A haze has set in over the Gambia. One views the distance as through a thin veil of tangible heat. Objects are dulled, a faded photograph. I feel like I’m in Los Angeles smog, or near a forest fire.
Ramadan finished on Sunday evening. As such, Monday and Tuesday were public holidays here in the Gambia. My last five days can be summed up as follows: food, football, and walking. Lots and lots of walking.
On Friday afternoon, I returned to Timbooktoo after indulging once more in a delicious watermelon juice at the Living Art Centre. Taking advantage of their book exchange program, I returned “Things Fall Apart”, which I didn’t feel compelled to hang on to, and picked up “Dubliners” by James Joyce. I loved Ireland when I was there in December and January, and Dublin was a great city. I look forward to reading what a 25-year-old James had to say on the matter.
Saturday dawned clear and sunny, and I headed down to the traffic lights. The 21st of October is African Human Rights Day, and the African Union, through the African Human Rights Commission, was holding a walk in celebration. Exiting the taxi, I saw a group, two hundred strong I would estimate, milling about, getting their free t-shirts and hats, readying banners. It was a scene similar to the start of a road race back home. I put on my hat, tossed the too-small t-shirt over my shoulder, noted the other white person in the crowd, and tracked down some of my co-workers. The short walk went east on Kairaba Avenue to the office of the Commission. We were led by a small marching band, a contingent of the Gambian Police. The drums and brass instruments took me to college football games in the States, the pipes took me to the American Civil War. A few people held signs, a few people held banners, the crowd was energetic, and a large number of people appeared to be enjoying the free hats and shirts and the promise of refreshments. When we arrived outside of the Commission, we milled about, a speech was made that nobody could hear, people ran over themselves to get the next freebie, namely a pocket copy of the African Charter and some stapled sheets describing the origins and work of the Commission, then muffins and soft drinks were made available. During a lull, I popped into an internet café located above a nearby gas station. With little else to do, I took a taxi and headed over to nearby Palma Rima.
Wanting to see the atmosphere of a football game in a local bar, I went to Churchill’s. Unfortunately, I was two hours early and didn’t want to wait around, so I went down to the beach, relaxed in the sun next to a couple with horribly leathery skin, then walked along the coast to Senegambia, arriving at Sportsman’s just in time for the start of Chelsea vs. Portsmouth. A couple of guys were playing pool, a large shirtless man was sitting at the bar, and half a dozen or so middle-aged Brits were watching the game, some cheering Chelsea, others jeering the New York Yankees/Rangers of the Premiership. I enjoyed my chicken and I enjoyed the game, although I don’t know enough to appreciate what was done well and what was done poorly. But Chelsea won, and I got to see Shevchenko play again. I didn’t mind returning to Sportsman’s and its Avenue Pizza/Garneau Pub-like feel. However, billing it as an English pub is a bit off. I’ve never been to England proper (outside of Heathrow, that is), but I’ve been to pubs in Ireland, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and they’re warm and cozy rather than plain and barren. No matter, fun nonetheless. Having little else to do, I cut through Bijilo to get back to the beach, and walked home, arriving two hours later. I once again enjoyed the relative solitude, the wall of palm trees, and the fresh breeze. Distance covered walking home from Palma Rima: about eleven and a half kilometers, give or take.
I woke bright and early on Sunday, went for my run, then got ready for another afternoon of Premier League football. I was picked up by my co-worker shortly after noon, and we drove to his home in Sukuta, an area that looked very much like Bakau. The same quiet feel, the same dirt roads, the same shops, the same people milling about. The surroundings aren’t idyllic, but his home was very nice and comfortable inside. Once again I noted that in many places in this country, the actual houses inside the compounds can have a vastly different feel and atmosphere from the outside world. We watched the second half of Liverpool vs. Manchester United, a match taken by the latter, then it was time to eat. We washed our hands and dug in. Lunch was traditional Ethiopian doro chicken, with a sauce made from onions, peppers, pure cow butter, and whatever else, placed on plates with Lebanese bread (not traditional), and eaten with the hands using white bread. I had feared something spicy that would set my head on fire, but it was very good. Eating with the hands is typical in many African countries, with food usually served in a communal bowl. I asked my coworker about the recipe, but apparently men are not allowed in the kitchen in Ethiopian culture, and he didn’t know. I finished the meal with some water and orange juice, then we settled in for Arsenal vs. Reading. My hosts were Arsenal fans, and I was promised a team that plays beautiful, fluid soccer with short, quick passes, a team more like a South American club than a British club, a young team that develops its young talent. I was not disappointed. Arsenal played with a skill that made everything look effortless, particularly the Frenchman Henry. It was like watching a squad of Hemskys, minus the mental gaffes. I could see myself being an Arsenal fan. During the game, we snacked on mandarin oranges, and a mix of peanuts and barley. While I’m not a coffee drinker, I had a cup of Ethiopian coffee. It is harvested without additives, brewed in a special clay pot, and served in small, round, handle-less cups. It was quite dark but not very bitter, almost chocolatey, like a Guiness of coffee. We finished things off with a bottle of French red wine. Red wine is a tough proposition in this country, where people have to add ice just to bring it down to a suitable temperature, but it was quite good.
