Day 5, Monday: Last Lap to Bissau
At dawn, Big Reg crossed the river that marks the border between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau on a ferry that was pulled by hand into a village so small there wasn’t even an immigration post.
It was so remote, there were no money changers or SIM-card sellers, only an Ebola monitoring station. Even in that first interaction, I felt my communication superpowers draining away. Guinea-Bissau was a Portuguese colony, and I have zero capacity in that language, but even that use is limited as the majority here speak Crioulo, a creole language far more opaque to English-speakers than the Krio of Sierra Leone.
We had to drive another 30km on the dirt to get a entrance stamp in our passports in Pitche, but the road improved almost immediately on the Bissau side. We stopped at 9am for breakfast in the middle of nowhere yet three passing youngsters filmed me doing T’ai Chi on their cellphones. I didn’t protest: I’ve taken so many photos of exotic others, it was only fair. It was a Monday, 8th Feb, but we had given up trying to do school on the bouncy road – we were all feeling so exhausted and hung over from the long haul from Conakry. We just had to get there now.
I have to confess that my relationship with my husband was laid bare on the road to Foulamori. In times of stress, when everything gets stripped down to the essentials and you’re just trying to survive the next hour, couples should pull together, not tear apart. If not now, when?
We arrived in the thriving little town of Gabu, the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Kaabu that rose to prominence in the region following the decline of the Mali empire. Once onto the tar we felt the worst part of the journey had to be behind us. But there was a tad more trauma to come.
In our 2010 edition of the Lonely Planet Africa book it says there are no ATMs in the whole country. So when we saw an ATM we pulled over immediately. We were amazed that we were able to withdraw more cash in one go in this one horse town than in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. Guinea-Bissau at first glance seemed better off, with huts replaced by rectangular tin-roofed dwellings. Police were fatter: two well-upholstered young policewomen smugly arrived as Sampson and I were climbing back into the truck prematurely congratulating ourselves.
Miss Hap and Miss Demeanour escorted us down the road to Gabu’s police HQ and delivered us into the clutches of Ms Anthropic who’d seen us park at the crossroads and licked her lips. She point-blank refused to read the Portuguese translation of our Letter of Introduction, but in basic French kept repeating “garer interdit”: parking forbidden. She was bulging and furious and determined to be righteously indignant about flagrant law-breaking “no matter where in the world”. Even though we’d just arrived in the country and were not hurting anyone. To be fair, we probably would have been treated exactly the same had we committed a similar infringement in UK.
We were ready to pay a traffic fine, as long as we got a receipt, but when she quoted us 23000FCA (about R650) we were shocked and showed our incredulity. Ms Anthropic then threatened to withhold our International Driver’s Licenses until the money was paid. Luckily, at that point, a young man who spoke English was brought in.
We slowly and patiently sat and gently refused to budge. One by one we put forward our arguments. Sampson acknowledged his wrongdoing, but added he had asked the market traders if it was ok to park and they’d said it was fine. I added we were quite prepared to pay the fine but we just didn’t have the cash – the ATM hadn’t worked for us, so we’d have to go to Bissau to access some. Or we could use the 8000FCA we’d changed at the Muslim shop to go and buy a new SIM card to call the SA Embassy, where Sampson was doing a show tonight, and get them to send someone with the money…
This had been going on half an hour and we seemed to be in deep doo-doo. She seemed so intransigent, it came as a complete shock when she suddenly gave in, handed the licenses back to Sampson and said “Don’t do it again”. What was the tipping point? Was it my polite request to the translator for Ms Anthropic’s name and contact details so the Embassy could phone her directly? Or was it when we corrected her assertion that we were French and showed her the SA passports that she’d blanked before?
Either way, Sampson was shaken and genuinely grateful; I grasped her hands over the desk, looked into her eyes and gave a heartfelt “Obrigada”. As we turned to walk out she asked Ruby if Zola was Zulu and must have been impressed when my daughter was able to say “No, Xhosa” with an authentic click. I think she realised she would have quite liked our family if she’d given us half a chance. It’s a shame we now couldn’t say the same about Gabu. We got the hell out of there.
We covered more kilometres in the next hour than we had done the entire previous day. The tar wasn’t all plain sailing in fifth gear though, due to the occasional pothole and massive speedbumps every 5km, at the entrance and exit of each settlement.
