With the expanse of whitewashed walls, cheery blue paint and splashes of hot pink bougainvillea, at the Mar Azul resort Italians Anna and Giuseppe Maggio have created a southern Mediterranean vibe in the midst of Africa – just 50km from Bissau, on the banks of an estuary outside the small town of Quinhámel.
The first time I saw Anna, she was striding away down a pathway, a slight figure in a bold print smock with a shock of curly hair surrounded by streaking cats that had just heard the dinner bell. I guessed she was my age or younger. She’s 62.
Giuseppe is a great bear of a man with a restless energy who moves like a buck. It wasn’t a shock to discover he is Sicilian, and learned to sail before he learned to read. I was however surprised to learn he trained as a lawyer and worked as an accountant for years before chucking it all in to sail to Guinea-Bissau.
The Mediterranean trade winds blow past the Canary Isles and down into the Bijagós Archipelago off Bissau. This is the largest group of islands on the West African coast, numbering more than 40; a fascinating community that was never conquered by the colonial government and defies central authority even now – the islanders are infamous smugglers. Giuseppe and Anna sailed here from Spain in a 30ft catamaran, with the wind and without an engine. The whole journey took them a month.
Anna, switching effortlessly between Portuguese, French and English with guests, explained their route while Giuseppe gesticulated wildly with his cigarette and spoke fluent Crioulo with their staff. She worked in publishing in Milan before they launched Italy’s first offshore fish farm in Sicily. It was very successful but stressful to manage and after they lost all their stock in devastating storms ten years ago, they decided to quit while they were still ahead health-wise.
They sold the business, paid off their debts and bought a boat with what remained. After testing it along the coast of southern Spain, in autumn 2008 they set off into the Atlantic doing tiller shifts of 3 hours on, 3 hours off, all day, all night. From Gibraltar to Gran Canaria it was cloudy and their solar power failed. Their instruments lights weren’t working, so they had to navigate using a sextant only. Giuseppe said it was “no problem” – they arrived only 2 miles off course.
He still dreams of sailing on, along the paths of the trade winds to Brazil, but Anna is not so keen. I wasn’t surprised after she described their worst moment, when the nuts and bolts connecting the two hulls of the catamaran came apart during a squall. She was on the inside of one hull and he on the outside of the other trying to screw it back together while negotiating the choppy seas. It seemed like a helluva metaphor for how the challenges of long haul travel test a relationship to the limit. Anna laughed that they now have a back-up cable system to make sure they never risk coming apart again.
She showed me pictures of their living space inside the one hull – the other carried spares. It made Big Reg look positively palatial. She must love this man very, very much.
That was seven years ago. They’ve been managing Mar Azul for the last three, when they brought their cat Pat to join them from Sicily. They now have 12.
Escape to the Sea
We got up at 5am and were off out of the poisonous plastic fumes of Bissau to Quinhámel by 8. At the market, Sampson was bowled over when he bumped into Mademba, who spent 7 years working in Worcester, just north of Cape Town. Mademba helped us to fill up with water at his neighbourhood well.
We were looking for any road to a beach but the trees were all bit low, when I caught sight of a turn off marked Mar Azul and remembered the place had been recommended by our Swedish friends Fredrik and Suzanna. Talk about serendipitous. I couldn’t face even another 20kms being bounced about on a dirt road right then. Big Reg just squeezed by under the cashews and down into the shady haven.
We spent 11 days there, recalibrating after the triple whammy of serious illness followed by a hard road and a crushing disappointment. I’d also had a brush with gluten in Bissau and didn’t eat much the first few days to avoid pain. We spent the first week resting, washing clothes and catching up on school. My ability to do algebra improved exponentially in ratio to the number of hours slept.
Appropriately in this romantic Italian environment, we started reading Romeo and Juliet, one of Ruby’s set texts in Grade 9. Zola surprised everyone including himself by becoming an enthusiastic participant, particularly in the more swashbuckling scenes.
The kids got the Merida bikes down and whizzed about exploring the resort area. I can’t believe Zola has grown so much he can now handle either comfortably. Three times they biked 7km to Quinhámel market and back to buy bread, fruit and veg. That was 2km up the dirt road then another 5km on the tar to town.
