Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Senegal and The Gambia


Philip Glass and Foday Musa-The Gambia
Amadou & Mariam ft Manu Chao-Senegal fast food
Baaba Maal-Faa-laay-Fanaan
Paul Simon-Under African Skies

Initial impressions: goat on minibus

I just spent 8 days hopping between The Gambia and Senegal, a Christmas present from and shared with my mum. It would have been a longer trip, were I not already on my year abroad; I do also need some time with my dad and the pussies back in the Highlands. Having had just over a week to see both of these countries, I will not claim to be an authority on either. I can however provide you with a brief trip report.

The Gambia and Senegal share an awful lot in common, as both Senegalese and Gambian people agree. Though separated by official languages (English and French), they share a common native language, Wolof. They also have a similar lifestyle, music, and dress. The Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, as is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, with one strip of its border touching the Atlantic ocean.

Many backpackers overlook Senegal due to the expensive flight tickets from London to Dakar. A quick Google search tells me that the going price from the UK to Dakar is about 1050 euros! With its historic ties to France, it's a little cheaper to fly from Paris to Dakar, but you are probably still going to pay between 400-600 euros. The Gambia on the other hand is a very inexpensive destination, being an ex British colony. Flights from London to Banjul are often a budget option for winter sun, usually costing less than £300 and often less if bought as a part of a package deal.

As a seasoned traveler I have never before traveled with a package deal. That said, sites like ice lolly do tempt me, the reason being that these all-inclusive or semi-inclusive deals often work out cheaper than buying the flight alone. For £279 each we got a room in Kotu beach for just over a week, and a charter flight with Thomas Cook. Admittedly the level of the accommodation was basic, but for that price we felt less guilty about leaving the hotel room to travel around the country. The room was still ensuite with a balcony, and the grounds of the hotel were well kept. There was even a swimming pool, and the (terrible) breakfast was included.

The few days we did spend in The Gambia were spent relaxing on the beach, around the pool, exploring the local forest reserve full of monkeys and other small mammals, termite mounds and birds, exploring Banjul market, getting a Senegalese visa and horse riding across the beach. There are a number of excursions available, including a two day trip to George town, home to hippos and crocodiles. The locals also push organized trips to local schools, the crocodile pool, the snake farm and a "safari" in Senegal. These trips are for the most part overpriced, overly touristic and often staged. The so-called safari park in Senegal, Fathala wildlife reserve, is actually more like a glorified zoo. A little glance at the claims of this park on the brochure will confirm this; you don't get lions or giraffes in Senegal! For a more authentic taste of The Gambia, take a trip to Kunta Kinteh island, a UNESCO world heritage site, famed for its usage during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. Aside from this, most tourists head to The Gambia for its guaranteed hot winters (we had between 33-37 degrees during our stay), the white sandy beaches and friendly locals. It also seems that some overweight middle-aged women head to the Gambia looking for love...

Kotu beach

With regards to the locals, some, known as bumsters, can be very frustrating. Bumsters are common in both The Gambia and Senegal. Walking along the beach or through towns, they look at tourists and see money. They will pretend to want to be your friend or guide you, they will learn your name and repeat it every time you walk past, and expect money. If you can distinguish the bumsters from the genuinely friendly and inquisitive locals, however, you may meet some very cool people.  Aside from the creeps and those who accused me of being racist for not buying from them (ironic, really, I do not see people's colour, as some people obviously did) or from whom I received marriage proposals, there were many peace loving Rastas who praised my vegetarianism and had an ethos reminiscent of Bob Marly's peace anthem, One love. It is hardly surprising that some locals may see Westerners as money machines. A guy I met was earning 500 dalasi a month as an electrician at our hotel, which is about £8. He said he had 16 siblings, and all of them shared two rooms in a village make-shift house. He doesn't have a computer and spends most of his monthly income on rice for his family, where he is the bread maker.

artist's depiction of the local love culture...

Ousmane and the gift he made me

This is normal in The Gambia, which is ranked as the 168th poorest country on the planet. Mortality rates are high due to widespread AIDs, malaria, lack of clean water accessibility and poor soil for agriculture. It is also a country where there is not much diversity in wealth, as most people are struggling. This was not so evident in the touristic beach resorts that were clearly set up for English tourists, with usual restaurants offerings being fruit crumble and custard, chips, all-day breakfasts, burgers, steaks and pizza. When north of the Gambia river, from Barra right up to the Senegalese border, however, children were desperate for water, even asking me for the last few drops I had in my bottle.

The most irritating thing for me in The Gambia was actually the lack of infrastructure. Time is practically nonexistent, and when a bus says it is leaving at 18:00, it might not actually go until 02:00... This, as I shall soon tell you, was particularly annoying when it came to taking a ferry from Banjul to Barra...  

So The Gambia was kind of interesting. Unlike many of the regular visitors, I don't think I would return in a hurry. Whilst I found that the chaos in India was somewhat natural and systematic, here it was just chaos. As a vegetarian, there were many touristy vegetarian options like pizza and salad, and I did have some local dishes vegetarianized, such as Domoda, a peanut stew usually made with goat meat. I asked to have it made with the same sauce (after confirming that there was no meat stock) but with vegetables instead of meat. It came served with rice. After the first few bites it felt very heavy and some of the unfamiliar spices/oil left a strange aftertaste. I guess it's an acquired taste.

