Published: August 1st 2006August 1st 2006
So we left Senegal last Thursday morning, right after I posted my last entry. I posted it that morning, though i had actually written it the day before, but the internet connection was down due to a storm. You can barely see through the rain sometimes during the storms it is so heavy, and that particular storm had a lot of lightening strikes and made me a bit more nervous than some of the others.
Anyway, so we walked to the area east of town where you can get a car to Sao Domingo in Guinea Bissau. They are a bit smaller than a subaru wagon but have an extra row of seats in the hatch, so they fit 8 people each. There isn´t a schedule or anything, they just leave as they fill up. We found a car pretty quickly, but first five men had to push start it and then they had to drive in circles around us in the parking lot to charge the battery. It did not exactly instill confidence in me. The other passengers were a bunch of semi-pushy women, and we were condemned to the far far back seat with nonexistent leg room. But
first they had to load several large buckets of dead fish on the top and in the back of the hatch. Mostly in the back of the car apparently so the not too much "fish water" would spray on us during the drive...hmmm...nasty fish smell or nasty fish water, options were not great. The women in the car were also carrying bags of dead fish. Luckily about five minutes into the trip the woman next to me starting yelling and got out to sell her bag of fish. So it wasn´t by my feet for too long. I did however get sprayed with fish water from the top of the car a few times.
We got to Sao Domingo without incident, the car actually drove suprisingly well, and the roads weren´t bad. The plan was to then catch a van to Varela, a nice beach town on the coast of Guinea Bissau. We waited in the transport area on a bench next to a tailor making clothes on an antique sewing machine listening to rap music on a stereo powered by a solar battery. While we sat there there was a lot of "okay now maybe we are going,
wait no we´re not." That went on for about six hours. We did eat a little restaurant there, the meal was a bowl of spaghetti fried with onions and some sauce, but then came with about a cup of mayo on top. I´ve never seen anything like it. ´
Suddenly around four in the afternoon Alex got a tip off that they were going to start selling tickets to Varela, and he was able to buy a little scrap of paper from some random guy sitting in the corner on the bench before the ticket seller was absolutely mobbed by the other people trying to buy tickets. For a minute i thought a fight had broken out there was so much commotion. Then there was trying to figure out which vehicle was going to Varela...and the brutal attempt to get somewhere to sit. The sold about thirty tickets for a van that would reasonably sit half that number. The van front doors, were not the original for the car and didn´t fit very well. The front wheel was a different size than the other tires, and the car had to be hot wired to start it. Of course there were
no actual seats, just metal benches with foam going vertically on either side, these were the good seats, and then the crappy bench in the middle with no padding, or sitting on a bucket or something. There was a lot of screaming and yelling and pushing and shoving. An absolute clusterfuck. We both managed to squeeze a seat on the good bench though the van was absolutely packed. It was about an hour before we finally left at five PM. We were told it would take about two hours, but that the last bridge before Varela was out for car traffic, and only peolple on foot could pass. Apparently there were cars on the other side though. We set out on an absolutely horrific road. Its the rainy season here, and so the road was basically a creek bed in some areas and a small pond in others. The potholes were about 12 feet across, and there was a lot of anticipation and relief everytime we made it through one. The car drove in first gear pretty much the entire time....so two hours into the trip we weren´t even close to being there. It was dark at around 8 at
night when we finally got to the bridge we had to cross on foot. We hadn´t eaten dinner, and we also did not have any water with us. So I was pretty hungry and thirsty at that point. A lot of people had gotten out at villages along the way and there were ten of us left in the van when we got to the bridge. The bridge was broken because a massive truck carrying some 50 tons of rice from the UN or something, had tried to drive to Varela at 11 PM at night with no headlights, and had veered on the bridge and broken it. The truck was still there when we crossed on foot, sticking out of the water. Our van had turned around and left, and it became quickly apparent that there was no car waiting for us on the other side. The African ladies tied up there skirts and put their things on there head. And we started to walk...
Nothing like a suprise 7 mile hike in the mud, at night, with all the baggage, in the middle of rural africa, with no water. On the bright side, it wasn´t raining, and the road was flat. Plus the stars were really amazing, and there were all sorts of cricket like noises I had never heard. The sounded like jingle bells. The hike took three hours, and of the girls we were walking with directed us to I think one of the only open hotels. The owners, a portuguese woman Fatima who had grown up in Guinea Bissau and her italian husband Franco. They were up watching TV, run by generator when we arrived and were absolutely shocked when we showed up. "You WALKED?!?" But the quickly got us some water and the best bananas I´ve ever tasted and prepared a room for us. Since there were no other guests we got the luxury suite...a big private cabana with private bath and comfortable bed. I hadn´t been sure what awaited us, and at that point was thinking we might be lucking to find a mat on the dirt. So I was overwhelmingly ecstatic.
The next morning we walked around the little fishing and agriculture village that is Varela, and went down to the beautiful empty beach. the Atlantic waters were warm and calm, and there was almost not current. When the Portuguese colonized they planted a big pine forest and a big eucalyptus forest along the water. All the portuguese colonials houses along the water were abandoned in the 70s, and were still empty and overgrown. There was also an abandoned resort project that had been funded by world bank and then left unfinished during the war. So there were some cement and metal frames up from the beach along one the nicer sections. The whole area is tropical and full of exotic fruit trees and cashew trees. There is another beach as well, the fisherman beach, that is apparently better for fishing, and was interesting but not quite as pretty I thought.
For lunch we went back to the hotel, where Franco, an exquisit chef prepared all of our meals when we were there. He had his own patch of basil growing, and a mud pizza oven he had built in the back. I think every meal was better than the one before it. Roasted meats, fresh grilled fish, tropical fruit platters, homemade pasta and pasta, mashed potatoes. He even made us a cake...like a pound cake with layers of tropical fruit and a frosting from the local fresh goat butter. One day we had gazelle ribs. In the morning the milk was fresh from the cow and the bread had been baked that morning. Everything was truly amazing, and far exceeded any expectation I had had. I think it was worth the hike.
The other interesting part of the trip there was that Fatima was a sort of community activist there. She had personally gone to the president of Guinea Bissau in an attempt to get the bridge repaired. She coordinated massive drop offs of food and medicine for the people of Varela. In fact the rice truck was coming because of her doing, though she had obviously not expected them to do something so silly as drive at night with no headlights. Though the area has been peaceful for years, there are still ´rebels´from the Casamance fight for independence that live in the area. Most of them are nice, and in fact we met a rebel or two and they invited us to come stay with them, which we declined. A few months back the government was making an attempt to remove the rebels from the area, and I´m not sure the exact details, perhaps some of them were killed, but in any case the rebels retaliated by putting a mine in the road, which killed a truck full of people. So Varela was cut off from supplies for a few months because no one wanted to come down the road, and just when things were resolving the rice truck went off the bridge and cut them off from supplies again. Fatima has done good work in coordinating food and medicine deliveries for people in the village.
She ran a medicine dispensary out of the hotel, though has no medical training and was unfamiliar with some of the medicines. I think it was the UN that had donated all the medicine, pretty basic stuff...a few antibiotics, antimalaria, antifungals, etc. It was the only source of medicine for most of the people however. There was also a village nurse of sorts from a neighboring village several miles away. So I was able to work some with both of the them, identifying medicine and its dose and uses. I think I saw about 60 patients with them, out in front of the hotel. It was an interesting experience...no resources, no way to even take a blood pressure or a temperature or do any lab work what so ever. Some things were obvious to me, like impetigo and fungal skin infections, but some things were a lot more vague..."i have a fever" and no other information. We did a lot of probable malaria treatments, though I didn´t feel good about it without lab diagnosis. I encouraged a lot of them to go into town to see the doctor, but I don´t think many of them actually will.
It was a really good few days in Varela, though the ride back was far worse than the ride there. We didn´t have to walk, but it involved a back of truck. It was one of those that has a metal cage thing on the back and it was covered on all side by a blue tarp. It was dark inside and full of exhaust fumes. The benches were hard wood, and it was over packed with people, children, chickens, and of course massive buckets of dead fish. And we had to drive back on the that bumpy muddy road. I think it was by the far the most horrific ride of my life, though I didn´t feel in danger or anything, it was just incredibly uncomfortable and made me really sick.
We are in the Bissua now, the capitol city and are getting visas to go on to Guinea Conakry. Hope everyone is well! Love Alana