Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wassu and Me

After waking up early in a tent with a toilet, I went out looking for hippos who don't actually come out into early evening, and then proceeded to discover that if you have a field of rice, you need to build a scarecrow to stop the elusive hippos from not being elusive. Hippos, I learned, love to tear up rice fields.

And that's the single most important bit of info I picked up from our spotter during the bird-and-no-hippo-viewing boat ride this morning, where I accompanied my new Dutch family, the spotter, and a boat driver out on the Gambia River near Bird Safari Camp.

We did not see any hippos, which made me sad but let's face it, I'm not going to see any hippos closer than I did in Murchison Falls, when the hippos grazed at night in the yard next to my bed on the screened verandah. And we did see some nice birds, and got a breeze out there on the water, though I cowered in the migrating square of shade under the boat's canopy. The Gambia was scorching. Or so I thought at the time. I'd soon learn what real scorching was.

Mom, Dad, and MM of the Dutch family were heading to the nearby town of Bansang where they'd lived almost 20 years ago. Uncle G and Fireman A were dealing with the broken radiator from our car accident yesterday. LM was teaching a local teenager how to swim in the Bird Safari Camp pool.

So what should I do, I thought. I was out in the middle of nowhere in the blistering African sun. I remember those days at Murchison Falls, where HM would come home for lunch and then lay in the hammock until the sun was lower. I'd sweat over my laptop until I couldn't stand it any longer, then go up to Red Chilli for a soda, or I'd stay perfectly still in one spot in the shade.

What I really wanted to do was go about 20 km northwest of Janjanbureh to see the Wassu Stone Circles. But the camp was a long 3 km walk from the ferry to the transport hub across the river from the island. But somehow all these employees got here. I asked around.

"Wassu? You want to go to Wassu?" The bar manager (and default camp manager, with Mark away) was intrigued. "It is possible. You'll have to get to Kuntaur by taxi, but it will be a long day as you wait for the taxis to fill up."

Ugh. And then what happens when I get to Kuntaur? Can I walk?

A young man who sweeps and does maintenance offered me his bicycle. Ah, so that's how he got to work. 

"But what will I do with your bicycle when I get to the ferry?"

Hmm. Another problem. And how exactly did I plan on getting out of here tomorrow with my backpack?

Then, as I sat there chafing, wondering if I should perhaps avoid future situations where I was marooned, Mom, Dad, and MM walked by.

"We're going to Bansang," said Mom. "In the good car."

"Just the three of you?"

"Yes. Want to come?"

"No...actually, could you drop me off at the ferry in town? I want to go see Wassu."


And we were off, nudging the car over giant potholes and raised tiny bridges. The camp is down a dirt track in need of maintenance, like most dirt tracks in this part of the world. At least today, no one drove in front of us. Yesterday, when we'd been towed, we showed up at the camp covered in thick layers of yellow-red dust.

"Bird!" We did our own spotting en route. Dad actually did know a little about which bird was which. He'd learned when they'd live here, as The Gambia is a birding destination.

When we got to town, we wondered how we'd find the ferry, but the ferry found us. It took only moments. Janjanbureh isn't a big place, and the ferry is a flat blue steel structure that holds only a few cars and a gaggle of people at a time. I only had time to buy water from a woman with a hut-shop before the ferry departed for its five-minute journey to the north bank.

"Where are you going?" An older man in a skullcap appeared to be the current coordinator of transportation on the north bank. I can never work out when it's someone's job, or when someone is just doing it to get things moving.

"Kuntaur. Wassu."

He motioned me at an empty minivan. That's a lot of seats to fill. I'd be here for hours. Yuck.

"I have a taxi. You want to go to Wassu?" A nice-looking guy in his twenties or early thirties had appeared next to the older man. He wore a rasta-colored knit cap and baggy jeans.

"How much?"

"400 dalasis."

I pretended to do some quick mathematical calculations in my head. I should have been converting his fee to dollars, but in reality, I was thinking something like this:

Shit, why am I so slack? I never bother checking on anything in advance anymore. Well, let's see...at the border, you get 300 dalasis for 5000 CFA, which is about $10, so he's offering me something in the range of $12-18. Maybe. Whatever. I don't want to sit here all day waiting for this van to fill up. In the sun. I hate sun. But I'm supposed to negotiate. What should I counter with?

"Sure. Okay, let's go." I had no head for negotiating.

We got into Mohammed's green Peugeot station wagon, which actually had handles to wind down the windows. This was a well-maintained Peugeot. I can't remember how many times taxi drivers had offered me the use of the sole handle, shared between four windows and carefully stored in a secure location.

