Guinea Bissau Part 1: An adventurous border crossing

When crossing an overland border in Africa the standard procedure is first to visit the immigration office and obtain an exit stamp in your passport to show that you have legally exited the country. Next you visit the ‘Duane’ or customs office and obtain an exit stamp on your Passavant or Carnet De Passage to show that your vehicle has legally exited the country. Almost invariably a heavily armed officer will be stationed at the actual border and will check that you have the required stamps before ceremoniously lowering a rope barrier and allowing you to cross. Additionally, there is often at least one other military checkpoint and sometimes 2 or 3 in the ‘no mans land’ before you reach the next country and at each of these checkpoints your documents will also be checked.  The fact that we had accidentally entered Senegal without visa or Passavant therefore posed a bit of a problem. We felt fairly sure that as soon as the Senegalese immigration / Duane officers noticed that we did not have any of the required paperwork they would know they had us over the proverbial barrel and would demand that we paid a huge ‘fine’. 

We decided the best approach would be to pick a quiet and remote border crossing, where the officers would hopefully be less corrupt and less knowledgeable about the official requirements for tourists. After consulting a paper map we settled on a tiny border in the East of the country. We set off later than expected, having spent the day with a Chinese friend of Chi’s, eating expensive imported fruit and getting a tour of his fish factory. By the time we reached the turnoff for the border it was after 10pm and pitch black. We figured we would get to the border, find a suitable place to camp for the night and cross early the next morning. The ‘road’ was a sandy piste which quickly became an extremely narrow, overgrown and potholed track through dense forest. We got the impression few foreigners used this route as most of the men in the tiny villages we passed started at us in amazement, while the women and children quickly ran indoors. After more than an hour of seriously tough riding, we stopped a passing guy on a scooter to ask how much further we had to go. It was only when he answered in Portuguese that we realised we were already in Guinea Bissau. There was no official border post here and we had inadvertently smuggled ourselves across an international border.  Oops! 

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Given that I work as an immigration lawyer in the UK it was a strange position to find myself in, but although I would never have set out to deliberately sneak across a border I had to admit that now it had happed we were probably in a better position. We had managed to get out of Senegal without paying any ‘fines’ and we did at least have a visa for Guinea Bissau (which we obtained in advance), if not an entry stamp.  We figured the best thing to do was to head to the nearest town with a Duane office to try to sort the paperwork for the vehicles and hope that we didn’t pass any police checkpoints along the way. Our more immediate problem was where to sleep as we were by this point, exhausted. We continued driving but the dense forest on either side of the track did not disclose anywhere suitable to camp. Around 11.30pm we reached a tiny village, in the middle of the village was a large clearing with a tree at its centre, against which a young man was casually leaning. Chi (who speaks Spanish) managed to convey that we were looking for a place to camp and before long we had been invited to pitch our tents in front of the Imam’s house. Some children were dispatched and returned with 4 plastic chairs which we were invited to sit on and what felt like the entire rest of the village gathered around, staring at us and whispering to one another excitedly. After we had introduced ourselves, shaken everyone’s hands and exhausted the limits of what could be achieved conversation wise without Portuguese, most of the adults gradually drifted away, but the children stayed to watch us put up our tents and only left when we started waving and said a pointed ‘goodnight.’ 

Whoever talks about the peaceful tranquility of the countryside, clearly hasn’t spent a night in a rural African village. Almost as soon as we got into bed, our tent was surrounded by snuffling and grunting pigs, who sounded unnervingly close to our heads, they were soon joined by whinnying donkeys, at one point we heard hooves and looked out to see 3 donkeys galloping past Chi’s tent.  It felt like we had only just dropped off when we were woken by the call to prayer at 5am, as dawn broke there was a chorus of strange and very loud birds followed shortly the sounds of the village waking up. We climbed out of our tents to find our audience of children had returned. We packed and after saying our farewells continued on our way. 

