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Sunday, May 06, 2012

Mykel's Africa Blog Chapter 17: The Road to The Gambia

Mykel's Africa Blog
Chapter 17: The Road to The Gambia

(Note: I'm experi-  menting with different font sizes and styles. If you find one better than the others, please comment or email me to let me know. It was a facebook complaint that led me to experiment. I don't mind being offensive sometimes... but I don't want to be hard to read.)

I thought shivering, that there are things that outweigh comfort, unless one is an old woman or a cat. --Ursula LaGuin

I start writing this having left The Gambia, spending two nights in a Senegalese hotel, and then traveling back to M'baul, to another couch surfer. He's in the room right now. I've already eaten my first rice and fish here. The toilet is a squatter, but there is running water (a faucet in the wall) in the “bathroom.” The family must not be so bad off.

[Note: Someone told me that squatters are healthier than sitters. Something about straightening the digestive tract... making a smooth path. I don't know if it's true or not... what I do know is that my aim has improved since first arriving in Africa.]

I'm on my second tea. My host is doing the tea ritual right now. In the background, HIS computer plays the news... a discussion with the minister of finance. He has several cellphones, and goes back and forth between watching the news, preparing tea, chatting on-line, and talking on each of the cellphones. He's in his mid-twenties, but he could be an American teenager. He has not stopped to pray... yet.

Dinner break... no not fish and rice... but: spaghetti with a touch of meat sauce, served with french fries... and bread. If I have any more starch I won't be able to sit!

Yow! I just got the (electrical) shock of my life... touching my computer... pressing the ON button. I dropped it... not far... but it's a tile floor... seems okay. The outlets here aren't grounded... all the electricity is self-installed... wires over walls, hanging sockets... DIY with a buzz.

Although I leave Africa in 3 days (I expect... but you never know), as far as this story is concerned, I have a long time to go.

In this installment, I'm leaving Dakar...hitting The Road to The Gambia.

FLASHBACK: I sleep under the mosquito tent in the mansion of my French couch-surfing hostess in a ritzy Dakar suburb. I've had an evening of taxis, chauffeurs, SUVs. Quite a change from the rest of this trip where I've walked more in a month than in the year before. Worn clean through two pair of socks.

I'm anxious to change cultures. There are many things I like about Senegal, but I'm tired of the constant asking for money... and I'm tired of the food. Just thinking about rice and fish, makes me nauseous.

My cellphone alarm is set for 7AM.

The rules:
  1. I must leave Dakar by 9AM to get to the border in time for the last ferry to The Gambia. That ferry leaves at 11PM. 
  2. I should take a 7-person taxi.
  3. I should sit in the front seat, next to the window.
Magdali, husband and kids are already up. They're getting ready for work/school. I dress, go downstairs, gulp down my morning coffee, shake hands with everyone, See you in New York. I tell them.

[Note: My usual parting here is See you in New York. In Africa, it's a joke. It's nearly impossible for them to visit the US legally. They have to pay $100 (a month's salary) for a “visa interview.” And after the interview, most are rejected. The US, however, keeps the money. My French hosts, however are REALLY going to come to New York. The only need to show up at the airport. BANG! They're in.

In response to this, some countries, rightly so, require Americans to pay for a visa to visit... usually $100. Brazil is one of those countries, so is The Gambia. But in those countries, you ALWAYS get your visa. Here is my Gambian visa:

(For those who don't know, MYKEL is my penname. My birth certificate name is plain ole boring MICHAEL.]

BANG! I'm out the door. The chauffeur is ready. We're off. Into the heart of the city. To Gare Pompier. A GARE only in the sense that there are buses there.

The place is chaos... Cars, buses, people everywhere. It's like an African street market with even worse air. Near the entrance are the 7-person cars. Parked everywhere... no aisles or paths. No white lines to park between. Only a giant patch of dirt, with vehicles that would be scrap in the U.S.

In order for a car to move, all those around it have to move first... shuffle... like one of those puzzles where the picture is cut into little squares you slide around to reassemble it.

I'm here by 8. That'll take care of the leave by 9 rule.

