Posted by: The Glove | December 13, 2011

Bikecation

For about the last year, I have been fascinated with the idea of biking The Gambia. With those of you not familiar with the country Senegal envelops, Wikipedia has a nice concise description: The Republic of The Gambia, commonly referred to as The Gambia, or Gambia, is a country in West Africa. Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal except for a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean in the west.

 

After meeting Gambia Peace Corps volunteers at the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST) in Dakar last year, I was further determined to make this dream a reality. Given that most of the year in Senegal is either unbelievably hot or unbelievably rainy, I realized it was in my best interest to wait for cold season. This would ensure the best (and easiest) possible ride.

 
Day One

On November 28, I set off, taking a care from Tambacounda to Manda Douane (douane=customs in French), a large border town with a road to Guinea. What it doesn’t have, however, is a road to Gambia. Or at least a real road. Only a bush path. After getting directions in Manda, I turned off onto the bush path and waved goodbye to the customs people at the gendarme post.

Then I stopped. And threw up. A lot. Oops.

Maybe it was the fact that the day before I ate a Senegalese lunch of rice and fish, a delicious curry that my friend had made, then for dinner washed it all down with a dinner of biscuits, gravy, spam and eggs (in Senegal we think this is amazing). I’m pretty sure that was the cause of my illness. I had been feeling sick all morning so I wasn’t all that surprised. I felt better immediately afterward, and took off on the bush path.

About an hour later I was in Fatoto, home of two Gambian volunteers, Julia and Sonia. I met Julia last year at WAIST, and she was a great help in planning this trip. Upon arriving in Fatoto, I asked for “Adama” (her Senegalese name), but was brought to Binta’s (Sonia) house. I think the people in Fatoto were confused by the white guy from Senegal showing up on the bush path.

After hanging out at Julia’s and eating lunch, we went down to the river to enjoy the view. Fatoto has a “ferry” to the other bank, and by that I mean a tiny little boat that will take you across the river. I didn’t take it. Instead I hopped on my bike and biked almost two and a half hours west to Basse Santa Su. I had to stop again to throw up about halfway through this ride. Basse has a Peace Corps regional house and is a thriving metropolis (by Gambian standards). There were a couple volunteers there and some Gambian staff, and we went out for a delicious dinner of chicken and spaghetti with onion sauce. Then I went out for a beer, which was really smart given my digestive status. Oh well. I needed it.

Day One’s biking was a lot hillier than I thought, given that in Kolda our hills are all little baby ones. But it was pretty and green and a lot like Kolda, except with a lot more Mandinkas (Kolda is predominantly Pulaar, the language I speak).

Total distance: roughly 65 km (bush paths don’t have kilometer markers)

First Day of Biking

Day Two

The second day was less eventful than the first, mostly because I didn’t get sick. Leaving Basse before 8 AM, the first few hours of the ride were on terrible road and hilly. I stopped for breakfast in a small town called Bakadadji, where I confused the people with my knowledge of French but my lack of knowledge about integrating English in Pulaar.

In Senegal, we insert random French words when Pulaar ones just won’t fit. “Mi yahat ecole” means “I go to school,” because there was no word for school pre-colonization. Other examples of this include the words for soccer ball, trainings, vacation, etc. When I tried to order breakfast and asked for half a piece of bread, they looked at me like I was a crazy person. You mean you want “Mburu half,” she said. Of course. When you talk about bread you give the portion size in English.

About an hour after Bakadadji, the road, which had been hilly, choppy dirt until then, turned into a beautiful, hilly paved road. A couple hours later, there was a turnoff to “Georgetown,” otherwise known as Janjanbureh, Day Two’s destination. At the turnoff, I had a lovely conversation with a customs person about if I was a Christian, where I pray in Senegal and whether I brought a bible with me. My madeup answers to these questions were yes, sometimes the church near where I live, and yes. Sometimes it’s easier not to explain the whole Jewish thing.

To arrive in Janjanbureh, you cross a small little bridge. In town, I met up with Joanna, a wonderful volunteer who offered me her extra bed without ever having met me (we spoke on the phone the day before for the first time). Janjanbureh is a beautiful town on an island with a well-developed tourist infrastructure. We had drinks at the hotel at the bird sanctuary, and because of all the biking, I was exhausted and asleep before 9.

Total distance: roughly 75 km

Overall distance: ~140 km

Second Day of Biking

Day Three

Leaving Janjanbureh to go north is harder than getting to the island, because there no bridge. Thankfully, there is a ferry that takes only about ten minutes going north to a village named Lamin Koto, and the people on the ferry love Peace Corps. As such, my ferry ride was free.

Once you get to Lamin Koto you get kilometer markers. To put this into perspective, imagine driving in America, but without the helpful signs that tell you where any towns or cities are, or how far you are from then. Obviously a bike has no odometer, so you have no sense of how far you’ve gone or how much is left other than your own intuition. I have a pretty good sense of how fast I go at relatively flat, paved roads, but hilly dirt roads, no idea.

