Bissau and Bambu

January 29 – February 3, 2012

Old town Bissau was mostly deserted at night, and certainly devoid of vehicular traffic. One enterprising restaurant simply put its tables in the street, and even had wi-fi access so I could make this Skype call!

With the rally over and Nate headed back to work in the US, Lee and I decided to take some time in Bissau.  Home to poor-value accommodation and not a whole lot to do, this was not the ideal spot to chill, but after the relentless pace of a rally that had us driving many hours a day, it was the prudent choice.  (Left to our own devices and going at our own pace, we’d probably still be in Morocco right now.) There was plenty to do regarding the Cruiser, including getting it washed, taking everything out of it (and washing that too), and then re-loading it.

We also took in our share of the general stuff any traveler does in African capitals:  markets (Bandim and Port), night clubs (Tropicana, X-club, and Bambu), the inevitable Old Town, and some Portuguese restaurants around the city.  Our home base for all of this was a hotel, the Jordani.  At 25,000 CFA ($50) a night, I hope it’s the worst-value accommodation we stay in.  Having read about some of the countries we’ll visit later though, I doubt it will be – but all the more incentive to sleep under the stars in the tents!

Woman selling traditional manjaka cloth at Bandim, Bissau's largest market

Throughout our time in Bissau, we saw rally cars everywhere, even days after it ended, which underscored two truths:  1.  Bissau is a very small city for a capital, with few cars, and 2. The rally truly was a big deal because it brought a mother lode of road-tested, mostly 4×4 vehicles to the city.

In my last night in Bissau, I headed out on the town with a couple of Slovenian guys from the rally that we had been hanging out with during and after the rally.  We started out at a couple of chill places, and I could tell that the Slovenians, who had been drinking much of the day, were ready to call it a night.  So I ventured out on an exploratory mission to find something – anything – fun to do.   Though I had a great and surprisingly long conversation, every bit of it in Portuguese, with some guys who were sitting on a sidewalk, I came upon dead scenes a couple of times at X-bar and some other place I can’t remember.  I was starting to think there was nothing happening on a Thursday night in Bissau.

But at another bar, I found the remnants of a United Nations party, the concept of which I was already familiar with from my 2005 stint in Sierra Leone.  These people party like they mean it and – like any self-respecting ex-pat – often get obscenely drunk. (Earlier, we had been chilling poolside at the Azalai Hotel, the official rally hotel, when a load of well-dressed foreigners and locals rolled up. We wondered if it was some kind of political event – maybe the type of back-slapping gala where decisions involving lots of money were made in Guinea Bissau?  In the end, we realized it was just some UN workers celebrating the end of project.)

At this new bar, the entire gang was there, and now merrily (and predictably) wasted, dancing, and making out with each other – save for one Spanish outlier, who claimed to be a project leader and said she had to leave because she “had to work tomorrow”.  I guess there’s one in every group.

Adding to the fun, I recognized a hanger-on/drug pusher dude from outside the Jordani, a toned-down version of a Dakar-style street hustler, who spoke decent English.  The kind of joker who uses the phrase “init” (Cockney shorthand for “isn’t it”) after every other sentence because he thinks you’re British and can curry favor by speaking like you, and then continues to do so even after you tell him you’re not.  I didn’t care though; I love that phrase and use it myself sometimes.  In fact, just so he would continue saying “init”, I later conceded that despite my assertion to the contrary, I was in fact from England.  Turned out the fella was quite sociable away from his day job.

But the real action of the night was yet to come.  Not having seen too much nightlife in Bissau as of yet, I was determined to get out to a club – whatever club — even on my own since Lee (who is usually down to go out) and the Slovenians had already taken a knee for the night.  Someone in our Bissau hotel told me called Sabura was good fun if a bit dodgy, but then a taxi driver took me there and it was 100% closed.  That’s when he mentioned that Bambu was busy; I immediately accepted his suggestion to head over there.  It was still going to be just 500 CFA ($1) for the ride, in which he had the right to pick up anyone else along the way unless I chartered the cab (i.e. bought out two, maybe three other seats).  He did in fact pick up three passengers along the way.

We shot across town and upon arrival I could tell from the lively street scene outside that the cab driver wasn’t fronting about Bambu; hundreds of people were milling about.  There were also two cops tripping and beating some dude with their batons…nice one.  I first went to the adjacent place to get an egg and sausage sandwich (for another 500 CFA), not because I was hungry but because others seemed to be enjoying the same and that therefore I thought it was the cool thing to do.  I then bee-lined for Bambu.  No cover, narrow hallway sloping downward to the main area, a soft right turn and … BAM! – the place instantly just crushed me.