Our ‘missed call on arrival and as a signal to return’ system on our faithful JCB phones served to keep my anxiety to a minimum, but I needn’t have worried. One shopkeeper minded the bikes while they went shopping in the market and Ruby coped fine, even in Portuguese. Not for the first time, I was forced to acknowledge how much more confident I feel about the safety of my children here in rural West Africa than at home in urban South Africa.
Ruby’s sole blunder was to buy several kilos of lemons thinking they were oranges – but what do you do when life offers you lemons? Make lemonade! Her added sugar levels were dangerous for me but the lemonade was utterly delicious, and the powerful Vitamin C boost was much needed.
While I was busy editing a magazine article, Sampson spent a happy few days editing his Liberian surf highlights video – check it out here. Zola looks very cool in it, and they spent hours admiring their turns in slow motion and the close-up shots taken by Ruby in the water. Everyone was feeling smug. At last it seemed we had achieved true truckulence, with Ruby genuinely content and very loving – just as Zola was threatening to become more teenagey, sigh.
On Valentine’s Day Sunday I granted myself the gift of complete rest. I started walking again, and read some of my book for the first time in weeks. Sampson fixed my ‘broken heart’ – my favourite hook had snapped off, and he managed to glue it back together, and screw them all more solidly to the wall. It was a truly thoughtful present. Ruby bought my favourite bissap tea from Quinhámel market and made me an iced version of this hot pink drink from hibiscus flowers. We watched Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and I felt blessed by the peace of the day.
Mar Azul’s swimming pool was refilled with water from hot springs – it was bliss to relax in it like a bath. The water was very soft, lovely for washing, not so nice for drinking, but another good excuse to make lemonade. Ruby bought another few kilos of lemons!
The Sampsons all suffer from hay fever and had been sneezing a lot since re-entering the savannah but Zola was the worst. He had a blocked nose and a terrible cough verging on asthmatic. Ruby told me he was also grinding his teeth in his sleep, so I asked Zola if he was anxious about anything.
He admitted that he’d been scared by the lines of faded photos, on the wall of Ms Anthropic’s interrogation room in Gabu police station, of murdered corpses including children’s. I told him they were probably relics of the civil war and he was not to worry about that being our immediate fate. Later a dentist told me he was grinding because he was about to lose teeth in preparation for his molars coming in. He’s growing up in front of my eyes…
Ten days later, Giuseppe was flicking through Zola’s schoolbooks and wincing with me at Ruby’s Maths. He says Guinea-Bissau’s main problem is not its narco-status or toppling governments but a lack of textbooks. Education here consists solely of teachers dictating to children and them rote-repeating back. He told the story of a 12-year-old local girl who was admiring his map of the world pinned to the wall of the restaurant. She said she’d never seen such a thing before. He pointed to Africa and asked her if she was proud to be African? She shook her head violently and said “I’m not from Africa, I’m from Quinhámel!”
More worryingly, the local skipper of a ferryboat was equally challenged when faced with Giuseppe’s GPS. He knew Guinea-Bissau was in West Africa, but he couldn’t identify where it was on the continent. What hope is there for any nation whose youth have such a limited idea of their place in the world?
By the end of our stay my strength had so increased, I could walk half way down the dirt road and back. The climate was feeling more temperate, with early mornings chilly enough to wear a hoodie, but sweltering afternoons. I had to dig out all our moisturising lotions as we suddenly had chapped lips and heels again.
We spring cleaned the cupboards, and wiped the heavy dust of the road to Foulamori off the mossie screens. When the fridge stopped sliding, Sampson took it apart and fixed it, good as new!
Emma and Eve will be happy to hear that Ruby attempted to make home-made Tunnocks teacakes by melting dark chocolate and dipping marshmallows in. I shouldn’t have had any but they were just too tempting to nibble while watching the James Brown movie Get On Up – and well worth the headache.
Mar Azul was visited by two Ghanaian Reverends looking for an Easter conference venue, and the Nigerian Ambassador’s party. Such lovely people, so interested and so interesting! These challenging conversations reminded us how we enjoyed chatting with the dynamic people of those nations.