Vegetable Domoda

Heading to Senegal was initially easy, though the Visa cost 50 euros even if only for a short stay. Casamance in the South is easily reached, though I wouldn't have wanted to spend longer than a day there, as south Senegal is known for its rebels and riots. Going to the North however was a little more tricky, as it involved the dreaded ferry from Banjul to Barra. Going to Dakar and North Senegal this way is however undoubtedly the cheapest route, though not the most comfortable. The ferry crossing cost a measly 25 dalasi each (40p), including baggage allowance. Having just missed the 8am ferry we ended up waiting at the port, under a burning sun, for no less than 5 hours. We were surrounded by women carrying boxes, fruit, grains on their head. People were carrying chickens upside down, I saw one unsympathetically thrown into a trash can for having a limp. I realize I am coming at this from a western vegan sensibility, but sometimes it is difficult to avoid being ethnocentric when ethics are involved. Really these kind of practices exist even in Europe, where they go on behind closed doors. When the ferry was ready to depart there was a race to get onboard; we were up against donkeys, lorries, camels, cars and heavily-loaded people. So, a 300 capacity boat was definitely overloaded. It took about an hour to cross the Gambia river.

The long journey to Dakar from Barra was quite an adventure. We had "befriended" two women whilst waiting for the ferry, a Gambian lady, and a slightly less friendly Senegalese lady. The latter asked us to join her up to Dakar and offered us a place to stay for a couple of night... Another guy who was heading up to Mauritania offered us a lift to Dakar in his jeep, though my mum trusted the lady over the man. Sometimes, it is difficult to trust people in this world... I spoke with the Senegalese lady in French, but she conversed with the taxi driver in Wolof. Another great big woman got into the taxi without asking, and suddenly we were asked to pay 400 dalasi, when we were told that this journey should cost only 250 dalasi. After a few questions we agreed to pay half, 200, only to find out that the two women had cheated us when we spoke to the police in the immigration office. They got away with a cheap ride, 50 dalasi between the two of them. At this point we turned down the trip to Dakar with the lady after letting her know that we knew. The immigration office was like a cow shed, the immigration officers were friendly, the exterior was quite poverty stricken and the ground rather arid.

To get to the garage, we needed to get on the back of a motorbike. There was obviously more supply than demand, when the locals found out we needed a lift they were treating me like the rope in a tug-of-war match where everyone was fighting for their themselves. After shouting "je n'en ai plus besoin" I grabbed the opportunity to jump on the back off the guy was hassling me the least's motorbike, and we sped along the bumpy rode to reach the garage. There were numerous taxis and minibuses, most of which seemed like vehicles we would only find in a dump or car crash here in Europe. People immediately saw us and ran at us offering great deals and "new" cars. 6000 Sefa seemed like a lot for a taxi, so we initially opted for the cheapest option, the mini bus, costing 4000 sefa per person. We waited from 15.30 until about 17:00 before asking when the mini bus would go, we had rather hoped to arrive in Dakar between 21:00-22:00. During this long wait we looked out of the windows, with the occasional desperate seller coming to our window. When some quite emaciated children approached me, I had nothing to give them... No dalasi, no Sefa, so I reached through my bag. After giving them the empty plastic bottles I had, I handed out some pens, which were a huge hit. More kids gathered around the bus, so I searched through my bag for anything which I could do without. In my pencil case I found a few parasol cocktail sticks, leftover from last summer. I handed them out, thinking they would be thrown away. Instead for the next 3 hours I saw the few who had these running around playing with them, spinning them, gazing at them in awe and showing them to their friends. It was pretty sad to think that some people have so little that they get so much out of such an insignificant little thing. It also reminded me how materialistic we are in the West, unable to enjoy the simple things in life. My mum handed them a blueberry muffin she had had in her bag, and a moment later we saw 5 children standing around it, all taking little bites. The mini bus driver laughed whilst chatting with friends, and casually said that he was waiting until 18:00, for the next ferry passengers. Great, so we knew how unreliable the ferry service was. We waited another hour and saw the ferry passengers arrive, and the mini bus still wasn't full, so we argued a little to get our money back and swapped into the 6000 Sefa taxi. After the trip I did a conversion, those 6000 sefa were only about £7.50, so it was going to be a very cheap trip. As we were in such as rush at this point to leave we didn't bother looking at where we were sitting. The driver had squeezed three of us into the back of a taxi, in a seat suitable for only two people.

