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Monday, June 11, 2012

Mykel's Africa Blog Chapter 19: Capital Trip

Mykel's Africa Blog
Chapter 19: A Day In The Capital

In a lot of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He'll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can't figure out whether the hero's laying his girl or a cornerstone.
--Jim Thompson

I begin writing this entry at the Marine Airline Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, NY. I'm waiting for a flight to Chicago. There, I'll hang with pal Sid Yiddish for a day or two. Then off to my 40th college reunion in Beloit, Wisconsin.

The other old reunion farts are gonna stay in empty college dorms. Me? I'll be couch-surfing with a current student. It'll be an adventure. I live for adventure. Now back to Africa

Recap: I'm in The Gambia, with, Malick, my first couch-surfing host in that country. Couch-surfing is a network of travelers and hosts. The idea is to promote international hospitality. There's no charge to use the site and the host cannot ask for money for your stay. Guests are responsible for their own food. Nice guests will take their hosts to a meal once during their stay.

My Gambian couch-surfing host is a dj and hip hop promoter. So far I've taken him to dinner--twice, bought tea for our breakfast, bought the two of us an entire 3 course breakfast, paid for a taxi-for-two to and from an expensive disco (I hated it!), paid his admission, as well as the admission of another couch-surfer... and his friend. With plenty more to come.

Although Malick lists his address in Banjul, the capital, he really lives far away... in the burbs... in a town called Sukuta. He lives on “a family compound,” with brothers, sisters, steps, and a lot more I can't figure out...

Everybody in this town knows me,” says Malick. “If you're ever lost just ask. It's the Manneh compound. Everybody knows it, you understand?”

The Gambia is my last new country on this trip. I'm spending more time here than I planned here. One reason: in Senegal, I was incredibly annoyed at the hassles involved in being white. I couldn't walk down a street in Dakar without someone wanting money: a street beggar, a vender whose “father has a shop right around the corner,” a hustler who asks “Remember me? From the hotel?” (I'm not staying at a hotel). They all chase you shouting What's your name? Where you come from? I tried to shake them by speaking fake Chinese, by shouting at them, by calling the cops. Nothing worked. It was a non-stop PAIN IN THE ASS.

A second reason I left Senegal was the food. It wasn't bad... if you like fish and rice-- and I do (did). But fish and rice for breakfast, fish and rice for lunch, fish and rice for a snack, and fish and rice for dinner... By the time I leave I'm gagging at the mere mention of a meal. I know what it'll be and it makes me sick.

But Senegal wasn't all bad. Ouseman and his family, my first hosts in Senegal were generous and welcoming-- a bit over concerned, perhaps, but good people.

Also, Senegal had a really active couch-surfing community. Every two weeks there were dinners... people from all over attended. Organized by Naono, who worked at the Japanese embassy, there was a great mix of cultures and a table full of interesting stories. At my first meeting, at the French consulate, I met someone from Gabon!! (Prince, second from the left below) Another first for me!

Here we are:

In the Gambia, I tell Malick. “That's what you guys should do... have a couch-surfing party. Get to know each other. Landing (another couch-surfing host) could cook on the beach. We could have a beach party.”

Malick's face lights up at the idea. Uh oh, what have I done?

Great idea, Mykel,” he says. “We'll do it Sunday. We could have a great party. Lots of food and drink. We'll have dozens of people. I can promote it. Like a concert, you understand?”

By Saturday, I need a break... too much Sukuta. Too much ALWAYS TWO: breakfast, lunch, dinner,tourist sights,bars, more... like having a shadow you have to pay for.

I decide to go into Banjul, the capital-- BY MYSELF. I want to play tourist. Go to a museum, sit in a cafe, walk around, scope out the place. Have a Lonely Planet day. I need to get away. Go exploring... like a normal backpacking ugly American

Malick takes me to one of the few buses and I hop on, climbing through a door in the rear, and taking a seat. A man, about 30, sits next to me. A boy, about 6 sits on his lap.

The conductor is a teenager with frayed jeans, and rubber flipflops. He wears a t-shirt with a quotation from Yahya Jammeh,the president of The Gambia. It says, We work together to make The Gambia great. One-by-one, passengers pass their fares to him. Once all collected, the conductor begins to pass out the change. Not only is he scrupulously honest returning the money... but he also remembers who gets what. TEN PUNK POINTS for the teen! I lean forward to retrieve my change. At that moment, the bus hits a rock in the road.

