Oh, we had such great pictures from The Gambia, especially of an early morning ferry boat trip across the wide mouth of the river. It was this classic “adventure” moment: we’d gotten up at 5:00 AM to be driven into Banjul; we would cross the river and then ride back into Senegal for a final week on the coast. We were on a boat with hundreds and hundreds of Gambians just crammed onto the boat with cars and trucks and … stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. You just can’t conjure up moments like that, feeling a tiny part of this massive African experience teeming with life and movement and color and sound and, yes, smells. Mark & I were grinning about the opportunity to experience Banjul at daybreak and Mark was snapping away great pictures of the people, the masses, sunrise over the Gambia River. Unfortunately, those pictures are still on his phone, wherever that may be.As we were waiting to disembark, you see, we noticed a British tourist we’d met earlier in the week and chatted briefly. She, too, loved the African-ness of the ride, notwithstanding that in the tumult of boarding her husband had been pick-pocketed. Despite that, she insisted, they were loving the trip. I should have listened to her story just a little more closely.
We got off the boat, got to the car that was going to take us out of The Gambia and back to Senegal when Mark noticed his iPhone was gone. Searched his pockets, nothing. Searched his knapsack, nothing. Searched the car where he’d just sat, but nothing. At some point he noticed that his AppleWatch was not connected to his phone, meaning the phone was nowhere in the vicinity.
So there you have it. Over two-and-a-half years into this adventure and for the first time we’ve been robbed. Now, to be fair, there’s a tiny chance he just lost it. Maybe it fell out of his pocket at some point. Really not likely though; phones aren’t exactly like fish, flipping and flopping to get away. Major bummer. On the other hand, the timing isn’t all bad: we’re going to be back in the states in a week, so he can always get a new phone.
Up until then, we’d come to like The Gambia, maybe even love it. Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste; it’s not an easy place to fall in love with.
First, a little background on The Gambia. It’s a tiny country, the smallest in Africa in fact. It straddles either side of the Gambia River and, except for the western edge of the country which borders the Atlantic, is completely surrounded by Senegal; the country’s borders were determined in the late 19th century by a treaty between the British, who had colonized The Gambia, and the French, who had colonized Senegal. And it’s poor, really poor. Prior to this, Senegal had been the poorest country Mark & I have visited, but The Gambia is even poorer. According to IMF data, Sengal ranks number 160 among the 187 countries for which they have data, while The Gambia comes in at number 174.
You can see and feel that poverty everywhere. The dust on the roads, the taxi rides for $1.25, the dirty kids in ragged clothes. The sex tourism. One of the first things we noticed when we crossed from Senegal into The Gambia was that all of a sudden at police stops – there are a lot of them along the road in both countries – our driver had to slip the officers a little something each time, something that hadn’t happened in Senegal. Just one sign of a place that really doesn’t work right.
That sense that things just don’t work right is probably not unconnected to the government they have. The Gambia received independence from Britain in 1965 and for the first few decades had a reasonably successful democracy. In 1994, though, a 29-year-old army Lieutenant named Yahya Jammeh led a successful coup and he remains president to this day. He is, by my standards at least, a bit of a freak. After an early marriage and divorce, he married a second time in 1999. Then in 2010, to the surprise of wife #2, he married wife #3 while still married to #2. Strange, by most modern standards. Oh, and he’s viciously and freakishly anti-gay. And claims to be able to cure HIV/AIDS (and asthma) with herbal remedies. A weird guy who runs a country that isn’t doing so well, though they do have one more iPhone today than they used to.
On top of all that, tourism has taken a real hit here. Last year, tourism in West Africa was all but destroyed by the Ebola virus. Now apparently there were no cases of it in The Gambia, but no one wanted to come to this part of the country at all. This year tourism has picked up a little, but apparently the fear of terrorism is still keeping people away. Locals said they’d never seen the hotel as quiet as it has been lately, which is just such a tragedy for people who need those jobs.
Still, despite all that, we kind of liked the place. It was all an initial let down after we’d loved Cap Skirring so much, but we got into it after a little bit. Our hotel was on the beach, so that’s always nice. The place was no Les Alizes, though, so we weren’t going to be happy just hanging out there as we had at our last Senegal stop. Just a couple miles up a dusty road from our hotel, though, was the Senegambia Road, the hub of downscale tourist and ex-pat haunts with some OK restaurants so we knew we would survive. The whites who frequented those places – some tourist, some part-time residents – were kind of a scary lot who looked like they’d seen better days, but they seemed harmless enough. And as we’ve occasionally observed before, Americans are rare; more than one person told us they’d worked in the area for years and never seen an American. It’s a shame, because despite the challenges it’s a place worth experiencing.
Besides beach time and exploring restaurants and watering holes, the big adventure for the area is to go up the Gambia River a ways to Jufureh, the onetime home of Kunte Kinte, to whom Alex Haley famously traced his roots. I read the book a month or so back in anticipation of our trip to Gambia, while Mark is reading it now, while we’re here. It’s every bit as powerful and even depressing as it was 40-plus years ago when it was first published, and going to the village is just something you have to do. To be honest, it wasn’t a very interesting experience; there was nothing that felt very Roots’ish. Still, steaming up the river was fun and touring the old island where they held kidnapped slaves before putting them on those unspeakably horrible boats to cross the Atlantic – long called James Island but recently renamed Kunte Kinte Island – is worth doing.
So ultimately we liked The Gambia. Not sure I need to ever go back, but it was an interesting place with some fun local people. One of the weird things about it is that ATMs dispense only about $75 at a time, and then only in bills that are worth about $2.50. Because credit cards aren’t accepted in many places, and in places that do take credit cards they tack on a three percent charge, we used cash for pretty much everything. Which means a lot of trips to the ATM and carrying around huge wads of cash that just wasn’t worth that much. And naturally, near the end of our stays, stopping yet again at an ATM for our $75 allotment, the ATM just ate my card. Swallowed it and then turned off. Gone. Normally, that would be something of a crisis, because we need those ATM cards but in this case, we’ll be back in the States in a week. We’ll get a new ATM card, a new iPhone, and be ready to hit the road again. Great timing!