Car boot (Marie Javins)
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 24 July

Taking a gamble in Gambia

Our intrepid adventurer heads south into Gambia and ponders: how long in Africa is long enough?

The Senegalese border guard stamped me out and I walked across the hot and dusty border into Gambia. I'd made it from the south of Spain to Gambia – by ferry, train, bus, share-taxi, and minibus – in just two and a half weeks.

My ten month MariesWorldTour.com 2011 expedition was off to a fast start – I was hurrying to get into the hard part of the trip, to exceed and demolish my comfort zone. Years of travel – including a year long round-the-world expedition in 2001 – and living overseas meant I was well-versed with much of the area I'd already been through, but the unfamiliar lay ahead of me.

"Psst."

I heard someone trying to get my attention. I ignored their cue.

"PSST! Madam!"

Keep walking, I thought. On towards passport control. Probably a money changer, but potentially a man trying to sell me a free form. Several people had tried to sell me free forms at borders and the easiest way to handle a con artist is to not engage in the first place.

I don't mind overpaying a little – the best kind of help you can give to an economy is participation. Paying a bit for a service I don't need – like bag-carrying or assistance finding a bus – doesn't bother me. But paying for free arrival forms is not on my list of acceptable ways to support local residents.

I thought about what an overland driver friend-of-a-friend had once said about hassles while traveling in West Africa. The driver had gotten a little cranky in response to someone trying repeatedly to sell him something, and a fresh-to-the-continent passenger had suggested he'd "been in Africa too long."

The driver turned and said, "No, you haven't been in Africa LONG ENOUGH."

This graceless-but-honest response was on my mind because I'd lost my temper (again) at a bus tout in Dakar this morning when he'd tried to charge my rucksack the same fare to ride on top of the taxi as he'd charged me to ride inside. West Africa doesn't have more touts and con artists than other parts of the world – it had been pretty easygoing in comparison to say, Ethiopia, India, China, or Egypt, where entrepreneurs with families to feed can be keenly and charmingly innovative about micro-financial acquisitions – but as an obviously foreign person with luggage, I was clearly a stranger who might be naïve enough to buy arrival forms, or hand over a donation to a random person who claimed to run a school for headless orphans.

"Psst! HEY!" Someone really did want my attention here at the Senegal-Gambia border. I glanced over.

Six people were waving frantically at me. Wait… I was the only one walking. Time had slowed down. Or was a flash mob doing a performance art piece and they wanted me to freeze too?

I ran through a few options in my head. Prayers? Was there a king here? An official with a security detail? Then I noticed soldiers in uniforms standing next to the flagpole.

Oh.

The Gambian flag was being taken in for the evening. There was marching, folding and a ritual of everyone standing at attention at once. I froze in place while the Gambians giggled – they were laughing at my awkward stance, not knowing of my burning embarrassment for having made uncharitable assumptions about their motives.

Common road casualty, my tolerance and patience, I thought. Now was not the time to sink into a contemplative state about the dangers of too much crankiness, because Gambians were motioning to me, urging me on towards a door marked "Customs" and another sign with a long list of prohibited items.

Wait – I could read again! Gambia is an English-speaking country. I was coherent and my appalling babbling in French would no longer be an issue.

At least, until next week when I went back into Senegal to travel overland to Mali. Gambia is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. Going to Mali by land meant returning to the country I'd just left.

A large man in a uniform welcomed me to Gambia and instructed me to place my rucksack on the counter in front of him.

"Where have you been? Where have you gone? What's in the bag? You have a laptop? Where can I get a laptop? Can you help me get a laptop?"

"Hmmm."

I attempted to look pensive as I considered his question, my strategy being to bore the man to the point where he asked me to go away. "Where would you get a laptop in Gambia? I guess I don't know. Yeah, that's right. I have no idea. None whatsoever. I really don't have a clue."

After several rounds of laptop-acquisition-hints-and-blissful-ignorance, he became bored and sent me on to passport control.

"Where will you go in Gambia?"

"The beach," I said. Actually, I don't like the beach. I hate sun. I hate sand. I hate sweating. I have a fear of fish with teeth. And yet this seemed like the most plausible explanation for what I was doing in Gambia, the answer likely to get me through the border the fastest.

What WAS I doing in Gambia? I thought I'd rest for a few days, work on my website, catch up on some paperwork for my Kuwaiti comic-book editing job, then go see an old stone archeological site. Mostly, I was just fascinated that there was a tiny English-speaking country carved out of the middle of Senegal, spreading along the banks of a single river.

But the passport guy didn't need to know that. The phrase "I'm working" is never a good phrase to issue at any border.

"The beach? I get off work in ten minutes. May I go to the beach with you?"

"Er…"

"Where are you staying? I'll meet you."

Just stamp my damn passport, I thought.

"I'm staying on the beach. You're funny. Thank you. I will go now."

To finish today's journey, I had to catch a share-taxi to the Barra ferry, which crossed the mouth of the Gambia River to Banjul, then get a private taxi to a resort on the coast.

And then there was a rush for the giant, old car ferry, a hulking mass of steel and crowds against the coastal sunset. An hour's journey carried us to Banjul. Cars and passengers surged forward past the lights of the port, out into the darkness of the city beyond, clattering noisily off platforms and down ladders, all hurrying to shore.

I was last – with my bag and newbie status. I hadn't made it onto the ship in time to get a desirable seat. In fact, I hadn't had a seat at all and had just plopped down on top of my rucksack. And on the Banjul end, only a few taxis remained unoccupied when I walked out of the port onto the small road that leads to town.

Where were all the taxi drivers who should have been looking for business on this end? I'd read that Gambia was renowned for its touts but there weren't any here. My earlier irritation was now an embarrassing memory, with me once again reproaching myself for my impatience. When will I learn?

I found a driver and asked him to take me to the coast.

"Which hotel?"

"Luigi's." I'd chosen a family-run Italian-British resort, based on good TripAdvisor reviews, because it looked small enough to be charming, but big enough to get lost in. And I really wanted some lasagna.

A forty-minute drive along perfect tarmac brought me to Luigi's reception, to a friendly British woman who informed me that the restaurant did indeed serve lasagna and was still open.

"But we've run out of singles, so for tonight, you'll have to take an apartment over the swimming pool. Same price, just this once. Do you mind?"

A huge, clean, private, luxurious apartment. Clearly, my squabbling and temper-losing days were behind me while I was in Gambia. I'd been hurrying to get to the hard part of the trip, but this was not it.

No, I didn't mind.

Didn't mind at all.

Marie JavinsMarie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.

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