We left the soft cradle of the diplomatic family’s house early in the morning and took to the already-muggy streets at 5:30 a.m. After Anne-Claire argued the price of our luggage down from the exorbitant price the driver first demanded, we got in a bush taxi headed for Ziguinchor in southern Senegal near the border with Guinea-Bissau.
Five and a half hours straight in the ‘sept-place’ (seven-seater station wagon, excluding the driver) were about all my seat bones could take; the airflow to our seats in the third row had stopped, creating a suffocating, sauna-like atmosphere that pushed my claustrophobia to the limit and nearly sent me in a panicked launch toward the cracked windows. A commonality over much of West Africa we’ve found is that people often prefer to be sweaty rather than dusty, so they’re often loath to roll down the windows in all but the worst heat. It was a good reminder of what real heat is. I looked vaguely like I’d been through a rainstorm, and I was intimately aware of every sweat gland on my body. I’d forgotten how much my eye sockets can sweat.
When we arrived at the Gambia border, I thought it would be a welcome reprieve. First, it was just an opportunity to get out of the car. We had to get an exit stamp in our passports from Senegal (easy and free), then pay a small ‘entrance fee’ (read: bribe?) to get into the Gambia without a proper visa.
Second, the country’s namesake river holds a powerful place in my memory, as this was where the story of ‘Roots‘ by Alex Haley began. The film drove my curiosity about Africa when I first saw it at 11 years old, and reading the book years later in my first months at post in Peace Corps deepened my understanding of the rhythm of village life.
The real fun started as we got close to the Gambia River. Defying all logic, our driver sped past the miles-long stretches of cars, buses and trucks waiting for the ferry to cross the river. Word has it that the Gambian government refuses to build a bridge for fear of losing the bustling commerce that passengers forced to wait days generate in the thin sliver of land that forms this odd country.
While Anne-Claire and I had egg sandwiches, the driver took our contributions to bribe the ferry operators into letting us move up in the line (our fellow passengers contributed as well). Hot, cranky and tired, we decried the entropic disarray as people fought for the few places on one of the two slow, decrepit boats that left each bank of the river at most once an hour.
On reflection, though, this is Africa – things operate differently that the way we know, and in the end there’s a method hidden amongst the madness. It may not look like what we’re used to or can even comprehend, like the way news in a village always seems to spread like wildfire: I’d get home to my Peace Corps house in Niger, say hello to my host family, and not 10 minutes later, folks from the far side of the village a 15-minute walk away would arrive just to greet me because they’d heard I was home.
I suppose that’s part of what makes traveling interesting. If everything looked the same, the impetus to light out wouldn’t be so strong.