Letter from Guinea-Bissau: The long way here


To save a little money, I always take the long way to get here. But sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.

The journey begins in Fresno, California, where I check in my suitcase weighing exactly 50 pounds – the airlines’ limit – and then haul my (much heavier, but smaller) carry-on suitcase through security, stuffed with electronics for the WAVS school, snacks for my journey, and suspicious-looking packets of instant oatmeal. My zipped-tight carry-on always gets searched – something about a bunch of wires and electronic gadgets stuffed next to oatmeal always raises the eyebrows of the TSA agents.

Then, after 2 or 3 layovers in the U.S. and Europe, I land in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. (People in Dakar like to think of their chaotic, noisy capital as the Paris of West Africa. But after a couple taxi rides, you start to think of it as the L.A. of West Africa).

I usually stay at a cheap guest house for one or two nights, taking advantage of the hot water, air conditioning, and decent restaurants in town. Meanwhile, I make several trips to the airport to see how soon I can get a flight on the infamous Senegalese Airlines to Ziguinchor, a town just north of the Guinea-Bissau border. You can’t buy flights online, so if I’m lucky, the daily flight to Ziguinchor hasn’t been canceled and a seat is still available. Many times, however, the flights are inexplicably canceled – which was the case during this last trip. When I asked the airline representative why it was canceled, she just tilted her head and smiled at me.

Once safely in Ziguinchor, it’s another taxi ride hauling my luggage around – the large suitcase, the heavy carry-on, and my backpack – and another night in a hotel. Then, in the morning, I take a taxi to the paragem – a sprawling parking lot of public transport cars and buses. After a lot of negotiating, I squeeze into a Peugot sedan (converted to add a third row of seats between the wheel wells) with seven other sweaty passengers.

Then the fun begins. Police checkpoints, customs stops, and baggage searches by the military all turn what should be a 3-hour journey into a 5-hour escapade. There are also the random stops along the way to pick up passengers’ goods – huge sacks of charcoal, bags of rice, and (sometimes) live chickens. This last trip, it was 18 crates of tomatoes – all of them incredibly stacked on top of the car, two layers thick, visibly sinking the car’s roof. It took about 45 minutes in the midday heat to load the produce on the car and tie it down. Myself and two other passengers, realizing after the first few crates were hauled over to the car that this wasn’t going to be a short stop, pitched in and helped load the rest of them. Finally, we were back on our way. Only 2 ½ hours to go.

The rest of the drive, if you’re lucky enough to not be squished in the back row, is endurable – and actually very scenic. That’s as long as the car doesn’t break down or its driver doesn’t get into a long argument with customs or military officials. Once, I took five different cars to get from Ziguinchor to Canchungo, un-loading and re-loading my luggage and negotiating a price with each one.

So, that’s the long way. The shorter way is flying to Lisbon and then from Lisbon directly to Bissau, the capital. After every trip, I always vow that I’ll take the shorter way next time, but then always end up thinking that I can tough it out and take the long way – and then always regretting it.

But not regretting it completely. At least now I know how people travel in West Africa – in bits and pieces, crowded together, sweating together, working together, negotiating their way at each turn, and finally arriving at their destination, ready for a long siesta.

I may not always enjoy the hassles of the journey, but I’m thankful for the experience. And I’m even more thankful to be back at my second home in Canchungo – catching up with friends, using my broken Guinea-Bissau Creole, and working with the local staff to carry out ambitious plans for growing and improving the WAVS school.

It sure was a long trip here, but it was worth it.

Chris Collins

WAVS Executive Director

NOTE: I especially looked forward to this trip because I was able to attend the wedding of our school director, Almamo Danfa. I took on the role of wedding photographer. It was a packed house at Igrejia Central in Bissau, with more than 300 guests from all over Guinea-Bissau – and West Africa. Click here to see photos from the wedding and join me in congratulating Almamo!