Monday, March 21, 2011

Going Dutch

I'd arranged with young taxi driver Yaya to pick me up at 8:30 to drive me to meet my new Dutch family this morning. At 8, when I was going to breakfast, I noticed his car was already in front of the hotel.

I didn't rush though. I ate everything I could for breakfast. My travel days in West Africa usually involved a lot of endurance and not much eating or toilet breaks.

I went out just after 8:30 (I was packing!). I went to put my gear in the back of the station wagon when he motioned me to put it in the backseat.

"You're a little late." Yaya chided me gently.

"And you were a little early. Why did you get here so early?"

He hesitated, then motioned at the stuff in the back of the station wagon. Some sneakers. Some neatly folded clothes.

"I sleep in my car."

Ah. So that's why I shouldn't put my gear in the back. And why I should overtip him.

Yaya had an idea to take tourists on excursions to the homes of local families, to show the real Gambia. He'd made a business card, but I suggested he make a website.

"This is costing money."

"No, Yaya. It's free."

"But the Internet cafe is not."

He had me there.

"So maybe instead of hanging around talking to tourists, you should try to make friends with someone who owns an Internet cafe."

Schoolgirls had teased him yesterday when I'd tracked him down at his usual spot outside the hotel, where he hangs out and hopes to drum up business.

"They are teasing me because sometimes when a Gambian man is talking to a tourist…"

"I know why they're teasing you. They don't know we are discussing your taxi."

He left me at Safari Garden, a rambling place that caters to independent travelers. Six people sat at a long table, eating their breakfast. That would be my new Dutch family then.

The group was involved in a project where they drove three ten-year-old cars from Holland to Gambia. The cars were destined for new owners in Gambia. One to a former neighbor from when Mom and Dad and then-wee tot MM (now 19-years-old, but for reasons of potentially embarrassing one of the party later in this blog entry, I am addressing everyone by nicknames here) lived in a small town in Eastern Gambia, for Dad's work with the hospital there.

MM and her 17-year-old sister LM weren't part of the driving team. They'd flown in for a few weeks to be with Mom, Dad, Uncle G, and his friend Fireman A. Two other friends had driven another car, which had already gone to a new home with a now-adult neighbor boy who'd been friends with MM when they were both toddlers. The two cars we were driving today were soon to be given to a Dutch NGO that teaches auto mechanics.

And the Peugeot I was to travel in—with Mom and Dad and MM—had air conditioning.

Heaven in this blisteringly hot part of the world. I loved this family already and we hadn't even gotten into the car yet.

Even more interesting was that we were going to attempt the south bank road. The north bank is the one the buses and taxis take, because it's paved all the way to Janjanbureh (Georgetown), our destination. The guidebooks and anyone you'd ask would issue dire warnings against the super-scary south bank road.

"That's a terrible road. No one takes that road."

So when we didn't head to the ferry to go to the north bank of the Gambia River, I was a little surprised. I ventured to ask, eventually.

"So we're driving south?"

"Yes," said Mom. "We heard the north had the better road and the south was bad, but then it is such a pain to get the car on the ferry and then you have to sit for 45 minutes or so while you cross…and there's the time it takes to drive to the ferry. We asked Mark, who drives that south bank road a lot, and he said it's almost finished, just has a few sections that are unpaved, and that won't lose us the time we'd lose going to the ferry, waiting in line, dealing with officials, and crossing. We thought we'd try it."

I'd been secretly hoping to get them to stop at Wassu Stone Circles, which is on the north bank road just before Janjanbureh, but I didn't say anything. I preferred my creature comforts to trying to give driving advice to my benefactors. And anyway, they made an excellent point about the trade-off of time on the ferry versus the time on a bad road.

And it's cool to go the way everyone warns you against. This could be fun.

We made pretty good time for a while, running into almost no other traffic in our convoy of two Peugeots. Some of the road was potholed dirt, but most of it was the level dirt of the kind you see when a road is about to be paved. We traveled second, since we had the A/C. The dust angrily demanded to be let in, but we ignored it in our climate-controlled environment. A beer bottle was lodged in the seat pocket of the seat the MM was in, right in front of me. I sat next to Mom, and Dad drove for the first few hours. MM plugged in her iPod and we listened to Buena Vista Social Club.

