Monday, March 17, 2008

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.

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