Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Infamous Island of Bubaque

How I went an entire year without going to Bubaque still puzzles me. Of all 80+ islands that make up the Bijagoe archipelago, Bubaque is the most inhabited and the most ‘developed’ for receiving tourists. However, after the experience I had getting there and coming back, it is most likely my first and last time.
The ship we took from Bissau to Bubaque

Bubaque is one of the countries main tourist attractions and some would even profess it is much more enjoyable than being in the capital city. And it’s a point that is hard to argue. Island life is so relaxing, even if you are working there.

To give you a complete sense of the experience, I have to start at the very beginning: the transportation. Getting information about getting to Bubaque is a challenge in and of its self! There are 3 options: Ferry Boat, Canoe, and private speedboat.  The best option is the private speedboat, it is secure, and can make the trip from Bissau to Bubaque in 3 hours. It is also the most expensive, averaging at 50 dollars a person unless you organize a group and divide the 300-dollar fee.

Your next best option is the ferryboat. It is secure, but slow.  I hear that is usually only takes 4 to 5 hours to get there on the ferry. But the ‘normal’ ferryboat was out of service due to lack of funds for maintenance, and so an old cargo ship was being used instead. The usual departure schedule is for it to leave every Friday and comes back on Sunday.

The canoe is the way most locals travel to and from the islands.  Canoes are small 50ft long wooden boats that can take about 50 people. The speed is the same as the speedboat, but it is much less secure. Just last year there was an incident just before carnival where a canoe sank only 100 ft from the port in Bissau. Because most people don’t know how to swim, most of the people on the canoe drowned. It’s tragic reality, and for this reason, my step-dad was 100% against going to the island by canoe.

View from the cabin of the rest of the ship
We wanted to spend New years on Bubaque but the ship is the only one making freight shipments between island, and so no one was sure when it would be back from other islands and when it would leave for Bubaque. I went to the port bi-weekly seeking this information.

Welcome to Bubaque
If you want to know what’s going on in Bissau, your best bet is to listen to the news on the radio. But if you are like me and don’t listen to the radio, you’ll have to go directly to the source to get the information, which actually only sometimes works. My method has become asking 5 people the same question and taking the most common answer as the PROBABLE answer. I’ve also discovered how quickly mis-information travels.

On Monday they told me the ship would leave on Tuesday. On Tuesday I was told it would leave on Friday, so when I asked on Thursday to confirm they said they weren’t sure yet because they still needed to find fuel to make the trip. On Friday morning I called the captains assistant (yes, by this point I had phone numbers) and I got the green light that the boat would be leaving. Phase one accomplished!

I mentioned previously that the boat ride is 4-5 hours. So I’m still trying to figure out who lied, because we left the port in Bissau at 2 pm and arrived to the island at 10 pm, a full and healthy 8 hours, just in time to have a late dinner and go to bed.  I also mentioned that the boat returns to Bissau on Sunday, so our trip was looking shorter than we had anticipated.

Casa Dora
We stayed at a small Hostel called Casa Dora ( Dora’s House). Dora is a portuguese woman who has lived in and run the Hostel  for 20+ years! She has a small piece of property with 18 bungalows, a cabana area for meals and an adjoining building with administrative rooms, a kitchen, etc..

Bubaque really is a beautiful island. My mom had already been there before, so we decided to Island hop to Rubany, where I have been told that two French women have created a beautiful getaway. Rubany is a small Island, so their resort amazingly covers just under half of the island.  

We spent our time on Rubany enjoying the beach and admiring the landscaping that has gone into making this island sanctuary.  The have a nice arrangement for tourist that they can get a free ride to the island if they have lunch. We went with the deal and couldn’t have made a better decision. There is a balcony that goes out into the ocean, giving you the since that you are   We had Ondjo (a hibiscus drink), grilled fish, with rice, salad and French fries.  I would show pictures, but we ate it all before anyone remembered to record the moment!
Old, broken freezers to store the fish caught 

On our way home we had the chance occurrence of being accompanied by a couple that needed a ride to the tiny airport, which was on the other side of Bubaque from where we had boarded the boat.  The airport stop happened to be near where the rest of our group had gone swimming for the day. We arrived and found them basking in the sun and playing in the sand. The tide was low, opening the beach for beach soccer and all the cows that found their way to the beach.

The evening was leisurely and uneventful. Most of it went to deciding what our plans were to return to Bissau in the morning. The Boat and the canoe were going back to Bissau on Sunday, so we had to make a decision about when and how we would be going back. 

We would have preferred to stay an extra day or two, but the next canoe going back to Bissau wasn’t until Wednesday and the next boat wasn’t until the following Sunday and we didn’t have that much time to spare.

