VSO Gambia Journal


This journal is of the first few days of my trip to the Gambia with VSO. For a detailed description as to why I am doing this, please see here. In a nutshell, I have decided to take a two-year break from my “normally” scheduled life and chosen to volunteer with the VSO organisation with their goal towards promoting sustainable development in developing countries, in my case the Gambia.

It has been a long haul to get to this point of my actually departing. I have had to shed the last four years of baggage (figuratively and, most definitely, physically) from living in England and get set to transport myself and 35 kg of luggage to the Gambia. One of the big issues has been the baggage allowance on the flight which is determined by the airline but (20 kg plus 5 kg of carry- on) I had contacted them to lift my limit 10 kg but it is still a VERY small amount of space to pack for two years…thank goodness VSO is providing a great deal of support when we arrive (place to stay, allowance for household goods, etc.). As an aside, I learned later that many of the other VSO volunteers on the same flight had MUCH more over the limit than I had and had not even bothered asking in advance!

This is going to be a challenge on many different levels not least of which mentally and professionally. VSO think I can do it so that is a good start…

Prelude - Friday, January 25th, 2002

Yesterday was a complete nightmare. I had the car being picked up, the local house clearance people dropped by to pick up the sofa and a desk, the movers were around all day packing everything and I had to get rid of all sorts of extra things to various charities. Actually, it went pretty well and very quickly so that I was actually in an empty house before I expected it (REALLY empty, sitting on the floor with the laptop computer is empty, though the phone still worked…). It was also the first chance I had really got to meet my neighbour who actually not only took a lot of the items I no longer needed (such as food) but also made me a wonderful dinner (roast beef no less). I was picked up late at night by a from work who drove me to a hotel near the Gatwick airport in Crawley where I had booked a room for the night though “night” is an understatement since I had to be up at 5:00 and only arrived at the hotel at 9:30 pm (hard to justify the cost of the room…). The hotel was good and I rested very well, thank you, though not enough…they offered a shuttle service to the airport which I caught at 5:40 and I arrived at the terminal at 6:00 to check-in.

Flat Working Environment at Flat

Check-in was interesting. The bag that I wanted to carry on the plane was too heavy so I was asked to remove things from it and put it in other bags (why they are so picky about a bag that, plus my other luggage, was still under the weight I was allowed I will never know). This was a bit tricky and I managed to oblige them only a bit before he “let me go”. Of course, after I had checked in he mentioned that there was a delay so that instead of leaving at 9:15 we were now leaving in the afternoon at 12:55. Having no other real options I made my way through the security into the departure area where there is a large shopping complex where I helped myself to breakfast (McDonald's – probably the last of that for some time) then lay down for a little while and actually SLEPT (surprisingly). I wandered around the mall a bit, picking up a book from WH Smith, then an iron from Duty-Free which had been suggested by VSO to bring to the Gambia and I did not want it included in my already heavy luggage before I checked in.

While waiting in the mall area I did not recognize any of the few people I had met in previous months that were also going to the Gambia but when we made our way to the plane I met them so it was good to see at least two friendly faces on this trip!

The plane was very crowded as this is the height of the tourist season and there are only a few flights directly from Gatwick to Banjul (the capital of the Gambia) all of which are charter flights that only operate on certain days. On the way I sat beside two ladies who were going to Gambia as tourists and they, unfortunately, showed me a side of the people that visit that I knew existed but did not know how much…They were there to go to the big hotels in Senegambia hotels and if they did not see any of the “locals” then that would be fine with them (though they did suggest that they would not mind finding an attractive younger guy). It was painful to hear what they thought of the Gambians – no wonder the Gambians think so little of the tourists despite the fact that tourism is rapidly becoming a major industry in the Gambia. Aside: They also mentioned that the scenery is wonderful.

I tried to ignore them talking beside me though the diversion of the movie was not all that good as it was absolutely awful as well. It was also quite irritating when we were charged for all of our drinks (including water – though not, I learned later, tap water) and any snacks though they did throw us (almost literally) a small meal midway through the flight.

Throughout the journey I was asked by the ladies beside me to give them a running commentary as to what I saw outside the somewhat obscured window (it was to my far left shoulder, there was no window on our row). This commentary largely consisted of “there is a big brown thing” (i.e. desert) or “there is a big blue thing” (i.e. the ocean) or, very rarely, “a big rock on the big brown thing”. This was largely the going for the trip though as we came in to land at the airport in the Gambia we passed over a large number of small houses and farmland with the occasional fire though no sign of any significant buildings. The sun was just setting as we taxied up to the terminal which is a beautiful modern building in the middle of not much else. There were a few planes on the apron already with people wandering around on the tarmac. The fire department had a few trucks though the workers did not seem terribly interested in the planes and seemed to be enjoying the shade of the trucks and each other's company (worthwhile, it seems to me).

