Plans, planes and refuse

Trip Start Sep 08, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Thank you to all of you that have messaged me to say Merry Christmas. It's not easy here to feel festive when the outside temperature is 30 degrees and everyone is wearing vest tops and flip-flops. But it's made much easier through the accumulation of accessories and I have discovered that there is little that cannot be accomplished in the Gambia with blonde hair and sheer-bloodymindedness. Even stretching to locating a 7ft Xmas tree and fairylights. And whilst living alone has it's downsides (cleaning, cooking and not getting locked out spring to mind, all of which I fail at), one big plus is that 2007 will be the year that my Christmas tree remains up all year without my housemates losing patience and sabotaging it in March.
I am looking forward to Christmas this year. It's not often that you get to go to the beach for a post-festive-lunch-swim, even if said meal is likely to be a banquet of boiled potatoes and cornflakes. 20 VSO volunteers will be together at Christmas and not one of us has culinary talent. Even more exciting is that I have just booked a trip for New Year to Guinea. This is in part to avoid Tobaski (the forthcoming festival of sheep-slaughtering when the streets are said to run with blood, which funnily enough, as a vegetarian does not massively appeal to me) but also because after 3 months of living in one of the flattest countries in the world, I'm impatient to see an incline higher than my front step. 

The airline ticket seller waited until after we had selected times and dates and handed over wads of cash for our round flight before dropping into the conversation that we would have to book our return flight once we were actually in Guinea. Something struck me as slightly odd about this comment so I queried it.
Me> "Book? You mean confirm don't you?"
Teller> "Oh no. we don't actually have any contact with the Guinean office, so you have to tell them which flight you want to be on once you are there"
Me> "doesn't it show up on the computer?"
Teller [soothing tone] > "oh no, we don't use computers, but that's ok because neither do they"
Me> "so how exactly do you record the passenger/flight details?"
Teller> "I write them on this piece of paper"
Me> "and where does that then live?"
Teller> "In this drawer, look" [opening of drawer to demonstrate that this indeed is where many forlorn and tatty scraps of paper reside]
Me [speaking very slowly now] > "and so who deals with them from there?"
Teller [puzzled look] > "Deals with them for what?"
Hearing that the airline company has the inspired policy of cutting costs by being devoid of computer equipment does make me slightly nervous as to what else they have decided they can do without - wings perhaps, or maybe pilots - but failing all else I hear that Guinea is a lovely place to live, particularly if you are into corruption and violence, which I am.
Not to say that I am tired of The Gambia. Every day I become more fond of the place, feeling the same sort of affection for it that you would an eccentric old great aunt. My most recent delight came in discovering the intricacies of  the rubbish disposal system. When I first got here, it appeared that there was no system at all. Rubbish lines the streets everywhere you go - bins have yet to be invented here, for the simple reason that no one would empty them.
But there is a system and it's a lot more community minded than ours. On the last Saturday morning of each month, comes "Set-Setal" aka "Clean-Up Day". On this day, all businesses and roads are shut, no one is allowed to work or drive a vehicle, as everyone is called upon the join in a collective sweeping exercise. Out on the streets you see young and old clutching brooms and making half-hearted attempts to tidy up the area, as if in preparation for entering Gambia in the "Best Presented Country" Awards. Once the litter is gathered together, it is unceremoniously burnt. Once the plastic fumes have dispersed, you are left with a rather tidy (if blackened) landscape, for at least a few days until rubbish once again begins to mount.
Up-country they take this ceremony a lot more seriously than down here and in each village, two nominated elders dress in a traditional costume that resembles a cross between Liza Minnelli and Darth Vader and it is their role to charge through the compounds and chase out any scallywags who might be shirking their responsibilities.
One could speculate that the same two individuals could instead use their energies more productively to empty local bins if there were some, and so save the bother and economic suspension caused by having the whole country shut down, but where would be the fun in that?
Anyway, I must bid you adieu, so have a fantastic Christmas and New Year and I hope Santa brings you want you want, if not what you deserve.
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