Bafata, the birthplace of Guinea-Bissau’s independence struggle hero Amílcar Cabral, reminded me of Dombe Grande in Angola with its cute houses and stoeps, balconies and shutters painted pink, blue, yellow or red. Somehow we managed to take the wrong road out of Bambadinca, which was luckily spotted by the GPS 5km out. There were no signs. It was beginning to feel like we’d never get to Bissau – somehow the nearer we got, the more tricksy the route options became, so we still couldn’t just relax and drive straight to the capital. The kids had been dozing upstairs for hours but Sampson was so tired I felt I couldn’t leave him driving alone.
We started passing gangs of youth dressed to the nines carrying sparkly masks on their way out to party. The woman at the toll booth had a curly red wig on – Carnaval was definitely happening!
At 6.30pm we pulled over to shower and eat. We were all still so nauseous, it was just a light meal, but we were so glad to wash the dust off. Sampson had a half an hour lie down. Everyone was shattered and it seemed crazy but at 8pm we locked down and set off once again, dressed in long trousers against the mossies. We headed in to the capital figuring there would be fewer roadblocks by now.
Only one police checkpoint delayed us while they photocopied our Letter of Introduction. Bissau had hardly any outskirts, as there was no industrial area to speak of. In my befuddled state, it seemed that one minute we were driving through the bush in the dark and the next we were approaching a huge roundabout next to the airport with about 5000 people standing around watching a show onstage in the central circle. It was 9.20pm and we’d arrived bang slap in the middle of it all!
We parked Big Reg next to a line of trucks backed up waiting and got out to take a look. Despite the thousands of people around us, the vibe was super relaxed, not remotely drunken or threatening. We walked towards the stage through dozens of snack sellers, and a scattering of kids younger than Zola milling about playing chasing games. We couldn’t get within 100m but from afar we saw a group of graceful girls with short grass skirts and neck ruffs, oiled bodies and elaborately twisted hair moving elegantly in a rhythmic dance with a calabash down the catwalk. The huge calm crowd was roaring its appreciation gently, in waves, like the sea on a shingly shore.
Just that morning the kids had been spotting monkeys, salamanders and vultures in the dense bush; now we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by thousands of happy people out on the street of a proud African capital celebrating their culture. Ruby’s eyes were shining as we climbed up onto the roof to see better – at 14 she may have complaints about life in the truck, but ‘boring’ is never one of them.
We were still 7.5 km out of the centre, so we drove slowly against the tide of people walking back from the main celebrations towards us. Eventually the truck was stopped by police who said the road ahead was closed until 11pm, then changed their minds and waved us on. We were even more surprised when the next set of police moved us over into the left lane, where we fell in behind a bakkie transporting stage lights through the increasingly dense crowds.
Suddenly Big Reg was in the middle of what Sampson estimated to be a crowd of 100000, stretching as far down the wide boulevard as you could see. (I found out later that at least half the city’s population of 400000 is out on the street during Carnaval.) He decided it was too dangerous to carry on driving through this sea of people, and when the bakkie turned right we followed in its wake. It took 15 minutes to get out of the gridlock on the side road, and he pulled over gratefully in a gap in front of the Catholic mission. ‘Our Lady of Help’ certainly was at that moment. Senegalese Father Elijah (speaking a shaming number of languages including fluent English he learned in China) was happy for us to sleep there. We collapsed into bed about midnight.
Day 6, Tuesday: Last Day of Carnaval
We set off early towards the centre of town, heading for the Praça dos Heróis Nacionais and – oh joy! – stumbled upon the SA Embassy tucked away on a peaceful parallel road just off the square. It seemed like a miracle. As we were eating breakfast, the Ambassador Dr Noel Lehoko himself arrived and popped in for a chat.
What a lovely person, and what a fascinating life story: he was born in Butterworth, exiled to Lesotho, and did his medical training in Prague – in Czech! He was a surgeon at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital doing rotations to the Red Cross while Sampson was working at the latter as a medical technologist. Since joining the diplomatic core in 2000 Dr Lehoko has been posted to the Czech Republic and Indonesia before arriving in Guinea-Bissau a year ago. He wasn’t sure exactly where the Carnaval parade was happening but said this square was definitely the centre of things, so we asked him if we could park here.
I couldn’t find any details online. Why didn’t we go back to the Catholic mission and ask for information about the parade at that big stage on the corner as we’d intended to do? Why didn’t I find someone speaking French to check?
We just collapsed with gratitude in the truck, so utterly shattered after the marathon journey: Sampson flat out on the bed, me at the table doing school with kids as they had a fair bit to catch up on. I got enmeshed in an explanation for Zola of how to turn percentages into fractions, as my head still felt too rattled to compute efficiently, and after lunch lay down and fell fast asleep. It was so hot, we lay dozing into the afternoon on the bed, waiting for crowds to gather and the heat to pass.