A man with a mustache... wearing jeans and a filthy t-shirt that must have been red once... taps me on the shoulder as I wonder.

Vous allez a ou?” he asks.

Gambi,” I say.

He waves me to follow him... around the parked cars... the seven person taxis... to a bus. The driver motions for me to get in... in the front... next to the window. Okay, that's two out of three. I got the time. I got the window. Good enough, right? Yeah, right.

Like in other countries in the higher-numbered world, buses here have no schedules. They leave when they're full. So we wait.

While we wait a variety of vendors and beggars offer their wares... poking watches, plastic bags of water... pens... oranges... peanuts... apples... severed limbs... pleading childrean with puppylike eyes (amazingly easy to resist).

Time passes... slowly.

An old man on a cane... flashlight keychains... peanuts again... and again... each vendor first sticks his/her head in the window then his/her arms with their wares. Each beggar thrusts through the window an open hand... if he's got one. Most of the beggars are men. I attract them like I attract mosquitoes... and this isn't be the first time this analogy comes to me.

Time continues to pass. Two more people enter the bus to actually make the trip. There are about five more empty seats. It's 10AM.

Socks! There's somebody selling socks. Three pair for 2,000 francs (about $4... New York street fair prices). I buy them. At the flash of money, the vendors crowd around my window pushing peanuts and sob stories.

Time passes. It's 11:30AM. I've got to piss.

I'll be back,” I say to the tall guy sitting next to me. “Make sure they don't leave without me.”

He laughs.

I get out. They swarm around me... “Where you going? What's your name? You want to buy this? Come to my father's shop?”

Ou sont les toilets?” I ask a guy trying to sell me a soup-bubble-making gun.

La bas,” he says gesturing vaguely.

I walk in that direction.

With enough asking and enough vague directions, I find it. A horrible stinking hole, surrounded by flies and mosquitoes... stinking of everything that stinks... by comparison, any American garage toilet is a paradise... I manage to get some relief. 

Then I pass through the throng of human mosquitoes to return to the bus.

After I climb back in the bus, the passenger next to me puts his bag on my lap... on top of my bag already resting on my lap.

You don't mind,” he says. “I have long legs.”

Then he turns to two pretty girls in the seat behind him, twisting so his hips and ass force me against the door. I don't know what he says, but the girls giggle.

The guy selling water in in plastic bags returns. The man with the legs buys two... and gives them to the girls.

Time passes: It's 12:15PM.

Fuck, I'm going to miss the ferry and have to sleep outside among the malaria mosquitoes and who-knows-what other perils. I complain to my long-legged neighbor. He grumbles in agreement. We can't complain to the driver. He's nowhere to be found. I THINK he's the guy I gave the money to when I was first hustled on to the bus. But I don't remember what he looks like.

12:30. It's probably too late to make that ferry. I'll be stranded at the locked port. A feast for mosquitoes and whatever wild animals roam near the Senegal-Gambian border. I wonder if some vendor will try to sell me a shroud.

My sister's gonna have to pay for the funeral. I don't even have a plot... maybe I could do one of those environmental funerals. Be interred without a coffin. Under an apple tree. My friends tasting me in the fruit....

A young guy-- can't be more than 15-- gets into the driver's seat... tight facial skin.. not a whisker on him. He starts the bus and backs it up... into a car. The bus metal screams against the car metal.

The young driver sticks his head out the window and pulls forward slightly. The car is empty, just sitting in the “garage.” Who's to know?

After finally maneuvering the bus out of it's parking spot, the kid gets out of the driver's seat. The guy I gave my money to takes his place and we're off.

Yeah, right.

The maze of cars and buses is so tight that it takes a full half hour just to leave the garage. Horns honking, metal scraping against metal. Rubber scraping against paving stones and curbs. Through it all beggars and venders begging and vending.

Then through the city... the sandy streets, the market places, traveling at walking pace... behind walking people... (sidewalks in Senegal-- and The Gambia-- are more places to park cars than to actually walk.

In another hour, we hit something very much like a highway. We're out of the city now. And I can see some African countryside.

