Thursday, March 20, 2008

Gambia: Wednesday March 19

Charlie and I had the day to ourselves, since our companions are up country at Farafina (sp?) until Thursday some time. Our adventure of the day was a trip to the Serrakunda (sp?) market.

We took a taxi to the market (D75) rather than trying to get there by short hops at D5 apiece. It was a good idea, because once you get close to the market area things are pretty chaotic. Within a minute of being let out, a local man named Ibrahim had attached himself to us as our new best friend and wouldn't go away. He was quite insistent, and we gradually just got used to him rather than try to make a scene.

The good news is that he did indeed show us parts of the market that otherwise we wouldn't have known about, or would not have found. He also "helped" in negotiations to buy things, which probably means they quadrupled the price before starting, so that he could get his cut after we negotiated downward.

Our first purchase was two silver rings that Charlie bought, D700 for both (about US$35). We bought them from the maker, who sized and polished them right there for us. Originally they asked D700 each.

Later I bought some batik sheets that I liked a lot. Originally the vendor was asking for D700 -- I got the first one for D350 and the second one for D325. I'm told that these women dye the sheets themselves, but I'm not sure I believe that. The market is a great place to buy batik, with a huge selection. Again, I really don't know what the price would be for locals, but I'm sure it's much less. Our "guide" is certainly getting a hefty commission, which he's basically extorting from the vendors.

I bought a silver necklace from a Mauritanian vendor. Then I asked if there was some place that sold drums. Our "guide" said sure and took us to a little stand hidden deep inside one of the markets, where there were two little tourist drums. I said no, and that should have been the end of it, but one of his assistants rushed off to get a few more drums for our consideration. He returned a few minutes later with three nice djemba's. D1800 for the larger one, or D2000 with a fitted bag. About US$100. I didn't like the setup -- we weren't able to actually see the selection, just the ones they had brought us. But I liked the idea of getting a nice drum and being finished with it.

Negotiation wasn't very effective in terms of price. Finally I agreed to D1800 for the drum and bag together. I asked around later, and I think that's about double the going rate. Oh well. I guess I haven't told the story of the D1000 bottle of gin yet.

Part of the transaction involved exchanged US$100 bill for Dolassis, and this was easily taken care of with a vendor two stalls away. In fact I got the best rate of the trip: D19 to the dollar.

Afterwards, Ibrahim led us back to the street without incident. I knew he'd want some money and thought I'd give him 100-200 Dolassis (even though he must have made a killing on all the commissions). Well he asked for 500 (US$25). I didn't have much Dolassis left anyway so gave him a 5 Euro note (about US$7.50). I'm sure this was still excessive, but it avoided any problems. he seemed happy, I don't think he knew the exchange rate.

Ibrahim was going to take us to where we could get taxis, but I wanted to call it a day, so I flagged down a passing one. Instead of D75 to get back to the hotel it cost us D100, because Ibrahim & co. demanded a D25 commission from the driver. The driver told us afterward that they told him to charge D200, and give them 100, but he wouldn't do it.

Back to the hotel through back streets of Serrakunda, which was great. Passed one djemba factory, which is when the driver told me I could get my djemba for D800-1000. Well, it could have been worse, and it saved time, and it would cost much more in the USA of course.

In the evening we took a taxi about 10km to the new Sheraton hotel, that one of Doug's Gambian friends had been describing. It really is magnificent, but it's pretty isolated. We had drinks in the outdoor bar overlooking the pool and the beach, then dinner in the adjacent restaurant while a local band played on a stage in the middle of the pool. It was windy but nice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gambia, Monday March 17

Sainey ____ picked us up in a van at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon and took us down to _____ to meet part of his family. We stayed for about 30 minutes and met everyone, and had some cold orange juice. Originally I thought that was all we were doing, but afterwards we continued on to his home village of Darislami, which is right on the southern border with Senegal, to meet the rest of his family.

When we arrived at the family compound the kids were doing some great drumming on empty fuel containers while one boy, dressed as the devil, danced around. This is part of the ritual for the Moslem holiday _____. No, they weren't doing it to impress us, this is just what they happened to be doing when we arrived.

A highlight was when Evan got up and danced with them!

Another highlight was the delicious meal they served us -- roasted chicken, eggplant and cabbage served on seasoned rice. Yummy.

