And so my journey took me to the most expensive country so far. More expensive than Japan, Norway and London PUT TOGETHER. I am talking, of course(?), about Senegal.
The Sept-Place taxi that took me to the border (as any who half a brain cell should be able to work out) is designed to take seven passengers.
Mine took FOURTEEN.
After a good few hours of that (and the fact we stopped every few seconds to pay some corrupt policeman a bribe), I was ready to kill, kill and kill again, but now I had the border to negotiate.
Sorry mate, it’s closed until 3pm. What?
Yeah, closed. What for? Lunch?
I looked at my watch. 12:15pm.
A calculation in my head – if I wait until 3, I’ll get into Dakar about 11 at night.
Dakar, first time, by myself, at 11pm. Hmm…
Okay, how much will it be to go through now?
Is my ass worth twenty dollars? Of course it is. I got let through the gate. With the money wedged into my passport, I got my stamp out.
Good riddance Mauritania, you dreadful little place. Never going back there.
But then I had to pay some swine to row me over the Senegal River. Only the five Euros that I gave him wasn’t enough for his five minutes of hard work – his station as a toothless rower of chaps across a tiny river had somehow led him to believe that he was a Lawyer or Top Surgeon who deserved more than 60 Euros per hour, 480 Euros per day, 124,800 Euros a year…
So he followed me around for the next half-hour blabbing in some language that I (thankfully) didn’t speak.
Ah, but now I have to get into Senegal, the most expensive country on EarthTM . I was greeted on the far shore by a turd or several, which I negotiated with aplomb, I then went to talk to the border guard, who had better things to do (like watch the telly).
You want to come in? Wait until 3pm. I bribe. Twenty bucks? Nah. Forty? Nah. FIFTY? Nope. Try Sixty.
Yep, that’s how much the guard wanted. More than a day’s wages in the West. Oh, you poor impoverished Africans with your AIDS and your malaria and your turds all over the ground, I’ve found where all your money has gone! (this isn’t rocket science). Try looking in the back pockets of your officials.
It was pay up, or get to Dakar in the middle of the night.
I chose to pay, at an exchange rate that would make Mary Whitehouse swear like a docker.
But at least I’m in Senegal now!! Here’s the video of the arduous journey down here:
Squeezed into another Sept-Place, I made my way over the pot-holes and through the police bribery-points (we could call them check-points, but that makes them sound like they aren’t just there to stiff the people out of their cash). By the time I arrived in Dakar, my arse was numb, my back was killing me and my family jewels felt like somebody had put them in a pressure-cooker for several hours (which, on reflection, they had).
I rang Mentor, the contact that Lonely Planet had hooked me up with, on my new-fangled Senegalese Orange SIM card (my UK SIM cards are blocked here) and he asked if I want to stay at his place. I said yes and thanked him for his generosity. It wasn’t ‘til I got there that I found out it would be 30 Euro a night to sleep on a thin sponge and have a cold shower. Couchsurfing this is not.
Welcome to Senegal, the most expensive country on EarthTM .
So Mentor and I hit the streets to find a way to Cape Verde. We go down to the beach where all the fishermen are. Mentor makes some phone calls, talks to some people. By 2pm, it was clear that I would not be leaving today. I decide not to waste my time, and so head over to The Gambia for a quick border-hop.
The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa – a thin slither of land completely encompassed by Senegal that surrounds the Gambia River like a novelty balloon. It was supposed to take 5 hours in a Sept-Place to get there, but the reality of life in a country where the politicians are far too busy doing GOD KNOWS WHAT to deal with the fact that there are more holes in the MAIN road than there are in the plot of Star Wars Episode I, this wasn’t the case.
Luckily, I had a really nice chap called Lamin sitting next to me. He was from The Gambia so he spoke very good English (The Gambia was one of Britain’s many daft colonial-era follies). We chewed the fat for hours over politics, travel, religion… all my favourite talking stuff. The conversation invariably turned time and time again to institutional corruption and how more than anything else, it is stifling the development of Africa. Hell, our driver found it easier to drive on the dust at the side of the road (less potholes).
We got to the border around 10pm. I got my passport stamped into The Gambia, did a piece to camera, and then headed back to the Sept-Place garage on the Senegalese side (almost sparking a hilarious riot amongst the motorcycle taxi dudes on the border).
Sept-Place taxis wait until they are full before they leave. I had to wait for two hours before we hit the road. I didn’t sleep, I just ran through every song on my iPod. Even if I wanted to sleep, the taxi was so old and beaten up (I’m surprised the driver could see given all the cracks in the windscreen) that every time the driver got to a certain point in third gear, he lost all power and all of us on board would be rudely thrown forwards with a jerk.
As a consequence, I got back to Dakar in a rotten mood. A mood that would not lighten any time soon.
I got on the internet this afternoon and GUESS WHAT?! I will have to go BACK to the Gambia because after checking my GPS, I discover that I was picking my nose 100ft north of the actual border! Seriously! Both border posts are in Senegal! After a 15-hour round trip through Glastonbury when it rains in a shared taxi with no third gear!!
I go the only place I can escape this rotten world.