Senegal is supposed to be “sub-Sahara,” but, as I wrote before, it's more Sahara than sub. The view from the window reminds me of the Sonora desert in Mexico, like the landscape in Morocco.

There are a few differences though. One is the presence of the great Baobab trees. This one waved to us from it's thousand year old perch. (No sheep. No little prince.)

Of course, the other difference is that this is AFRICA... not Mexico. So you need some huts... some thatched thises and thats... to make it authentic.

The road is surprisingly well kept... in some places it's an actual four lane highway. My cramped position, with bags on my legs cutting off the circulation, one arm outside the window... slowly toasting in the sun... makes it difficult to enjoy the scenery.

[Quick flash to present: I sit in a plane. Delta flight 2705 to New York. Incredibly, the flight left 15 minutes EARLY! Another first... both UN-Senegalize and un-airline like. According to the screen in the back of the seat in front of me, it's 7 hours and 2 minutes to New York and 6406km to Mecca. How many flights have YOU taken that give kilometers to Mecca on the info screen? Yeah, I thought so.]

We reach the border at 7PM. Plenty to time to catch that 11PM ferry, I think. Just get out, go through customs, and catch the boat. Easy, right? Yeah, right.

When the bus stops at the border, a new crew of human mosquitoes swarms around us... this one almost all women. Some sell peanuts... some cashews. Some change money. Stupidly, I change all my Senegalese CFA (Currency de Francophone Afrique, I think) to Gambian Dahlasi (pronounced without the last 'I', making it sound very much like the Japanese-English pronunciation of dollars).

[Shift to Geography Class: Senegal resembles one of those gobbling Pac-Men in the Pac-Man game. The Gambia is the food in the mouth of the Pac-Man. It's a narrow strip of land along the Gambia River. It's surrounded by Senegal on three sides. The fourth side is the Atlantic. The river forms the border That was my sense of the country when I entered it. I wasn't quite right.]

Citizens of Senegal get a free pass, they don't even need a passport... like Europeans going from France to Belgium. As the only non-Senegalese... at least the only white guy... I need a stamp-- two actually. One to leave Senegal. One to enter The Gambia.

The Senegal exit stamp was no problem... amool solo (one of the few phrases I learned in Wolof). For the Gambian entrance stamp, I'm prepared. I have the name of a hotel in Banjul... one, of course, I won't be staying in... but the immigration guy... or worse... gal... won't have to know that.

(If you missed the reference above, check out my blog entry for entering Senegal. There I did NOT have a hotel memorized... and it cost me!)

I walk toward where the it says GAMBIAN CUSTOMS. A pretty girl,in her late teens, follows me. She has a metal dish on her head. Peanuts! You buy peanuts, Mister. Very nice peanuts. She tugs at my sleeve. You buy very nice peanuts, Mister. I look at her perky breasts beneath her bright yellow/brown dress. I look at the way her lower bulges signal a roundness as fresh and exciting as the moon. I look at her tight face and skin closer to the color of night than the color of coffee. I wonder if I'm going to get in trouble in this country.

Non, merci,” I tell her out of habit. Then remember, she's Gambian. People speak English here. (I later find out that although English is the “official” language in The Gambia, many people do not speak it.)

She leaves me as I enter the immigration house. I'm shuffled to meet the colonel... or whatever he is. He's a big man, in his mid-30's. Shoulders wider than my doorway in New York. If we were to stand facing each other and I walked directly toward him, I would be able to-- without bending-- bite under his right or left nipple. I don't.

He wears military drag. A khaki shirt, fatigue pants, army boots (much like mine), and a black beret. He shakes my hand, shows me into his office, and asks me to sit in a waiting chair. He sits behind the desk. I pull the chair toward the desk.

No,” he says, “you can stay there. Give me your passport please.”

I hand it to him.

A woman... another beauty... walks in... toddler in tow. The little girl holds her mothers hand, but her eyes are fixed on me. I smile at her. She smiles back... starts to walk to me. Mom is engaged in deep conversation with the immigration guy. I guess he's her husband.

