"You're a little late." Yaya, my 28-year-old Gambian taxi driver, chided me gently as he motioned for me to put my rucksack into the backseat of his car. I'd been about to open the hatch and put it into the rear of the battered Peugeot station wagon.
"And you were a little early," I responded. I'd arranged for Yaya to pick me up at 8:30 in the morning, but when I'd gone to breakfast a half-hour earlier, I'd noticed his car parked in front of my hotel. "Why did you get here so early?"
Yaya hesitated before motioning at the stuff in the back of the station wagon. Some sneakers. Some neatly folded clothes.
"I sleep in my car."
Ah. So that's why I shouldn't put my gear in the back. And why he'd been wearing the same tie-dyed T-shirt for the three days that I'd been here along the Gambian coast. And why I should overtip him.
As Yaya drove me up the coast to the hotel where I was meeting a Dutch family – they'd offered me a lift to Bird Safari Camp in western Gambia – he told me about his idea to take tourists on excursions to the homes of local families, to show off the real Gambia. He had a point – if tourists only stayed in the coastal resorts, they'd never interact with any Gambians outside the tourist trade. He'd made a business card, but I suggested he make a website.
"I have one," I explained. "It's where I tell people about this trip around-the-world that I'm taking. It's like people can come with me."
"Websites are costing money."
"No, Yaya. You can get one for free."
"But the Internet cafe is not free."
He had me there.
"So maybe instead of hanging around talking to tourists, you should try to make friends with someone who owns an Internet cafe."
Schoolgirls had teased Yaya yesterday when I'd tracked him down at his usual spot outside the hotel, where he hangs out in his tie-dyed shirt and mini-dreadlocks trying to drum up taxi business.
"They are teasing me because sometimes when a Gambian man is talking to a female tourist…"
"I know why they're teasing you." I cut him off.
Sex tourism is big in Gambia. But in a mind-blowing role reversal, it's younger Gambian men and older British women who make up the odd-looking-couples strolling hand-in-hand along the beach. I'd been asking Yaya for a lift, but the schoolgirls had assumed that I was a forty-something-year-old tourist aiming for a date with a good-looking younger Gambian man.
Yaya left me in the hands of my new temporary Dutch family. None of us knew much about the birds we were going to see at the camp in Janjanbureh (Georgetown) – they chirp, fly, and sometimes look pretty. But I'd been going stir-crazy in the coastal resorts, while the family was ready for some sightseeing after driving two used cars down from Europe for a Dutch charity that teaches auto mechanics to Gambians.
Seven of us were split up across two Peugeots. I was in a car with Mum, Dad, and their 19-year-old daughter MM, while the other car was team-driven by Uncle G and his friend, with 17-year-old daughter LM along as a passenger. All these Dutch people have real names, of course – obscured for reasons of potential embarrassment to MM.
I was thrilled with my sudden switch to comfortable travel. The ten-year-old Peugeot I was in had air conditioning – deliciously comfortable in this blisteringly hot part of the world – and the family was great, funny, easygoing company.
Even more interesting was that we were going to attempt the southern west-east road. The north bank road is the one the buses and taxis take alongside the Gambia River, because it's paved all the way to Janjanbureh. The guidebooks and anyone we'd asked issued dire warnings against taking the south bank road.
"That's a terrible road. No one takes that road."
So when we didn't head to the ferry to go along the north bank of the Gambia River, I was a little surprised. I ventured to ask, eventually.
"So we're driving south?"
"Yes," said Mum. "We asked Bird Safari Camp's manager, who drives that south bank road a lot, and he said it's almost finished, that just a few sections are unpaved."
I grinned and sat back to enjoy the ride. This could be fun.
We made good time for a while, running into almost no other traffic in our convoy of two. Some of the road was potholed, but most of it was level dirt. The Peugeot I was in traveled second, since we had the A/C and could be bathed in the dust-trail of the first Peugeot without inhaling it. I sat next to Mum as Dad drove for the first few hours.
"I could really get used to this," I thought, as MM plugged her iPod into the car stereo and scrolled through to Buena Vista Social Club. I started fantasising about driving to Africa from Europe next time. This was a lot more comfortable than being squished into the back of a station wagon with my knees under my chin as I had been since the last leg of Mauritania.
"But with my luck, traveling like this is going to punish me," I thought. "There will be payback for this cheating." Then I laughed at my paranoia. It's not like there's some great cosmic scorecard somewhere that says that I'll be punished each time I travel in air conditioning.
There was one problem, though, with the trip. The police checkpoints. We had to stop and show paperwork constantly. Just when we'd be cruising along making good time, we'd spot a makeshift blockade – such as a fire extinguisher in the road – and a person in a uniform would pop up out of nowhere to wave us down.
Sometimes the police would take quick glances at our car's paperwork. Sometimes they'd ask outright "What do you have for me?" Dad would present them with licorice.
This worked fine until Dad moved into the passenger seat, installing MM as the driver. Now either the policemen would wave us on in shock or else they'd make jokes about convincing her parents to hand their daughter over as a new wife.
MM took it in stride, and we made excellent time for several hours. I nearly commended MM's excellent turn in one town, when we'd gone the wrong way. But she's a new driver and I didn't want to make her nervous.
We were an hour west of Janjanbureh when Mum, Dad, and I all saw the brake lights in front of us before MM did. Three voices yelled STOP as one before we rear-ended the burgundy Peugeot station wagon at an improvised police checkpoint.
For a moment, there was silence as steam suddenly rose in front of us, as radiator fluid poured out onto the road.
And then MM started sobbing.
Who hasn't smacked into something early in their driving career? I certainly did at her age, when my brakes locked up after a rain and I slid my old classic Volvo into a Cadillac at a country intersection in Ohio. The Peugeot impact was a surprise but the car was sturdy. No one was in any real danger. The crash felt worse than it really was.
But MM didn't know that a fender-bender is a rite of passage, or that Uncle G, his friend, and LM would spryly get out of their car a second later and walk back to inspect the damage. She didn't know that radiators are easily repaired, or that the other car was still road-worthy. Her meltdown was perfectly normal. I imagine she was thinking: Mum and Dad just drove this car all the way from Europe to Gambia and I've ruined it!
Except of course she hadn't. Both cars were still drivable. Anyway, they were going to be gifts to a mechanics school. We were just giving the students something to fix.
But there was the small problem of a bunch of policemen watching the whole thing. A bunch of policeman who had nothing to do, loved paperwork, and were probably bored out of their minds. This was the most fun they'd had in weeks.
I thought back to a saying my old pal Marky the Dragoman overland driver had when faced with a tricky situation: "We aren't getting out of here anytime soon. Let's have tea."
We didn't have tea, but we did have a beach-ball. LM blew it up and started a game of volleyball with the local kids. For nearly an hour, we bounced the ball back and forth in the shadow of their empty market stalls, across the road from concrete block homes and vegetable gardens.
When the police finally let us leave – after MM had realised that everything was going to be okay, and our Peugeot was ready to be towed silently to Bird Safari Camp by the burgundy car – we all waved hearty good-byes to our new friends, the Gambian village kids (and less sincere good-byes to the police).
Looking back as we pulled away, I saw the kids drop the beach-ball to the ground and kick it straight to the town's football field.
Sure, we'd crashed two cars at one go, but we'd also spent the day playing ball in a Gambian village.
Yaya would be pleased, I thought later, as I opened a cool drink next to the pool at Bird Safari Camp.
Marie 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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