The blister bug bites I discovered on my last morning in Jangjang Bureh were just the beginning of a strangely frustrating day. I'd decided to head east to Basse Santa Su (commonly known as Basse) so I could cross the border into Senegal and then head northeast to Tambacounda to catch the train to Mali... and luckily the five other guests at the Jangjang Bureh Camp fancied a day out in Basse too. I say 'luckily' because travelling as a group makes things much easier in Africa, not just because the onus of the trip is spread among the whole group, but because buses and bush taxis fill up much quicker when a group of you turns up at the station. I reckoned that it would take no more than an hour and a half to get to Basse, a very short trip by African standards.
Things went wrong pretty early on. One minute we were bargaining with the taxi man to take us the 2.5km across the island to the southern ferry, and the next thing I knew the other five threw up their hands in disgust at the amount the taxi man was asking and stomped off down the road, happy to walk to the ferry rather than pay. I had a full backpack; I wasn't terribly thrilled by the idea of walking 2.5km in the hot sun, but the others had already faded into the distance. Suddenly I'd gone from being one of many to being just one again. Great.
I managed to get to the ferry without waiting too long for the taxi to fill up, and as soon as it landed I leapt at the nearest bus tout and asked which one was heading for Basse. Surprisingly it seemed none of them were; instead I was ushered onto a bus for Basang, a junction town on the way to Basse, where I would have to change. While I sat there waiting for the off, another bus pulled up, and the rest of the group appeared off the ferry and hopped straight into the new arrival, which sped off straight away; I was to learn later that this bus was going straight to Basse, and the arrival of five people had meant it could head straight off to Basse without further delay. Meanwhile I'd already paid and was stuck on the Basang bus, waiting for the empty seats to fill up.
When we finally pulled out and I got to Basang, I had to change to a minibus and wait for an hour for enough people to come along who wanted to go from Basang to Basse. Finally the second bus left, and around two-and-a-half hours after the others had ditched me in Jangjang Bureh, I was in Basse. Typically, I bumped into the others straight away, and learned that they'd already been here for ages. Such is the power of travelling in a group, assuming it actually sticks together.
'Never mind,' I thought, and picked a decent-sounding hotel from the book before heading off to explore Basse. Wondering what I could find to do in the Gambia's easternmost town, I started wandering round at random.
Basse is nothing special to look at, but the people are simply wonderful. It's obviously a long way from the bumster areas of the Atlantic, because in Basse people are genuinely friendly and I didn't get any hassle from anyone about anything. I even walked through the bus station without any touts grabbing me and trying to persuade me to go somewhere, which was a first for me in this part of the world. I warmed to this dusty dump instantly.
My initial impressions were proved correct as I munched through some lunch at a restaurant called Traditions, pleasantly situated on the banks of the River Gambia in the north of town. My portable palmtop computer is the ultimate ice-breaker, especially when the fold-out keyboard comes out, and as soon as I started typing in the tranquillity of the restaurant, I noticed the young waiter looking over.
'It's a small computer,' I said, and showed him what I was doing. I demonstrated typing 'My name is Mark' on the screen, and then asked him how to spell his name, so I could type that in too. His name was Hamadi, and his friend who also wandered over for a look was called Mamoudou. They were delightful people, and apart from a quick bout of shopping and a short phone call home, I spent the whole afternoon chatting away with them. They were typically friendly Gambians (well, Mamoudou was from Guinea, but had lived in Basse for the last eight years, so the Gambian way had obviously rubbed off on him) and they were thrilled to get a reaction out of a toubab; too many tourists just ignored them, they said, and it was lovely to meet someone who was happy just to chat.
And I was happy to chat, too. The Gambians are delightful conversationalists and it was all too soon that I had to go back to my hotel for dinner, which I'd ordered for 7pm.
