It’s 100 kilometers from Abené to Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance. We weren’t in a hurry, so we took our time, savoring the four-story tall Fromager trees and the yellow-billed kites patrolling the borders between salt marsh and forest. Walls of green would close in on the road, but before the vegetation could squeeze out the tarmac, a village would spring up, round houses of banco sharing the land with towering baobabs. Kids would chase after us, smiling and laughing and waving, while the villages’ older residents would stop and stare, sometimes mouth agape, at the two crazy toubabs riding pimped out jakartas.
It was a beautiful ride. On several occasions, we both stopped and smiled, exchanging a look that said “are you seeing what I’m seeing?” By the time we reached the maze of cobblestone causeways that led up to the Casamance river, I was irrevocably in love with Senegal’s southern province.
Once in Ziguinchor, we pulled into Hotel le Perroquet, which was recommended to us by Simon from the Little Baobab. It was a good recommendation. We immediately found ourselves sitting next to the river, cold beers in hand.
Few things are better than a day of riding followed by a cold beer next to a river.
Fishermen loaded up their boats next to the Perroquet’s terrace. Further down, larger boats were packed with mountains of ice, an indication that they would be going a significant distance out to sea. We drank beers and watched the fishermen until sunset. Then it was time for dinner. I had the shrimp curry, Matt had the barracuda, and both plates allowed us to continue our unbroken streak of phenomenal meals in Casamance. We even managed to have bananas flambé for dessert.
The sunrise view from the balcony in front of our room
The following morning, we changed the oil on the jakartas and gassed up for the 150 kilometer journey to Bissau. At this point, the bikes had logged over 2,000 kilometers on the trip. Outside of Matt’s cracked fuel filter in Tambacounda, it was smooth sailing. But we didn’t want to take any chances. When a woman approached us selling gris-gris, we bought two of them and pinned them to the handlebars. We weren’t going to turn down a Diola woman that was selling mystical protection.
Casamance continued to impress on the short ride to the border of Guinea-Bissau. The first stretch of road hugged the Djibelor forest. I almost drove into a ditch on several occasions while staring at birds sailing between the trees (I should mention that Casamance is a world renowned bird watching destination). While cows, goats and sheep are unremarkable pedestrians on the roads of West Africa, Casamance had vervet monkeys skipping across the tarmac, and we saw a number of them right before reaching the border.
It was our second time checking out of Senegal in about eight days. Once again, we had no issues. We then walked across an imaginary line and suddenly everyone was speaking Portuguese to us. My Portuguese begins and ends with “obrigado” (thank you), so I ended up thanking a lot of people at the border. We learned that we wouldn’t be able to get a laissez-passer for the jakartas until we got to the customs post further down the road in São Domingos. Thankfully, after the policeman’s initial confusion over my identity card, he accepted that I was in fact Malian and let me in the country.
We arrived in São Domingos about fifteen minutes later. We were delighted to see a group of customs agents lounging on a patio, joking and laughing hysterically. It’s always preferable to be received by government agents who are in a good mood. We were sent to an incredibly pleasant woman named Cristina. She filled out the paperwork for the bikes and then told us where the parties were in Bissau.
Further up the road, we stopped in a village for lunch and a cold beer. The beers were very cold, but there wasn’t much in the way of tables. The barman set us up with a sack of cement, though, and that was just fine. I ate a sandwich that I had bought from a nice woman on the side of the road. The sandwich cost me twenty cents, so I couldn’t really complain when I realized it was nothing more than two pieces of bread soaked in oil with some crushed sardines in between. Matt made his own sandwich with a product he bought in the Gambia. It was called “Chicken Paste.” A bit of chicken paste and some hot sauce on a baguette and Matt is a happy man (for the record, I tried some of the chicken paste, and I would eat it again).
We were supposed to be entering this corridor of dysfunction – Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Sierra Leone, Liberia – but so far the roads were fine and we had just drank some of the coldest beers on the trip. Shortly after, we pulled up to a police checkpoint and a friendly policewoman named Khadija inquired about our trip and life in Mali. She was ecstatic when I showed her pictures of Bintou and Andre. There was no extortion or attempts for a bribe. Obviously you can’t distill the inner workings of a country on a brief scooter trip, and it was clear Guinea-Bissau had some serious challenges to overcome (electricity infrastructure for a start), but so far it was nothing like the backwards basket case some people described to us before we left.
Traffic was light as we cruised into Bissau. It was a Monday afternoon, and the city was gearing up for carnaval festivities which were set to begin the following week. We were warned in advance that affordable accommodation in Bissau is hard to come by (as we understood it, the electrical grid is extremely limited and most places have to rely on generator power). We tried repeatedly to make reservations at two hotels recommended to us by Simon, but we struck out on both and ended up at Hotel Kalliste, which Matt found while searching online.
The Lonely Planet website describes Kalliste as “little more than a scruffy fallback option.” It was indeed a bit scruffy, and it was our fallback option, but we loved it. Fernando, the Corsican owner, was clearly unconcerned by Lonely Planet’s review. The hotel was nearly fully booked. We snagged the last room, and while it was un peu fatigué, it was also clean and perfectly comfortable.
Downstairs, Kalliste had a restaurant and bar that opened onto the street. Like any good maquis, the patio blurred the line between public and private property. Throughout the evening a healthy mix of people floated in and out. Bissauians young and old, Corsicans, drug dealers, Portuguese. In a bizarre moment of serendipity, we ran into a German named Andy, who Simon had told us to contact once we arrived in the country. This dude lived down the coast, towards the border of Guinea-Conakry, but he happened to be on the terrace of our hotel in Bissau on this particular night.
Later in the evening, we took a taxi into the next neighborhood where we had mind-blowing chorizo which we washed down with Super Bock beers. Afterwards, we wandered back in the direction of the hotel, stopping at a street side caipirinha stand.
This woman, Routi, took such care with her craft that it reminded me of Maiga and the sandwiches he used to make on the Badalabougou Bla Bla street. Maiga would take nearly ten minutes to make a single sandwich, but he was a true artist, delicately flinging chili sauce onto every piece of meat, dabbing condensed milk (his secret ingredient) on the bread and carefully arranging the frites so that you would find one in every bite.
Routi made caipirinhas with the same attention to detail. The Bissau take on this Brazilian cocktail has a mix of fruit, sugar and cana, a liquor that falls somewhere between cachaça and jet fuel. Routi took her time with each drink, mixing and shaking, slicing pineapple and orange and zesting limes. In between her hypnotic cocktail creation, we chatted with a young couple and one of Routi’s friends. They were all just hanging out on the street corner, enjoying each other’s company and the evening air.
We drank our caipirinhas and then hung out with Routi and her friends for a bit. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel where we had a late night feast of grilled seafood. We ended the evening with a few beers at the nightclub that was attached to Kalliste, taking advantage of a quiet night to customize the dj’s playlist.
In the morning, we had chorizo omelets and espressos on the patio. We then packed up our things and said goodbye to Fernando and the Guinean barman who enjoyed speaking French with us. A la prochaine! You know you will end up back somewhere when you already feel nostalgic upon leaving.
We had about 200 kilometers in front of us in order to arrive in Gabu, near the border of Guinea-Conakry. In the coming days, we would say goodbye to endless sealed roads and give the jakartas their first true test. Stay tuned for chapter 4