To sleep; perchance to dream.
The original contents of this blog entry have been removed after legal advice.
Still waiting on Mentor to get me on a boat. I’m sitting here in the pile of concrete, dust and junk that is Dakar, twiddling my thumbs. Maybe tonight I’ll go out and get drunk (actually, it’ll probably be eight quid a beer, so maybe not). Maybe I’ll still be here next week, who knows? All I know is that I’ve just bled hundreds of pounds all over the floor and I haven’t a clue how I’m going to pay for the rest of this bloody journey.
All of the stuff that was supposed to happen, all of the stuff that Mentor ‘had a good feeling about’ has come to nought. Still here, with not a clue how to move on. We’ve spent the last four days waiting for the phone to ring. Eventually it does ring and whoever is on the phone says no. There are no yachts for hire, nor fishing boats, no cargo boats I can hitch a ride on, nothing. This sucks. This sucks the big one.
I’m beginning to get desperate. And desperate men make dumb decisions.
The two boats that I might have had an outside chance of getting on have said no (not surprised when I’m not there in person to charm them).
I hate this place.
Dakar is truly a miserable place full of miserable people – no big friendly African smiles here. Everyone walks around with a face like thunder. Everything – the shops, the cars, the houses – seem to be constructed out of stuff somebody has found in a skip and I DON’T GET IT.
Okay, okay, we expect countries in Africa to be poor, but this just doesn’t add up…
A meal in a restaurant costs about a tenner. A beer costs two quid. A cab ride will set you back exactly what it would in Liverpool. I just don’t get it… I’m paying exactly what I’d pay in Britain for stuff (except I’m paying 30 Euro a night to kip on a one-inch thick bit of foam in a room with no light and an off-suite, cold shower… not even Travelodge would get away with that…) – whatever happened to the economics of supply and demand?
Surely if people are that poor, they can’t afford to buy stuff and the price goes down. I thought that’s the way it worked? Not here – if anything, the grinding in-your-face poverty seems to make everything even more expensive.
Where does all the money go? Why is nothing here nice? Why are the roads so unfeasibly bad? Why are there no traffic lights? Why does every single pavement have to have stacked up breezeblocks, piles of rubble and piles of sand (from a long-abandoned building project) blocking the way? Why does every single cab have to have a cracked windscreen? Does a pixie go round with a little hammer at night doing them in? It’s like an entire city was founded by Steptoe and Son.
What the hell is going on here? And why have I spent $500 this week on NOTHING?! Not even LONDON can strip me of my hard-earned cash that quickly.
Anyway, I’ve cracked. I have to get out of here. I have to move on, so I’ve agreed to take a terrifyingly small wooden fishing boat over to Cape Verde. They say the trip will take four or five days. I think it will take three.
And the price tag?
Three and a half THOUSAND Euro.
More tea vicar?
Sonic can’t even hold that many rings for you to lose.
Yes, that’s right, it’s going to cost more than a fortnight’s cruise in the Caribbean. It’s going to cost more than a LUXURY YACHT for the same number of days. A lot more. It’s a long wooden rowboat (seriously) with the names of some Senegalese Profits (sorry, Prophets) painted on the side. I’ll be sleeping on the deck under a little canvas tent. We’re going over there with a small outboard motor and nine deck hands. Quite why we need nine people to operate one outboard motor is anyone’s guess?!
I’ve got to get on board a boat that wouldn’t look out of place if ‘Doc Brown’ magically teleported it back 5,000 years to ferry people over the river Nile.
The captain speaks no English or Portuguese (might come in handy, don’t you think?) and he has no navigational charts and simple mental arithmetic seems beyond his grasp (ie. 600 miles at 10 miles an hour = 60hours = 3 days, NOT FIVE DAYS YOU WALLY). So I’ve printed some maps off Google (we head 270 degrees due west, how hard can it be?) and I’ve been praying to the Easter Bunny and Mother Goose ever since.
Oh and do I get a life-jacket for this Mortgage Downpayment? Do I hell. I’ve got to buy my own.
I’m standing on a filthy beach, surrounded by rubbish, dead fish, squid ink and human effluent.
I’m thinking that things can’t get any worse.
And then Phil Collins comes on the radio.
We leave tomorrow at midnight.
This will be my last blog entry for a little while. I leave on HMS Deathtrap tonight. I better leave you all some particulars.
The name of the boat is the Moustapha Sy and the captain’s name is Mbaye Séne Faye. He was born on 08 Nov 1975 in Dieleumbane. I should be getting into Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, on Tuesday or Wednesday. The boat I’m on doesn’t have a radio and the guys onboard don’t speak Portuguese. I’ve asked my parents to ensure that the port authorities in Praia are informed of when we are coming in, otherwise they might turn us back.
Can somebody make sure that they do actually do that? Thanks. It’s rather important.
You have no idea how much I don’t want to do this.
Thank Zeus that May is over! What a rotten, frustrating, infuriating and expensive month it turned out to be.
June will be better, I’m sure of it.
Day 198: The Approach
Wawaweewa. Friday! Are we still at sea? It would appear so. No sign of Dakar yet, but the GPS was insisting it was less than 100 miles away.
