Fall Break 2011: La Gambie

Last week was fall break so a few friends and I decided to go to the Gambia. After some very stressful trips downtown, we finally received our visas, planned our itinerary, and were ready to head out and explore a new country with only our backpacks and our wits about us (and my trustee fanny pack, of course.)

Day 1- 9.24.11:
We decided to take a sept place from Dakar across the border, because it’s cheaper than a plane and faster than a larger public car. A sept place, meaning seven places, is a long distance taxi, also referred to as a ‘bush taxi.’ This Peugeot eight seater (including the driver) took us from the Garage Pompidou all the way to Gambia for about thirteen dollars. The garage was rather overwhelming with multiple drivers trying to get us to choose their particular mode of transportation, vendors trying to tempt us with a multitude of snacks, fruits, and random whatsits like watches and baby toy. We managed to weave our way through this cacophony of voices into our car and were on the road by seven, which was a feat, since we left our neighborhood at around six thirty. Most of the trip was uneventful, although there were a few police stops. The police here are so corrupt! There are checks every few hours and they can stop you on a whim for a bribe to be let free, in fact, a bribe fee is even included in the original price of transportation because it is so ingrained into the culture. Despite these few setbacks, it was a smooth journey. We even drove passed monkeys crossing the road. The driver must have thought we were insane tubaabs, going crazy over a few small monkeys, but since it was the first of them that any of us had seen since living in Dakar, we made our appreciation for the beats known with squeals and pointed fingers.

We finally arrived at the border. Customs was a joke. After having traveled in and out of United States customs, I was prepared for metal detectors, questions, hell even for them to ask me to open my luggage. None of the above happened however. The man at customs asked what we had and asked if we had any guns with a grin on his lips. We said no of course, but he simply laughed and waved us through to get our passports stamped. We were dumbfounded at how lax the system was!

From here, we took another sept place to Farafeni, where we were to meet up with one of my traveling buddy, Mary’s, friend Joanna, who is in the Peace Corps in the Gambia. We arrived and after waiting a few short hours at our rendezvous spot, finally met up with Jo, or Binta as they call her in the Gambia, and her friend Scott. We had dinner with them and found out later that night that the hotel we were all staying in doubled as a discotheque on Saturday nights! So we went to dance around ten thirty, and were of course, the first ones there. But since we had to travel early the next morning, we just decided to start dancing anyway- just a big circle of the seven of us tubaabs: the two Peace Corps members and my comrades Janelle, Carly, Hakima, and Mary, and I.   A few local teens started showing up too, and after some awkward trial maneuvering to get them to join us, we danced the night away (and by “away, I mean until only about 1am). And so we concluded our first Gambian night.

Day 2- 9.25.11:
After leaving Farafeni on a gelli gelli (pronounced with a hard G, not like jelly), the public transportation of the Gambia, we headed for Kuntaur for a river tour of River Gambia National Park. We had the boat to ourselves because Binta arranged the tour for us- she lives nearby and knew the owners well. It was fantastic! We saw chimpanzees, several kinds of monkeys and baboons, hippopotami, many beautiful birds, etc. Our guides glided us along the river explaining the history and the mission of this chimp rehabilitation center. We were told there were also snakes in the river, pythons and such, but we did not see any, to our sadness and relief.

After the tour, we took a horse cart to Binta’s village with her host father. The six of us, as Scott departed, stayed the night in her hut and were fed and greeted by the various members of her family, compound, and village. It was a wonderful night; they welcomed us with open arms. It must have been raining elsewhere, for we were given a lightning show to couple with the millions of stars that rural areas have access to.

Day 3- 9.26.11:
After a delicious breakfast of rice porridge made with sweet and condensed milk and peanuts cooked by Binta’s mother, we set off, once more on our travels- little did we know we were embarking on what was to be the more horrific day of travel out entire trip. We did not get a horse cart to leave the village, so we walked the hour to the ferry to cross the river. Evidence of the rain began to emerge, there were large puddles filling the road, so with my backpack balanced on my head, I took off my shoes and waded through the orange waters. It was a refreshing squishy feeling to my sweaty, tired feet, although the rust colored clay made them look spray tanned once it dried. The scene was beautiful, as everyone was wading in the above ankle waters and on their way to the market that happens every Monday. We made it to the ferry, crossed the river, and boarded a horse cart into town. Even after riding on one the day before, it still felt like a ride and I thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of this leg of the journey.

