Soulful St. Louis
Arriving in St. Louis was the best introduction to Senegal I could have hoped for. We crossed the bridge from the mainland having weaved our way through the bustling market between the donkey-carts and equally slow-moving black and yellow taxi cabs congesting the roads.
Over on the island, the pace of life was noticeably less frenetic. And with the cafes and bars and music drifting onto the shop-lined streets and the colourful if slightly crumbling buildings, the town reminded be of Old Havana and a number of other small towns which I spent many hours wandering through while on holiday in Cuba last year. Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much.
Liked it despite the small kids carrying round large tins begging for scraps of food; despite being asked and followed and finally harangued by small-time artisan traders to visit their shop and see their tourist wares; despite being watched over by a beggar and demanded to share my ice-cool beer I was quietly sipping at a street-side bar; despite being shouted at for photographing a goat and some laundry because I hadn’t asked permission to do so from the proprietor of said laundry and heaven-forbid the outcry when I tried to photograph a street-scene!
I liked it because the hostel owner always saved the left-over breakfast bread for the poor children with the large round food tins; liked it that you could go into a bar and enjoy an ice-cool beers while relaxing to the soulful, rhythmical beat playing in the background; liked it that the fisher-boys playing football on the beach after a hard day’s work just wanted to tell me about their day and ask what team I supported in England; liked it that I could walk down the street alone at night with my laptop under my arm and never once worry about safety or security; liked it that the youth wanted a photo of himself stood proud in his Senegal football shirt.
View from the Road
The route from St. Louis to the Gambian border was hugely varied – from Acacia-dotted dry-grass landscapes where the thorns lying thickly on the ground were the cause of two punctures, one each for me and Lars (and a third being caused by a nail on the road) to the relatively lush and green fields with impressive baobab trees standing tall. There were the cattle being herded along the dusty paths, hazily reflected in the low light of dusk and the vultures soaring overhead in the thermals in the midday sun. There were the women walking in twos or threes along the road, baskets balanced on their heads, who would raise a hand and smile as we cycled past and the men driving donkey-carts, occasionally beating with them with a stick to go faster, who would raise a hand and smile as we cycled on past.
Call of the Child
We passed through numerous villages too, with local people sitting quietly under the shade of trees. Quietly, that is, until the small children spotted us and then we were pursued down the road with shouts of ‘Toubab’ echoing in our ears. ‘Toubab’, meaning ‘white man’, is without a doubt the most heard word of my time in Senegal and The Gambia. It’s not only used by the children, but by the adults too.
But when used by the adults, it has a slightly more bitter ring to it, derogatory even. Perhaps I have just heard it too much. Lars has taken to calling out ‘Black boy’ or ‘Black girl’ in response – the young boys, not knowing the meaning then mimic the call and I am then no longer a ‘Toubab’ but a ‘Black Boy’… now which do I prefer?! The women, understanding English well enough, laugh out loud realising just how ridiculous it sounds.
After ‘Toubab’, the children are quick to call out ‘cadeaux’ or ‘argent’. The more linguistically adept may shout out ‘donnez-moi l’argent’ (give me the money) and the more precocious ones demand our bikes. After six days of these constant calls and demands, it was with humorous relief to hear a group of schoolgirls, neatly dressed in their blue and white uniforms, on their way to school call out in unison ‘GIVE ME ANYTHING!’ in perfect schoolgirl English.
We weren’t harangued in every village we passed. Indeed, in several of the sleepy villages or busy cross-roads, we were left in peace and treated no differently to anyone else. I cannot explain why the people in these seemingly identical villages behave so differently. One thing I did notice was that many of the villages where we were hassled the most, had large boards staked into the ground advertising the great work of collaborative projects with overseas charity organisations. This may be a coincidence or the cause; I can only speculate.
Water Supply Issues
During the six days it took to get to the border, obtaining water was often one of the hardest chores of the day.
In all the time I spent cycling through the arid Saharan region, I never once had a problem getting water – even in the smallest village where a limited water supply is trucked in and stored in large bags on the floor for distribution until the next delivery – and often people on the road would stop to see if I needed anything.
But here in the Senegalese countryside, the locals were often very protective of their water supplies (usually standpipes funded and constructed by foreign donors, according to the signs anyway) and on more than one occasion tried to make us pay for the water or wouldn’t even let us have any or if they said we could, it would be once all the jerry cans surrounding the tap had been filled, which would have taken the best part of the morning. It’s true, this is Africa – no rush – but even my patience was tested here.