Later they showed us around part of the village, including the community well (installed by Catholic Relief Services) and the health center. Built by a German agency, it includes a solar power system.

After a while we had to go. Back into the van for a slow trip up the rutted dirt road until we finally hit the pavement near _____.

Back at the hotel around 7pm we decided it was cocktail hour and broke out the gin and tonic. Ice, however, required two separate calls to room service, and we had lost half our drinkers by that time. Evan, Charlie and I tried to fill the gap.

Gambia, Tuesday March 18

Today we visited the University of Gambia and spoke for an hour to about 40 CS students. Topics were mostly related to Google web search, Google Maps and Google Earth.

Later we visited the Peace Corps office and met with two of the directors. Recall that Doug had been a Peace Corps volunteer here for two years and so he still knows a lot of people. We spent about an hour with Rodney ____ discussing all kinds of development questions. After lunch we met with Yassue (sp?) _____ mostly just to say hello.

Afterwards, at about 4pm, Charlie and I said goodbye to the others and took a taxi back to the hotel. They are heading up-country to _________ for two nights. We decided to hold the fort here at our five-star hotel. Yeah, it's tough ...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Walls and Roofs

In this part of Africa rural people live in compounds -- a walled area containing several living structures. Historically the walls and huts are made of grass, and we still saw many of these. But bricks or cement blocks are also used extensively.

Driving south from Dakar towards the Gambia we passed a lot of brick compounds that were completely empty and devoid of any habitation. Just the brick walls surrounding the space. We also saw many concrete huts that were roofless. In fact, in some areas it seemed as if all the huts were roofless and abandoned.

I don't know the reasons for this, but one thing struck me: it's much easier to put up a wall than a roof. A wall lasts, a roof blows away. A wall's weight rests upon itself. The wall depends upon itself. The roof must depend upon the wall. The roof is suspended in the air. The roof must be light -- a wall can be heavy.

And is there a useful metaphor here? Yes! I'm sure of it.

Gambia: Arriving in Banjul

Sunday Morning

The call to prayer starts echoing from the nearby mosque some time before 6am and lasts around 15 minutes. Charlie is still asleep, but I'm up, prowling around by the light of my penlight. In the corridor outside our room, a young man is asleep wrapped in a blanket, across the door to the outside. The others begin to stir a little after 6 and by 6:30 we're out the door in the rapidly growing predawn light.

We walk quickly down to the ferry carrying our bags. The streets are empty at first, except for a pig and the odd dog, but we see more people as we get closer to the landing. A small crowd is formed at the gate to the ferry pier and a security officer seems to be letting in a few people at a time. It appears to us that the gate is closed because the ferry is not yet ready for boarding, but we are wrong.

A young man inevitably asks to help us. He says we need to buy tickets but the line at the ticket office is too long. He offers to buy the tickets for us. This sounds like a scam, but after Doug checks out the ticket line, we agree. The young man asks for no money in advance, but goes off and returns with six tickets, for which we pay the normal rate. He then explains that we have to crowd up to the gate and hold our tickets in the air so that the security officer will let us in, otherwise we will miss the ferry.

Indeed, his advice is correct. The odd thing about this gate is that each time it is opened, as many people cram through as possible, with no sign of a ticket. But the guard sees our white faces with tickets held high, and in we go along with about 20 other people who press in from every direction.

Then down the long pier to the ferry. Some people are running past us, and I begin to worry that we're late, even though it is not yet 7am. But we make it on board.

The ferry ramp is oily and I worry about slipping as we climb up. Once on deck, we step carefully to avoid the pools of oily water. There are enclosed passenger areas on each side of the vehicles, but we opt to climb the ladders to the open upper deck. No sooner are we there than the ramp is raised and the ferry departs.

The trip across the Gambia River is windy but the air is warm and it is pleasant enough. It takes about 30-45 minutes, with the sun low in the eastern clouds.

On arrival at the landing in Banjul we grab a couple of taxis (really, they grab you -- it takes getting used to) for the trip to the "Senegambia" district about 20 minutes south of the city of Banjul. This is an upscale tourist district and our destination is the five-star Kairaba Hotel, originally built by a former President of Gambia, and now owned by a Kuwaiti hotel magnate.

