If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you have probably heard me talk about Boukary Konate. I first met him in 2011 after communicating with him online for a number of months. We ate 50 cent brochettes in Bistro Bafing and talked about Bamanankan, the most widely spoken language in Mali.
Prior to his illness, Boukary would go to work for the Education ministry during the week and then travel to the villages on the weekend, documenting and learning about rarely explored aspects of Malian culture and then sharing them with Malians and the rest of the world. He introduced the internet to certain small rural communities using a rig he put together with a laptop, solar panel, car battery, and a 3g USB key. Needless to say, he is an enormous asset for his country and the world.
Right now, Boukary is not going to work, and he is not visiting the villages. He is seriously ill. After being misdiagnosed for two months with an ulcer, Boukary found out that he has Hepatitis B and that his liver had suffered significant damage. We have now learned that he has liver cancer. We are frantically trying to figure out the best way forward – the path that will help him survive and not traumatize him unnecessarily. In Mali, this is not easy. If the tumor on his liver is operable, it is not an operation that we can do here. The liver specialist at the country’s largest public hospital has said he can go to Tunis.
Now we have to help Boukary make a decision. He is incredibly weak, but he is still lucid, and he doesn’t believe that it’s his time. Many people are trying to help. Friends and family here, and abroad. I started a fundraiser and within a week, over 40 people donated and we have now received almost double the requested amount. Boukary truly has a global family, and it’s clear that he has touched people around the world.
The other day when I went to visit him, he was tired and in no mood to talk. So we sat together for some time. When I got up to leave, I told him “i ji ja,” an expression in Bamanankan that is used to wish someone courage. His eyes widened and he began to speak. He asked me if I knew why that particular expression was used for that reason? I didn’t know. He explained that the literal meaning is “dry your water,” but that the cultural translation refers to something deeper: we are all made of water, and “i ji ja” is a way for us to say “take control of what’s inside you.” We can also think of it as “dry your tears.” And that is how you wish someone courage in Bamanankan.
Boukary is bed-ridden and seriously ill, but he is still a teacher, and we are still learning things from him. Please keep him in your prayers and wish him courage.
We arrived back in Mali from our jakarta trip at the end of February. I haven’t posted much – or at all – since then, and I don’t have time to write something significant so this post will be mostly visual.
Andre turned 8-months-old yesterday. He is standing up for a few seconds at a time now, and every day you can see the synapses multiply. For me and Bintou, watching him grow into a happy child has been pure joy. But we’ve now entered into a new phase called EVERYTHINGISFAIRGAME. For example, Andre is currently enamored with a neon green dustpan, so enamored that he wants to eat it. As I understand it, this phase lasts for several years? I anticipate many brushes with cardiac arrest once he starts walking, no less running, but at the same time, I can’t wait for this new adventure.
Family aside, 2017 has had its highs and lows. We lost a friend in a car accident. I will write more about it at a later time. Mali continues to unravel, with insecurity and poor governance leading the way. A hotel and restaurant, Le Campement, was attacked on the 18th. It was Father’s Day, and Bintou and I were actually considering going there on that particular day. We decided we’d rather avoid the crowds. Six people were killed and many others injured. The bars and pool areas were burnt to the ground. Meanwhile, our good friend Sophie is shutting the doors on her hotel in Djenne, which she started in 2006. It was difficult to read her final post about her time there. We have expanded the bar area at our own restaurant, but we are now once again turning to security, looking into armed guards and other measures to add to what is already a quite secure space overall.
The first half of the year has had its moments, though. After our jakarta tour, we’ve had plenty of trips on the river and even a hop over the border to Burkina Faso. While some good friends have left Bamako, others have arrived and there always seems to be someone passing through. My mom finally made it to Mali, and she had an excellent visit. We took a trip up to Segou and went around to our favorite spots in Bamako. While she would have enjoyed a trip to the arctic circle in winter as long as Andre was present, I was glad she got to see where I have been living for the better part of a decade.
I continue to work on my Postcards from Timbuktu project with Ali, and Matt and I are getting ready to finalize our scooter trips (side note: if you are interested in joining a trip, go to ScootWestAfrica.com and sign up to the email list at the bottom of the homepage. We will soon be making an announcement about dates and different trips). Hopefully, I will have a chance to post a bit more often on this blog as well.
