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Published: August 11th 2006
We have just returned after spending a week on the decently remote Bijagos, the archipelago islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau. We were told by one of our hotels that we were the first Americans they'd seen since 1998. Much traditional village culture still exists there, as it has for hundreds of years...except with a few additions like plastic buckets and oversized American T-shirts under the grass skirts. But they live well there, with a tight community, strong tradition, village elders and chiefs, and lots of good spontaneous singing and drumming.
We arrived by pirogue, which is kind of like somewhere between a canoe and viking ship, at least in my interpretation. We got to the dock in Bissau early, as we had been instructed, and the boat was loading when we arrived. We were able to get some prime seats on the railing, and began our wait. It was actually about five hours before we actually departed. We float our away from the dock a bit, floated in circles, some people got out and went back to shore through the water, we floated in some more circles, got stuck in a sand bar or two, went back to the
dock, more loading...At about two int eh afternoon after cramming about 130 on a boat that would comfortably fit 30, plus a few tons of random cargo, it seemed we were going to leave...but no....back to the dock so everyone can buy frozen cossam (sort of like yogurt) in little plastic bags to snack on. We did eventually depart for our five hour journey later that afternoon. We stopped on Galinhas Island on the way to Bubaque where a good number of people gott off...and with them unloaded the 9 ghettoblasters from the 1980s, lots of bags of 50 kilo rice, several matresses and a large pig. Since there was no dock, this all had to be walked through the water and rocks to the island...and the pig and at least two 50 kilo bags of rice were dropped in the water. They also unloaded several gallons of cashew wine that they'd been drinking from large, old motor oil containers for most of the journey. Since most of the roof had been unloaded and there was still a foam matress on top of the boat, we were able to ride up top and stretch out for the remaining two hours
of the ride.
Once of Bubaque we stayed a few nights at Cruz Pontes hotel. The room was a bit overpriced and stuff, and though there was a fan there was only generator electricity for a few hours a day, and though there was a bathroom, there was no running water. The hotel manager had kind of strange social skills, stared a lot, and one morning served us rancid margarine with our bread. We decided to change hotels. Before we left though he did prepare for us the national plate of Guinea Bissua, which was chicken, beef and cassava root in a sort of chili sauce with yellow rice and green olives. It was pretty tasty.
Otherwise food options are extremely limited, even in Bubaque, which is the most developed area of the Bijagos. There was only one restaurant that was reliably open and there you had the choice of mayonnaise spaghetti, a plate of boiled beef if there was beef, or eggs--either hard boiled or shallow fried. Things were served with either white rice or white bread and about a tablespoon of onions, which is basically the only vegetable on the island. But since that is in
short supply you only get a tablespoon. To drink you can have instant coffee, black tea or limeade. I think I had several gallons of limeade, as it was my favorite thing available. There is not fruit right now, but twice we were able to find some imported bananas. I bought all four that were available in the market. There are cows, but no milk except powdered or canned, and I guess they don't make cheese or butter because maybe it doesn't keep. There is a lot of good fish, if you can find someone to cook it for you. Since there is a no electricity, and only a few generators on the island it is difficult to keep fish...no ice, no refrigeration, no freezers. I think that maybe contributing to the african overfishing I used to hear about in environmental science class.
The islands are really beautiful. Bubaque has some old roads that were laid by the Portugues, but now are mostly shells and mud. There are a lot of abandoned hotels and buildings as well. The electric lines, now nonfunctional are used to hang clothes. There are loads of mangroves and palm tress and everything is really lush and green. Everywhere you look you have a view of another island, with its beautiful lush greenery and golden sand beaches. There are masses of butterflies of all colors and interesting birds.
