I Gambialieve My Luck

Last week, I began my African adventure in earnest, as I went island and visa hopping around the Senegalese capital. This week, I attempt to intersect three extraordinary countries, as the road (and my T-shirt tan) worsens by the day.

Day 8 – Serrekunda, The Gambia

Welcome to The Gambia! Were the words of the hostel owner as I awoke from my sweaty slumber. His cheerfulness did not quite match my level of readiness, although I was pretty darn enthused to have a glance around my new surroundings. As per usual, my initial exploration of the city would involve finding embassies, as I planned to acquire another two in one day.

The Gambia is a world away from the chaos of the Senegalese capital. Whilst only three mainland African countries have a higher population density, it does not feel as such, with wide dusty roads and a far more laid-back atmosphere than I had experienced before. It instantly reminded me of Caye Caulker, the paradisiacal Caribbean island I visited last year (and I wasn’t surprised to discover the country’s nickname: Second Jamaica). However, along with the good vibes, I did need to keep on my toes.

Now I’m quite used to being surrounded by pushy street sellers and forceful merchants – no problem with that. But I don’t think I have ever had to turn down a visit to a monkey park because I couldn’t shake off a local! A combination of not knowing exactly where I was going, sketchy comments from the aforementioned local, and being led down a narrow alley triggered my fleeing instinct and off I went (it had nothing to do with a Frenchman jogging in the opposite direction telling me to “not go zer”). Anyway, I went to a beach instead, bought a baguette from a far friendlier vendor, and received both visas by four o’clock.

Day 9 – Serrekunda, The Gambia

Another sweltering day in Serrekunda and a wander to the local bus station was in order to find out about tomorrow’s potential trip south. On the way, I bumped into countless immaculately dressed schoolkids (never understood how as I was continually caked in dust) on their way to morning classes and received more excited “hello’s” than I have ever entertained in my entire life. In all honesty, I don’t think anyone has ever been as excited as that to see me (including dogs, parents and/or ex-girlfriends).

Well, whilst a direct bus does exist from The Gambia to Bissau (my next port of call) it would not be running tomorrow (of that the conductor made crystal clear). Shared cars and a hundred transfers in a thousand languages lay ahead of me. As for this evening, I am lounged on a sticky leather sofa, eating a tin of room-temperature Heinz Baked Beans (the only benefit of The Gambia being a former British colony) and contemplating my life choices.

Day 10 – Serrekunda, The Gambia to Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

An early alarm subpoenaed my rising and a pre-dawn check-out left me on the streets of Serrekunda with two countries and hundreds of kilometres until my next destination: Guinea Bissau. I cheated slightly by taking a taxi (which I usually avoid at all costs) to the first station, but from then on it was a case of bartering for seats, surviving on food bought from the car window and asking to have the radio turned down in both English, French, Portuguese and Wolof (of which I am now fluent).

Car number two was an interesting one. I was wedged in between two robust local women, each with a bucket of fragrant seafood on their laps. As we began to move, the lady to my right was trying (and failing) to close the crooked car door. The driver, after much commotion, leaned over us both and attempted to close it by pulling the half-open window. Safe to say the glass shattered almost instantly, covering us both in shards of all shapes and sizes. But in The Gambia, you don’t get out and rid your car of the glass now strewn over your passengers, oh no, you simply shrug and put your foot down. I was removing fragments from my arms for the next fifty miles.

As we passed the seventh security checkpoint of about ninety, we picked up a local who wanted to move some local produce: namely, live chicks. Although they were contained in three stacked boxes, that did little to dampen the sound when placed directly behind your head. We arrived in Guinea Bissau to the sound of birds chirping, glass cracking, and horns honking (for our driver felt this necessary every three or four seconds), but my what a beautiful place it is. I disembarked a dusty, malodourous mess, but Marcelo (my new host) greeted me with open arms, “Welcome to Guinea Bissau!”, he bellowed. I see a pattern emerging.

Day 11 – Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

Having woken up with an appalling cold (most likely avian flu from yesterday’s journey), I gave myself some respite and allowed a day of aimless meandering around this scarcely visited capital. Bissau is small. Indeed, the port, cathedral, presidential palace (like something from Tropico) and every other structure of significance lie within five hundred metres of each other on the same street. Whilst many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair, signs of Portuguese influence (as Guinea Bissau is a former colony) can still be seen around the harbourside. It certainly has a shabby sort of charm.

