Sunday, May 30, 2010

Banjul, Gambia

Banjul, Gambia
Saturday, May 22, 2010

I had scheduled a ship tour for this port, along with Bas and Monique, but the “port talk” on the ship, as well as all I read about this port, indicated that the town was quite small (about 40,000), with nothing to see. I hated to spend $119 on a half-day tour, which spent much of that time at the museum; so I cancelled the tour. I decided to take a taxi around the town and return to the ship for a restful afternoon. How wrong I was! And what an incredible day it turned out to be.

As I exited the ship, a man in a yellow shirt, wearing an official Gambian tour guide badge, offered to take me in his minivan all day for $50, returning to the ship by 5:00 p.m., half an hour before the “all aboard” time of 5:30. He found one other couple to go along, as well. His minivan was an old Nissan and not air-conditioned, but the day was cool, with low humidity and I wanted the window rolled down so I could take photos out the window. His name was Tata, and I mentioned to him that his name was everywhere in India.

The streets of “downtown” Banjul (pronounced “Ban’youl”) were not paved and very, very rough. It was amazing that the streets could be so bad. There were few cars, and many people were walking. The buildings were mostly one story, and quite dilapidated. After we exited ‘downtown”, we came to a paved road leading out of town, and we saw a large yellow arched building ahead. It was “Arch 22”, a victory arch celebrating the takeover of the government by Yahya Jammeh in June 1994. We took an elevator to the top of the arch, four or five stories up, and took photos of the surrounding area. One of the sights was the King Fahad Mosque; most of the population of Gambia is Muslim, and this is the largest mosque in the country.

After leaving Arch 22, Tata drove us some distance to a village of Bakau to visit the Cachikaly crocodile pool. Bakau is home to people of the Mandinka tribe, and Tata explained that tribes have their own villages and do not mix, although they live peacefully together in Gambia. Driving through the “streets” of Bakau to the Cachikaly crocodile pool was breathtaking in its poverty. Even poorer than townships in previous countries, and almost like shanty towns. The “streets” were unpaved, and mostly sandy, and extremely rough. People were outside, sitting, walking, just getting out if the dark, hot interiors of their primitive houses. Everywhere we went in the van, children shouted “hello” to us. People were extremely friendly. The average annual wage in Gambia is about $350, about a dollar a day. In the villages, there is little electricity, no running water or sewage in the homes, and no trash pick-up. Few children attend school because parents have to pay, and few can pay the fees.

Cachikaly crocodile farm was fun. The crocs are very tame, and can be petted. I was amused to kneel beside a croc with my hand on it to have my photo taken. They have cold, hard skin, as one might expect. I took some photos, and then took more photos of children outside before we set out to our next destination.

Next, Tata took us to the Abuko Nature Reserve, a large mangrove, and home to numerous birds, reptiles, and especially, vervet monkeys. We first saw a group of boys about 12 years old, swimming happily and noisily in the creek on an outing. The water was not deep and they were being very playful. We walked along wooden walkways out to a rough building that housed a small café, where we got soft drinks and enjoyed the views. However, the monkeys were not visiting on that day; wildlife is not predictable.

After leaving the Abuko Nature Preserve, Tata said that his home was not far away, and on the way back to the city. He asked if we would like to see it, and we agreed immediately. He warned us that his home was very primitive and was the home to his extended family, including his father and mother, his brother and his brother’s family, his sister and her family, as well as his own family of a wife and four children. When we got there, it was pitiful. The compound included a “house” of three rooms, a separate mud hut used as the kitchen, and a partially constructed building, also of three rooms that the family was hoping to complete before the rainy season began. The walls of the “new” building were made of mud bricks and would be destroyed by the rains if a tin roof could not be completed, and Tata explained that he was the only person in the family with a part-time job, and there was no money for the tin roof. The family members were extremely friendly and welcoming to us. All of them spoke English, as most people do in Gambia, a former British colony. Tata explained that his eldest son was the only one of his children to attend school because he could not afford the fees. There was friendship and even joy in the family, but the situation was exceedingly pitiful. Before leaving, we took photos of Tata and his family.

After leaving Tata’s home, he drove us to Paradise Beach, a beautiful beach and outdoor bar and restaurant. We had lunch of grilled fish and French fried potatoes at the Rainbow Bar and Grille. It was delicious. Before eating, Tata and I walked down the beach for some photos of fishing boats being pulled from the water. At least 15-20 men joined to push each boat onto the beach, using large wooden rollers to assist them. As we were eating, some of the ship’s crew who we knew arrived for a few hours at the beach as well as lunch. Vendors desperately tried to sell us items, but we were not interested and left them feeling sad. They needed the money. They would not feel sad long, however, because five large bus loads of passengers on tour from the ship arrived just as we were leaving.

On the way back into Banjul, Tata next stopped at the fish market. What an incredible scene that was! Dozens of fishing boats, all painted in bright colors, were coming back to shore after the day fishing. As they neared the shore, people waded out to meet them with large “dishwater type” pans on their heads to get the day’s catch and then wade back to shore to dump the fish into wheelbarrows to be rolled quickly into a market place, where women waited to purchase the fish. The scene was incredible. Thousands of people were rushing about, and fish were in pans and in wheelbarrows everywhere. I took photos of the boats, the people wading out to meet the boats, the pans of fish and the wheelbarrows of fish. No photo can adequately portray the scene. It was amazing.

Tata then took us back into Banjul and stopped at the Albert Market, which is the heart of Banjul. The market is quite large, and includes hundreds of stalls selling everything from foods to furniture, along with crafts and souvenirs. Vendors who spotted tourists were very aggressive in trying to sell something -- anything -- to them. I took several photos, and the other couple made several purchases before we left to return to the ship, a few minutes before 5:00. When Tata dropped us off, I gave him an extra $50, and I think the other couple did as well. We then had to face a gauntlet of souvenir salespeople the length of the ship as we made our way back to the gangway.

What a great day it was. So much more than on a ship tour, so much more meaningful, and with a cost less than half of that of a ship tour.

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