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Peanuts

Varela

Our first day on the beach in Varela and Rick decides we should buy some fish from the fishermen, and wanders down to the pirogues. I thought this was quite brave of him given the language barrier. Unfortunately they only had catfish which he doesn’t like, so he came back empty handed but plus one – a lad called Amadou. Amadou spoke no English or French so we didn’t have much to say to each other so he disappeared but soon returned plus one more. An older man, possibly 60s, from The Gambia. And guess what, they speak English in The Gambia! This was our first natural language English speaking encounter in five weeks and it was very refreshing. We got to learn a little about Alieu, he came to GB about seven months ago because there was no work left in The Gambia. This was a shocker because there certainly didn’t seem to be any work available in GB. He said he chopped firewood for people sometimes. I guess the cost of living in GB is close to nothing (for a change, we did pretty well on our budget – spent <$2 a day there, although we did have a lot of our own supplies). But even so, things must be very bad in The Gambia if earning $10 a week chopping firewood is preferable.

It was great to be able to communicate because for the first time we were actually invited into one of the little compounds, a group of conical roofed huts. The village had maybe 20-30 people living in it. No electricity of course, but we did see the big smoker where the women would smoke the fish after the men caught it. A large flat platform over concrete walls on three sides, with burning coal inside. We also saw dogs, chickens, fifty cows with huge horns, and three of the cutest goats ever, just two weeks old, so tiny you could easily hold one in your hand. The landlord of the village gave us a coconut (did you know that brown, hairy coconuts do not grow on trees like that – they are actually enclosed in a thick husk) that we ate that night, along with the sweet juice (not really my cup of tea). There were lemons growing in the village and Alieu gave us dozens, along with some baobab husks, filled with seeds that you suck the dry fleshy pulp off. Bland at first but then a sharp aftertaste. Not bad. He also made us up some baobab juice, by soaking the seeds in water for an hour until the pulp falls off, and pushing it through a sieve.

We also got the opportunity to watch the fishermen delivering their loads. The fishermen go out at 6pm and return at 8am in their yellow and black boat that Alieu had painted. To get the boats up the beach (Rick helped) it’s an excruciating process of putting two logs underneath, rolling the pirogue until the logs fall off, putting the logs back under, and repeating a dozen times. If the haul is good (it was while we were there, but hadn’t been the 7 days prior) the men bring all the fish in and start hammering at the fins with blunt machetes because they are very sharp and dangerous. Out of the hundreds of catfish there was one normal looking fish, so we bought that for about $1.50. Then they spent a lot of time grouping the fish into different sized piles, and from there ordering the fish one by one as to their size. After the heightibization (thanks for inventing that word Nathan Cutler) had taken place, then the negotiations began. One of the women began arguing with one of the men, back and forth, back and forth, throwing fish from one pile to the next until an appropriate division had been agreed on. Then, cleaning and gutting the fish, all the women now, using big buckets of blood red water. It was very interesting to see the literal manifestation of the phrase ‘it takes a village’ because every person played a role. Even the children were supposed to be helping, with the fish or picking cotten, although they did seem to be less motivated than their adult counterparts.

As usual there was little relaxing for Justine and Rick. Now that we’d found our new friends there was always someone at our campsite watching us or just hanging out. A boy, maybe 12, called Suleman, spent hours just watching us eat breakfast and doing the dishes. Not once did he ask for anything or put his hand out. I gave him some toast and he said thank you – words I hadn’t heard in all of Senegal. Rick played a game of football (soccer) with him, and at the end of our stay gave Suleman the soccer ball. I also gave him some school supplies, a package of pencil case filled with pens, pencils, eraser, calculator, and a writing pad. The kid appeared dumbfounded. I do hope we haven’t started a cadeau tradition.

Alieu brings us some peanuts right out of the shell which taste pretty good given that I don’t usually like peanuts. As is typical here the conversation then went as follows:

Mmm, good peanuts
You like the peanuts?
Yes
You want to buy some peanuts?
Okay, a few
Good, let me call my cousin

Okay, my cousin, he has peanuts, we go to next village to meet him
Is it far?
No, not far. I meet you at 4 to get peanuts.

‘No not far’ is like dog years, multiply everything by seven. At 4 we set off. A bit overkill for a bunch of nuts I thought, but we had nothing better to do. We passed more women washing fish, more catfish smoking, drying skate – reeking to high heaven, and sacks of black sand that the Chinese and Russians have a contract with the government to export. I am very curious about this black sand, it is bugging me about what it is used for. I couldn’t believe Alieu had been here for seven months and wasn’t curious enough to find out what it is. It wasn’t easily searchable on the Internet given the slow connection, so if anyone feels inclined to research what its purpose is, please let me know.

