Senegal and Gambia

Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Hope Christmas was successful, you've all eaten and drunk far too much and you're now making plans to lose all the weight you put on in the last couple of weeks! At our last update we were just preparing to enter Senegal through a notoriously bad border crossing and we mentioned 2 Frenchmen in the 2CV trying to get to Dakar, but being shipped off on the back of a breakdown lorry. You'll be pleased to hear that 1) the crossing was reasonably pain free and not too expensive and 2) we bumped into the men in the 2cv heading back south! They got their car fixed and were able to complete the trip to Dakar ! Francois has even promised to repay Jamie towing and bump starting the car by cheering on England in the next 6 nations rugby championship!
First stop in Senegal was St-Louis, an old French colonial town, built on an island in the Senegal River separated from the Atlantic by a narrow spit of land. It's a big fishing centre with the "lovely" smell of the fish market in evidence everywhere! It is definitely the place to be in the morning when the boats come in - as long as the clothes washers get out of the way of the boats. (And the goats, some of which obviously get so excited by the boats coming in, they keel over & their bodies join the rest of the debris alongside the fresh fish!).
We have yet another new language to contend with here - although French is the official language of Senegal, Wolof is the predominant language. I manage to learn a lot whilst bartering for fruit & veg in the markets, which normally ends up giving the women a laugh, even if I still get hugely ripped off sometimes (I mean, 20pence for a kilo of sweet potatoes - you must be joking!!). One of the first words you do quickly learn is "Toubab" shouted at us by children throughout Senegal and The Gambia, meaning white person. We have been assured it is not derogatory, but I'm not entirely convinced!
We spent a few nights hanging around St-Louis and the sea, staying right on the beach. We were treated to the Senegalese specialty, "Chep-bu-jen", loosely described as rice and fish which was scary mostly for the fact that we ate in the dark and couldn't distinguish the fish heads from the rest of the meal until it was almost in our mouths. Needless to say I felt very full very early in the meal (listen, I've only forced myself to start eating fish because of coming traveling...)
Off to Dakar to get our Mali visas. This was the only reason for coming here, but it was a fun place to hang out for a couple of days, despite having a reputation for having a high crime rate, especially on tourists. We also got stuck in our first traffic jam for a couple of months (not something I've missed).
Heading down the coast, we stopped at Nianing where, not finding anywhere we could camp with Bronwen, we decided that the large market square next to a comfortable looking hotel would do the job. And indeed it became one of those stops that become something out of nothing. Not only did we have a lovely bar to sit in (and the use of the toilet) by the owners of the Hotel Oasis, (Charly and his Italian wife, Isabella), we were able to meet loads of the villagers (like you do when you camp in the middle of a market square). We had a free guided tour of the sacrificial Baobab tree (the only one within 100 km that has an opening facing east and so was used as a burial site for the lower caste) and, being a Saturday, we had the local youth club disco (not that we went!) but it was amusing listening and watching the comings and goings whilst eating our tea from Bronwen's roof. I also learned some more Wolof which doesn't bear repeating!

Off to The Gambia - suddenly we could speak English! Now, after 3 months, that really is a treat, although sometimes not being able to understand officials and hustlers has proved to be quite a good thing. Getting across to Banjul, the capital, we need to cross the Gambia river, an easy job with the ferry but we decide to make it difficult for ourselves! On trying to charge us extra money for the ferry and Jamie refusing to get ripped off, he met his match with 4 stubborn women at the ticket office, all of whom refused to back down and instead of arguing with Jamie, pretending to go to sleep. Meanwhile, I'm sitting outside chatting to the school kids. Next thing, Jamie decides that he will walk the 2 km to the actual ferry to try to get the price lowered. In the meantime, I found myself chatting to these women, nearly having my hair braided and actually quite enjoying myself. Eventually Jamie returns sweaty and feeling victorious that we could drive down and save a whole 1000cfa (about 1). Wow - now that was worth a 3 hour wait!

We didn't stop at the tourist trap that is the coastal area of The Gambia, (except to stock up on Western luxuries), instead heading east upriver. That's all the Gambia is: one river with a pot-holed road on the south bank, an unsurfaced road on the north, and Senegal all around. The only tourists who do flock up here are the avid bird watchers and Tendaba and Janjanbureh were full of people excited at having seen a lesser spotted blue winged kingfisher, or some such creature. Excuse my total ignorance, but I was more interested in keeping an eye out for the monkeys : when you can lie in bad watching them in the trees above with only a mosquito net for protection, you do start to become somewhat obsessed... Tendaba proved to be very amusing, camping in the bush just off the "road" caused a fair amount of interest, especially when the girls walked past on their way home from school - they were initially scared of the strangers parked outside their village until they realized we were just a couple of toubabs. They were then more worried for us, being convinced that we would be eaten by hyenas before the night was over. After seeing we could survive 2 nights quite happily we were elevated to the status of "Bushmen" and were taken to visit the nursery school and made friends with most of the villagers. I just wish we had brought lots of plastic bottles with us as everyone was asking for them (if they don't have a container, they have nothing to collect their milk or palm oil with.
Camping out in the bush became the norm in The Gambia for us - in Janjanbureh and then Mama Sotu, where we stopped for the night thinking we were in total isolation, soon realizing we were only about 100 yards from the village. Again we became the local spectacle to the extent where Jamie awoke to find about 20 school children staring at him. Luckily he was able to grab some clothes without the village elder having to accuse him of indecency. We were told stories of how other toubabs had settled in the village once: Chinese people here to cultivate rice, but for some reason were hounded out of town in 1993 - not sure why but I don't think we'll move in permanently just in case. People were really good to us and gave us a real taste of village life, helping to pound millet, and Amadou, whose English was very good, introduced us to the family, taught us some Fula and Mandinka, and showed us around his compound and vegetable garden, where he gave us some of his cassava root. Making polite conversation, Jamie asked how they should be prepared to eat. "Boil them, pound them or chew them raw" to which we both peeled of some skin and started chewing. It wasn't until a few days later that I opened our "Healthy travel in Africa" book and read, "Cassava ...although this root vegetable naturally contains cyanide, traditional methods of processing it, like drying or fermenting, usually ensure that it is harmless. In hard times, however, people may take shortcuts in the processing, with disastrous results ...." Well, we're not dead yet, but I'll be sure to boil the rest of them ferociously before we eat them.
We're now back in Senegal traveling west again to see the Cassamance and possibly spend a few days by the coast. Christmas Eve was spent in Ziguinchor with a lively music scene (making for a fun evening) and a sizable ex-pat French community (making for a decent supply of red wine and cheese for our Christmas lunch!), followed by a short drive to a rural campement for Xmas day. Boxing Day was spent walking around the mangrove swamps and rice fields with the events of last year in Sri Lanka very much at the forefront of our minds.

Just a few more places to explore in the Casamance, including a few days on the coast, before we head East again to Mali and back into the desert......
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ianandjane on

Hi Folks
Ian & Jane here.
Just catching up with your travels from a very wet and windy Cornwall. Sounds wonderful. Oh to be backin Africa !
Glad to see that Brenwen is behaving herself :-)
We got back without incident and are busy planning our next trip.
Looking forward to reading your further exploits !
Ian & Jane

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