Two Sides of a Coin

Link to published article: A Lesson in Sharing

Our plan was the Caribbean at the end of 2020. The Canaries was intended as a quick layover in route to our rum cocktails, but even quick stops can result in well laid plans becoming obsolete. So it was for our season in the Caribbean, which was quickly bumped as soon as Gambia came onto our radar. I met a German couple while in Lanzarote who had spent time there a year earlier and their stories sent my excitement for coconut trees and tropical fish out the window — muddy river full of hippos and crocodiles? I’m in!

My time earlier in the season in the Western European Atlantic was enough to drive one reality to the forefront: I am in this cruising lifestyle to explore. Hanging out on non-moving boats gets boring quick. I’m not interested in a floating apartment, regardless of what country it is floating in. I live on a boat to travel and explore as many places as possible, and the more culturally diverse the better. As I debated the change in plan with John, I pointed out that all our favourite destinations have been those that were the least planned and the furthest off the beaten track. Gambia, a country that receives two to three yachts per year, was certainly that.

Barriers and Bridges

Including Gambia in a northern Atlantic circuit is not difficult, so I’m not sure why more cruisers don’t do it. It is only 300 miles southeast of the Cape Verdes and It is only 300 miles SE of the Cape Verdes and is an easy stopover to include between Canaries and the Caribbean. There are a few potential obstacles to be aware of, however, and it is important to understand these before making the decision to include Gambia in your route. 

For one, you must be prepared for a third-world experience. For a relaxed visit, you must have a flexible attitude and be able to find humour in the chaos. This is most evident on entry into the country in the bustling capital city of Banjul, where dust and dirt and noise dominate. The clearance process is confusing but the officials are pleasant, and the process can be sped up if you don’t mind greasing palms along the way. Of course, this is all done in the overt undertones of community support. At customs we were sagely informed, “The office has run out of coffee and the team doesn’t have enough money to buy any ahem ahem.” The port captain informed us that he was required to view the stores onboard the boat “but, cough, if you buy me a Coke I don’t think I’d have the time to drink it AND come out smile wink.” Immigration’s excuse was grand: “Our department needs its own boat. We are happy to accept a donation to help us towards that cause.” While I am morally opposed to paying bribes, it was an indication of the tight sense of community that was shown in every village we met along the way. It wasn’t greed that was at the root of the requests, it was the fundamental concept that everyone was responsible to support the whole. And so we paid the $3 coffee donation, bought the captain his $1 coke and slipped $5 to help buy a boat.

You will also have to accept that you will sail a minimal amount of time, if at all. I’d imagined The Gambia being an Amazonian-like river with endless exploratory possibilities. I envisioned sailing slowly up the river with the tide, however in truth there isn’t the distance between banks to make this practical. You’d need to tack as soon as you completed your tack, and continue running sails from port to starboard until you concede defeat and turn on the engine. We did sail, a little, but only when the wind was directly behind us and the tide was running with us. If you want to sail up the river, be prepared for a lot of waiting. Or just turn on your engine and go. 

While motoring may not be a significant disincentive for many cruisers, a 17’ meter bridge might be. The Gambia Bridge was completed two years ago and is the only road access for vehicles crossing the river for 300 miles; unfortunately, it also serves as a barrier to many vessels from exploring the upper reaches of the river. As the trip to Gambia is all about its upper reaches, if you cannot get under the bridge then it may not be a trip worth taking. In our case, we had approximate height of the bridge and approximate height of our mast with a meter wiggle room between them. When we approached the bridge we did so with extreme caution. This meant making our way slowly at the start of the ebb tide with myself sitting up at the top of the mast to keep a visual on our one meter gap. We were right to use caution, as our gap was actually a foot of clearance from the VHF aerial and it was an intense moment when I had to make the call to proceed or abort. Strapped to the top of mast, an error in judgement would result in more than just our boat suffering from a collision. 

It is only once you are on the other side of the bridge that the other factors become evident. It is here that the wider river turns into smaller creeks, offering secret hideouts to tuck into along the way. The options aren’t always obvious, as you have to know that the entrance to the creek gets shallow before it becomes deep again. You may see less than half a meter under your keel as you approach and may assume that it will only continue to get shallower, but hold your course and you’ll squeak past the entrance to watch it drop to ten meters as you head deeper into the tributary. At 2.2 meters, we often drew a line in the mud with our keel on our way into a creek to find it drop sharply to on the other side. You’d then find yourself nestled up tight amongst the reeds on a boat 15 meters long in a creek just 20 meters wide. Make sure you drop your anchor directly in the centre of the creek or you’ll find yourself bumping the mangroves on the rivers edge at the turn of the tide. 

