Thursday, 5 April 2012

Saving the best until last; Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and The Gambia

So where to begin.

Sitting with this little lap top plugged into an inverter amongst Ebu's maize of wires and batteries. There's a generator humming away out side to charge a battery for the party in Kartong later. Baana's brothers are having their circumcision ceremony and there will be a party to celebrate in their family compound afterwards. Living here amongst the palm trees of the forest near the coast in The Gambia I am relaxing at the journey's end. My counter on the bike says over 10000 km and I feel like the job's done, what ever it was in the first place. Perhaps the real meaning is yet to be revealed.

 Cycling from Bamako in Mali back to the Gambia through Guinea, Guinea Bissau and  the Casamance region of Senegal really felt like saving the best till last. Guinea, I remember, felt like my new favourite country until I reached Guinea Bissau that rapidly took its place. The Journey left the noise and stink of the Capital city quickly behind and I was able to abandon my face musk, needed for the dust and pollution, and breath fresh air in the hot dry bush once again. We had had a nice little party on my last night in Bamako and Solo cooked a fantastic stew with the cockerel that had not long before been running around the compound. Some of the crew turned up and we jammed into the evening with the moon full and glowing a peculiar orange through the city air. I have thought of these guys often on my journey of the last 2 weeks as I heard news of the Tuareg continuing their war and taking control of northern towns and then just 10 days or so after I left the Malian military had had enough and lead a coup d'etat capturing the President and taking control of the country. The borders were closed and I think there is still a curfew in Bamako restricting movement. As they say often here “it's not easy in Africa” and it seems Mali is really going through a hard time of it at the moment and the situation feels very unstable. Perhaps this is the opportunity for the Tuareg to finally get what they have been fighting for for so long out in the desert.

Well, I was far from Bamako by the time all this kicked off and felt lucky to be freely drifting the open road exploring the unfolding universe of West Africa. If you can call cycling nearly a 100km every day for 15 days really drifting; it was more of a mission than a drift. There were very few hotels along the way and generally I had no idea where I would sleep each night when I set off in the morning. Most evenings I slept in villages along the way with wonderfully hospitable families. Sometimes I would ask for the chief of the village or more often people I met would invite me to stay with them. They would bring me water to bath, which was always a blessed relief after a hot sweaty and often dusty day of cycling, and we would eat rice together and relax in the evening sometimes drinking green tea or just chatting in the darkness of the African night. People were always amazed by how far I had cycled and the journey I was making alone. And often they would ask how they to could do the same thing. Well, the truth is that they can't. While I am free to wonder  the open roads of West Africa on my bicycle these people take great risks trying to smuggle themselves into Europe on pirogue canoes from  Mauritania. I have heard so many tragic tales from Gambians, Senegalese and now Guineans of them trying to take the 'back route' to Spain. One Man sitting in the shade of a bridge by the Mangroves told me of how a group of them had walked 9 nights into Morocco to Casablanca and then took the boat with the Arabs. It costs them a thousand dollars but generally they seem to get lost at sea or on this occasion made it to Spain only to find the  police waiting for them on beach and were taken to the cells for 25 days. He talked about how they gave them good food and nice beds for their stay and then sent them back but with a bit of money to help them get home. So he did the whole thing again only to be caught once more and sent straight back to Bissau. Others were not so lucky and many die at sea. And so I am left to contemplate one of the many injustices of the African continent; and there are many.

From Mali into Guinea the road follows the magnificent river Niger and during this dry season many of the people in some of the villages that I stayed in were again searching for the precious gold dust that can be found in this earth. It is quite magical when it reveals it's self whilst you wash and sift the sand and there it is just a sprinkling of golden promise in the bottom of the guard.

