A 15-hour layover in Dakar, Senegal provides just enough time to sleep a few hours in the dismal airport hotel before cruising through Dakar’s empty brown lots and smoldering mounds of trash to catch a ferry to GorÃ©e Island. As we fight our way through the crowd of pushy airport money changers (a big difference from easy-going Ghana), I am as delighted as they are surprised to hear my wife snap at the men in their native tongue, Wolof. Her hard-won West African attitude is much more effective than my meek “Non, merci’s” and most of them back off.
Historic slave castle, pastel-painted colonial quaintness, relaxed beach retreat within view of the city skyline â€” GorÃ©e Island is all these things. But more remarkable is GorÃ©e’s underground artist community. I mean really underground. Atop the island’s high point, several extended familes of Rastafarian painters, sculptors, and musicians have taken up residence in rusted military and anti-aircraft bunkers.
Tay and I dodge the various jewelry sellers until we see the varied, sunning displays of canvas and collage. We sit briefly with a few drummers in a stiff breeze under a blue sky, alternately staring west over the Atlantic, and east toward Africa. Mainland Africa.
A few hours of later, across the harbor, through Dakar’s grime, and back in the air, we land in Banjul, The Gambia.
Our much anticipated arrival in Tay’s old stomping grounds is marred by a hassle with immigration who sends us into a back room of the airport and interrogates us as to why we don’t have a visa. It is pure power-trip antipathy and, as we will learn this week, typical of any Gambian in uniform. We are here for only one week, we tell them, in association with the US Peace Corps. This makes nothing easier, nor does Tay’s use of the local language.
Perhaps we, as Americans, deserve this because we take for granted how easy it is to traipse around the world, while most of our fellow earthlings will never be given the opportunity to visit our land. The brusque Wolof men finally deem us worthy of a 48-hour pass and a direct order to show up at their main office in Banjul, which, we know, will eat up half a precious day with senseless tedium.
Sure enough, the following day, in the run-down immigration office, there is no queue or system that we can see, but soon an officer takes our passports, leads us up a dusty staircase, hands us and our documents off to another person, etc., etc., until we are seated in a sweltering room with no fan and a line of self-important looking men, side by side. We present our letter of invitation from the Country Director of Peace Corps The Gambia which we obtained at the PC office this morning. The letter requesting a free eight-day stay for us is passed between the men, each one of whom studies it carefully, and finally the official at the end of the row of desks (the only one wearing a beret), hands it back to us because it is addressed to the wrong person. After offering the proper fee, filling out the proper forms, and paying a ludicrous “form fee,” we are nearly denied again because there are no free pages left in our passports! After much debate, they finally decide it is okay to stamp on top of our Ugandan visas.
We proceed to Brikama, wait three hours for our gilly-gilly to fill up, are ordered to switch to a different vehicle, throwing elbows to get a seat, and, finally, leave for the upcountry under a storm-darkening sky.
Welcome to The Gambia, my wife says to me, in a tone that says both, “sorry” and “see what I had to deal with for two-and-a-half years?”