Monday, March 12, 2007

More like an Adventure than a Vacation (and another reason why I love West Africa)

While many people probably embark on a relaxing spring break ours consisted of: two flat tires, a horse cart, station wagons with more than 20 people inside and on top, non-existent roads, monkeys and bird watching, hitch-hiking and lots of Europeans. A vacation it was not, but we did get to spend an incredible time touring rural Gambia and Senegal and getting to know the locals. Before I begin my tale, I want to inform everyone about the country we visited: The Gambia is a former British colony that is smack dab in the middle of Senegal. The British wanted the river that traverses through the Gambia and refused to cede it to the French, even though it wasn’t a very productive colony. Thus, the Gambia is only slightly larger than Delaware, Not even 15 km wide. The language is English, though we found that most people in the rural areas did not speak English, but Wolof, Mandinka, or Fula. The official name includes “the,” so I always say “the Gambia.”

Pictures: The picture above is a map of where we traveled. The picture to the right is the River Gambia in the morning time, its pretty. The three pictures below are Bush Town, flat tire on the way to Velingara, Village en route from waterfall.

Day one: From Suffolk we head to the station to catch a sept-place (a station wagon that can fit 7 people…normally more expensive than a mini-bus, but slightly more comfortable) from Dakar to Kaolack. Here there were very persistent hawkers and drivers who poked and harassed while we waited for the car. It was a 3.5 hour drive to Kaolack, where we were harassed again by drivers and then when someone “helps us” they expect a cadeau (gift). Then we took a ndiange ndiaye to some village, where we were marauded by boys with horse carts who took us across the Senegalese/Gambian border illegally, I am pretty sure, because there was no border post that checked our passport when we arrived in Farafenni, The Gambia. The only reason we got stamps was because we asked for directions at immigration. It didn’t feel like a different country…the people looked the same, same religion, same landscape, Wolof, but the difference was there were people who spoke English. It was weird.
Day two: We left the hotel in search of the bank, where we thought there was an ATM…lo and behold, the only ATMs in the entire country are in Banjul at least 8 hours away! We crossed the river to get to Soma, where we waited a long time for a car to leave for Kwinella. Once at Kwinella, we realized that it was impossible to reach Tendaba camp where we were staying that night. We tried to hire a donkey cart (but they wanted $6!) so we preceded to just sit and wait. Lucky for us, a man who worked for the National Treasury with an air-conditioned car stopped and offered us a ride to the camp. Tendaba camp was expensive- being a tourist location- and was the first place we ran into difficulty because we were only two people. In order to participate in the safari or bird watching tours, we had to either pay for the other four people (i.e. 10 bucks per person) or we had to join an already existent group.
Day three: Thus, we took a bird watching tour on the river with four older European couples who were avid bird watchers. It was a boring trip, because all we looked at was “rare” birds that the couples excitedly checked off their lists. But the landscape was nice-savannah and mangrove swamps- and I guess some of the birds were too. We got a free ride back to Kwinella from the hotel, but waited three hours for a car to drive by to take us back to Soma. During that time we made friends with some of the small local boys who wanted our empty bottles, pencils, rings, anything that we could give, and taught us Mandinka, as well as performed dances and songs. The road to Soma is entirely pot-holed… Lizzie said “it’s got to be bad when it’s better and easier to ride on the side of the road and not on it.” We got stuck once and I flew out of the seat a couple of times. It was a pretty ridiculous ride, but the sad thing was that most of the roads were like this throughout the Gambia. Once in Soma, we crossed the river again to Farafenni, where I bought a drink at the ferry stop and was attacked by bees, and we stayed the night again there.
Day four: We try to head to Georgetown and are stopped by a man in a car who was handing money out to the talibes. He said he is headed in that direction and can give us a ride, but first he has to run a few errands, give him five minutes. We waited two hours, sitting next to a woman who was selling beef sandwiches for breakfast and spoke to us in Wolof, and finally decided he wasn’t coming so we would find a car there. But luckily he drove up right when we started to leave. His name was Jean and he was a half Senegalese-half Cape Verdean engineer who was part of the team working on the road on the northern bank of the river. He bought us some drinks from the shop, and we headed towards Georgetown. In the car he had a dvd player blaring Senegalese music, and he tells us that he is a salsa dance teacher in Banjul. All along the road he gave things to the people: sandwiches, drinks, money. He said that it doesn’t matter how much you pray, but what is in your heart. When his men were working on the roads, he had his cook make them all lunch and bring it to them, out of the kindness of his heart. He was also very cordial with all the police we passed. En route, we decided to check this village the book lists called Kuntaur where you can rent a boat to visit this Baboon Island. Kuntaur was far from the beaten path, but when we arrive we discover that the book was more than way off on the price…they wanted fifty bucks for the boat, six times more than what the book says! We most certainly didn’t have that kind of money, but Jean tries to help us out by discussing the price with the men, who tell us perhaps we can get a cheaper boat at a “nearby” village. We drive literally for 30 minutes away from Kuntaur through rice fields, savannah, and on dirt roads, to find that these boatmen also will not charge less. It was very nice of Jean to drive us all over creation for this stupid boat; afterwards he dropped us at the ferry stop for Georgetown where two local boys attached to us and tried to get us to stay at their hotel, which wasn’t cheap. After this we tried to get to Georgetown, but the boys were determined to stay with us. We went to the Governor’s guesthouse on recommendation from Jean, which was about $10/night. We searched out the Forestry Department to find a tour somewhere, but found some Danes with no shirts on who didn’t speak any English and a German woman who ran the forestry department who told us about these two parks we could visit for about $3 bucks a piece. We chilled at a “bar” with no beer, and got to really get to know some local guys who talked about development, politics (how women should be the leaders in Africa because they are more sympathetic to the problems of the people), and the owner of the restaurant, feeling bad because we didn’t have much money, offered to make us dinner if we bought the supplies. This was very welcomed because it was the first time I had eaten in three days. Finally shook off the men who were with us the entire day to sleep at the Governor’s residence.
