Day Four - Tuesday, January 29, 2002 - Fajara - Safari Garden Hotel

Ok, yesterday was not busy, today definitely was. We began quite early with me and Frieda heading up to see the nurse again. I needed to have a blood typing since I was unable to have it in England before I came here. She indicated I would have to actually go across to the MRC to have the blood test since she could not do it so she gave me a referral sheet so I guess I will have to do it tomorrow or something since we had to get back to the hotel for our first session.

We had a fascinating talk from Halifa Sallah who is one of the only opposition MPs currently in office (he is the only one from his party). It was an important time for him as well since he was only just re- elected and he has also just announced he was getting married. He was a very interesting speaker – highly educated and very good speaker. He gave us a bit of the history of the Gambia as well as the current political environment (though he was not drawn to comment too much about the current party in power despite some questions from us).

We followed Mr. Sallah's discussion with a trip into Banjul. Since we were supposed to actually have the visit from Mr. Sallah tomorrow we missed our language session for today though the trainers were here to guide us around various things in Banjul. We split into three groups, our group deciding to visit the museum and the market (the Arch was not that appealing to me - - I can do that anytime – it is a monument at the entrance to the city that is a big, well, arch, that you can climb into and get a great view of the area).

We wandered down the back alley to Pipeline where we caught a bush taxi heading east and we headed off the road south (east) into Serekunda which is a VERY large market area (and residential area) to the south of Westfield Junction. We really slowed to a crawl as we passed through the market area where the traffic was unbelievable. It was fascinating seeing the various shops as we made our way along – I was busy trying to figure out everything that they were selling (food, clothing, housewares, etc.). For some reason the discussion seemed to be about how we could cook Mexican food in the Gambia (I was looking for pinto beans for re-fried beans). We were lucky in that the bush taxi, though normally they would stop in Westfield, decided to change his route and go into Banjul since most of us on the bus wanted to go there (it also made the trip a lot cheaper).

We followed the main road north as we headed into Banjul. We quickly left the buildings around Westfield behind and were surrounded by swamp land with the occasional hand-painted advertising signs along the side of the road (there were also the occasional political messages). Eventually we approached the main bridge into the city were there was a police stop (though we only slowed down). As we entered the city, we saw the Arch which is just past a large roundabout. There is a road that leads under the arch but this road is closed because it seems that the Arch is not safe so the only one allowed to drive under it is the president (who, it seems, is immune to any possible risk). As we passed by we were amused to see a few members of another of our groups already at the top looking around.

The bus taxi had extended itself a bit so we found ourselves stopped at a local petrol (gas) station for a few minutes before we were eventually dropped off at the museum. Our guide (Alhaji) had indicated we had a lot of time so we might as well take a look at that as well. The museum is very basic with many dusty artefacts and with very limited write-ups in broken English. After about 15 minutes we had seen all there was to see and headed back outside into the shade where we chatted for a few minutes before heading off for the market.

As we headed down Independence Avenue, we passed by the “Quadrangle” which is a complex consisting of a lot of offices for the various ministers of state (including Health and Education). We turned off of Independence Avenue and walked beside the Quadrangle with the 22nd July Square (park) to our right and then turned right at the far end of the park, just outside of the presidential residence which was heavily guarded (I would not want to upset the army people stationed there; I heard later that another group had someone that took a picture and was almost arrested – only avoided by the intervention of her guide).

We headed along the north side of the park and then approached the roundabout that is quite close to the main entrance to the market which was just crawling with bush taxis. The market was very interesting – a lot smaller than Serekunda but a lot more compact. The hustle and bustle was quite something with things for sale hanging everywhere and people coming at you from all directions trying to see you things.

We began the experience by Steve (another volunteer) attempting to exchange some money so he put two people against one another to get the best rate and exchanged some currency with them. If you had not known (and they had not told you) you would not have known that these people were able to exchange money though a clue would have been the big sports bags they carried containing huge bundles of currency. Since the exchange rate is so hideous, even a small amount of foreign currency results in big piles of Delasis (quite often very moth-eaten bills at that). They actually advise, as a security precaution, to NOT exchange in the street as Steve did but in a bank which gives a better guarantee that the currency you buy is not counterfeit.