Mohammed explained to me that the taxi didn't belong to him. He rented it by the day from a man who had a small business in Farafenni, which is halfway between Janjanbureh and Banjul on the coast. The man had worked hard to buy a few older Peugeots, fixed and maintained them, then rented them to a few drivers he knew.

"I am from a small family, but my father died. Now I live with just my mother in Farafenni. Right now, I brought some tourists from Banjul, so now I am waiting for a fare to return to Farafenni or Banjul."

That's how it works here. You can't afford the petrol to drive just yourself anywhere.

"How long will you wait?"

"Maybe a day. Maybe I will sleep here. Maybe tomorrow." He shrugged. Could be a long wait.

I took his number in case the problems with the second Dutch car were terminal.

We passed a police checkpoint and a military checkpoint en route to Kuntaur. The policeman waved us by but the military guy flagged us down.

"What did he want?" I asked as we pulled away.

"The same as they all want. But this one is crazy. 'What do you have for me?' I told him I'd give him something on the way back."

I was a little shocked. We'd been able to pass by all the police and military checkpoints the previous day with only giving out one piece of licorice. But as tourists, we are exempt from the hassle the locals get.

"Mohammed, all police ask for money?"

"Not all. Some. Always from the taxi drivers. They must be rich."

Locals, it seems, don't have the same protections as tourists. We can pretend we don't understand, flat out refuse, or perhaps even give the police the finger. What are they going to do, risk a showdown with the US embassy for locking me up for not paying a bribe? Meanwhile, the citizens of Gambia had only the protection of an offered cigarette and a few dalasis.

I wondered too what the police's version of the story might be.

"Having a taxi is expensive," explained Mohammed. He motioned at all the stickers on the window. "See all of these? They all cost money. The owner of the taxi has to pay a lot to own this, and of course he also has to maintain it. Then I have to pay him a lot to rent it, and then I have other costs like the petrol and the police. But still, it is a good way to make money. When my father was still alive, I was trying to decide how to make money for myself and my mother. I went to him, I said, what if I drop out of school and go to learn to be a driver? Then I can always have an income. My father understood and approved."

"Is there a driving school?"

"Yes, and I went there for a short time. Maybe a month. Mostly I learned from the garages, from hanging around."

"Like an apprenticeship."


So you could intern in taxi-driving in The Gambia. I was learning a lot today. Anyway, I no longer cared that I was probably overpaying for the trip.

Our drive to Kuntaur took only 20 minutes or so. Mohammed pointed at the shared taxi stand.

"You would have come in there. See, then you only have to walk down here to Wassu."

It wasn't a long walk, but I wouldn't have wanted to do it in the sun. Anyway, I'd still be sitting at the north bank if I hadn't chartered a taxi.

I paid my admission of 50 dalasis to a guard in a hut. A musician spotted me and started tapping out a song on his xylophone-looking thing. No one else was in sight. Mohammed accompanied me into Wassu, explaining what things were as we went.

"No one knows why these are here. Some people have studied, but not many. Maybe they are burial sites."

That's right. That's what my guidebook said, and also what the meager exhibits at the tiny museum at the gatehouse said.

"And it's on the money."


Mohammed pulled a 50 dalasi note out of his pocket and showed me a picture of the circle just ahead.

Why so it was on the money. I hadn't even noticed.

The stone circles were interesting and I was glad I visited. It's not the Great Pyramid of Giza or even Stonehenge, but they're still more than engaging enough to make it worth going. And hey, they're on the money.

I tipped the musician after Mohammed nudged me to, thanked the guard, and off we went, to give a little something to the military guy, and drop me at the ferry (where I paid a pirogue 45 dalasis to take me across rather than wait all day for paying passengers--the school kids on board don't count as they travel for free by law).

Back in Janjanbureh, I had a new problem. How would I get to camp? Walk?

"Hey, remember me?"

I turned around to laugh at the speaker. This is a classic scam, the "Remember me" one. But it was the guy that LM had been teaching to swim.

"Oh. I *do* remember you. How are you?"

"I am fine. Can I help you?"

"Do you know how I get back to Bird Safari Camp?"

"You can come to the mechanic's. When he is finished fixing the radiator, you can ride back with us."


"Or you can take a taxi."

"How much do you think that would be?"

"Very expensive. But you can take a moto-taxi."

And that is how I ended up clinging to the back of motorbike for the three kilometers back to Bird Safari Camp.

I made it back in time for lunch, then spent the afternoon sleeping on the dock, where the breeze was strongest.

The afternoon boat cruisers didn't see any hippos either.


  1. A tent with a toilet - my kind of camping! Sometimes you do have to say screw it and just pay what they're asking. It gets so tiresome constantly worrying about being overcharged, and it sounds like Mohammed ended up being a nice guy.