At 3pm, the time Father Eli said the parade would be starting, I wondered if I should go out and investigate more actively but I just couldn’t face the throbbing sun glaring off the pavement outside. Sampson said “Oh, it’ll be African time, like Calabar; if it’s supposed to start at 3pm, it won’t get going till 5…” I figured the Praça was probably towards the end of the route so it would take a while for the parade to arrive here. At 4.30 I had a shower and a passing Swedish family also couldn’t tell us where the carnival paraded, although they were sure it was around here.
A group of fit young men passed by the truck costumed only in oiled or powdered skin, naked but for strings of shells and tufts of dried grass, carrying cow hide shields accompanied by a guy in motley layers with jangling ankles. While the kids were showering, Sampson and I took a turn around the rapidly filling Praça.
There were promenading cliques of under 20s gathering like birds at dusk, and chirruping as loudly, parading spiky Mohican hairstyles with cornrowed or shaven sides on boys and girls, colourful weaves and plaits, in royal blue, pink or crimson. Like Salvador in Brazil, everyone in Bissau has their hair done for Carnaval. Sunglasses and the shortest shorts were de rigeur. (Guinea-Bissau’s population is 45% Muslim, much less than Guinea’s, and the dress code about showing your thighs was apparently not so strict, in the city at least). I took a photo at the top of the Avenida Francisco Mendes, and it seemed like there were 100 000 contented people walking up towards us.
I had a sinking feeling.
We bumped into cheery Mohamed Ali and his mates who sell airtime in the square – yesterday he literally fell on floor laughing when Sampson did the disappearing cloth trick for them. He spoke a little French. When I asked him about Carnaval, he said it used to take place here in the square, but not since the President moved into the palace opposite.
The authorities rerouted the parade 6km down the road, back exactly where we’d parked last night. It had started at 3pm so it was impossible to get there now to see the end. Even if we raced down there on bikes – which for a very brief desperate moment I considered – by the time we got them down off the rack and cycled down there against the enormous crowd, it would be all over; it was already dusk.
I felt sick to my stomach. We’d gone through 5 days of hell, come 938km on some of the worst roads yet to get here in time for Carnval, by some miracle made it for the last day – then missed it by 6km.
I was so angry with myself for letting things slide, for believing the story of the late start, for letting a lack of Portuguese put me off tackling the quest for information, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to go back to the truck and cry, but when we got there and told the kids, I found it utterly suffocating. In vain I tried to fight the cloud of misery settling in over me and started to walk.
We’d got 20m down the Avenida when I started crying. Ruby, bless her, tried to comfort me, as Sampson battled terror and the bleak realisation that he could have done a bit more to check our patchy information while I was doing school. Zola was at a complete loss, but held my hand on our way back through the thickening crowds and gathering dark.
We threaded our way through the happy throng back to the truck, climbed in, and settled down with the rice pudding Sampson had left cooking in the hot box. Comfort food. We watched three episodes of silly Arrow back to back as noisy crowds ebbed and flowed around the truck. There was a fair bit of bashing on the sides but it was all good-natured greeting, nothing intimidating. Big Reg offered a bit of privacy this side of the huge boulevard, so there was lots of snogging going on in his shadow. We turned the lights off at 11, but it was impossible to sleep till the small hours.
When I woke at 5am, choking on burning plastic fumes again, revelers were still passing on their way home. Thankfully, I fell back to sleep until 10am and felt loads better for the lie-in. Sampson was torturing himself with recriminations but I pulled him into a big hug on the bed and told him it didn’t matter, I was feeling totally over it and finding it quite funny now, like I did The Tipping.
Ruby shook her head and said “You’re mad Mum”.
You really should run a master class on how to avoid paying fines well done Shame about missing the carnival very frustrating. a bit like playing golf when you are as useless as me! You are all in one piece alive and well take consolation!
Hi there. I’m enjoying your interesting blog post! Do you mind if I ask a few questions? I’m planning to go to carnival for one afternoon/evening this year and am struggling to find out the formalities no matter how much I ask the tourism office. Did you need a carnival pass or photography pass? Is there a way of driving to the carnival site or do all the roads close? Where do you think the main site of carnival was when you were there? No one seems to be able tell me where it will be and I don’t also wanting make a long journey then miss it! Must have been so frustrating. Well done on all your adventures though!
Hi Tanya, send your email address to email@example.com and I will forward your details to the carnival organisers to contact you directly and give up to date answers. Are you a carnivalista yourself, journalist or keen tourist? All power to you! Keep us posted on your progress, Sam