I was particularly worried that Mandy and her over-active imagination would be concerned that I had been attacked by a giant squid, swallowed by a whale, consumed by the ghastly Kraken or frantically lopping the heads off the great Hydra only for more to grow in their place. No such excitement, I’m sorry to report. The day sluggishly went by as we yakked and played cards.
That night, there was a CRACKIN’ thunderstorm over yonder, flashes in the distant clouds every couple of seconds. I hoped Senegal hadn’t descended into war, but with no radio and absolutely no human contact for a week, who’s to say what was going on in the real world?
The storm encouraged the wind to buck its act up, and we had a night of good sailing. Milan stayed up all night battling to keep us going in the right direction (no electrics = no autohelm). The wind, being fickle, decided to start blowing from the south, usurping my usual sleeping position on deck. With the Fleumel now tilted over to the left (sorry, port), any attempt to sleep on the right (sorry, starboard) of the boat would be met with crashing to the floor-style doom and inevitable injury. I tried to secure myself with a rope (sorry, a sheet), but it was no good. I had to sleep below deck in the front (sorry, the bow), with the smell of the toilet (sorry, the head) and the unused fuel grumpily swashing about, it was enough to turn me green. Sebastian graciously gave up his bed (sorry, his berth) for me – I warned him that sleeping out on deck was all but impossible, but he didn’t listen.
After ten minutes he was back. He opted for my vacated forward berth.
Day 199: The Return of the Ging
So now we were coming up to our goal – Dakar. In the early morning, we could see it grey on the horizon – two hills, one with a half-built statue sticking out of the top like a nipple. We were nearly there. Within a few hours, we had phone contact, but British SIM cards don’t work in Senegal. Sebastian came to my rescue and allowed me to text the Mandster to let her know that her favourite ginge was still going strong.
The approach to Dakar seemed to take an eternity. Milan was shattered so I took the helm for the first time in the week. We sailed past the statue, past the sunken ships and the lighthouse. It wasn’t until we had passed the island that I realised it wasn’t Goree… we still had a long way to go.
Eventually, several hours later, Milan cruised us (just using the wind, the crafty bugger) into the ‘marina’. We were greeted by two guys in a shuttle boat eager to take us ashore. I jumped in with them and they took me over to the broken down wooden jetty. I clambered up onto the decaying wood, stood tall and punched the air with my fist.
I had made it.
Back on dry land. Back, back, back to Africa.
THANK YOU, MILAN…THANK YOU!!!
We sorted ourselves out with a beer at the marina bar before heading out to the city centre for a well-deserved slap up meal. There, I met Mentor and I got my stuff back… my clothes, my chargers, my laptop!! Woopeeeee!
Later, we were joined by an American guy named Jared, who was my couchsurf contact for the night. I utterly devoured my pizza, along with a skinful of ice-cold beer. Milan and Sebastian retired to the Fleumel for the night, and I headed out with Jared to meet with Mbeye (the captain of the fishing boat) to discuss how the hell we were going to get his damn boat back. Predictably, the Micau still hasn’t left.
It was good to see Mbeye – he asked if he would ever see me again – I said I’ll be back next year. I’ve said that to a lot of people, but to Mbeye, I would like to keep the promise. God knows, I owe him a slap-up meal.
It was great of Jared to come with me, late as it was – Jared is a good old fashioned Peace-Corp volunteer of rural Californian stock. He’s living with a Senegalese family in Dakar. It’s pretty basic – I had to stand over the squat toilet to use the cold shower with just a pocket torch for light – but it was heaven compared to bobbing up and down all night in the salty brine and at least I was clean.
I slept like an angel.
Day 200: The Gambian Gamble
Despite our late night, Jared and I rose with the lark. Jared had (wonderfully) donated his bed to his nibs here while he made do with the couch (undermining the whole idea of couchsurfing, but I wasn’t going to complain. The sassy young chick who cleans Jared’s house is called (in the local parlance) the ‘house virgin’, which is at once hilarious and also slightly sinister, but this is a sternly paternal society where you can have up to four wives, so don’t expect equal rights any time soon.
I said my thank-you’s and goodbye’s to Jared and then I headed over to the marina to see Milan and Sebastian. We sat and chatted for a while and then it was time, finally, to HIT THE ROAD.
It’s been EIGHT WEEKS since I arrived in Senegal from Mauritania. All of my Visas for West Africa have now expired and I have to get new ones. Bah!
I gave Milan a tremendously grateful hug, wished him well on his endeavours, and headed to the shared taxi stand. The Gambia was calling.
The road was good until Kaolack and then it became the nightmare I knew it was (having experienced the damn thing twice on my previous attempt to enter The Gambia). This time, I wasn’t taking any chances. I would be crossing the border and heading straight for the capital, Banjul. So we bounded over the multitude of potholes and drove on the mud at the side of the road (less bumpy) and wondered why on Earth the Senegalese government has allowed the North Koreans(!) to pay for a big pointless statue in Dakar when the main transport artery for millions of people has more holes in it than Blackburn, Lancashire.
At least now I know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I’d love to turn you on.