The taxis are not allowed inside. But as soon as we walk past the security guard at the entrance gate it is a different world. Perfectly clean. Quiet. Immaculately maintained.

The staff greets us like long-lost relatives. Doug had called them, first on Friday to let them know that we would be a day late, and then Saturday night when it became clear that we could not get across the river. They are so happy to see us after all this. It is early, about 8:30am, so our rooms are not yet ready, but they promise to arrange something so we can clean up. While we are waiting they invite us to sit in the lobby and someone serves us cold juice.

Within a few minutes we escorted to beautiful modern rooms. Time to cleanup, then breakfast. Ahhhh.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Greetings from The Gambia: Sunday March 16

[Background: A group of us left for the Gambia (West Africa) on Thursday morning March 13 from San Francisco. We finally arrived at our destination on Sunday morning.]

We finally made it to Banjul (our destination and the capitol city of the Gambia) this morning (Sunday) about 8am after a crazy trip. We were supposed to get here Friday evening, but because we missed our connection in London early Friday, we've been improvising ever since.

We couldn't get another flight directly to Banjul from any UK airport at a reasonable price for the next several weeks (!). So about noon Friday we flew from London to Lisbon because TAP (Air Portugal) flies to Banjul via Dakar. We had about a six hour layover in Lisbon and were able to get out and see a few sights.

We couldn't book the Lisbon-Dakar-Banjul portion until we got to Lisbon. But once we got there we found that while we could easily get to Dakar, Senegal, they only had five seats on to Banjul, and we needed six. Also the cost was much, much higher than expected. So we arranged a hotel in Dakar, and flew on to there, arriving about 2:30am local time (GMT). Passport control in Dakar is excruciatingly slow and we didn't get out of the airport until about 3:30. But the hotel had two taxis waiting for us and we arrived at the hotel Croix du Sud about 4am Saturday. This was a relatively gentle introduction to African taxis, since there was no traffic and no pedestrians.

So already Saturday is pretty interesting, and we've just gone to bed. But the rest of it is a day I will never forget. We got up at 11 and walked around Dakar for a while, getting a snack for breakfast, and then getting lunch. The few hours in Dakar, both on arrival and then when we walked around, were intense. The airport is swarming with local people wanting to help you with your bags or be your guide, or change your money. In the early morning darkness it is pretty surreal. Downtown is swarming with local people selling everything from wooden carvings to jockey shorts. They follow you around and want to be your new best friend. After a while one gets used to it, but it is intense at first.

About 2:30 or so the six of us crammed into a "set place" (i.e. "seven-seat" in French) station wagon along with our luggage and set off with a driver for the Gambian border. I will try to write separately about the actual experience of riding with African taxi drivers. In this particular vehicle nothing worked except the engine and the horn. The steering was loose, the shocks were gone and so on. Most of the way to Gambia the road was great, but there were about 50k that felt like portions of the Alaska Highway -- the asphalt was so potholed that the drivers veer off the road and drive on the dirt shoulder, or make their own paths in the sandy ground adjacent to the roadbed. Barreling through little villages, honking at the goats, donkey carts, bicyclists, men, women and children that are trying to share the road.

I think it was about 9pm when our driver dropped us at the Gambian border. We are immediately swarmed by local people volunteering to help with our bags and change money. We declined the baggage offers, but my friend Doug the Gambia veteran did change some money. It was a trip to see him surrounded by at least a dozen young men, having them bid for the best exchange rate. I'm not sure how much bidding there was -- I think there's a local cartel so you're really dealing with one main guy, two or three of his "salesmen", and a bunch of onlookers.

Through Senegalese customs, then through Gambian customs and passport control, no real problem. Doug's ability to speak very good Wolof, the major local language on both sides of the border, puts him in the good favor of pretty much everyone we deal with.

Walking out of Gambian passport control is like something out of Apocalpyse Now. The Senegalese side seemed chaotic, but it was well-lit, spacious, and paved. The Gambian side is dark, crowded by structures that certainly seem like shanties in the darkness, with dirt streets and roaming animals. Groups of dark men cluster around fires, or just cluster in the darkness. And as soon as we leave passport control they crowd around us.

But the experience of being crowded in this way is growing less intimidating. Doug negotiates another "set place" to take us to the ferry across the Gambia River, about 25-30 miles away. It's about 10pm and we hope to make the last ferry at 11pm.

