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Published: April 15th 2018
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” -Jack Kerouac
They say that people whom travel to the Guineas need to have a perverse love for the humble pothole. We learned this the hard way and so many more lessons around the perception and reality of overland travel. I think that there is a certain misconception that travel carry’s an almost romantic tone. It is joy and happiness wrapped into one sweet package that somehow you can control and dictate. Now this is not a completely untrue statement however it needs to be laced with a certain caveat. This caveat is that between these bouts of joy are stretches of pain, hostility, uncomfortable situations and just general uncertainty. For most onlookers they see the result of the journey through photos or travel story’s but miss the hardship part. There are days where you don’t know where you will be sleeping, if you will be able to eat or to the extreme how many dodgy police/people you will run into. However what is interesting from my perspective is that 9 times out of 10 when you are
confronted by that view or that amazing meal/culture or whatever that you travelled for, the hardships encountered always seem to just fade into the background. It’s like a blank is drawn and the overall experience is one of joy. Oh yes that is why one really travels. Onto to the story. “Oh the places you’ll go.” -Dr. Seuss
Dr Seuss could have been describing both the Guinea countries when he was said this. There are two Guinea counties one called Guinea Bissau and the other just Guinea (sometimes called Guinea Conakry to differentiate). They are side by side and were essentially the same place until colonization took place. Guinea-Bissau claimed by the Portuguese and Guinea Conakry the French. From that day the fate of these two countries went in different directions. From that day they now had borders drawn between them, a different colonial government with a different level of integration . Surprisingly even more influential was that each were given a different alien language to converse in which split them apart even more. How do you work with your brother when you can’t even communicate with one another. Guinea-Bissau
We begin our journey after crossing
over from Senegal. I have been blessed to have found a great traveling partner in my friend Joe from Germany. Joe is one interesting character, a former investment banker and stock trader. After a falling out with the banking elite and with a sizable stock portfolio (Apple shares, need I say more) he has been traveling the world for the last 10yrs in his trusty Toyota Land cruiser. I always say that you meet the most interesting of people in the most remote, out there places and this is definitely the case here. Anyway I just hit it off with characters like this because they always have epic tales to share and normally don’t look at you strange when you say you want to go to “x” random place via a motor bike taxi or raft or whatever! Joe is one of those personalities; we had already met in Mauritania but had not traveled together at length. No problem, we just load up and head to the Guinea border like we are a couple of old mates heading down the road for a casual beer. That’s travel partners, quick to become friends and always hard to forget due to the
experiences enjoyed/survived together.
The border from Senegal is simple to navigate and we are quickly into Guinea Bissau. Then immediately the pothole rumors come true. The road just disentigrates and becomes a mine field of these things. We slow to 25kms per hour average and Joes forced to swerve on and off the road for the next 100kms. In Africa I am learning you don’t measure things in time or distance, I think you just ask how bad the road is.
In Bissau we quickly setup at a overlander meeting hotel run by a Austrian who has been there for 37 years (overlanders are the term used to describe West Africa travelers). He has WiFi but the government internet connection to the world is no good; we have full signal but it just doesn’t work. His power and water from the govt are also unreliable so he has to harvest and produce his own. This is just a first sign of many to come around the regions dysfunctional state.
We are in the capital for two reasons: to gain the Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria visa and get supplies/rest for the remote border crossing to Guinea Conakry we
have up next. We are not in luck with the Nigeria Visa as they won’t issue one to us however are successful with the Côte d’Ivoire one. No problems my general rule is use one visa, buy one visa; will have to get the Nigeria visa later (its renowned for being tough). With that in hand we load up on food for the journey to the next border. The road to Guinea Conakry is so long and remote through the hills that it will take us 4 days of driving to get to the other capital. We are also unsure as to the state of access to food and water so we stock up before heading out of town.
