Gille’s Gulch

Wednesday, January 5

I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged when I was 17, and among the marks it left on me was a romantic vision of secret havens (like Galt’s Gulch, named after Rand’s hero, John Galt) created in the midst of societal chaos and decay. Our taxi ride through Bissau Monday afternoon was brief and yet long enough to make me think this country is worse off than anything in Rand’s worst nightmares. It ranks among the poorest countries on earth, and its capital city is a shattered, dusty place. The last civil war ended about a dozen years ago, but one corrupt president was just assassinated last year. Reportedly Bissau has only a few hours of electricity per day. At night it’s said to be eerily black. In the countryside, land mines remain unexploded. Warns the Rough Guide, “Don’t use footpaths on the mainland unless you see other people doing so or you’re accompanied by a competent guide.”

Ruins of Guinea-Bissau's former president's vacation home

Why travel here?  I’d heard that a Frenchman named Gilles Develay had created the best hotel in the entire country on Bubaque, one of the islands in the Bijagos archipelago, located two hours (by speedboat) southeast of Bissau. The Kasa Afrikana was reported to be pleasant not only when judged by the abysmal standards of Guinea Bissau, but also by those of the New York Times West Africa correspondent who wrote about it in late 2009. 

Gilles Develay

I yearned to see it, and now I can report that it’s every bit as lovely as described. The rooms and grounds are immaculate, and from where I’m sitting I can identify plantings of baobab, various palms, cashew, and exuberantly blooming canna, ginger, marigolds, bougainvillea. The pool isn’t big, but Gilles told us last night he dug the hole for it and built it by hand, covering its interior with little turquoise tiles. The water in it, pumped from a deep well, is pristine. A generator provides abundant electricity for all the compound, but when we asked him last night how he gets the fuel to run it, Gilles shook his head and said it was too complicated to explain. (I understood that the problem wasn’t his English but the enormous complexity of the answer; that it would take a book rather than a blog post to begin to explain how he’s created everything in this place where every tool, every nail, every fixture or piece of furniture must either be built or brought from far, far away.)

The port at Bubaque has seen better days.
Kasa Afrikana room
Kasa Afrikana pool

Why is Gilles here?  We got snatches of an answer to that. Now 55, he and 3 buddies somehow rejected their futures as cogs in the machinery of bourgeoise suburban life in Lyons when they were 17.  All four traveled the world (whether together or independently or both, I’m not sure), and when Gilles arrived on this island (“the end of the world”) 16 years ago, he was ready at last to settle down. He bought a piece of property, camped on it, started a ferry service to Bissau, slowly expanded his land holdings. Although the civil war at the end of the 1990s never brought actual fighting to Bubaque, all tourism to the country collapsed. Yet he continued building, solving the hundred and one daily puzzles generated by the challenge of creating an idyll in this unlikely location. He says now his main clients during the rainy season are officials or business people who come here for meetings, while in the dry season, its sport fishermen.

Unloading the catch at Bubaque

If we’d had one extra day here, I might have wanted to go out in pursuit of some of the magnificent fish inhabiting these waters.  Or perhaps we would have tried a day excursion to the nearby island of Orango, where saltwater hippos congregate. But with only two days, we were content to stay on the island — exploring the squalid central village, lounging by Gille’s pool, napping, reading, writing.  Today we biked (10 miles each way) to the endless unspoiled beach at the south end of the island. We’ll have one more excellent meal tonight, then we depart on the speedboat early tomorrow, rested up for another chaotic travel day, destination Kolda.

Road to Praia de Bruce on Bubaque: Most islanders live in mud-brick houses with thatched or sheet metal roofs.
Centuries old trees are being cleared for cashew orchards.
Praia de Bruce on Bubaque remains pristine, but for how long?

Life’s little essentials

Tuesday, January 4 (posted 1/6/2011)

The only sign of any rebel threat on our two-day journey from Keur Bamboung to Bissau were the burly guys wearing camo suits and toting AK 47s that we saw occasionally along the roadside. They appeared to be Senegalese Army regulars on routine patrols.

In the absence of any violent incidents, I had plenty of time to chew on this one: Assuming you have a clean water source and enough food to keep hunger at bay and clothes to keep warm, and assuming people aren’t trying to rob or kill you, does reliable electricity or good transportation come next on the hierarchy of my own personal needs?