Mar Azul was so peaceful during the week and so packed at weekends. The second Sunday we there, I was just out of the pool in a towel at the end of the afternoon when I heard a familiar accent outside: “I love your truck, and if you don’t keep an eye on it I’ll steal it”. Tim was so chuffed to be invited in for a look round Big Reg. He’d gone on a 6 month adventure with his family on retirement but his wife was not keen to do longer. He turned out to be from Newquay, and even went to the same school as Sampson!
That night, we did a little show to say thank you. The audience included a group of British birdwatchers that Tim had come with to Bijagós – one of whom had apparently caught a record-breaking-sized fish!
Sampson busked it beautifully, throwing in a bit of stand-up for the Brits, and directing the magic at the young daughter of another Ambassador, Senhor Rogério Herbert. Ruby and I did fire with diesel provided by Giuseppe. The Ambassador tipped Sampson 10000 FCA with which he immediately bought a celebratory round of Mar Azul’s baobab icecream mousse. Brit Roger pushed 20 Euros on me, which came in very useful two countries later. But Tim came with the best gift of all: his camera. He said he was going to buy a new one when he got home so he’d like me to have this one.
I just couldn’t believe it. That very week my trusty Tudortech Olympus had been showing strain from all the jolting of journey recently: a few times it hadn’t responded when I turned it on. I hadn’t wanted to face up to the implications of that for the blog. Sampson said he was delighted he wouldn’t have to stress about a present for my upcoming birthday, but I was so touched, I couldn’t speak. I threw my arms round Tim – not easy, he’s a very tall feller – and just managed not to sob. Sampson said he made him really homesick for Cornwall and the kindness of country people there – it was like Tim brought some love from the family back home all the way to us here.
N.B. Exactly a month later, my camera died. BLESS YOU TIM POAT – WITHOUT YOUR GENEROUS DONATION, THIS BLOG WOULD IMMINENTLY BE PICTURELESS!
Anna showed Ruby three kittens in a box. The silver grey one with the blue eyes was already promised to one of the kitchen staff for her daughter’s birthday. But Ruby immediately fell in love with the other two: a black female with green eyes and a beautiful grey tabby tom. What do you think happened next?
Of course she begged me to keep one, and I found myself lobbying my husband in support because it would make her so happy, even if there were a crazy lack of space in the truck. Ruby was beside herself at the prospect, and kept kissing me.
On our penultimate day, Giuseppe made a box for the kittens to come and spend the night with us, to see which one we should take. Ruby preferred the tabby, whose personality was exactly like hers, but Sampson was adamant the female was less likely to pee to mark territory and more likely to catch rats. They were christened Tiger (or Tigger when he’s hyperactive) and Cleopatra (in homage to their mum).
That night, Anna asked us to do the show again for the staff that had been too busy to see it the day before, so we had an intimate gathering just for them. Signor Albino nearly jumped out of his skin when Sampson made a cigarette disappear into his shirt without burning a hole in it.
Ruby predicted that her Dad, who was originally most anti-cats-in-the-truck, would be the one to fall heaviest for them and, sure as Bob, he was claiming play rights from the word go. The next morning as the kittens tumbled on the bed we all just stood and watched them, mesmerized. It was such a great way to start the day; I’ve never seen Ruby so perky first thing!
We had a lovely last day of idyllic calm. Sampson and I had just persuaded the kids that Cleo was the sensible choice, bringing less aggressive energy into the confined space of the truck, when he started fixing Ruby’s cupboard with a drill. I took the box of kittens outside away from the frightening noise, sat on the steps and watched them for ten minutes, stroking them behind their ears. Tiger looked up at me with his enormous eyes and purred like an outboard motor.
Suddenly the terrible realisation dawned that I just couldn’t leave him behind. Even though I knew I’d probably live to regret it. Perhaps when Tiger pees on my bed, scratches holes in the mossie screens or hisses at a customs officer. But for now – he was just too beautiful.
It was like deciding to have kids, I sighed to myself: if you’re going to mess your life up with dependents, you might as well go the whole hog and have two so you have the joy of them entertaining each other. Anna was delighted at the news, while Giuseppe told us that Pat as a kitten had run to him from amidst a field full of sheep and never left. She gave birth to these three kittens on his chest.
When we left, they hugged us like we were family.