With small creeks come small insects. We were told that we would need to keep our anchor light switched off at night otherwise we’d be walking on a carpet of moths on deck in the morning; we didn’t adhere as a boat on anchor without a mast-light seemed worse than assisting insect suicide. But best heed advice on the mossies. If you are not prepared for them, a trip through Gambia will be a trip through hell. Mosquitoes are not only present, they are vicious and the itch of their bite will last days. Fortunately, we had a three-tier netting system in place that kept the bugs out of the boat in a series of stages: Netting for the cockpit for the worst of times, netting for the hatches and companionway as standard use, and netting above the beds if barrier one and two had been breached. There wasn’t a night we weren’t thankful for the sanctity of our impenetrable fortress.

Food and water must also be planned for before a transit up the river. As the river is muddy all the way up its reaches, using a water-maker it is not advised unless you have a bilge full of filters. We filled our 1400-litre tank with water from the community well before departure and used water sparingly up the river; we washed our bodies, clothes and dishes in river water and used our tank water exclusively for drinking and cooking. This meant scenic deck showers in the early evenings, a hose dragged through the cockpit to fill the sink and whites-turned-brown clothes pegged on the rail. You must be comfortable using local well water, clean but unfiltered, and accept running jerry cans to and from the well if spending any amount of time upriver. 

Food is also sparse outside of the larger towns and transport is a difficult but worthwhile experience. If you aren’t up for a long and dusty walk, then local transport is either a hot stuffy minivan or a cool rickety donkey cart. Donkey cart is preferable as there is a limited number of bodies that fit on top of the cart, though witnessing people bumped off means safety is not guaranteed. But I’ll risk safety for comfort, as being trapped inside a nine-person minivan with thirty other people wedged inside is a practice in achieving mental zen. I love the craziness of it, but bumping along dusty roads with your body crammed into a locked position against sweaty strangers is one thing, compounded by the fact that it will take you four hours to move 12 miles and for every minute spent moving you’ll spend ten minutes stopped. In the heat. With the windows closed. Oddly, it is the only place that I saw masks being used; not to stop the transmission of Covid but to decrease the inhalation of dust. When you get back to the boat in the the same darkness you departed the boat in, you are exhausted but have a sack full of onions and potatoes. Mission accomplished. 

One last but important consideration is to understand what “floats your boat” — what is it you seek when you cruise? If it is solitude and seclusion, Gambia is your place. You can spend weeks up a creek hidden from the world, with only bird song to remind you that other life forms exist. Is it cultural experience? You will be well rewarded as you are more than just an observer in Gambia. You will be warmly welcomed in any village you visit and the Gambian hospitality is some of the most inclusive, generous that I’ve experienced. Looking for a party? A cruising community is non-existent and, if seeking kindred-spirited sailors, you will be hosting a party for one. So, know your social agenda before choosing your destination. 

If this list of considerations leaves you questioning why you’d sail for a muddy river on Africa’s western shores, the peaceful tranquility of Gambia’s social isolation and the unique cultural experience of Gambia’s social immersion is the sweet reward. 

Social Isolation

When I recall Gambia visually, I will think of a country of mirrors. Everything has a double: There are two suns that shine down, two moons that rise up, the roots of every tree end in dense foliage and the bottom of every house rests on its rooftop. As a longtime cruiser, I am used to the ripple of wind across water, the constant roll over gentle waves and the swell of the ocean as if it breathes. It has been a long time since I’ve looked out over water that has no movement, no heartbeat, no breath. Yet, it is the reflections on the motionless river water that brings it to life. I didn’t realise a muddy river could be so beautiful and so full of vibrant colour: Blue, green, red, white, black. The water captures the life that surrounds it and tossed it back — the  sky, the forest, the sun, the moon and the people in beautiful, perfect reflections. 

It sounds like a crazy Alice in Wonderland kind of world, unless you understand the degree to which the River Gambia dominates the country. It is a country that stretches 350 miles from west to east with a river that runs the entire length of it. The country is surrounded by Senegal, which at its furthest is only 20 miles away and often only two. The river is the country.