Here are some photos from March-June. DISCLAIMER: most of them are photos of Andre.
Andre found chocolate and this is what happened.
You been smoking something, Dre??????
Andre the nomad
At Campement a couple of months before it was attacked.
I don’t know if this photo is the before …
… or the after
Andre’s first waterfall. In Banfora, Burkina Faso.
Andre’s first dip in a waterfall. He was not so impressed.
Bob testing out his allegedly waterproof phone. This was an excellent day.
Bintou and a very phallic rock formation at the Sindou Peaks near Banfora.
Bintou made her top and Andre’s. She is getting quite clever with her creations these days.
With friends on the roof of our boat
Inaugurating the new bar
A couple weeks later…
Hyacinthe, known to many as Eddie Murphy, is now working with us. This was an enormous coup as far as I’m concerned. Instant client favorite.
This is the fifth installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
We were on our way to Doucki, a village in the Fouta Djallon, a region of the Guinean highlands populated largely by Fulani. We had long heard tales about the natural beauty of the Fouta, and while we were running short on time (or I was at least), we were excited to explore it.
Simon from the Little Baobab had referred us to Hassan Bah (pictured lounging on a rock above), a guide based in Doucki. Somewhere after Labé we phoned Hassan, and he indicated where we would need to turn off the paved road in order to make it to his village.
The unpaved road deteriorated almost immediately after we turned onto it. What started as loose gravel and sand turned into an up-and-down staircase of jagged rocks. I crept along in first gear trying to avoid a puncture and further damage to my already displaced foot brake.
Every now and then we passed through a village and asked if we were on the right road. We also asked how much further it was to Doucki. The answer was always the same: “Tchieeeeee!!! Doucki?? C’est loin !!!!” (It’s far). It was almost as if Doucki was moving away from us as we drove towards it.
So we were driving these jakartas on a staircase of rocks and the distance to our destination was ostensibly increasing. Otherwise, it was a very enjoyable ride. Every time we stopped in a village, we received warm greetings and had funny conversations with residents who were confused and intrigued by the strange contraptions we were riding.
It was getting dark when we arrived in Doucki. Hassan welcomed us and showed us to our bungalows, which were built with thatch roofs that nearly touched the ground. This feature of Fulani architecture helps maintain a cool interior, but it makes it treacherous to get in or out if you are over four feet tall.
We had a delicious supper of sauce arachide (peanut sauce) with fish and rice, and oranges for dessert. We then chatted with Hassan and made a plan for the following day. Hassan was a character. He often spoke in acronyms. As in, “DIR” (dinner is ready) or tomorrow we are going to go on a “KAH” (a Kick Ass Hike). He had spent time with Peace Corps volunteers many years ago, and they helped him come up with his highly marketable hikes, such as “Chutes and Ladders” and “Indiana Jones.” They also seemed to have taught him (or perhaps it was some of the many tourists that visit him) a good amount of vernacular English that you normally wouldn’t hear from an older Fulani man living in the highlands of Guinea.
Hassan was a lovely man, but some of his tricks as a guide, like obsessively pointing out rocks that looked like animals, wore on us. On the other hand, it was easy to see that he was a pro and that he would be quite charming to a group of tourists.
Our early morning “Indiana Jones” hike began on a plateau. We walked through clusters of bungalows, past avocado trees and coffee plants. We arrived at a clearing with impressive views of the valley below. Despite gusting winds and uneven terrain, I decided to try and fly Oumou the drone. This was misguided. I had to land her on the small rectangular rock where Matt, Hassan and I were standing. Once I put her down, a gust of wind started pushing her forward. She tilted 45 degrees and snapped off two propellers into the rock. I then sliced my hand trying to grab the drone (even more misguided).
We descended into the valley where we walked through the dark and cool channels that ran between towering slabs of rock bursting with ferns and vines. The Fouta is truly a spectacular place.
Sorry for the poor pictures. I will blame low light and my camera phone.
The hike was deservedly called the “Indiana Jones” hike. There were caves, climbing vines and several narrow passages that would give you a panic attack if you were claustrophobic.