I returned home in the evening. The Premiership has an excitement to it that we saw during the World Cup but that doesn’t turn up in the same way in North America, with the possible exception of March Madness. The Premier games were far more interesting than the World Cup games, where one could see very early that a game would inevitably be scoreless into penalty kicks, a game filled with diving and tentative play. I love hockey, but I find myself liking soccer more and more as I watch it, for many of the same reasons that I love baseball. It has a grace that I appreciate, and values skill over hitting people with sticks. As I surveyed my quiet and basic house, I mulled over the importance of home. One can largely live anywhere and adapt as long as one has a comfortable home, a place for tranquility and escape, filled with the decorations, furnishings, entertainment, etc. that one values. It is something that I will look for and hope to create down the road.
In once again woke bright and early on Monday morning, and enjoyed a pleasant jog with a cool breeze, the merciless sun mercifully hidden behind some clouds. Several dozen Gambians were lined up outside the two butcher shops I passed. It was Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday at the end of Ramadan. They would be heading to Mosque to pray. Food would be eaten. Wonderful clothing would be seen everywhere. My two female day guards were making lunch in a bubbling pot on the porch, and gave me some. It was afra of “cow meat” and potatoes, rather tasty. I enjoyed a quiet day, then headed for the Hash in the evening. We were joined by a whole bunch of newcomers: some vacationers, members of the Gibraltar army who were in the country for some training and were leaving the following day, and some Calgarians working on an off-shore oil project. The hash itself was more traditional than usual, with flour marking the paths, false trails, and all that. Unfortunately, marking a trail with flour can prove quite difficult when neighbourhood children are factored in, and we spent a lot of time early on figuring out where to go. In the end, we had a good walk along Atlantic Road, parts of Bakau New Town, the beach by Leybado, and the Fajara steps. Dinner was at the British High Commission, a natural home for our kind of group, a special treat made possible as the Deputy British High Commissioner happens to be a member of the Hash. It was a nice compound on the serene, tree-lined Atlantic Road, across from the MRC, surrounded by a fence with barbed wire, and complete with various buildings and a swimming pool. Fun as always.
I have become thoroughly familiar with the area north of where I live. I’ve headed east a few times. But I had yet to go south. Aside from my usual run, I also have never really explored the area where I live. As such, at a quarter to ten on Tuesday morning, I threw on my backpack and set out like a hobbit for a little adventure. From my house, I cut across the main road and made to go through the neighbourhood across the way to get to the ocean. Although this is only a few hundred meters, it was deceptively difficult. Imagine, if you will, a far-reaching plain of tall grasses, trees, and overgrown vegetation. Narrow sandy paths wind through the plain like thin veins. Sprinkled amidst the vegetation are house compounds, as if randomly plunked down from the sky. You quickly get sucked in and lost. I ended up reaching the highway leading to Senegambia, which was not where I wanted to be, doubled back, asked a local (who said the neighbourhood was called “Tranquil”) for directions which helped to a point, then I followed a beach bar worker through a field. The field opened up into a large, dusty plain with several cows milling around hoodoo-like mounds of sand. I climbed down a short, rough path, past some palm trees, and was on the beach. I hadn’t yet been by the ocean in the morning. The sun was bright, the waves were crashing heavily, and nary a soul was in sight.
I set out heading south. I passed a few local beach bars, very humble and ramshackle buildings specializing in beer and fresh fish. The sand was littered with what the tide had brought up, but the beach was whiter, sandier and less eroded than the area around the northern tourist hotels. To my left as I walked was a short escarpment with grass and trees. I was walking parallel to the highway along which I do my usual jog, but I could see and hear nothing of the usual bustle of cars, people and businesses. Completely isolated ocean-side, with only the sound of the waves to keep me company.
The greatest thing about this walk, aside from enjoying the undeveloped and deserted southern beaches, was the changing landscape as I made my way. At first was the short, grassy escarpment with broader, sandy beaches. As I kept going and passed the construction for the new, 5-star hotel (which will undoubtedly change the nature of this area), the escarpment quickly grew into imposing, five-meter high sandy cliffs. Erosion also started increasing, the beach got progressively smaller, until only a thin strip of water-swept sand was between the waves and the vegetation at the foot of the cliffs. The beach opened up once again, and a shallow escarpment returned, as I got to the Brufut fishing village. Brufut itself is inland, but this is where the fisherman cast off. I saw a few boats out in the water, and passed lineups of dozens of wooden, brightly-painted fishing boats, soldiers at the ready. It was quiet, probably due to the holiday. I said hello to a couple of fishermen mending a net, found a strip of beach further up, and rested briefly to get a bit of sun. I gazed at the ships in the distance, admired the deserted beach to my right and left, and once again felt grateful to be here.
