Uncategorized West Africa

Labe (Guinea) to Mamou (Guinea)

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, I survived the Guinea mountains and have now descended back to sea level and am in Sierra Leone.

I left Labe back on 7th January and headed for a town called Pita. I really liked Labe, the place I stayed was nice and quiet, with good food, cold beers and little tweeting birds in the trees, but it was a little bit expensive, especially for Guinea. But they did have hot running water! Each room had a hot water tank fed by a home made boiler, copper piping inside an old oil drum filled with water, and heated by a big charcoal fire underneath.

I went to the post office to post a letter to Emma (just to see what it was like and how long it would take). It was a big tumbledown colonial building with a huge counter with a lady behind. It took her about 5 minutes to look up how many stamps she needed to sell me, she kept them in her handbag! She didnt have any change for my money so had to nip to the shop over the road before she could give me my change (a very frequent occurance here).

While I was writing the letter at the counter a couple of people who ran a stationary business in the corner invited me to eat lunch with them. This kept happening in Guinea! We sat around a big bowl of very nice rice and groundnut soup in the corner of the post office, eating lunch! I’ve had lunch in a post office, in a remote village, and in the back of a petrol station, all spontaneously invited!

After Labe I stayed at a place in Pita called Chez Sister, a few km out of town. It was run by a Guinean lady and her Welsh husband, Captain Dave as he likes to be called! A retired Royal Navy captain with endless stories to tell about smuggling, people trafficking, drugs, weapons and even the eventual arrest of Charles Taylor! He’d been part of the British fleet patrolling the West African coast during the Sierra Leone civil war.

In Guinea they have good coffee everywhere. Normally made over a charcoal fire in a french stovetop coffee pot to make really strong espresso. Its kept hot in big thermos flasks and costs about 4p per cup! But as with all hot drinks in West Africa, they drink it with an unhealthy amount of sugar! I could stop at any roadside shack or cafe and find good coffee! I much prefer it to the sweetenned condensed milk variety in Guinea Bissau or the really spicy cafe touba I had in Senegal.

From Pita I cycled to Dalaba. It was a tough days riding, hilly, hot, but spectacular scenery through the mountains. I felt really ill after arriving and was sick all night, I felt better the next afternoon but still not 100%. I assumed that I’d got heat exhaustion, hadnt been drinking enough, or that I’d eaten or drunk something bad. I had a stomache ache and headache but pushed onto Mamou a few days later. Again great cycling through good scenery, one huge hill to get out of town but after that it was fairly easy going, more rolling hills than big mountain passes.

I stayed at a forestry school just outside of town. After speaking to Emma about still not feeling very well, I went into town to try and find somewhere to get tested for malaria…

I asked at a pharmacy who recomended a small clinic in town. I had a very strange consultaion where they weighed me, made me lie down on a very short bed (it was the size and height of a table!), took my blood pressure and my temperature using an armpit thermometer! They took a short history but I’m not really sure they recorded much of it.

They sent me over the road to a dodgy looking apartment/office block to have a blood test. No electricity here, no running water, but clean sterile needles and a microscope was on the desk. I gave some blood which was mixed with a few different chemicals. About an hour later after some microscope viewing we went back to the clinic over the road.

They brought out the record book for my appointment and said “these are the drugs you need to take” and pointed to a list of 4 words! Eventually it transpired that they’d diagnosed me with malaria, typhoid, lack of appetite and a headache, and had prescribed drugs for all, including a big bottle of appetite stimulant and paracetamol for the headache!

They’d only written down the brandnames of the drugs on the form which meant I had no idea what I was being prescribed! I asked to see the drugs and they brought out medicine that I was familiar with and could double check! A quick internet search later, I had some well recomended malaria treatment and some antibiotics for the typhoid. I don’t think they were planning on explaining how to take the treatment until I pushed them, even then they didnt really seem to know any of the details, just expecting me to read the leaflet with the drugs!

I really would have serious concerns going to a place like this for any sort of illness that required more treatment than common off the shelf drugs. They must prescribe these drugs relatively frequently but they didnt even seem to have much knowledge of them.

So I bought the drugs and started taking them. The next day I felt remarkedy better, completely healed! I stayed in Mamou for a few days until I had finished the malaria treatment.

After reading up about typhoid, I dont think I actually had it. The test they conducted involves checking for typhoid antibiodies in the blood, and given that I had a typhoid vaccination just a couple of months ago, I think they misdiagnosed me. They didnt ask me if I’d had a vaccination, didnt tell me they were testing me for typhoid, and I only realised afterwards that the test might have been invalid. But I’ve nearly finished the course of antibiotics, I figured that it probably wouldnt do any harm.

