Guinea-Bissau Kicked my Ass

It was military coups and banking issues that worried me most about my visit to Guinea-Bissau.  The country saw its last coup just 4 months before my visit and the infrastructure of the country is still at a point where there are no international bank machines in the entire state.  However, despite the obvious issues that had the potential to challenge my adventures in the country, it was the rain, malaria, and a test of patience that beat me in the end.  I’m not exactly proud to admit it, but if travel was a fight, Guinea-Bissau kicked my ass.

Guinea-Bissau, Bissau, El Che

Downtown Bissau

It was 4 in the morning and the power had been off all night, and much of the previous day.  I packed my bags in the dark with the help of a weak flashlight.  Leaving the room, I left the key in the door and did my best to escape without disturbing anyone else in the building.

I hiked down the streets in near complete darkness as rain drizzled down and a wave of apathy ran through my weary bones.  I had been fighting muscle and bone aches and pains for a week or so and had no idea where they had come from. The port was completely dead when I arrived.  I had been assured the night before of a pirogue (a small dugout canoe with a weak motor) heading out to Guinea-Bissau’s travel calling card: the Bijagos Islands.  However, as I asked around on the muddy pier one seemed to know anything about a boat heading to the island’s capital Ilha Bubaque.

Guinea-Bissau, Bissau, Cathedral, church

Church in downtown Bissau

A shot in the dark, just as I had given up hope claimed he knew someone going to the islands and leaving at 8am.  But as I waited through the sunset, and into the beginnings of the port market it came clear that the boat would not come today.  I was told to try again tomorrow.  And I did.

The next day, as Yogi Berra once said, “it was deja-vu all over again”, although at about 7am I finally loaded my things onto a boat, well a canoe.  And along with a group of fishermen we embarked on a painfully slow, unbelievably uncomfortable 7-hour journey to the islands.  Through the rains we covered our heads in tarps only to force our heads among the fish guts and blood festering at the bottom of the boat at our feet now coated orange – a mix of fish and mud.

Pirogue, Guinea-Bissau, Canoa, Bubaque

Inside the pirogue to Bubaque Island

To call the boat safe would be a vast exaggeration.  Although fairly well build, and not nearly fast enough to crash, they are unstable, and any sort of weather could toss these things into the waters. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m watching the news about how nearly 45 people died on a pirogue just like the one I travelled on.  But regardless of potential dangers, I arrived in complete misery and unable to move my neck in any direction.

Guinea-Bissau, Kids, Bubaque island

A couple kids in Bubaque

Despite the rains, I tried to make the most of Ilha Bubaque.  Fighting as best I could, I picked up a rental pedal bike and tried to make my way across the island to what I was told is a picturesque rural beach. The island is stunning.  It is lined with palm tree plantations, rural villages and some beautiful beaches.  As I made my way through the villages, despite an uncomfortable bike, I could feel my spirits lifting.

However, almost on cue, my bike somehow completely locked up as if someone had stuck a stick in my spokes and I flew over the handle bars and across the harsh rock surface leaving my shoulder and arm bloody and covered in mud.  After trying my best to clean myself with some puddled rain water I started on the return journey back to town, conceding defeat.

Guinea-Bissau, Ilha Bubaque

A shot from the helmet cam just before I crashed the bike

On the afternoon before I was meant to leave the island, again upon a miserable pirogue ride, I was hit with a fever like I’ve never felt before.  I wandered out to the hotel staff and asked them if it was just me or if it was freezing cold outside.  Right away, the owner said the words I’d been hoping to never hear: “you have malaria”.

After an injection in the butt cheek, and a variety of other meds I felt better almost instantly.  My muscle aches and pains disappeared, my headaches settled, I could again move my neck and the fevers were lessened.  And the truth is that I think I may have actually been relieved to hear that I had malaria.  I had begun to wonder if I was getting soft, if hard travel was now able to get the best of me, and if I had lost the ability to look at a rainy day, put on my rubber boots and go jump around in the puddles.