I kept walking, and once again found myself making my way through shallow water along imposing, rocky cliffs. Two fisherman were milling about in the shallow water, holding nets at the ready. I reached what appeared to be a shallow, flooded plain. I tried to walk around to my left, but gave up after getting caught by a thorny bush, thick mud in the water, and large roots that blocked the path up ahead. I retreated and mulled over my plan of attack. A fisherman came over, and showed me the path to take to ford through the knee-high water. Once across, he told me that he’d show me the rest of the way. We made our way around a bend, and kept going along the once-again sandy, white beach. In the distance were Gambia’s only off-shore islands, part of the nature preserve. We walked a ways, and finally reached the mouth of the Tanji River, which we had to cross. Having a guide, who had dropped what he was doing to show me along, worked out well, because as soon as I stepped into the water, I got caught in the mud and started getting sucked in like quicksand. I pulled my way out with his help. Backpack perched high on my shoulders, we forded the waist-high water, barefoot over the rocks, and walked to the hotel along the main highway. I had reached my destination: the fishing village of Tanji. I tipped my guide and he went back to his abandoned net. It was 2pm. In the four hours I had been trekking, I had come across maybe a dozen people along the beach.
Like Brufut, Tanji’s fishing activities take place along the beach while the village itself is inland. Along the beach were many of the same, wooden, colorfully decorated boats. Soaked from the waist down, I walked a bit along the highway, saw the various dilapidated buildings used by the fishermen and some small businesses. Not much was happening, a few groups of men lounged around. I headed away from the water and made my way to the village, which was a short distance away. The village looked and felt very much like the villages I had seen on my trip to James Island. Very rural, but less isolated. It also looked very much like a typical African neighbourhood, with wide sandy streets, modest corrugated-steel housing, laundry hanging on lines, residents sitting around outside their houses, kids playing soccer, lots of greenery. I spent some time wandering the streets, waving like a celebrity to all those who said hello. Many people greeted me in French, one shop sign advertised in French, and I had a short conversation with a local en francais. I’m not really sure why. The kids, once again, were a joy to see. Tanji is easily accessible and a tour destination, so they’re more used to seeing tourists than the truly upcountry villages, but they were still very happy to see me. They would run out of their compounds smiling, just wanting to touch me and hold my hand. As I was walking along, a whole bunch came running when they realized I had a camera. They were thrilled to have their picture taken. They were positively giddy when I showed it to them. Tanji offers camel rides on the beach, but I didn’t really care about doing that. I did want to have a fish lunch, but hadn’t seen a place to stop. Concerned as well about getting home before nightfall, I headed out.
It’s worth noting that the highway right outside my house leads straight to Tanji, which admittedly would have been an easier path for the morning hike but not nearly as interesting. Having done the beach walk on the way there, though, I opted for the highway on the way back to see something different. I walked along the shoulder, and was passed by no fewer than six tour buses. I preferred to walk. The highway intersects the Tanji Bird Sanctuary, which provided glorious scenery on both sides of the road as I went along. After a while, I took a turnoff and diverted east to see Ghana Town and Brufut. Ghana Town was quiet and looked like a typical African neighbourhood, rather run-down and quite poor, lots of open buildings and sparse places. I walked along the main, sandy road, and eventually Ghana Town seamlessly turned into Brufut, like going from Edmonton to St. Albert. Brufut looked to be bigger, wealthier, more residential and settled, with seemingly more trees and nicer compounds. It was quiet and not unlike Brusubi, only it seemed older, more established, more lived-in. I headed north after a while, and made my way through the various narrow paths, taking in my surroundings. When you get off main roads and make your way into African neighbourhoods, be it saturated like Bakau Old Town or more stately like Brufut, you’re quickly sucked in, insulated from the outside world. Eventually I found my way back to the main highway, and kept going home. I walked past the new Taf development adjoining Brufut, a fully modern, western-style development of identical housing and wide, paved, orderly roads. Unlike in the west, though, these houses had lawns and trees. Getting thoroughly tired, I made the final stretch home. Gambians were once again dressed to the nines and bustling around with plans for the evening. At 5:20, after seven and a half hours, I stumbled through my front door, exhausted. I had a shower, made some supper, and relaxed. It was good to be indoors and off my feet. The day saw me walking about 21 kilometers and drinking over 5L of water.
Gambia is very much a place to be outdoors and enjoy the wonders of nature. Although it cannot boast the beaches of the Caribbean or the wildlife of Kenya, it has a bit of both in modest proportions, and also has very nice vegetation, lovely countryside, interesting nature preserves, and popular bird watching opportunities. With all the hustle-bustle in the world (which I admittedly miss), it’s nice to be able to enjoy those things.
Today I am back at work. It’s brutally hot outside. And I’m sore.