We wandered deeper and deeper into the jungle and I started to get very nervous. There’s an inflection point around kindness, where if someone is nice to you, that’s wonderful, but if they are helpful for too long you start to get suspicious – what do they want, what is their ulterior motive, how much will this cost me? Arona from Senegal case in point. I started to imagine all sorts of stupid things, recalling the Interahamwe episode from the TV show ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive’ where westerners walking through the jungle were held captive and half of them killed. This is of course totally nonsense, because that happened in the Uganda/Congo region, thousands of miles away. But with the ‘not so far’ turning into miles and the palms getting more junglely and dark with each passing minute, my mind took a turn for the worse. I wondered, if half of us were killed, would I want it to be me or Rick? As we are on somewhat of a honeymoon (although real honeymoon is postponed) and I should be a good person, I opt for me.

Finally we left the jungle, about three miles so far, and Alieu takes us to a village, sits us down with some men that eyed us suspiciously, and says he’s going to run some errands. Now this is where we are going to be…what? In reality there was nothing that really could have happened to us, but I’m thinking drugged tea, limbs severed, held for ransom, sold in the slave trade. Disgustingly prejudiced and ridiculous, but when it’s your first time in an unfamiliar place in a country known for its lawlessness, your mind follows the darkest paths. It didn’t help that one of the men who appeared to be a leader got very, very animated, holding his baby in front of me and fiercely demanding I take it to Canada. I tried to explain that no one goes to Canada, that the Canadians would rather be stowed in a box and shipped to Somalia than live there, but that didn’t compute. I told him that it was too cold for his baby, the baby would be very unhappy, but the fierce man argued, no, this is an African baby, African babies are strong. So, we packed the baby into a suitcase and we’ll probably leave it in New Zealand. Canada would be too cruel.

One interesting finding that came out of the conversation was that the fierce man was actually one of the rebel fighters that the French man back in Saly had warned us was so dangerous. He used to live in Casamance, Senegal but came to Guinea Bissau because he was sick of all the fighting. Saying this he mimed a machine gun, and made pop-pop-pop noises to indicate gun fire.

So in truth they offered us their seats, generously made us tea, tried to make conversation even though we were interlopers on their territory, and sent their children over to shake our hands. We learned a little more and they were very welcoming, and I feel crappy for all the bad thoughts I had. Still, we hadn’t seen any darn peanuts and it’d been about three hours since we set off.

Finally Alieu returns. He has a candle and some tobacco that the landlord had asked him to buy as they have virtually nothing except coconuts, lemons, and smoked fish in his village. We say goodbye to the villagers and their baby (no, we didn’t really stuff it in a suitcase) and go further into the jungle. At last we reach the house of Alieu’s cousin, the owner of the venerable peanuts, but he is not home and no one else can give us any. So with that we walk three miles back to our campsite and collapse, this being a thousand x more exercise than I’ve done in weeks.

We spent the days trying to relax, but often with company that overstayed its welcome. We wished Coralie Cutler a mental happy birthday as we don’t have wi-fi. I swam in the ocean three times a day, and Rick fried up nuggets of fish coated in egg, crumbled crackers, and some of the Moroccan spice we’d purchased way back when. With goats cheese and the produce we’d bought in Senegal it was nothing less than fabulously delicious! On our last night Rick did hunting and gathering and built us a fire. It was wonderful to stay in the same place for more than 12 hours and to feel safe in our tent. At least in this part of Guinea Bissau, the concept of stealing doesn’t exist. Alieu told us that if someone did steal, they’d be discovered within a couple of days. We felt completely safe leaving the car unlocked and our belongings out.

Each night we’d slept with all the tent windows open, listening to the sound of the ocean, just meters away, as we feel asleep. Our last morning we woke to see Suleman and four friends sitting outside staring into our tent. Rick quickly pulled on his pants and went down, but they didn’t want anything, they were content to watch us. We had an enormous melon that we cut up and shared, and then bought out the Polaroid camera. It was a big hit, although very confusing to the boys, but we gave them each a photos of themselves as a memento. Recall it was also a smash with the desert women in Mauritania, so one regret I have is that we didn’t use it more often.

Sadly though, our wonderful time in Guinea Bissau had to end. We packed up, somber. For us the adventuring is mostly over, now to head back to Dakar to ship the car back to the UK and on to New Zealand for an official wedding certificate and Christmas. But next, six border crossings in 24 hours:

Exit Guinea Bissau
Re-enter Senegal
Exit Senegal
Enter The Gambia (because Rick insists we use one of the wasted $4,000 worth of visas we’d purchased)
Exit The Gambia
Enter Senegal

And in the middle of all that, the most painful ferry crossing experience known to man.

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