November 2019: I had two full days/1 night in Guinea Bissau, which I planned to make good use of. My plan didn’t start as intended when my morning flight on Air Senegal from senegal to Bissau was cancelled. I was at the airport when I discovered the news and had to act quickly if I was going to salvage my Guinea Bissau trip and even my flight back to the USA. So I found a new morning flight to Bissau on an obscure airline I had never heard of before. I paid cash on the spot for the ticket and within 30 minutes I was off on a small prop plane to Bissau via Gambia.

In order to make the most of my short time in Guinea Bissau, I organized a local guide, Silva Morgaddo to pick me up at the airport. My plan was to visit the remote village of Cacheu, which had a small slave fortress and bordered a wild mangrove forest.

About Guinea Bissau

Map of my route in Guinea Bissau

Guinea Bissau is a small ex- Portuguese colony with Portuguese being its official language. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and until recently it had been plagued by war. The first was was for independance against the Portuguese, which turned into a proxy war between western countries and communist ones such as the Soviet Union and Cuba. The war was dubbed the Vietnam of Portugal and lasted approx. 11 years. Then more recently in 1999 the country broke out into civil war. Landmines are still common in parts of the country and are responsible for numerous deaths every year. The country is marred by political instability and coups. Only one president has completed their term.  Its coastline is undeveloped and consists of hundreds of islands. For this reason and its close proximity to South America and Europe, it is a major narco transport hub. It is a fascinating country with a a rich culture but has suffered tremendously during its checkered past. For this reason it continues to be barely functional today.

My stay in country coincided with a presidential election. The current election was being disputed and was still pending a run-off vote. Given the country’s track records of coups and violence during elections, I watched the situation very closely. 

Drive to Cacheu Village

Creative Ways to Jump the Car

I arrived at the Bissau airport, only foreigner on my flight and was immediately singled out by immigration staff to process my visa on arrival. The official took me aside into a private room to process my payment and visa. In a country amongst the most corrupt in the world, I expected this kind of thing. I never could find an official answer to what the VOA cost was so this made me easy prey for the official. But in the end, I didn’t overpay the official price by much and I suspected that the official pocketed the full visa payment for himself. But I had a visa affixed to my passport so i was happy, I made sure to verify this to avoid being set up for an expensive bribe upon my departure the following day. 

I met my pre-arranged local guide Silva outside the airport. He had organized a taxi for us and together we walked passed a mob of people that rushed me to change money into a parking lot full of decrepit looking taxis and vehicles. Looking out amongst the craziness it was immediately obvious to me that I was going to like Guinea Bissau. 

 

Monkey meat for sale on side of the road. It was obvious from the machete marks l that it had been trapped and then killed by machete.

The taxi Silva selected belonged to his friend and didn’t start-dead battery- but no fear because in Africa there is always a cheap and creative mechanical repair for anything. Another taxi driver carried his car battery over to our car and pulled out a metal wrench connecting the terminals between the two batteries, which was enough to start up our taxi. I told Silva that I was worried that the car would just die again, and he smiled and said, ” no problem we just won’t turn off the ignition and this is a good car.”  To travel sometimes, especially in countries like Guinea Bissau, you just have to lower your standards for safety and comfort, and this is situation was no exception to that rule. So we set off on a paved road pockmarked with potholes that was wide enough for one lane of traffic. The drive to Cacheu was about 2 hours long and we saw few other vehicles along the way, the occasional village and lots of wild scrub forest. At times I saw villagers selling bush meat on the side of the road like skinned monkeys.

Slave Castle, Cacheu Fortaleza Castle

 

We arrived at the sleepy little village of Cacheu at noon and it was easily 110 degrees outside. Cacheu is a little village with a lot of history. Despite it being small and largely forgotten today, It is once one of the earliest European colonial settlements and once thrived off of the slave trade. A slave trading castle built in the 1600s by the Portuguese, still stands and can be visited, although we never did find the man who had the key to open it up for us. The fort is the location of a battle in 1567 between the famous pirate, Sir Francis Drake and the Portuguese.

