Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Urban African Landscape

The Atlantic road by bike is a pain in the (insert body part). It has little to no shoulder as a result of erosion during the rainy season, and the ground to either side is a mix of foot-deep sand, gravel, and scrub brush. When you compound this with Gambian driving habits--no followed speed limit, cars skimming bikes and pedestrians by inches, loud honking at white people and women, among other delights--it completely obliterates the desire to bike this accursed stretch of road in any sane person. It is also forbidden for Peace Corps volunteers to ride alongside it. It is, however, the shortest, most straightforward route between my workplace in Fajara and my home, in Brusubi. The land on either side of it is an unknown maze of side streets twisting through tourists areas, trash dumps, and small hamlets.

Finding a decent bike path through this obscurity would save me a decent amount in daily cab fare. So, with this in mind, I set out on Saturday to find the best route possible. There is a small bottleneck where the Atlantic road meets Kairaba, the street I work on, so I had to ride a stretch on what shoulder I could find before I made the first left turn onto a side street. It was a nerve wracking experience, with cars zooming by at what had to but over 70 mph speeds, barely edging to the left to avoid me. After running this short gauntlet and ducking onto the side road, I ended up in an industrial park with the Kotu power plant to my left, spewing black fumes and a loud churning drone into the air. Outside the gates was a small, crumbling shop and restaurant, assumedly built there to cater to power plant workers. Two small children stared sullenly at me from inside the door as I passed, as hung laundry on a line flapped in the breeze nearby.

Continuing further from the main road, I ended up in a village built entirely around a massive trash dump. The houses were built mainly on hills surrounding a big pit in the earth, likely dug to make clay bricks for construction, filled with old tires, scrap metal, and debris. The road twisted and wound through compounds, with small dust devils springing up here and there, throwing up potato chip wrappers and empty water packets. In a dusty field set aside, a group of small boys were playing soccer with a tattered old ball and make-shift goals comprised of two stones placed a few feet apart. Passing the field and rounding the corner, I headed up a steep incline, shifting to low gear and pumping the pedals hard. When I reached the top, I saw a large, three-storey, white compound. There were two suvs parked in the driveway, and a number of satellite dishes hanging off the roof. I switched to a higher gear while passing the locked gates and the guard sitting in front of them.

I continued until I came to a paved, two-lane road and a sign that announced my arrival at Manjai Kunda. My wandering had brought me further away from the Atlantic road than I intended, as MK is a suburb of Serrekunda, the largest city in the Gambia, which is several kilometers from where I want to be. I turned right onto the paved road, once again getting skimmed and honked at by agressive taxi drivers. I passed a number of mid-range apartment complexes, tailor shops, and stores selling Chinese knockoffs of Adidas and Puma shoes and clothes until I reached a gravel and tar road I knew to be the main highway of Kotu.

I took another side road, which once again led me to the main Atlantic road, near Maroun's supermarket. I had never been to this store, but had heard it was pretty upmarket, so I decided to take a break and see what was inside. Walking in, I noticed that the clientele was almost entirely white. I passed a chubby mustachioed man and his wife speaking in some Scandinavian-sounding language, and continued to the deli counter. They had cured meats from Spain, German sausages, dozens of types of cheese, and vats of olives, any of which a hundred grams would cost enough to feed an average Gambian family for a couple of days. My curiosity thus satisfied, I passed by a couple of young europeans men picking up a thirty pack of Heineken, greeted the cashier, and walked out the door.

Outside I hung a left down a sandy back street to distance myself once again from the Atlantic road. I found myself surrounded by little bar/restaurants catering mostly to tourists. One, called Mango Table, had a large mural that was obviously of a bumster and and older woman. Truth in advertising, at least. Continuing into Kololi, another step closer to Brusubi, the landscape changed to small hotels and nicely manicured compounds overflowing with bouganvillea. The road also became increasingly sandy, and I started having to walk stretches until I found patches of more solid ground. After slogging away for a mile or so, I came back out onto the Atlantic road at the Senegambia junction. Here, once again, I was surrounded by toubabs, overly tatooed, underly clothed, just shining examples of the high class and culture of the western world. I had to bike on the main road for a quarter mile or so, and then I plunged back into the uncertain tangle of sidestreets.

The next town to work my through was Bijilo, which is comprised of massive tourist hotels to the right of the road on the coast, and a fairly traditional, if well-to-do, Gambian town on the left side of the road. I worked my way through the increasingly sandy streets, avoiding gangs of boys playing enthusiastic games of soccer with improvised equipment literally every hundred meters or so. Sometimes they stopped to smile and brazenly ask for money or my bike in what little English they knew. I was polite to those who didn't beg. I ignored those who did. As I kept taking turns, I started to doubt if I was on the right track. I stopped to ask directions from a man sitting brewing attaya outside his compound, and got the standard suprised/amused reaction at request being made in Mandinka. He put me on the right track, but his manner, so frequent among people I meet in Kombo, was a bit grating to me. In village I could just have a conversation with friends without them having to make constant comments or give me advice on my language. Here, a toubab speaking Mandinka is still very much a novelty, and it makes me feel like a sideshow sometimes.

Finally, after dragging my bike through another mile or so of sand, I arrived at the roundabout known to locals as "the turntable." My house was just another few hundred meters away, and on paved roads, no less. I started my trip at around 3 PM. I looked at my phone, and it said 5:45. Almost three hours, which in a taxi takes about 15 minutes. Gambians don't really see time as money. Not yet, anyway. I am an American--I do. The ten dalasis be damned, I am taking a taxi.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. crazy story! Yes, ten dalasi is worth it. But maybe next time it will only take two hours...