Guinea Bissau has been described to me as functionally dysfunctional and it is as we drive into the regions that this starts to run true. The roads again disentigrates out of the capital and the villages get more and more basic. We pull into our first overnight village Gabu, a place where the “tar-sealed” road ends. Gabú does not have electricity, now this shouldn’t be uncommon but it is the main administration town for the region. We manage to find
the only hotel in th town and is of “African” standard. Real African hotels are basic, smelly, hot, humid but is offset by real character and characters. The bathrooms are grotty as anything but I am thankful there is a mosquito net and fan (but there’s no power). After checking in we head to the market and the first thing one notices is that they all speak Portuguese, a remnant of its colonial past. I try to buy rehydration salts but the pharmacy has empty shelves, they only have toothpaste and soap. BUT the market is packed with Mangoes as they are in season, $1 buys you a bag of at least 10-15! My mother would be so jealous right now and I eat so much I get a sore stomach. Totally worth it.
As we move deeper into the interior it becomes apparent that the Portuguese really pillaged this country and it was almost the opposite of what happened in Senegal. There the French tried to reform the population, here they just abused and then neglected. I get a crash course on their fate that night when at the only restaurant which is someone’s home, we meet a
couple of international aid workers. Chevon is a aid worker from Cabo Verde across the water from here. It was also occupied by the Portuguese and she is well versed in their management style. After the Portuguese took over this country it was all for the slave trade, unlike the French they took limited notice in educating or improving the standards of the indigenous people. Once slavery was outlawed the country was left to its own devices with the infrastructure collapsing however the chain to its master was still officially there. In fact Guinea was the very last west African country to be granted its independence. It had to wage a war against the Portuguese in the 70s to finally break free. By that time the damage had already been done through years of neglect. This has meant Guinea Bissau remains one of the poorest countries in Africa to this day and it still continues to struggle to make up for its huge backwards step from colonialism.
After a rough hot night we prepare to cross the next border. From Gabu the road becomes a track but luckily Joes 4wd is equal to the task. As we get further
and further out of town the houses lessen and the huts start appearing. First a few and then there is nothing but thatched huts, no real houses and surprisingly no rubbish. Rubbish especially plastic is the great anti-gift I feel we gave Africa; the place is strewn with it especially in the cities. However out here with no shops or even money to buy things there is no litter at all. We also stop seeing cars, everyone is walking or taking bikes. Everything gets a lot calmer and the people amongst other things carry a big smile wherever they go. We stop at villages to buy fruit and the kids surround us, even the adults frantically wave friendly greetings to us. It is a stark contrast to the cities and the glowing spirit of the regions is a nice way to round out this country which at first appeared a mess. This huge love for life we start seeing out here is something that will only grow the longer we travel. From my time here I can see Guinea-Bissau is growing slowly however it is hard to see it reverse its initial misfortunes anything soon. So with that we cross
a painless border and are into Guinea Conakry Guinea Conakry
The road from the border looks like a creek bed. The condition deteriorates even more and it takes an hour and a half to go 23kms! However what doesn’t change are the welcomes and smiles we get as we cross into our next stop, a dusty town called Koundara.
Guinea Conakry was the First Nation in West Africa to push for independence from France and it paid a bitter price because of it. France initially offered to all its west Africa colonies a free pass to gain their independence, Guinea Conakry was the only one to take it up. The response from France was swift, they pulled all their support, workers and aid from the country. Whereas eventually all the other francophone countries of Africa got their independence they got eased into it via a transition and are consequently better off. This was not he case here, the rug had been pulled. Immediately it was thrown into chaos and like its neighouring brother country it is one of the poorest around still. However that being said there was an interesting consequence to this brutal strategy and that
is out of all of West Africa’s former French colonies it is the one that is most true to its culture and roots... one might even say they got out just in time. “A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.” -Henry Rollins
Rolling into the remote town of Koundara we are happy to see it has power but no water. Every day the kids go to the well and manually pull buckets of water out for us. Again the smiles are evident on their faces and for them life like this on the edges is just totally normal. This same script between the two countries keeps playing out, one where in the regions without so called luxuries of life (or even necessities). It just seems that the average Guinean has a life of joy regardless about what side of the colonial fence he landed upon. This all becomes clear and the story reveals itself when we head to the highlands for hiking with our guide the formidable Hansen of the Fanta Djallon region
Hansan is a celebrity in this area. He is in the lonely planet as the king of the highlands
and he is an immense personality. Within two minutes of meeting him he is already doing a headstand. We have come to his small village compound of Douchi a rough 2 hour 4wd track from the main road for 3 days of hiking. His compound consists of his 3 brothers and their families living in traditional conical huts with both me and Joe getting one each. There are no fewer than 15 kids running free range and we are bombarded with attention throughout. The hiking is immense and every corner Hasan is greeting a local, he says he has to say hello to everyone it is his duty. The villages we pass really have nothing from our modern world. Again no electricity, no running water and the nearest shop is hours away but it’s fairly clear that everyone is genuinely happy.