The border was painless – no visa required for The Gambia. My biggest worry was that the Senegalese border guys would spot the Cape Verde exit stamp – I didn’t get a Senegal exit stamp when I left and didn’t report in when I arrived on the Fleumel (naughty I know, but I’m mad and therefore this cannot be used as evidence). As a precaution, I forged the Cape Verde stamp (with a biro – cunning!) so it read 10.07.08. Unfortunately, this passport was issued on 08.10.08, so unless I’m The Doctor, there is a slight continuity error there, but (luckily) nobody noticed.
After crossing the border (and being WARMLY welcomed into the country – Cape Verde, take note), I decided to celebrate 200 days on the road without getting the squits, by treating myself to a prawn salad cooked by the side of the road. To a backpacker, eating a prawn salad in a developing country is the gastronomic equivalent of crossing the streams.
But to hell with it, I have decided that I shall not get ill on this journey and by jingo, I’m determined to see that decision followed through. Unlike my farts.
I checked my vision and my pulse then jumped into a bush taxi and headed to Barra, across the great river Gambia from Banjul. On the way, I met lots of excessively friendly checkpoint guards (who were even friendlier when they discovered my place of birth) and I instantly decided that I liked The Gambia. It also helped that everyone spoke English, cos I’m a lazy sod and it suits me to converse without having to consult the language section in the back of my Lonely Planet.
On the ferry over the water, I met a fellow scouser named Richie and a wry Cumbrian named Tony (as in TONY!!). Richie’s actually from Runcorn, but his mum and dad are from Tokky so I didn’t give him too much of a hard time for being a plazzy scouser. At least he sounded the part.
Richie and TONY!! are here to study animals as part of their university course – Richie’s studies snakes and TONY!! goes for, erm, memory fails me, was it Frogs? Or monkeys? Something like that, feel free to correct me guys.
I was planning to stay in Banjul for the night, but they convinced me to come with them for THE BEST PIZZA IN THE WORLD in Kololi near the sea. I was planning to get up early tomorrow and get myself a visa for Guinea-Bissau, but Kololi was on the way south, and I could probably get a visa from Ziguinchor in the (dangerous!) Casamance province of Senegal… but I didn’t know how long it would take to get there, didn’t know how long it would take to issue a visa (maybe up to two days) and, well, it’s the Casamance and therefore DANGEROUSGRAHAMCHECKTHEFCOWEBSITEOHMY!!
Ah, to hell with it, I thought, what matter is personal safety when there is delicious pizza to be had?
So I accompanied the guys to their hotel and we went out and hit the town. Nice place – the Atlantic resort area – relaxed, cheap accommodation and food, plenty of restaurants and nightclubs – a good place to get away for a couple of weeks. I only had one night, so I ate a HUGE calzone all to myself and drank enough to make a hippo sleep in the gutter. I’m sure Richie and TONY!! were suitably impressed.
Any country that gives itself a definite article (Ukraine lost all my respect when they dropped the ‘The’) is tippy-toppy-tip-top, but in short, The Gambia was mega-mega-double-groovycool.
Day 201: A Big Black Cloud Come
Today was brilliant – a classic slice of Odyssey Pie. I started the day (after about 2 hours sleep) with a crankin’ hangover in The Gambia. Then I took a shared taxi down to the southern border, which brought me into the Casamance province of Senegal. A beautiful, beautiful place – seriously green and lush and lovely. From there, I headed to Ziguinchor, or Zig, and made plans to stay for the night while I waited for my Guinea-Bissau visa. But good news – The Guinea-Bissau embassy in Zig gives you the visa straight away!
So I headed down (another bush taxi) into Guinea-Bissau – a Portuguese speaking country and the first of the four Guineas I have to visit on this journey (the others being Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea). Them colonists loved their Guineas. I crossed the border and got to the town of São Domingos. A nice lake and a few roadside shacks was all that awaited me. Oh yeah, Guinea-Bissau is another country that’s on the FCO’s dangerous list – the President was assassinated last March and the leading opposition candidate and his wife were murdered last month. Welcome to Africa, kids!
So… not wanting to give the locals any ideas, I threw a couple of stones in the lake and headed back to Zig. By the time I got there, West Africa had remembered that it was supposed to be rainy season and started raining heavily. I desperately needed to grab a couple of MiniDV tapes for my camcorder, which I subsequently found with the help of a friendly guy from the Bush Taxi Station. Then it was a short wait while my sept-place filled up (and for one, just contained SEVEN people, amazingly) and then it was on to Tambacounda, the crossroads of Senegal.
Now I’ve been expressly told not to travel at night, especially through Casamance. But I figured I’d be out of the region before it got dark.
I figured wrong. The road was very good – all sealed and tarmacadamed, but Bush Taxi only took us as far as Kolda, and from there I was on my own. The next taxi to Tambacounda didn’t leave for AGES and by then it was darker than Vader’s Jockstrap. But the taxi did eventually leave (I had to buy a few seats to get it to go) and we arrived in Tamba before midnight. Then I took YET ANOTHER (are you getting bored yet?) Bush Taxi to the Malian border at Kidira.