From the river the road starts to climb and the climate gradually becomes a little cooler until up in the high lands of the famous mountains of the Fouta Djallo there are even forests of pine trees and green lush valleys, thick with jungle or tidy cultivated gardens nearer the villages. I cycled for days through these hills that are renowned for being a home for the Fulani people and enjoyed the calls of "Jaaramaa", "Nalatong", and "Jamtong" greeting folk as I cruised by. One afternoon while a little lost on the back tracks in the hills I happily spent my rest time of the afternoon heat firing a catapult with a young boy and our expert elder who could hit my plastic coke bottle every time with deadly speed and accuracy. These are the little gems of moments that make life on the road so rich. J have met so many folk all with their stories to tell and this journey seems to have become all about these people's stories as they meet my own as a cycling oddity. From the cool of the mountain forests in the high lands of the Fouta Djallo the road descends from Labe north west towards Koundarra on the border between Senegal, Guinea and Guinea Bissau, but the smooth Tarmac doesn't last long and for 3 days the road is a rough track of sand, rock and fine powder dust that winds its way through endless valleys of forest. When I finally did reach the lower lands it was like being catapulted into the roasting heat of an oven. The hot dry wind no longer so refreshing.

I had been warned by some police in Guinea that there had just been an election in Guinea Bissau and things were still very unstable. There were stories of shootings and an attempted coup and this together with the fact that I didn't actually have a visa to get in the country was enough for these guys to suggest that it really wasn't safe for me to go there. I thankfully ignored this advice as being just another occasion of people warning me about their neighbour countries that has happened at nearly every stage of this journey. The Spanish don't trust the Moroccans, the Berber don't trust the Arabs, the Arabs don't trust the black Africans, the Gambians thought it would not be safe in Mali and so on until it seems that no one really trusts their neighbours at all. In fact here it seems some times that no one trusts anyone and yet trust for me has to be the bottom line for any kind of relationship.

In the case of Guinea Bissau it is true; their politics is nuts. It seems to be an endless tale of coups and assassinations, corrupt politicians and army generals making millions from the drug trade. Guinea Bissau turns out to be where all the cocaine arrives from South America on its way to Europe and there is plenty money to be made if you are in control. Meanwhile the people get on with their lives peacefully. The country is very undeveloped with little infrastructure and a wild west feeling of chaos. The national language is a creole mix of Portuguese and local languages and the country has this exotic Latin feel with cultural connections with Cape Verde and Brazil having been a Portuguese colony. Their history is certainly wobbly to say the least and their war for independence during the sixties and seventies was apparently one of the bloodiest and Portuguese colonies were not given independence until the own fascist regime crumbled in 1974.

I loved Guinea Bissau and wished I had more time to explore. The climate is milder and the vegetation so much greener with subtropical forests and endless Cachu plantations that forms the countries biggest export. The coast line has hundreds of small islands that must be a kind of paradise and the land is divided by many large meandering rivers and mangrove swamps. I have promised my self that I'll return some day again soon. I stayed for a few days in St Domingo with some Portuguese and Spanish friends who are trying to run a small restaurant there but struggling to run a business as the reality of the system here doesn't make things easy for anyone. Having cycled through Spain and Portugal on my way here it seemed like my journey had gone full circle and my languages had become utterly mixed up and confused after weeks of speaking French. Unlike most of Islamic West Africa they do love to drink in Bissau, and have a reputation that they like to party hard and breakfast may well involve continuing the cartons of wine from the night before.

 “Every day is party in Bissau” they tell me back here in The Gambia and that is where I am now, winding down at my journey's end and preparing myself for the shock of returning home. And I know it will be a  shock for its been over 7 months now and I could happily stay. Maybe I'll be back very soon.

So as the counter touches 10,000 kilometres my final words of thanks is to my bike. My Thorne Sherper has never let me down and always seems eager to get back on the road. In all this time I have had just one puncture and every day people here try to get me to sell them or give them my bike. I haven't the heart to tell them how much it actually cost in the UK but it was definitely an investment well worth the expense and I look forward to the next 10,000 km of adventure where ever it may be.

Thank you so much for reading my blogs over the last few months and for all you support in many ways on this journey. I look forward to seeing some of you very soon back home in a week or so.
Much love to one and all.

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