We decide to go for the canoe, since they made the trip in 4 hours instead of our 8. So by 8 am we were lined up to buy tickets. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones with this idea. With all the extra passengers lining up to get a ticket for the canoe they suddenly decided that the canoe was going to leave on Monday instead of Sunday.

So we made our way back to the line for the boat, knowing very well we had AT LEAST another 7 hour ride ahead of us. Other folks in our group decided to come along as well.  We bought our ‘VIP’ ticket for our seat in the small cabin (as opposed to meant sitting on top of the boat or down with the cargo are in the sun).

Here’s where things get interesting.  We began our journey just as slow as when we had arrived. It took us nearly an hour to get out of sight from the island. And the boat kept stopping and starting. We were going so excruciatingly slow that we didn’t even notice these stops until they started happening more frequently.  Some stops were 10 minutes, others 30 to 40 minutes. No one really knew what was going on, so we just tried to entertain ourselves to help the time pass. 

We got about half way to Bissau when we stopped, but this times we didn’t start again. Two hours had gone by at a stand still in the ocean before people started to fuss and ask what was going on.  Between my step-dad and I we were able to gather enough information to determine that we had stopped because there was an issue with the engine. Something about there was water in the engine oil?

Beach side pool on Rubany
Basically the boat broke down.  We were stuck 35 miles away from shore; the nearest piece of land was barely visible in the horizon. It was a Sunday and Sundays are Guinean’s favorite day of the week because everything is shut down. So that meant the port was closed and there is no existing coast guard we could call.

So 2 hours turned to 3 hours and everyone on the boat is trying to get ahold of the ‘directors’ at the port. The combination of people not answering their phones, phones being turned off, and the signal being horrible since we were in the middle of the ocean, prolonged the process.

You could sense the energy on the boat shifting to dis-ease as people began to realize that we might be stuck here for a while. By this time is was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the heat of the sun was at its peak. We were inside the cabin, but at least 150-200 people were sitting under the heat. The only water and food available on the boat was whatever you brought with you! Of course no one was expecting anything like this would happen. Mothers tried soothing crying babies, and people were crowding under what shade they could find, laying on the ground or on top of each other hoping when they woke it would all be over.  We even began to ration what water we had because we weren’t sure how long this would be.
Cows on the beach

Earlier that morning my mom had made friends with a cute little girl at the port. She found her sitting on the steps and offered her some oranges and water. This started a conversation that led to us discovering her father was my step-dad’s nephew! Not an unfamiliar situation given how many brothers my step-dad has, but a delightful discovery nonetheless.

Three hours turned to four hours and no one had gotten ahold of anyone from the port. However some creative mind called the national radio station and was able to get our situation broad casted across the radio. This ended up being our saving grace. And after a short period we got the news that help was coming!

In the meantime we watched as canoes and private speedboats cruised by us. One of the canoes happened to be the one that we had attempted to board earlier that morning.  The private speed boats were filled with tourists. It frustrated me how locals can’t catch a break! No one has the money to afford a speedboat trip, but that seemed to be the only reliable form of transportation to the island!

Finally we saw a little boat chugging its way towards us. The mechanics had arrived!! Now we just had to see if they could fix the problem!
Inside the cabin

By 8pm we were back on route and at the same slow, steady pace we made our way back to Bissau. When we finally got to the port it was 11pm! From the distance we could see a huge crowd had formed awaiting our arrival. The crowd comprised of concerned family members, reporters, politicians, and even presidential candidates.
Apparently a similar situation had occurred 2 or 3 years ago, but the boat sank!!!

Politicians are disgusting. With elections expected in the next couple months, these politicians wanted to make sure their faces were seen as having been there for moral support after this distressing event.

I scowled as I watched them pass out snacks and water. Fortunately for them the desire to quench my thirst greatly outweighed my desire to smack the box of refreshments out of their hands.

Our rescue team
This is how they get away with it! There is absolutely no accountability for things like this that happen all the time!! The next day life went on as if nothing had happened, and it drove me crazy!!! Where are the riots, the civil unrest?!! How could people allow this to be the standard of transportation and then allow these politicians to show up with goody bags after the storm has passed! Why was no one asking where all the money to fund transportation services goes?!!

I’ve come to understand that there is a learned mentality about these situations. People are just happy to be alive to tell the story. In more dire scenarios people have just died! And this is understood as part of life in this country. When circumstances like this are the norm, how would you know what the alternative even looked like?

Besides the fact that this isn’t an uncontrollable force of nature and is an issues  that could be solved with less than a $50,000 dollar investment, I imagine Guineans must feel about these situations the way people in the mid-west of the US must feel about tornados. They are scary and life threatening, but they happen and they can’t be controlled.  All you can really do is be happy you made it through another one.

1 comment:

  1. I can imagine the situation asI live in west africa too.I am planning a trip to biyagos with friends and looks very exciting.May I ask where to stay in Bissau budget style?