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Monday, November 05, 2012

Countdown To Poverty

"I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

--Henry Miller

It's been awhile since I've been blogging here. If you want more of me, you can read my more controversial and political blog at:

As for this one, it's been almost 3 months. It always happens. When I'm in a place... when I've just returned.. the urge to write overpowers me. It guides my hands... forces me to sit, ignore the email, amazon, the new postings on

Then, like in a midnight rendezvous when the beer goggles fall off... the urge leaves. It's a struggle to begin. The dirty dishes in the kitchen sink call to me. Those pictures from the family album that haven't been scanned climb out of their boxes and present themselves. Want to see what else gets in the way of writing?
And then a hurricane! Lights out for 4 days. I'm now writing at work, waiting for classes to begin. I had to walk. … 40 blocks... now, nothing to do but write.

Before we go on, I need to explain taxis here in The Gambia. There is little real public transportation here. A few buses travel on irregular schedules... along one or two main roads. That's it. Everything else is TAXIS.
There are two types of taxis. One is a personal taxi, sometimes called a tourist taxi. These are like New York taxis. The price varies by distance but is the same for one person or five people. You find tourist taxis mainly in tourist areas. They're expensive, but can be negotiated. Sometimes you can hire a bush taxi (see below) as a tourist taxi... especially late at night.

The other kind of taxi, called a BUSH TAXI, runs like a bus. There is a fixed fare PER PERSON. The taxi takes a regular route and passengers tell the driver where they want to get off. Drivers can-- and usually do-- pick up new passengers anywhere along the route.

To hail a Bush Taxi, you stand by the side of the road and look like you're looking for a taxi. Taxis pass by with open windows. You shout the name of your destination to the driver. If that's where he's going... and he has space... he stops and you get in. If not, he just keeps on driving. Locals often take two... sometimes three... Bush Taxis to complete a journey.

There are no meters. The BUSH taxis have a set price-- per person. Late at night they charge more and you have to negotiate the price.

That out of the way, where was I in my adventure? Oh yes. I've been staying with Malick who, though offering me “free accommodations” seemed to always be asking for money, or getting in a cab expecting me to pay for two. When I complain, he answers, “Come on Mykel, be yourself.”

It's after the beach party where Malick convinced me to pay big bucks to support a picnic to “encourage couch-surfing solidarity in The Gambia.” The beach was fun, but it cost a bundle... and though there were girls-- dancing next to us,even-- they didn't talk to us.

One of the sad things I learned about Gambian (and Senegalese) culture, is that single guys and gals do not socially mix. Or so it seems to me. It's too bad, because so many of the girls are so beautiful... You could die looking at 'em!

Between the bar and the various taxis. I'm beginning to run low on cash. It's time to hit a bank...Malick tells me there's no bank in town with an ATM machine. He knows where there's one in the capital, though. He'll show me. He also has to bring some food for his friend who owns a market stall. As long as I'm going to take a taxi...

I pay for a cab for the two of us and we go to Banjul to find an ATM. Malick leaves me in front of a bank and goes of to “take care of some business.” I head for the cash machine.

I remember the days when I carried traveler's checks everywhere. What a pain that was. First you had to pay for them. Then half the banks wouldn't cash them. When you finally found a bank that knew what they were, they hit you with a fee higher than what you paid to buy the checks in the first place. Now, I just slip my card into the slot and... CARD NOT VALID

I try another bank. Ahead of me an older gentleman in a tie
leaves the ATM booth. He's shaking his head.

It's not working,” he tells me.

I had trouble at another bank,” I say, “do you think it could be the whole system.”

He shrugs. I try the machine he just left. SORRY. UNABLE TO COMPLETE TRANSACTION

Again. And Again. Another machine. Another error sign. Then I see it: the sign above the machine. VISA ONLY. I check my bankcard... MasterCARD. Another machine... VISA. THEY'RE ALL VISA!

I have about 1200D (about $40) left... and a week to go in the country. I don't think I can make it... especially if I have to pay for two.

Ah, here's a machine that doesn't say VISA. I walk into the vestibule to try it. I enter, insert, and pull out my card. The door to the vestibule opens. A big guy enters. He wears a gray sweater and what looks like Ralph Kramden's bus driver's hat. He says nothing, but takes my arm and pulls me out of the vestibule. He doesn't speak. He motions with his hand to the line outside, maybe 30 people... maybe more... waiting to get in.

Sorry,” I say, “I didn't see the line.”

He grunts.

