Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

The Gambia

Fisherman at sunset 2

The Gambia: The Atlantic Coast

Arrived in Banjul International Airport after a night of attempting to sleep in London’s Gatwick airport: Hard wooden benches, bright lights, and a construction crew using jackhammers at all hours of the night .  Needless to say we got very little sleep and so arrived exhausted especially since the previous 4 days we had spent madly packing up and cleaning our flat in Glasgow as we prepared to leave our home of the last two years.  We stepped off the plane into 30+ degree heat and got a taxi to our hotel, Leybato Hotel in Fajara. The hotel was very nice, we had our own little hut complete with mosquito nets and the hotel was right on the beach which we loved as we could lounge on the hammocks and watch the sunset. Went for a small walk along the beach when we first arrived and sat on a rock to watch the sunset. Watched many young African men running up and down the beach doing pushups, squats and other various exercises.  Our trusted Lonely Planet guidebook informed us these were male prostitutes keeping fit for British and European women interested in sex tourism.  You wouldn't think Africa would be the best choice for this due to the high incidence of AIDS!  Soon after we had sat down, Eddy approached us and we began chatting. He was very friendly and laid back and sat and watched the sunset with us. He was a local from the Jula tribe, and worked just near our hotel selling juice on the beach – the juice was amazing and so fresh! He offered to show us around the next couple days which ended up being fantastic as we got a nice insight into local Gambian life.

The next morning we met up with Eddy on the beach. He had brought us necklaces as a present for goodluck. In Gambia when a baby is born they tie a string around their waist with a bead to ward off evil spirits and keep the child safe and bring them goodluck. They typically wear it throughout childhood. But even after childhood there are several other necklaces or waist beads, called bin bins, that people wear. It was interesting to talk to him about local customs and about how he had grown up. Pretty much everyone in the Gambia is multi-lingual; Eddy spoke seven different languges! This is apparently quite common as kids from different tribes intermingle and you end up learning each other's languages.

Eddy took us to Bakau Village to Kachikaly Crocodile Pool which for locals is a sacred site as the crocodiles represent fertility. However, it has become quite a popular tourist site with the locals allowing the tourists to touch the crocodiles and take many photos.  Shortly after we had gotten there Eddy took V by the hand and led her to a crocodile making her touch its tail. He found this very amusing as she was nervous. As soon as she had touched his tail he looked at her and made it’s way back into the pond.  There were tons of crocodiles, of all sizes. Also many monitor lizards in the forest surrounding the pool. Afterwards we took local transport to Lamin Lodge, a rickety looking three-story hut made of logs and palmtree leaves standing on stilts and overlooking the mangrove creeks. The local transport reminded us of Peruvian local transport where unless you figure out how the system works it just seems like you wait on the side of the road until the car you want comes along. Generally a young boy is hanging out the window yelling their destination and will bang on the side of the car to let the driver know to stop for a passenger. They cram as many people as they have seats for, which is often quite a bit, sometimes making for an uncomfortable hot journey but a cheap one that makes you feel you are getting to know the Gambian way of life. Lamin Lodge was great. We had a nice lunch overlooking the mangroves and it was shady and cool in the multi-level lodge, which was made of wood and reeds. We saw the oyster “factory” which was nearby and essentially a bunch of people sitting on the side of the road beside massive piles of oyster shells. We got a tour of the “factory” which was very interesting. Women collect the oysters from the mangroves at low tide in the dry season using small canoes made of hollowed-out trees. The oysters are then cooked quickly to open them and the small ones are given to the local markets and the larger ones to restaurants. Nothing goes to waste as the shells are crushed and either mixed with water to make paint or with sand to make cement/concrete. They are also mixed up in animal feed for a source of calcium.  To make the concrete stronger it is also mixed with clam shells which you can see on all their roads and buildings. We went on a canoe right through the mangroves and saw our first glimpse of Gambian birds, of which there are hundreds! There were also mud skippers around, a bizzare-looking animal with a frogs head and front arms, but a fish's body. We also saw our first monkeys of the trip! V was super excited even though Eddy said the monkeys at Lamin Lodge were “bad monkeys” because they eat your food. We then went back to our hotel and ended our day watching the sunset on the hammocks on the beach.

