“No,” I responded still a little bit light-headed from a combination of malaria symptoms and the drugs that treated them. “I’m just going to stay here tonight I think and then head to Koundara tomorrow and then Labe the next day.”
“Why don’t you go all the way to Labe today?” He asked in a very matter-of-fact tone. “There is a Labe direct mini-bus leaving soon. It will save you the money of hotels for two nights.”
The logic was almost impossible to ignore, despite the fact that I wasn’t concerned at all about the price of cheap lodging. All the literature I had read warned me of the perils of this trip; a two-day trip during the dry season and a potential three-day journey during the current wet season. Though, those who write the guides tend to take things easy and while for most travellers, 3 separate 8-hour journeys makes sense, to the hardened traveller the idea of compressing that trip into one massive 24-hour marathon is very appealing.
“How long will it take?” I ask the driver partly unable to understand why I am even considering this as an option considering my physical and mental state. However, I’m a stickler to a schedule, and I have already found myself a couple days off the pace I had hoped to set and the idea of gaining two days back was teasing my inner-planner.
“There are no guarentees on this road,” the driver quips back. “Depending on the road, it can take between 19 and 36 hours.”
I look at the mini-bus which has its roof netted in produce and luggage 5 feet high. The rust on the doors is beginning to wear through and the windows are mostly all cracked. I look at the group of passengers sitting under cover waiting for the final passenger to fill the vehicle so it can leave, and the desperation in their eyes to get this journey underway.
“Screw it,” I say outloud. “Let’s do this.”
I hand off my backpack to a group of young boys who race away to hook it on with the rest of the luggage – a combination of baggage, produce and live animals. The passengers all begin to board and without a wasted moment we fly away out of town.
The inside of the mini-bus is a dungeon. We are 4 or 5-wide on wooden benches meant to be seated 3-wide. At our feet, chickens are laid occasionally squealing as people step too close to them or a bump is struck. I remember when we used to complain about having to fit 12 people into our high school van on basketball trips. This mini-bus was smaller and we’ve managed to cram 22 full grown people, 5 toddlers, and 6 babies into the bus, along with all our hand luggage.
The first half of the journey is uneventful. Aside from a few curious question from the others on the bus – people from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire – the action is limited to the occasion burst in activity at stops to buy snacks or pray. While looking out the window, I spot a marker that says “Labe 72km” and begin to wonder if somehow I had misheard the driver’s Portuguese.
However, within a short while I realized where the rest of the time would come from. The road quickly deteriorates from pavement to gravel to a patchwork of red earth covered in water-filled craters the size of the bus itself.
I remembered, somewhere between a series of bounces on the wooden plank seat, the first article I ever had published professionally. It was called “The Colombian Rodeo: Riding the Bus in South America”. Looking back on that trip I realize that South America really was travel for beginners in comparison; but perhaps nearly everywhere is travel for beginners in comparison to a ride on a makeshift bus between Guinea-Bissau and its neighbour.
We all tried to make the best of the journey. The locals slowly warm up and quizzically interrogate me about my life, my journey, my country, and I do my best to learn about them as well. In the back, a young teenage boy fashions a stereo out of some cellphones and we all sing and dance along to the music. And through it all, despite the obvious discomfort of the journey, we all keep each other sane and with smiles across our faces, no matter how trying they may be to maintain.
After waiting 2 hours for a ferry ride across a swollen river – and about 6 hours of bumps and bruises – we manage to arrive at the town of Labe at about 3 in the morning, nearly 21 hours worth of travel for the day. I arrive still reeling from the symptoms of my malaria, exhausted, dehydrated, and unable to sit from a lack of padding on my rear end during the ride. But my day isn’t over.
The passengers all huddle around a couple cups of coffee and a tiny television in deep discussion, as I wonder why we aren’t unloading any of the luggage. Apparently we we are stopped at a station just outside of town and the road into town was far from safe enough to walk at that time of night. Moreover, there are no taxis working in this area at all. Our only option for a couple hours sleep was to find refuge in a shipping crate behind the station equipped with cardboard mattresses and a moldy scent.
But the truth is that as I lay there at the end of the night, sharing a tiny space with a couple dozen West Africans, I couldn’t be more comfortable. The challenges of Guinea-Bissau had gotten the best of me, so somehow this feels like a moral victory. And as I look around at all the characters in the room, some still sitting up chatting over cups of heavily-sugared coffee, I am glad I had the chance to share the time I had with such a great group of people.
It’s these moments that I feel most at touch with the world. It’s not the fancy hotel rooms, hot showers, or luxury buses that make me tick, it’s the people. It’s looking into a stranger’s eyes for a couple minutes of conversation and winding up as friends. Because even though I’ll likely never see another one of these people ever again, those relationships built are the ones that give us grounding and show us that no matter our origins we aren’t all that different in the end.