Eben: To Gambia and Back

September 9, 2009

I guess it should technically be To The Gambia and back.  Anyway, as you can tell from the title, I am in fact back, and now have a horribly long blog post to show for it.  The 20 other kids in my group (the ones who didn’t do the presession) have now arrived, making our group complete with a round 29.  Our program’s orientation is now done, and classes start tomorrow.  I doubt I’ll devote a post just to describing the other members of my group, but hopefully our character becomes somewhat clear in the course of tangential references to people.  If not, and you happen to have a fascination with in-depth descriptions of generally similar college-aged kids, please let me know and I’ll change tack.

The following is a travel diary of sorts (in present tense!) of what transpired over the course of my five-day trip to The Gambia.  This is The Gambia (the one with Banjul starred):


I wasn’t planning on doing this so that I could continue with my series of posts on Dakar, but the trip was pretty interesting and so I decided to try my hand at a travel log.  There are a bunch of pictures of my trip relevant to the account here (as well as some pictures from our group’s subsequent trip to Goree Island, an island off Dakar that was central to the slave trade for centuries).  I’ve also uploaded a few pictures to this post, making it take up huge amounts of space in your mailbox if you get my emails.  So here’s the journey:

Wednesday, August 26

  • 7:00 am — I wake up with a horrible head-cold, which feels eerily similar to the ones I get back at home.  And I thought everything here was supposed to be different.
  • 2:00 pm — Having finished our last presession class, my three companions (Olivia Snarsky, from the University of Illinois; Alex Kutac, a girl from University of the Pacific; and Jon Fischer, from the University of Minnesota) and I go to the Garage Pompier, Dakar’s main transportation hub.  It’s a parking lot with thousands of generally decrepit Peugeot 505 station wagons (referred to as sept-places, or seven-places, since they fit the driver and seven people) going every direction.  After three men try to trick us into paying too much, Waly (our program director) somehow shows up out of the blue and tells us we’re in the wrong place.  He has an uncanny ability to do that.  We meet a friend of Waly’s, who puts us in a sept-place headed to Banjul, Gambia.  We leave at about 3:30.
  • 8 pm — The driver takes a two-minute stop in Sokone to tune the car up.   In that time, our Senegalese university friend Casimir (the one who killed the pig) runs and manages to find our car.  We say hello and goodbye.
  • 9:15 pm — Our first bathroom break comes a good six hours after we leave, and it’s at the house we’re staying at for the night.  I guess maybe it’s easier to sit in a tiny car spot having to go to the bathroom for six hours if you’re fasting for Ramadan and thus not drinking anything, which the other car members were doing, but for the rest of us it could be described as torture.  (The driver didn’t speak any French in order to be instructed to stop, and the car wasn’t equipped with empty bottles.)  Anyway, we get off  at the last village in Senegal before the border, Karang, in order to stay the night with Waly’s family.  Waly’s wife Amy is there on vacation, and she picks us up on the side of the road.  We go on a toubab parade (toubab=white person) through Karang, down a long dirt road, and get to the Faye family compound, where Waly grew up.  The compound consists of a big front yard with an outdoor bucket-shower area, a house with four rooms and not one piece of furniture that I see, and a toilet-hole in back.  A couple of Waly’s younger brothers are there, along with his mother, who doesn’t speak more than a few words of French but is very nice.  (Actually, how would I know?  I can’t even talk to her.)  We sit outside under the stars talking to Amy, while the Mosque down the road blares prayer over a microphone throughout the night.  The Arabic songs are particularly dystopian, not for what they might be saying (again, how would I know?) but how it sounds.  After a good dinner around a communal bowl, the four of us go to bed.  We have two rooms, each with one mattress and nothing else other than our bags.

Thursday, August 27

  • 8:30 am — I wake up to rooster calls for the first time in my life.  Waly’s son, Ousmane Sene, is running around naked.  He’s about two and really cute.  Given that his house has nothing to do, he amuses himself by climbing into a bucket and knocking it over from the inside.  Ousmane Sene is also the name of the director of the West African Research Center, which is where our program is held.  It’s traditional here to name your child after someone you admire.  We have the standard breakfast of tea and baguette.


    Waly's family with us in front of the house.