In short, in less than 24 hours I got from The Gambia to Guinea-Bissau to Mali via Senegal. Four Countries in One Day. In West Africa. Whoosh!
Hold onto your willies, The Odyssey is BACK!
Day 202: The Wheels On The Bus Go FWAP FWAP FWAP
As the dawn was breaking ahead of us (myself and two guys from my shared taxi) we crossed over the bridge (there’s ALWAYS a bridge!) into Mali. It was a Kodak moment, I wish there had been a camera op there, Matt would have loved it. From there, we walked to the place from whence we get the bus to Bamako, the capital. The bus was sitting there waiting for us, ready to leave. Although good old WAWA was on hand to ensure things didn’t run that smoothly.
The bus waited for HOURS before it was quite ready to leave, thank you very much. Isaac, one of the guys who had shared the taxi with me from Tambacounda, translated that many of the people already waiting, had been there since yesterday. This did not bode well for our chances of getting out of here at a reasonable time.
And sure enough, when the bus did get going, it had a blow-out just a few kilometres down the road. But did that stop the bus driver? Don’t be silly – this is Africa – you just keep going and hope for the best! Unfortunately for Isaac and I, we were sitting over the wheel arch as the shredded tyre went FWAP FWAP FWAP FWAP FWAP around like an incredibly irate washing machine with a hangover. The banging was actually not too bad at the front of the bus, but where we were sitting, it was unbearable – even louder than some bone-headed scally playing the latest homoerotic dance love anthem on his mobile phone speaker on the number 61.
It also kicked up all the dust from the road, which entered the chassis through the many rusty holes it had to choose from.
Eventually (and after much ‘I say’-ing from your favourite complaining Brit here) they pulled over and tried to ‘fix’ the tyre. This involved cutting the length of tyre that was making the FWAP off the wheel. At first they tried this with a blunt axe.
Now you have to understand – these are BIG tyres – not quite the ones you have on your pushbike, they are a metal mesh covered in double-hard-bouncer rubber. You need a pneumatic drill to make a dent. A rusty old axe ain’t going to cut the mustard. But this is Africa and you just have to smile and nod and leave them to it. Eventually somebody got hold of a machete but it was just as blunt and just as useless.
Soon they struck on the idea (mine) of making a hole in the rubber, feeding through a length of rope and then driving forward, twisting the rope (and the unruly rubber) around the wheel. This was good for the next few kilometres, but then the rope broke and old FWAPpy started singing his song again.
My hair, my clothes and my bags got TOTALLY covered in dust (I looked like I’d been dragged by my horse), but we limped on… ever so sloooowly to Kayes, the first major town. It should have taken just over an hour. It took seven.
I got chatting with a couple of guys – brothers – from The Gambia. They asked me a ton of questions about Morocco, and before long spilled the beans on why – they were going to attempt to get into Europe through the Sahara.
I tried to put them off as best I could – by basically telling the truth – there are a TON of checkpoints in Western Sahara and Morocco – they’ll never make it. And I was also concerned that they might end up dying in the desert, as many who try this kind of thing often do.
But this is The African Dream. Almost everyone I meet, everyone I talk to, dreams of going to Europe and staying there. They all want my phone number so I can help them get a visa. This is what is killing Africa – the vast majority of the people are utterly desperate to leave. Not in a half-baked British ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live in New Zealand’ kind of way, but in a full-on death-or-glory affair in which the participants are willing to risk imprisonment or even their lives in pursuit of the (perceived) golden glittering Shangri-La that is Europe. This is, more than anything else, contributing to the Brain Drain that is ruining Africa’s chances of ever crawling out of it’s. I will return to this theme later.
In Kayes, we crossed the River Senegal in the most African way possible – the new bridge was down so we had to cross the ‘ford’. Now imagine driving along an invisible road, covered by over a foot of fast-moving water, in a bus with a missing tyre and no tread on the ones that remain. The river was about 400 meters across – I was convinced we were going to slide off into the brown raging torrent that teased inches from our left hand side.
My butt cheeks were clenched tighter than a tight thing, and we made it. We got to the coach station in Kayes and there I decided to stage a mutiny. This bus was just a joke. So I headed over to the GANA bus station around the corner and paid for new tickets for Isaac and I to get to Bamako on a better bus. Which might get us there in one piece, or, even better, there on time.
When we returned to old FWAPpy, they told us there was no refund on the tickets. Keep it – you need it to buy a new tyre. The cowboys who ran the bus seemed genuinely upset that we were abandoning them, and made a big show that they were going, now!, and that we’d be in Bamako very, very soon.
Pull the other one, guys.
We jumped ship and never looked back. The GANA bus had air-conditioning, television, space to spread out and all tyres necessary to complete the journey in record time.
In fact, we passed the old FWAPper before the first Checkpoint and when we had stopped and they had caught up, some more of the passengers were staging a mutiny and trying to get on our rather spanking GANA bus.
Ooh, it was all a bit Jerry Maguire. Only without the fish.