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The mother of the Imam who let us sleep in front of his house

The ‘road’ was blanketed in deep sand and was even narrower and more overgrown than before, in places we had to duck as we tried to negotiate our way through dense undergrowth which was rapidly reclaiming it. Miraculously Jim made it in his Subaru, which is just as well as I don’t think two Africa Twin’s would have been able to pull him out if he had gotten stuck and it didn’t look like anything bigger than a scooter had taken this route in years. We passed through forests of Cashew trees and the boozy smell of rotting fruit hung in the air.  Startled women and children emerged from the forests, with overflowing buckets of cashews balanced on their heads, we waved and shouted a friendly ‘Bon Dia’ some cautiously waved back, but most just started at us bemused. 

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A cashew nut, both the fruit and nut are edible but the shell is extremely toxic

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After around 2 hours of driving we made it to a ‘main road’, a wide stretch of red gravel flanked on either side by tall trees. We stopped to make some breakfast (strong black coffee, bran crackers and some extremely melted chocolate which Chi had carried with him since Morocco). 

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Breakfast stop

Around 11am we made it to the small town of Ingore where we found the immigration post. The officer didn’t seem the least bit bothered by our sudden appearance or lack of entry stamps and told us only that we must continue on to Safim to get a Passavant. Hoping that any other officers we encountered would be as understanding, we continued on our way. The journey went relatively smoothly, we were stopped a few times and waited, hearts pounding and with a feigned air of friendly nonchalance to see if they would request our documents, but we were let though without incident. 

We stopped around lunchtime in a small bar to wait out the hottest part of the day. Over a beer and a plate of groundnut stew we checked iOverlander (an app used by tourists in West Africa) and realised the Duane office  we had been directed to in Safim was notoriously corrupt. Several tourists had posted ominous warnings to make sure all your documents were in order before passing, one couple had been asked to pay 75 Euros even though they had all of the correct paperwork – it did not bode well for us, turning up and asking to be issued a Passavant. Unfortunately there was no way around the checkpoint which was situated on the only road into Bissau. We decided we would wait until early evening in the (admittedly vain) hope that the police may have gone home for the day and we could sneak through. 

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Lunch stop

A lot of people travelling Africa will say that things have a habit of happening at exactly the right moment and that was certainly the case today. Just before the checkpoint there was a toll bridge, our friend Chi spotted a group of people drinking palm wine under the shade of a large tree and pulled over to ask them how much the bridge should cost. He was surprised when one of guys answered him in perfect English, tinged with unmissable New York accent. It turned out to be an extraordinarily fortuitous meeting. Amilcar or ‘Milky’ as he told us to call him, had just returned to Bissau from America, where he had spent the past 20 years working in the music industry. He was in the process of trying to set up various businesses, Milky it would transpire saw everything as a potential money making opportunity, he had a hand in everything from artisan soap making, to supplying fancy restaurants with seafood, selling ice, mangos and bespoke wooden furniture which he made himself. He also happened to come from one of the most influential families in Bissau. His mother, Maria Gusta was the sister of the Marxist revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral and Louis Cabral, first president of Guinea Bissau. She was married to Victor Saude Maria who was prime minister for 83 days until his assassination, she was the first and only female commander in the war of independence (and still proudly carried her soviet pistol). She had met the queen of England and entertained everyone from Mandela to Gaddaffi in her garden. Milky assured us that if we stuck with him we wouldn’t have any problems getting through the police checkpoint. We set off, travelling in a convoy. The police pulled us, but sure enough after a word from Milky they let us go. Later that evening I asked Milky what he had said to the police, ‘I told them you were guests of my mother,  Maria Gusta and that we were going to be late for dinner. Nobody in Guinea Bissau wants to be responsible for keeping Maria Gusta waiting!’ 

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A photo hanging on the wall of Maria Gusta’s house, Victor Saude Maria is on the far right
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Me with Maria Gusta

 

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