A bustling scene outside of Bambu -- but nothing compared to the intensity inside

Bambu went back quite a ways and was instantly and impossibly crowded – just packed to the gills.  Everyone had multiple people touching them at all times; it was the kind of space and crowd that if you’re a good distance from the exit takes a minimum of ten minutes to leave.  Body-heat generated warmth on an already warm night; the smell of sweat everywhere; booming Afro-pop music outdone in decibels only by ceaseless, piercing hoots and hollers… and of course more than a few people staring at me as I was the only Westerner there.  Now this was an African club, just pulsating with life and energy and people who at that moment understood what it meant to be alive – in a country of 1.4 million people, I was sure that if you were in Guinea Bissau on February 2, 2012 at about 11:30pm, you were either here or sleeping.  Or so it seemed.

But the question soon becomes – assuming you wanted to be there in the first place, how long can you, on your own, last in an environment like that?  How long before you call a time-out and say whoa, great experience – but it’s time to put the brakes on get the hell out of here!  For me the answer was about five minutes.

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Reflections on the Rally

So what, in the end, did it all mean?

First, the rally was not an African experience; it was largely a Hungarian experience in Africa.  One benefit of our in-the-rally one minute, out-of-the-rally the next approach was that we were able to view it somewhat as outside observers, rather than participants.  There was a strong Hungarian element to the rally and, when combined with the outside isolation that often occurs when traveling in a group, it at times overwhelmed the African experience.  Our memories of driving with the rally often revolved around the Hungarian experience (drunken nights on the beach in Mauritania, misunderstandings with the border officials in Senegal, the Gabu School Party!), whereas, conversely, our memories of our time apart from the rally were mainly of the places we visited (the manliness of the cafés in Agadir, the color of the fish market in St. Louis).  For better or worse, our time with the rally was as much a crash course on Hungarian car culture as it was on any of the countries we drove through.

Driving into the night in search of the rally.

Second, the pace is brutal—the slow barely survive.  As travelers with a natural inclination to explore our surroundings, the driving often left us wishing for more time in any number of places.  The first two days of the rally, driving through Europe to catch the ferry to Morocco, were very long and became increasingly frustrating as time wore on.  We drove 12-16 hours each day, stopping only to fill up and eat at gas stations.  We definitely didn’t make matters easier by leaving Budapest a day late, but even had we left on time we would have faced driving close to 3,100 km in three days.  We eased our foot off the gas pedal only slightly once we were in Africa.  The drive to Bissau was another roughly 4,200 km, which we did in 12 daysWe were in chase mode for almost the entire rally:  leaving late and arriving (if at all) at the night’s meeting point well after dark.  One benefit of the pace was that our weaknesses were exposed early on in the trip, and we’ve been able to work out the kinks—at least we hope—before we get to the more difficult countries to travel through.

Finally, despite all of the racing through the desert, downing copious amounts of homemade pálinka, and the dorky nature of it all (we still have our suspicions about the Star Wars party), the Budapest to Bamako Rally truly was about charity, and it delivered.  The rally itself organized a large amount of giving—we saw three ambulances and two police vans (each already marked with the insignia appropriate for Guinea Bissau) and several large trucks carrying goods, which were to be donated.  Each of these vehicles also had to cover thousands of kilometers, often on rough roads, and deal with the same border and checkpoint hassles as everyone else, and for this they deserve praise.  Many, if not most, of the teams that participated in the rally also made their own individual contributions by handing out school supplies to villagers.  Some also donated their vehicles or funds from selling their vehicles in Bissau to charities.  The rally engendered a great deal of goodwill with the people of Guinea Bissau, who seemed genuinely excited that the rally was visiting and could possibly lead to outsiders having a greater interest in their country, which in itself was worth a lot.

So, would we do it again?  The group consensus seems to be a hesitant no.  (Lee, for one, thinks that if we could convince Werner Herzog to film a documentary about the rally, culminating in the clash of cultures at the Gabu School Party!, it would win numerous prizes on the awards circuit.)  We were at times overwhelmed with the Hungarian element, and often found ourselves falling back from the main pack and having to push hard to catch back up, but the smiles and waves we experienced along the way, especially in Senegal and Guinea Bissau, and the sense of camaraderie we found within the rally were special experiences which we will each remember.