Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Goree Island and The Gambia

Map picture

On Sunday, September 23rd, our shipped pulled up alongside a dock in the city of Dakar, Senegal. Dakar is the Capital of Senegal and is its largest city with a population of around 2.5 million people in the surrounding area. Finally, we have arrived at one of the more impoverished areas of Africa. The annual per capital income is only $1,600. Rather than making a visit to the city itself, our outing was to travel by ferry for 30 minutes in order to visit the nearby Island of Goree, a 45 acre island located only 2km from the main harbor. Since Lisa and I had visited Dakar on a previous occasion, we welcomed the opportunity to do something different – and different it was!

Goree Island was an important location in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I rather expected a sort of “National Historic Trust” environment. My first clue that I was missing the mark came with our ride over to the island on the commercial ferry. Our ship told us that they assumed that we would all benefit more from riding the regular ferry as opposed to having some type of private transportation. I had seen ferries in Africa before, and I figured this might be an experience, but seriously how many people want to spend their Sunday afternoon on an historic island? As it turns out, the answer is quite a few. From our ship, we drove quickly for about 10 minutes in order to reach the ferry dock, and once there, we were quickly led to an upstairs waiting area. Below us, in the main terminal lounge, was a teeming mass of people, many dressed in their Sunday finest, all gathering for the ride to Goree Island.

When the ferry arrived, we were hustled quickly to board the little ship before the general public was let loose. Simply boarding the ship was a challenge because rather than having been tied tightly to the dock, it was in a constant up and down, forward and back motion. You simply had to jump and hope the helpers on the deck caught you and reeled you onboard. When I was barely seated, the general gates were opened and it became a stampede to board. I watched in amazement as more and more, and then still more people wedged their way onto the little ship. At one point, I was thinking it impossible that any more people could possibly squeeze onboard, when here came a large, late arriving party. As the last person was literally dragged across the entryway, we started off for the 30 minute run to the Island of Goree.

Several things amazed me. First, Lisa was seated next to the most attractive young woman, who was decked out in very beautiful jewelry made of beads. Out of nowhere, the young lady took off one of her lovely bracelets, and reached over to hand it to Lisa. She smiled and made it clear that it was a gift – and when Lisa tried to pay her anyway, she refused. The next thing that I noted was that people in large part were well dressed and the children in particular. Many of the women were in their colorful celebration clothing. I kept wondering – all this for Goree Island?

When we arrived at the Island, it was jammed with people clearly having a good time. The waters around the dock were a mass of screaming children swimming in the ocean, while on shore parents sat with coolers, and in large groups. The Island is home to only 1,100 people, making it the least populated district of Dakar. However, it is clearly a getaway destination for the locals since the Island was jammed packed with people. It reminded me, if I can use the example, of an African version of Coney Island. The residents seemed for the most part, to be merchants selling almost every good imaginable, or operating one of the many, many little bars and restaurants which were found everywhere.

Our tour tried to focus on the historical aspects of the Island, but nothing had really been maintained, and there was not much left to see. It was extremely hot and humid, even in the shade, and standing in a group listening to someone drone on and on in barely understandable English, quickly tired everyone. We visited the mansion of the former Governor, which now has special status under UNESCO, but sadly it has been turned into a squatter’s refuge and is in very poor condition; indeed, it is literally falling down from neglect. In spite of the fact that the ship had divided us into relatively small groups with plenty of monitors, towards the end in the packed crowds, many got lost, me included. Finally I found where everyone was to gather, and Lisa came running in a panic when she saw me!

Now all we had to do was to get home. Hoping to avoid the experience of the prior year in which the entire group from the ship did not make the same ferry and then had to wait another hour for the next one, we were told to gather at the dock by 4:45 pm. Yes, we got there in front of almost all the locals because the ferry was not scheduled to depart until 5:30. But then again, this is Africa – so we stood, and we stood in the blazing sun with absolutely no shade or cover out on the dock. Some in the group got sick, every one of us was dehydrated in spite of pouring in water, and standing on the hard concrete at least killed my back and knees. Departure time came and went, but still the ferry was not in sight. Finally it arrived about 6pm, and we all fell into our seats--exhausted. So much for Senegal, it is now time to head off to The Gambia, our next stop.