The kid now has both arms raised to me. A toddler's gesture for UPPIE! UPPIE! I reach out and help the kid climb into my lap. Both parents turn toward me. They laugh out loud, say something in whatever language they're speaking. They look from the child to me and back to the child, laugh again. Then mom comes over to take her daughter... the kid doesn't want to go back to her. She grabs my shirt front and holds on tight. The parents laugh again.

Finally, they remove her... her tiny hands still stretched out ot me. Dad hands mom some cash. Mom thanks him, says “Goodbye,” to me. The kid waves bye bye. Mom and toddler leave the office. We get down to immigration business.

The soldier opens a large ledger and writes the date. Then he copies my name and passport number into the ledger. He checks my visa and asks how long I plan to stay... 2 weeks, I say, where I plan to go... all over, I say, my address in The Gambia... I am prepared! I show him the name of a mid-priced hotel from The Lonely Planet guide, my profession, English teacher, I say.

[Note: I don't get it, but EVERY country's immigration, every hotel, every official form asks for profession. Why? What difference could it make? Do they think someone will answer SPY or THIEF? Is there a profession that keeps people out? Journalist? Explosives engineer? Gigolo? Is it a check against unemployment?]

Where are you coming from?” he asks.

Senegal,” I answer.

No,” he says, “I mean originally... in the United States.”

I'm from New York,” I tell him.

Someday I'd like to go to New York,” he says.

Come and visit me,” I tell him.

He laughs.

It's not so easy for Gambians,” he says. “I don't even know how to get a visa.”

I don't either,” I tell him, “but if you need a letter from the U.S. I'll write one for you. What's your name?”

Really?” he says. “My name is Allou.”

Sure,” I tell him. “Give me your email address.”

We exchange email addresses and chat a bit about New York. He asks me what it's like there. I tell him it's busy, expensive, and unfriendly. Exciting to visit, but not a nice place to live.

He tells me all he knows about New York is from movies he sees on television... The Godfather, Independence Day, some other movies I've never heard of. I tell him I never watch American movies... I like Chinese movies.

Yee how... chin... chang... chung!” he says, making fake karate moves. Chopping with his hands.

I laugh. We shake hands again.

Follow me,” he says getting up from his desk, “I will get you the necessary stamp.”

He takes me past the front desk, to a back room where some other military looking people sit. Motioning me to wait for him, he enters the room to discuss something with the others.

A young officer, barely out of his teens, passes by, glances at my boots, and asks, “Are you in the military?”

These are Canadian army boots,” I tell him. “I'm not a soldier.”

He shows me his boots... shined to reflection. “These are American,” he says. “From the U.S. army. You sure you're not in the army.”

My father was in the army,” I tell him.

What rank?” he asks.

Sergeant!” he says. “That's a high rank. I'm only a primary... I don't know how you call it in America.”

Private,” I tell him.

I'm only a private,” he says, “but wait...”

He grabs the wrist of a passing man... at least 20 years older... also in military dress.

This man is a sergeant,” he says.

This man is American,” he tells the sergeant. “His father is a sergeant in the U.S. army.”

I don't bother to explain.

The sergeant asks me about military service in the U.S. What do I know? Some stuff I make up. Some stuff I've read about, like how if you're an illegal immigrant and get caught, the judge often gives you the choice of jail and deportation, or the army and a green card. Many of the dead/wounded US soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other U.S. money-making ventures were sentenced to the military by immigration judges.

This is hard to explain, I think he's getting the wrong idea.

You mean if I go to the US and join the army,” he asks, “I can become a citizen?”

It's not so easy,” I say.

[Note: I will meet a lot of Gambians who want to join the U.S. army. U.S. war movies are extremely popular here. Not like Full Metal Jacket, but like THE Green Berets. Most Gambians have never seen a real gun, let along shot one. As in England, the police don't carry them. They think war is like the movies. It's romantic.]

By this time, Allou is done with the paperwork in the other room. He comes out and puts his hand on my shoulder.

Mykel,” he says, “it was a pleasure to meet you. I will email you. Welcome to The Gambia.”

I think I'm going to like this place.