At lunch we talk with Hasan to understand more about this way of life here in the regions. We find out he has been all round the world but he choose this area to live. Of all the places (he is an educated man) he chose a village with none of the so-called essentials of life to raise
his family. This makes me ponder why happiness is rife here and arguably in shorter supply in our so called modern world. After previously traveling the world I came to the belief that the nicest people and strangely the most generous people in the world were not the richest but the poorest living the most simple of lives. I had no doubts on this however here am now questioning whether they may also get the mantle of the happiest as well and I get this burning feeling I could learn something from their approach.
One of the possible reasons is that in a village like Douchi there is no external frame of reference. There is no internet, no tv just the relationships you have with your family and village. It’s a fairly humble existence but they are taught that all that matters in life are the relationships they have with their friends and family not the make or model of their car. They have not been exposed to the corrosive effects of advertising just yet so they can focus on what they do have rather than what they don’t have. A sombering but insightful thought for me to take
away back home. Travel really is something.
After an epic few days hiking I have to say goodbye to my friend Joe in a crossroads town called Mamou. He is on a time schedule to keep moving along with the highlands to avoid the rainy season. In the June rainy season the roads become impassable so he needs to continue on quickly. I have a few strategically placed flights to remove the risk which is one of the pros of my type of non vehicle travel. It is sad to say goodbye however I feel we will run into one another again as we are on a similar route. It has also been great riding in a protected bubble of a 4wd however one thing you miss with this mode of transport is the constant local interaction. When taking public transport you are fully immersed in the local African experience and for better or worse that’s why I travel, so I better get back into it.
In Mamou I jump into a shared car called a sept place taxi to head to the capital Conakry. Now a Sept place taxi in other countries thus far has been a
station wagon type thing with the trunk also having seats. Now a Sept taxi normally holds a squashed 7 for long trips, everyone gets a seat. Now just in Guinea Conakry they squeeze 9 in; the middle row now get 4 and the front seat is shared by two people, ouch! My coping mechanism for travel like this is to buy 2x tickets and I get the whole front seat to myself. I find it strange that I have to buy 2 tickets to get 1 seat but that’s Africa; selling seats by the half here! Now my second coping mechanism for tough travel is after a big trip to take a few days to rest and recover. Just like cycling the rest days are what win the races and I do that in abundance in the cities to prepare for what is to come. Nice clean place to stay, lots of food, some stretching, jogging and general laziness.
Conakry is a big mess of cars and chaos. A foreigner that I met recently told me his definition of Conakry is that they took a big pile of doggy do do and plopped a city on it. What I
found interesting about that comment was that he was an Indian! So yes it’s pretty average. Just like the regions the capitals power supply is also super eratic and every night I go to sleep by the hum of the generators. I even become an expert on collecting water when the electricity is on as its needed to operate the pumps, I have buckets of it everywhere. No matter I am rested and ready for the next adventure; the road is life.
Wrapping up, the Guineas for me were a step back in time especially in the regions. It is Africa and to a degree the world as it was decades ago. Through its past both of these countries were separated and held back. However an offshoot to this is that what lingers on is its spirit and character from a bygone era. It provides a real dramatic reminder around what makes a person happy and content. The trick is now to take those learnings and make that work in a modern world... Now that would be one hell of a play.
Thanks for reading.
Next stop I head to tragedy ground zero: Sierra Leone & Liberia.
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