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23 Hours Delay and a Missed Boat

Sometimes I'm surprised that African public transportation have schedules at all. At other times, I'm greatly frustrated. But most times, it - God knows how - all work out. Though rarely without me being put through plenty of trouble first.

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Pirogues (in Senegal)

Pirogues (in Senegal)

“The pirogue you were written up for departed this morning at 3 am.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was pretty much what the women told me in a mix of Portuguese, broken French and sign languish. In my rage and disappointment, it was rather difficult to reply in any way that would be understandable for the women. If it had been worth a damn I’d probably yelled at her, “but yesterday I was told to come back here at 10 in the morning!” The reason for my anger. I’d been told my boat was the only boat this week.

My guess is that the languish difficulties between my broken French, their broken French and the sign languish had coursed the misunderstanding. That something along those lines had indeed happened, was made clearer by a guy from Mali, who was able to act as a translator between us – although it took some time since his English also was in the category ‘broken’. To my surprise, there was a pirogue to my destination at 10, but that was not my pirogue. It was simply another pirogue – and it was now full...

The Bijagós Islands

The Bijagós Islands

My trouble had started the day before. Though everything, in the beginning, seemed to go smoothly. I was trying to get to the Bijagós Archipelago – one of the most beautiful, but also most isolated, parts of Guinea-Bissau. I’ve signed up for one of the few weekly pirogues the afternoon before. Signing up was necessary to secure a spot. Even more so because the former Greek ferry, which usually sail a weekly trip between the main island of Bubaque and Bissau, had been sidelined with engine problems for the past month. My name was only the fifth name on that list. Sweet, now I was told that all I had to do was to be at the harbour at noon the following day for the 1 o’clock launch.

Bad Weather

Bad Weather

Arriving at the dock, ready for the six-hour crossing the elements wanted it differently. Heavy winds blew up considerably waves and dark clouds were threatening rain on the horizon. The Bijagós pirogues have a reputation for being rather unsafe due overloading and occasional capsizing, so the port authorities didn’t want to let any pirogues leave the harbour with those conditions roaring. After four hours of waiting, chaos suddenly broke out on the harbour. Everybody quickly packed up their luggage and began moving to another of the port’s piers. A rumour had apparently started that the Greek ferry was ready enough to make the crossing after all. Two hours of screaming between less-than-official looking port officials, the inpatient passengers and the ship’s crew (which were busy relaxing on the deck when I first arrived at the scene) made it clear that the ferry was going nowhere.

Low tide

Low tide

By this time low tide had arrived. Something that is clearly visible in these parts of the world. The difference between ebb and flow is more than five metres. As a result, my pirogue was now firmly situated on the wet mud that had been the ocean floor a few hours earlier. So even though the wind had now died down, there would be now boats for the rest of the day. “Demain, demain” [Tomorrow, tomorrow] I was told. Figuring that the officials knew me by now, I had spent plenty of time at their table during the day trying to figure out what was going on, and believing that there was only one pirogue heading for Bubaque, I simply asked what time tomorrow the pirogue would leave for Bubaque and was told “10 in the morning.”

More Bijagós

More Bijagós

With the clarity of hindsight, I should, of course, have found the list with my name on, pointed to that and asked what time mon pirogue was leaving. In that way, I would probably have been given the time for the right boat.

The result, however, was that I stood on the harbour, stranded. With my boat gone and the only other one left booked out. To make matters worse were my visa running out (and I had already arranged my next visa for Guinea) so postponing everything anywhere from a few days to a week didn’t seem like a splendid option.

Ready to jump (on) ship

Ready to jump (on) ship

Again the Malian guy came to my rescue. He asked me to wait for the boat. First, he tried to explain the situation to the guy making the roll-call for the people who had actually be written up for this pirogue – but here he made little headway. So, when everybody had boarded, I was still standing on dry land. However, he had another trick up his sleeve. Once the harbour police (which job it is to make sure that the captains don’t overload the boats past their capacity) had left, the crew started to take off a lot of the heavier goods from the boat. Because extra passengers pay better than goods, as my friend explained. Sacks of flour, sugar and rice, as well as boxes of wine were off-loaded by the scores. Apparently, those could be transferred to the islands by fishermen during the night. While the goods were being thrown off the boat, me and my Malian friend positioned us to jump on it once they had finished off-loading. There would only be room for so many extra people, and it would be first come, first served.

As the last few things were being tossed off the pirogue, we threw our bags in the opposite direction. Luckily, one of the crew members signalled that I could jump aboard just before the last sack was taken off. That gave me that second of a head start that I needed, and I could smoothly jump onto the boat – which was already pulling off the pier to make sure that not too many people jumped on.

Inside the pirogue

Inside the pirogue

My Malian friend also made it, and we were soon on our way to the Bijagós Islands. The clock was a little past noon. I had not only missed my boat and been delayed 23 hours, but I had also gotten a bit more adventure than I’d bargain for. Nonetheless, I was on my way. Then it mattered less that the boat was overcrowded in a way that made me think of the Mediterranean crossings. The mood on this pirogue, though, was a lot better. People chatted and laughed, read and some even played Ludo...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:53 Archived in Guinea Bissau Tagged islands boat travel transport ferry travelling guinea pirogue bissau guinea-bissau bijagós bubaque orango

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