Despite appearing to be the only tourist in the city (possibly country), I have yet to encounter any “special friends” or pay any “special fees”. Even the taxi drivers refuse to charge me extra (which I would quite happily pay just to sit inside their classic cobalt Mercedes). Whilst it could be predicted that each country in the region would be different, I have been struck by just how unique they are (and not just in terms of language). The atmosphere and culture have drastically changed from Senegal (chaotic and diverse), to The Gambia (laid back and tourist-orientated) to Guinea Bissau (quiet and… wait, there’s a visitor here?). For someone who likes to fly under the radar, this country suits me fine.

Day 12 – Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

Monday morning and, in an attempt to be productive, I had written a long list of jobs to accomplish before sundown. To this point, I have only brushed over the fact that Portuguese (well a variation of) is the primary language here, of which I am not particularly hot on. Although it is amazing how far an obrigado (thank you) and a smile can take you. It served me well at the local bank (exchanging currency), at the Consul for Côte d’Ivoire (picking up another visa) and at the ‘supermarket’ (collecting supplies for my voyage tomorrow).

Whilst I’m the first to advocate learning the language of the country you are visiting, the fact that Guinea Bissau is the only Portuguese-speaking nation on my trip has rendered me rather lazy (I promise to be fluent in Guinean French by tomorrow). And that is where I am packing for next: Guinea (or Guinea-Conakry as the locals say to avoid confusion with their own). I have not booked any accommodation and have absolutely no idea how long it will take to get there (I hope the rainy season has been kind to the ‘roads’). All I am certain of is the path will be muddy, the van will be rammed, and the Afrobeat’s will be on maximum (but for the love of god no chickens).

Day 13 – Bissau, Guinea-Bissau to fifty kilometres north of Koumbia, Guinea

What are the chances that the only morning I have arisen to end-of-the-world rain, is the one morning I could have done with blistering sunshine? Having heard many nightmare stories of travellers being stuck in the mud in the Guinean jungle for weeks on end (and turning cannibal), this was not the forecast I desired. However, the first four hours or so were rather painless, as I evacuated the capital and headed east to the city of Gabù – this is where things took a turn for the remarkable.

Shared cars/4×4’s/vans are the only way to get from place to place in this part of the world. And not a single one will ever leave for their destination until they are at least one and a half times over the seating capacity. After four painful hours of waiting in a rather grim station for our jeep to fill up with would-be Conakry-goers, we too had to fit eleven into a space barely designed for seven. All men, all perspiring, all unable to move an inch – off we headed into the wild. And almost as soon as we did, the tarmacked road departed too (as did any hope of sleep or comfort or retaining sanity).

We left Gabù at 3:30 pm and began crawling our way through increasingly denser scrub and isolated villages, with most consisting of a few traditional huts and wandering livestock. The lives of the residents a million miles from my own, it was impossible not to be fascinated by the local goings-on. As we came to a river crossing just before nightfall, I was informed by my rather friendly fellow travellers that we had indeed reached the border. The ferry across, however, required a certain amount of people-power to function, as we lined up next to a thick, muddy rope and started pulling our way across the Tominé. Now, I don’t think I have ever entered a country under my own (albeit modest) strength – this was a new one. River crossed, passport stamped, and on we continued into the darkness.

Day 14 – Fifty kilometres north of Koumbia, Guinea to Conakry, Guinea

Things began rather positively (despite the constant bouncing from pothole to pothole and the onset of deep vein thrombosis), as hour after hour went by without occasion. I did notice that we had started to follow a rather impractical looking Volvo, roof laden with more freight than a Chinese superliner. I sensed that our driver knew exactly what was about happen and (at around 2 am) it absolutely did – the Volvo became firmly settled in the sludge.

In the UK this would not worry us unduly, as most would simply drive past ruing the misfortune of the other as they comfortably sped by. Not in Guinea. As we attempted to pull the aforementioned estate from the mire, our 4×4 also sank into the mud bath. The reaction to this occurrence was quite staggering. All passengers from both vehicles almost silently started a routine they must have performed hundreds of times: dig out wheels from mud with bare hands, create a makeshift jack with a hammer and some rocks, wedge large wooden logs underneath wheels and push from the front until dislodged. We (I say we…) wearily completed this procedure four times before our stricken vehicle was free – extracting the exasperated Volvo in the process.

The next sleepless hours were torturous, quite literally. So dreadfully tired but physically unable to nod off for shuffling elbows, conversing commuters and potholed paths felt like a technique for Guantanamo. Only getting stuck once more was a blessing, the second time not quite as problematic as the first. Today, not that we needed it now, was a scorcher, and freeing ourselves from the Guinean jungle did nothing to facilitate an easier journey as the road to Conakry was unpaved and uncared for, for most of its length. We arrived in the Guinean capital a full thirty hours after my departure from Bissau. I was informed we had made extremely good time (what a ‘bad time’ must be is anyone’s guess). Next week, Conakry awaits…

J

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