We’d experienced a lack of both during the last week, so the question was fresh for me, and I thought my answer was unequivocal: I’d choose light. Bad roads slow you down and coat you with layers of sweat and fine grit and induce otherwise responsible drivers to zoom into the path of oncoming traffic to avoid hitting deadly potholes. They cripple commerce and condemn sick folk to dying because they can’t get to medical care. But the lack of reliable electricity crushes my spirit nightly.  The impenetrable darkness might hold hungry hyenas or harmful bugs, and even when you’re in the sphere of dim warm kerosene lanternglow or the funereal pallor of a solar-powered fluorescent, you can’t do much more than talk or drink (or both). Or you can turn everything off and gaze at the magnificent starscape, as we did for a while on the beach on New Year’s Eve.

That’s peachy for a camping trip or vacation jaunt, but no way to live long-term. Still, I now think there may be something even worse. For decades, I’d read in travel literature and fiction about the dreaded African police and militiamen and drug inspectors and customs agents who transform overland travel on this continent into an extended nightmare. Now that I’ve experienced it, I have to at least add them to my short list of human plagues.

Unless you DO personally experience this, it’s hard to imagine how it could take almost 14 hours to cover roughly 200 miles, over the course of two days. This trip for us was broken into 11 different travel segments (donkey cart, pirogue, river ferry, sept-place, and multiple taxis). It also included stops to get visas to travel through The Gambia (about $13 each) and into Guinea Bissau ($21.50 apiece).  For Steve and me, the visa-getting was tedious but routine, requiring filling out forms and getting stamps and auxiliary stamps and having the blank lines on those stamps filled in by official hands. (All this activity has already consumed about 3 pages of each of our passports.) But Laura also had to endure a private interrogation with a glowering Gambian official who discovered her failure to get yet another Gambian visa when she passed through a month or two ago on her return from Sierra Leone.  “You KNEW what you were doing was wrong, and you did it anyway!” he browbeat her, his expression that of an angry parent. I was sure he would try to extort at least a bribe from her, but she says all she had to do was act humble and contrite, feeding his officious ego and patiently enduring the waste of time.

We all got hassled, but she again the worst of all of us, at the sleepy Senegal/Guinea Bissau border. When an official waved our sept-place over to the side of the road, we had to pry ourselves out of the vehicle and extract every piece of our baggage, then haul it over to the back of an unmarked pickup truck parked under a huge tree.  There, a guy wearing a Police baseball cap made us put each piece, one by one, on the tailgate.  He opened every single bag, and every single receptacle within; all our medicine/first aid bags, my makeup case, all the inner pockets of my purse, even the box of matches within one of those. Heavy-lidded, he studied each item, neither polite nor surly, an automaton going through the motions. Finally we repacked and loaded all the luggage and he returned each of our passports, except for Laura’s; he said he was going to detain her. She acted exasperated, then disgusted. She called our driver over to intercede.  Eventually, the official relinquished her passport with a leer.  “They just want to flirt,” she said to us with a roll of her eyes.  “They have nothing else to do all day.”

Our sept-place driver who endured so many checkpoints

Having to stop and go through one of these bureaucratic exercises at each of the three borders (Senegal/Gambia, Gambia/Senegal, Senegal Guinea Bissau) didn’t surprise me. What I wasn’t prepared for was how many times beyond that we were forced to halt — three or four separate detentions at each of the latter two frontiers, then more stops at checkpoints along the way. Sometimes only our driver had to get out (and once I think a “fee” was extorted); sometimes we all had to hand over our passports for furrowed-brow thumb-throughs. Each stop stole time.

For Steve and me, slumming as we are, most of this activity was actively entertaining for its cartoon quality and obvious absurdities. Tiny human dramas abounded.

But around 3:30 p.m. — when we were a full 90 minutes late for meeting the speedboat in Bissau that we’d hired to take us out to Bubaque Island — it began to grate on our nerves as it had been irritating Laura and our three African fellow passengers all along. Two of the latter were natives of Bissau (and speakers of English as well as Wolof, Portuguese, and some French). Friendly folks, they helped us find a taxi and direct the driver to the container port where Gilles had said we’d find the speedboat.

Helpful passengers who helped us find a taxi.

Miraculously, it was still waiting for us (and supposedly for an English threesome).  Laura and I found some beers at a shanty bar across the street from the port, and from then on the afternoon got more and more golden.  With sunset approaching, we left Bissau (sans Englishmen) around 4:30.  We zoomed through glassy seas toward a misty paradise without borders or the rascals who harass those who would cross them.

A Kasa Afrikana speedboat awaited us in Bisau harbor
Cristal Time