The view here is that ‘Toubabs’ give and shouldn’t take.
Borders and Bribery
We arrived at the border just north of Farafenni and soon had the Senegal exit stamp in our passports. We then passed onto The Gambia control post. The man at the desk thumbed through our passports, searching for something. We stood silently waiting. Eventually the man at the desk asks where the visa is.
We explain that we don’t need a visa for The Gambia, thinking but not vocalising that he should probably know this also. According to the man we do need a visa, a tourist visa. Frowning sceptically at each other, we ask where we are supposed to get it from. ‘Ah, but you see, the problem is you have to get the required tourist visa at the ‘visa’ office, but because it is Tabaski and therefore a holiday the office is closed’. And then it comes – loud and clear – the bribe, ‘but you pay and I stamp’.
At this point we are firmly in possession of our passports, so we get clarification that we don’t actually need a ‘tourist visa’. We look around on his desk but don’t see any stamp and when we question this he foolishly contradicts that they don’t stamp for entry into The Gambia. Quick-thinking, Lars says we’re just going to get the money from our bike bags and with that we leave his office. After a short deliberation outside, we put passports in pockets, hop onto the saddle and pedal as fast as possible into The Gambia, glancing behind briefly to check we’re not being pursued.
I suppose the man at the desk doesn’t get paid very much and if he asks for money from every white tourist that passes, he probably makes a little extra on the side – enough to feed his family perhaps. But I don’t think he’d been running this routine very long, for it was definitely flawed. Either that, or he wasn’t very clever, or perhaps just that there are several white tourists who are even less clever and end up paying to enter. Whichever way you look at it, this was my first first-hand experience of bribery and corruption, albeit on a small-scale, in Africa. I wonder how many more times I’ll encounter it? – I have a lot more borders to cross.
Just over a day’s cycling along the northern road of the Gambia and we arrived at Barra, where we took a boat across the river and entered the sleepy capital. Banjul has a small-town feel to it and it really is quite a small town, especially for the country’s capital. Most people who work in the town prefer to live in the livelier coastal resorts, which is where we headed once we had completed what turned out to be an epic visa hunt.
The Great Visa Hunt
The plan was to arrive in Banjul on Sunday afternoon so we could go straight to the Guinean embassy on Monday morning. But we took a bit longer getting to Banjul and then, once there, were distracted by the Julbrew beer. So we finally went to the Guinean embassy on Wednesday morning. Actually, we went to where the Guinean embassy used to be – apparently it had since moved to the Serrekunda resort. Oh well. We went to the Sierra Leone embassy instead – this at least was where it was supposed to be. Only problem was that the person who issues visas wasn’t there. She’d be back soon though. So we waited. And waited – this is Africa, no rush. But we couldn’t wait any more so we decided to go and get the Mali visa forms to fill in from the Malian consulate. At the address we found a transportation company – no they didn’t have visa forms! We decided to search the internet for the address – this turned out three results. We returned to the Sierra Leone embassy and waited some more. Eventually the lady arrived, we handed in our forms with a large quantity of bank notes and were told to collect them the next morning. After lunch we went and methodically checked out each potential Mali consulate address and a conflicting Guinea Bissau embassy address– all to no avail. We were told however, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have the information and we were given the address for the ministry to find. We did manage to find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – one step closer. We asked the guard at the gate for help, who passed us onto a secretary, who passed us on to her superior, who in turn passed us on to his superior, who had a large office on the top floor with the satellite tv broadcasting the business news but no superior to pass us on to. There we waited. And waited – this is Africa and this is a busy man, no rush. Eventually, after a few calls, we know had a firm address for the Guinea Bissau embassy, a phone number of the man who works at the Guinea embassy in Serrekunda with whom we could arrange a meeting and also now knew that there was no longer a Mali embassy, consulate or high commission in the country.
With that, we retired to the bar for a hard-earned beer.
Fortunately, the following day was rather more successful – we collected our visa-stamped passports from the Sierra Leone embassy, cycled out to Bakau on the coast and got a visa for Guinea Bissau right there while waiting and even managed to make contact with the man from the Guinea embassy.
The day after we collected the final visa for Guinea and so concludes the great visa hunt.
Lazy Days in Sukutu
For the last few days, we’ve been staying at a campsite in Sukutu, whiling away the hours in the shade, with wi-fi and beer, leaving this lovely site only to cycle into Serrekunda for food. It’s just a little too easy to stay….
… and that’s why I intended to leave today, but am now leaving tomorrow – this is Africa, no rush.