Spent a morning at the Abuko Nature Reserve which was a lush forest with a couple ponds in it abundant with birds and crocodiles. One of the birds was walking around and using its wings to shade the water so he could see the fish - very smart! Walking through the park we saw many green vervet monkeys running around and grooming each other. There is an orphanage in the centre of the park that rehabilitates animals back to the wild, mostly monkeys but also had a couple hyenas which have been rescued from people’s homes – this was very touristy and we much preferred roaming around the actual park instead of seeing the animals in the orphanage. At the orphanage they made you buy peanuts to feed the monkeys. Some were patient and waited for their peanuts and took it politely from your hand but others were cheeky and stole the entire bag out of our hand when you weren’t paying attention. There was one greedy one who kept chasing the smaller ones away and who seemed to have an unlimited appetite! He would stuff his cheeks with peanuts and still come back for more! Sat around and had a cold drink under the shady trees and hung out with the monkeys. V didn’t want to leave!  On the walk back out we spotted a family of red colobus monkeys high in the trees. They were super shy and as soon as they had realized you had spotted them would dart away quickly no matter how high above you they were. They were completely different than the vervets who spent most of their time on the ground and felt quite comfortable around people.

After the park Eddy took us back to his family’s compound in a village called Lamin. It was a big complex with many families and mango trees. We gave all the kids sweets and they were very interested in us. They were super excited and were fascinated by Tony’s hair on his arms and wanting to play with V’s hair.  They were super cute kids! V let them take some pictures with her camera which was very exciting for them and they loved looking at the pictures that Tony was taking of them with his “magic box”.  Eddy’s family was incredibly friendly and bought us cold drinks and made us lunch – granut soup – which was a big bowl of rice with a spicy peanut sauce and fish. It was actually really good. We felt pretty bad as it was fairly obvious they had very little and were sharing what little they had with the “rich white couple”. We hadn’t expected that at all. The hospitality we received was amazing.  To say thank you we bought them a 50kg bag of rice that could feel their entire family (and when I say family we are talking about all relatives, extended family, kids etc…) for 3 weeks and only cost us $30. It was very well received.

Afterwards we wandered around the large Serekunda Market, which was crammed with little stalls, selling everything you could think of. Reminded us again of Peru, but was much more condensed and a quite a bit crazier/hectic to walk through.  Peru had larger isles typically, while Serekunda had every nook and cranny filled with sellers or just people hanging out, and you often had to step around things and people to move about.  Where Peruvian vendors would typically hassle you constantly in a place like this, we didn't get too much of that at this particular market, and I believe this is because we were with Eddie.  We couldn't go two paces alone in the Gambia without someone talking to us or trying to sell us something, unless we were already with someone local.

The next day we attempted to go around on our own. Leaving the hotel we noticed it was unusually quiet and found out that it was “National Cleaning Day”. Every last Saturday of the month they have a cleaning day where no cars are allowed on the streets and all the locals are supposed to help clean the streets of garbage and the streets get washed. So we ended up walking in the heat for an hour to get to the other reserve we wanted to visit. They walk wasn’t too bad as we saw birds along the way and of course had a few Gambian’s to talk to and walk with along the way. You essentially can’t walk very far on your own before one of the locals joins you to chat or to walk to wherever it is you are walking to even if it’s not where they are going. Made it to Bijolo Forest Park and wanted to wander around on our own so we could take our time and not feel like we were making someone wait for us. But they were pretty insistant we take a guide. Lamin (which is the name given to the first born and thus almost every male you meet in The Gambia is called Lamin) was not much of a guide and we would have done much better without him but we had a good laugh. He spoke his mind about everything including how he thought English people have cold hearts, talk too much, and are rude -- all the while thinking we were English! Talked about his life, some of which was interesting. At some point he picked up a plastic bottle out of the garbage bin and proceeded to smack it against his leg as we walked along the trail probably scaring off all animals nearby! He took V’s camera while she was photographing the monkeys and exchanged it for his empty bottle so he could take a picture of a lizard! haha One of the other guides we ran into had said they had seen a Spitting Black Cobra but Lamin wouldn’t let us walk along that trail just in case but then suggested we go to the reptile park and put a python around our necks cause that was safe!  But despite all that we had a great walk and did actually see a lot of animals so we were quite happy :)  Saw loads of vervets and the more reclusive red colobus monkeys.

