How a horsefly can ruin a day (or two… or three)


While travelling you do not just discover the world. Even more, you discover yourself. How could I ever have imagined what life is like without electricity or running water? With no telephone communication available or jam or even a loaf of bread for sale?


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Before our travels in Africa, I have camped more than the average Dutch girl. Wild camping in Sweden? Not a problem. Bush camping in Bulgaria? Beautiful. A beach in the middle of nowhere? I`m your man. Here in Africa, I am greatly surprised at how much I miss civilisation. What a relief it is when I see a concrete building of more than one story and an internet connection, even if it works through telephone and a generator.
In Guinea-Bissau electricity is not to be taken for granted. Who can afford the gasoline turns on a generator for a few hours in the evening, the others manage without. Light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, even with light bulbs in them, and sinks in the occasional bathroom we find, do show that there was a time when water and electricity were running.
At first it does not bother me. Water from a bucket freshens me up like a shower does and candle light is more romantic than an ordinary lightbulb anyway. The one and only place where we find internet in this country is in the capital. This is for us as well as for our family something we have to get used to.
The roads in Guinea-Bissau are good. Only on one day do we bike a bumpy, unpaved road. We sleep at catholic missions because the hotels are unaffordably expensive, one night in a `campement` and the last night in the country in the border police station in Buruntuma. Except for a loudly snoring chief of police, another good and inexpensive night.
In terms of development we expect Guinea-Bissau to be worse than most other countries. Wasn`t there a war here only nine years ago? We discover otherwise when we enter Guinea-Conackry on a bumpy, sandy road. After only 43 kilometers we make it to Koundara and we call it a day. We find a 3 euro hotel and explore this major town. Sand, dust and mangos. Peanuts ground to peanutbutter and that`s about all you can get. A dish of rice and sour milk (looks like yoghurt after it has been in the sun all day long) does not intrigue us and we cook our traditional and favourite lentil dish with mango in it. We take a bush douche and sleep on the cool terrace outside instead of in the bed. Today we were offered as much as two wives for Antoine and I could have had another husband and a baby. These offers happen regularly and as the mothers are very serious, we can see the children being scared to death. Men regularly think they can check whether my breasts and my hair are real and they do not seem to care that I am married. Neither does this man who wants me to stay with him in Koundara. I wonder what it is like for a woman travelling through Africa on her own.
I think you can only know what a situation does with you once you are in one. When we leave Koundara to bike the stretch of more than 250 kilometers of dirt road to Labe, we go deeper and deeper into the bush. Would I have imagined `the bush` to be thick forrest with African noises and snakes curled up in trees, now I know otherwise.
After 50 kilometers of washboard road, we reach a village. About twenty huts are lined up by the road. Women sell cakes, made of deepfried banana pieces, they sell very dry balls of dough and they sell mangos, of course. Here we get the best price ever when we get ten mangos for one thousand Guinean francs, which is about 15 eurocent. We sit down and talk to the people. Most of them are just sitting there, doing nothing, some of them are trying to catch a ride to Koundara. A man tells us that this is the main village between the cities of Koundara and Koensitel. I have seen Koundara, which was not much of even a village and I wonder what Koensitel will be like.
On the way to the next set of huts that they call a village, we meet an English biker. We chat for a little while and he tells us how this dirtroad is like the main highway for bicyclists in Africa. No wonder, which other road should you take? Antoine gets a little depressed by the idea that `all the other bikers` take the same road, even though all those bikers are still not many.
We want to get some bread for lunch, but this is not on the bush menu. We buy a plate of rice with a meat sauce for Antoine and I take a plate of rice which I fancy up with mango and peanuts. We get water from the well and filter with a great audience of children. By the time we are done we decide to camp in this village. We pick a spot next to a mango tree after a woman shows us how a particular branch is going to break very soon. Antoine does not believe her, but as we are having dinner the branch, heavily loaded with mangos, drops to the ground. Cows enjoy the mangos as they must be breaking their teeth on the pits (and are keeping us awake all night).
We manage to leave this beautiful campspot at 6.40, which is our earliest departure since the beginning of this trip. Before ten it is already getting hot. We struggle with the uphill on washboard roads, but worst of all are the biting flies that attack us. We cover ourselves in DEET and put a net over our faces, but the flies always manage to find a spot to bite. Where they bite it gets bloody and blue. Yesterday I had the first bites so I know that one day later the blue turns into a big lump. They bite on my wrists, under my watch, on my thumb and through my shorts. Going uphil on a dirtroad I need my hands on my handle bars, so it is challenging to slap the flies away. I stay calm as much as I can, knowing that I will only react more allergicly to the bites if I get agitated and upset. But I feel trapped. I`m in the middle of nowhere, biking uphill on a washboard dirt road, being attacked by biting horseflies. This breaks me, I just cannot do it. While Antoine - who luckily is not attacked quite as badly as I am - slaps the flies away from me, I cry all my frustration out for a few minutes. We get our energy back up and continue the process of climbing, hitting flies and breathing deeply to stay calm. After about 20 minutes I cry again and so on. It seems ridiculous as I write it down, but it was the only way we could make it through. After 35 kilometers we reach the 'city' of Koensitel.
Koensitel. What can I say. It is already noon when we get there. About fifty huts lined up by the road, a small matket where women sell mangos, bananas and beignets at the main and only intersection. There are thermoses with coffee and warm Fanta. Of course this village has no electricity, like the entire north of the country. We buy corn beignets and share one can of Fanta. We fill our waterbags and sit down in the shade of an unused gas station on the edge of the town. We eat a couple of mangos, Antoine filters the water and I lie down for a moment. Usually that helps me to feel better. Now I am only getting hotter and hotter, feeling worse and worse. It is a funny feeling to be in a village made of African huts, without anything available which you would usually expect. It frightens me that I have so many bites on my body, that it is over fourty degrees Celcius, that there is really no cool place around to seek refuge and even no car that could give you a ride if you ever needed one. The nearest doctor is probably in Labe, which is another 150 kilometers of uphill washboard dirt road away. Antoine suggests for us to stay in the village, but I am affraid that I will `go bananas` if I find no way to distract myself. It`s better to keep moving forward. At least the biting flies are gone, only a million tiny flies which crawl all over our bodies, especially in our necks, are left. Now that one bad element is gone, it is already much easier. It must have been the combination of all the factors that drove me nuts.
I do tell Antoine that in the unlikely situation that a pick-up truck with room in the back passes by, I think we should ask for a ride. In the last two days all that has passed us have been incredibly fully loaded cars and overcharged trucks, so I do not give us much of a chance. We bike on and pass a car that has broken down by the side of the road. Several men are around. As we are always careful in remote areas, we kindly greet them but quickly pass by. Then the sound of a gun. Antoine thinks he is being shot at, but it`s just his tire that blew out. We move into the shade and start taking the bike apart. The tire is ripped, completely gone. The men from the broken car come over to check if Antoine is doing a good job in fixing the problem. It makes him nervous, but the men are friendly. I give them water, since they have been waiting here for a mechanic since yesterday.
Less than half an hour after the blow out, a white truck approaches us. It stops by the broken car. The truck has a French licence plate. This is the first French car we see since we have left Dakar. Anzala and Geraldine are travelling through West-Africa and they have the room and the willingness to give us a ride. Although we have partly recovered from our horrible morning, this ride is like a gift from heaven. We pop our bikes - Antoine`s bike still upside down - in the van and hobble on for another hour. Together we camp in the bush and we take the entire next day to reach Labe.
We end up in a funky, dark and dirty hotel. There is no running water and barely electricity. Antoine and I move out next morning and find a clean hotel to recover from the last few days. Our friends stay one more night in the funky hotel, but after an attempted theft, clearly by one of the employees (Hotel l`Independence, do NOT go there) they pack up their bags as well.
Labe is not my kind of town. Although the hotelroom is nice, with a clean shower (cold of course) and very nice company of Anzala and Geraldine, we have a hard time getting out of our dip. We spend hours in the one intrenet cafe in town, which only opens when there are enough clients to pay for the generator's Diesel, but are unable to call our family. Nothing that we could not have expected before we left for Africa, but altogether it is quite impressive to be in an environment without much water, electricity or even a fixed telephone.
We eat out in the very cosy restaurant, or should I say bar Calabasse but nothing seems to taste okay. Unlike other bigger cities we have been to so far, we cannot find a small supermarket that sells something like jam, chocolate or yoghurt. Plenty of little boutiques sell a lot that we don`t want. We buy a new tire for Antoine and reconsider the continuation of our route.