Despite the heat I walked all over Cacheu exploring the fascinating little village. It is surrounded by a wild mangrove forest that is protected as a national park.  Throughout the village there are giant baobab trees and crumbling, neglected colonial era Portuguese buildings, some have collapsed. There is an old chapel in town that dates back to the 1600s. The people were friendly, inviting and not used to seeing foreigners in town. The highlight was observing the village life and meeting the people. I met the king of the region, who sponsored a soccer tournament for the kids. Together we watched the kids play soccer in a dusty field beneath a giant baobab tree. I watched a group of kids conducting a traditional drum dance in an abandoned building without a roof and I was shown around the outdoor kitchen of the home of a village woman.

Inside an old chapel

Fishing boats in the river inlet near the mangrove forest

Remains of a slave trading house

Fetishes hanging from the houses of villagers to help bring good luck to the household

A shop keeper that I drank a cold beer with to escape the 110-degree heat outside

Village soccer game sponsored by regional king

Village soccer game sponsored by regional king

Village soccer game sponsored by regional king

It was amazing to observe the excitement of the entire village gathered to watch the children playing soccer in a tournament paid for by the regional king. The King and I posed with the trophy that would go to the championship team.  The crowd screamed madly as the game unfolded and I guessed that almost the entire town was present for the game.

I really enjoyed the village of Cacheu and how everyone despite having little income were happy and possesed a strong sense of family and community. I really wish I had more time to spend in the village and to look for manatees in the mangroves.

The King and I with the soccer tournament trophy

Village kids performing an impromptu traditional drum dance that I stumbled across

Village kids performing 

Village mother that kindly invited me into her home to show me how her family lives

Meat being barbecued in the outdoor kitchen of a home 

Typical chairs found in a village home. Sylva is sitting in one of the chairs at a home that we were invited into

Ruins of an old Portuguese tank used during the war for Independence

Village kid pretending to shoot me

An old slave holding building from colonial times

A Day in Bissau

I wanted to stay the night in Cacheu because I loved it so much and was really liked meeting the people but there were no hotels, which is fine because I love homestays, but I wanted to also see Bissau and to have time in Bissau I would need to return to spend the night. So we made the long drive back to Bissau and I booked a hotel in the middle of downtown. The hotel which cost about 100$/night just so happened to be one of the nicest hotels in the country and one of the presidential candidates had a meeting there during my stay.

Silva and his friends took me out in Bissau to see the nightlife. We sat at an eatery that served cold beers and barbecued meat in an open park with picnin tables and no lights. As we sat in darkness drinking our beers, one of Silva’s friends a parliamentary member, cursed the country’s political situation while praising Donald Trump for being a strong man.  Later we went to a bar considered one of the hippest in town where all the young kids in their finest clothes went to listen to ear blasting dance tunes while packing into a small room. I was denied entry for wearing shorts and flip flops but this was fine with me because the bar was too claustrophobic anyways.

Old Portuguese Fort in Bissau Now Used as a Military Fort

Day 2: During the day we explored Bissau. Bissau is a relaxed and safe city that is very easily walked. The biggest concern is dealing with corrupt police on the streets, but I fortunately didn’t have any encounters with them. Given the countries socialist past, there are many monuments that have a communist Russia feel to them. We visited the old Portuguese military fort that is currently used as a modern military fort. In order to enter, you need to obtain special permission, which Selva was able to obtain. The fort was fascinating and had a museum full of weaponry that was used by freedom fighters against the Portuguese. We also visited the graves of martyrs that died in the war of Independence, many of whom were from Cuba and other communist countries that supported the fight against the Portuguese. 

Old Portuguese Fort in Bissau Now Used as a Military Fort

Old Portuguese Fort in Bissau Now Used as a Military Fort

Old Portuguese Fort in Bissau Now Used as a Military Fort

Old Portuguese Fort in Bissau Now Used as a Military Fort

Selva and I walked through the residential neighborhoods. little curious kids would join us and walk with me holding my hands. What I found most interesting when walking through residential neighborhoods was the small statue of a deceased ancestor that is placed outside of each home in a small altar with a candle. Guinea Bissau is primarily Christian and Islamic but ancestral worship is still alive and well. 

Ancestorial idols

Late in the evening, I went to the airport to catch my flight on TAP to Lisbon, Portugal. Surprisingly I didn’t have any issues with corrupt officials exiting immigration like so many others before me. They did test the waters with me a little bit by asking for a present, but I didn’t provide them any bribery opportunities. After arriving a few hours late, my flight finally departed to Portugal.

2 + 8 =

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