The Best of Times, The Toughest of Times (Part 1)

A lot has been and gone since the last update…

3 weeks, 4 countries, 7 boat rides, 1200km cycled.

There have been good days and bad days, the best days and worst ones. At times it’s been tough and tiring, and yes there have even been tears. At times it’s been thrilling and exciting, and I’ve thought I must be the luckiest person alive. All times equally memorable in their own right.

I’ve crossed two borders in less than 24hours (legally) and crossed one border illegally (unintentionally). I’ve camped by mangrove swamps, on a football pitch, on a desert island white sandy palm-fringed beach, under the tropical canopy of southern Guinea Bissau’s forests with colobus monkey’s in the trees above, in quarries and the savannah-like grasses next to village plantations that are grazed by cattle. I’ve had a termite catapulted and embedded head-first into my leg. I’ve seen monkeys swinging freely in trees and a chimpanzee fall out of one. I’ve cycled on some of the roughest, toughest roads, which are little more than footpaths and crossed many rivers – by foot, by paddled pirogue, by motor boat and hand-pulled chain ferries. I’ve had sleepless nights from mosquito bites, intruding goats, cattle lowing, unknown wild animals howling and mosques calling to prayer. I’ve had flat tyres, a chain that needs cleaning and oiling every day from the endless dust and panniers falling off from the bumpy dirt tracks. But it has been fun.

Part One – The Journey to Bissau

Leaving the Gambia

I left the comforts of Sukuta camping in the Gambia alone and took to the road again – destination Bissau, the capital of Guinea Bissau. On the first day I crossed the border back into Senegal – which was much less hassle than getting into the Gambia. I just had to wait a while for the border guard to finish praying before I could get my stamp.

Guns in Senegal

Southern Senegal, the Casamance region, has a bad reputation in the press for, not just the conflict between the separatists and the military, but also for car-jackings and banditry at roadblocks. But in more recent years, the situation has calmed – and I’m certainly glad, since I got to cycle through the tropical landscape with mangrove swamps, teeming birdlife and friendly locals. Finding a camping spot proved a little difficult however due to the military presence at staged intervals along the road. Individuals in camouflage carrying guns was not as intimidating as I might have expected and most times we exchanged a ‘bonjour’ or ‘ca va?’ and one military truck stopped to check I was OK when the driver thought a motorcyclist that had been riding alongside me might be causing me problems.

I was given a warm welcome into Guinea-Bissau by the border guards and as I cycled off down the quiet road, I was greeted numerous times with calls of ‘Bom Dia, Branco’, for Guinea Bissau is an old Portuguese colony.

During my first morning in Guinea-Bissau, while sipping a coffee and reading outside my tent, I heard a gun shot. My first brief thought was that there might be some trouble with the rebels and army, but after that it was quiet and so I presumed it was a lone hunter. Later that day I stopped for another coffee in Ingore, which was bustling on market day where people from all the surrounding villages and even from over the border in Senegal come once a week. Here I met Papi, an American volunteer who is teaching English at the local school. His words of advice included ‘don’t steal anything in Guinea-Bissau – because it’s likely you’ll get shot’. Good advice I suppose, but I wasn’t planning on stealing anything so I assured him that I would probably be safe during my travels. Perhaps it wasn’t a bird that I heard get shot that morning afterall – perhaps it was a thief…. I’ll never know.

Impressions of Guinea-Bissau

My first impressions of Guinea-Bissau were that the people were genuinely friendly and happy to see me and having spent over two weeks in the country I can honestly say that this view is true. I don’t think this country sees many white foreigners and after the hassles of Senegal, it was pleasant cycling through the villages without being hounded for money or sweets. And this is in one of the poorer African countries.

Bissau, the capital, I liked a lot. It’s small enough to get to know easily and walking through the streets, you are left to your own devices. Only occasionally was I asked by young boys if I wanted to buy phone cards, a newspaper or perhaps have my shoes shined – if I had a mobile, could read Portuguese or wasn’t wearing flip-flops, these may have been useful services. One thing that was noticeable in town was the number of women working – not just selling fruit and vegetables and sandwiches in the market, but running cafe’s or in business suits walking purposefully to a meeting or driving a large car. The Muslim influence in Guinea-Bissau is much smaller that in most of West Africa I have seen so far and I think this could be a large part of the reason.

Island Life

I took a short trip to Bubaque in the Bijagos Archipelago to relax on the beach at the far side of the island. I spent all day reading in the shade of the palm trees and then enjoyed a quiet meal cooked over a campfire, which I kept burning late into the evening as I watched the stars and listened to the waves lapping gently on the shore. Apart from a few visitors in the afternoon, the beach was deserted the entire day and night, save for one fisherman who passed by a couple of times to collect water from the nearby stream. He left me in peace, except for in the morning to check that I hadn’t had any problems during the night, which has been typical of my encounters with the locals – they don’t like to intrude on your privacy, but want to make sure that everything is OK.

Bubaque, the town, and even the boat ride to and from the island has a Caribbean party atmosphere to it however, where everyone knows everybody else and in no time at all, you too feel one of the crowd. I met some great people here, including the guys working with Medicos do Mundo; Janine and her sister Celia who runs a restaurant and also Scooby – the local who spent most of his childhood in London but has returned to his hometown having earned a degree in German to work in the tourist industry, promoting ecotourism and wants to buy a minibus for the schoolchildren who live at the other end of the island and have a 25km round-trip walk to and from school. They must be tough, dedicated kids – I can’t think of many English children who would spend five hours walking each day to receive an education.

When the boat docked back in Bissau, I was met by a familiar face – Lars, the Swedish cyclist. We caught up on the last few days over a drink and decided to cycle through Guinea-Bissau together… more on our joint adventures in Part 2 (coming soon)!

3 Responses to “ The Best of Times, The Toughest of Times (Part 1) ”

  1. Well that all sounds great…Im guessing then that part 2 includes the “worst” days!!

  2. Great reading! I am following Lars’s website so I found yours as well. Fun to read stories from (sometimes) the same places. I’m planning my own trip. Not sure where yet, but wherever I end up I hope I’ll avoid the termites. 🙂

    Bon voyage!

  3. Hi,
    This is good stuff and makes one feel very envious of your travels. What do you do about the mosquito bites? I was wondering if you took anti malaria tablets just in case. The GPS mapping is great, keep it up.

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