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Guinea Bissau

July 4, 2009

It took me a good two weeks to pluck up the courage to head south into Guinea Bissau, for I had heard all manner of alarming things about the place, probably pitched all the way along the specrum from wild rumour to solid fact. The military coup that took place earlier this year was quite a large worry, along with tales of road blocks and random stoppings in the street by men in uniform keen to supplement their pocket money. Someone told me that even Bissau, the capital, has no electricity or running water. Someone else said that cholera is rife in the capital and my feeble white body would certainly succumb. And knowing that a lot of people only speak Creola, a mixture of local languages and Mediaval Portuguese (in which, you will be amazed to know, I am not actually fluent) also made me think that things could be a little tricky.
A lot of things I had heard were cocaine related. Guinea Bissau is one of the poorer countries around, is managed in perhaps not the most public-spirited of fashions, and is not all that far away from South America, which all adds up to make it an attractive destination for Columbian yachtsmen. One of the nastier rumours about the consequences is that there is good crack to be had in the suburbs (and no, there is not a large Irish immigrant community). Also, there is a suspicion that the recent coup happened because the World Bank had threatened to pull the plug unless relations between Guinea Bisssau and Columbia became a little frostier, and the president was starting to see their point of view, so one of the cartels arranged a change of government. This is, of course, all just unsubstantiated hearsay, in case anyone in Medellin is reading this. There are many tales, too, that relate to a recent shipwreck, which left the local beaches littered with 25kg bags of contraband. One can imagine something along the lines of Whisky Galore, though perhaps more reminiscent of a Benny Hill chase scene than an Ealing comedy. Not being on City salaries, the locals had no idea what to do with the mysterious white powder, for it certainly was not rice, sugar, or anyhting else useful. Some people chucked it on the fields in the hope that the rice would benefit. Others mixed up a stodgy paste for whitewashing their houses. Some just threw the bags away. Until men in big shiny cars came and started offering a dollar a bag to buy back their merchandise, that is; not a big outlay for something that retails for somewhere in the region of silly amounts of money.
Anyway, the reality of what I found was far from the chaotic nightmare world that I feared. Admittedly everything in Bissau was a bit frayed around the edges, but working well enough. The vast majority of peple that I met were lovely (with the exception of some knobhead who claimed to have lived in Windsor Palace with Wills and Harry for 5 years before embarking on his career as an astronaut). People that stopped me in the street simply just fancied a chat. People that followed me around were either going that way anyway or wanted to make sure I knew where I was going. I did question why I so readily agreed to accompany a teacher I had met to his home in the suburbs, but was amazed when he insisted on paying for the taxi and the local moonshine that he plyed me with before sending me on my way.
Overall I think the level of danger I felt can be summed up by the moment in the journey from Bissau to Gabu when the taxi driver asked the man in the passenger seat to please rearrange all the soft toys on the dashboard for him.
Gabu is on the way to Guinea, the next stop, although some people refer to it as Guinea Conakry to avoid confusion. Except that some people just call it Guinea, which is confusing. I had better go and lie down.
Bye for now.

Posted by jamesb at July 4, 2009 11:54 AM