At the forestry school in Mamou I met three peace corps volunteers who’d come back from a training event in Conakary (the capital of Guinea). We went out for dinner together and to a small bar
afterwards. They were all fairly new to the peace corps, only a few months in. They each lived in a different village in Guinea on their own, working with the local community in teaching, or farming, completely immersed in local life and fairly isolated. I think they said that they each have a 2 year placement, its quite a commitment! With the introduction of mobile phones here, they were able to keep in touch with each other and meet up every few weeks in one of the bigger towns.

I left Mamou a while ago now and crossed the border into Sierra Leone, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

I really loved Guinea, the people were very friendly, the scenery was stunning, the roads mostly good and they had some basic facilities which are rare in this part of the world, a few hours of electricity each night, running water and solar street lights. These seem to be unheard of luxuaries in Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone, the two neighboring countries I’ve seen. I’d like to go back to Guinea and explore a bit more.

Uncategorized West Africa

Bissau (Guinea Bissau) to Labe (Guinea)

Leaving Bissau I grabbed a coffee and egg sandwich for breakfast. It was Christmas day and everything was quiet, but the street vendors were already set up for serving food.

I was running short on local currency and had heard that there were ATMs that would accept international visa cards. The first two didnt work. One only took local cards, the other was out of service, but the third worked flawlessly. Its now easy to get cash in Bissau city (and also up country in Gabu where I got some more before crossing to Guinea).

Cycling out of Bissau was fine, but as I got into the countryside people kept asking me for money. They would shout “branco, branco, festa, festa” at me as I cycled past, making the recognisable hand guesture for money. Some people would just say hello “bon dia”, and how are you “kuma ku bu sta?”, but would then ask for a festa! An official at a checkpoint asked, children on the back of a horse carriage (actually a donkey cart!) would ask, it was everywhere and I hadnt been expecting it. I cant find any other reports of this from other travellers, and I still dont know what festa means. I’ve speculated that it has something to do with Christmas and gift giving, but I really dont know. A few days later and it never happened again.

I stayed in a town called Sokone on Christmas Day with an economics student who studies at the university in Bissau. He and his family invited me in, showed me around, fed me and made me feel very welcome.

The town at night gave me the creeps. Everyone was very friendly and it was safe, but there are remenents of the military coup from a few years ago. Burnt out admininistrative buildings left to rot, decrepid childrens playgrounds filled with litter, it felt like a scene from a zombie movie or a resident evil game! They told me that when the coup hapenned, the military set fire to the town hall buildings and 10 people died. The buildings are still there, no one touches them and plants have grown around them. Very strange.

That evening the local discoteca (there are a lot of discotecas in Guinea Bisau) has a childrens Christmas party, followed by a youth Christmas party, followed by an adult Christmas party (until 5am in the morning). They party hard in Guinea Bissau. The club was like any other anywhere in the world, dark, noisy, hot, flashing lights and generic pop music. But being the only white man in the place I felt a little out of place! The girls would look at me and giggle, and pinch my arm! I have no idea why!

Cycling further east towards Bafata and Gabu I saw evidence that there was one more infrastructure here. Electricity pilons alongside the road (but without cables and some snapped in half), but there’s no electricity network now, street lighting columns with parts scavenged, or bent at an angle (but there are no woking street lights now), water distribution network manholes and access points, but there’s no piped water here. I have no idea when or who built these or if they ever functioned, but they are in a bad state of disrepair now. Very very strange.

I really enjoyed the evenings in Guinea Bissau, you could wander along the street, buy sandwiches, or grilled meat from stalls, get a beer in a bar, lots of people about all milling around being sociable. There is no electric so stalls have torches, or lamps, or candles. Everthing is cooked on charoal, grilled meet, deep fried sweet potatoes or boiled eggs.

In Gabu I watched a man repair mobile phones on the street. He had a magnifying glass, tools, solder, tweezers and a soldering iron. But there’s no electricity, he heated the tip of the soldering iron up in a charcoal fire.

I had dinner with the Nephew of an ex president of Guinea Bissau. Killed in a military coup I think… He wasnt very keen on politics in Guinea Bissau. The elections were scheduled for the beginning of December for the transition for the temporary military rule to democracy (of a sort) but they’ve been delayed until Feb/Mar. The story is that the government cant afford to pay for the
election/polling process. A country is in real trouble if it cant afford elections. But I can believe it, with the teachers being on strike for 3 months because they’ve not been paid.