Day 203: The Shakedown
Isaac and I got to Bamako in the wee small hours, greatly relived to have made the decision to change buses. Isaac is from Ghana (and was on his way home) so he bore the brunt of the gobsmacking black-on-black prejudice that is surprisingly prevalent in West Africa – he got tapped for a bribe at every checkpoint just because he was from Ghana – an English speaking country. Mali is francophone. Bizarrely, they let me off the hook. But then I wasn’t really prepared for Guinea. Oh Crikey – Guinea.
I bid my farewells to Isaac and headed over to the other end of town to get a Bush Taxi to the border. It turned out to be a minibus and where I was told it would leave immediately, it left 4 hours later. I should point out at this juncture that in Dakar, I had about 4 hours sleep, in Gambia 2, on the Mali border 1 and last night none at all. But I was still going strong – you can’t keep a good ginger down.
So on arriving at the Guinea border, I cheerfully did all the usual formalities and headed out of bordertown towards the sept-place taxi rank. On the way, I whipped out my camera and explained where I was and all the usual palaver I mention upon entering somewhere new. It was then that a mean-faced old tyrant sitting at the side of the road started going ape-shit at me for filming him, like I was stealing his soul or something.
I tried to explain that I was just filming ME, and what was below ME (the ground), but before I could show this moronic jobsworth the footage, a border policeman had turned up on his motorbike and ordered me to get onboard. He took me back to the border, accused me of filming the border and demanded $200 and the camcorder as payment for the fine.
I made him watch back the footage which featured absolutely no shots of the border, the buildings of the border, the guards of the border or in fact nothing other than my big fat head and the ground behind me. He didn’t care. He wanted his money. He claimed that my visa had run out (actually, it had, but I skillfully changed the expiry date to 24 July from 21 July, it being the 22nd, it was, for all intents and purposes, still in season). He shouted and bawled and banged his fists and behaved quite like a child throwing a tantrum. The rat-faced jobs-worth man from the side of the road showed up, whining that he wanted his soul back or some such.
They weren’t keeping my camera and I most certainly wasn’t going to pay this ridiculous $200 fine for doing nothing less than bugger all. There is actually a government DECREE declaring that tourists ARE allowed to use cameras, for this very reason. But reason and the Guinean officials do not merry bedfellows make.
Then a guy from Cape Verde came in with his passport to get it stamped in.
Perfect timing or what? He recognised me straight away and spoke to the guys in French, telling them about me and what I was doing. We all know that my French could do with a little improvement, but I didn’t think he mentioned me getting arrested, held in jail or any of the rest of all that nonsense.
Or at least I hoped he didn’t.
So I stonewalled. They wanted to keep me there all day? Fine. I had nothing better to do. But then one of the guys who I had been exceptionally cheerful and friendly to when I entered the country came to my aid. We had bonded, as I bond with so many people around the world, over the topic of football. You would never guess I know less about football than your average girl, and neither do they – and that’s the way I like it. Anyway, the guy was wearing a Chelsea top, we chatted about the FA Cup Final and he asked the chief (for it was no less than the chief who had this bee the size of Burgundy in his bonnet) to let me off the hook.
After a little more sabre-rattling, he did just that, and I was back on my way.
Thinking my troubles were now behind me, I headed to the Bush Taxi ‘station’. There wasn’t a Taxi going until 6pm. It was now 12 noon, and I didn’t really want to be hanging around all day and travelling at night. I tried to get a shared taxi to the next town, Siguiri, but the taxi drivers didn’t want to let me do that, because they would lose the trick. So they did everything in their powers to stop me. After a while of circular conversations, the guy from Cape Verde turned up with his two mates. They wanted to do the same thing as me, and the taxi drivers tried to stop them too. In the end, they got someone to take them to Siguiri, but for some reason Billy-No-Mates here was not invited along for the ride. I left the taxi area and attempted to get a private vehicle to take me, just to get out of this nasty, aggressive bear-pit. The taxi drivers did not like me doing this. They did not like it one bit.
Then one of the taxi drivers broke rank and agreed to take me, but I didn’t get into the car in time. Another driver dragged him out of the car and they started fighting. Like, really fighting. I sat down and drank a Coke while the other drivers held them back from each other, screaming in the local dialect that I couldn’t hope (or much care) to understand.
Eventually, the taxi drivers reached a compromise – one of them could take me to Siguiri. What a bloody stupid waste of time and excess of bravado. I felt like Teacher from the Bash Street Kids.
I arrived in Siguiri pretty quickly (it wasn’t far) having given a free ride to a soldier who needed to get to the hospital to see his son (I was dubious, but what the hell). Once there, I was dead lucky – there was one space left in the sept-place taxi going to Conakry, the capital. Once I was on board it would leave right away. Groovy. Only this battered old Peugeot 407 was more of a neuf-place. I had to share the front seat with this other guy who pretty much took up the whole bloody seat, so I spent the first few hours of the journey sitting on the handbrake.
And the road was terrible – riddled with potholes, our driver (whose lip was fully split all the way up to his nose – I hate to be shallow, but it made me wince just looking at him) did his best and was remarkably careful compared with your typical gung-ho Bush Taxi driver, but the car was just not up to it. I could tell by the way he had to pump the brakes to get us to slow down that we had a problem, but by nightfall we had pulled over in a town and we were having the wheel taken off and mysterious things were being done in the name of car maintenance.