It was super hot the entire time we were there; Thank goodness it was the cold season! In the middle of the day it would reach 35-40 degrees celcius!  And people would be wearing down jackets in the mornings when it was like 20 degrees out!  Everywhere you walked people would chat to you. Some just because they were interested in learning about Canada or just wanted to chat and others because they wanted something. No matter where we were going we’d always have someone walking with us, and they would walk with you for kilometres even if they weren’t necessarily going in that direction. There were also tons of worthy causes to donate to so a lot of our  money went to schools, reserves, charities…etc.. hard to say no when they have so little in comparison but you also can’t help everyone so we had to say no a lot too.  The artwork there is so nice but it is hard to go in and search for a souvenir as whenever you walk into a craft market you feel like two small pieces of meat who have just entered a piranha tank!  Upon entering one on the beach almost every vendor left their stalls to swoop in.  All of the art is very cheap too. A lot of the time we half heartedly haggled as they expected you to as we felt that the money is so much more beneficial to them than to us. We really didn’t mind spending the extra $5 even though we probably bought a few things for “too much”.  Was definitely the hardest trip we’ve had to do yet but everything turned out well, with only a few minor hic-ups and we are both really glad we had the opportunity to experience The Gambia and Senegal.

The Gambia: Along the River Gambia and Exploring Ginak Island

We decided to join a tour for two days so that we could see the interior of The Gambia; it seemed a lot easier and less hassle than trying to figure it out ourselves. In the end we were glad we did it as it was put together really well and we felt it was well priced. The tour group was basically us and 8 other people, all Dutch. Apparently we were the first Canadians in the tour-guide’s group, who was unsurprisingly called Lamin also.  Hope we gave Canadians a good name!  Took a ferry to the northern part of the country. The ferry only has room for maybe 20 vehicles but other than that they cram on as many people as possible, so was very crowded. There were many people selling things, such as granut (A variety of peanut), bananas, t-shirts, bread, flashlights, and other random things… A few people asking for change. We found that many of the local people gave their spare change even if they too were poor -- both the Gambia and Senegal are predominantly Muslim countries, and giving alms to those less fortunate is the third of the five pillars of islam. We found a little corner to sit in and watched the morning fishermen head out in their canoes as we crossed the mouth of the River Gambia.

Once on the other side, we boarded a small “tourist” bus and were immediately surrounded by many locals trying to either sell us stuff or hoping for a gift such as your empty water bottle or your shoes. The bus was hot but it was interesting to see the scenery changing and the small villages along the way. We stopped by a tree in the middle of nowhere by a field of tiny pepper plants for a picnic lunch including some much desired COLD fanta! Cold drinks taste so good when it is 35+ degrees outside!  After lunch we wandered around the area we were in while the picnic was packed up and while the Dutch smoked. We found seed pods that make sound when shaken, like maracas, which Veronica found amusing :)  Later we stopped by a tiny village, made up of about 4 huts but shared by many families. Lamin, basically got out of the bus and asked the elder if it was ok to stop by for a surprise visit. We felt a little weird about this especially since we were then allowed to wander through their houses and see how they lived. Felt a bit intrusive. We gave the kids gifts and gave the elder some money for the village as a thank you, they seemed very happy and it was interesting to see how they lived, but we much preferred our visit to Eddy’s compound on the coast.

