Welcome to one of the poorest countries in Africa...
TLDR: It took me 3 hours to get from the airport to my guesthouse, 20 minutes away…
There is a moment, in every extended journey, when the reality of your new living situation settles in. The sweltering heat from the dilapidated tarmac was a good indicator, matched only by the temperature inside the balmy airport terminal where I stood in various shifting lines before the staff eventually realized I did not yet have a Visa. (While The Gambia requires most visitors to acquire their Visa before arrival, exceptions are made for those traveling with a United States passport.)
I was shuffled away from the long lines and down a dingy corridor where I met an important man in an unimportant looking office. His eyes grinned at me over wire-framed glasses as he handed me a crinkled form to fill out. I guessed at most of the answers and didn’t provide any pertinent information other than making sure the passport number actually matched the number inscribed on my crisp new passport.
A black man from NYC sat next to me in the waiting room as they piled in other guests who needed passport help. This loud talker had been flaunting his thick wad of cash on the plane and talking loudly about finding a third wife in Africa (yes, I asked him and he told me his still owns his first two wives back home but could use a third in the land of his people… welcome to Islam). From my perspective the NYC gent and I were the only ones who did not yet have our visas, and he was struggling to dig through his paperwork and find the requested information.
I didn’t dare tell him in front of the passport control officers that I just made all the information up. (Where will I be staying? Really? Who knows after the first two nights and even now I can’t recall the name of that guesthouse…). The important man peered over his glasses at me again, asked a few questions about my family back home and made it clear that he was doing me a HUGE favor by giving me a five year Visa.
This, of course, is the standard Visa given to everyone, but I made sure to thank him for his generosity after I reminded him how much I liked his glasses.
To be clear, all visitors pay a refundable $20 upon entering the country, yet a visa for most travelers, including Europeans, is free. Americans, however, get charged a hefty $120, payable in cash only. To put things in perspective, an average ANNUAL salary for a Gambian is roughly $500.
God called me to this land on the western coast of Africa with just over two years of Gambian salary in the bank. If only they charged toubabs (their local word for white tourists), the same rates as locals… In their minds, all Americans are rich and, I suppose, by their standards, we are. What many don’t realize, however, is that most Americans are struggling to get by, living paycheck-to-paycheck as living expenses continue to increase.
I collected myself in the main airport area, just inside the outer gates. Leaving an airport in any country can be tricky, especially when it is your first stab at a new currency. I find this is typically the place where it’s easiest to make poor, expensive decisions. I stuck to my standard procedure and found a cash exchange. Knowing that they were going to give me a bad rate, I balked at the price given and walked out of their tiny office. The price shot up multiple times as the door hinged shut, reaching 65 delasi per dollar just as the door closed. I had no idea if this was a good rate or not (it was), but I took the offer and changed $40 into local currency.
I knew this would be enough money for my taxi and, since it was already dark, I knew I wouldn’t need anything else until the following morning when I would sort out my money situation, find an ATM and get my feet underneath me.
I texted the guesthouse manager and asked for the address to give to the taxi driver. She laughed via text… “lol That’s not exactly how it works in The Gambia.”
I can see that she’s typing.
I take a moment to regroup and take in my local surroundings. Everything is foreign and I stick out like—well, like the only white guy in an African airport. Where am I?
The guesthouse was originally going to pick me up from the airport, but due to a scheduling conflict backed out at the last minute. No problem. Or so I thought. I’ve made my way through plenty of countries (40+) on my own. I just need to know where I’m going.
The text came through. It was long.
As I read through the text, the realization settled in: I am not in Texas anymore. Instead of a simple street address, I was given a paragraph containing these directions:
“From the airport once you pass turn table, observe and pass Baobab Restaurant, observe and pass a new white drain, drive about 1km, turn at second white drain, drive to the end of the road, turn left, turn right at the first junction, drive until there is a tree in the road and a grey water tower. The grey water tower and grey gates are the guesthouse.”
And so, with these clear instructions, I loaded my bag in the back of an unmarked car, hopped in the front seat and headed off into the dusty night.
What should have been a 30 minute ride (max) took more than three hours. We, of course, missed the first white drain because it’s pitch black and there are no streetlights. This was the first mistake. Then, once we realized we were lost, instead of back tracking to the last place we knew was correct, the rogue taxi driver decided to cut through the neighborhoods to get back on track. He then turned to me and said, “Where next?”
“You’re asking me?! I’ve never been here before. Go back to the Baobab Restaurant.”
That, of course, was too far out of the way. So, instead a taking a five minute detour back to the main paved road, he drove up and down pothole ridden dirt streets looking for a mysterious tree. The original instruction given led me to presume that a “tree in the road” was some sort of distinct differentiator. About two hours into the excursion, however, I would come to realize that there are many trees in the road in this part of town, called Kerr Serign. The trick is finding one with a grey water tower next to it and then ensuring there is a grey gate next to the grey water tower.
The taxi had the phone number for the guesthouse, so he’d call, get frustrated with the instructions and hang up mid-sentence. Never mind the directions; he kept driving, determined to discover the hidden home using sheer will power. At one point, he stopped at a corner store to top up his phone with credit.
It is in these moments of complete vulnerability that I throw my hands up to the Lord, surrender everything and worship Him. I could be anywhere, but the Lord called me to these winding streets on this balmy night in November. This driver could take me anywhere and I wouldn’t be any the wiser. He could rob me, throw me in a ditch and zoom away with all of my possessions. I would have zero recourse. These thoughts came. I took them captive and, instead, resolved to trust in the Lord.
I laughed to myself as we turned down yet another dusty road. To me, these roads all look the same as headlights shine over uneven reddish dirt surrounded on both sides by 8-foot cinderblock walls.
Homes here are built inside compounds. The first thing a family does when they acquire new land is to surround it with a tall cinderblock wall so that neighbors cannot see inside. This creates a paradox, of sorts. If you just walked the sandy, trash-ridden streets, one would never know that well manicured gardens and brightly painted family homes are hidden behind the dreary, grey block walls. From the outside, they all appear the same; only from the inside could you tell that a pristine estate may be next to a run-down dump.
While neutralizing neighborhoods with grey cinderblock walls may seem to be an equalizer, I find that building walls between compounds creates divides and hinders deeper community interaction.
It also makes finding a specific residence in the middle of the night a particularly challenging task! We would eventually arrive at the guesthouse, however, and I would overpay the driver for his heroic efforts.
After more than thirty hours of transit, I have arrived safely.
Can you imagine if addresses like these were the delivery instructions for your Amazon driver?!? Wow. This is going to be interesting. The last time I encountered delivery addresses like these I was receiving mail in a rural Costa Rican rainforest village, but even there the main roads had names.
Edit: I would come to learn in the weeks ahead that the main roads here do have names, but no need to use them when referencing a main intersection. For example, “turn table” in the previous instructions referred to an intersection where there used to be a round about. While that round about has now been replaced with a flyover highway (the first of its kind in this nation thanks to the OIC development project), it kept the name: turn table. The other main intersections along Coastal Road are “SeneGambia” (named for the main SeneGambia Hotel), “Traffic Light” (because there used to be a traffic light before the OIC road construction) and “the other traffic light”. Welcome to The Gambia!