Continuing on from last time, I left St Louis having seen my first football match. There wasn’t much grass on the pitch, but there were plenty of goals; the orange team beat the green team 5-1.
I also went on a bird-watching trip whilst in St Louis, but my nearest experience of avian life came in the town itself. I was walking along, minding my own business, when I felt the rush of air against the back of my leg. A pelican, which I hadn't noticed, came inches from taking a bite out of me! I almost fell over, which resulted in some very peculiar glares from the locals, most of whom then laughed at my misfortune.
After visiting the coast, and an island made out of discarded seashells, I spent a day in Kaolack; a town which is home to the second largest covered market in Africa; a market which was neither covered nor particularly large. That town serves as a gateway to the Sine Saloum delta; the first green area I have visited, after having previously spent my time on the fringes of the Sahara.
I stayed in Fonduigne, at a lovely hotel on the river. It was here that I became ill. I became hot and flustered; sweaty and dry, weak and yet strangely alert. I lay in bed, waiting to recover. But I did not recover. I could barely walk. When I tried to stand my knees buckled. And so I started to worry.
I had taken all the precautions against malaria that I could. I’d used the strongest tablets on the market, despite the adverse side-effects I’d been warned against. I’d slept under a mosquito net every single night, with the edges tucked firmly under my mattress. And I’d used the super-strength super-expensive sort of mosquito repellent which came with added ‘Deet’ (whatever that is). But still I worried. And so I dragged myself out of bed and hitched a lift on the back of a scooter which swayed one way and then the other, as it dodged the potholes which cover African roads like zits on the face of a greasy teenager.
I arrived at a village hospital, which was little more than a few battered old rooms, one of which I had all to myself. It was small; containing a bed, and a mosquito net that didn't seem to work, but not much else.
Whilst I can eke out a basic conversation in French, medical French is beyond my capabilities, and so I couldn’t be entirely sure what the work-experience doctors from France were saying to me. I just laid back whilst they took my temperature. That was the only test they performed. But it seemed to provide the doctors with enough evidence to pump three different types of drugs in to me. After 24 hours, having consumed four bags of saline solution, the doctors finally performed a blood test. A few hours passed, and then they told me that I didn’t have Malaria. They soon sent me packing. (Although I was told later, when back in the UK, that I had in fact had the disease).
The next port of call was Toubacoutta, on the south side of the delta. When I was driven many miles past that village, another driver drove me all the way back without charging me a penny! The lucky streak continued when I met Maurice, who found me a hotel and helped me to halve the asking price for a room. The general sales technique, in fact, is quite relaxed here. People give you one price, and then say “But it is negotiable” - even if you had no intention of negotiating in the first place. Maurice soon became my buddy; we drank tea in his family’s home, played djembe on the beach, and walked around the tree-shaded village which had the laid-back holiday-feel of a French caravan park.
Having left Toubacoutta, I sat on the bonnet of a car as it swerved in-and-out between trees, hanging on for dear life. As soon as we crossed the Gambian border, I was stormed by a gang of overbearing moneychangers, who all thrust wads of crumpled notes towards my face. One managed to shove a wad of cash into my hand, whilst two others actually got into the car whilst I was getting my passport stamped.
My first port of call in The Gambia was Ginak Island. Mass, who I met during that journey, took me to an encampment with no electricity or running water. As in Toubacoutta, I was the only guest in my hotel. I think I was the only foreigner on the whole island. There were no restaurants on Ginak, and so I had to order food from my hotel well in advance. Most of the time that food wasn’t available, so I had to re-order. And then I had to re-order again. And again. I spent my first day living of a bowl of rice with 'beef' in peanut sauce. I think the ‘beef’ was actually dog food…
Whilst I didn’t get to see the wildlife I’d hoped to see, apart from a dead dolphin which had been washed up upon the shore, I was suitably impressed by the birds, which came in every shape and form. And I did score some low-grade weed from some entrepreneurial youths.
But, bored of the dog-food diet, I soon headed onto Banjul; the smallest capital in Africa, with a population of around 50,000 people. Most of those people here do speak a little English, which helps. And the hotel I’m staying in is cheap, even if it’s not as nice as it once was. There are live mice in the fridge.
WEST AFRICA BLOGS
Back in the summer of 2003, aged 21, I went travelling on my own for the first time. The emails which I sent home, edited versions of which appear here, were my debut efforts at real writing.
Looking back, my trip around West Africa was eventful to say the least. In these blogs you'll encounter rampaging prostitutes, charismatic scammers, debilitating illness, and petite crime. But shining through it all is a real sense of humanity. The warmness of the Africans, their friendly nature and welcoming personalities, struck me almost every single day. Hopefully they'll leave a similar impression on you too...