"Western Africa" story # 28

Eticoga, Guinea-Bissau           November 4, 2012

After visiting Canhabaque and Orangozinho, I only had eight days left in the Archipelago of the Bijagos. I wanted to see two more islands. And I wanted to spend time with my new girlfriend Tida, who had a body as pleasing to hold as a finally-crafted musical instrument.
     Tida would have to wait, though, as I went to tour the islands.
     Of the islands I would visit, the one which lied the farthest from Bubaque was Orango, a.k.a. Orango Grande, the largest island in the archipelago. It was known for its national park, where people liked to observe hippoes.
     A motorized canoe full of people served as public transport to Orango. A dark, mid-day sky delayed our departure with enough rain to drown our port and market in brown water. When I boarded the canoe, I was soaking wet and happy. We spent three hours crossing the lonely depths of the archipelago. We anchored beside one of Orango's long blond beaches.
     Here, our village was called Eticoga. It seemed like a mix between traditional village and Bubaque. The houses were fairly big, with metallic zinc roofs. Other big houses had straw roofs with holes in them, and lied in states of decay. The people seemed offended, at times, when I spoke Bijago to them. The "Bijago of Orango" had been replaced by Creole.
     (However, once the rumor spread that a Westerner was learning Bijago, people eagerly came to speak with me. And I was given a book published in Bijago: a Bible.)
     I'd planned to spend two nights here sleeping in my tent, in nature. But, wide-faced Du Muscate happened to be traveling to Orango to visit an uncle, and so naturally I stayed with my friend from the internet cafe.
     My first night sleeping in a Bijago village was a restless one. People spoke loudly outside my window until four-thirty a.m. The straw mat I slept on was hard. I was awoken by boys kicking a soccer ball. How could the Bijagos stand to live so close to one another?
     The following day, I got out of the village and explored nature. I went bird-watching with a park ranger, in grassland and marshland and jungle. I hiked alone beside a trail full of rainwater, and searched the surrounding tall grass for spotted gazelles. I passed slim, cracked-bark trees offering bouquets of wavy oak leaves. I passed bushes with red leaves so glossy they looked plastic.
     Though I lacked the keen bird-watching eyes of my brother Brandon the Ornithologist, I would've recognized a hippo if I saw one. Nevertheless, I only saw birds:
     A small falcon flew swiftly, but was not swift enough to prey on other birds. A kingfisher had a brown belly with white stripes, a black back, and a yellow head with a black stripe across its eyes, and ate insects. A tall, white shore-bird stood in the marshes and dug for food with her long beak.
     Park-Ranger Amilton told me that a dark-green bird with a large, snobbish, hooked beak and long tail was called a "chicholo". The tiny "beija-flor" (flower-kisser) had a shiny aqua head, a white breast with an orange blotch, and a hooked beak. A creamy brown and white bird had a fluffy head and hooked beak, and hung out with other birds.
     A stout tree had thick, windy branches and a trunk covered in spiky palm leaflets; inside, birds with black heads, brown backs, and black tails socialized. Elsewhere, a black bird with a thick pink diamond on its head and thick indigo/turquoise diamonds on its wings earned my prize for Orango's Prettiest.
     Amilton was patiently trying to photograph all the birds of Orango to make a book. I wished him luck.
     This night, I walked outside of Eticoga Village with my tent. Spending a night outside in my tent was another thing I wanted to do before leaving Guinea-Bissau.
     Since mid-September, the rainy season had eased up a bit. One wouldn't have known that, though, if he observed this night.
     It rained hard. The strong wind, combined with the poor shape my tent was in, led to half the tent filling up with water. I used socks to mop it up. Though I'd been sleeping without shirt nor covers - as one always slept in Guinea-Bissau - I began to sense a cold dampness. I remembered that respiratory infections were the # 2 cause of hospitalization here. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and fell back asleep.
     And that was when the hippo came ...
     Just kidding.
     The following afternoon, we traveled back to Bubaque. Our canoe was joined by several rounded, slippery dolphins that cut through the water beneath my seat. They darted ahead and led our canoe, for a moment that seemed too brief.