The nice beach on Bubaque is about 18km one way from the town, and so we rented bikes one day to ride to it...probably some of the worst bikes I've ever seen...but bikes nonetheless. Only one quarter of the brakes worked, the steering was really wobbly, and the seat would slowly ride up so the front of it would be pointing almost directly up and you had to stop and pound it down every two minutes. The ride through the ilsand was beautiful, with lots of small villages...mud huts and peanut fields. The only problem were these tourist-ruined demon children. Several hundred meters away they would spot our white skin and start screaming bloody murder. "BLANCO!!!! Give me money!!! Where is my present!?!?" They would scream in creole portuguese. I was unsuspecting of the first mob, thinking they would be nice children, but instead they almost caused an accident when they tried to pull me off the bike to take it from me. After that we were wiser and ride as quickly as possible as soon as we heard the mob screams. About halfway to the beach the chain on Alex's bike broke. We spent about an hour in the hot sun, firtst trying to find it in the mud, and then trying to fix it with the extremely limited, ridiculous lack of supplies. Nothing we had worked for more than ten feet. So we started walking and were able find some guys in a village that were able to fix it. While we waited for them to fix it I was swarmed by a group of toothless, drunk, screaming women. They were very excited, and very nice, but just a bit different than I'm used to. They repeatedly came about four inches from my face and screamed their names. I had to stifle a laugh, and smile and nod, repeating there names like I understood. It was really odd. You could smell the cashew wine. I had never seen a cashew tree before Varela. The trees have fruit that looks like a small apple, and kind of tastes a little bit like an apple, but more tart and more squishy. Each apple grows a cashew in a big shell. They roast the nuts to sell and then make the wine out of the apple like fruit. Anyway, we were grateful to have the chain fixed and went on our way to the beach. The beach was nice, white sands, a few miles long, empty. We lazed aroudn for a few hours and then headed back. All in all int was a good day, though I can't tell you the last time I rode 36 km in a day, especially on such crazy bikes. I was a little beaten up and bruised the next day.
One day we headed to Orango Island of Orango National Park. There are some rare mini saltwater hippos and crocodiles in the park. We left on the boat early without time for breakfast. The ride was really pretty, though the last section which was in the outer part of the island groups facing the open ocean was a bit rough. A lot of kids were sea sick and I had to hold on not to be thrown around. There was no dock in Orango and the water was shallow for several hundred meters off shore. So we had to get out of the boat when the water was thigh high and walk to shore. The park headquarters were in the main village a few kilometers from the beach and they have cement cabins for rent for a good price. The park chief guy was very nice and very helpful and he introduced us to the the two chiefs of the village and the chief of the muslim section of the village. I think the village had about three hundred people in it, and was mostly mud huts with lots of farm animals running around. There was no restaurants in the village, no where to even get a boiled egg or mayonnaise spaghetti. There was a European run hotel, which was closed, a few kilometers away, that would supposedly make meals with a day or so notice. We gave notice when we arrived and were hoping to eat the following day. Communication was by two way radio, if someone was near the radio, and run by solar pnael. There were generators, no gasoline, no cars, no roads, only dirt paths. It was afternoon at that point and I hadn't eaten anything. We asked the park chief what tourists usually eat... "they eat at the big hotel" And when its closed? He kind of shrugged like he didn't really know. He didn't think people brought food with them, maybe they cooked or ate out of the little store. I thought it was odd he wasn't sure. There were no stoves, not even the gas campstyle ones, since there was no gas, no charcoal and no fires allowed in the park. Besides all the ground and wood was wet. So out door cooking seemed unlikely. He brought us to the little store...which only had about eight items. We bought canned sardines, powdered milk, powdered diet pina colada drink mix, a small can of tomatoe paste we were unsure how we would open and a pack of spaghetti noodles we were unsure how we would cook. That was basically it. As we were unable to find a way to cook and I hate sardines I had the powdered milk. But the park chief thought maybe we could buy some cooked food from one of the families in the village. After further inquiry, a whole lot of chaos and miscommunication, and the unsolicited help of twenty five extra people, after three hours we were able to get some cooked fish and rice. So we ended up with a nice meal around 6 that night. The villagers eat fish and rice and when there is no fish just rice. That is it. I was looking forward to eating at the hotel as it was such a huge deal and a long time to get food that day. The next day however, after more miscommunication and unsolicited help some idiot had called the hotel by radio and said we didn't want to eat there. So then the workers were off fishing or something and it wasn't possible to fix the mistake by the time it was realized. So another day of powdered milk....although the store did get in a bit of stale bread that morning. I still refused to eat the sardines. In those times when we are somewhere really remote, like walking down some mud path or something, and really hungry, Alex tries to keep my spirits up by joking... "Oh I think there is a Subway up here on the right...you can get the six inch meal deal with chips and a drink...actually lets go the Quiznos where we can get the toasted subs..." The ridiculousness of the statement, when we are at least two countries away from the nearest McDonalds not to mention any other American restaurant, usually makes me laugh.
