Sunday, September 6, 2009

Travel Day

I brought an alarm clock with me to the Gambia, but I am not sure where it is. If I had any actual use for it I would probably have kept better track of it. It's probably under my bed or in a suitcase. I wish it was a soft beeping sound waking me each morning, as opposed to the metallic squeal of feedback and a very lo-fi voice zealously chanting the call to prayer at 5 AM. That is how this day starts, but it is different from most days in that today I plan to travel- first to Basse, then on to Kombo.

As the scratchy howl of the mosque loud speakers 30 yards away continues to beckon the faithful, I groggily roll out of bed in the darkness, guided only by the tepid light an LED lamp on the wall. My friend Whitney has been visiting and is already up and packing her things together. I snag a quick drink of water and wolf down a loaf of bread after changing into some relatively clean clothes and grabbing my bag; we both head for the door.

Outside my house the light is not yet visible on the horizon, and the swirl of the milky way and glow of the moon barely illuminate the silhouettes of the sleepy worshippers filing towards the mosque. Whitney and I use the flashlights built into our cell phones to pick out the remnants of the path out of town that has been gutted by the torrential rains of the past couple of months. We join the main road about a quarter mile out of the village and head towards Chamoi - the nearest village in which reliable transport can be found in the rainy season. I listen for the barking of baboons or steady whoop-whoop of hyenas, as I have heard in the early morning on this road before, but only crickets chirping and toads croaking accompanies our footsteps.

After a little more than a mile we reach our destination, and sit by the side of the north bank road in hopes of catching a bush taxi. After about 1/2 an hour - a relatively brief wait, actually- a large van approaches and we barter passage to basse, crammed inside with about 20 other people. As is is Ramadan, those fasting are not allowed to spit, since it is seen as form of relief. About 2 miles down the road an old man mumbles something to Whitney about her seat, and becomes very animated. A passenger to his right explains that the old man wants to sit by the window, and Whitney agrees to avoid any arguments. Once they have switched, the man immediately slides the window open, loudly clears his throat, and proceeds to spit several large wads of saliva and phlegm out the window.

Upon arrival in Basse we head to the car park, where many of the early cars have already left, leaving us few choices. The car that seems the best bet to leave the soonest is an old grey Peugeot station wagon that already has 3 passengers. We negotiate fare and move around to the back to load our luggage. When the driver opens the back hatch a large swarm of flies erupts into the air, having been interrupted from eating the residue on several empty rice sacks that had once conveyed some unknown, pungent cargo.

Another passenger joins our car and we are off, headed for the ferry across the Gambia river at Janjanbureh. Thankfully we are stopped only briefly at the police checkpoint just outside of Basse- just long enough for our driver to give a small bribe to one of the officers. The ride is fairly smooth for the first 20 kilometers or so, after which the road gives way to something that more closely resembles a lunar landscape, filled with bumps and craters caused by rain as opposed to meteors. The front part of my seat has been worn away by the posteriors of countless passengers, so if I lean back too far the small of my back grinds into a metal bar that supports the cushion. Every now and again the driver does not slow down adequately before a bump, and everyone in the vehicle briefly experiences weightlessness before crashing back to earth again.

After a couple of hours we arrive at the ferry to join a queue of about 9 cars. The ferry can only carry two vehicles at once, so we have at least a half-hour wait ahead of us. We quietly buy a couple bags of water and smuggle them past the hordes of fasting Gambians to an idyllic little spot on the riverside underneath a massive silk cotton tree entwined with two small mango trees. Watching the ferry slowly cross the river powered by the combined strength of its passengers pulling on a metal rope, we took this stop as a welcome break from the rigors of Gambian travel. After about an hour our car boarded the ferry and we pulled along with everyone else until we landed safely on Janjanbureh Island.

After a short engine-driven ferry ride to cross the river on the other side of the island, we reached the paved section of the north bank road. This section of road feels out of place with the rest of the Gambia- its is a true highway, like those found in America or Europe, complete with distance markers, dividing lines, and shoulders. Police checkpoints are also more common on this stretch of road, but thankfully today we are fortunate--few stop us and they are content with a small exchange of pleasantries. In Farafenni we stop so a man with a large jug of gas can pour it through a funnel into our tank while swarms of young girls selling bread, bananas, and dates try to push their wares through our windows. As we drive back onto the road, I lean my head back and manage to doze off.

After a few hours of varying stages of consciousness, we arrive in Barra. Barra is a major transit hub for Senegalese travelers as well as Gambians from all over the country. As such, it is also a dirty, smelly haven for thieves and con men. We walk with purpose through the gauntlet of offers of guidance and buy two tickets to the ferry. By some fantastic stroke of luck, the ferry is just about to leave and we are able to walk on just in time, thereby foregoing the usual 1-2 hour wait. On the ferry we climb to the upper level to take in the beautiful view of the river heading out to the sea and the harbor of Banjul at the other side. The sun is getting lower in the sky as dusk approaches, and the water is dappled with gold and bits of red and orange. After 12 hours of travel, the sea breeze and the view feel like a reward, and we land in Kombo with a sense of accomplishment and relief.


  1. and I thought my daily commute was a pain! The day you wrote this we had our croquet party. You were on many minds and we raised $75 for your bed net project (which includes Grandma Max's contribution - as she couldn't get her donation to go through on the site). I'll head to the malaria project site now to send the funds!

  2. As always, your description transported me! Thanks for the great blog. Love you!

  3. Great description Brendan. I thoroughly expect this to be a major motion picture staring Brad Pitt. It's an interesting connection that the church we are helping to build in Brazil is in the town of Barra. I'm sure it's a totally different pronounciation, but the world is so small. Continued blessings on your work. We prayed for you in worship again yesterday. Peace, Bob