I was never very good at speaking French. I can get by when needed, but skipping too many classes years ago left me with only a basic grasp at best. That all changed after 11 months in West Africa, but when I had been there for only a few weeks, I really needed a break from struggling to communicate.
So I fled the former French colonies and headed to an old British one. The Gambia is situated smack in the middle of Senegal. It is the smallest country on mainland Africa and it has a large river that splits it in two from one end to the other. It was the slave trade in the 1800’s which kept the British colony on the Gambia River busy. The Brits only gave it back to the locals in 1965, so you will still find people there with English accents.
I took up residence in a hotel in Banjul, grateful that I did not have to barter the price in French. The view looked out over an open plain, where I could see a backdrop of the ocean against hundreds of old colonial buildings with rusty tin roofs interspersed with palm trees.
It was warm and humid, but pleasant, so I went out in search of a cold beer. Julbrew, the national beer, is available everywhere and costs less than a dollar a bottle. So it is easy enough to find a local bar and just relax. There are little beach huts everywhere and bars all over town. You will soon enough meet an almost over-friendly local that wants to take you to their favorite bar. When the power went out at 9, the bartender told me that this was normal. The city has frequent power blackouts, almost every night. Best to just sit it out and have another beer.
The Gambia has a fairly large tourist economy, with lots of tourists on packages from Holland, The U.K and all cold climates north. Most stay in package accommodation along the beaches, but you’ll always find the adventurous few that wander out into town. I teamed up with a Swede and a Brit that were in the bar and we made our way to a Reggae bar we had heard stories about. It was down a long dirt track lined with palm trees with not a light in sight. Good thing the moon was full. We could see the colored lights and hear the music from quite a distance away, but as we got closer, what we could not help but notice was the smell. Yes, this was truly a reggae bar. Filled with a bunch of ultra friendly locals sitting in the corner smoking their favorite substance.
We all had a far too many beers and probably sat breathing the smoke-filled air for far too long, so our journey back into town down the long dirt road was one of the weirdest I have ever taken. But late at night Banjul is magic. Or maybe it was just the ganja. Everywhere there is music paying and people having fun.
Traveling overland in West Africa is not for the faint-hearted. it is a rugged adventure that will change your life. There is, of course, many package tours that are infinitely more comfortable than ‘do it yourself’ and probably as rewarding too. I just have this very stubborn sense of doing it my way. Nothing can quite prepare you for West Africa.