Most Gambian roads are unpaved... more like compressed sand... Rocks in the road are part of the normal daily affair... but this is a big one... the bus shakes, the back door opens. The kid on the knee of the guy next to me tips, falls, screams... through the open door... I reach... over the lap of my neighbor... just grabbing the boy's upper arm ... holding tight. The wind catches the boy's other arm... the one hanging out of the bus... flapping... the man next to me grabs my shoulder, holding me back... keeping me from flying out with his son... on the other side of me a passenger holds my t-shirt... the one that says NO THANK YOU in five different languages.... Now it needs a thank you... the three of us together... leaning against gravity... pulling back... retrieving the frightened boy... screaming, but not crying... Got him! He's back inside. I sit back hard on my seat.. the guy lets go of my t-shirt... ABARAKKA (thank you) I say to him in Mandinka... the only mandinka I know... ABARAKKA says the boy's father to me... a big smile on his face.

The boy's shaken. He sits on the other side of the bus, protected from the door, across from his father. When the bus stops in town... we all get out. The boy's father smiles and shakes my hand. I shake hands with the guy next to me... It's the best I've felt in weeks. Then it's over.

I'm on the street. Lonely Planet in hand... trying to follow the map to the National Museum. First, I need to find the main town square. I can recognize it from a tree-like structure... glitter and lights... a celebratory monument... a tribute to the president on his 50th birthday.

Here's a market. It's places like this that the human mosquitoes attacked in Senegal... not leaving me alone... begging me to follow them this way and that. A continued chorus of WHAT'S YOUR NAME? WHERE YOU COME FROM? HEY, IT'S ME, FROM THE HOTEL!... the low point of my trip to that country. I'm snake bit. If anyone talks to me here, I'll scream. I keep my head down, looking at the map in the Lonely Planet.

Where you want to go?” It's a woman in a dress of beautiful blue fabric.

I don't scream.

I'm looking for The National Museum.” I say.

I have this shop here...” she says.

Uh oh, here it comes.

But my son can help you,” she continues.

Then she calls to someone. A young man, Jamaican dreadlocks, torn jeans shorts, smile wider than a Mormon's birth canal.

We shake hands. “It's confusing in the market,” he says

And it is... we walk past grains and nuts I've never seen before... we walk past fruits... greens... how come I never see any of this on the dinner table? Who eats it? We walk past shampoo, hair care products. Each turn brings new products into view. No one bothers me.

I feel lousy that I allowed the bad experiences from Dakar to color my impressions of Banjul. Different country, different culture. Thinking all Africa is Dakar is like thinking all
America is New York. Right?

Out of the market, the young man points to the main square... up ahead. I recognize the Yahya Jammeh birthday tree.

From here, it's a short walk to...

Hi,” comes a voice next to me, “what's your name? Where you come from?”

Mykel. New York” I tell him.

Where you going?” He asks.

To the National Museum,” I say.

I work in an Irish bar. You wanna come?” He asks.

An Irish bar in Banjul, in The Gambia?” I ask.

He nods. “Wanna come?” he says again.

Nah,” I tell him. “I'm a tourist. I want to go to a museum. That's what tourists do... we go to museums and take pictures.”

Okay,” he says, “I don't have to work until later tonight. I'll walk with you to the museum.”

Whatever you like,” I tell him.

After the museum, we can go to my Irish bar,” he says. “My name is Samba.”

Like the dance?” I ask.

He doesn't answer.

We reach the museum and head inside. It's a small building, white with a little garden in front. Quaint.

I pay 10D to get in. The woman at the counter gives me a ticket. As I walk in, a tap comes to my right shoulder. Samba stands at the door. The tap is from the guard by the entrance.

He says he's your guide,” the guard tells me. “You are going to pay for his ticket.”

I am pissed. This is like Senegal!

I walk over to Samba.

You are not my guard,” I tell him. “I didn't ask you to take me here. I'm not paying for your entrance.”

No problem,” he says. “I'll sit in the garden and wait for you to come out. I just thought you wanted some company.”

He walks outside and sits in the garden. Jeezus! Another mosquito. How am I gonna shake him off? I need time alone... just me! I came here to get away from my host. (Half the time on this trip I'm the host... like my arm is host to mosquito swarms.)

I watch Samba walk out and sit on one of the lawn chairs. Taking out his cellphone, he starts texting to someone. I go back inside.

There are two floors and a basement in the museum. In the basement is a great assortment of musical instruments. My favorite, is a kora. (I will actually see one played before I leave the country.) It looks like a combination of a Japanese Koto and a kettle drum. It's played like both... beautiful sounds from either end-- which is more than I can say about myself! Besides the kora, there are drums and other things I can't imagine playing.

What else can a National Museum of The Gambia have?

