The Atlantic coast resorts might have been pleasant, but two days into the relaxing beach lifestyle, I was already champing at the bit. CNN and BBC World take only a couple of days to go from elixir to irritant, so despite the sinking feeling that I get whenever I think about long journeys and African public transport, I persuaded myself to leave the cosy glow of our bungalow for eastern Gambia. Happily Chris decided to come with me; public transport is not only cheaper with two, it's easier to bear. Just.
The first step – getting from our hotel to the bus station – was a fairly easy taxi ride, and by now I've got the hang of the buses too: you pick the one that's going to your destination and which has got the biggest number of people in it, ignoring the touts who will try to steer you to their bus despite the fact it is completely empty. You pay for your seat (a fixed price) and for your luggage (whatever you can get them to accept), and sit and wait for the bus to fill up.
'Fill up' is the right phrase, because there's always room for one more. The average Gambian minibus sits around 30 people, plus driver, screaming babies and squawking chickens, but it's hard to be exact, as they're not designed to take that many. If the same minibus were being used in the West, there would be the driver plus two in the front, then four rows of four people, and then two rows of two down the sides at the back. That's a total of 22 people plus the driver, but in our minibus I counted 30 people, a driver, two babies and occasionally a tout hanging off the back on the lookout for more fares.
Not only are the buses in this part of the world crammed to bursting point, they're also decorated with the most intriguing collection of stickers and posters. Along with the taxis, the buses have stickers plastered over the backs and sides, most of them proclaiming allegiance to a marabout brotherhood (in which case the sticker is of a guy looking suspiciously like the evil Emperor in Star Wars), or to Allah (in which case Koranic quotations are the order of the day). But a hugely popular and completely mysterious sticker is of Madonna in her 'Material Girl' period, bending her head back and blowing a kiss at the camera. She's dolled up in clothing that screams '1980s!' at you, and every time it's exactly the same sticker. It's a really common picture, and it's faintly disturbing; religion and politics I can understand, but 1980s Madonna? Goodness only knows where that fad came from.
Whatever the logic behind the bus decorations, the Gambians more than make up for it: they're a delightful bunch. We had to stop at six police checkpoints on the way, with everyone having to fish out their identity cards or passports before we could move on, adding five minutes to the journey for each checkpoint; the police are being particularly paranoid at the moment because the Casamance region of Senegal, which lies to the south of Gambia, is suffering from a fairly messy separatist movement and the Gambians don't want to be blamed for harbouring terrorists. This didn't seem to irritate the locals one bit; they just kept on smiling as the bus jolted along the road. The last third of the journey was along a road that looked like it had been carpet-bombed, and the bus bumped and ground through dusty potholes like a demented shopping trolley, and still the woman next to me cuddled her baby, breast-fed it every now and then, and smiled her sweet maternal smile. I even smiled myself, though sometimes it was hard to tell if I was smiling or grimacing from the pain of the nails that were thoughtfully protruding through the seat cushion beneath my battered bottom.
Getting to Tendaba
I'd picked Tendaba as a good-sounding spot because it's isolated, being perched on the banks of the River Gambia some 5km north of the main road, along a dirt track. If ever anything sounded tranquil, Tendaba did, and as the bus dropped us at the village of Kwinella, at the southern end of the dirt track, things looked good. All we had to do was to get to the camp, so slinging our packs on our backs, we set off for the long haul to the river.
Not ten seconds into our jaunt we were met by Kwinella's bumsters, who insisted that Tendaba was a really long way away, and that unless we were completely crazy, we'd be much happier if we took a donkey cart. They said they'd charge D75, and we laughed; the bus ride had only been D45, so we said we'd only pay D20. They laughed and came down to D60, and we moved up to D30, but then the bartering suddenly stopped. 'You come talk to the man with the donkey,' they said. 'He make you good price.'
The man with the donkey, though, turned out to be a complete wanker. He sat there, sucking on a filter cigarette, and refused to even look at us. He spoke in Mandinka to his bumsters, who relayed the message, 'He say D100.' We said we'd pay D30, and the donkey man gave a shrug that said, 'Stop wasting my time and get out of my shop,' so we did just that, leaving him with no money, no business, and nothing to do but sit there, sucking on his filter.
It's weird, this aspect of Senegambian bartering. In Asia there's a definite desire to make a sale, to the point where they'll run after you if you walk out of a bartering session in mock disgust; unless you are really hard-nosed, there's always a price that everyone's happy with, and it's much more of a game to get there. In Senegal and the Gambia you're made to feel as if you're an inconvenience, someone who's stopping the vendor from doing something far more important, and that unless you pay their price, you're just being rude. There's no feeling of the game, and it's really wearing, especially when there are middlemen involved. Stomping off doesn't seem to work; it seems that people round here are happy to let sales go if they can't be bothered to haggle, even though everyone is depressingly poor. It's odd, but if they don't want to play the game, that's fine; it's their country, after all.
