I think the best way to give a glimpse into my past week in the Gambia is to make a bullet point list of notable experiences. I thus name this list: Gambia Snapshots.
- The people: very, very friendly. They reminded me much of the Senegalese, though I would say the hagglers are more aggressive as a result of the large tourist industry that caters to foreigners in the area I stayed. One day I spent the entire afternoon sitting in the alley outside our guesthouse under a large shady tree conversing in English and (attempting) Wolof with our neighbors. We had the same taste in music, and they bought us peeled oranges. One worked in Dubai for 8 months as a waiter. On the negative side of friendly: two nights in a row a man trying to make some money waited at the bar of our hole-in-the-wall restaurant and inconspicuously nursed half a beer for three hours. Afterward he tried to convince us to come to his juice bar.
- Tourism: a very large industry in the area we were staying, as mentioned. Gambia remains a vacation destination for Europeans. It is appealing to many who speak English and have money to spend, because many locals will cater to your wants if it means they’ll be earning something (this includes older women who come to Gambia for the young, attractive Gambian men…).
- A day at the monkey park: One day for fun we decided to check out a place where we were told we would be able to feed peanuts to monkeys. We bought some peanuts on the side of the road and arrived only to be told that we would have to pay for a guide. Being the well-worn Senegalese students that we were, we told the woman there that we would not be paying. She insisted by telling us that we would get lost without a guide, and we eventually negotiated the price down. We walked along a path that we certainly could have traversed without help, but nonetheless had a good time when our guide showed us how to hand peanuts to the monkeys that were peering at us curiously from the trees. Their hands were like baby’s hands, and they would pry open our fingers if they knew we had more peanuts hiding in our palms. One sat on my shoulder.
- A birthday: yes, I spent my 21st in a country where the drinking age is 18 and the political system is widely considered to be an Islamic dictatorship (though the Gambians will talk to you about their president.) I shared an apple pancake with friends instead of a cake (after eating pizza for dinner, which may have been the highlight of my week as I hadn’t had pizza for months)
- We visited Banjul, the capital city, the day before leaving. It was entirely different from the Dakar that I know and love; much more laid back, less activity, more spread out (though, it was also a Friday, the day when many businesses are closed.) We ventured past some notable landmarks and then I stumbled upon a used bookstand that had a wide variety of English books (Gambia is English-speaking.) I sifted through British grammar books until I found some good novels on the bottom of the pile. We ventured further and found the Banjul market, which was much smaller than I was expecting. The people were genuine, though, and were not eager to rid foreigners of their money once they discovered we spoke a little Wolof (and one word of Mandinka.) I bought two dresses at a used clothing stall for 150 dalaisi, or about $3.50 US. West African markets really don’t cease to amaze me. Upon leaving our taxi was stopped by the police. With hearts beating fast, we were prepared to either explain why some of us didn’t have IDs with us or get out and start walking. We should have known that instead the guards on either side of our taxi would tell us they didn’t need ID and then ask: “Am nga jekker?” “Do you have a husband?” The next ten minutes were spent going back and forth in Wolof concerning our marriage status, after which point they let us go on our way.
Overall, Gambia was a very interesting experience. I realized, though, that it will be difficult for another country to beat Senegal on my list of favorite places, as I have come to love Dakar (and, hopefully, Kaolack) as a second home.