton, with peplum style tops and matching knotted headscarves Two small babies are proudly brought out for inspection and carry on sleeping throughout proceedings.
Breakfast at the frontier. An onion omelette cooked over hot coals. And across the border to Guinea-Conakry.
There are 88 islands in the Bijagos Islands, floating in the huge Geba River estuary off Bissau. Even in a high-speed boat coming from mainland Guinea-Bissau it takes 90 minutes to reach the largest cluster of low-lying palm tree covered dots.
Apart from the lumpy pillows and the spluttering from the DDT, last night was fairly uneventful. No breakfast, despite the good cook - they sent a boy out for provisions and he didn’t come back until we were about to depart. I discovered that guide Mountaga had only requested bread anyway, which he eats - and I don’t, so I wasn’t in the mood to wait while he partook.
The first Bijagos Islands encounter is at Suga, where we moor up for a visit, to a 'friendly village'. I’m told our destination is a half hour walk. We amble up a path past a few islanders who view us suspiciously, from a distance. The track is lined with vegetation and, more for lack of anything else to do than with any other reason, I take a photo of a palm tree ahead of us. A guy in a white cap appears shouting furiously and gesticulating. It seems that I have taken a picture of ‘his palm tree’. I delete the photo, but he continues to rant, and we depart. Not such a friendly village then.
Fortunately, Ponta Achacha, my home for the next three nights, on Rubane Island is gorgeous. Beautiful bungalows on a lovely beach. I have my own sunbeds on the sand, with my own grass umbrella and my own terrace with couches on it, in case I get bored with the sunbeds. Lizards bask in the seat on the steps, scuttling under the bungalow when I approach. Excellent food too. Shellfish galore and even decent steaks.
You win some and you lose some. The group of noisy Israelis from Casamance has just arrived. Fortunately, it’s only for one night. And I haven’t detailed all of Mountaga’s indiscretions. But he’s just lied blatantly to me about the whereabouts of our boat, when I realised some of my stuff was still aboard. He was busy with beer at the bar. Then, another tantrum in which he dismissed himself, so I took him at his word and requested another guide. He has unfriended me on Facebook.
New guide Innocencio and I, arrange a boat trip to Bubaque, the neighbouring island to Rubane and the capital of the Bijagos Islands. There are some decaying colonial buildings and the candy coloured palais de justice. I constitute the whole of the formal audience for a dance performance in the street (plenty of townsfolk applaud from the side-lines) - an initiation ceremonial that involves warlike behaviour and the ability to manage sacred cows – I think. It’s called the Baca Bruta and again, it’s unlike any dance I’ve ever seen and involves complex wooden masks. The children shriek and retreat when the cows charge at them, brandishing their horns.
With trepidation I’m attempting another Bijagos Islands village visit, but this one, to a settlement on Canhabaque Island, goes very well. It’s a scenic approach through mangroves. There’s a netmaking collective operating at the muddy landing area, which makes things interesting for the locals as they weave in and out of the nets, loading the thrice weekly pirogue that transports their stock to Bubaque. Getting the goods to the vessel, down a two-kilometre track, is mostly the job of the children, who roll barrels, perch buckets on their heads and squeeze large bundles to their chests. On closer inspection these turn out to be live chickens or drawn rats. One of the rats proudly displayed is as big as a piglet. Innocencio says they’re a delicacy in Bissau.
It’s a large village of mainly square dwellings. A couple of groups are deployed on house building, adding water to the ground to make mud, which is shaped into large bricks. using wooden moulds. They are laid out in rows to dry. The people are friendly; it probably helps that Innocencio is at least six foot six. Children, shy at first, tag along. The three- and four-year olds are in kindergarten, beautifully behaved on plastic chairs, eyes on the blackboard. The tag alongers become even more friendly, wanting to hold hands, when they see sweets being dispensed and trail us all the way back to the boat, tugging in turn at sunglasses, watch and bracelet, rolling huge expectant eyes.
Time to leave the beach and the Bijagos Islands First, the old Portuguese colonial capital on the island of Bolama and then onto the new one, Bissau - it was moved in 1941. The once beautiful Portuguese buildings on both though are in a sad state of repair. Even the huge neo classical palace on the main square in Bolama has been left to crumble, vegetation in every nook and cranny. Incongruously, there’s a statue of American president Ulysses Grant in pride of place here. He’s a Portuguese hero, as he intervened in their favour when England laid claim to the area.
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