Most of the market itself is under cover as we made our way past a number of stalls. In the middle is a large pavilion under which are a number of tailors who have their pedal-operated sewing machines and coal-fired irons who will basically make you any type of clothing you wish if you bring them the material though they were also selling a few different kinds of material there – many of which looked like wool which can't be too comfortable in the heat that this country seems to get…

We headed off to find some bug spray for Jane since she was concerned about the number of mosquitoes she had seen in her room at Safari Garden – despite the mosquito nets she was still a bit worried. We eventually found some in a small shop away from the market. In the market you can bargain but generally the prices in the shops are fixed and cannot be negotiated.

Directly opposite the store was the restaurant where we were supposed to meet up with the other groups in so we sat down and ordered some fruit juices while we waited. It was a Lebanese place that ordered things that would be familiar to anyone who has visited an English “kebab shop” – falafel, kebabs, etc. We waited for some time, occasionally hassled by hucksters trying to sell us anything and everything before Alhaji headed out, worried that the other groups were not there despite it being 15 minutes later than when they were supposed to be there. It turns out that there are TWO restaurants on the block with the same name (well, one has a second name that is the actual name of the restaurant, NOT the name that is biggest on the sign outside – this was the one we were in – as it turns out, the wrong one). So, we headed off to the right restaurant two doors down, clutching the cashews we had bought while waiting. Yes, everyone was waiting for us as we ordered our food and waited (it was very nice, thank you – I had the signature dish of the “King of Schwarma”, namely, a “Schwama”). The pavement (sidewalk) along the road was interesting since it was a good two feet off the ground and has open sewers around it (well, I imagine in the rainy season they are open sewers for the excess water). A bit like walking along a plank…

The food took some time to come to the table, during which some of us ordered the “special” fruit juice which turned out to be a VERY bright red which ended up staining my white shirt despairingly easily and did not really taste all that good either. My Beef Schwarma was very good; a bit spicy and salty but good with the chips (fries) that came with it).

One of the VSO vehicles had been pulled up opposite the restaurant so the 15 of us crammed into it as we headed to the Department of State for the Interior to get our “Alien ID Cards” (a strange name, indeed) that identifies us a foreign nationals working in the Gambia. The office was a bit archaic as we sat on a long wooden bench in the hall as we were called in one at a time (eventually) to sign our ID. This whole process took the best part of an hour and some of us spent time sitting outside watching people walk by and the traffic – Interesting, believe you me. We saw a fair amount of life heading by: goats (dinner, we joked, if someone hit one with a car), chickens (dinner as well, as before) – though they were a bit scrawny. One chilling thing that did occur is that someone walked by with a printed shirt that I thought was a bit odd so I concentrated on the pattern. As I looked I could make out what it was: A dragon with a picture of the trade centre towers in the background with each tower being hit by planes. I grew a bit cold at this and it really made me think a bit about the area and the sensibilities of SOME of the people. An amusing 10 minutes or so was spent watching someone attempting to turn around a massive truck in the middle of an intersection (interesting when it hit a power pole and came close to hitting the power cables). Eventually, we all received our cards after the one lady with the rather ancient typewriter typed each one manually.

Eventually we all piled back into the car which, thankfully, was air conditioned (for the number of people in it, this was a god-send). We headed out of Banjul then along some other roads beside the “wasteland” area beside the new stadium (an impressive stadium at that). We dropped a few people off at the local Internet Cafe as we headed back to the hotel.

I had a bit of a swim and a discussion with the owner of the hotel about how they had experienced Sept 11th – listening to a radio relaying the events beside the pool. She indicated that living here seems to distance you from world events quite effectively and even when you hear of them, it seems a long way away (which, I suppose, it is). The point she made as well was that “what can you do anyway?” when I commented about many of us having watched it live on TV.

Feeling a bit guilty about not having read much already, I picked up some cultural material and read it beside the pool (life is rough) and watched as the weekly dance lessons were under-way beside the poolside (despite encouragement, I declined) – a local dancer and musicians made for great entertainment (never mind the few tourists also joining in).

After dinner, I headed off to the Internet Café but it was closed due to a power failure so I had to go to the next one along the road (Hollywood instead of QuantumNet) which was open – desperate I was to read/reply to my e-mails. I guess I will have to get used to not being constantly in touch with people.

⇒ Continue to Day Five - Wednesday, January 30, 2002 - Fajara - Safari Garden Hotel