This is what the rural isolation of this northwestern corner of Guinea Bissau dictated.
Having completed the river and motorbike return from the Elalab village, we arrived in Susana and quickly discovered that no one should pass. ringtone from São Domingos. There was only one alternative: the duo of bikers who had brought us from the dock.
Varela was 16km away from Susana, five times more than what we had just covered, cramped together, on Hilário and a colleague's motorbikes, with the photography backpacks between us and them and the suitcases tied on the luggage rack.
Just like that, in a precarious balance affected by the unevenness of the pseudo-road, an hour later, we arrived at the entrance to Varela. Some residents welcome us and, soon, Valentina Kasumaya.
The presence of Valentina's family in Varela has been around for a long time.
Her maternal grandmother was Guinean and once owned the land on which Valentina's Italian father and Guinean-Corsican mother ran the inn Chez Helene, now inactive.
Instead, in Open house, Valentina and her team don't stop.
The generous shower and dinner they pamper us with leave us feeling different. An immaculate sleep recovers us once and for all from the exhausting itinerancy we were on, from the discovery of Cachéu and Elalab.
Varela Beach: in Recession, but Huge
We awoke to the dawn. Shortly after, we emerge onto the sandy path that winds through the forest and palm groves, between sparsely concentrated tabanca houses.
The trail leaves us at the beginning of the sand south of the village.
At that time, we saw no sign of fishermen, just a few pirogues within reach of the tide.
Agreeing, we continued along the sand, heading north.
We approached a promontory on the edge of the village. There, with the land much more exposed to the Atlantic, the sand is reduced to that granted by the retreat of the tide, at the base of steep, ocher cliffs.
The rise in sea levels has affected them and caused them to collapse, to the point of exposing the roots of oil palm trees and portentous polygons, leaving the trees in a condemned verticality.
We go around the twisted trunks of others, already felled, embedded between the fragments of laterite that cover vast areas of the seashore.
We walked trapped between the Atlantic and the orange walls, keeping an eye on the waves and an unexpected rise in the sea that we had everything we could control.
We conquered a final section, between collapsed slopes and large rocks. To the north, beyond the shadow of the overhanging forest, stretched an open cove of which we could not see the end.
From what the map showed us, that must be the main beach of Varela, more or less halfway with Nhiquim.
North of Varela, the Nhiquim Contiguous Sand
A few grooves revealed the opening of trails coming from the interior.
However, the beach seemed reserved to us. To us, to a few ospreys displeased with the intrusion we represented.
And to so many other visiting turtles that, from time to time, we noticed the periscope heads.
Finally, without us expecting it, at the base of a small but dense palm grove, we detected the presence of a native in his fifties who, using a harness, was climbing to a canopy full of oily fruits.
We greet each other. We asked her if the collection was going well. "All is well. It's a shame there aren't any more palm trees like these…” he assures us, in a Portuguese that we quickly understand to be almost exclusively Creole.
We said goodbye with a “see you soon” which, given the amount of beach we had to the north, we knew we had everything to take a while.
From the domains of Varela, we move on to those of Nhiquim, dictated by the presence of nearby tabancas of the same name. Little by little, the ocher walls lose height and meaning.
They line up with the surface of the whitest sand, dissolving into a profusion of bushes and yellowish grasses.
As Valentina would later explain to us, not only the rise of the sea and erosion weakened the surrounding ocher surface.
The Heavy and Hypervaluable Sands of Varela
It has long been known that the Varela region was rich in heavy sand, full of zirconium, a highly valuable mineral.
Without any environmental study, a Russian company opened its extraction, leading to the contamination of the water used by the tabancas.
Those consumed directly, those that irrigate their lagoons and those that flow into the abundant mangroves there.
Well, this extraction lasted for some time, with the approval of dubious contracts with the Bissau government. “But when the natives started to see their balls destroyed, that crossed all limits.
In recent times, it was Chinese who sought to continue extraction but it gives me the idea that the leaders here stopped them. Let’s see until when.”
We continue up Nhiquim beach.
Here and there, with breaks for refreshing dips. Several kilometers later, we arrived at an area where the sand went into the ocean and formed a marine lagoon with two small entrances.
Finally, the Imminence of Cap Skirring and Senegal
The northernmost, at the entrance to an inlet of the sea on the verge of Cabo Roxo, already on the border with Senegal and a short distance from the seaside resort of Cap Skirring, where we would spend Christmas and a few days.
We reversed our path, the return, marked by even more dives into the warm water.
Having reached the ugly cement ruins that some tourist project had abandoned, we headed inland. Only then did we inaugurate the discovery of the town.
After Returning, Discovering Varela Povoação
The Felupes, an ethnic subgroup of the Diolas predominant in much of the Northwest of Guinea Bissau and the Senegalese region of Casamance, predominate in the Varela region, as well as around it.
Well, above all, the people we met were warm, around the pink mosque with the yellow minaret.
Among huts and renovated houses, some of which were bequeathed by Portuguese settlers after the colonial period.
There, a seamstress migrated from Guinea Conakry created clothes from traditional African fabrics.
Conversation ensues, in French, we managed to get him to tell us where the most famous tree in Varela was, a strange palm tree with a low trunk, which had wedged itself between the roots of another tree and, little by little, curled up on itself.
Such was the plant phenomenon that the residents of Varela considered it sacred.
Varela and a fierce Dusty Football
That afternoon, right in front of Casa Aberta, we come across one of the strangest football games we have ever seen.
On an improvised field in the dark interior of the forest, on gray sand, a group of kids fought for the ball with the warlike attitude typical of felupes.
The dust they raised was such that, in a few moments, we were forced to cover our mouths and noses with the clothes we had to spare.
It intrigued us, therefore, how they survived breathing that concentrated dust for an hour (or more) on end. In this astonishment, we noticed that, at intervals, the sun, which descended from the west, penetrated the forest.
When falling on the dust, it generated dancing beams of light that made the scene even more dazzling.
Accordingly, to the delight of the kids, we settled in to accompany them.
When the sun stops shining, we leave them. A long and dramatic sequence of penalties decided the match.
After almost 20km, walking with loaded backpacks on our backs, over sand that was often heavy, we re-entered Casa Aberta already dragging ourselves.
We need recovery care similar to the day before. Valentina treat us to another divine dinner. We went back to sleep without appeal.
The following day was the last we could dedicate to Varela.
Sunday of Fishing and Work, instead of Rest
To our surprise, on that Sunday morning, when we looked again at the beach south of Casa Aberta, we found it bustling with work.
A few fishermen had just disembarked, determined to sell their catch.
Assistants unloaded and divided, at their discretion, specimens of a little bit of everything.
Guitarfish, rabbitfish, rays, catfish and even small sharks.
Women dressed in colorful capulanas, armed with sharp knives, gathered fish after fish, for sale or for consumption.
Once the work was over, the remains and the beach were at the mercy of flocks of seabirds.
We took the opportunity to wander around corners we hadn't yet looked at and abandoned properties above the beach.
The men of the village were enjoying themselves watching the World Cup final in Qatar.
Shortly after Argentina became champions, it got dark again.
The following morning, we traveled to São Domingos. We crossed the border into lands that were once Portuguese, French, now Senegalese, Casamance.
HOW TO GO
1 - Flight Lisbon – Bissau with Euroatlantic: flyeuroatlantic.pt per from €550.
2 – Road trip Bissau – São Domingos – Varela (4h)
WHERE TO STAY:
Open House, Varela: facebook.com/casaabertakasumayaku/
Reservations via Whats App +245 966 640 180