After a while we hit the road again. But only for five minutes. We then turned back and more tyre changing/brake pumping followed. We waited a good two hours. The journey was supposed to be 12-15 hours. This was already turning into an epic.
After the driver was happy (although with his mouth so messed up, I don’t know how one could tell) we set off again. For a few hours. And then we stopped.
I’m not supposed to be travelling these parts at night. And here I was – in the dead of night, with a laptop, a camcorder and a stack of cash – trying to get to sleep in the middle of nowhere.
Day 204: Guinea: Foul.
The morning dragged by as the driver and his little mechanic that he had summoned from a nearby village took the front left tyre off (again) replaced the bearings – seriously – and then stuffed everything back into place. If it didn’t fit, they would bang it until it did. Then the tyre was plonked back on and the brakes were tested – nope, still not working properly, no chance of an emergency stop then.
But by now it was midday and the occupants of the taxi were getting decidedly ratty, so we set off again. Given the state of the brakes (and the fact that the car was held together with bubblegum) he took it easy. But that meant that the journey took all day. And then some.
Something I may not have made you aware of is the sheer number of police/army checkpoints in West Africa. There is one every few miles. They all want to see your papers and, if possible, a bribe. You think Gatso speed cameras are an affront to your human rights? Check these guys out. They one of the main reasons West Africa is so poor, so I endeavour to give these parasites as little Johnny Cash as possible. Some countries are worse than others – in Guinea they are anonymous, unaccountable and they don’t even have a set uniform. Just nip into an Army Surplus store and buy yourself some fatigues with US ARMY written on it, cross out US ARMY with a marker pen and ta-daaa! A Guinean Army Uniform. True.
By and large, I kept up my anti-bribery stance and made it a good way to Conakry without paying a single uniformed thief a penny. The people I met on the road (with the positive exception of taxi-touts, policemen and army types) were all really good-natured types with time for a chat and a smile. It’s therefore a shame that Guinea is now in the rather exclusive club of countries that I would not return to for love nor money. Put it this way, there is only one other and I guess you can figure out which one it is.
What has Guinea done to afford such an affront to its reputation? Well, after a record-breaking 36 hours on the (bumpy, pothole joke of a) road, we arrived on the outskirts of Conakry. I had been tremendously uncomfortable since the start of the journey and I’d had precious little sleep over the previous week, never mind that last 36 hours. It was 3.30am. At a ubiquitous checkpoint, we were all asked to get out of the car, which we did, all ten of us.
We were then taken into a small army building at the side of the road, they checked our ‘papers’ and I got ready to get back in the car. But then they explained that there was a fine to pay. 200,000 Guinea Francs.
For allowing two people to share the front seat.
They had to be kidding.
But they weren’t.
And lorks-a-lordy, guess who had to pay? What a bunch of evil, greedy, brick-thick child-men. Oh yeah, here comes whitey from the magic land where they wipe their behinds on fivers and have wheelie bins made of gold; let’s fleece him for everything he’s got. There was no way I was going to give these armed thugs a penny, even if their AK-47s looked a bit scary.
I explained that 200,000GF was ALL the Guinea Francs I had. We don’t care. We just want the money. I explained that it was the middle of the night and I can’t pay for a hotel without the Francs – I would have to wander the (dangerous) streets until dawn. We don’t care. We just want the money. I explained that if they took all of my money, I would leave immediately for Sierra Leone and tell everyone I know what happened to me and to never to visit Guinea. We don’t care. We just want the money.
We argued the toss for over an hour. I tried to get their names, the name of the unit, a receipt for the ‘fine’. The swines just laughed. I told them that I was going to write a letter to the British Ambassador and the Minister of Tourism. They couldn’t give a damn. Fine, they said, just give us the money. We just want the money.
This is Guinea.
My opinion? The second-worst country in the world.
Gary, the American in Cape Verde, described Guinea as ‘a nasty little police state’, which I’m sorry to report is utterly accurate. It’s sad – the people of Guinea are as sweet-natured as anyone you could possibly hope to meet. But while Big Brother runs the show, it’s not going to be on anyone sensible’s travel itinerary. It’s a decrepit hole run by decrepit people, rotten people – the worst of humanity. The capital is a sorry mess, there is no discernable infrastructure and the people eek out an meagre existence on the margins in defiance of the will of the government, who would much prefer it if they just died.
In 1958, Charles de Gaulle offered the French colonies in West Africa a choice between autonomy as separate countries in a Franco-African community or immediate independence. Sekou Touré declared that Guinea preferred ‘freedom in poverty to prosperity in chains’ and was the only leader to reject de Gaulle’s proposal.
Well, Guinea has the poverty in spades. Shame they didn’t work so hard to achieve the ‘freedom’ bit of that epigram. The people of Guinea are little more than slaves to the whims of whichever megalomaniac dictator managed to seize power by murdering the last chap. And, while the police run the state with impunity, nothing is going to change.
A nasty little police state. I was probably the first tourist they had had all year, and what do they do? The police steal all my money in the middle of the night.