We got back to Hassan’s place in the early afternoon. We planned on eating lunch before heading back to Labé. There was one complication. During the night, my rear tire had gone flat. It surely took a puncture on the wild ride leading into Doucki. Thankfully, Matt had all the needed parts and changed the inner-tube without issue.
We once again set out on the road from hell, arriving in Labé several hours later. We pulled into the tranquil Hotel Tata, where we were quickly soothed by cold beers. Tata herself showed us to our room, which was clean and comfortable.
Back at the bar, we met up with Conrad, a German who we had somehow crossed paths with on the road to Doucki. His wife was from the Fouta, and he had lots of interesting things to say about Guinea and international development. For dinner, Tata made us some of the best pizza we have had in West Africa. It turns out that she spends the rainy season (low season for tourists) in Italy each year with her husband.
After dinner, we hopped onto moto taxis and went for a cruise around town. The moto taxi drivers wore fluorescent orange vests, and they rode bikes that were considerably more robust than our measly jakartas. Their bikes also had a more effective suspension system in which the front of the bike is more or less independent from the rear, which is perfect for the roads of the Guinean highlands. As a passenger it was like riding on a millipede that goes 70 kilometers per hour.
We raced around town in search of cold beers. It was not an easy mission. Labé is not well electrified and the refrigeration of beers is understandably not a top priority (Labé and the Fouta are largely Muslim). We went into one bar where we scored lukewarm cans of Faxe beer. Faxe is some kind of Danish beer that has a viking man as a logo. It was revolting.
I do not recommend this beer
Eventually we ended up at Albatross, one of the main (one of 3) nightclubs in town, where we found mildly chilled cans of Guiluxe. The club was dead and wasn’t likely to get going for several hours. Matt “dipped the lights” (he went back to the hotel to go to sleep) as he would say, while I lingered and chatted with the manager and DJ for a bit. Afterwards, I hopped on a moto taxi to go back to Hotel Tata.
After about 15 minutes of riding, I looked around and realized we were on the road that was leading towards Pita and that godforsaken road that goes to Doucki. I told the driver to stop so I could pull up Google Maps. There isn’t much electricity in Labé, but there is 3g. In many places in West Africa, mobile technology and communications have leapfrogged basic infrastructure. Sure enough, we were about five kilometers outside of Labé. After a frank discussion with the driver, Google Maps lead us back to to the hotel.
The next day, we began what would be a three day marathon to get back to Bamako. We did not know what to expect from the roads. We heard varying tales from “pas de problème” to the dreaded “bombé” (see this post to understand bombé). In any case, we prepared for the worst.
The worst never came, and while the road was sporadically unpaved (it looked like it had been stripped in anticipation of new road work), it was an absolutely gorgeous drive out of the highlands. We blazed ahead towards Dabola, stopping for lunch at a large traffic circle, the crossroads to Mamou. I ate a questionable lunch of sandy riz-sauce. The sauce was tasty, but there was a bit too much gristle for my liking. The two women cooking and selling the food were a joy, though.
In Dabola, Matt somehow found a hotel that had hot water and air-conditioning. They also had a bar and a restaurant, where we enjoyed a few guiluxes and massive plates of poulet braisé with chips and the house made chili sauce while somehow watching 6 nations rugby on the hotel TV.
The Guinean Franc is not a strong currency (you can look up the history, France played quite a sinister role in that affair), and you can only withdraw about 30 euros at a time.
After Dabola, we blasted towards KanKan, the third largest city in Guinea, and a center for Mandé culture in the region. The road had deviations every two kilometers or so, but it was not bombé. Eventually we were on a flat, paved road. We were out of the highlands and inching back towards the Sahel.
Early morning pit stop on the road to KanKan. Espresso and biscuits served by a friendly guy from Sierra Leone.
In Cisséla, we were flagged down at a police checkpoint and “fined” for having expired carte grises. They weren’t expired, so we effectively had two choices: (1) go with the police to a station somewhere, argue our case, hope to win, and get back on the road many hours later or (2) negotiate. We chose to negotiate. As we negotiated, the police stopped every passing vehicle and motorbike. These guys were on a mission. By the end of it, we were all good friends, and we had a piece of paper that we could flash at every police checkpoint until the border. In nearly 4,000 kilometers of overland travel in West Africa, this was our first interaction with crooked police.
