Things Fall Apart

We get on a ferry in Dakar, Senegal. And from there, things begin to fall apart. Thus starts a series of long, often bumpy rides through two countries that seem to have fallen out of the world’s peripheral vision, where instability and poor governance have resulted in infrastructure that is crumbling to the ground: the Guineas.


Somehow, we find ourselves in Guinea-Bissau. It is largely the visas game that brings us here: our research has uncovered that the Guinea-Bissau visa is quick and inexpensive in Ziguinchor in the south of Senegal, and that the Guinea-Conakry visa is quicker and cheaper (half the price) in Bissau city than in Dakar. There is also that precious nugget of information, passed onto us by a Dutch traveller we met in Kampala, that the Nigeria visa is readily obtainable here.

boarding the MV Aline Sitoe Diatta, which replaced the MV Le Joola

We really know nothing about Guinea-Bissau. It is only on the eve of our arrival that I learn that it is a Portuguese-speaking country (the last of which we visited was Mozambique), yet uses the West African CFA franc (otherwise used only in French-speaking West African countries) as its currency. The last time we heard about Guinea-Bissau was April 2012, when there was a small blurb on the news (we were in Uganda at the time) about a coup d’état in the country. Yet the security situation is reportedly calm, and a quick transit through the capital city shouldn’t be too risky.

the border official who searched our bags

From Dakar, the biweekly ferry takes us to Ziguinchor in the southern Casamance region of Senegal (skipping over Gambia’s borders and visa). It is a 15-hour overnight trip, but on a comfortable and modern boat – whose moderness, however, has a tragic history, as it is the replacement for the MV Le Joola which sank in 2002, killing over 2000 people. We arrive in Ziguinchor in the morning, quickly stop by the Guinea-Bissau consulate to pick up visas, then immediately get on a minibus headed for Bissau city.

Cucumbers, cashews, and conversations … These are the impressions of our minibus ride to Bissau. Like many cross-border journeys, there is a smattering of languages from both the country of departure and country of arrival. French is used to communicate with us, while our fellow passengers converse in the warm and exotic sounds of Portuguese-African Crioulo. Cashews are for sale at the border (a young girl crying plaintively “Cinq-cent! Cinq cent!” convinces us to buy some), and so are cucumbers (which the man in front crunches on, peeling with his teeth) – which, probably by coincidence, last happened to us in Mozambique. The countryside is lush, and we feel the excitement of being in a new country. The ride stretches on and on, prolonged by lengthy searches of the car and our belongings at the border (where the expressionless border official asks us to take a photo of him with the camera he sees in our bag – a bizarre experience) and many roadblocks along the way. Apparently, Guinea-Bissau is a major drug-smuggling route from Senegal out of Africa.

driving through the Guinea Bissau countryside

We arrive in Bissau city towards sunset. Before we even ask for help, a fellow passenger finds a taxi and negotiates the local price for us, instructing the driver to take us to our chosen budget hotel. Unfortunately, the term “budget hotel” is a misnomer in Bissau, where accommodation prices rival those of Paris. This is due to the total absence of any reliable state-provided electricity – all businesses and hotels are powered by generator. Our chosen pensao is full, and it takes some driving around town to find another affordable option: a dingy room with fan for CFA15,000 (US$30). The generator will only come on at 7pm, so we peer into the bathroom with our cellphone light and hope that we won’t find it too dirty when the power comes on.

Walking in the dark streets on our way out to dinner, we feel like we catch glimpses of another era: old Portuguese men sitting in groups drinking beer, expansive colonial buildings with crumbling exteriors that have been abandoned or taken over by someone else; preserved residences in the city centre that continue to house affluent families. Around 7pm, the generators come growling on, and the dark exteriors fill with light and the buzzing sound of air-conditioners and fans. We duck into a small restaurant for a meal of camarao ao alho, where the friendly Senegalese/Guinean owner sits and chats with us through the meal and offers tips for our onward journey to Conakry.

The next morning, we set about completing our bureaucratic tasks. The Guinean consul has not yet arrived when we stop by his office at 9am, so we head to the Nigerian embassy first. Things look positive as we are ushered in for a personal meeting with the consul. The meeting quickly turns strange, as he subjects us to an “interview” to decide whether or not to grant us visas. He first says that we need a letter of invitation, and then he changes his mind and advises us to be very careful of any invitations to Nigeria as they might be scams. He asks us our religion and presses us to admit if we are Muslims, following our answers with “… and then, you converted to Islam?” Finally, he says he wants to ask us something directly: “Do you have any connections with Mali?” No, we answer, and we mention our friend the Dutch cyclist who he granted a visa last year, does he remember? He remembers and seems to be satisfied, and within 30 minutes we have shiny green Nigerian visa stickers in our passports. The Guinea visa is much more straightforward: form, passport photos, photocopies, and money. By 2pm, our bureaucratic tasks are finished.

That afternoon, we drag ourselves out into the heat for a visit of the city. There are touches of old-world charm in the decaying pastel-coloured buildings of Bissau Velho (Old Bissau), and the atmosphere is quiet yet full of life as people go about their daily business. The bombed-out roof of the former presidential palace, under reconstruction, is a reminder of the political troubles which plague the country. Down by the port, a jumble of mangroves and trash leads out to a fishing and cargo port. In the distance, we imagine the paradise of the 87 islands of the Arguipélago dos Bijagós’ – inaccessible to travellers without either unlimited time or pockets, due to the unreliability of public transport to/between the islands.

vultures in the streets of Bissau city

old colonial buildings in Bissau Velho

the Catholic cathedral in downtown Bissau

view towards the port, Bissau city

fishing port, Bissau city

old abandoned hotel (no longer grande), Bissau city

the Presidential Palace with its roof under reconstruction

There is nothing left to keep us in Bissau city. The next morning, we leave to tackle the long road to Conakry, Guinea.

the vehicle in which we make the long journey to Conakry

We decide that the first step is to stop off in the northern town of Gabu. The road to Gabu is paved and certain, but after that the journey becomes unclear. We have heard that from Gabu, there are direct cars to Conakry that are best caught in the early morning. But beyond that, we are unable to get clear information about the duration of the trip. “La route est mauvaise” is the only answer to our questions.