Nothing works. I don't know what to do. I'll have to hitchhike back to Senegal... or beg on the street... or... I don't know. I panic. I can't think straight. I hail a taxi... back to Sukuta and Malick for 100D. I'm desperate. I have maybe 500D left. I'll talk to him and if he's got no ideas, I'll go to the embassy. I'm an American citizen. They've got to help me, right? They can't let me die on the street, right? Right?

Relax Mykel,” says Malick when I get back. “Be yourself.”

I am myself,” I tell him, “and that self is nearly broke.”

He laughs.

I think I know some place,” he says. “It's in Senegambia. A bank near the hotels. Let's take a cab.”

Another 100 Dalasis. First to a bank on the main street on the way to Senegambia. Nothin' doing! Then to the hotel. No dice.

I heard there's a bank on Sukuta street,” says the receptionist. “I'm sure they can change MasterCard.”

We're off. Another taxi. We arrive just as it's closing. A big burly guard, looking much like big burly guards everywhere, is putting the CLOSED sign in the window as we arrive.

Malick speaks. “Can't we just go in for a minute?” he asks. “It's an emergency.”

We're closed,” says the guard, “people have to go home.”

Please, it'll only take a minute,” he says.

Someone comes to the door. They speak Mandinka. I don't understand a word.

There's another bank that's open,” says Malick. “The guy told me where.”

They're just trying to get rid of you,” I say. “There's no one who'll take the card. We're just on a wild goose chase.”

Be yourself,” says Malick.

I'm telling you, we have to get to the embassy,” I tell him. “No one will take Mastercard. They're just sending you away.”
Malick shrugs. We take a taxi to another bank. It's got a machine in front of it. Over the machine is a sign.
We get in another cab. I've got about 300 Dalasis left. That's around $10. The cabride costs us 100D.

The American embassy is a big building behind a decorative hard-to-climb fence. There is a palm tree on the grounds and a gate with a guard house just inside.

Outside the gate, is what looks like a British-- or Japanese-- police box. There is a window in the police box. A man in an official-looking uniform is inside. He is doing something on a cellphone. I walk up to him and hand him my passport.

I need to see someone at the embassy,” I say.

You can call and make an appointment,” he tells me.

It's an emergency,” I tell him. “I need to see someone now.”
He looks at me and matches my passport picture to my face. Then he gets out of the box and opens the gate.

Just inside the gate is the guardhouse. Inside that guardhouse is a second guard. I show my passport to this guard, a short man with a little mustache and a blue uniform trimmed in red and white stripes. There is an American flag patch sewn onto his right sleeve.

I have an emergency,” I tell him. “I'm an American citizen and I ran out of money.”

His eyebrows lower. He makes a sucking sound, pursing his lips.

Hold on,” he says, “I'll call.”

He notices Malick standing by the door.

What do you want?” he asks, in an even less friendly tone than he spoke to me.

He's here with me,” I say. “He's my friend.”

He can't come into the embassy,” says the guard, motioning with his hand like he's brushing off a fly. “He'll have to wait outside.”

Malick leaves. The guard picks up a phone and speaks into it. I'd tell you what he said, but it was Mandinka, I think.

Then, the guard speaks to me in English. “You'll need to leave your camera and cellphone here. You can't take anything like that inside.”

I give him my camera and phone. He puts them in a storage bin... like those open bins behind the department store counters where you have to check your bags before you enter. Only in the classiest places, of course.

In a few minutes a woman comes down to meet me. She introduces herself, but I can't remember her name or title. She is dressed in woman's professional (not THAT kind of professional), a red suit, white scarf, and a Hillary Clinton haircut. She is not the ambassador, but I don't know that at the time.
(I later check the website for a picture of the Ambassador. I wonder how much you have to donate to a presidential campaign to be the Ambassador to The Gambia. I also wonder why he's white. Is Obama pandering?)
After we shake hands, the professional woman sits in a chair in the guardhouse and motions for me to take the next seat.

Now how can I help you?” she asks.

I'm in terrible trouble,” I tell her. “I've been using my money here. I came here from Senegal and changed the money at the border. It hasn't gone as far as I thought it would.”

She chuckles.
I chuckle.

“I have less than 300 Dalasi left,” I tell her. “I went to the bank to get money... several banks actually. They only take the Visa card. I have American Express and MasterCard. I'm stranded, with no money. I can give you a credit card as collateral, but I need some cash.

She looks at me and smiles the way you might smile at a child saying What Afikomen? I don't know what you mean, Afikomen? That's not the kind of thing we can take care of here,” she says. “But come into the embassy and I'll take a report and see what I can do for you.”