In KanKan, we stopped for refreshment and a delicious lunch of poulet braisé.
Our spirits were high when we left KanKan. We had a pouch of cold guiluxes, and we planned on having a relaxing evening at a bush camp of our choosing. Of course, my rear tire, which was previously punctured in the Fouta, went flat as we were rolling out of town. There was a service station nearby, and I walked it over there in hopes of changing the inner-tube. We quickly received offers of help, but unfortunately the dude that ended up patching the inner-tube did not do a good job. The tire blew less than a kilometer after we got back on the road.
I walked the bike to another service station, but this one was either long abandoned, or it had never been finished. The sun was setting now, and a bush camp was increasingly out of reach. A man named Cheick Kone received us at the abandoned service station. He was the guardian tasked with watching over the property. While this would be unsurprising to anyone that has traveled in West Africa, I have to say that Cheick was exceptionally generous, helping us get a new inner-tube from a nearby village and inviting us to pitch our mosquito nets next to his.
Matt once again labored over my rear tire, this time in near darkness. Afterwards, he tried to take a bucket shower, but he was repeatedly harassed by a flock of chickens. In the meantime, I managed to run over Matt’s phone while moving my bike. Somehow it still functioned, but I felt quite poorly due to the amount of misfortune I was bringing to the table.
At last, we cracked open a few beers and enjoyed the evening breeze. I then slept like a log, so much so that I did not hear my tire explode. When I woke up, the tire was once again flat, and Matt mentioned hearing it pop sometime in the night. Cheick immediately volunteered to help. He raced to his village to get a new inner-tube, and we were able to get on the road only an hour and a half or so after sunrise. We gave Cheick a bit of a cadeau as we said goodbye, and then we sped off for Siguiri.
Time to get cleaned up before we arrive back home.
That’s our river! This was our first time seeing the Niger this far from Bamako.
When people say “catering” with a French accent it sounds an awful lot like “Catherine,” so this sign is understandable.
Cactus fence to keep out the goats. Spotted throughout Mali near the Guinean border.
We grabbed lunch in Siguiri, but didn’t linger for long. We were already caught in Bamako’s orbit, and we were both excited to get back home. We cruised through the border and made a beeline to Siby, where we made a brief pit stop at Hotel Kamadjan. We arrived back in Bamako during rush hour. Of course, the 20 minute ride from Sebenikoro to Badalabougou was probably the most dangerous part of our trip. But we were soon in the courtyard of the sleeping camel, amongst friends, and I was soon at home with Bintou and Andre.
We’ve since been back for a couple of months. While there is nothing better than being with Bintou and Andre, cruising around West Africa on a jakarta is a close second, and I look forward to many future expeditions. We are in the planning stages to launch different versions (some weeklong trips, two-weeks, and longer) of this trip for travelers at the end of this year into early 2018. If it works out, Bintou and Andre will travel to Casamance and we will base ourselves there for a couple of months as Matt and I run the tours.
If you are interested in these trips, you can join the email list at ScootWestAfrica.com. You can also check out this video that Matt made with footage from the trip:
We plan on putting up a few more videos in the coming months as we release more information and the trip dates. Stay tuned 🙂
This is the fourth installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Riding north and east from Bissau, the road deteriorated in parts, but we easily skirted around the broken tarmac on the jakartas. In the afternoon, we stopped in Mansôa in search of refreshment and a bite to eat. We didn’t find much on our first pass through town, so we flagged down a group of guys walking on the roadside. They didn’t understand French or our 3-word-Portuguese, but a young man sitting on a terrace overheard us and intervened. He happened to be a polyglot who spoke English, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese. He lived in Switzerland, but he was back in Bissau for several months in order to visit his mother.
He took us to the town’s only restaurant, a low key chop shop that looked like it would see some action at night. We were not in the mood for a riz-sauce lunch, so we asked the sweet maman running the show if we could make our sardine sandwiches and buy beer from her. She obliged and even chopped up some onions and tomatoes for us. So we sat drinking cold Cristals, eating what were now gourmet sandwiches and chatting with our new friend about life in Europe and rural Bissau.
