Saturday, September 29, 2012

Well, It is Africa After All!

Map picture

When I wrote last, our ship had been sailing south towards the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau, when rather unexpectedly the vessel turned towards the coast, and sailed into what appeared to be the mouth of an extremely wide river. There we dropped anchor and sat in the boiling heat of the midday sun with not a breath of air moving. There had been a brief announcement that we had been ordered to a GPS coordinate and instructed to wait for further clearance instructions.

Now just for the record, a big ship like this just does not casually show up on the doorstep of a country and request clearance. I am making an educated guess that this trip to Guinea Bissau had been worked out well over a year in advance. In fact as the story would later develop, SilverSea had been in contact with local officials to confirm our arrival details one month prior to our arrival, and then again there had been an exchange of e-mails and phone calls just two days prior to our planned arrival.

So, back to my story; our ship was anchored in a beautiful area, but in so far as any of us could see, it was totally uninhabited. As time passed, people kept going on deck with binoculars to see if there was any sign yet of the ship bringing the clearance officials. For hour on hour, there was absolutely no sign of any human movement – we simply sat in the burning sun and waited.

On my way to our evening briefing, I too walked out on deck to see if there was any sign of life. There at the rear of our ship, tied up to a rope ladder that had been lowered from our entry door, was a small dinghy sporting a small outboard motor. Surely I thought to myself this was not the “official” delegation? I went into our briefing and just about that time, one of the more vocal of our passengers enters the theatre and announces in a loud voice that he had just been thrown out of the internet cafĂ© to make way for the local customs officials. He then died laughing while he explained that the “Delegation” consisted of some guy carrying paperwork, a police officer and several women and children – in all there were 12 people who had come to our ship in that little dinghy!

During our briefing that evening, we learned a little more of what had happened. It seems that in spite of every detail having been carefully arranged, the local officials for reasons known only to them, changed the meeting location. Originally we were to sail around the Bijagos Archipelago, and then proceed northerly to anchor off the one and only town in this area. There we would conduct clearance procedures, and afterwards that would position us for our activities the following morning. Because of this sudden change, a complete readjustment of our itinerary was necessitated, but alas, this is Africa after all!

The following morning our ship anchored off a deserted island called Melo Island. We were going to spend the day exploring the island for wildlife, or sitting on the beach and swimming. We went ashore for our first “wet” landing, and I joined the birding group. We walked some distance down the beach, and then headed into the dense vegetation. I was able to slog my way for perhaps 30 minutes, but it was becoming obvious that on the wet slippery ground, it would soon be headed for a fall, and so I prudently headed back to the beach to be with Lisa. I found that she had waded out into the water even without having her bathing suit, so beautiful was the sandy beach and gently swells. Meanwhile the hotel department of the ship was going all out to assemble a first class cookout. I sat in total wonderment as load after load was carried up the beach, followed by five big guys carrying a gigantic outdoor grill. What a wonderful experience!

By the time we got back to the ship, the heat and the sun had taken their toll on our poor tired old bodies, and we both fell into a deep sleep. After only 90 minutes to recover, the ship had repositioned to a nearby island and started disembarkation for a night time visit to the beaches on Poilao Island. On these beaches at just this time of year, the giant Sea Turtles will come onshore to dig a hole and deposit their eggs while then returning to the ocean. After a few days, the fledglings hatch and at dusk, they begin their journey to the ocean. So for a few days a year, on this one beach, you have turtles coming and going – a fantastic sight to be sure. Most of the passengers joined the excursion, but we were just too pooped to take that on. Even though the group did not make it back to the ship until 10PM, it seems that a good time was had by all.

During the evening, our ship moved to another island in the Archipelago, Roxa. All of us set off at sunrise in a long line of Zodiacs quietly navigating the mangroves. Our local guides were directing our passage because after just a few minutes, I was completely lost as to which way we had come, much less having any clear idea as to where to make our upcoming turns. After about 40 minutes, we turned a corner, and there before us was a very small opening where our boats could push into a tree and allow us to walk off the boat onto the tree trunk. Several children were around the landing site, but it was a 30 minute walk along a winding and in places muddy trail until we passed under an arch made of palm leaves. This arch marked the entrance into the village of Roxa, which was waiting to welcome us.

As we approached, the men of the village started dancing and performing an elaborate ceremony of welcome. Chairs appeared, and we all sat or stood around enjoying the music. After a little while, the young women of the village started up their own welcome ceremony, so that both were taking place simultaneously. Soon, the village Chief arrived, and we were encouraged to individually come forward and pay our respects to the Chief, while the ceremony continued unabated. In fact, it seemed to have no end and so I walked away from the main gathering to look around the small community.

It was much larger than I had guessed at first – there were perhaps over 50 buildings. This was a very basic existence. I saw no electricity, no running water. It was pretty much subsistence living. However, it was obvious that the people were clean and obviously well fed. Each hut seemed to have a small “kitchen” garden nearby, and living with each family was a small group of hogs, lambs, chickens and native small cattle. Add that to the ever-constant supply of fish just down the trail, and food was not a problem for this community. Everyone was very friendly, and I cannot tell you how many hands I shook while wishing the other person a “Bon Jour.”

After my walk around, I got back to the main group just as the welcome ceremonies were winding down. It was now our turn to present our welcoming gifts to the Chief. Our local guide and a translator all gathered around the Chief along with the expedition team leaders. They presented to the Chief the donations that passengers had brought along for the village, along with the supplies offered by the ship. Then in a surprise, our chef Janine, stood up and with her team came forward with huge plastic tubs which they had covered in black plastic so as to hide the contents. The plastic was removed as were the tops, and there in each tub was a huge quantity of specially prepared and decorated cupcakes. Everyone expected that this special surprise, which had consumed a great deal of time on the part of the chef and her staff to prepare, would be greeted with delight – instead the Chief and his advisors sat there looking unimpressed. They quickly spoke among themselves, clearly not knowing what these strange things were – so our chef steps up and hands each of them a cupcake – they did not know what to do with it. After some trial and error and a little help, they learned to remove the paper cup and before long everyone seemed to be having a good time. These were carefully protected by the Chief to be distributed later.

Our visit to Roxa was truly a highlight. Basic societies like this are becoming rare and it was a pleasure to see and to intermingle with the group. So with many handshakes and smiles, our day came to an end. Overnight we are headed south, hoping to make Freeport in Sierra Leone by noon tomorrow.

I am hoping we will get internet later today and I can get this out, but if it is late, just understand that communications have been very intermittent.


No comments: