There are many options open to Mike and I for traveling around in The Gambia. By foot, bicycle or car, each has a particular Gambian flair that I have gained an appreciation for over our two weeks here.
By Foot 👣
The compound we are living in is located centrally to many local corner stores, a fresh food open air market and a strip of hardware and other general goods. To get there, the best mode of transport is by foot. A good pair of sandals that allow the sand to pass through your shoes, a careful eye for fellow road travelers and road debris, and the following best practices will make the trip an enjoyable and satisfactory one.
- Walk at a leisurely pace. Too fast = too hot! Also walking on soft sand is not something that can be done quickly without compromising something.
- Walk as close as possible to compound walls. The sand is more hard packed close to the walls, as the cars and motorbikes that chew up the sand with their tires usually drive in the middle of the road which tends to be slightly more even terrain.
- Walk on the shady side of the street. Shade for the win, especially when wearing warm head wrapper.
- Carry a sturdy bag to place any purchases. One of Gambia’s new government’s first moves in office was to ban large plastic bags. (Wanjo lovers need not worry, the small clear plastic bag of wonder will be featured in a future post.) The heavy, smelly, black plastic bag, and the consequent black bag beach litter monster and the pile of burning of garbage bags in The Gambia is happily becoming a distant memory. Shops now provide soft fabric bags, which are better for the environment, but do not hold as much and are not as strong. Bringing a good bag or basket is best practice here, as it is at home. Some ladies have plastic waffle baskets with a cover that work well for keeping curious animals from investigating the fresh fish topped with cabbage and carrots that she’s bought for cooking dinner. All food gets piled on top of each other into the basket, plastic bag free!
By Bicycle 🚲
Mike and I have had the pleasure of connecting with West Africa Cycling Tours, and have rented two bicycles from them. Cycling is a favourite past time for Mike and I, and this is no different in The Gambia, although it includes some unique challenges. For one, I have only seen one other woman cycling here so far. Road conditions vary. If you find a paved road, it may not be wide enough for the donkey carts, cars, commercial vehicles traveling along it, let alone a shoulder for cyclists. We have a new hobby of noting all of the paved roads with little traffic. More often than not, we end up cycling in sand. Sand cycling is clearly the norm here, and I have gleaned the following best practices in my time here:
- Gear down! All the way... or as far as your bike allows. As someone who at one time thought the harder the gear the better, this has taken some adjusting in my habits
- Look for hard pack. Aim to keep your tires on the hardest packed sand you can see. This is typically where the locals and animals are walking. To watch the cyclists and children and animals and neighbours weave in between each other is to see an amazing dance of limbs.
- Be prepared to wheel wiggle, and/or jump off the bike if the going suddenly gets too tough.
- Ride a mountain bike. The majority of our cycling trips are to visit neighbours or to go to the beach. Due to sand and variable road terrain (see more below) your best choice in bike is something with plenty of gears and shocks.
By car 🚕🚐
It would be remiss for me to write about vehicle transit without providing a few more details about the surfaces upon which these cars travel.
On road conditions
All roads in The Gambia that have seen a few rainy seasons have many potholes. As these get larger and larger, and more of a nuisance to drivers, an optimistic neighbour hoping to solve the problem will dump a small pile of concrete boulders into the hole, forming a mini mountain. The hope is that vehicles will then crush these rocks over time, creating a smoother, flatter surface. In reality, however, no one wants to drive their vehicle over this rough convex creation and instead the vehicles swerve around these piles, hoping that another vehicle will take one for the team.
Eventually, a vehicle, having done its best, will break down on its way. Then the vehicle owner will jack it up, remove a wheel, and climb under the vehicle, regardless of where it is located in the road. It appears to me the breakdown takes place in the nicest section of a given road surprisingly often. On the spot repair has an advantage of avoiding tow trucks, and one would hope it allows for a faster fix. This pattern of breakdown also has the side benefit of forcong other vehicles to become team players in the overall game of road resurfacing.
On Public Transit
Gambian vehicle transit includes either driving in private cars, or taking a taxi. Donkey carts are also commonly seen on the roads, but are mostly used for ferrying goods (water, rice, etc.) within neighbourhoods. Taxis themselves have two subcategories:
- The luxury “Town Trip”, whereby one negotiates with a taxi driver to drop you off exactly where you need to go.
- The taxi lines, which run on generally well known and high volume roads, and can be caught at known garages*, or if there happens to be room in the vehicle, anywhere along the taxi line.
*Garages are gathering / parking / turnaround points at the ends of taxi lines.
Taxi cars, which fit four passengers, are a more roomy and faster option, if you can find one. Gillys or vans can fit up to 22 bums, plus a driver, although children and babies can be stacked on laps to accommodate more people. Gillys always have an apprentice working with the driver. The apprectice’s job is to collect fare, provide change, secure all vehicle doors (a challenging task!), attract passengers so as to keep the gilly as full as possible, and to let the driver know when to stop or go. A good apprentice also will hold a lady’s baby or purchases as she gets in or out of the van. He will also ensure the engine oil is topped up, which usually happens after the engine has started and just before the vehicle parts from the garage. A typical gilly has no interior lining, so you can see the metal paneling of the vehicle. Sliding side doors are usually full of sand and can’t be easily shut until the vehicle starts moving and then makes a gear shift. The original door locking mechanisms have long been replaced by a sliding lock. The apprentice deftly balances all the nuances of his gilly, and is often doing this from the ground as the vehicle is starting to move. He will then jump in and hang out the side of the vehicle, or jump on to the bumper and manage to stay attached to the van on with various hand grips and/or ropes. All seats are bench style, which allows rider’s personal space to collapse or expand as necessary or as comfort allows. In Gambia only the driver and front seat passengers in vehicles are required to wear seatbelts, although even these are not always in functional order.
By boat ⛴
Next week we will be traveling by ferry across to the North Bank. I’ve been assured that many more transit adventures will come!