Monday, January 24, 2005

The Gambia

Idyllic isn't so idyllic when it turns out that the hotel driver didn't show up today, and now you have to lug your forty pound backpack up a mile long hot, dusty road to the blacktop. Instead I asked around and then waited while a French tourist finished her petit dejeuner before she kindly drove me up there.

A share taxi immediately appeared and helpfully deposited me back at a small gare routiere on the main road. Here I took a Senegales bus, which is about the size of a delivery van, and into which about thirty or more people are crammed. But it's a civilized cramming, in that each person gets a seat and everyone politely respects everyone else's space.

I knew I probably wouldn't get to eat today, so I bought a delicious looking sack of oranges from a lady. Turned out that they were virtually unpeelable, and after I destroyed my fingernails getting one open, it was 75 percent seed. And I had 20 more in the bag...

We continued on slowly and surely through the Sahel and the baobabs. I kept noting that every single structure here is built out of cinder block, with the finer buildings and fences having only a thin patina of plaster to distinguish them. At some point we started passing 'traditional' huts, each with thatched roof, and about six of them in each 'bamboo' fenced compound. On closer examination, however, I determined that under their thatched roofs even they were made of cinder blocks.

The bus stopped at Mbour, where I caught a sept place to Kaoleck, then a taxi across Kaoleck, then another sept place to the border, where again there were incredibly dinky border posts.

Now The Gambia is one of the whackier countries in the world, and it starts with the name, it being one of the only ones to include a definite article (Quick: Name three others...) It's also about 20 miles wide and about 200 miles long, being basically the two sides of the Gambia River, and being completely surrounded by Senegal. And even though English is the official language, it is almost easier for me to understand the Senegalese French than it is The Gambia's English.

Anyhow, another share taxi to the ferry landing, where I walked through a totally dirty and crappy 'market' and then waited in the ferry waiting room. Then the doors opened and about 400 to 500 Gambians walked down a quarter mile road to the ferry, which is an open deck car ferry, and is about large enough for 12 cars. Then a half hour ride across the wide Gambia, and we were in the capital city of Banjul.

Now I was all proud of myself for successfully and seamlessly negotiating 8 means of transport today. And my luck was changing: now I was passing the broken down minibuses, I was not being on them. But pride goeth...

By now it was dark, and there was little if any electricity in Banjul. Not to mention the trash all over the street. Not only was the first hotel I stopped at unappealing, but I also had the problem of still not having eaten all day.

A squirrelly little guy attached himself to me and told me he would take me to the next hotel. After about a mile, and having seen no open restarants, I consulted my book and saw that said hotel was still almost a mile away. I decided to go on to Serekunda, about 15 miles further, where my book and a Senegalese guy had said much more civilization beckoned.

Problem was, it was Sunday night, and although hundreds of Gambians lined the road, there was no transportation, public or otherwise. Nonetheless a Gambian in a pickup truck stopped for me, being an interesting looking white guy. We headed out.

By now I was more than a little fatigued, and so I changed my plan and decided to head for a hotel praised in my book and about five miles further. When we finally found it, it was crowded with rally car drivers, it cost three times what the book said, and it was in the middle of nowhere. So back to Serekunda.

But in talking to my new friend he told me I was crazy to stay there, that since I needed to get my Guinean visa in the morning I should have stayed in Banjul all along. Which, it being where he was headed anyway, I agreed to.

But then there was the police checkpoint. And the police found some infraction with the guy, so I had to pay a three dollar bribe to get us out of it. And then finally back to Banjul, where I had to pay him about twelve dollars for all his time and gas. And there I was back at the hotel that I didn't want to walk to in the first place.

Fortunately, there WAS a restaurant nearby, overpriced as it was, and so at least I finally got to eat.


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