Friday, January 7
Two lifetime firsts for me yesterday — first bribe and first bedbug! Both somewhat disgusting, if only mildly so.
The bribe came as we were returning from Guinea Bissau. We’d had two choices of travel routes back to Senegal: 1) returning to Ziguinchor and then heading east to Kolda, or 2) traveling east to a town called Bafata and from thence north to Kolda. We’d had such a dreadful time with all the checkpoints on the way from Zig that we decided to try the second, even though we’d been warned that the roads were dreadful. Happily, they actually weren’t all that bad, although once again, the travel was pricy. Despite hard bargaining, we’d had to pay about $100 for a bush taxi to get us from Bissau to the border (for that, we got the whole vehicle.) Bizarrely, all the taxis in GB were in hugely better condition than those in Senegal and the Gambia. In Bissau, they were all Mercedes Benzes, not that ancient, and our sept-place to the border was a remarkably clean and comfortable Renault. (Steve suspects there’s some convoluted explanation involving foreign aid and government contracts to explain this.)
The bribe came after we’d gone through customs and gotten our GB exit stamp. We’d had to stop in front of a stand where a sullen looking guy told Laura he was in need of tea, so we would have to pay him 2000 CFA (about $4). She protested and argued, but he was malevolently implacable. Item by item, she started taking everything out of her backpack, even though we were all snickering at how ridiculous this was. The African who would be traveling with us in the bush taxi to Kolda jumped in, pointing out that even HE had had to pay the tea bribe. So we threw up out hands and dug out the money. It was all so brazen. I’m a little sorry we didn’t carry through and take out every item in all our bags. But we sensed that might have backed the guy into a corner that could have resulted in our spending many hours at that roadside.
I spotted the bedbug this morning, as he was about to crawl into the crack between the sheet and the headboard. I probably wouldn’t have recognized him, were it not for the 3 little smears of blood on my pillow. Ugh!!!! (I know they’re not harmful. Just gross.)
The Hotel Hobbe, where we’re staying, does have its charms. The pool is large and sparkling clean. Most of the rooms are located in African-style rondavals (and everything has thatched roofs). The wifi’s superb, and our dinner here last night was topnotch. Even the beds are comfy (if infested).
I’m not exactly sure how much the rooms are (as Laura made the reservation for us). I’ve decided that if we have to pay $40 or less, I’ll be satisfied. At $60 or more, you’ll hear me grumbling.
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.”
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.
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.