What a comfortable way to get to Bird Safari Camp! At one point, we hit a sandy patch of road. We stopped and the family let some air out of the tires. That's what you're supposed to do when you hit sand. These guys knew what they were doing.

"I could really get used to this," I thought. I started fantasizing about driving to Africa from Europe next time. I'd just read an excellent book, My Mercedes is Not for Sale, where a Dutch guy drove a Mercedes from the Netherlands to Burkina Faso, and while this journey sounded hard, it also sounded like a lot of fun. And a lot more comfortable than being squished into the back of a Peugeot station wagon with my knees under my chin as I had been since the last leg of Mauritania.

"But with my luck, traveling like this is going to punish me. There will be payback for this cheating." Then I laughed at my paranoia. It's not like there's some great cosmic scorecard somewhere that says that I'll be punished each time I travel in air conditioning.

There was one problem, though, with the trip. The police checkpoints. It seemed like we had to stop and show our paperwork every ten minutes. Just when you'd be cruising along making good time, you'd see a makeshift blockade (such as a fire extinguisher) and a person in a uniform.

Sometimes they took quick glances at the paperwork. Sometimes they asked right out "What do you have for me?" Dad gave them licorice.

This worked fine until we switched drivers, and then 19-year-old MM would get either stunned policemen waving her on or jokes about how to get her as a wife. Ewww.

She took it in stride, having heard a lot of stories about Mom and Dad's work abroad in medical projects. She'd lived here herself, though she barely remembered that.

We made excellent time for several hours, and I nearly commended MM's excellent turn in one town, when we went the wrong way. But she's a new driver and I didn't want to make her nervous.

We weren't that far from Janjanbureh—maybe an hour—when Mom, Dad, and I all saw the brake lights before MM did. We were yelping "Stop," me in English and them in Dutch, when we rear-ended the burgundy Peugeot station wagon carrying Uncle G, Fireman A, and LM at a police checkpoint. I even had a moment to spread my knees, grab either side of the seat in front of me, and steel myself for impact.

To be fair to MM, they'd stopped suddenly when the uniformed policeman suddenly waved at the to halt. And who hasn't smacked into something early in their driving career? I certainly did. I think I was her age, even, when my brakes locked up and I slid my old Volvo into a Cadillac at a country intersection in Ohio. This was to me and to Mom and Dad a surprise and a shock, but an entirely manageable impact. When Mom asked me "Are you okay," I was even surprised she asked. I was loving this Peugeot even more for being sturdy and crumpling just right. No one had been in any real danger. The crash felt worse than it was.

But MM didn't know that it's a rite of passage, or that Uncle G, Fireman A, and LM would spryly get out of their Peugeot a second later and walk back to inspect the damage. She didn't know that the worst damage was that a beer bottle in the seat in front of me had given me an interesting bruise, that a piece of a jack had somehow come out of the trunk and landed in my lap, and that my sunglasses were in the front seat. Her reaction of crying was perfectly normal. I imagine she was thinking: Mom and Dad had just driven this car all the way from Europe and she'd ruined it!

Except of course she hadn't. Radiator fluid spilled out onto the road. The burgundy Peugeot now had a custom-made rear-end. Both cars were still drivable. Anyway, they were going to be gifts to a mechanic school. We were just giving them something to fix. And we had a towline and weren't that far away from Janjanbureh, so the busted radiator wasn't that much of a problem.

But there was the small problem of a bunch of policemen watching the whole thing. A bunch of policeman who had nothing to do and were probably bored out of their minds. This was the most fun they'd had in weeks.

We weren't getting out of here anytime soon. LM found a beachball, blew it up, and started a game of volleyball with the local kids. Eventually, they got tired of staring at us and took their new ball off to the local soccer field. I wince when I consider the poor beach ball's fate.

We were finally allowed to leave. The car is silent without an engine. Dusty and tired, we were towed to Bird Safari Camp. The hot afternoon sun and the events of the day had left us all exhausted.

And that's when we learned that Bird Safari Camp has a pool.

We all had a cool drink and headed straight for the pool's cooling waters.
My tent at Bird Safari Camp
My tent had a sink.

Tent had a toilet too.

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