We split from Binta and Mary, who was to spend the rest of the week with her, at the market and boarded a gelli gelli towards our next destination, Kiang West National Park. We spent hours on this gelli gelli to get back to Farafeni where we took a taxi to another ferry and yet another taxi towards the park. This is where the unfortunate events of the day began, because we were tired from the four or more hours on the bumpy gelli and the taxi men we trying to swindle us because we were foreigners. And they would yell prices at us and wouldn’t budge when we attempted to bargain them down to the price we knew it should be. We finally got one man to bring it down at least a fraction, although not to our preferred price but had to go through the same ordeal on the other side of the river to get to yet another car park! We were tired of being yelled at and hassled and ripped off! We found another Peace Corps member who helped us bring down the price of our third taxi of the day, because he knew the language and we got in and made our way to the park. The taxi driver did not take us all the way there, however, so we had to either walk the 5k to finish the way or pay him more. It was nearing sundown, but we decided to walk anyway. It took us an hour and it was dark by the time we arrived to the hotel we had planned to stay at. Much to our dismay, it was nearly four times more expensive as we thought it would be and we had not gotten more money out of the bank in Farafeni, so we pleaded and bargained (a cultural attribute I’m liking more and more) until we got it from 450 Dalasi a person a night with breakfast to D500 for two nights without breakfast. I’d say we did well. So we settled in and at crackers and snacks we brought for dinner and planned our boat tour through the mangroves the next day.

Day 4- 9.27.11:
We woke up for our boat tour around eight and got into a pirogue that was, once again, populated by only us and our guides. We floated across the river and turned down a smaller path into the mangroves. It was low tide, the all of the mud and roots were exposed showing off the wonderful array of crabs and mud skippers- these weird half fish half frog things the slide through the mud and jump through the water. They were so cool! We also saw a crocodile, which we were told was rare at this time of year, and many birds and lizards. It was relaxing to just chill in the boat under the sun after such a hard day of travel the day before.

After the boat tour, we got some food- for luckily the hotel was able to exchange our CFA (Senegalese money) so we weren’t in such a rut. Since we were out of water, my comrades decided to make the 5k trek back to the nearest town to buy more and to also stock up on more snacks. I had already caved from thirst and had drunken the Gambian water, so I was not well enough to go. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguised because I stayed behind and drank ataya (a traditional West African tea) with some of the men that worked at the hotel, thus playing ambassador for our rather broke situation. It was nice, we chatted about language, travel, their politics, etc. One of them, Yusupha, even offered me to eat lunch with his family, which I was grateful to do! Even after we drove such a hard bargain, they were friendly and welcoming!

The other girls returned with a rather hilarious account of their desperate journey and we all decided to go swimming. A four foot, lukewarm pool never felt so good! And then we went for a walk to see a three hundred year old tree, play with some kids, and watch the sun set over the water. We also met a man who was trying to get a small motel and restraint catered to ecotourism (bikers, backpackers, and of course broke college kids) and we got a meal for under two bucks, D50 and met some Spanish bicyclists. We turned in early, as we had a car coming for us at six in the morn.

Day 5- 9.28.11:
Yet ANOTHER gelli gelli ride was necessary to get to our next destination near the Senegambia region. But since Yusupha lived nearby to where we were headed, he helped us get a taxi afterwards and a good price for a hotel, since we planned to stay there for the last few days of our trip. After he left, we decided to go to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. On the way there, we met these two girls selling peanuts, Rubi and her best friend who’s name, regretfully; I cannot even attempt to spell. They went swimming with us and were hilarious. We played hand clap games, running games, swimming games, errthang. They were so interesting to me because they seemed so much younger than their age in some ways, playing around in a very sporadic, whimsical way, but were also very much women in others, as they were selling peanuts to pay for their own educations. I admired their ambition.