We arrived to our camp, at Jangjangbureh (Georgetown), just before dinner. It was beautiful! There were many little huts sitting right on the River Gambia which was super lush and peaceful. Tons of vervet monkeys all around too which made for some entertainment at dusk and dawn and around meal times when they sneakily attempted to steal food. Haha! And no electricity made star gazing at night perfect, it was amazing how bright the stars were and how many we could see! We loved it.  As others in our tour group took time to settle into their huts, we took the opportunity to wander around the camp and watch the playful monkeys in the trees. We found a group of them using a hammock as a toy – they would jump into it and tackle on another, wrestling each other until they fell out of the hammock. Was hilarious! We could have stood there all night!  We then took a small boat ride to an island across the way which was a bit intense. The kids there swarm you! It’s crazy. I think they’ve seen way too many tourists. V made the mistake of trying to be nice and giving a small group of them some pens but it quickly turned into a mad scramble with kids fighting each other for the pens, it felt awful to have caused such a commotion. We then returned back to camp and enjoyed a nice relaxing buffet dinner with kora music playing in the background and then finished off the evening watching the locals dance and drum and fell asleep to the sound of crickets.

The next morning was probably the highlight of the tour. We spent four hours cruising down the River Gambia, lounging on the top deck of a small boat on pillows enjoying the lush scenery, tiny villages, and fishermen by the river, and looking for birds and monkeys. Was incredibly relaxing and the cool breeze was a much welcomed change! Saw many different birds, big and small, a family of baboons and a family of vervets in the trees, crocodiles, and even managed to spot a few hippos who were very far away and so looked like little rocks but if you really looked hard you could see their ears spinning as they popped up briefly for air. It was high tide so I suppose we were pretty lucky to have seen hippos at all!

The next day we went our own way and arranged our own transport at Barra, by the ferry terminal, to the Gambia-Senegal border. That in itself was a crazy experience! Picture a large parking lot crammed with taxi’s, buses, cars, all bumper to bumper and filled with people, some of them passengers, some of them drivers, and some of them negotiators that try to get you to go in their driver’s car. It was so hectic! We instantly had a swarm of people around us, everyone wanted us to get in their vehicle, people were getting into fist fights, it was quite ridiculous! We finally managed to agree on a price with one guy but the offers and fighting continued. At one point three different people grabbed V’s arm and were trying to lead us to their cab and trying to prevent us from going with the guy we had agreed to despite us saying we were going to go with him. After much pushing and shoving we both safely made it with our bags and got into a car. But did this stop the offers? No! People were leaning in the car windows asking how much we were paying and saying they would offer us a better deal. There was no way we were getting out of that car! The doors and roof were protecting us from the madness! We were quite relieved when our bush taxi filled up and we were on our way (usually how local transport works with bush taxi’s is you pay for your seat and the car leaves when it is full, so depending on where you are going and how big the vehicle is it can fill up fast or you can be sitting there for hours!). The rest of the trip up to the border was far from relaxing. Not long after we had left the madness of the Barra bus/taxi depot our car got stopped by the Gambia police doing a “routine” immigration/customs check/search for drugs. It was very intense and they took us into a small dark room on the side of the road to search our bags and us – they were extremely thorough, even smelling Tony’s dirty underwear and socks and giving Tony a very personal frisk! We were super nervous as we had heard sketchy things about the “corrupt” Gambian police. We complied with everything they asked and in the end we lucked out without having to give them anything and were sent on our way. They didn’t find our hidden stash of cash which was good and instead found Tony’s broken pair of sunglasses and a few really small scrunched up bills, so we assume that besides Tony’s camera stuff it didn’t look like we much of value. After that we had no problems getting to the border and the driver of our bush taxi had waited for us through the inspection which we were very relieved about. We got our passports stamped and wandered into French-speaking Senegal to meet up with Kierstin, who we were very happy to see!!… – our adventures in Senegal will be detailed later…


