As I stepped into the Range Rover under the dusty skies of Banjul in the early AM I was greeted by the familiar sounds of Don Williams. Fortunately he is my favorite singer so I was able to easily absorb about 6 hours of one of his cd’s cycling through the same songs over what ultimately would turn into a 10.5 hour adventure before we reached our final destination in northern Guinea Bissau.
Our journey involved several border crossing – going from The Gambia to Senegal to Guinea Bissau. Over numerous trips to this continent, I have discovered that driving can be painfully slow at times – often taking up a significant amount of a day just to travel a short distance. Our travels today were a classic example of this.
Driving through The Gambia and Senegal certainly has it’s challenges. There are numerous police checkpoints – often some as close a kilometer apart – most of the time the police stop the car, chat amicably and waive you on to what will soon be another checkpoint. The roads in Senegal are several notches in quality above those in The Gambia. One would think this would expedite traffic – but rather almost every small village we passed through had setup a ‘mini maze’ of rocks or large tree trunks which significantly slows down traffic. Multiply this times many villages and one’s average speed is greatly diminished.
Then there is the pervasive corruption. We got a taste of this in Southern Senegal – becoming worse as we approached the Guinea Bissau border. While at one of the many checkpoints our vehicle was inspected – one of the windows did not roll down and this triggered an immediate fine on the spot. Another stop produced another fine – for some other insignificant reason. This corruption became significantly worse once we crossed over into Guinea Bissau – with several checkpoints close to the border – a tail light wasn’t strong enough – we were accessed a fairly sizable fine for that and instructed to go to the local ‘police station’ (just down the street) where we had to pay more money to acquire a particular paper that would theoretically allow us a ‘free’ pass when we returned through this specific police checkpoint (this wasn’t the case as the same policeman took more money from us on the way back).
Our time crossing the Guinea Bissau border took nearly 3 hours. They were unable to issue a visa on the spot; the officers offered up several choices – pay the visa fee and continue deep into Guinea Bissau to a certain town where we would be issued the actual visa (probably would take 2-3 hours just to go there based on road situation) and then immediately turn around, driving back to the border to acquire the entry stamp. Or they would find a courier for us – return to the closest border town in Senegal (about a 30 minute drive back from where we had come) and get the visa at the Guinea Bissau Consulate.We opted to return to Senegal to get the visa. After about a 30 minute wait they located some guy on a motorbike. My driver went with him – as it turned out the motorcyclist had no idea where the consulate was and they spent quite a bit of time trying to find it). Ultimately they returned and eventually we were on our way.
Final destination: Varela a tiny village located next to the ocean. We spent two hours driving some 50km on dirt roads through orchards of cashew trees (Guinea Bissau’s primary agricultural product). Finally we reached a small hotel completely powered by generator. It took us 10.5 hours to get here – considering the distance between Banjul and Varela (225km)- if these two cities were located on the autobahn, it would be a well under 2 hour drive!
Varela is small, mostly built of houses made of mud bricks. Water sources seem to be from wells. Solar powered street lamps are strategically placed, most are still working at night. The beach is a 20 minute walk away – it’s brown sands runs for kilometers – only gentle surf with absolutely no people on the beaches as far as one can see. Not a bad place to call home for several nights – and certainly a nice break from the constant moving and hassles of the past week.