Country #95 - Guinea-Bissau

The Rotary

It was another one of those surreal moments getting on this flight. Like, was I really boarding a plane to a tiny country in western Africa that I had only just learned existed a few months ago? Apparently, the answer was yes. It had been a nice, even if rushed, day in Lisbon and I made it to the airport in enough time to enjoy the ANA Lounge. I’m not kidding when I say I’m going to put this Priority Pass card to good use. Being in an airport almost every day I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner! I was able to use an E-Visa gate when going through customs which was something new, but it was only because my initial entry into the EU this time was into Portugal.

My gate was filled with all kinds of people: locals, many missionary / aid workers, and people who looked like investors as well. Quite the mix! I boarded soon after arriving to my gate and, thank goodness, completely lucked out: I had the whole row to myself! It would be a 4.5 hour flight with not much sleep over the next two days so I was pretty excited. I slept for about two hours, had a snack on board, and before I knew it I was landing in Guinea-Bissau.

Guinea-Bissau is a west African country that is a former Portuguese colony. So if you were wondering why in the world I was flying here from Lisbon: now you know! There are very few flights into and out of the country. Basically I had three options (Portugal, Senegal, and Cape Verde) and I had to make the flights work as there were very few every week. I was flying in from Lisbon, and would fly out only three hours later to Praia, Cape Verde.

I was a bit worried about Guinea-Bissau as I had no idea what to expect. It’s a country that, as you might expect, very few people have experience visiting, so there is very little information about the country online. That coupled with a not great sounding state department warning specifically issued for the airport had me a bit on edge, so I worked with my Aunt Denise towards a great solution! She works for Rotary International, and we were able to reach out to the local Rotary club in Guinea-Bissau. And, to my amazement, they responded! In English!

It was such a relieving surprise to hear from them, and eased so many of my worries about my stay. They were not only going to meet me at the airport at 10pm, but would stay with me during my entire stay, and also take me on a quick nighttime tour of the city! So, not only did I now feel so very safe, but I had a tour as well! I cannot thank everyone at the Rotary club of Guinea-Bissau enough. It truly made my day and my trip!

When I arrived I was immediately glad I was meeting someone as the airport was quite hectic. There were people literally everywhere, and I had not even gone through passport control yet! People were, it seemed, literally just allowed to be everywhere in the airport. Luckily I was met by Benedito and Cadi who were like experts at the airport. Within minutes I had cleared immigration and had my visa issued (I had an E-Visa but from this they put an actual visa stamp into my passport). We had to wait a while for my bag because TAP Air Portugal is a very annoying airline who’s baggage sizers could fit maybe only the suitcase of a small chile even though their planes are regular sized and could easily fit my bag that I have specifically so it will fit. But I digress..

Anyways, we waited for my bag and finally it came about ten minutes later. After walking out into the main lobby area was where we met Maria (the Rotary club President), and Inacio. They were incredible and some of the absolute sweetest people I have ever met. They were so thrilled to see me and I was so happy to see them as well! They greeted me with adorable signs, a very sweet traditional gift, and a signed small rotary banner. I was exhausted but just overwhelmed with how nice that everyone was!

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After meeting and taking pictures we headed out to see the city. First, though, Benedito and Cadi continued to work their airport magic. Instead of having to wait in what looked like at least an hour long line for my boarding pass they had mine in minutes and even went ahead and got my passport exit stamped so I wouldn’t have to worry about it when getting back to the airport! It was crazy but I guess that anything goes when most everyone seems to know everyone and the airport is pretty tiny.

It was about a fifteen minute drive from the airport but luckily there is zero traffic at 11pm. We saw the highlights of the city (and technically, I guess, of the country) all within an hour. Some of the highlights included Empire Square, the Port of Bissau, a beautiful church, and above all the Portuguese architecture. I learned a lot on our drive. The most shocking fact, though, was how long Guinea-Bissau had been a Portuguese territory. Any guesses? Well, it was over 400 years. 400 years! Is that not crazy! I had no idea at all, but it definitely made sense why all of the architecture was very distinctly Portuguese.

After driving around for about an hour we had to say goodbye to Maria before heading back to the airport. It was definitely a sad goodbye, but I hope to see her again someday next time that she visits the United States! It was so nice meeting her and I am still just in awe of how incredible everyone from Rotary club of Guinea-Bissau was. Inacio, Benedito, and Cadi all went back to the airport with me, and within minutes we were all sitting at my gate. I boarded a bit later and wished them all goodbye!

From being very worried and having no idea what to expect from a country to meeting incredible strangers who were so kind and caring, Guinea-Bissau did an entire 180 in my mind in a matter of days. And that, in a nutshell, is why travel is so amazing! I had such a great experience even though I was able to stay for only a few hours, and am so glad I was able to meet  some incredible people and learn so much in my very short stay in Guinea-Bissau.

95 countries down, 102 to go.

For more information on Guinea-Bissau click here to read my guide.