Day Five: left governor’s residence after 8 hours of no power (and it was HOT) and walked to the southern ferry port. Here Lizzie got yelled at by a man for taking a picture of some rice fields where some inmates happened to be working. Lucky for us, this little confrontation brought the attention of some Swedish NGO workers who gave us a ride from Georgetown to Bansang in their nice vehicle. We took a boat and crossed the river again to this village Bush Town which is protecting this stretch of forest that we wanted to tour to see some cool animals. We saw some monkeys, the guide saw a snake, and a couple baboons, but overall it was kind of disappointing. The tour guide and his brother invited us into their hut and talked to us about how hard life is. One boy said he wanted to continue his studies but the school fees were too much for his family, even though he tried to contribute by making money ferrying people back and forth across the river. We crossed the river again to find a car to Basse Santa Su, but got a flat and hung out in a random village for a couple of hours. Once in Basse, we waited a long time for a car to cross the border to Velingara, Senegal. The car, a truck with a covered bed with two benches, ended up having more than 20 people crammed inside and riding on top to the border. Once at the border we changed to a car…no I wouldn’t even call it that because it was pretty much just an engine with the remains of a body that barely functioned. Twenty people plus in this car as well. From Velingara we took a car to Tambacounda (at this point it was 7:00pm but we didn’t want to get stranded in small town Velingara, so we risked it and traveled at night).
Day six: Took a sept-place to Kedougou (four hours, a crappy road) where we discover that there are no cars going to the waterfall in Dindefelo (the main reason for us traveling here) until Sunday. We would have to hire a 4x4, which would cost $80. Thoroughly frustrated from not seeing anything, we moped around Tambacounda and found some guys who enjoyed discussing various things with us and took us to a restaurant and a hotel. Tambacounda and Kedougou were ridiculously hot…over 100 degrees of heat that doesn’t make you sweat, but presses down on you like a ton of weights and dries out your eyes, nose, and mouth. It was also very dusty everywhere and we were always coated in a nice layer of brown.Day Seven: We were ready to go back to Dakar; we got nothing done because we were only two, and all we did was travel from village to village without actually seeing anything other than rural Senegal/the Gambia. Complaining to one of the hotel employees, he became determined to help us find a way to the waterfall. He found us a car to Dindefelo (how I don’t know, because there was only supposed to be one on Sunday?) and said we could catch a ride back with these two Italian guys who had rented a 4x4 with his friend. The road to Dindefelo was TERRIBLE and of course we got stuck. As fate has it, the 4x4 with the Italians drove by while we were stuck and we hopped in there with them (paying $20 bucks each) and headed down the non-existent road to the fall. The two Italian men didn’t speak English or French, but we didn’t really need to talk to them as we hiked up the trail to the waterfall. It was mostly just a trickle, but it was rewarding because we finally got somewhere.
Day Eight: Got up early to head back to Tambacounda with the Italians and a Senegalese guy who was headed to Dakar. In Tambacounda we discover that because of the Magal (a religious pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Mourides (a Muslim sect) ,Touba, on March 8…apparently it is a huge deal and all of the cars were headed there instead of other cities) there were no cars going to Dakar. Determined to get back that night, we got in a car to Kaolack at the hottest part of the day (100+ degrees), and one of the worst roads in Senegal, and arrived at Kaolack around seven. Found a sept-place headed for Dakar there, another four hours, and FINALLY made it to Dakar, safe and sound.

The best part of our spring break was talking to these local guys…many of whom were extremely intelligent (one guy knew seven languages, most self taught) but couldn’t afford to go to University or expect to do anything except stay at their villages. Many were able to use their talents as tour guides for foreign visitors (such as one guy who was practically fluent in Spanish in Senegal) or to work with local NGOs, but they constantly discussed how difficult it was to find jobs in their respective countries. Everyone was always friendly and offering to help us out (for example, from Kaolack to Dakar we met a Gambian woman who told us the next time we visit to call her and we could stay at her house). I got to see a lot of rural areas, savannah and dry landscape, and a ton of tiny villages. It made me wonder if it is possible to keep rural/village life intact in Africa while improving and developing the lives of those that live there. Apparently the only Americans that go to the Gambia were peace corps volunteers…actually there are more peace corps in the Gambia then in the whole of Senegal, which I thought was interesting. We met two at Tendaba who had mixed reviews of the program.


Ashley said...

i miss traveling with u justine! U r very positive and quite the trooper! I wish i could have come visit u!

annad said...

Hey Justine,
It's too bad that your adventure wasn't as adventurous as you expected. I am glad that in the end, you found just a little bit of joy during your spring break.