I have a friend here,” I tell her, motioning to the door. “He's local and he'll be better able to answer some questions.”

Bring him in,” she says. “The American Embassy is a welcoming place.”

I call Malick and he joins us

We go through the courtyard and then a labyrinth of halls and stairways. We're in a room with a large American flag jutting out from a gray wall. A photo of Barack Obama is on the wall next to a window that leads to the next room. It looks like a bank-teller's window, with thick bullet-proof glass. She motions for Malek and me to sit down. Then she walks around to the other room and faces me through the window. She speaks through a microphone on the other side.

Now, Mykel,” she says, “where are you from?”

I'm from New York,” I tell her.

And what brings you here to Gambia?” she asks.

Hmmm, she doesn't say THE Gambia, I wonder why. A new bit of political correctness I don't know about? A slip up? An organic language change? I don't ask.

It's my first trip to Africa,” I tell her. “I was in Senegal, so I thought, ok, why NOT The Gambia.” I use THE. She doesn't notice.

She smiles a “yeah right,” smile and continues the interview through the window. “And where are you staying now?” she asks.

I forget,” I tell her. “I need to ask my friend over there...” I turn to Malick.

Hey Malick,” I ask, “where am I living.”

Sukuta, Mykel,” he answers. “You forget very quickly.”

Sukuta!” says the woman, “why that's just like New York.” I don't ask her what she means. Malick laughs.

I'm sure you realize that the embassy can't give you any money,” she says. “We're not a bank.”

Then why the fuck are you talking to me through a teller's window?” I don't ask. “And what am I supposed to live on?”

We do have a list of hotels that take credit cards,” she continues, “I'll print it out for you.”

She types something into the computer on the other side of the window. There is a WIRRR..PITHING WIRRR..PITHING WIRRR..PITHING of a printer spitting out pages.

Most of these hotels will change money,” she tells me.

She hands the sheaf of paper under the window. “That's the best I can do,” she says. “I hope it works out for you.... I'll show you out.”

She disappears from the other side of the window and reappears in our room. Then she tilts her head toward the door, signaling us to stand up and follow her out. I collect my camera and phone at the gate and find myself out on the street with Malick.

I can feel the tears well up.

Mykel,” says Malick, “be yourself. Just keep trying.”

I call one of the numbers, no dice. Another.

Hotel de la coast,” says the British accented voice on the other end.

Hi,” I say, trying to keep it together. “Can you tell me if you give cash advances on US credit cards?”

We sure do,” comes the answer. “And before you ask, no, you don't have to be a guest.”

Great!” I say, “I'll be there as soon as I can. I have a MasterCard from...”

I'm sorry,” says the melodious voice, “we only take Visa.”

I scream into the phone. Melodious voice does not hang up.

There's only one place in all of The Gambia that gives cash for MasterCard,” he says.

Where?” I beg. “Please tell me where.”

At this point the line does not cut off. The phone does not go dead. The voice is not garbled beyond recognition.

 The Kombo Beach Hotel,” comes the answer. “In Senegambia.”

With my last money, Malick and I take a ride to the hotel. We go to the change desk. There is, in fact, someone there, an extremely attractive young woman who is handing out money. I give her my card and watch her swipe it through the machine. There is a ten second wait. The machine does not reject me. It does not beep. It is not out of order.

Yes! Yes! Yes! I get $100 dollars in Dalasi. Right to the bar... ten steps away. What better place for a bar than next to where you change money. I buy a drink for Malick... kiss him. Feel the tension and energy slowly drain into the mug of Julbrew in front of me. I will not die on the street. I am in heaven.

But I realize that I need a break. The tension is too much. My life here is too Mykel Board™. I need a break... some time to be like a normal person... a tourist. Some time in a hotel... a resort even... by the beach. I check the list of resorts the embassy gave me. Ah, here's one that doesn't seem outrageous.... about $75 a day. (I can't believe I'm at the point where $75 a day seems reasonable... but here I am.)

I need the hot water... the peace and quiet... the lack of being hustled for money. I want a place I can get a warm shower, shit in a sit-down toilet, swim at the beach, eat something NOT fish and rice.

Malick,” I tell him. “I want to spend two days at the beach. I'm going to check into a hotel.”

I'll go with you,” he tells me, “I have to bring somethings into town.”


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

This is the 21st 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)

Episode 19 here (A Day In The Capital)

Episode 20 here (Beach Blanket Burrs)

Look for me on Facebook and if you're in New York on a Thursday join my friends and me at Drink Club.



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