Pirogue, Guinea-Bissau, Ilha Bubaque

Finally, the pirogue off of Bubaque Island. Complete with cows, pigs and chickens

But still, I don’t like the feeling that something or somewhere is getting the best of me.  I like to tackle the road and the challenges it presents head on.  I like to not only get the best of a country, but give the best of me back.  So as I leave Guinea-Bissau I will probably not remember it for its shy people, stunning waters, or aging colonial houses.  I will remember it as the country that beat me.  And for that reason, it will likely remain the one country I feel the need to return to someday – hopefully next time without malaria.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: Brendan van Son is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He has visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than he has the desire to count. Check out his profile on . for a little bit more about him.

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18 Comments

  1. Well if a country is going to beat you in a fight, best it be a rarely visited and little-known African country rather than, say, Switzerland. Sucks about the malaria but glad the hotel staff knew what it was straight away so that you could get it cured.

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    • Haha, Tom good point. I remember a story from a writer at Vagabundo Magazine about getting robbed in Switzerland and a sentence along the lines of “I’m not embarrassed that I was robbed, just that it happened in Switzerland… the safest country in the world.” haha

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  2. Glad you felt better right away. My dad used to travel regularly to Guinea and described much worse experience of having malaria.

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    • Irina – I’m famous for having the world’s best immune system haha. The truth is I felt the symptoms still for about 5 days after… just not as intense. There’s a story coming on the malaria situation more in depth in a bit.

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  3. Not often one sees stories from this peculiar little country, so interesting read. About 15 years ago, I was with a bunch of Swedes and Danes. We were told Europeans didn’t need visas, so off to the G-B border we went, visa-less, naturally. Sadly for me, by Europeans they meant only EU-citizens, and not Norwegians. The rest of the gang had a fab time in Bissau, I had to hitch a ride back to Banjul. Today, it seems, everyone needs a visa for G-B. Still haven’t made it there.

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    • Sophie – Shame! Now it’s easy as pie to get a visa for Guinea-Bissau. I got mine in Ziguinchor and it took about 5 minutes and only cost me 30 bucks. There’s a video up about it on my “It’s my Life 365″ series.

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  4. Wow- you’re looking for adventures, and it sounds like you got an extremely unpleasant one here. I hope you do get to go back- I have a feeling that correcting the painful memories will make it an especially rewarding trip.

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    • Yeah Erik – Adventure is what I live for, and sometimes it wins. But the funny thing is that it seems like every time adventure wins, it makes for a much better story haha.

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  5. born and raised till age of 6 in Guine-Bissau, still have some relatives living there and very often i hear funny stories about Guine, but your is hilarious.

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    • Henrique – I loved the people… they are shy but really nice. The rest of it… kicked. my. ass. haha

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  6. Bruised , battered, malaria and yet your spirit finds you looking ahead. Into a cozy bed I shall not take for granted. Thank you for your words. Glad you are feeling better.

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  7. Aww, cute little Guinea-Bissau!! This article made me miss it again. I was there for almost a month last April, and left just a week before the latest coup! My experience was luckily a bit better than yours, no malaria at least. And I managed to avoid taking the pirogue by catching the regular boat to Bubaque and then waiting nine days to catch it back to Bissau.. it was great to spend more time there (and visit the amazing Bruce Beach three times) though I did get mugged (!!). I’ve been traveling for 12 years and never got robbed and then it happens in a place like Bijagos Islands! Sooooo weird.

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  8. shame with the malaria, Guinea Bissau and the Bijagos Islands are very special; even those pirogue trips are fun …

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    • It happens! The pirogue is fun for about an hour… then it’s just painfully boring haha.

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  9. Dude, tough break! I’ve had a lot of pretty big mishaps on the road, as I know you have as well. I know what it’s like to feel broken! But it makes life more interesting and there’s always a better story to tell.

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  10. Hi Brendan
    Thanks for your blog!
    I’m a journalist from Australia. How can I contact you privately to find out more about this incredible place?
    Cheers, PJ

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    • hit up my contact page PJ.

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  11. Hi Brendan, I love your title. I just returned from a month in Bissau and I share the sentiment. Our ferry boat ride home from Bubaque was 12 1/2 hrs! the ferry broke down and we were floating aimlessly for 4 hours before someone on the mainland sent out a mechanic. Not an easy place to live. This is not tourist Africa. This is the real deal. A corrupt government, but as you learned, kind and gentle people.

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