As soon as I saw the kilometer marker, I knew exactly how far I had to go that day (78 kilometers). After an hour, I got a hard-boiled egg sandwich in Wassu, a town most notable for the “Stone Circles of Senegambia” nearby. I didn’t stop there, but sometimes I wish I had. It’s not like there are many tourist attractions along the road in Gambia. About halfway through this day, I felt a sharp pain in my knee that continued pretty much the entire ride. I had to stop with about a kilometer left just to catch my breath and get a break from the pain.

Powering through, I reached Kaur about 1 PM, my destination and home of a volunteer, Deb. Deb was kind enough to host me, since I really had no other options. Kaur isn’t exactly a big town. A volunteer I met last year at WAIST, Kyle, lives near Deb, and contacted me to let me know I should stay there. Kyle was there when we showed up, and hung out with us during the day. Again exhausted, I was asleep by 9 for the second straight day.

Total distance: 78 km

Overall distance: ~218 km

Third Day of Biking

Day Four 

With only 152 kilometers left, I had a decision to make on the second-to-last day of my biking. Optimally, I would have done about 80 kilometers, leaving myself 72 to do on the last day. Only, there wasn’t really a place to stop. There was a volunteer on the road in Kerewan, about 98 km from Kaur, which was only 18 km further than I was planning.

The difference between 80 km and 98 km is the difference between biking about five hours versus six. That sixth hour, especially with a bad knee, is pretty much all mental. After making the decision to make it all the way to Kerewan, I knew I needed something escapist to listen to while I biked. Day Four was the day of Savage Love podcasts. For those of you who’ve never listened to Savage Love, the host, Dan Savage, gives advice to people with all sorts of sexual problems, from cheating partners to strange fetishes. It was the perfect antidote to thinking about my knee. I listened to people and their foreign problems and I didn’t think about my very local one.

The only big town along this road was Farafenni, a large market/transit town I had passed through briefly on my way down the first two times I went to Kolda (we are no longer allowed to take the road that re-enters Senegal south of Farafenni because of security concerns west of Kolda). Farafenni had plenty of culinary options, but I stuck with what brought me here, the hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise sandwich. The real breakfast of champions. Suck it, Wheaties.

Deb recommended a hotel in Farafenni that she said had great food and a pool, but I had 61 more kilometers to go and no time to dally. With only a couple short snack breaks, I biked until 2 PM (I had left Kaur at 7:30 that morning), and called Vicky, the VSO (British equivalent of Peace Corps) volunteer who was to let me into Nathan’s apartment. Nathan, the Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) in Kerewan, offered to let me stay in his spacious apartment (two big bedrooms, a huge common room, a bathroom) even though he wasn’t there.

I was having difficulty walking at first due to the pain in my knee and the fact I had been biking for six hours, but it went away for the most part and I made it to Nathan’s place, dropped off my bike and went back to the road for “chicken and chips.” As a British colony, Gambia has adopted the custom of calling french fries chips and calling the little meat pastries we eat in Senegal (and call fatayas) meat pies.

They sold popcorn in the boutiques in “downtown” Kerewan, so I bought some, cooked it on Nathan’s stove, and brought it down to the pier and watched the sunset over the river. Bedtime again was pre-9 PM.

Total distance: 98 km

Overall distance: ~316 km

Fourth Day of Biking

Day Five

Knowing there was only 54 kilometers until freedom, I decided to leave Kerewan early, snack a little on the road, but wait until arriving at the ferry to actually eat a meal. By 11 AM, I had made it through the beautiful coastal mangroves and on to the ferry terminal at Barra. It strangely costs as much to transport a bike as it does a person on the ferry, and the ferry was slow and boring. I met a man who said he worked for Peace Corps as a driver from 2006-7, and I have no reason to dispute his claims.

After arriving in Banjul at 1 PM, I decided to splurge on a taxi to Kanifing (a district of the largest city in Gambia, Serrekunda), where I was staying the weekend at a Gambian volunteer’s apartment. All the volunteers from Gambia were coming in for the 50th anniversary celebration of Peace Corps and having interlopers at their regional house seemed like a bad idea. After lounging around in the afternoon, I had enough energy to make it out at night for a delicious dinner of pizza and beer with two volunteers also staying at the apartment, Devin and Mallory. We then went out to karaoke, and around 1 AM, when some people decided to go out dancing, I needed to go home. I was already running on fumes.

Total distance: 54 km

Overall AND FINAL distance: ~370 km

Fifth of Biking

After all the biking was done, I enjoyed a lovely second Thanksgiving with Gambian volunteers (the national elections were on Thanksgiving Day, so they couldn’t celebrate), took a nice walk at sunset along some coastal cliffs that ended on the beach, then went back and passed out early.

Sunday I got up early to travel back to Senegal, since we had a regional meeting beginning in Kolda the next day. I’ll spare you the details of that travel, since I’ve already broken 2000 words speaking about this bike trip. Next time I’m in Kolda, I’ll post pictures from the trip, so you can see that Gambia really does look like Senegal, only with a river.

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