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Published: April 28th 2009
Encircled by loud, angry men who literally herd us towards the bus to Mbour while spraying us both with a fine layer of whisky tainted spittle, it is at least satisfying to know that this will be the last of our Dakar experiences. When you have been hustled, hassled, followed by thieves and robbed, even an overcrowded bus begins to look good, as long as it is going somewhere - anywhere - away from the city. While Seth runs off to get some water, I perch on a fold-down aisle seat of questionable stability, and unsurprisingly find myself being yelled at again. With tired eyes, I look up to see who it is this time. Ah, it's the drunk conductor, telling me to shove Seth's camera bag onto the dirty floor beneath my seat. Smiling, I explain I'm just holding it for him until he gets back from the stall.
'This rule is the same for everyone! My mother, my sister, my grandmother!' he spits in disgust, as though I have just requested a glass of champagne and a pink pillow to cushion my pampered arse. 'What does it matter to you?' (prodding the bag) 'For me, the police see
this bag like this, I am charged 6000 CFA!'
To shut him up, I slide the bag beneath the seat and share conspiratorial glances with the women around me, like check this idiot out. All on board, I can't help flipping the finger to Dakar one last time before the doors fold close. It punished me by fortifying itself into a virtual gridlock of traffic and we crawl along the roads for two fumy hours before it unleashes us into the countryside. As if to mark the moment, the little girl next to me suddenly sends two great fountains of brown projectile vomit right down the aisle in quick succession. I'm thinking it must be a case of too much Coca-Cola pre-journey. I glance sympathetically at the man next to me who still can't quite believe the state of his freshly puked on T-shirt and trousers. This is travel.
We were heading for The Gambia, Africa's smallest country, and in fact the further south we got from Dakar, the more the redeeming qualities of Senegal began to show themselves. In Mbour, the fishing port was bright and lively, and there was a seaside restaurant that played Phil Collins
on the stereo, as much a hit with me as it was with the owner's African grey parrot (though both of us only whistled along to the fast tracks. I think Easy Lover was its favourite.) (And hey there's nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of Phil. Come on, what about the Tarzan soundtrack? Classic.) On Easter day, the Christian sector of the community got dressed up in their Sunday best and were shuttled around town on donkey carts, creating a spectacle that looked a hundred years outdated though very endearing. Further south still was tiny Toubacouta, where Boubo the boatman took us out on the Sine-Saloum Delta to see monkeys running alongside the mangroves. There were many birds, including the goliath heron, who truly lives up to his name. (It is hard to say who would win in a fight, man or bird.) The sun set behind a row of petrified looking baobab trees and the sky filled with squawking parakeets. Pelicans, egrets and kingfishers squabbled loudly over the best branches on their favourite island as the sun fell.
At the Senegalese border post, a gang of four giant money-changing women flew at us before we had even climbed
off the back of the motorbikes we had been travelling on. Annoyed with their pushiness, Seth gave them the cold shoulder, and they haughtily turned to me, looking me up and down with disapproval. I smiled benignly.
'This is good?,' said the ringleader, big enough to wrestle in Japan, moving forward and tapping the crotch of my jeans. 'This is good? This works?'
I couldn't believe it; my fertility in question once again. What was with this bizarre obsession? OK, in comparison to many of the African women I had met so far, I was more Wile E Coyote to their Jessica Rabbit, but why my height and, in this case, relative slimness, should render me so unfeminine in their eyes was beginning phase me. Best not to show it.
'I hope so, ' I confided, ' What's your name?' She began to soften. When we had talked a while, and she had discussed me in detail with her girlfriends in secretive Wolof, she eventually announced she liked me, though with naughty glance that kind of made me want to run. Seth and I crossed into The Gambia, leaving the francophone world behind us and entering one
in which English was widely spoken. For a month I had been muddling along with just a few phrases, straining to understand conversations in a language which, granted, is not my favourite, so to stroll into the taxi rank and immediate fall into a discussion with the locals was fantastic. A man in a flat hat and long tunic tut-tutted Seth and I for lighting up a cigarettes.
'I gave up in the seventies!' he wagged a finger. Further talk bizarrely revealed that he had been in the army and trained at Sandhurst. A faraway look came across this Gambian gentleman's face as he said, 'I have very good memories... ah, it was a good time.' Straight away, I felt The Gambia was going to be an interesting place.
Banjul, the capital, was about as unintimidating as an African city can be. It was a walking town, and even the low-level hustlers were mostly just friendly young guys trying to get you to visit their juice bar. There were local characters who would just start chatting to you on the street, telling you their life story. One especially brilliant, woolly-hatted fisherman hung out at Michel's restaurant, and swore
by their onion soup with the loyalty with which one might swear by a football team.
'You must try it! They put cheese in it! Cheese in the soup!' We tried it. It was indeed strangely good. He had fished in a good many places, and spoke excitably on the topic, especially when it came to lobsters.
'Nouadhibou,' he reminisced about the place that had been our first port of call in Mauritania, 'It has the best brown lobsters in the world.'
At the root of these travels lies the alphabet, and the letter 'E' is generally a tough one. I had spotted one on the north bank opposite Banjul (which lies at the point where the Gambia River meets the sea) but it was hard to say if it was its own independent town or part of the town of Barra, from where we had caught the ferry the previous day. Being an ex-colony, The Gambia also has its fair share of old and new names, and I didn't want to take us to a town that had either merged with another one or had a new name. Internet research and chats with locals finally confirmed
that Essau existed. To reach it, we would have to repeat the least pleasant experience of the previous day - the ferry trip; the most likely place in The Gambia to have your pockets picked or your bag snatched due to the crush and rush of people.