In Gabu the next day, we find the parking spot for the Conakry vehicles. They are beat-up old Peugeot stationwagons, which squeeze 9 people into 7 passenger seats (2 in front, 4 in the middle, 3 in the back). The distance to Conakry is only 310km, but we are told that the trip takes a long time, up to 24 hours, and the car drives through the night until you arrive. We are confused as to how one driver can handle such a long journey on his own, and are concerned about safety. “The drivers are used to it”, is the answer.

The road to Conakry starts the most difficult part of our journey. The next morning we are at the Gabu station early, and are dismayed to find that the car in the Conakry spot is one of the most beat-up vehicles in the station. But there is only one car to choose from, so we wrap our backpacks in raincovers and plastic bags and vie for a spot in the back, where only 3 passengers sit. It takes about three hours for the car to fill up. Around 10am, we set off.

There is little to say about the next 14 hours. The ride is slow and bumpy, over a road that is little more than a red mud track through the forest. We can confirm: La route est mauvaise.

on the road to Conakry


crossing the border by hand-pulled ferry


Our entry into Guinea is memorable. First, there is the hand-hauled “ferry” over the Koliba river between the border posts. Our taxi mounts roughly onto a floating wooden platform, and all males on board are enlisted to help pull it along a chain across the river. It is a wet landing on the other side. As we wade ashore, the platform floats a little higher with the decrease in weight, and it is pushed (with sticks in the water) a few feet closer to make a softer landing for the vehicles.

Second, there are the intense stomach cramps that leave me in cold sweats immediately after we pass Guinea’s military, police, immigration, and customs border posts. Luckily, our driver and fellow passengers are patient and understanding, and there is not a word of complaint when we ask to stop the car twice. I am also comforted by jungle foliage, which provides a lot of privacy (although everyone stays respectfully a good distance away), and the pleasant sound of trickling streams that help take my mind off the situation. All of this taken care of, we continue on the road towards Conakry.

the drive through the stunning Guinean countryside

hanging with Lamine

It is only 150km from Gabu to Boke (the first major town we meet in Guinea), yet the drive takes 14 hours. A few kilometres from the town, towards midnight, the road becomes paved. The driver immediately accelerates to over 100km per hour. It is raining, visibility is poor, and he has been driving continuously for the entire day. Moreover, there are still 4 hours to Conakry, and we don’t want to arrive in a reputedly dangerous city in the middle of the night. A fellow passenger, a young student named Lamine, has invited us to spend the night at his family’s home in Boke. When the car arrives in Boke, we decide to accept his invitation.

chez Lamine: the bed we couldn’t sleep on

Lamine’s family “home” turns out to be more of a Koranic school compound, and we discover that we can’t sleep on the bed that he offers us because it is wet with urine (possibly left behind by a child – we see a pair of tiny shoes in the corner). Conversation is also difficult, as he doesn’t speak much French. We are more puzzled by our host than anything else, as beyond inviting us into his family’s home, he doesn’t seem too keen on becoming friends. It is a weird experience, but oh well. The next morning, we continue on the road to Conakry.

the beauty of Guinea

The Guinean countryside is stunningly beautiful. Lush and green, it feels as if we are in the richest of lands, where wealth grows endlessly from the ground, trickles through the water, and rains from the sky. We drive past mountain plateaus, and see waterfalls springing forth from the rock. We pass countless rivers and streams, full of children swimming and people washing. The red earth, which forms the bumpy dirt road, stretches onwards in all directions providing nourishment to anything that humans may need. Inside the earth lay rich deposits of gold and minerals.

doing nothing at the Catholic mission (because there is nothing to do)

Yet Guinea is astonishingly poor. There is not enough to build roads or provide electricity or care for its people. After driving through the countryside, Conakry comes as a shock. The city is dirty and falling apart, and people clearly live in the most dire circumstances. The contrast between the stunning countryside and the horrendous state of the capital city leave us with a hopeless feeling inside, and for the first time, we feel like we cannot call a country “developing”.

We stay in Conakry for a few days, recovering from our journey and waiting for our Sierra Leone visas to come through. Luckily, there is space for us at the Catholic mission, which is run-down (water drips from the ceiling into our room), but cheap and safe. It has a large garden, and as we walk through, we recoil in disbelief when we find a giant crocodile nesting in a cage. We are not sure that a crocodile is the best pet to keep in a falling-apart country! We carry our documents with us, and try to avoid the soldiers and immigration police who seem to trawl the city centre. We visit the Cimitière de Boulbinet, which seems better-kept than many places that house living persons, and provides a strange window onto the past. We find a few restaurants that offer decent food, including a patisserie run by a Frenchman with a moustache (often found shouting at his staff), who seems to have been left behind when the colonialists left. A few scraggly-haired expats wander around town, who look to us as if they are lost. They probably think the same thing about us.

a strange sight: the giant crocodile in the garden of the Catholic mission

Cimitière de Boulbinet in downtown Conakry

Our Sierra Leone visas arrive by email, and after three days, we leave Conakry for Freetown. The Conakry-Freetown highway has recently been paved, so besides the frequent Guinean roadblocks, it should be a quick, smooth ride. We get in a shared taxi for Freetown, start to speak English with our fellow passengers, and hope that with the onward journey, our hope will be renewed.

at the Conakry station, waiting to leave for Freetown