After lunch, we pushed on towards Bafatá. We stopped at a service station before we arrived there and found it to be well stocked with beer, chorizo, wine, and not much else. This is not unusual in Guinea-Bissau, and it’s one reason for our current love affair with the country.
Later in Bafatá, we stopped at a roadside maquis, where we drank near frozen Cristals and chatted up the barman and two of his lady friends. Kids skipped alongside the road in white jerseys plastered with the Emirates logo. They were on their way to a dusty football pitch.
We were an hour’s drive from Gabu, where we planned on sleeping for the night. The road dipped and climbed, trees bowing overhead. We were getting closer to the Guinean highlands with every kilometer.
In Gabu, we stopped at the first hotel we saw, a converted villa with a secure courtyard. The rooms were clean and relatively cheap, and the hotel had a generator. We parked the bikes and unloaded our bags before grabbing a taxi into town. After wandering down one of the side streets that cut through the market, we ended up on the terrace of a bar that had a nice view of a quiet intersection.
The barman told us we could have steak with chips or salad. We were a bit hungry at this point, so we asked him how long it would take. Seven minutes was his response. Seven? Yes, seven minutes. It may have been longer than that, but we were still impressed. It was a one-man operation, and the bar looked deserted when we arrived.
After dinner, we wandered back towards the market area. When we got to the main road, Matt spotted a friend and frequent Sleeping Camel guest, a German with a kola plantation on the Bijagós islands. This was the second such chance encounter on the trip, first in Bissau with Andy and now in a small market town in the northeast corner of the country with Falk. Falk was equally surprised when he saw us, and we agreed a drink was in order. We found a dimly lit maquis and sat out on the patio, enjoying the Bissau island tunes drifting out from the bar.
After a few rounds of Cristal, we said farewell to Falk and went back to the hotel. We had Guinea-Conakry on the agenda the following day, along with a rough stretch of road that would rival the Niokolo Koba park in Senegal.
We left Gabu at first light. We were feeling good and the border was not far, so we decided to get breakfast after crossing into Guinea. As we pulled up to the checkpoint on the north end of town, a policeman reviewed our documents and then pointed to Matt’s front tire. It was nearly flat. We creeped back into town and immediately found a “collage” tire shop. While Matt’s inner-tube was getting patched up, I went off in search of breakfast.
I pulled up to a boutique and began talking with a light-skinned shopkeeper. I wrongly assumed he was Mauritanian when he was actually Tamashek from Mali. First surprise. Him speaking Bambara was the second. We had a funny conversation, and then he pointed me towards a Guinean standing behind a table with a familiar spread: eggs, mayonnaise, nescafe and condensed milk. But the Guinean also had Sonia chili sauce, tomato and onion. The silver lining of the tire puncture was the discovery of the best omelet sandwich on the trip.
Tire patched and bellies full, we once again drove off towards the border. When we arrived, a group of pleasant policemen welcomed us on the Guinea-Conakry side. They were mystified and amused by our jakartas, and they were very unhappy with America’s new president. Matt’s visa and my Malian ID both passed with flying colors, but the customs chief refused to give us a laissez-passer for the jakartas. He said we didn’t need one. We protested, but he stood his ground. Of course, this would be a problem further down the road, but I will save that story for the next post.
This photo was taken just next to the border. We were repeatedly told that the road was “bombé.” I didn’t know what this meant at first. I thought it could have meant “bombed out.” If that was the case, it was the most dramatic and worrying description of a road that we had come across on the trip. When I looked up “bombé” on Google translate, it said “bulging.” That was not encouraging, either.
For 15 kilometers or so, the road was filled with sharp dips and narrow paths carved out from last year’s rains. Then the road evened out, and we had gorgeous views of the plateau snaking its way towards the highlands.
In the late afternoon, we planned on stocking up on water before scouting for a place to bush camp. We pulled into a village, and Matt, while searching for water (I swear!), found the only bar for probably 200 kilometers in any direction. Well, “bar” might be a slight exaggeration.