With the river comes the animals that depend on it. I was told that I’d see hippo and crocodile on the riverbanks, and I accepted that there would be a possibility that I’d have such luck when transiting up the river. What I didn’t appreciate at the time is that I was guaranteed to see hippo and crocodile. They don’t live in isolation; they live in abundance. Their presence is marked in every creek by the trampled reeds that line the waterfront and the river access holes that tunnel through the bush. On Christmas Eve we took little chimes up on deck in the evening to convince the kids that they’d heard Santa’s slay. A cute idea, but the tinkle of bells was drowned out by the bellow of hippo that had come out into the river right next to the boat. On Christmas Eve a crocodile crashed through the reeds into the water five meters from our anchor. On New Years Eve we sat in our tender watching croc laze on muddy shores and hippo cool down in the shallows and, on the same stretch of river, men in their pirogues laying out their fishing nets. We also sat in our dinghy in the national park to watch a family of chimpanzee curiously watch us, silently peering out from a tree overhanging the water only yards away. Dolphin were also present, and a pleasant but unexpected surprise. When I think of river I think of fresh water, but the lower river is saltwater and it was with great delight share the waterway with them. I had hoped for sightings of wildlife in Gambia, and I got it. What I didn’t expected it was that it would all be so close and abundant.

We chose the isolation and the quiet solitude offered by the smaller creeks on our two week trip up the river. Due to timing, we kept to ourselves over the holidays and enjoyed our celebrations surrounded by the beauty of the river. Because we were away from the villages, we were submersed in the wildlife. The birdlife was prolific and we sighted dolphin, hippo, croc or chimpanzee every day. Why take a detour to Gambia? It is more than a chance to get off the beaten path — it is to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, the silence of the river and the magic of chance encounters with animals that are so different than those typically seen by yacht. 

Social Immersion

If Gambia was a coin and each side of the coin was associated with an attribute of the country, heads would be social isolation and tails would be social inclusion. As we chose heads on our way up the river, we chose tails on the way down. There are many remote villages that dot the river’s edge and the locals are hospitable, welcoming and warm. Invitations to visit are readily made by waving hands on the shoreside and if you aren’t drawn in by their visual signs of welcome, then they will paddle out in a pirogue to deliver greetings in person. 

The children are as enthusiastic as children are anywhere in Africa — gregarious, enthusiastic and inquisitive. Being swamped by small bodies in a cacophony of noise is not a unique experience, and I am always charged by the energy that the children bring with them. What was a welcome surprise, however, was the warm welcome that was also extended to us by the adults. It helps that English is widely spoken and having a shared language allows for a connection with people you meet along the way. But there is more than language to credit for the warm Gambian hospitality. 

While Gambia is a poor country and the people are living in very third-world conditions, I experienced little of that “give me” attitude that occurs in many poor nations. If anything, the handouts came the other way. There wasn’t a single village we visited where we weren’t made to feel welcome. I’ve had more meals made for me, been asked to drink more tea and been gifted more fish and vegetables than in any country I’ve travelled to. Even the wood-carving peddler offered two additional carvings at the end of the deal as gifts for the kids (and I’d only bought one small bowl) and the batik artist gave my daughter a dress even though I didn’t purchase anything. Self-selected guides would offer to walk with us as we arrived, making introductions to others in the community along the way and ensuring we were comfortable and our needs were met. It was fantastic to have an ambassador while walking through the centre of a village; it made us immediately less of an outsider and allowed us to experience a deeper layer of the community. 

In one village we were enthusiastically invited to join in a Christian ceremony, where we followed a man around town who was wearing a horned headdress and gourd-covered back. He was dressed to represent the evil spirit of an animal while the community chased after it to scare it away. I’m not sure what part of Christianity was being covered, but in a predominately Muslim community I don’t think that was what mattered. That the fruit bloomed and the vegetable gardens were safe was of much more practical concern. 

