Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why You Should Visit The Gambia

I arrive in The Gambia at 7.15pm - 8 hours after setting off from Dakar, Senegal. My plan originally was to explore The Gambia in one and half days, but spending almost the entire day on the road meant I had less than a day, so I slightly alter it.

The original itinerary included a visit to the National museum, a tour of Banjul, Monkey Park, Katchikally Crocodile Pool, Abuko nature reserve, a massage at Coco Ocean spa and lunch or dinner at Ngala Lodge. However, I manage to check everything off my list save for the National museum and the massage at Coco Ocean spa.

Photo: Shayera
Vines Galore. Abuko Nature Reserve
Photo: Shayera
I start out early to Banjul, taking the very first ferry from Barra. This cruise was the only part of the trip I hadn’t looked forward to because, based on my research, the ferry wasn’t exactly a 5-star experience. Everything and anyone boards it - from sheep to cars. I find a tiny space to plant my feet for 30 minutes. Not long after departing, we dock and everyone disembarks. I catch a taxi, negotiate a price and off we go.

Breakfast consists of sausages and Danish pastries, washed down with baobab juice that tastes radically different from the one I had in Senegal. I don’t like this watery, slightly bitter version and quickly refill my glass with wonjo juice aka bissap in Senegal aka zobo in Nigeria, which so happens to be my new favorite drink.

Just resting. Abuko Nature Reserve
Photo: Shayera
With breakfast over, I hail a taxi and begin my tour of The Gambia – starting with Abuko nature reserve. The weather is very warm, as expected, unlike that of Senegal. My guide, the director of the reserve, takes me around the park pointing out different animals, birds and vegetation types. The expedition feels like a practical class in biology. He tells me there are snakes, and that if we’re lucky we might come across some. I tell him I wish not to see any after he narrates a story about getting bitten in his sleep.

Photo Op with the Monkeys
Photo: Shayera
We reach a clearing where I meet a jealous female monkey behind bars. The director explains that only men can touch her, but women can’t. I attempt touching her through the bars and she scratches me – I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Afterwards, we make our way to the hyenas, cheetahs and a cute 6-month old lion. I take the mandatory pictures, but the piece de resistance of the entire tour is the photo ops with the monkeys. The trick is to bribe them with peanuts, and then have someone take pictures as they greedily snatch them from your hands.

Monkeys Undergoing Rehab
Photo: Shayera
The Abuko experience lasts 2 hours, and this is only because I cut it short. I board my taxi and we head to Katchikally Crocodile Pool, which is used for fertility rituals.

My first stop is the museum adjacent to the pool that houses interesting relics from the past. I take pictures and peruse the captions describing each item before making my way to the main attraction - a crocodile christened Charlie.

Lounging Crocks, Bakau
Photo: Shayera
Charlie is the most docile crocodile I’ve ever seen. It remains still, even as a daredevil tourist wiggles one of its limbs. I gingerly place my hand on its back - it’s eerily cold to the touch - and quickly take two pictures before deciding I’ve had enough. I walk to the vivid green pool to take pictures of several crocodiles lounging in the sun.

Photo: Shayera
By now it’s 4pm. I visit the monkey park, which to me is a replica of Abuko nature reserve, but with more monkeys. I decide I’ve seen enough monkeys for a day and leave for Ngala Lodge, after only spending a few minutes there.

Monkey Park. Bijilo
Photo: Shayera
Ngala Lodge is a very beautiful piece of real estate with a restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is rated highly on TripAdvisor, but the customer service I experience is appalling poor. First, no one approaches me when I walk into the restaurant. And it’s not until I ask random people if they work there that a waiter finally emerges. He presents the menu, I order wonjo juice and some variation of yassa, as chicken yassa isn’t available.

Ngala Lodge, Fajara
Photo: Shayera
Few minutes later, the cashier appears with my order but no hot towel I could sanitize my hands with. I contemplate using my hand sanitizer, but decide against it when I remember my cavorting with the monkeys. Can’t risk getting an infection. I ask for the bathroom to wash my hands.

I emerge from the bathroom shortly to see a crow feasting on my meal! I’m mortified and amused all at once. I chase it away and look for the waiter/cashier. The cashier appears seconds later, saying, with an air of nonchalance, that crows roam the area and that she’ll speak to the chef. Some minutes pass before she informs me that I have to pay for the meal if I want another plate. I decline and ask for my bill for the drinks.

The cashier squeezes her face and walks away. I finish my drink and walk up to her to pay – this is after I notice she’s making no effort to bring my bill. At the counter, the sous-chef asks what the problem is. I tell him, then he asks if I would like to eat. That question irritates me more than the cashier’s constant interruption of my narrative, arguing that I had told her the crow sat on my food, not eaten it. I wonder if she is nuts for insinuating one is better than the other.

And as for the sous-chef, should he be asking or volunteering, seeing a request had already been made to replace the meal?

Anyway, I pay for my drinks and return to the hotel where I actually get to enjoy a meal of chicken yassa with a glass of wonjo juice (notice a pattern here?). Heaven is the only word that describes it.

The Last Supper: Chicken Yassa
Photo: Shayera
With my last supper in The Gambia over, I return to my room, park my belongings, rest for an hour before heading off to the airport.

At the airport, I have a friendly chat with an immigration personnel and the guy in the control room. Both talk about their love for Nigerian football (mirroring the sentiments of the Reserve director), and bemoan Nigeria’s no show at this year’s African Cup of Nations.

I ask them about tribal and religious dynamics in The Gambia. They say Gambians get along peacefully between tribal and religious lines, and that intermarriages are normal more so than in Senegal.

In addition, I learn Gambians don’t speak Pidgin English (which I assumed all Anglophone countries in West Africa spoke), but the inhabitants of James Island aka Kunta Kinte Island speak a variation of English. I also learn markets are overrun with Senegalese with no resentment from Gambians, and that Nigerians run several businesses in The Gambia – this last piece of information doesn’t surprise me.

Through our conversations, I gather The Gambia and Senegal existed as one entity before the Brits and the French tore it apart.

They beseech me to visit Gambia again, promising there’s more to see. I don’t object, because it’s true – there’s more to see, like Baboon Island and Georgetown.

At 2.30am, after several delays, I board my flight to Lagos with a smile on my face, vowing to visit more of Africa.

My next trip will be to East Africa.