The bar was the front room of the barman’s family’s house. Crates of warm Guiluxe beer sat in the corner, and a few bottles of cheap gin were already on the table. We were warmly received by the barman, his wife and a few customers that had settled in, but could we stomach warm Guiluxe after being spoiled by the frosty beers of Bissau? Apparently we could.
We sat with three day laborers who were working on the new Chinese road and a veteran from Guinea-Bissau’s war for independence. The veteran had violent tremors and told us that booze was the only thing that could get him to stop shaking. He took an empty calabash, filled it with a mix of warm gin and beer, tipped it upwards and emptied it in one gulp.
We continued drinking warm Guiluxes and soon realized that a bush camp was not in the cards. We would have likely crashed the bikes a few hundred meters outside of town just trying to find a place. The barman opened up his house to us, but it was suggested that we pitch our mosquito nets over at the local customs office. The barman admitted that we probably wouldn’t get much sleep if we were camped out at his place.
The customs agents were incredibly welcoming, promising us security and offering us a fenced off area where we could park our bikes and sleep for the night. We grabbed a few more Guiluxes at the bar and started making dinner.
The sachet of dry pasta said to add butter and milk to boiling water in order to make a cream sauce. The above photo is what I found at the boutique. Close enough. I commissioned one of the girls at the house next door to buy us some onions, and we were on our way. After dinner, I slept like a baby once the power cut off (the speakers on the neighbor’s TV could have used a tune-up).
We didn’t know it at the time, but the following day would be the most difficult day of riding on the trip. We were repeatedly warned that we would have a rough stretch followed by tarmac, followed by a bone shaking 35 kilometers that would take us into the highlands. That forecast was 100% accurate.
It didn’t take us long to arrive at the day’s first obstacle: a river. I can’t imagine what this crossing would be like during the rainy season. We planted our feet on the rocks and slowly rode through about two feet of water. Thankfully, I had already busted my foot brake on a punishing speed bump just after the Guinean border, so I could enjoy the river crossing without worrying about damage to the bike.
After the river crossing, we had about 15 kilometers of unpaved dips and turns. It was not easy, but it was a long way off from the sober warnings we had heard since the border.
Matt celebrating what we he thought was an early end to rough roads. On the other side of the camera, I was doing the same while munching on a hard-boiled egg smothered in chili powder. We were back on the tarmac, and things were looking up. Turns out, it was our celebration that was premature.
The tarmac continued for a short while and then disappeared for about 35 kilometers, exactly how it was explained to us. Things went south fairly quickly. We were riding on loose sand and rock, which is not very accommodating terrain for a 110 cc Chinese motorcycle. And whether “bombé” means “bombed out” or “bulging,” this road — this path into the highlands — was bombé.
Matt cruising into a patch of sand. Right after I took this picture, I managed to further dislodge my foot brake, nearly snapping it off while descending into one of the steeper dips in the road. Before long, we started climbing, up into the forest. At one point, a baboon flew across the road and down into the ravine. For 35 kilometers, we were caught between 1st and 2nd gear, dodging boulders and jagged rocks while trying to stay upright in the sand.
This is me once we got back onto the tarmac. Dusty, tired and relieved.
This is Mariam Sylla. Shortly after we made it back onto sealed roads, we arrived in Mariam’s village. Her shop looked inviting so we popped in to see if we could grab some lunch. Excellent judgement on our part. Mariam danced around her shop yelling “ici, tout est possible!!!” (here, everything is possible). She wasn’t lying. She had a thick beef stew cooking on the stove. We asked her if we could have it served in bread instead of with rice. Of course!! Can we get some chili peppers chopped up on top? YES!!! Can we get some nescafe with condensed milk!! Are you kidding?? ICI, TOUT EST POSSIBLE. Even dessert? YESSS (orange slices).
For the trip, this was a top-3 if not top-2 sandwich, and that is saying a lot.
Outside, Mariam’s daughter was grilling brochettes. Spoiled for choice!!
Rejuvenated, we got back on the bikes. The destination was a small village called Doucki. It wasn’t far, or so we thought.
This is the third installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1, Part 2.
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. Click here for the next chapter.
I'm Phil. I live in Mali, where I run a hotel and restaurant. I also teach people how to draw camels. If you like what you see on this site, you can subscribe by RSS or email. You can also follow me on twitter:
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