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.


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