'This is dedication to the cause,' I told Seth, as we boarded the notorious ferry after a long hot wait in the sun. Essau was dusty, with a torn up road that had been undergoing road works for three years. Eighteen year-old Adam politely asked to join us and show us around, asking only for our email addresses and a new pair of flip-flops in return. The three of us explored Essau, meeting his family first before walking the dusty little streets of the town, disturbing bright birds in the trees and bringing much crazy adrenaline to the legions of kids who came to shout 'toubab! toubab!' at us (there's always a word for strange western outsiders.) Perhaps the oddest moment I recall is when, as we stood by a clutch of palm trees at the water's edge, adam pointed to a small house and said to me, 'There was another European
lady here once, and her name was Lu, and she lived in that house, and they called this place paradise.'
I gawped at him. Another Lu? Right here, in Essau, a place that not even half The Gambians we met would have known of? And what was this about paradise? He couldn't tell me much more about it and I thought it was the most peculiar thing I had heard in years. Back on the ferry, with a truckful of oxen and a cluster of people, we turned our eyes to the south, planning to visit Gunjur before heading inland to the Gambia that lies away from the coastal resorts, a Gambia that sees far less tourism.
With our arrival in little Gunjur came the first night of camping since the desert. We are not natural campers. We do stuff like pitch our tent on slopes, or near termite mounds, and there was that time when Seth sprayed Deet all around the inside of it while we were in there and we almost choked to death/blinded ourselves. Fortunately the Footsteps Ecolodge was so nice that we spent most of our time looking at birds by its freshwater pool, and drinking yummy Julbrew beer in its bar. It had a bird book which we used to identify the species we had spotted so far (total twitchers, very worrying). The best of all was the red cheeked cordon-bleu, a little bright blue bird with a clown like smile and scarlet cheeks that make it look like it's been on the gin. Walking to the fishing port via miles and miles of bush, there were paranoid hornbills that always flew ahead to the next tree, and a huge osprey wheeling overhead. The catch was just coming in as we arrived, women rushing to meet the boat with plastic buckets on their heads with which to carry the fish to shore. They waded out, not caring how wet their clothes got, while waves crashed against the wooden boat and the fishermen steered it closer to the land. It was so close-knit and intimate a scene, so much smaller than other fishing ports had been, that I had a moment of feeling acutely voyeuristic and walked away, a little uncomfortable. Pied kingfishers were fishing at a little swamp nearby. We both crept close to take their photo. Pleased with ourselves, returning to the beach, a passing local shook our hands and greeted us, pointing back at the swamp, 'So, you went to see the crocodile, then?' sometimes it's not what you want to hear.
The next day, it became apparent that travelling in the interior of The Gambia was not the straightforward, short distance, town-hopping joyride we thought it might be. The road along the south bank of the Gambia River was dusty, quiet, potholed and - due to the sudden intense heat - alarmingly prone to little bush fires. But it wasn't just the road conditions, it was the will of the driver to actually get anywhere that could make or break a journey. We reached the junction town of Brikama with no problems, and soon jumped onto a minibus that was due to head to Bintang, our next destination. You wait for the minibus to fill up - that's normal - but you don't normally wait for the driver to eat lunch, chat to his friends, fiddle with the horn, mess around in the bonnet, go for prayers (fair enough) then load up half the town onto the roof. Bintang was only 30km away, but we waited almost three hours for the minibus to actually head there. Once on the road, the driver and conductor would pull over to chat to friends and family on the way. I knew I would have to adjust myself to think more like the locals, to chill out, and yet there was that sense of life... slowly... ebbing... away...
The Bintang Bolong Lodge was peaceful and cute, with a restaurant on a pier overhanging the Bintang River. We were the only guests that night and we camped (never mind that we camped with termites). Determined to swim, Seth asked waitress Carla if it was safe to do so.
'Yes,' she shrugged, smiling. He stripped down to swimming gear and approached the river. He was standing on the jetty looking worried when I caught up with him (too grumpy to swim after the slowest 30km journey in history, and thinking to myself you could walk that distance in as much time.)
'Aren't you getting in?' I asked
'I think I saw a jellyfish!'
Sure enough, there in the green water was a huge, ugly orange jellyfish the size of a football. And another. Both of us had presumed the river was freshwater and couldn't help giggling at this strange turn of events. Desperate, still, to swim in the muggy heat, Seth padded back to restaurant and asked Carla if these jellyfish sting.
'Yes,' she shrugged, smiling.
Brave and quite mad, Seth climbed in, and I agreed to be his guardian, looking out for jellyfish, though reminding him I had bat eyes. Five minutes later he re-emerged, having been stung twice, and quickly developed a couple of nice rashes. The jellyfish wobbled around gleefully in water, pleased to have ousted him. When no spasms etc. occurred within the hour, we relaxed, and watched bats terrorise poor Carla in the restaurant as she brought us fish and chips. The sleepy village of Bintang, which had appeared to be little more than a quaint village with water pumps, livestock, a little boat dock and a small mosque, waited until after dark before holding some kind of intense and loud Bob Marley disco which induced much joyous shouting and yelling, mingling with donkey brays and sheep bleating that formed a more likely soundtrack. We lay in our tent, sleepless, hot, termite-infested, but inclined to laugh, even when at three in the morning a nocturnal peep-peeping bird joined in the chaotic chorus.
There was the kind of sunrise travel agents thrive on the following morning. We rose bleary eyed but happy. It was a good thing we had no idea exactly how many hours we would sit by the roadside, waving at buses, that day. There were still lessons in patience West Africa wanted to teach us.
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