A frantic taxi ride down the graded dirt highway toward the river, passing through several villages, lots of honking. Stopping at one police checkpoint and finally being dropped off at the ferry landing at about 10:45. Too late! The ferry left early because they had an injured person in an ambulance. We're stuck.

There are several other people who are stuck there for the same reason and together we start negotiating to see if we can pay someone to take us across. The negotiations drag on. All the while we're surrounded by young local men who are offering to take us to the hotel, offering to let us wait in their restaurant, and so forth.

Doug has disappeared, conducting the negotiations. The rest of us are standing waiting with our luggage in front of the gate for the ferry landing. Finally I buy some beers from one of the enterprising locals, Solomon. Now he's my new best friend. After a beer, his offer to come sit at his "restaurant" sounds pretty good, so off we go to sit what's really just a bench outside a general store. He tells me his life story, the history of the Gambia and so forth. Pretty smart guy.

Doug comes back -- we've reached an agreement for a boat! It's now about midnight and off we march into the darkness down to the end of a stone quay adjacent to the ferry landing, led by two local officials. I'm not sure if they are there to protect us or to make sure they get their cut of whatever deal goes down. They are both skeptical over this whole arrangement and recommend that we just stay the night. "Barra has great hotels."

It's about midnight. The only light is the half-moon, my LED penlight, and some light from the ferry pier about 100m away. We're out near the end of this quay, right where it crosses through the surf into the river. Below, on the sand are several shanty's and a small fire. We can see the lights of Banjul a couple of km across the wide river. The wind is blowing like crazy, but it's not cold.

A young man asks if we have the money. We don't have enough Gambian Dinasi or CFA Francs, but we do have US dollars. The agreed price worked out to about US$150. He goes off and starts phone calling. Nothing happens.

The issue isn't the currency. The issue is that "actions speak louder than words" as the fire chief reminds us. These guys were all talk he says, but there was no real preparation to do anything. We wait and negotiate some more. The young man needs permission from yet another guy, and another guy. He goes off to ask again. Finally we get tired of waiting and simply give up -- it must be about 12:30 or 1 am.

The closest hotel is the Hotel Barra. But apparently it's really a brothel -- we don't go there.

My new best friend Solomon is very happy to see us coming back down the quay and is delighted to guide us to "his" hotel. It's just "a block or two". We trudge off down a dark dirt street. The other group that wanted to cross has a car and they've offered to carry our luggage, along with one member of our group. Their leader was going to walk with us, I guess as a sort of hostage exchange to prove good faith. Anyway, while that sounds prudent, it seemed unnecessary at the time -- I think you had to be there. And there was no problem. But it was a good long walk to the hotel, about 15-20 minutes down soft sandy streets where our bags would not have rolled.

Ah, the "hotel". After passing the local nightclub, we find our non-descript destination just across the street. The music is loud, even there. Some negotiations over the room rate have already taken place and it appears to be the equivalent of US$12.50 per room. We look at one room and it's reasonably clean, and has a bathroom. Ok.

Before we actually take occupancy of the rooms, a major argument begins between the manager and somebody else, I don't remember who. I have another new best friend, a guy named Bex who is definitely stoned, and I finally ask him what's going on. The argument is about money, but apparently the root cause is over who is going to get paid a commission on our visit. I think too many people are claiming credit, including the fire chief and Solomon.

Bex is a happy, carefree guy. He says it's not my problem, that I shouldn't worry about it, and that I can just go to bed if I want, even though they are yelling just outside the door. Leaving the ever-patient Doug to pay the bill, Charlie and I duck into our candle-lit room and lock the door.

Ah, the room. No electricity. And guess what, the plumbing is broken. The toilet doesn't even flush. The bed is a piece of polyfoam covered by a sheet. That's it, just one sheet. But that's all you need because it's hot. There is also a mosquito net and somebody has told us, yes you need the mosquito net.

But we're glad to get horizontal and try to sleep. The music from the nightclub helps to mute the argument going outside our door. It's late, we're tired, and Charlie and I gradually nod off. I think it's about 1:30am, maybe closer to 2. The alarm on my cell phone is set for 6am, in order to catch the 7am ferry, and it's been a long and busy day.