  • 10:30 am – Another toubab parade takes over Karang’s main street, as we get escorted to our next mode of transportation: a horse-drawn carriage carrying rice.  We hop on after Amy negotiates a price of about 25 cents each to get to the border, and then say goodbye to the family. Every eye in Karang follows us to the border, which is a ten minute ride away and marked unceremoniously by a chain extending five feet from the right side of the road to the middle.  We pay our chauffeur, then go through Senegal’s border patrol (speaking French) and Gambia’s border patrol (speaking English, as The Gambia was colonized by England).  With two more stamps in each of our passports and some Dalasis – Gambia’s currency – in our pockets, we engage in a yelling match with a cab driver (normal bargaining behavior at this point) until we agree on a price and get taken to Barra, where the ferry to Banjul leaves.  (Banjul is on the other side of the Gambia River.)
  • 1 pm – We debark in Banjul after a 45 minute ferry ride reminiscent of the Woods Hole-Martha’s Vineyard trip.  We wander the streets of Banjul for half an hour, taking in the city as slowly as is necessary with our heavy bags.  Banjul’s red streets and often-crumbling 19th century architecture make it clear that its main purpose was as a colonial hub. As our guide book says, people are slowly migrating out of the capital city in favor of the touristy shoreline or the more bustling market town of Serrekunda.  Whatever the trend, though, the Albert Market is still pretty gigantic; it has three sections (arts and crafts, clothes, and food), each of which is big enough to form its own market. (One of the vendors we soon meet refers to it as “the real black market.”) We take in the market after eating a quick lunch and checking into a cheap hotel; $9 per person got us two doubles, each with running water, which is luxury living in some sense.  As we’re making our way into the market, we’re accosted for what would be the first of dozens of times by people with nothing better to do trying to make some money off tourists.  The Gambia’s economy is held afloat by tourism, much more so than that of Senegal, although Gambia is clearly less developed.  These guys seem like any other friendly Gambians; they start to walk alongside you, asking you about where you come from and how you like their town.  It becomes clear once they won’t leave your side that they’re trying to make some money by giving you a “tour” of their city.  The ones who walk alongside us into the market do seem to know what they’re talking about, though, so we let them lead the way.  We overpay for a few pieces of art, by which I mean we pay the equivalent of $5 for some handcrafted wood carvings.  After a couple hours and some more purchases, we leave the market, paying our guides about $7 to split between the two of them.
    A tiny part of Albert Market from above

    A tiny part of Albert Market from above

  • 5 pm – We head over to the monument to Gambia’s independence, Arch 22, which is the tallest structure in Gambia.  We don’t see any guards, so we jimmy open the door and climb the stairs to the top of the arch to take in Banjul from above.  After a few pictures, a guard comes up.  Like many Gambians, he speaks horrible English – the Gambian school system must be significantly worse than Senegal’s, since I find it harder to speak to the Gambians in English than the Senegalese in French – and he demands that we leave after paying him 200 Dalasis, or about $8.  We don’t take his bribe request seriously and walk down the stairs, starting to head back to our hotel.  He chases us down and tells us to come to the police station with him.  We negotiate our “entry fee” down to 100 Dalasis ($4), and he seems placated.  I ask him if this means we can go up and keep taking pictures, but he appreciates my wit about as well as he can understand it.
  • 8:30 pm – We go on a futile search for dinner at some of the restaurants in our guide book, but they’re all closed due to Ramadan.  I start to wonder why we can’t find dinner just because people are following orders from a big sky man, but then realize that’s horribly insensitive and generally inaccurate.  We do end up finding a restaurant at the base of the big arch, where the owner tells us about his time working at a gas station in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  I learn a lot about how convenience store stick-ups work from his stories about all the times he had guns pointed at his head, and then we call it a night.

Friday, August 28

  • 8 am – We wake up, ready for our big day seeing Gambia’s natural beauty and wildlife.  It’s pouring rain.  We go back to sleep.
  • 10 am – After wakeup number two and some breakfast in our hotel, we escape the power outage and start walking down the street in the rain with all our bags.  We find a minibus going to Serrekunda and pile on for the 15-minute ride.  The bus drops us off on a road unfit for driving, let alone walking, as its red dirt has been turned into deep, uneven mud. I look around, and to my dissatisfaction, don’t see any mud-wrestling.  We check into an equally cheap hotel, deposit our bags, and go on another futile restaurant search that eventually ends at a shawarma joint.  Like most other restaurants we go to throughout the trip, this place’s menu seems only to be there to provide light reading material.  We ask if they have everything on the menu.  They say yes.  We order.  They don’t have any of what we order.  We try again.  Same thing.  Eventually, we figure out what they do have, which bears no resemblance to the menu at all.  After eating, we wander around Serrekunda, which is a gritty city of corrugated tin shacks and muddy roads.  We then hop on a taxi to go pet some crocodiles.
    Typical Serrekunda road