Beginning of the End
Things started to go wrong as soon as I got back to the inaccurately named Jem Hotel. The women who ran the establishment knocked on my door at 6.30 to apologise, but it turned out she couldn't cook me dinner after all, because the boy who had been supposed to paint the kitchen that morning hadn't started painting until the afternoon, and he wasn't going to be finished until tomorrow, so the kitchen was closed. I'd ordered dinner at the hotel because I hadn't been able to find any decent-looking restaurants in town, so this was a bit of a blow.
I had no choice, then, but to follow the concierge's advice and to wander south out of town until I found F&B's Restaurant, which she said might be able to serve me some food. I eventually tracked it down, well outside the town limits, in an unlit bar that was blanketed in empty bottles and a feeling of complete and utter desolation. I asked if they did food; they said they might be able to rustle up some fried chicken and chips if I wanted. There was nothing else for miles around; sure, I wanted.
The Bière la Gazelle they brought me was cold and smelled of fish, but I didn't care; this Senegalese brew isn't that great, but its saving grace is that it comes in a big 630ml bottle, which always helps to cushion the inevitable blow of the kind of establishment that serves it. I sucked on my beer, and when it arrived I devoured the chicken and chips so quickly I thought I'd celebrate with another beer. This time I got a Julbrew, Gambia's finest beer, though the smell this time was of offal rather than fish.
While I ate and drank as if it was the end of the world – which was what it felt like – I noticed that F&B's was filling up with some distinctly shady customers. I don't have a sixth sense for these things – lack of exposure, I guess – but even I realised I'd ended up in the local knocking shop. When I went to pay, the chunky lady behind the bar was quite dismayed that I was leaving, as I'd obviously lent the place an air of respectability; I'd wondered why they'd shooed me out onto a table by the road so everyone walking past could see me enjoying my fishy Gazelle, and now I knew why. It was definitely time to go, and in my rush I didn't notice they'd forgotten to charge me for my food. Perhaps it was for the best...
By this time it was pitch black outside, and with a shock I realised that Basse isn't exactly flooded with mains electricity. At night the lucky shops with generators throw pools of strip-light onto the road, but most places are lit by kerosene lanterns, which makes wandering round the town a delight. It also meant my toubab status was hidden by the night, so I could stalk the streets like an invisible man – not that Basse was any hassle anyway, but it still felt refreshing not to be gawped at all the time.
That night, as if to make sure I left Basse with only the best impressions, a family of fleas hopped out of my pillow and bit me to shreds. It was quite fascinating; at first I thought it was mosquitoes, as the fan was directly above the bed and it was impossible to put up my mosquito net. I lit a coil and tried to relax, but the sound of the hotel's generator at the end of the block kept nudging me awake, and the bites didn't stop, so by the time the generator was switched off at 1am and the fan died, I'd hardly slept at all.
Things didn't change. The generator had been masking the pumping bass from a huge sound system down the road – some kind of Saturday night bop, I presume – so for the next hour I was entertained by Gambian pop music at full volume, while what I thought were mosquitoes continued to lacerate my arms. I slipped into my sleeping bag liner in a vain attempt to stop the biting, but all it did was make me sweat more. I wondered if I would ever sleep.
Luckily the plug got pulled on the nearby rave at 2am and an eerie calm descended on the town, broken only by spasmodic barking and the odd truck bombing past. To my amazement, in the gloomy silence I heard clicking in my pillow; there it was, a definite regular snapping, a sound that reminded me of the seawater shrimps you hear when you're bunked down in the bottom of a steel-hulled yacht. In the context of my bed it sounded strangely like something... um... jumping. Yes, definitely jumping.
You've never seen me move so fast. Close inspection of my pillow with my torch showed that my bed had what looked like fleas. The little blighters were white and the size of pinheads, and when they bit it felt like a mild prick with a needle. I draped my sarong over the worst area and lay back, trying not to think about it too hard. Instead I idly wondered what would happen if a flea started biting me on my blister bites, and with this happy thought on the edge of my dreams I slipped into a long night of short bursts, wondering how the people of Basse could be so lovely when they were surrounded by such shit. It's not the first time I've found the most wonderful people in the armpits of the Earth, and I doubt it will be the last.