Our last couple days in The Gambia, before catching our flight back to the UK, were spent on the island of Ginak near the Gambia-Senegal border. We were the only people at the hotel we stayed at and besides a couple small villages on the island the rest of the island was composed of savannah, marshes, lakes, and mangroves.  We had a long deserted beach all to ourselves – well, we shared it with a few cows and a couple donkeys :P  Was a very nice and relaxing way to spend the end of our trip. Although, getting there once again had it’s challenges. We had negotiated for a private taxi to take us from the border to a village across a small creek that would take us to the hotel. The problem with taking private taxis rather than public transport is that you have to trust the driver is going to take you where you ask. Unfortunately public transport to this village was very limited as the island is rarely visited by people – locals or tourists – so a taxi was the only way to get there from the border. Ran into a couple police checks along the way which were actually quite tame compared to the first we had gone through. The taxi ended up driving us to the wrong village because he didn’t know where the village was that we wanted to go to despite telling us he knew the way, but we hadn’t realized it at this point. He stopped to ask for directions and in the end arranged for us to take a canoe ride for an hour through mangrove forests to reach the village we wanted to get to. But he told us none of this and made it sound like we had already reached our destination…this is the problem not understanding the local language as we couldn’t understand what they were talking about amongst themselves. We knew we’d have to arrange a canoe ride to get to the island so this all made sense to us – although once in the water we realized that this boat ride was longer than it was supposed to be. Despite going a completely round about way it was a nice canoe ride, tons of little fish jumping out of the water like dolphins. We ended up having to walk a good 30minutes, get in another boat for a small crossing (which was where we should have ended up in the first place) and then walk for another 20 minutes before finally reaching the place we had booked! It was definitely an adventure.

Once we had checked in and dropped our gear in our hut, we ordered a couple cold Fantas and went for a walk on our deserted beach. We noticed some eagles above fishing but they seemed to be dropping their catches on the sand and not coming back for them. We took a closer look and found they were puffer fish, so Tony being the nice guy saved a few of the fish, carefully avoiding their spines, and put them back in the water while they started to puff up in his hands.  Much later, out of curiousity about the fish, Tony looked them up to find that they are thought to be the second most poisonous vertibrate in the world.  The poison in and on them, tetrodotoxin, is 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide.  "So next time I'll use a stick or something."

In the end we were glad we made the journey to come to this Island. It was so peaceful and relaxing and exactly what we needed. No worries, just beautiful African scenery and wildlife.  It was lovely waking up to the sound of birds and the ocean. The area was filled with beautiful birds! So many different colours! We spent the day wandering around the trails on the island looking for birds, our favourite had to be the Little Bee-eaters, tiny green and yellow masked birds, and the Yellow Crowned Gonolek, a red bellied bird with a black back and a bright yellow head. The island had a completely different feel to it than other parts of Gambia, there were no hasslers! They are probably more relaxed cause they don’t see many tourists and also perhaps because a lot of the island has marijuana fields on it :P hehe We ended up wandering into Senegal by accident which we were made aware of when we were greeted in French by a man tending to his crop of marijuana we had just stumbled upon.  Our trip off the island was a lot calmer as we had arranged transport with the hotel to take us back to Banjul (Gambia’s capital) and the boat captain then helped us arrange a taxi ride to the airport. We chatted to a few friendly Gambian’s while we waited who gave us Gambian names, Lamin for Tony (of course!) and Fatu for V (which was coincidentally the same name that was given to her in Senegal – which is also the name given to the first born but for girls).

To finish off, we must say that despite a few hectic moments in Africa we did feel really safe from any sort of violence during our travels and Gambia and Senegal are both safe to travel around!


Thank you for reading! :)


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Veronica commented on "Our Wedding - July 3, 2010": The ceremony was at Spanish Banks beach followed by the reception in V's parent's garden. We really couldn't have asked for a better day, it was absolutely perfect! The weather held out, the food was delicious, and the company even better. It was so nice to have our closest family and friends all together to help us celebrate! And thank you so much to all those who flew out, it meant the world to us!!! (let us know if you want any of these pictures) note: there are many more pictures up on our photographer's website (you can also order photos through her): www.magnoliaphotographic.com/clients - weddings, password = daws love, Anthony & Veronica
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