Field Notes

The Road to West Africa

Video by Kevin Sullivan/The Washington PostEditor: Jacqueline Refo/
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008; 5:04 PM

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau-- One of the great joys of being a journalist is traveling the world's roads not taken. And hardly anybody takes the road to Guinea-Bissau. The airlines are not exactly flocking to one of the poorest countries on earth.

When I plugged "London to Bissau" into most airline Web sites, the responses were ugly. A few options had so many flights and layovers that it would take more than 35 hours from my home in London to the far western shores of Africa.

I finally found something that got me there in a reasonable 13 hours. I left London early in the morning on a flight to Lisbon, then connected to a place called Sal.

I had never heard of Sal, which turned out to be one of the Cape Verde Islands -- although as we flew in, Sal looked more like a baking desert rock in the middle of the Atlantic, sort of a floating brick with a runway.

Sal means "salt" in Portuguese. And for centuries, ships would stop at the desolate island to take on huge loads of rough sea salt that traders used to preserve fish and meat.

Later, the island's airport became a key refueling site for South African Airways' long-haul flights. In the days of apartheid, most African governments refused overfly rights to South Africa's state-owned carrier. So its planes had to swing out wide around the continent's westernmost coast, refueling and changing crews on Sal.

Now, Sal has one small beach community famous for white sand and windsurfing. But the rest of the island has the forgotten, burned-out, slightly Stephen King feel of a Death Valley gas station. A wonderfully weird little corner of the world.

From Sal, it was a two-hour flight to Bissau. The sun set during the flight, so it was pitch black as the plane approached the city. We descended and descended, but still no lights. Finally, I started to see some twinkling in the darkness -- cooking fires and a few car headlights.

The yellow runway lights were the only sign of electricity. And it would pretty much stay that way during my four-day stay in Bissau, a low-slung little town dotted with derelict cars and empty buildings decaying in the tropical heat.

One road had streetlights, and a few banks, restaurants and hotels had noisy generators, and therefore light. But for the most part, Bissau was just black dark at night.

Since most of the streets are dirt and deeply rutted and potholed, walking at night was an adventure. I'd go to put my foot down, and the ground wasn't where it was supposed to be.

By sunset, the streets were all but deserted. There was so little traffic at night that I came across a dog in the middle of the road. I thought it was dead. But it was just sleeping -- and in a favorite spot, too, because for the next three nights, I came across him in exactly the same place.

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