I wasn’t going to cave in, but there were two young mothers with babies. The police were willing to keep them there all night if necessary. I offered to wait there until morning and pay them then – if they would just let the others go. They refused my offer and said that they would arrest the driver. They started taking his belt and his shoelaces (Cape Verde all over again) and so I coughed up my cash.
I hope it brings them nothing but bad luck and misery – eternally.
Poverty in chains. Well done, Guinea, we’re all really proud of all that you’ve achieved, you rotten little basket-case dictatorship.
Day 205: The Freetown Roast
I took off into the night, disgusted at all things Guinea, but I was caught up by the taxi driver who begged me to let him take me into the city – it wasn’t safe he said, bandits. The guy that I was sharing my seat with gave it up and sat in the back of the car. We got to the middle of Conakry around 5am. The driver let me snooze for a couple of hours in the taxi, but by now it was pouring down with rain and as there was a inch gap at the top of the door, my right arm was getting remarkably wet. I grabbed my bags and jumped into a ‘petit’ (town) taxi which would take me to the place that I could get a Bush Taxi to the border with Sierra Leone. The driver (predictably) tried to rip me off massively – he drove me just around the corner and then demanded ten Euro. Silly man, incurring my wrath in the mood I was in.
Anyway, without having to wait too long, a taxi driver offered to take me all the way to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, as in Diamonds from. He had some people to pick up on the way, but I could have the whole front seat to myself. Fair enough. So we travelled around Conakry for a bit (it didn’t get any more appealing), picked up a lovely chap from North London and his family. He had been visiting friends in Conakry, but his family was from Sierra Leone. He assured me that once I got across the border, I would be welcomed with opened arms.
Crikey, I had no idea how right he was!
The first thing you see as you enter Sierra Leone is a HUGE sign (clearly mocking the Guineans on the other side of the border) that says FIGHT CORRUPTION! Over the border, the first Sierra Leone guy heartily shook my hand and welcomed me into his country. As did the next guy, and the next.
Make no mistake, the Sierra Leoneans LOVE the British. Every time I got my passport out, their eyes would light up and they would flash me a smile.
This outpouring of affection might seem a little incongruous to anyone schooled to believe that all the British did before World War II was run around the world planting flags and enslaving the natives, so a little history lesson might be in order.
During the American War of Independence, the British offered any slave who fought on our side their freedom as payment for their services. America, unfortunately, won the war and demanded all property that had been British, be handed over to the snotty little Yank upstarts. That included the slaves that the British had promised to liberate.
The British dug their heels in. An Englishman’s word is his honour and all that jazz. Washington, that great defender of the slave trade, is said to have stormed out of the meeting. The British got their way. Some of the slaves were re-located to London, and others to Nova Scotia. But they faced immense hardships and prejudice on the streets and so William Wilberforce and his philanthropic mates bought a bit of land in West Africa from a local chief and established The Province of Freedom – which would eventually become Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
The liberated slaves from London and Nova Scotia were relocated to the settlement where they could live as free and equal men (and women, I guess). Then once Britain became the first country in the world to outlaw slavery in 1807, any American, French, Portuguese or Spanish slave ships that they had intercepted off the West Coast would have ‘cargo’ set free in the Province of Freedom. This practice continued for fifty years until the American Civil War finally proved that man was right, god was wrong and slavery is grossly immoral.
That’s how Sierra Leone got started, and so the British got off on the right foot with the place – some Leoneans even protested against independence in 1961. But then the war came in the 1990s. A conflict that started in neighbouring Liberia, brought a group of thugs over the border, who then set up the RUF – a gang of evils who, financed by blood diamonds, set about raping and murdering with impunity. The government was too weak to take them on, and the rebels managed to push all the way to the capital – thousands died, many more where maimed and injured. Disgracefully, both sides used child soldiers to fight for them. The poor kids were usually forcefully jacked up on heroin and made to commit unspeakable acts; I think we’ve all heard about this dark episode of West African history.
Tony Blair, in one of his more lucid moments as premier, decided enough was enough and sent in a number of British troops. From what people have told me, just the sight of a properly uniformed and equipped British soldier made the rebels ruin their pants and run away. The nightmare was over.
Although Nigeria and the UN were involved in restoring peace to the beleaguered nation, it is the British that they seem to remember with most fondness – as I learned from just about everyone that I spoke to. If anyone who was deployed to Sierra Leone is reading this, Thank You. You did us proud.
We reached the capital just before nightfall. Freetown is amazing – it’s like no capital city I’ve ever seen – all set out on the hillsides which run down to the sea. The roads are predictably shambolic and hilarious, and getting across town is a mission in itself. But before too long, I was enjoying the hospitality of Paul and Helga, friends of my girlfriend’s sister’s husband’s mate Matt. Six Degrees? Oh yeah baby.
And guess what – after the Odyssey week to end all Odyssey weeks, after the backache, buttache, walletache and heartache of the last five days, Helga gave me something for which there were just no words to express my appreciation.
Roast chicken, roast potatoes, boiled veg and mmm… gravy.
I almost cried.