From the upper deck, we appreciate the busy day-to-day between the colorful and colonial houses of Bissau and the pier.
Owners and workers cram a few cargo canoes. Lorries unload the one with which they entered the port. Boats arrive from Bubaque and from different stops in Bijagós. Others go there.
With all passengers on board, the Africa Princess inaugurates its itinerary through the vast Guinean archipelago, aimed at Ilha de Galinhas and Canhambaque.
We carry out a quick transfer to one of your support boats and a providential diversion.
We move away from the islet of the King and the city. Heading southwest, we bid farewell to the Turkish generator ship “metin bey” that keeps her energized.
We cross the line of schism between the waters of the Geba and those of the Atlantic that the difference in density and salinity separates.
On the Bolama Route
We are approaching the south bank of the Geba. We skirt the peninsula of Ilhéu do Mancebo and follow the floodplain east of Bolama.
We sailed along a treacherous route, full of shallows that the centuries-old silting continues to aggravate and where, a month later, aboard an overcrowded traditional canoe, we would run aground.
Protected by the lightness of the speedboat and the sea beach, we avoid the worst of the sandy coast. We zigzag down the channel, towards the Rio Grande de Buba, despite the name, a Benjamin brother of Geba.
As happened with the Portuguese and with Bolama, we are left between the two.
When we disembarked onto the high jetty along Av. Amílcar Cabral, the sun has barely come down from its zenith. Residents shelter in their homes.
Or in the shade of the hyperbolic trees that refresh the city's riverfront. As we approach the real terra firme, Bolama shows signs of life.
Dª Ermelinda, a vegetable seller, greets us from whom, conversation leads to conversation, without quite knowing how, we buy a few cucumbers.
Almost as innocently, next door, Bolama preserves what many consider one of the few surviving fascist monuments.
Mussolini's Memorial to the Fallen Aviators in Bolama
Almost a decade had passed since the success of the duo Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral in the pioneering air crossing of the South Atlantic.
Infected by Mussolini's delusions of grandeur, Air Minister and pilot-general Ítalo Balbo planned the crossing of ten planes, divided into four squadrons and in formation, between Italy and Rio de Janeiro.
Having overcome several tribulations, the planes regrouped in Bolama, on Christmas Day. There they were celebrated by a ship of the Italian navy.
At dawn on January 6, 1930, Ítalo Balbo dictated the match. Two of the planes suffered accidents on take-off. Five airmen perished. Nevertheless, Ítalo Balbo forced the follow-up of the expedition.
In December 1931, Mussolini ordered the erection, in Bolama, of the memorial that surprises anyone who visits the city. It is shaped like two wings, one broken, the other raised to the heavens.
It is complemented by a laurel wreath and the inscription “Al Cadutti di Bolama".
Bolama Island and the Legacy of the Former Colonial Capital
We left Dª Ermelinda at the foot of the old memorial. We continue to discover the city. A few meters into the island, we are facing the Governor's Palace, today occupied by the Guinean military.
Some of them, talking, sitting on low chairs.
We greet them and two young men, presumably civilian military personnel, who face each other on a large yellow-checkered board, with the caption, in Creole, “Bópapiamas Stadium”.
We appreciate the welcome from the military. After that, we go up to Av. Amilcar Cabral.
At that hot hour, the main artery of the city remains almost deserted. As we examine the architecture Art Deco of the old cinema, three or four pigs cross it.
On the opposite side of the street, a mural depicts the leader of the PAIGC, Amílcar Cabral, the martyred protagonist of Guinea Bissau's independence course.
Ali, owner of a Pepsodent-like smile.
We continued to climb. After the “Som das Ilhas” discotheque, in the heart of an open square covered by dry bushes, we are surprised by a shining silver statue.
Ulisses Grant and the Complicated “Question of Bolama”
It honors US President Ulisses Grant, whom Portugal thanked for the verdict that resolved the complex “Questão de Bolama”.