I stayed the night at the border with the Guinea Bissau national guard/millitary. They were very friendly, happy for me to pitch my tent in the yard, the tin of Nescafe and box of tea I offered went down very well and we sat drinking it all afternoon/evening.

In the morning they werent keen on me leaving, they made me tea, coffee, bought me a sandwich and some hot very sweet goats milk! I was worried they would ask me for money, or a gift, or a bribe, but no problem at all. The imigration people stamped me out without any question and they waved me on my way!

The entry into Guinea was equally easy, waved past the military post by the soldiers, into the imigration office and stamped into Guinea with a smile and just wanted to know where I was going for the ledger. I always just give the name of the next main town and dont offer a full breakdown of my trip!

I’d not seen a tarmac road for about 50km and I had 40km more to go to the next sizable town where I was planning to stay. No tarmac until then, but a good dirt road.

The people in Guinea were immediately noticably more friendly. Very happy to chat, offering me food while on my bike and asking if I needed anything. Perhaps it had something to do with being back in a French speaking country and I can get by in French quite happily.

I stopped beneath some stunning outcrops. Similar to stannage edge in Sheffield, but 5 time as high and many miles long. Absolutely stunning. I didn’t see the children, but they saw me! From about 100m away they spotted me and began running towards me! They seemed genuinly interested in what I was doing there, very happy to say bonjour, cava etc and smile for the camera. No asking for gifts or money, just coming out of curiosity and intrigue. Really lovely children and a really spectacular place.

I stayed in a real dive of a place. I paid 30,000 guinea francs, or about £2.50. Rice bags for a roof, tarp for a floor, no elec or running water, and I think it might have been a brothel. There was a bar with a few older men, and younger women hanging about… Nevermind, it was cheap and I was only staying 1 night.

The town had a paved road, big concrete drainage ditches, solar street lights and seemed to have had a lot of investment. This new road stretched about 80km down the road, with solar street lights for each village, and there is construction work happening to take it all the way to Labe on the other side of the mountain.

In one of the villages where I bought some water, one of the children looked at me, he looked petrified. He screamed in fear and ran away crying! The adults seemed to find it quite amusing!

I spent the night in the last town before the big mountain crossing. I slept of the floor of a little cafe in my tent.

The next morning I chickenned out. After strugelling the previous day on 20km of mountainous dirt road at the end, I decided to take a taxi over the pass. 150 very rough, mountainous km later we arrived in Labe. ,I’m very glad to have taken a taxi, it would have taken a minimum of 5 days very hard and remote cycling to get across, I think I would have struggled.

The landscape was spectacular. Big closely packed mountians, very steep, covered in dense jungle. A dirt road running along cuttings in the sides and over plateaus on the tops. River crossings on chain boats. Monkeys on the road, and lots of brightly coloured birds. Some small villages, small round mud brick houses, with thatched roofs, cows, goats, sheep, chickens wandering around. Some villages a little bigger where you can
buy oranges, bananas, nuts or big fried pancake globs!

At the edges of the road I saw forest fires, trees and grasses burning. Huge swathes of forrest destroyed to make way for the new road. Huge quaries in hillsides where agregate for the road had been mined (especially where the road had been finished). Big earthmovers flattening the land where once there was forest.

We stopped in a village and I chatted to the people there. The work crews had been through to make space for the road that will be built. They had half demolished huts and houses along the edge to make space. Just single walls with a door left, or a thatch roof falling off a half demolished hut. They werent happy about the new road, I suspect the younger generation had a different view, but they just saw it as something that meant houses in their village had to be demolished.

All paid for by China I understand, and mainly Chinese workers I think… Its an important road, the link from Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Mali. It definately needs to be improved, but it’s just quite horrifying to see this process in this environment and the huge environmental destruction.

I’m now in Labe at a really lovely hotel. Nice restaurant where I’ve just had a goat stew and spaghetti, pizza the other night. Nice bungalo in the garden. Nice cold beers! Its expensive, but its nice to sit back for a few days.

There have been some other overlanders here, two Dutch couples. One headed north in a custom off road motorhome, one south towards South Africa in a Land Rover. Its been really nice to have some other travellers to chat to and I was sad to see them go.

Tomorrow I set off south, it will be mountainous (Labe is at 1000m) but I hear it is a good road and it’s less steep. I have lots of info on what’s ahead. I’m looking forward to it!