Thursday 13 June 2013

o : Weling

On the road from Guinea-Bissau
12km from Dabiss, 53km from Boké

Dear o,

One by one the stars are disappearing. They are being swallowed up by rainclouds from the east, which are lit up every few seconds by distant lightning, but no thunder.  The clouds have been edging in for hours, and with each star they disenfranchise of light I get a little more nervous about being here, deep in the forest frontier.  This part of Africa is on the precipice of the rainy season, which I’ve tasted in the air and sensed in the people, and which I can now see approach through the mesh of the tent; it is a rainy season that for months renders this corner of the world inaccessible.  And for us, inescapable.

I am alone in the tent, which is too hot for two – too hot for one, really, which is why I’m up writing to you.  Al is in the truck, splayed out on the front seats, probably also baking, probably also awake.  We’re in our underwear, stretched out to relieve the heat, without a care for the children of Weling who took such interest in us, and are probably watching from a distance, or peeking from behind a tree.  We are nearly out of drinkable water, which would make the jungle night more bearable, and our fresh food is nearly gone – we had tinned mackerel, sweetcorn, and a peanut butter & jam sandwich for dinner.  We have plenty of fuel, but if tonight’s rain inundates the already-muddy road, it could be useless come morning.  It’s too dark to safely take on the road now, though I’m sorely tempted.  All we can do is wait out the flash-threatening night.


We didn’t plan on entering Guinea this way.  We were going to cut north and cross the Fouta Djallon Plateau to return to the coast for Conakry, where we must apply for another visa.  The plateau route is much longer, but on superior roads and without ferry crossings.  We originally judged it to be the quickest in order to get to the Ivory Coast embassy tomorrow, so that our applications might be processed over the weekend, and our rush out of Guinea-Bissau wouldn’t be for naught. 

Early this afternoon, about three hours out of Bissau, we picked up a man named Mbembe who carried a propeller shaft (not unlike the one we had repaired in San Sebastian) and was heading to the Guinean border.  At a fork in the road Mbembe helped us get out of a police bribery attempt, after which we noticed the plateau was the other way on the fork.  But Mbembe said this way was the fastest, and our map offered no argument to distance – just road quality.  Le route est bien, pas difficile?” I asked him.  Pas problème, pas problème, c’est très rapidement.”  I asked what time we would get to Conakry, and he said 8 or 9pm.  Here we go, I thought: a shortcut. 

The roads turned to dirt not far after the turn-off, near Quebo, and led to a small and quiet village where the Guinea-Bissau border officers resided.  Grass-roofed homes on stilts, women who don’t think of themselves as ‘topless’, and the happiest, friendliest, most welcoming people I have seen in a long time.  Everybody waved, everybody said hello in whatever language figured best, everybody smiled when they saw us.  The police who stamped our carnet de passage wanted us to stay and chat, while the gentle old man who processed our passports, using a stamp wrapped in a plastic bag that had not been used for a week, gave me the sort of smile that said he loved his life, his work, and the people he got the chance to meet.  While he flipped through the pages, a collection of kids gathered, all big eyes and smiles, and we took photos, showing their faces to them on the screen.  All this welcome was odd and wonderful, and it didn’t stop there.

We left Mbembe in the town and turned back for the route to Guinea. The dirt road quickly lost the right to call itself a road at all – within minutes, there were not only potholes, rivets and uneven spaces, but craters, fallen trees, and swamps.  Most of this we passed by going around through trails in the bush, just wide enough between trees to squeeze through.  This was not off-road.  This was no-road.

But we had help.  The kids from the village had followed us, and multiplied into the dozens – a whole army of smiling, laughing under-10 roadside assistants were running along with truck, holding onto the back, and sprinting up ahead.  They told us where to turn, how to get around, which invisible bush track to take.  At one point we got stuck in the mud, and they moved a tree into place for us to drive over. 

There was no request for money, no demand for cadeaux.  The change in character was a shock and a joy.

The kids thinned out and disappeared right before we arrived at a wooden gate with a French flag flying beside: Guinea, apparently.  A friendly man came out to welcome us, stamp our documents, and practice his English.  He looked 35 and said he has 52, and announced it was because he was happy, with a big smile.  He said the road would be bad for another 5km and then improve before the ferry crossing.

It didn’t.  Without our guides we tackled more swamp, more tracks up veritable canyons, more treks into the bush to get around the ugly green mud.  At one point I drove too far out of the way and lodged a branch behind the front tire.  A few minutes with the hammer got it out, and revealed the gouge that seems, so far, superficial only.

To board the cable-ferry we had to actually drive across part of the river and onto the rusty deck.  The driver called himself our ‘guardian’, and seemed to be having a good time.  Before the ferry we passed a military camp, whose soldiers inspected our documents for a good half hour, and who said the road would improve after the ferry. 

It didn’t.  We navigated hundreds of pools and barriers, a passed through a fair number villages, with the residents always waving, always smiling, always excited to see us.  At one we stopped to fold down the now-busted antenna, and as I got out I was greeted by an older man who was on the verge of tears at seeing us.  Though we didn’t speak a word of each other’s languages, he hugged me four times, touched my arms and chest, and wouldn’t let go of my hand for five minutes while we chatted to him and the villagers about our travels.  African men often hold hands, as casually as the women go without tops, and now I understood a little more of why.  Before we left the village, we asked how far the roads would be bad for.  They said it would improve in about 2km.

It didn’t.  The bushwacking continued, and the sun began to set.  As dusk began to fall we found ourselves in another village.  We pulled over near the school and asked if we could spend the night.  The two men we originally met said it was fine, so we started to set up the tent next to the wooden football posts.  People started arriving to see us.  One of them said we could sleep under the awning of the school, so we moved the tent.  By the time the poles and pegs were secure, perhaps the whole village had arrived.

The villagers said it would rain overnight.  Would we be stuck until the afternoon, when it dried out?  We looked at our map.  We were 12km from Dabiss, and 53km from Boké. But the map said something different about the road after Dabiss, that it didn’t say about the road we are now on: “impassable in the rainy season.”  It was almost completely dark now, but we could see the approaching clouds.

These are the clouds we’ve been sensing and smelling for weeks, the flashing blankets of water, the avant-garde of the next five-month-long African season.  If we can’t go on, can we go back?  Will the road and the tracks hold firm in the rain?  Will we even be allowed to return to Guinea-Bissau?


I did sleep a little before writing.  I had a dream of a department store, where I was waiting with all of my family, my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandmother, along with Al and Al’s family.  We were at a desk where tinsel hung from the ceiling, as a hint of Christmas six months away.  We were all loitering by the desk, sitting on the floor and in circles, biding our time as the department store staff merely put up with us.  We were all waiting for Christmas.  It felt like it would never arrive.

At first light we will get up and go, regardless of any rain and the mosquitos who love the twilight times of day.  I can see Al struggling to sleep in the heat.  And above I can see no more stars, only darkness.  Bugs are still crashing against the tent, and now they are hitting the truck, even the ground.

No, those aren’t bugs.  It has started to rain.



Gandembel, where we received our exit stamps for Guinea-Bissau

Some of the kids of Gandembel

Not everybody is interested in saying 'cheese'

The road

Our guides taking us around the road
(which is indeed the part covered in water)

The Guinean post of Sansale, with a proud French flag

To the left is a bridge under construction

A closer look at part of our road
(we avoided sections like this by driving through the bush)

Termite mounds

The ferry we took across the Kogon River

Our camp, by the Weling School