We docked at the Capital of The Gambia, Banjul. Banjul is a small island situated where the Gambia River enters the Atlantic. The Gambia, or as it is usually called, just Gambia, is completely surrounded on three sides by Senegal; its only opening to the outside world being the Gambia River. It is both the smallest country in Africa, and also one of the poorest with a per capital income of only $1,400 per year. Having been here before, we decided to skip the city tour and to focus on getting out into the countryside for some bird and wildlife watching. Simply leaving the dock area was a challenge so chaotic was the situation. We sat for long periods of time while people shouted at one another and nothing happened. When we passed through the narrow gates from the dock into the city itself, I was appalled by the conditions. It had obviously rained overnight, and the streets of the city were flooded well above the curbs with muddy red water making walking almost impossible. Since the drivers could not see the holes in the road, they simply bounced along throwing up spray across the buildings and parked cars. It was a madhouse with traffic everywhere. There were a few police attempting to direct traffic, but their hearts were not in it, and no one paid them any attention anyway.

We finally broke away for the city center onto some half way good roads as we drove into the country. Turning off on a dirt road, we pulled up to a ramshackle hut, in back of which sat a local wooden boat reserved for our group. We all thought we were going for a walk in the Abuko National Reserve, but the local tour guide had decided that a nice cruise through the surrounding mangroves would be fun instead. Actually, it was a good idea, except boarding the little boat was not easy, and poor Lisa could not do it. Several of the men literally lifted her up and over onto the deck. The heat and humidity were well above our comfort zone, so moving on the water was a pleasant enough experience. They served cold water or soft drinks, and I can say that a good time was had by all. We did manage to see some birds and monkeys, but most were too far away to photograph. Not returning to our starting place, we instead put into another ramshackle building that in our country would have been condemned. We boarded our little busses for a drive to the Abuko Nature Reserve and set off on a walking journey. There was only one little problem – no, I take that back, there were several problems! The walk was intended to be one large circle that had us leaving the reserve from another exit than where we entered. When we were almost to the bridge that would take us around the circle our local guide gets a phone call telling him that the bridge is broken. So now, out in the middle of nowhere, he decided we will go another way entirely. Well the rains that had flooded the city had also flooded the Reserve, and soon our path became a muddy morass of slick mud and sticks. After gamely trying to continue on, we finally reached a point where it was not possible to go forward. So, have no fear, we will visit the Darwin Field Station for Biodiversity Research, Education and Training. This sounds exciting until we come face to face with the reality. The building is an old rundown wooden structure, in front of which, under a shade tree, sits the harried staff clearly resting from a hard day’s work. We walk up the steps to a viewing platform from which we see nothing new, and after some discussion, it is decided that perhaps we had best go back the way we came. At this point, we had been walking for an hour in the cooking heat, and so a walk back across the muddy terrain was not warmly greeted. We finally made it to the bus and then had to once again run the gauntlet to get back to our ship. The crew had setup water basins for us to wash our feet, and large brush devices to help clean up, but still we all left mud tracks as we trundled down the hall.

Having left the ship at 8:30, it was now 2pm and they held the dining room open for our group. About half the ship turned around and by 3pm left for an afternoon of craft shopping and entertainment followed by a buffet supper; sadly for them, shortly after their departure the skies opened up and a torrential downpour took place with a large lighting display. I can only imagine how they felt when they returned.

Today we are headed down the coast to our next destination which will be the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau. Around 11am, the ship took an unexpected turn towards the coast, and at noon, we were informed that we had been ordered to a GPS coordinate, where we were to wait for further clearance requirements. We arrived at that position about two hours ago and have dropped anchor in what appears to be the mouth of a very wide river. So far nothing has happened, so I guess we wait to see what comes next! I am sure for what it costs to operate this ship per hour, the company is not overly happy.

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