Thus, for three hours we were squashed and uncomfortable, and I was sat on a buckle. Aside from the discomfort, it was at least an interesting journey at the start. Looking out of the window we saw little villages, dirt tracks and a really rural side of Senegal. I was also chatting in French with the guy next to me, who was taking up the majority of the conversation. To begin with it was an interesting conversation, but later on the conversation got a little weird... "tu es pour ou contre le racisme?" "tu as jamais été avec un noir?" "tu as l'air très cool" "j'espère que je t'ai dit que tu es belle". My mum asked him which branch of medicine he wanted to specialise in. The answer? Gynecology. Later, when other passengers left the taxi my mum got into the front for more leg room, and this guy (who it turns out is married) tried to hold my hand. I told him I had a boyfriend, he said "juste comme amie". He paid for the taxi to our hostel despite my outright refusal, but it did make for an awkward 6 journey, to add the discomfort of being trapped in a sardine tin, bouncing over pot holes on a poorly maintained dust track. This wasn't the only time this happened, though as I couldn't escape, it was definitely the most memorable. Like in India, I did get many marriage proposals, though these were a little more insistent. The proposals still came, even when I started announcing I was married. The hotelier in Kotu kept asking me to change my surname to his. I got a reputation in that little town, "the Princess", which was a little bit weird/sweet at the same time. In any case, this can be a little scary for a young female traveler. As I understand, western girls do have a somewhat international reputation for being "sluts" (horrible world). During this long journey I ate 6 oreos and a banana. When I eventually arrived in Dakar at 01:30 I drank the only drink available, a sprite.

A sad dinner.

Dakar was clearly more developed than any of the other places I had been in Senegal or The Gambia. Whilst there was still poverty, regular power cuts, and a little disorder, there were also big supermarkets chains like Carrefour and Casino, air conditioned restaurants, high street shops and time-tabled public transport. The ferry to Gorée island was very clean and on-time, and the waiting room and ticket office were also clean and efficient. During a nostalgic walk around Casino I spotted all the products I purchased on a regular basis in Grenoble, including Granola cookies and the sign of bad quality, the generic tous les jours range. Though the market was a labyrinth equivocal to those found in old Delhi, there were trees lining the roads and the occasional upmarket bar or boulangerie/patisserie. There were some impressive colonial buildings in the centre, and the cathedral, president' s house and la place de la résistance make Dakar really seem like an important capital. Le monument de la Renaissance gives Dakar that unique skyline which makes it stand out from other African cities as being a centre of culture. Dakar is also a pretty international city, with many immigrants, notably there is a pretty sizable Lebanese presence. I went to a Lebanese restaurant and had one of the best falafel wraps ever.

shock shock horror, finger in photo! Le monument de la Renaissance Africaine is in the distance.

Gorée island was a beautiful, colourful place. Colonial architecture made by the French and British was prevalent, and the cobblestone streets were adorned with flowers. The water was also clear, and the beach white and sandy. We ate in a beach café, I had the salade avocat, a very basic avocado sandwich, whilst my mum went for a local fish dish. If I had been hungrier I would have tried the ton ton végétarien, a stir fry made with sautéed potatoes, plantains, green vegetables and manioc. After lunch we headed to the main attraction of the island: la maison des esclaves. A UNESCO world heritage site, this old slave prison has been transformed into an informative museum, with some disturbing exhibits. The plaques are still up, designating which rooms are for young girls, which are for women and men etc.


We decided to get a snack prior to getting a return ferry to the mainland. My mum's crepe came with salt instead of sugar, which would have been okay had we got a refund/a new crepe. Instead, the waitress tasted a bit and spat it out, went back to the miserable looking fat mother in the kitchen, who came out with the frying pan and hit my mum, telling us she wouldn't be giving us a refund. She was clearly taking advantage of the fact that she knew we were catching the next ferry, in 5 minutes time. I contacted the Mayor of the island, who promised he would get this resolved.

We spent another day going through the bush and checking out local villages, after which we had the return journey to look forward to yet again, and another surprisingly long ferry crossing. This time the tide was out, and we had to wait 5 hours for it to come in again.

sunset on the Gambia river

I think one of the biggest surprises of this trip was Banjul airport. I know that the "city" itself was more of a dust track, but I expected more from an international airport. There was an outdoor sitting area in the airport, a few gift shops which looked like they had just arrived from the market, and two bars. Whilst sitting in the waiting area many waiters approached me, trying to place their menus in my hand and trying to sell me sandwiches. Usually once you get through customs you are safe from haggling and pressure to buy random stuff. Not here.

It was great being able to speak French in another Francophone country and see a little bit of a completely different culture. Escaping the cold was also most welcome, but I think next time I will be heading back to (what I find personally to be) the most fascinating and mysterious continent: Asia. 

Being a little bit arrogant I decided to not take malaria tablets and to go ahead and brush my teeth with local water, and take no precautions when ordering salads. Back from my trip, and I am currently experiencing a little bit of traveller's sickness, or Delhi belly. Next time I should follow the Doctor's advice :) Staying inside resting with movies and Breaking bad for a couple of days before heading back to Edinburgh to see friends, before heading off to Berlin on Saturday for the next leg of my none-stop journey. Traveling can present problems and uncomfortable situations, but in the end the curiosity of discovering, or even just seeking the new is almost always rewarding. Human beings are curious, with a burning desire to discover; to quote Baudelaire:

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