Day 6- 9.29.11:
By this time in our trip, nearly every one of us has gotten sick. One of my friends was having tremors, however, so we took her to the nearby resort where some other CIEE kids were staying and she rested with them while the other three of us went in search of Tunbung, the artist village. We arrived, after first going to the wrong place, to a near empty village. Apparently, the artists were out on holiday to the Casamance, which we would have known had we called. But the younger brother of one of the artists was there and he gave us a very unofficial tour- to say the least. He came out wearing a purple tie dye man-dress and sandals. At first, he showed us the main gallery of his brothers work, which was a collection of bring and highly textured abstracts that I actually quite liked. Then, since he didn’t seem to know what to do with us, he went about the site showing us everything he thought might interest us- and then some. It was an interesting colony within the forest with doors that led to nowhere, chairs in trees, staple gun and alligator door handles, scattered sculptures, and wooden stumps serving at tables and chairs all around. People from all over come to visit and take classes at Tunbung for days, weeks, and even months. He showed us the room of the current apprentice who has been there for nine months. It was an awkward endeavor as he went through her sketches to show us her work and through her photos to show us pictures of her family. Hakima and I could hardly help ourselves from laughing as he then showed us every room, including Turkish style bathrooms and other seemingly random areas and I’m sure most tourists end up glazing over, but we got to see in depth. It was truly an original tour. I may not be describing it as hilariously as it occurred, but I am grinning as I write this just thinking about it! This place was amazing! We got to meet two of the farmers, two women who we in the field and we went out to visit. Our guide explained that they grow the rice, limes, peppers, eggplant, etc. to feed the guests. He showed us how they collected rain water through the roof that they cooked with and where the chickens were kept. There were buildings that had not yet been completed, and he explained that they found unused materials to recycle and use. It was a self sustainable world of creation our off beat guide fit the tempo of the place perfectly!

After we left the village, we went in search of mangos, but since it is no longer mango season this was not a success. We met some people who happened to have a mango tree in their back yard, and they threw rocks and sticks up at the tree to get us some, but they were not yet ripe. It was such a friendly gesture on their, part though! Gambia is far friendlier than Senegal, at times! We also met another two men on the road to our gelli gelli. They invited us to their compound in the nearby village of Tujering and gave us green oranges and avocados (the oranges grow green here, but they are still ripe. It’s bizarre). I decided to bring my portion of our booty home as gifts for my family.

Day 7- 9.30.11:
Our days in the Gambia were slowly coming to a close. For our last full day, we went to an artist’s market and shopped a bit and then went to Monkey Park, where there were so many monkeys up close! I got to pet them and would have been able to feed them had I thought to bring food with! It was a fun hike through trees and mud and monkeys. We then spent the day at the beach where we met back up with Binta for the day. We swam and searched for shells until dark.

For our last night, my four comrades decided to go out for a nice dinner since we had been reunited and survived out trip. We went out for pizza and we startled by the amount of obvious sex tourism that was present in the Senegambia- which is the ritzy, touristy area near the coast and the border of the two countries. We passed dozens of couples consisting of middle aged and older European women with young Gambian men. Binta told us of the popularity of women coming here to wine and dine their exotic, young men for a holiday and we even read about it in our guidebook! It was a tad creepy and rather sad to see in such large numbers.

We then went to a bar with Binta and met a bunch of the Peace Corps in Gambia who had gathered for the 50th year celebration. It was nice to talk and hang out with people living out what I have contemplated for my future since high school! It made me more excited for my rural visit this semester and to perhaps join the ranks once I graduate! We then went dancing with all of them. Since it was our last night in Gambia, we decided to stay out and then just catch a cab to take the ferry home and we’d sleep on the way. It was so fun to start and end the trip with dancing! And although the long journey home was hard due to lack of sleep, it was worth it!

We took a taxi, a ferry, a gelli gelli, and a sept place to the border and once everything was stamped, we crossed the border on a horse cart which we took to another sept place to Dakar. It was a ten hour trek, in all and I was both dirty and exhausted when I returned home. I had to wear a swimsuit top to school today because all of my clothes are still dirty from the adventure!

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Filed under Africa, Sarai in Senegal

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