As I am writing this, we are in a fancy hotel in Kindia (which costs as much as 20 euro`s). We have recovered from our temporary, however severe dip and are doing well.
From Labe we loved the bike ride to Pita. Downhill, tarred road through Luxemburg-like landscapes and a box of Pringles, a roll of caramel toffees, a can of green beans and a pot of Algerian raspberry jam in our bags, because we found a small supermarket as we were riding out of town. In Pita we end up in the mansion/hotel of Captain David Beatty, who is retired captain of the British Royal Marine, and his Guinean wife `Sister` Mariama. He finds what we are doing wonderful and is pleased to speak English for a change. We are welcome to stay as long as we like. He offers us a cool drink, he asks his cook to barbecue some chicken for us and helps us with some maintenance on the bikes. Meanwhile he tells us the most amazing things he encountered while sailing for the British navy. We stay an entire day and when we continue our trip towards Mamou we are able to look at the bright side of life again.

2 Reactions to: “How a horsefly can ruin a day (or two… or three)”

  1. 1 Marian Febvre

    Well, as I read I cannot imagine how you are managing the emotional side of your trip. You write so well that I have the impression of traveling with. We follow your progress on the map on our wall in the library. Keep your courage up.
    Love, M

  2. 2 sabine macwaters

    What a view! How generous you are to give us a real perspective on what this adventure, this life effort, feels like. We can so barely begin to picture it, but to also have the inside view of what it feels like is very strong. Thank you for not only letting us see the glamour. It helps everyone.
    With greatest respect,

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