I leave the house in the early morning, squinting at the African sun holding court over a pristine blue sky. A cold wind sweeps through my yard. Smiling at the lethargic guard dozing on a thin blanket covering the ground, I quietly close the metal gate behind me. Only a few years ago these houses did not exist, and this road was not paved. As I walk, a small boy riding on a rickety metal cart pulled by an obedient donkey passes on my left. To my right, a stray dog trots past a pair of goats and a nearby chicken. Up ahead, Gambians are preparing for the day. A tall, elderly man in a bright boubou slowly pedals his way on the shoulder of the highway. A group of young men yell and try valiantly to chase down a pickup truck already taking a sizeable crowd to parts unknown. A white van, filled to the rafters with humanity, motors down the road as an unseen voice shouts the destination through an obscured window. Local taxis, with their eclectic mix of beat up seats, missing handles, eroded side panels, and doors that open with a rope, depart from a dusty patch serving as a garage. Behind makeshift wooden tables, various ladies sit behind their wares of the day: fresh bananas, little bags of local peanuts, and mountains of luscious watermelons. A nearby shop that rents outdates videos, sells canned goods, liquor and building appliances, opens its doors. West African and reggae music emanate from a taxi parked nearby. A group of school children say hello as I walk by. Other Gambians standing by the side of the road, or sitting aimlessly outside of shops, merely stare at me. I stop at the junction and take in the same scene that has greeted me every morning for the past four months. Four months since a delayed flight whisked my reluctant body and mind away from vibrant European living. Four months since I disembarked under a watchful moon and was greeted by a muggy wall of hot, sticky air, a giant runway surrounded by empty fields, and the watchful eyes of the military. This is The Gambia.
A few weeks ago, I stopped by Churchill’s in Palma Rima to find out where that Monday’s Hash run was being held. Churchill’s is a fitting place for this information to be posted, what with the Hash being run a group of old, laid back, beer and coast-loving British expats, and the pub being a popular hangout for those same folk. As I perused the notice board, I noticed an advertisement for a place called the King Kombo distillery. Apparently this place makes liquers of local fruits, is close to my house, and provides tours and samples. Excited by the idea of finding something like a baobab liquer, I headed down there on Friday. After walking down the highway in the direction of the airport, a sign took me down a dirt road into the fields, and finally toward a forested area. Arriving at my destination, I made my way into the distillery. It was a lot like the Green Mamba bar: a bar set outdoors amidst the shade of an expanse of trees. In the last few days, I had seen a fair number of beat up and dirty cars driving around the Gambia advertising the Amsterdam-Dakar Challenge. A fair number of these Dutch folk were at the distillery when I arrived, and I joined them for the tour. The distillery itself is small, about 9 years old, and family-owned. They sell at the location and do promotions at the hotels of whatever liquor happens to be in season. Sadly, my dreams of exotic liquers were dashed as they didn’t have what I hoped for, and I missed out on the mango and cashew liquers that had come and gone several months previously. Nevertheless, they had three for sampling and selling. The first was a sweet banana, lime and coconut. The second was more sour and had more heat, being a combination of orange, grapefruit and lime. The last was banana, coffee and imported Belgian chocolate. Having traveled long distances (about 15 minutes of walking) to see the distillery, hopeful to bring something back home with me, and feeling generous after the two rounds of free samples, I ended up awkwardly carrying several bottles back down the highway. I’m not sure if the flavours are the most novel or exotic in the world. But I decided that I could enjoy them back in Canada even if they weren’t groundbreaking. They were certainly tasty, not too expensive, and made of fresh ingredients here in the Gambia, which I appreciated.
Saturday was another Cleaning Day. The streets were quiet, and more plumes of smoke were evident than usual from people burning garbage. Later that evening, as I headed to Francisco’s for our Hash Christmas party, I saw a few hundred army members on the side of the highway, clear-cutting the growth with machetes and scorching the remains. There was also a big traffic jam as apparently the President was in the area. This was being done to make things pretty for Friday’s inauguration. The Christmas party was a lot of fun. Christmas carols played, I drank gin and tonics (the drink that built the Empire) with some Brits, wine was had, I had something called a tiamaria, and dancing ensued. One of the shops along Kairaba Avenue that I popped into on my way to the restaurant was also decorated with Christmas ornaments. There is some Christmas spirit here, and I’m told that December 25th itself is a good party. They don’t spend months building up to it. But it doesn’t feel the same given the climate.
I’ve had the opportunity to try a variety of local foods from here in the Gambia. On Sunday, I went to Senegambia to have “domoda”, which is a sauce made of peanuts and vegetables, served over beef, that was delicious. At the workshop last week, I had “palazas”, something also sold by ladies sitting roadside. Served over rice, it is a sauce made of palm oil, meat, fish, vegetables, and whatever else they decide to throw in. Also at the workshop, I had “foufou”, which is basically like eating a ball of raw dough made of cassava flour. It is served with a sauce made of okra, palm oil, etc. I’ve previously had “yassa”, which is a lemon-onion-mustard sauce, and “afra”, which seems very similar. The one thing I haven’t had a chance to try is palm wine. I went down to the beach again on Saturday to see if the nearest beach bar had any. Once again getting lost, I ended up further down the beach than I wanted to be, and made my way back. Somehow I ended up walking for an hour and a half until I reached Senegambia. Either I missed the bar, somehow, or it has been razed in the last two weeks. Weird. In any case, West African food has certain perks. The common elements seem to be sauces made of all sorts of meats and fish and vegetables. The biggest downside is how very greasy it all ends up being.
On an unrelated note, I’ve been hearing a lot of Celine Dion playing recently, both in taxis and in the restaurant I went to on Sunday. I’m not sure how I feel about that.