Allou explains what I have to do from here. It turns out that the ferry is not right at the border crossing. I have to take a bus to the ferry terminal, buy a ticket, then take the Ferry to Banjul, the capital.

Make sure you only pay 30 dalasi for the bus,” says Allou. That's about a dollar. And then 10 dalasi for the ferry.

We shake hands, exchange hugs, old friends now. I wave to the other army guys: the private and the sergeant. They smile and wave back.

I walk out of the building. Somebody comes up to me. You need taxi? You go to ferry?

30 dalasi?” I ask. He nods and leads me to a yellow taxi parked near the buses.

30 dalasi?” I ask.

He nods.

I get in, bringing my bags with me, setting them on the seat next to me.

You pay me 300 dalasi,” says the driver.

I am pissed! It's Senegal all over again. He's expecting me to bargain, but I'm in no mood to bargain. Thirty is thirty... not three hundred. I pick up my stuff, storm out of the cab slamming the door behind me.

I find a waiting bus and get in. The conductor collects my 30 dalasi, and in not too long, we're off for the long trip to the ferry terminal.

The bus stops someplace. A girl with a large bowl of peanuts on her head comes up to me. “You buy peanuts,” she commands. “I give you good price.”

Non, merci,” I say, forgetting that Gambians don't speak French.

She follows me.

I see no sign of a ferry, ferry terminal, or even the ocean. Just dust, peanut sellers, and lots of people with wheelbarrows. One of them points to my bags and then his empty wheelbarrow. He wants to carry them to the ferry. I decline and, amazingly enough, he just shrugs and goes elsewhere. I later learn that the wheelbarrow is a major feature of Gambian life. They're everywhere and used where most places would use a truck or a moveable luggage rack. They're even in politics!

A 20-something guy in dreadlocks comes up to me.

Hi,” he says, “Where you come from?”

Oh no! Another fuckin' hustler. I can't get away from them! Well, if you can't avoid 'em use 'em.

New York,” I say, “and I'm looking for the ferry terminal.”

I will show you,” he says. “Is this your first time in The Gambia?”

First trip to Africa,” I tell him. “But I've been here for more than two weeks now.”

We walk up to a dirty white building with a metal guide fence that leads to a ticket window. Tickets are 10 dalasi... about 30¢. I buy one. He buys one.

He follows me into the terminal. Sits in the waiting room.

Are you hungry?” he says. “This terminal has a great restaurant upstairs.”

Actually, I AM hungry, but I don't want to be saddled with someone who'll probably make me pay for him... or ask for a donation afterward... or something. So I lie.

No,” I tell him, “I just ate.”

Oh,” he says, “well, my job is to bring people into the restaurant. So I'll just say good bye.”

He shakes hands with me and walks out of the terminal. I look around and make sure that he's out of sight... Then, go up to the restaurant. Actually, the guy wasn't so bad. I'm still on edge from being constantly hustled in Dakar.

I order a sandwich and it takes some minutes to come. I don't want to miss the boat. It's about 7:45, if there's an 8 o'clock boat, I might miss it. I needn't worry. There is no 8 o'clock boat. No 9 o'clock boat either. No 10 o'clock one.

Yep, I wait more than three hours at the terminal. There are two other white people in the crowd... a back-packing couple in their early 20s. We don't talk to each other. I expect they resent me as much as I resent them. EVERYBODY wants to be the only white guy(s).

An African comes up to me, he looks older than the usual hustlers... in his 40s maybe, with trimmed chin whiskers, wearing a dark red captains hat.

Hi,” he says, “where are you from?”

New York,” I say, “Mykel” (I figure I'll save him a question.) It doesn't faze him.

What's your nice name?” he asks.

I've heard this in Senegal too. People ask for your nice name, when they want your first name. If they ask for your last name, they'll ask for your surname.

Mykel,” I say again. I don't ask him for HIS name.

Is this your first trip to The Gambia?” he asks.

It's my first trip to Africa,” I say.

Where are you staying in The Gambia?” he asks.

I have a friend who is meeting me at the ferry,” I tell him.

There are a lot of good cheap hotels,” he says. “I can help you find one. Last week, I helped some white people find a guest house. Very cheap. Very good.”