    Typical Serrekunda road

  • 3 pm – We get off our taxi in Bakau, the northernmost of the three coastal tourist towns.  It’s right on the ocean, and although it’s supposed to be a resort town, it’s also pretty rough.  It lacks the bustle of Serrekunda, but the tin shacks and dirt roads are still there.  We’re here to go to the Kachikaly Crocodile Pool, a supposedly sacred pool that has bred hundreds of naturally tame crocodiles that, supposedly without training, allow humans to pet them.  Upon getting out of the taxi, we’re surrounded by three potential tour guides, whom we can’t get rid of despite our insistence; one of them has shaved his head save for a swirl on top, and he looks addled by some sort of addiction.  As soon as we get to the pool, I get the guards to get rid of him.  He stares me down for a good 30 seconds, then asks for money, and I say nothing.  We end up letting one of the other natives come along with us just by default; he seems trustworthy, and I don’t feel like dealing with a second stare-down session.  I tell him we have no money to give him, and then we go pet the crocodiles.  As advertised, they’re very calm and good-natured, and they smile for a few pictures with each of us.
    Charlie and me

    Charlie and me

    We take a rainy beach walk, on which we’re accosted by multiple suitors to go to their restaurant or take their tour.  I seem to have blacked out after our beach walk, as I can’t remember in the least what we do next.  I do remember that the man accompanying us asks for money (despite what I had said earlier); “Even only 10 Dalasis,” he says at one point, and so I give him exactly that much as a nod to strict constructionism.  He does not appreciate this gift of roughly 35 cents, but we head off and get dinner somewhere or other before returning to our hotel in Serrekunda via taxi.

I think this is also a good time, before continuing with my travel log (which, it turns out, is far too long) to talk about money issues, given that last story.  Even though none of our group is incredibly rich, we have massive purchasing power given how cheap everything here is as compared to back home.  A meal for one at a decently nice restaurant in the U.S. could feed a family of 10 and its goats for a week here (maybe not, but you get the idea).  So how could I live with myself given my seeming stinginess?  There are a couple points I’d like to bring up in my defense.  First is just a matter of pride.  As soon as it’s clear that the person I’m dealing with sees me as a dollar bill instead of another person, I’m inclined to return the favor in whatever way I can.  That means that if a cab driver tries to jack up the price because I’m a toubab, they’ve entered into an intense bargaining game with me.  If a “tour guide” won’t leave my side despite the fact that I tell him I can’t pay him money, and then still asks for money, I’m inclined to give him 35 cents and call it a day.  If, however, a vendor or cab driver doesn’t hassle me but rather engages with me in a reasonable way, then I’ll pay as much as is fair.  In Banjul’s Albert Market, for example, I bought a small painting from a man finishing up a few works as I walked by.  He didn’t hiss at me to look at his stuff, like most do, and when I asked him the price of the painting I wanted, he started at $4.  I began to bargain because I was so used to doing that, but realized his price was entirely fair and settled very quickly.  The second defense I would present is that you can’t change the world by giving a few tour guides an extra $2.  Poverty is rampant, and dealing with it on such a cursory level would be dishonest.  Perhaps it’s taking the easy way out not to deal much with it at all, but it’s far more reasonable to me to give people money for a service that was actually performed.  For example, we gave our tour guide at the Abuko Nature Reserve (explanation below) a 400% tip because he was so knowledgeable.  I do give money to beggars from time to time, and I’ve even started some friendships with a couple of them, but giving money like that often poses more problems than it solves.  If you give money on a crowded street, for example, you’ll soon be surrounded by people who need money equally badly and aren’t afraid to pull at your limbs to get it.  And if you give money to the Talibé kids, who are all throughout the streets of Dakar and recognizable by the small pots they carry with them, that money goes straight to the religious school making them beg on the streets.  It’s clearly a complicated issue.  Anyway:

Saturday, August 29

  • 8:30 am – We wake up and eat breakfast in our hotel in Serrekunda.  We then pay a couple dollars for a cab to take us to the Abuko Nature Reserve, about 20 minutes east of Serrekunda.  Like I mentioned above, we’re accompanied by a guide through our 3 mile circular walk.  We’re initially reluctant to let him follow along, but after bargaining his price down to less than $3 and beginning the tour, it becomes clear that he’s entirely necessary.  The path is full of sitting water, and he deftly shows us how to make our way without the path.  He makes complicated bird and animal calls throughout the walk to attract them, and he points out, with the help of a bird book, the dozens of different types of birds we see.  As we had hoped, there are plenty of monkeys.  There’s also an animal orphanage, with baboons fighting, monkeys climbing on tortoises, and hyenas eating dead things, which is all pretty cool.  We walk from there to the exit, making our tour a round two and a half hours.
    Olivia with our guide

    Olivia with our guide

    We end up paying our tour guide $12, and based on his recommendation, we get into a clandestine taxi (a normal car with cheaper rates) and head to the Lamin Lodge, a few miles down the road, for lunch.  It’s tucked away on a tributary of the Gambia River, and we eat in the wooden, open-air structure as monkeys sit on the railing waiting to be fed by the patrons.  (Like most of the other tourists we come across during our trip to Gambia during the non-tourist/rainy season, these other patrons hail from somewhere in Eastern Europe and seem to have constructed their language so as to make the worst sounds possibly imaginable given the constraints of the human mouth.)

