The Gambia, Up the River

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Our first stop is Tendaba Training Camp, where we arrive after 10 pm, exhausted but excited as Tay runs into old friends and I taste my first Julbrew by the mosquito-swarming banks of the river. In the morning, Tay’s old trainer asks her to speak to the newest batch of Peace Corps Teacher Trainees. These 20 or so bright-eyed adventurers have been in country all of two weeks (26-and-a-half months to go!) and have more questions than we have time to answer, as we still have a long day ahead of us if we are to reach Tay’s village of Sara Kunda before nightfall.

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Our trip continues, eastward still, over the utterly decrepit south bank road. Tay is astounded by how much the road has deteriorated in the eight years since she last rode it, and I am gaining a new respect for the strenuous trial that is public transport in The Gambia.

It is hot. Miserably hot and sticky, in the thick of The Gambia’s rainy season. There are no buses because the bus company went bankrupt a few years ago. There are no minivans because of the state of the road. The crumbling mess of highway is so bad that our driver prefers the muddy shoulder, often with two wheels propped on the old concrete, pitching us deliriously to either side, as lightning storms rock the sky, the windshield fills with red mud time and again, and I help keep the window clear with my bandana.

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Latin American chicken buses are “protected” by stickers and icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. By contrast, the various Gambian gilly-gillies we take (boxy 20-seat jalopies with twice as many passengers crushed inside) boast one or more of the following oversized stickers on their windows: President Yahya Jammeh (of course, there are tens of thousands of images of The Gambia’s despot around the country), “Le Frere” Mummar Qadafi, Osama Bin Laden (right next to a US flag sticker), a Senegalese marabout famous for having 75 wives and 75 sons, and Madonna (the singer, blowing a kiss from her “Like a Virgin” days — I’m not making this up).

But despite the bumping, crushing rides in various bush taxis and gilly-gillies, despite the long waits until vehicles fill up, sweat dripping into the dust at our feet, despite the tippy boat trip across the river, and the con-men on the opposite bank in Farafenni, our mission of return to Sara Kunda keeps our spirits afloat.

And we are closer.

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