We were also honoured by an invitation to join a family in the naming ceremony of their newborn son. To properly mark the occasion, we undertook the arduous two-hour minibus journey to town to source fabric, track down a seamstress and have a ceremonial outfit made on the spot. We departed at 6:00am and returned hot and tired at 6:00pm, ready to start the celebrations the following morning. The ceremony was beautiful to witness and I am honoured to have been included, early as it was. To start the day we were invited into the house to watch the baby’s head get shaven and for the 7-day old infant to make his first appearance to the world. A woman was in charge of money collection and a continuous stream of women walked in with a donation of rice, as the new mother would be taking some time from the fields (the cultivation of rice was a woman’s job, and rice from the field was the primary source of food for the family). We then watched the community elders gather, chant and whisper the given name into the infants ear. Prayer was then given to the child’s health and welfare and the name, which had been selected by the elders, was finally announced to the family. Afterwards the men sang and prayed as a group and the woman did the same in another, followed by a shared communal bowl of sweet ground rice and the gift of betel nut shared amongst the group. A morning of sitting, chatting and drinking tea commenced, a large shared lunch in the afternoon to follow, however the evening party was cancelled due to the death of an elder in the afternoon. I would have loved an evening sitting in their compound, dancing to the beat of drums in my newly-stitched stiff waxed-cotton African dress, but it was not to be. 

There is a culture of collective consciousness which was evident in many of the interactions between the adults. It was evident in the naming ceremony, in the hush of the village upon the death of a community member, in the community lunch shared at Lamin Lodge where everyone was guaranteed a free meal. We noticed it on our very first day in Gambia, when our local escort passed small change to his friends in passing. In most instances it was our money that was passed out, but it was an introduction to the communal nature of the people nonetheless. I saw this again and again, the nonchalant passing of small change between hands in passing, slipped over on a handshake. I was also a benefactor of this generosity as a hot tea, a chilled bag of yoghurt or piece of fruit would be randomly passed over to me with a smile. 

It was also obvious that it is taught from an early age. If a treat is offered, there was no greed. Everything was divided and shared. Children often paddled a pirogue out or swam out to visit us at the boat and an invite onboard would be extended which would start an endless wave of visitors. If treats were in hand when others arrived, the kids would hand their drink over or split their half-nibbled cookie so that the newly arrived wouldn’t miss out. My favourite story is that of a friend, who shared a gummy worm he had with several children. The first child licked the sugar then passed it along, the next took a lick and and the next until all the sugar was gone. Then it was slowly nibbled and passed until the entire gummy had been shared amongst every child. 

Covid Considerations

There was a certain perk to our decision to head for Gambia, which was that the country was Covid-free. While the Caribbean bubble was disintegrating and Covid regulations were making travel not only difficult but also expensive, Gambia was a safe haven in the crazy world of global epidemics. We spent a portion of time at our base camp at Lamin Lodge, a well-known cruisers haven that had fallen into disrepair. The local community had picked up the gauntlet during the tough tourist-starved year and established a daily communal meal to ensure everyone was fed; we were invited to share in the feast. The centre of activity was usually under the trees between two local establishments: One was a bar that, due to the lack of electricity, sold only soda from a chilly bin and the other was a restaurant that, due to the lack of clients, only served instant coffee. 

We would all mill around, hopeful that the 2:00 mealtime would be ready by 3:00 but was never ready before 4:00 and most frequently served at 5:00. We learned quickly never to come to lunch hungry. I came to appreciate the time required to produce a meal after getting involved with the cooking. The typical Gambian meal is 95% rice, 4% fish and 1% veg, cooked for several hours over charcoal in a large iron pot in a layered process: Fry the fish in a gallon of vegetable oil and remove. Add veggies, herbs and spices to the pot of oil in order of density, set aside. Cook the rice in the richly favoured oil. Three hours later you have cooked the three separate components of the meal, which is layered on a platter in reverse order and served. And let me tell you, the food was delicious. No doubt the bucket of oil was a contributing factor.

When eventually served, we would huddle in a group and share the meal together. At a time when my family in England and the USA were hibernating in isolation due to the surge in Covid cases, we were sitting hunkered down in the dirt eating with our hands from a communal platter with strangers. How different our experience was from so many around the world. We enjoyed the daily ritual of a shared meal and the camaraderie that came with it, and it was hard to pull ourselves away when it came time to do so.

So ask again, why Gambia? Is it worth the motoring and the mud and the bugs? Yeah, I can give up a few rum cocktails for a trip up the Gambia river. I’ll take a month of motoring for a few days in the silent tranquility of her freshwater creeks. I’ll elbow through a mile of mud to sip tea with a stranger. I’ll battle a billion mosquitoes to hold a hundred little hands in my palm. If I were a gambling woman I’d put money down on the Gambian coin, and it wouldn’t matter what side of the coin I laid my bet on. Every day I would lay my bet, flip the coin and let fate decide my direction: Heads for the river and tails for the village. Social isolation or social inclusion — either way I’d be a winner.

Photos posted on: Images

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