Something else I have been meaning to write about was the process of getting to Basse for Thanksgiving. It was a memorable trip in a place where almost every experience travelling is a story. I somehow didn't take the trip quite seriously enough, didn't get to the car park before dawn as I should have to catch a vehicle down the road as early as possible. I was probably just lazy, and I hadn't had a long journey in a while. I was there by eight ish, though, and got a vehicle going to Kaur by nine or so. Amazingly, the last three passengers on board were Japanese. I spoke to them in English, timid about my Japanese after so long (plus every time I started to form a sentence in Japanese in my head, it came out in Mandinka grammar, with Mandinka pronouns), and discovered they were just going to Kaur, no where else. I couldn't think of any reason for any one to go to Kaur, it's a dumpy little town that's only noticed because someone thought it was a good idea to put a car park there, and thus make vehicles stop on their way upcountry. I eventually found out that one of them was a master's candidate, wanting to do her research there. She spoke English haltingly, and no local languages, so I thought she would have a tough time of it, but still, it's a pretty cool thing to do. And I got to suprise her by finally breaking out some rusty Nihongo - the only reason she spoke at all, being the timid type of Japanese woman.
After that, I got lucky and the same vehicle continued on to Wassu, without too much delay. Maybe a half an hour or so. That ride was as normal as they get - dusty, hot, bumpy, and me the only foreigner. Wassu, though, is a crappy place. It has even less claim to its car park than Kaur does - except it supposedly has a great lumo (weekly market) on Mondays. I doubt you'll ever find me there. There wonderful Wassu atmosphere just isn't quite compelling enough.
What got me so turned off on Wassu? Well, it wasn't that when I got there, the vehicle they told me was next to leave was not only no where near full, it didn't have four wheels. Apparently Wassu is so famous for getting vehicles stuck, a thriving industry in repairing wheels has sprung up, and vehicles have their wheels removed and new tires (or more likely old, old tires that have been repaired somehow) put on them. After waiting two hours or so, not unexpected or particularly unpleasant, a vehicle came into town and stopped on the other side of the road. I thought, let's just see where they are going, just in case. Because at that time it was well after two, and my getting to Basse was no longer a certainty. The vehicle, though, was going there! What luck! I told the driver I'd come with him, and he responded with something that seemed like hedging and sounded like more Mandinka than I could understand. So, he got someone else to explain it. That someone turned out to be the driver of the other vehicle, the one without four wheels. He said I could go on this vehicle if I paid him the fare he would have been paid to take me the 20km down the road he said he could take me. I explained that the vehicle was going ALL THE WAY TO BASSE, and I would prefer to take it, please. He said I should pay him. I didn't understand, and I told him so. The conversation drifted away. Later, as we all waited for the grass to grow, or something else that was happening slower, he asked me if I still didn't understand. I said, yes, I still didn't understand. Later again, he tried to explain it all again, including that the driver of the vehicle going to Basse would have to pay 200 dalasi if I didn't pay. He wanted 20 dalasi for this trip I wasn't going to take. I began to sense that I wasn't going to get on the vehicle going to Basse by ignoring this guy. But, stubborn like I am, I didn't want to pay him for having less than a full load of wheels, or passengers. Especially because by this point, if I waited for him, I might not make it any farther along the road that day, much less to Basse.
Eventually, an old man came up, everything was explained in poor English again, and I relented. I would pay the D20, then pay the other driver the D65 to get to Basse. As I came to understand it, once a person arrives in a town with a car park, if they are continuing their trip but the vehicle they came in is not, they become the property of the next vehicle in the queue to leave. And, if a vehicle comes through town, continuing onward, it cannot pick up those new passengers unless they have bought their freedom from the car to which they were enslaved. This may in fact be written down somewhere, and enforced strictly on big, dumb white people who should just expect to get hustled by the system. That's why I don't really care for Wassu. Because it's a stupid little village that causes travellers grief by having a car park. The car parks in big towns aren't a problem, because those towns are logical midpoints or transfers for journeys, and the vehicles in the queue fill up faster than the Marianas Trench. And there aren't many vehicles passing through on their way to actual destinations. And I don't really like Wassu because almost the same thing happened to me there once before, for crying out loud.
The vehicle I left there in, bless it and it's driver, was like a big minivan of sorts. We went down the road to Lamin Koto, the farthest East I had been in the Gambia until then, and the crossing point to Janjanbureh Island, and then turned onto a bush road to go up and cross at Bansang. This was a true bush road - never had a road crew touched it, never had a surveyor considered it, and never would a passenger vehicle travel it. Well, that last one probably isn't true in this country, but I wouldn't suggest it. It was basically a cart path, and reinforced for me the line about superhighways being old game trails. We were on the early side of that spectrum. But, the driver was fantastic, almost never losing control in the sand, and never needing us to get out and push. (My personal standard of success here - that and not smashing anything) We drove along paths with three or four meter high grasses on each side of the car, through bits that I would never want to try in the rainy season, and into a few towns. In one village, where the compound walls were close enough that you could hit them if you opened the door too far, we stopped. I sheepishly enquired for what reason, and was told we would be going again soon. About ten minutes later, I was invited into a compound and brought to the lunch food bowl. So, I ate some rice and cayenne pepper, thanked them profusely, and waited around. Had a pretty cool conversation with the young guys of the compound - my age, all married and fathers and underemployed. Eventually we got going again, and I was pretty psyched about the encounter.
We got to the river crossing to Bansang and discovered the duck had died. One of the passengers had been travelling with a duck in a box - the duck's head poked out of the box, and the rest of the box was more snug than it should have been. When we stopped in the village for lunch, at one point the duck made some very unhealthy noises, and there was general concern for its wellbeing. It died between there and getting to the river. I think the Gambians were most disappointed because if they had killed it, it could have been used for food, but now it was just trash. They probably all regretted not killing it when it made the unhealthy noises.
After that the ferry came across the river and we all got on. Then I realized why it was so much quieter than the ferry at the crossing down here - there was no motor. There was just a thick cable that the passengers used to pull the ferry back and forth. I actually got into it after a bit, and was pulling away, glad for the exercise. The sucky part was the frayed metal strands, how they would stick you or cut your hand if you hit them wrong. Besides that, it was a cool trip across the river.
We were now on the right side of the river, and supposedly the road was good the rest of the way. Nobody had mentioned to me that the police in this area were collecting “donations” at every police stop. And those seemed more dense than in any other area. I don’t know that it was graft for certain, but they definitely took money. So that was interesting. And the last cop that stopped us found something else interesting – the front left tire was going flat. He didn’t even collect anything as the driver decided to try to race the hole to Basse. Which was exciting, going at top speed in that over-laden, under-powered, glorified smartcar packed with a dozen souls. But, it didn’t work, and we had to stop and change the tire about four km from town. The thing that blew my mind, though, the thing that really baked my noodle, was that after that race, we then stopped LESS THAN A KILOMETER FROM OUR DESTINATION and waited for the original tire to be repaired and put back on the car. For almost an hour. Truly, that was the thing that just put it over the top.
After that, we got into town, I jumped out near the police station and eventually was able to get a hold of someone who met me and took me to the PC transit house, where it all became a good story instead of a saga I was living through. That’s a great part of living here, it all becomes another good story so easily.