The other problem was getting to the wildlife we had come to see. The park chief brought a map and showed us where the hippos were located, about ten miles away. Can we rent bikes? No, no bikes can go on that path. How do most tourists get there? Oh, by the speedboat...but the motor is broken. So there was the option of a 20 mile hike, which I wasn't up for given the food situation. Alex was going to hike it until we learned of a $40 per person hippo viewing fee. Later we talked to a guy that had been to Orango to hippo area and only seen hippo droppings. So I'm glad we didn't go...but the park was kind of a bust. It's not like national parks in the US. There are no scenic loop trails or really any hiking trails at all. The only paths go from the rice and peanut fields to peoples huts. Africans don't really hike for the sake of hiking. We had a nice walk until it started really pelting rain. So soaked and hungry, I jumped at the idea when I learned there was an opportunity to get a ride back to Bubaque with some fishermen. We had to wade way out in the water to get to the boat, and the boat was kind of worn. They were bailing water a lot, and there was a guy in the front who spent his time taking small pieces of old t-shirt and cramming it into the leaking holes with his knife. Plus it was still pouring. But it was a fun boat ride, a lot more comfortable because there were only eight of us and a goat, and since it was a smaller boat it rode the waves a little better. They gave us peanuts and Alex had some cashew wine that he said tasted like the motor oil container it was in. About twenty minutes into the ride we took a detour to another boat where these fishermen were cooking fish over a charcoal fire in their boat. The captain bought everyone some fish and we had a little feast. We made it to Bubaque at sunset almost out of gas with the motor sputtering.
Back on Bubaque we stayed at this little hotel with only two rooms for rent. The proprietor Titi, stays in the third room. Titi was great. He was super friendly, very knowledgeable, and a great cook with the limited resources. When he cooked we would all sit at a table together and eat by candlelight. He really made you feel at home. He is still working on the place and a few things are less than perfect, for instance the roof of our room leaked really badly, and it is the rainy season. But that was my only real complaint...though I'm still not a huge fan of cold water bucket showers, though its somewhat universal. Titi had good information about everything, and he even tracked down some cabbage, carrots and a mango for me because he knew the lack of fruits and veggies was difficult.
Alex and this English guy Nick, who was here in Africa searching for the roots of the banjo chartered a boat to one of the most remote islands to a practically untouched village. Nick had some fancy portable recording material and had recorded some traditional music some other places he'd been and wanted to do a bit more recording as well. The things he was able to record were really great, and I hope he able to send us some of them once they are on disc. Anyway, after the Orango experience I opted to stay on Bubaque...plus the boat they chartered was one of the kinds I had referred to as a "death boat" and there was a massive lightening storm brewing. The clouds were dark and the thunder had already started when they left. That afternoon the raind started and continued into the night. I was occupied moving and emptying buckets to collect water from our leaky room for several hours. We had two single beds and mine was entirely soaked. Alex's was only half soaked, but there was a dry area that I was able to huddle in with a flashlight and a book. I had managed to find a small dry haven for our bags as well. The thunder and lightening were so instense that it made me jump. I was decently worried aobut alex out in the storm in the death boat, but he made it back miraculously, soaked to the bone. You can read more about his experience there on his travelblog on this website under Sasha. So that night we slept in wet beds in contorted positions trying to avoid drips.
I have spent much of my time relaxing, sitting on the beach, wandering around the village, bird and butterfly watching, reading and doing a lot of sudoku...I completed the "diabolical"level of sudoku so now I'm going to have to find something else to occupy my time. Alex has been fishing for three straight days, and has caught a good many fish... We came back today on a cargo boat, that was possibly the worst smelling environment ever. Absolutely horrible smell, like a combination of the thousands of dead fish on board, and the urine from the cows and goats and pigs on board, and sort of a pond scum odor, plus it was raining so they put the tarp down and the smell got worse. I was ecstatic to get off of it after five hours. But it was really comical watching them load the cows, basically they just pushed them off the dock and they land in the bottom of the boat. The pigs they tie by one leg and drag them, squealing. We didn't stick around to watch them unload though. Well we are off to Guinea, eventually to Conakry....will write more the next time there is electricity and the internet. Hope everyone is doing well!!
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