Well, they could have statistics... little pieces of paper with hard-to-believe facts about a country nobody's ever heard of. Take this one:

80% burns each year? That means in two years 160% of the country is in ashes! A statistic extremely hard to swallow-- without a lot of water.

Ok, how about bugs? Every history museum worth its fish and rice needs bugs. The one in New York has a ton of 'em.

During my stay in the country, I will be bitten by every one of these guys... becoming the only person in history to have been bitten by a moth.

Besides statistics and bugs, museums need skulls. People love to look at skulls.

I can't remember if these are originals or copies, but they relate to the origins of the human race... There's a controversy. Did humankind begin in Africa, Asia or Australia? If it was Africa, these were among the first. (My take: A more important question is not where we began... but where we'll end.)

OK, skulls are a nice start to scariness. How 'bout another scary guy:

It's Zimba and though he looks like he's on a respirator, I wouldn't want to run into him in a back sand dune!

Is that everything? This is The Gambia, the smallest country in Africa. A peaceful place where most of the locals have never even seen a gun. No wars, no uprisings. I think they had some soldiers helping the Brits during World War II, but that's it. How're you gonna fill a history museum in a small peaceful country?

Okay, I've seen everything. Time to go out. I just hope my local mosquito has had his fill, and gone off to bite another host.

He's not there when I walk out the door. YES! I survey the chairs. GONE! I walk outside the gate and head to the buses for my trip back to Sukuta.

Hey,” comes the voice from behind me. “How was the museum? Let's go to the Irish bar now.”

Ok, I'll buy him a beer. Samba's a hustler, but he's got chutzpah... and patience. Instead of complaining about my throwing him out of the museum, he took a walk. Somehow his radar told him I was leaving, and here he is. Besides, it's a bar he's taking me to. That means beer. How bad could it be?

I follow him back toward the market, around the corner, into the old part of the city. It reminds me of the Medina in Tangier. Narrow winding streets, colonial buildings, locals only.

After more than a few twists and turns we come to a bar. I forget the name, but it was neither a Mc or an O. There's a small GUINNESS sign painted on the front. I guess that makes it Irish.

Inside are a few tables. The bar is tended by a middle-aged woman with straight black hair. She has the kind of permanent ironic-yet-sympathetic look that melts my heart no matter who wears it. Nice.

The only other person in the bar is an older man sitting in the back with a glass of what looks like water with a lime in it. Besides the drink, on the table in front of him is an assortment of shiny rings and bracelets.

Hi Samba,” she says as we walk in. “You're not working until later.”

I'm the bouncer here,” he tells me. “I brought a friend for a drink.” he tells her.

Beer please,” I say as we both sit down.

The bar tendress opens two bottles of JULBREW, the local stuff. She sets one in front of me and one in front of Samba.

Hey,” he says, “I'm a Muslim. I can't drink that.”

I opened two bottles,” she says. “I can't close them again... once they're opened, I can't close them up again.”

The older guy with the jewelry says, “Tomorrow's my birthday.”

I take Samba's open bottle, bring it to him. “Happy birthday,” I say, putting it on the table in front of him..

He salutes me, raising the bottle.

Thanks,” he says. “Where you from?... and When's you're birthday?”

New York,” I tell him. “And the last day of January.”

American,” he says. “We used to have a lot of Americans here... in the 1980s... there was some TV show... ROOTS... you know it? Every black American with enough cash for a plane ticket was comin' over... Senegal and The Gambia... Pourin' in here. Pourin' dollars in here. You'd see 'em all over... especially at the slave house... we got one too... like in Senegal, 'cept it's smaller. You seen it? Those black Americans... you count to 6 and the tears come... the money comes at 10.”

No,” I tell him, answering his question a few sentences before. “I saw the one in Senegal, on Goree Island, but I didn't know there was one here.”

Yep,” he says, “smaller, but just as much history.... Now where was I? Oh yeah, Americans, you could see 'em all over, in libraries, in the market, turning over rocks on the beach... I guess they were lookin' for some ancestor under 'em.”

Your birthday is the last day of January?” asks the bartendress. “January thirty-first?”

Yep,” I say.

That's MY birthday,” she says.

Maybe we're related,” I say. “My long lost sister, stowed away on a boat to The Gambia.”

Samba clears his throat.

Sorry,” I tell him. “Bring that boy a Fanta,” I say to the bar tendress.

She does.

In the seat on the other side of me is a very scary-looking guy. During this African trip I have felt the gamut of emotions: annoyance, anger, lust, friendship, amusement, confusion, rage, joy... a thesaurus full... but not FEAR. Not once on this trip do I feel fear. The one emotion a white American EXPECTS in Africa... and I don't feel it. Never. But right now I'm close. Let's say I'm in a state of UNEASE.