Despite the irritating arrogance of the donkey man, I was looking forward to Tendaba. Here we were, striking out along a 5km dirt track to a lodge on the river, and it felt good to be on the move again; I really didn't mind a walk to get there. It was almost a shame, then, when we wandered past the local school and got accosted by children, who tried to persuade us to take their donkey carts to Tendaba; they said it would cost D75, we said we'd pay D20, they came down to D40, and we met in the middle at D30. Before we knew it we'd found transport, and our drivers introduced themselves as Yahya (17) and Abdoulie (18), both of whom were in Form 9R.
'You come this way for donkey cart,' said Yahya, turning off into the centre of Kwinella. On the way he bumped into his dad and we shook hands, his dad looking as confused at our English 'hellos' as we were at his Mandinkan 'al be ñaading', and after a short wander through the surprisingly clean village streets, we arrived at Yahya's house. He showed us into his bedroom and said he'd be back in five minutes with the donkey cart.
Yahya's bedroom was both typically teenage and totally African. The blue whitewashed walls were mostly bare, and his bed was nothing more than a concrete base with a hard, lumpy straw mattress on top, but dotted round the walls were posters and magazine cuttings that were strangely familiar. Two posters of black American rap stars proclaimed that Monica, Usher and Romeo were 'bad boyz' and 'hot stars', and that the Californian Boyz (that's Shaggy, Snoop Dogg, Mystikal, IMx, Lil Bow Wow, Master P and Lil Romeo) were 'fabolous', while the Jamaican reggae star Capleton looked mean and moody next to a picture of fellow singer Luciano in a garish Ethiopian shirt. Stuck on the wall above a stack of blue UNICEF exercise books was a cutout of pop idol Gareth Gates being drooled over by two pubescent girls, with a caption proclaiming, 'Female fans look to have their wicked way with the ex-choir boy.' Hiding among the snippets were shots of Posh and Becks sporting tattoos in Hindi, an action poster of the Brazilian footballer Rivaldo, and beneath a clock that was stuck on 12 minutes to three was the obligatory shot of Madonna, this time in a thankfully modern pose. There wasn't one African singer in the whole room; the US, the UK and Jamaica dominated the entire collection.
While we waited on the bed admiring Yahya's posters, the women of the house shyly poked their heads in and giggled, shaking our hands when we beamed hello and made our best efforts to show we wouldn't bite. They were delightfully confused as to what two toubabs were doing in Yahya's bedroom, but we obviously provided them with a fair dose of entertainment, as they made sure everyone from the immediate neighbourhood came round to take a look. We smiled, we sweated, and we fervently prayed that Yahya wouldn't take too long, but true to his word he was back in five minutes, and he showed us to our transport with Abdoulie in tow.
It turned out to be a bloody good job that the boys had persuaded us to hop on the cart, as it took us about an hour to rattle along the hot, dusty road to Tendaba, and although we would have made it by foot, it would have been a hard slog in the hot sun with a full backpack. As it was, for D15 each (about 45p) we had a wonderful time bouncing along the dirt track to the sound of clip-clopping donkey hooves, and by the time we rocked up at Tendaba, we were ready for a shower.
It was a bit of a shock, then, to hear those chilling words, 'We're sorry, we're full.' My heart sank; we'd got this far, and our plans lay scuppered at the bottom of the River Gambia.
It turned out that we'd timed it badly, and Tendaba's 150 beds were currently hosting two conferences, one a training week for Peace Corps volunteers, and the other a conference for the UN Peacekeeping Force. I couldn't believe it; instead of arriving at an isolated paradise, we'd taken a taxi, rattled for three-and-a-half hours on a bus and bumped for an hour on a donkey cart to arrive at a bloody conference centre.
I looked at the wall, where a sign pointing to the 'Conference Hall' proclaimed, 'For your dedication, devotion and development by action, we wish you a successful implementation.' This cheered me up, as I love the way Gambian English sounds like it's been put through a computerised translation system, but I guess my face must still have looked rather miserable, because the man behind the bar asked us to wait; thankfully he returned a few minutes later to say that the boss had said we would have somewhere to sleep, and that we should stay here for a while. I could have kissed the man; the thought of having to head back to the road was more than I could bear.
I felt a little differently two hours later, when we were still waiting for signs of activity. The Peace Corps had broken for coffee and returned to their riverside flip charts and we'd had an extremely leisurely lunch, but still there was no sign of a room. And then the man signalled us over to the bar.
'You know that I say we are very busy,' he said, and my heart sank into my boots again. I looked at the man's hotel T-shirt, which amusingly boasted, 'A million mosquitoes can't be wrong – Tendaba Camp is fabulous!' and figured that sleeping out under the stars could turn out to be a life-threatening experience. 'Well... I am afraid we can only offer you one room for the night. Is this OK?'
'Great! No problem!' we chorused, happy that at least we'd have a bed. I'd have taken anything at that point.
The 'one room' turned out to be a tiny hut housing the smallest double bed on the planet and precious little else, but fixing our stiff upper lips in place, Chris and I settled in, counting our blessings that we had a room at all. It was a long haul, but we got there.