Even before we left the plane the place gave me the impression of heat with the brown grass and dust everywhere surrounded by hardy trees. Eventually, the door was opened and everyone scrambled to disembark. We walked down the stairs that had been butted up to the plane and got onto a bus that ferried us to the terminal. I met up with a few of the other VSO volunteers as we made our way in to join the various lines (queues) for passport control which, as might be expected, was a complete nightmare. There were a few hundred of us trying to get through the 6 or so government officials who seemed to be determined to read over, in great detail, everyone's passport.

Eventually through the passport area, we were greeted with the much more unpleasant scene around the baggage carousel which was quite small for the number of people on the flight and was about 5-6 people deep waiting for their luggage. While we were waiting for the luggage, most of the volunteers met up and we stood around chatting, comparing how well (or not) we had done with the baggage allowance. There were porters around trying to pick up people's luggage but we had been warned it advance that if they picked it up we would be asked for a pound for the privilege (they are VERY persistent).

The terminal has very tall ceilings and is made of concrete which does not help the sound that reflects from the many people that were inside. The fact that there is no air conditioning also made it a bit unpleasant as well. Eventually we managed to collect our items and exited the security area and found the representative of VSO that was there to meet us. He guided us off to the side, introduced himself briefly before he set off to find the rest of our group that we had not yet met up with. We sat around and chatted though most of us were quite tired for the long delay and journey. It was during this talk that we found out that one of the volunteers was forced to pay a bribe when they brought their stereo (minus speakers) with them. Not a very pleasant way to start the visit.

Eventually we were all together and they divided us up into groups then we followed our respective hosts to their waiting vehicles. As soon as we left the terminal we were set upon by numerous people selling things, begging for money, etc. as we made our way through the car park which was by now very dark to the vehicle I was going to be taking at the far side relying on our host to be able to find the car in the ever increasing darkness. To make things even more interesting, I was left alone in the car with another volunteer for about ten minutes as our guide went to go find the others he was to be transporting as well. We tried our best to simply talk to ourselves and ignore those clambering around the windows trying to get our attention. Not a very pleasant experience and one that I hear is largely confined to the airport itself (“The worse place in the Gambia for this sort of thing”). These sorts of problems seem to follow wherever the tourists are since I am told this is also a problem along the beaches beside the bigger tourist hotels.

A few minutes later David returned with the rest of our smaller group who then clambered into the small car with us as we headed out of the airport, stopping only briefly at a check-point at the exit. We were all pretty tightly packed into the car with luggage on top of our laps (and everywhere else it seemed) as we made our way out onto a rather bumpy, dusty road heading north out of the airport. On the way we passed through the one traffic light in the Gambia which has signs leading up to it directing people on how to use a traffic light (signs, it seems, that are largely ignored) but it also has a wonderful, modern, Shell petrol (gas) station on the corner. This was also on the new paved road that I was told was just opened recently. This seemed to be the way, there were a few of these modern buildings or businesses with other far more rude buildings in between – the differences between them are very striking.

We eventually turned off a paved road down another dirt road as David made his way from one side to the other side of the road as he attempted to find the least damaging path. The hotel came up on our left and we pulled to the side and got out. It was truly wonderful with the brown of the alley replaced by the palms and lush green of the hotel where we are to make our home for the next little while. As we passed through the gates we were in another world as our new hosts offered us glasses of cold fruit drink before we were given our keys for our rooms. It was about 8:00 when me and my new room-mate (another Steve) found our rooms which had already been setup with mosquito nets (all VSO volunteers are given them) and dumped our luggage before heading out to the pool area where dinner was waiting for us.

The director of VSO for the Gambia was waiting for us as she gave us a brief introduction and passed out envelopes that contained a modest allowance for the first three weeks of training we were all (mostly) proceeding into up to the 15th of February. We were also given a binder full of various information that we were to make ourselves familiar with over the next few weeks though tonight was just to relax and take it easy as we helped ourselves to the buffet of BBQ steak, fish and chicken as well as a good selection of salad and fruit.

We all chatted and relaxed after the hectic day around the pool as we looked around at our surroundings. It was very dark but the hotel was lit with a number of small lights in amongst the abundant greenery. There is a bamboo patch right in the middle of the hotel with all sorts of fruit and other exotic plants all around – making me wonder whether how much of it is actually Gambian or simply African (bamboo?). There are two resident cats which made themselves known though they are very small and look like they have not eaten in weeks – I am told this is quite normal for Gambian cats. We all began on the advice of our hosts to drink lots of water. The hotel is not just home to us volunteers there are a number of other guests here though it is not all that big a hotel (hence the reason Steve and I are sharing).

Around 11 we all made our way to bed though I found it very difficult to sleep (I am told it is something to do with the anti-malarial pills I am taking).

⇒ Continue to Day One - Saturday, January 26th, 2002 - Fajara - Safari Garden Hotel