Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Full Moon Over Guinea-Bissau

I had finished my last blog, and I started to wander around downtown Banjul, which was about three blocks square and had absolutely nothing of interest, trying to figure out how to waste the next three hours until my visa was ready. I was dutifully ignoring all the occasional, 'Hello, my friend' greetings from the hucksters, when someone tugged lightly on my sleeve and said, 'Hello, my friend'.

I turned and saw the guy from the Guinean Consulate, resplendant in his long white cotton robe. He had seen me two bloocks away from his third floor office, and had run downstairs and followed me, so as to let me know that my visa was ready. I came back with him and got it.

That was cute, but the rest of the Gambia was kind of downhill. Maybe it was the power outages and the absurdly slow internet service at night. Maybe it was the constant low grade hussling. Maybe it was everyone telling me that Gambian mosquitos were the worst in the world for malaria (Don't worry, mom, I'm taking my pills). Maybe it was the extremely unattractive white people walking along with their younger and slightly less unattractive Gambian sex partners. Most Gambians were fine enough, but...

So I spent another night there, making friends with a Dutch guy who had bicycled all the way from Holland. Then the next morning it was back out to Serekunda and the garage park for southern Senegal.

Serekunda turned out to be a big, ugly mess, with crappy dirt roads and crappy dirt buildings. What's more, the garage park was now in Larekunda, which was a couple of dirty, congested miles away. We found it, though, and I transferred my gear to a border bound sept place.

No problems at the border, as usual, and I was now in the Casamance, an area of Senegal that is supposed to be a lush, watery paradise. Well, maybe in the rainy season. Now, although it was much more forested than the Sahel, and palm trees were starting to proliferate, it still looked like undeveloped Florida during a drought. Kind of nice, actually, yet still feeling like a bad version of a sunbelt state.

We got to Ziguinchor, the capital city of the region. Now by 'city', even though I know better, I'm still expecting streets and buildings and some infrastructure. This isn't really the case. The Flamboyant Hotel, Ziguinchor's finest, was on a street about twelve feet wide, and the whole ambience felt like a small town in nowhere in 1945. Still, I was back in Senegal, land of friendliness and culture and paved roads, and when it transpired that the Guinea-Bissau consulate had closed for the day a half hour earlier, someone produced a phone number for the 'owner', somebody else called him for me, and he turned up toute suite and issued me my visa.

Okay, back to the gare routiere, this one actually paved over. I was planning to go down to Cap Skiring on the coast for the day; not only would I see more of the Casamance, but I'd have one last day at the beach. But here at the gare they told me that no public transport went there anymore, due to the bad roads. It was time for some quick thinking.

I walked over to the Guinea Bissau stand and got the last seat on the last taxi of the day. And we got to the border fast enough, but now it's time for a little background:

I had my passport stolen in Costa Rica a few years ago, and got a replacement one, which they only issue for a year's period. After that they stamp the back of it to say that it's good for another nine years. Except in my case they had screwed up the stamps a bit. And I was always worried that at some point some idiot guy at some idiot border would raise a fuss over this. But up to now, from Swaziland to Azerbaijan, my fears were unfounded.

Okay, you guessed it. On exiting Senegal the police guy decided that my passport wasn't valid. Never mind the countless country stamps, nor the fact that I had just been let into Senegal this morning. So we stood there for fifteen minutes, him saying my passport was not official, me saying that it was, and him saying that I would have to go back to Dakar and sort it out with the American embassy.

Now you know how much I like to kid the French, but right now I was glad that there was one sharing my cab who spoke some English. I went and got him and had him explain to the police guy the intricasies of the US Passport Agency. At last the guy relented and stamped me out of the country, still darkly muttering that he was going to inform the embassy about this.

Into Guinea-Bissau, which is so obscure that even I was pretty much unaware of it. A former colony of Portugal, it was part of an empire that once included Macau, Goa, East Timor, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. And now I was finally into 'authentic' West Africa.

The land was more lush, more tropical, and brimming with strange trees and plants. The larger squarish buildings that started in the Casamance continued here, now with peaked thatch roofs. (Okay, more were in the more utilitarian, but less authentic, corrugated tin.) Cashew trees, the main export crop, rolled by in their tidy groves.

Now when I say 'cashew', you probably say 'gesundheit', but my mind was thinking about how Senegal and Gambia depended on the peanut, and I saw a Planters Mixed Nut theme developing.

We got to a ferry and waited an hour to cross the mile wide river. The sun was sinking as we pulled into Bissau, the capital. Much to my surprise I saw some actual three and four story official looking structures.

We got dropped off and I hailed a cab to take me into town, knowing full well that as things got dark, things also tended to get weird. And what made it worse was that Guinea-Bissau is a privatiser's dream: the government doesn't even pretend to provide electricity, and just about everything is pitch dark.

And there were problems with my destination. The guidebook recommended a hotel that had no name. The guidebook's maps turned out to be all wrong. And absolutely nobody in Bissau has the slightest idea of the names of any of the streets.

We finally got to an approximation of where I was going and I went to pay the driver the 1000 CFA we had agreed on. And right now you have to understand that even though I am filthy rich, almost all my money is in 10,000 notes (about $20), no one ever has any change, and I had just used up all of mine. I handed him a 5000 note.

And the guy tried to rip me off, which I believe no one ever had before in Africa. An altercation ensued, with me finally telling him to take me to the police.

We started off, heading down darkened streets away from the center. Maybe dodgy, maybe not, but I already knew that this guy was a liar. I decided to take things into my own hands. I reached over, turned off his ignition, took his keys, and started to walk away.

There he was stuck in the middle of the road, but it got his attention. A small crowd gathered in the pitch dark and listened to our case. Finally I got him to cough up most of what he owed me and I gave him his car keys back.

Turned out he was an immigrant, and everyone else in Bissau was pretty darn friendly, including the next taxi driver who took me back into town and vainly tried to find my unnamed hotel. I finally punted on that one, and looked up a hotel that had a name. We got there in short order.

What did I get for my $30 room? A small bed, a three foot square shower- curtained shower in the corner, a tiny tv perched on top of the 'closet' that pulled in one Portuguese station, a tiny refrigerator, and a toilet down the hall. Oh, and a kind of working air conditioner, which I had chug away all evening. And downstairs was a small restaurant where I got, guess what?, a cheese sandwich and fries.

And from where did the electricy come for all this comfort? From the hotel's generator.

Outside, overhead, a full moon shone down on the darkened streets, but I was too tired to enjoy it.


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