Past the smiles...out and about in the Gambia

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Dec 16, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Monday, October 1, 2007

I am not a city person. I can't help but be tense around the disorganized clamoring that seems to take over every street.

But today we biked, away from the city, past the tourist areas, and into open beaches, wilderness, and villages. I love biking here. It's hard not to feel idealistic as you glide through the country, children running alongside you shouting adorable hellos. Che Guevera motorcycled through South America to tour a culture...biking 10-15 miles from Serekunda can't be that much different, can it? Now, resting after the ride, I am a bit sunburnt and tired, so the idealism I may have felt seems more like a joke (actually, most idealism comes out a little bit funny here, where reality can slap you so suddenly across the face), but it doesn't take away any of the enjoyment. Getting out of the city, feeling just a little more freedom and mobility, and not so much like a stranger in a cage is a feeling to relish in. Plus the scenery itself would be worth the trip: towering palms, overwhelming green, surprisingly vibrant flowers, surpassed only by the birds chirping everywhere along the road. And then, for an extra touch if this could ever get boring, the blue expanse of the ocean peaks out from behind the trees. Sometimes it feels so perfect I feel like someone is putting on a show for me. And the Abouko art village is not a bad place to end up. There are colorfully painted huts, overflowing exotic vegetation, visiting artists and volunteers lounging in hammocks, art hanging from every tree, decorating every floor, and generally giving a feeling of deliberate creativity to every inch and random beauty to the village as a whole.
This week we got to do a lot to really cement different activities and connections here - working with a local special needs school (the only one in the entire country), volunteering at the Child Protection Agency, helping at local schools -- and I'm starting to feel so much more that I'm actually inside The Gambia, that I have a place and a purpose here. And, after a slightly hectic but completely rewarding process of buying a bike in the Serekunda Market I can ride down the streets in style...assuming I don't hit a bump, sand patch, or really muddy area and wipe out.
We also had a very interesting lecturer this week, a sort of political insider who gave us some amazing insights into Gambia. Among other things, one statement he made especially struck me. He said that 'The Smiling Coast," the description of this region used to welcome tourists, is really a very good description of The Gambia. According to him, and many other Gambians I've talked to, Gambians here really are a smiling people. They are largely very friendly, peaceful and tolerant. But also part of that attitude is a willingness to keep smiling through trouble because they do not think it is worth violence or struggle to probably won't change drastically for the better anyway. And that makes it very hard to really know Gambians beneath the smile and the friendly greeting recited to everyone on the street. And in my experience this is largely true. I often feel like, even if there is not the barrier of a Gambian just trying to ask me for money or marry me, I don't find out much about the person beneath the fact that they are very nice and welcoming. And those people I have had more in-depth discussions with are not Gambian, or at least have spent a good amount of time in other cultures. It is a very vague, non-empirical observation, and I'm still not quite sure I believe in sweeping generalizations about a people, even if they are convenient. But still, there is something interesting to it.
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