To get to my final island I would visit, I rode in a canoe that was simply a hollowed-out log. Maximum capacity: seven people. I'd always wanted to travel in a canoe powered not by motor, but by Bijagos and their paddles.
     I hoped to spend a few hours on the island of Rubane. Was this large island considered to be one of the archipelago's forty-three inhabited ones? Two Europeans owned fancy hotels there. Otherwise, the whole island was owned by the village of Bijante on Bubaque. The villagers spent several months a year on Rubane, harvesting chabeu fruit and rice. Rubane was only three-hundred meters across a quick channel from Bubaque. I often thought I could swim there.
     Maybe I was going to have to ...
     The canoe was wobbly. I thought for sure the edges were going to tip into the sea. My shoes and backpack would become the property of the fish, and I'd have to swim for shore. Whoa. (Wobble.) Whoa!
     Nonito, the young and charismatic musician who'd told me in Bijago I could hitch a ride, told me in Portuguese that these canoes somehow never tipped. I trusted him. We reached Rubane.
     We arrived at a settlement of square houses made from thatched sticks. Thatched beds - for harvested food to dry on - sat outside the homes.
     Nonito invited me to visit his settlement. We walked out of this first settlement and passed through fields where people picked rice. Most people were happy just to speak Bijago with me. Others, including a mean-looking witchcraft-looking woman, begged aggressively.
     Nonito said the old people of Bijante knew black magic and were especially evil. As a result, many young villagers fled to live in far-away places. Nonito, in pursuing his passion for music under the name Jarmaia de Mika, often lived in Bissau.
     Hiking onward, we entered the jungle. Black soil underfoot, dark leaves overhead and to our sides reaching at us. Numerous trails branched off ours and immediately became invisible. We were in a labyrinth. Spooky. Cool.
     I'd been told that many monkeys lived on Rubane. Nonito said the ones left stayed far from people. Hunters were killing most of them.
     The jungle opened up.
     A curtain of straw hung from a stick over the trail, at the entrance to Nonito's "village". Five thatched households and Nonito's father's sacred hut made up the village. On this hot day, the air in the thatched buildings stayed cool.
     Everyone was out working. We visited Nonito's family in the rice fields. Because the village of Bijante was only a kilometer or two from my first neighborhood in Bubaque, I knew many people from there. (I'd hit on Nonito's wife/girlfriend.) "Hey, Lekinya!"
     Nonito and I were served "candori". This dish included soft but crisp slivers of white stingray meat. The meat had been cooked in red palm oil. It was delicious. Legend said that anyone who ate this meal would return to Guinea-Bissau.
     Full of stingray, we went to visit Nonito's father. He was fishing in an estuarine river, the same estuarine river where a stingray had recently stabbed Nonito. At least, Nonito had gotten revenge. Nonito's father and I shared a warm Bijago conversation. And he returned to his canoe. He needed to provide food for the people who were picking his rice this day.
     Finally, Nonito and I visited the natural water source. I needed to fill up my water bottle.
     We came to a hole in the ground, full of dirt. It was filthy. It tasted a bit like sewage. I couldn't drink this! Hmm? Maybe, just maybe, life in the villages wasn't as perfect as I thought it to be.
     Otherwise, I rather liked the village life - what I'd seen of it.
     Nonito and I found a small canoe that could take me back to Bubaque. This time, it was powered by one paddling Bijago and one Michigander.
     It seemed, early on, that we were going in the wrong direction. I tried communicating to the boy behind me that he should paddle on his other side, and trade me paddles. He ignored me.
     Eventually, we began heading towards Bubaque and I was given the longer paddle.
     The woman behind me - who was just sitting there! - yelled things at me I couldn't understand. I assumed she was saying, "Sit still!" and "Paddle harder!" I thought about purposely splashing water on her with my paddle. But, I figured I was probably doing that already.
     Upon reaching Bubaque, I got yelled at some more. A port authority worker - a big man of Mandinka ethnicity - asked: What was a white person doing in a tiny Bijago canoe!? That was dangerous! The government of Guinea-Bissau didn't like that!
     I apologized profusely, and was allowed to go on my way. Ha ha. It wouldn't be a trip to Africa, without some conflict with the law.

peace and adventure,
Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to the NGO "Faspebi"; Leon the Chinese Madagascarian; and the people of Bijante for free rides!
Much thanks to Du Muscate & Brandao for a place to sleep!

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