I have a friend who is meeting me at the ferry,” I tell him again.

In case he doesn't come,” he says.

Still in Senegal mode, I decide to take the direct approach.

Look,” I say. “I'm not going to give you any money, and I don't need a guide.”

He looks offended.

I used to be a guide,” he says. “I just help people, that's all.”

He offers his hand. I shake it.

Finally the gates open and it's boarding time. Well, not exactly. There are cars, people carrying furniture, some people just sitting on a couch at the side of the gangplank. I shit you not.

It's an incredible maze that we (my “friend” and I) navigate. I found a Chinese-made YouTube video of the process. The Chinese music really doesn't fit, but maybe they were listening to it in the car.

My non-guide leads the way, looking over his shoulder every 10 seconds or so to make sure I'm following him. He climbs to the top level of the boat. Every bench is filled. In one corner, a group beats drums and girls dance wildly... whirling raising their legs high... having a grand old time... like this was Africa or something. 

My non-guide looks over the benches, finds one he can handle, speaks to the sitters in wolof. They all scrunch over to make a spot on the end for me to sit. My non-guide stands.

The boat shakes as it leaves the pier. If it weren't for the shake, I wouldn't know it was moving.

The boat has to move slow,” my non-guide explains to me, “a few years ago there was a mis... a prob... an accident. Since then, the boats go very slow.”

And when you get there,” continues my non-guide, “there is a lot to see and do. You can touch a live crocodile. You can see lions and elephants, lie on the beach. I can show you.”

Thanks,” I say, “but I'm staying with a friend. He'll show me.”

In case your friend doesn't come,” he says.

It takes about 90 minutes to reach the other side.

Leaving the boat is as chaotic as entering. I grip the handrail to leave and my grimy book/mosquito cream/sunglasses bag tumbles over... past the railing... catching on something along the side of the stairs. By now-- “good luck” means not-REALLY-bad-bad-luck. I'm “lucky.” The contents of the bag do not spill out... and the bag itself does not fall into the river. I struggle to retrieve it.

It's around midnight. Leaving the terminal, I look frantically for my next couch-surfing host. Of course, I don't know what he looks like... dark skin... kinky hair... tall... handsome, Sure, he'll be a breeze to spot in Africa.

As the little ole' whiteguy, I can only hope that I'll be a breeze to spot in Africa. So far no luck.

No problem,” says my non-guide, “I know a very nice guesthouse. Not far from...

I'm sorry,” I interrupt, “I really think my friend will come.”

Are you Mykel?” comes a voice next to me.

I look up. There's a very hip-looking guy, with a red baseball hat... flat brim... like a B-boy, sweat jacket, gangsta all the way.

Malick?” I ask.

I am Malick,” he says.

I hug him. The non-guide backs off. Speaks to Malick in wolof, wishes me luck and leaves.

We need to take a taxi,” says Malick. “I live a bit far from the city. Could you give me some money for the taxi?”

He finds a taxi. We drive... and drive... and drive. Out of the city out past the paved roads. Into the deep burbs, I can smell the rice and fish cooking from here.

Here's a map of the trip up to now.

It's always nice to get comments to these entries. Please leave one. You can also contact me on Facebook or at If I'm traveling, however, I may not be able to answer your email very quickly.

This is the 17h entry of my travel blog for this trip. Here are links to the past entries:

Episode 1 here (Before leaving New York 1)

Episode 2 here (Before leaving New York 2)

Episode 3 here (Before leaving New York 3)

Episode 4 here. (Before leaving New York 4)

Episode 5 here (New York to Paris)

Episode 6 here (Strasbourg Party Time)

Episode 7 here (Ryan Air)

Episode 8 here (Back to Paris)

Episode 9 here (Death in Tangier)

Episode 10 here (Resurrection in Tangier)

Episode 11 here (Monkey Business in Gibraltar)

Episode 12 here (Entering Senegal from the rear)

Episode 13 here (Killing Me Softly)

Episode 14 here (The Road to Dakar)

Episode 15 here (Rags to Riches)

Episode 16 here (Behind Nirvana)

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