At a certain point, the legitimate possession of the island of Bolama, settled between Portugal and the United Kingdom, almost led the old allies to go to war. Grant favored Portugal.
Even so, in 2007, its original homage disappeared.
The severed bronze statue was later found on the land of Commander Alpoim Galvão, mentor of the famous “Operation Mar Verde” which sought to control Guinea Conakry in order to eradicate the political-military opposition of the PAIGC to Portuguese colonial rule.
At the time the statue disappeared, Alpoim Galvão was a businessman based in Guinea Bissau.
The statue we admired there was nothing more than a replica.
The domain of Ulisses Grant is succeeded by Praça do Império, which the former American President validated as Portuguese, instead of British.
Slender goats and sheep roam the central garden, in search of plant snacks, on the face closest to the Military Police, the Catholic Church and even in a few bushes that emerge from the columned front of the imposing and ruined city hospital.
From there, we can still see the old military training center barracks, abandoned to time, to termites and the tentacular roots of prickly pear trees and the like.
Africa Princess heads to Canhambaque, via Ilhéu dos Porcos
An hour and a half had passed since the first steps in Bolama. Pinto, the bijagó guide in charge of the group, dictates the return to the boat. We fulfilled it, aware that Bolama deserved more time and attention.
And that we would go back there.
When we arrive at the starting point, the jetty is given over to a colorful and frenetic crowd. A canoe from Bissau had just docked. Dozens of passengers greeted those who came to receive them.
They disputed the unloading of their belongings among the many loads accumulated inside the vessel.
Without anyone expecting it, to reach the launch, we have to face the confusion and go around the canoe.
It takes what it takes.
As soon as he sees us on board, Charlesmagne, the Senegalese sailor and diola responsible for navigation, sets sail at full speed, heading southwest and towards the islands of Porcos and Canhambaque. Somewhere over there, the Africa Princess was waiting for us for the night.
Canhambaque is in full view, with the sun dropping to the opposite side of the island.
We disembarked on a neighboring strip of sand that the falling tide was increasing.
We bathe and relax along this striated extension of the Ilhéu dos Porcos.
Rice fields in the north of Canhambaque Island
When the sun begins to turn yellow on the horizon, we cross to the eastern tip of Canhambaque, the island where Pinto was a native, where he knew every nook, cranny and, we can say, all the inhabitants.
We overcame a first muddy coastline. Soon, we climbed from the wet sand to a wide section of the island full of dry rice paddies, not wetlands.
Pinto leads us along a trail parallel to the bottom of the island, destined for Inorei, the main village in the far north of Canhambaque.
Along the trail, we stop at some of the huts that the natives used to live in, tasked with protecting and processing the rice that fed them.
When we say “protect”, we are far from exaggerating.
In the image of Caravela and Carache, palm trees with bare tops abounded there, with the fruits that yield palm oil and wine exposed. Palm trees that also hosted hundreds of nests of opportunistic weavers.
If the rice-growing people of the Bijagós stole a good part of the islands' trees from the birds, the weavers, in particular, proliferated with an inevitable revenge.
They inhabited the palm trees that dotted the rice paddies. Whenever the cultivators raised their guard, they raided the rice in large, hungry bands.
Unsurprisingly, in Canhambaque, as in all Bijagós, the natives abhor birds that they stone and chase away in every possible way.
We chat with elderly natives when, finally, the sun sets in the west of the island. Its glowing circle falls between the trunks of the surviving palm trees.
Capture us with their silhouettes, dotted with the straw nests with which the weavers decorate them.
From an exuberant fire, the west of Canhambaque turns to the dark blue of the afterglow.
Even though he feels he is one of his own, Pinto fulfills his duty to collect us.
That night, as on the following ones, we would call the Bijagós adventurer boat home.
HOW TO GO:
fly with the euroatlantic , Lisbon-Bissau and Bissau-Lisbon, on Fridays.
“AFRICA PRINCESS” CRUISE
Book your cruise through the Bijagós archipelago at: africa-princess.com
Email Address: [email protected]
Tel: +351 91 722 4936