The guy next to me has a shaved head. A scar runs from the left tip of his left eyebrow to the middle of his forehead. Another from the edge of his right nostril directly south... through his upper lip. His face is scruffy with a few day's growth. His narrow eyes look upward at me from beneath a supraorbital process that'd look right on Frankenstein.

I live right near here,” he tells me. “You do things?”

Huh?” I say, not at my most clever.

You do things?” he repeats. “Weed, smack, dust, I got 'em all. You should come and look. No charge for looking?”

I bet.

He talks over me, to Samba.

Hey Samba,” he says. “Bring him over. I'm sure he'll find something he likes.”

I gotta get back,” I tell him. “Thanks for the offer.”

Hey sister,” I say to the bartendress. “Could I have another beer... and another Fanta for Samba?”

Sure, bro,” she answers with a smile... getting the liquids from a small deli-like case in back of the bar.

Hey American,” pipes up the birthday guy. “You know Seattle? I got a daughter in Seattle. You know her?”

I been to Seattle,” I tell him, “but I don't think I saw your daughter. What's she look like?”

She's black,” he says.


Oh yeah,” I tell him, “she said I should tell you she's doing great... but needs a few extra bucks.”

The guy laughs good naturedly, and begins to pick up the jewelry on the table and stuff it into a large burlap bag.

I gotta go to work now,” he says. “I sell my rings and necklaces at the market. This isn't like America. We don't have money for old people here. You work. You beg on the street or you die. It's not like America.”

Don't worry,” I tell him. “America is on its way to become more like Africa.”

It won't though,” he says. “I know America. In America they think being alone is freedom. It's freedom not to take care about anybody... not to care about anybody else... Freedom is me, me, me. In Africa... if somebody your family... if someone your friend... if somebody help you out. You take care of him. In Africa, that's how we do it.”

He stands up, slings the burlap bag over one shoulder, and walks toward the door. He has a slight limp.

That's right, innit sister?” he asks, more like saying goodbye than asking a question. “If someone helps you, you take care of him.”

That's right,” says the bartendress. “You right.”

I use the guy's departure as a cue. Time to skedaddle.

I gotta go too,” I say, drinking up the new bottle of beer in front of me. “They're expecting me back in Sukuta.”

Samba drains his Fanta and stands too.

Okay,” he says, “let's go.”

Fuck, I can't shake this guy.

Together we walk out of the bar. When we reach the street... more like a clay path than a street... he slaps his shirt pocket.

“I forgot my cellphone,” he tells me. “Wait a minute, I'll be right back.”

He runs inside.

I take off... running... just going anywhere... out of the neighborhood. Right turn... then left... then right again.... not too many rights or I'll go in a circle... just a few zigs and a few zags... lose him in the dust... another zig... another zag... whew. He'll never find...

What happened to you?” comes the voice in back of me. “You just disappeared. I went back for the phone, and you were gone”

I turn and face him.

I need to leave,” I tell him. “Get back to the bus to Sukuta. I don't want to get there too late. My friend will be worried.”

I'll show you the bus,” he says, falling in step with me.

No!” say what I hope is firmly. “I can find the bus. I want to go by myself.”

Ok,” he says, “but remember you should take care of your friends. I've been your friend. I helped you. Took you to the museum and the bar.”

Did I ask for that?” I say. “You followed me. I didn't ask you to. I bought you a drink... two drinks. I didn't ask for your help. Why should I give you anything?”

I can see he's hurt, but I stand my ground. He turns and walks back to the bar... empty walleted.

It isn't until later that I understand a key cultural difference between family/community oriented West African... maybe Muslim... culture and individualist American culture.

In West Africa, if someone does something for you... whether you want it or not... you should be thankful... and show your thanks. If it's a person, that means giving money or food or something. If it's Allah, that means praying five times a day.

In American culture, an unwanted gift thrust on you without your permission or acceptance, is not something to be thankful for. If someone offers you something, you reject it, but that person insists, you do not thank them... You didn't ask for it. You didn't want it. You don't thank the giver... and you certainly don't owe the giver something (money or prayers) in return.

I hate it when I find something American about myself.


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 19h 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)

Episode 17 here (The Road to The Gambia)

Episode 18 here (Malick)


Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

Safari Tanzania said...

Great insight Mykel. Looks like you had a good time in Gambia. I've never been there but I'm planning trip to visit the River Gambia National Park next year. Thanks for sharing.