My first attempt to visit Guinea Bissau was thwarted a couple of years ago by the collapse of Air Senegal. I had paid 300 euros for a visa (including the agency fee to get the visa processed in france as there was no UK service at the time). When I made it to Dakar airport at 4am to check in, there was no plane, and after 6 hours at the airport, it was evident there wasn’t going to be a plane. I ended up paying egregious sums to get back to London from Dakar. It took a couple of weeks to find out that the airline had gone bust. Oh well, such is the joy of travelling in Africa!
Things weren’t looking much better this time around! Multiple failed attempts to submit the e-visa on the crashing website! Then they didn’t process the visa or let me know they hadn’t done so, until I emailed to query what passport I had put it on. Tried again, fingers crossed! Ok. Then Air Maroc cancelled part of my flight back. Hmmmm, not looking good. So, I was pleasantly surprised when my flight departed Lisbon airport more or less on time. I love flying to Africa – you can always tell you are Africa bound by the amount of luggage on the plane. Almost every person boarding had their ‘carry-on’ taken off them…. . We eventually all made it on board, and I am guessing Guinea Bissau is slightly posher than the places I usually go, as there are actual tourists on the plane, as opposed to just aid workers, chinese business men and the military.
We landed in the balmy evening in Bissau where a nice man sorted out my visa after chatting me up in broken french. I eventually found the driver I had booked to take me to the hotel after being propositioned by several taxi drivers. My room at the ‘luxury’ Azalai is more shabby than chic, and I did have to squash a few cockroaches before passing out after 12 hours on the move.
In the morning, fortified by some fresh pain au chocolat and the appalling nescafe that passes for coffee in most of West Africa, I headed out to conquer the town. Bissau Velho – old town – is a gunshot peppered, run down, shabby colonial city with lots of charm and friendly people. Probably too friendly!. I don’t know what it is with African men – so many of them try to hit on me, its not personal, they hit on anything that walks by. Sometimes its quite half hearted, but today I had a persistent one who followed me around for half an hour trying to talk to me. I do my best ‘I don’t speak any language you speak’ smile, and walk on……, but it is a bit annoying. One day I am going to sit on a plastic chair on the side of the road in a West african city, with my belly hanging out of the top of my pants, and I will hiss at passing men and see how they like it 😃
The sights of Bissau are not numerous…., the day passed sweltering past the Presidential palace (lots of bullet holes), the cathedral, the bank (where i finally found a working ATM guarded by 8 security guards).
I wandered round the fort, and got a proper telling off from the military as I took a photo. Oh well!. At least they didn’t detain me. The port was fascinating. Then I saw a terrific monument which I think was a fist – hopefully it was an African fist rising up against the horrendously corrupt government here (they are all pretty corrupt in this neck of the woods). Continuing in the revolutionary spirit, I wandered up to Che Guevara square.
I took a pause at the Pastry shop at the Imperial – astoundingly good tarts and decent espresso. I love the countries that were colonised by Portugal, Italy and France – you can tell in the pastry shops (which contrast profoundly with the bread in the countries colonised by anglo nations)
I kept strolling in the heat, and made it up to the National Ministry of Justice which was lovingly adorned with multiple signs saying ‘made with chinese assistance’. It was an architectural horror!
I passed a smattering of lebanese restaurants. While I have frequently mentioned how chinese influence is everywhere in the world! – I have neglected to mention the widespread lebanese dominance of grocery stores.
Everywhere from Kenema in Sierra Leone, to Nzerekore in Guinea, to here in Bissau, you can find Lebanese families running the grocery stores who have been here for generations. I always wondered if it is because the Lebanese are the arabs without oil, they had to find another way to make money 🙂
More wandering, more old buildings, most of them look derelict with peeling paint, sagging roofs and absent glass in the windows…. but a surprising number have people living in them. Lots of bullet holes as a reminder of the not too distant past – if Guinea Bissau is famous for anything it is coups and cocaine smuggling.
After strolling for hours, I took a nap by the pool and headed out again for fish. Spicy fish and palm oil and rice. It wasn’t terrible :-), but the cakes were better. A glorious day in Bissau!
Bissau, Monday 6 November, 2017
Bissau, November 6, 2017