  • 3:30 pm – (These time differentiations are quickly becoming arbitrary.  Why not put this in with the narrative above?)  We go right next door to a local spot that takes people out on pirogue (wooden boat) trips on the small river, and we get on a pirogue with a rower and an eccentric guide telling us about how women pick oysters off the mangroves lining the water (all while dealing with his prayer beads, which are ubiquitous during Ramadan).  After going east for half an hour, we hop out of the boat for a swim, and then eventually head back.
  • 6 pm – We go to Senegambia, another one of the three coastal “resort” towns on the Gambian coast.  This one is certainly more resort-y, as there are no iron huts to be seen and a strip of nice restaurants heading down to the beach.  Jon and Alex want a few more monkey photo-ops, so they go to the Bijilo Forest Park to see the supposedly tame monkeys.  I’ve had just about enough of  people hassling me for money, and I really want to go swimming, so Olivia and I go to the beach.  There’s some great surf, and I bodysurf for an hour or so in the very warm water until the moon is lighting the thick layer of palm trees lining the coast, making for a pretty striking scene.  Jon and Alex join us, and I kick a soccer ball around for a while with a roughly 17-year old kid I meet named Omar.  I give him the nickname Khadafi, and then take him back to our hotel room to hang out.  Upon turning on CNN, the real Omar Khadafi is giving a speech.  We share some laughs over that synchronicity.  Then he takes all my belongings and leaves.  (Note: none of this actually happens.  Eddie Stahl actually came up with the nickname Khadafi for another Omar, and the rest is essentially stolen from a Chuck Klosterman passage.  In reality, Omar hardly speaks English, and after playing soccer with me he tags along with our group as we leave the beach.  It seems like he has nowhere to go, so Olivia offers to pay for his dinner (after we’re all already in the restaurant and he’s followed us in).  After dinner, we say goodbye, and I can’t effectively explain to him that I will not be back tomorrow.  He smiles and says, “Yes, tomorrow.”  We go back to the hotel.)

Sunday, August 30

  • 9 am — We do the whole journey back again.  Take another horse to Karang, then another torturous sept-place back to Dakar.  At least on this one we stop to go to the bathroom.  I’m happy to return to Dakar, where I can understand the people I talk to and no one hassles me for money nearly to the extent of the Gambians.  Sometimes, I guess, the main purpose of a trip is to make you appreciate the place you left.  But it was pretty fun by itself, too.

There have been some other developments since returning last weekend.  First, I arrived home in Dakar and opened my room to find that the ceiling had fallen in due to the perpetual rainstorms.  No one goes in my room, so no one had seen it.  Mère Vitou, my host grandmother, has four daughters, one of whom (Honorine) doesn’t live in the house.  I moved to her very nice house, in a northern suburb of Dakar, for the week while my room was gutted, fixed up, and repainted.  Somewhere in this period, my U.S. cell phone was stolen by one of the workers, as I neglected to lock it up since I had left it out in case I needed to use it the first week.  So it goes.

I also sprained my ankle, not working out, but walking to go work out.  For those counting, that’s sprained ankle number three in the past six months.  This one isn’t that bad, though; I was never unable to walk, and I’ll just have to stay away from running for a couple weeks.  Our group of students also seems to be under attack; one girl has malaria, another had her bag cut from off her shoulder, and one boy had his camera taken out of his hands.  Makes me remember that I still am in a developing country, even if I am back from The Gambia.

Finally, I witnessed yet another animal slaughter yesterday; my friend Casimir wanted to have a party to welcome the new students, and he invited me over to his house at about 10 am to help prepare all day.  After eating some lunch, we go to another house in the neighborhood, where Casimir points to two chickens in a large coop, and we (not me, but Casimir and another friend, Moise) carry them to Casimir’s aunt’s house, where the deed is done.  At least this time, the killing isn’t done by the light of a cell phone, like with the cow in Sokone.

I guess this is what you sign up for when you want to experience another culture.

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