So it’s been quite a while since I last posted, for a multitude of reasons.I have so many stories, so many new experiences, and simply do not know where to start. I’ve been very busy. The internet has also not been very cooperative, and the power has been particularly temperamental.
Ramadan started last Thursday, and I have been warned by many that what they call GMT, “Gambia Maybe Time” is even more accentuated by the fasting, however it has been hard for me to tell so far. Of my co-workers, 5/7 are Muslim, leaving just me and my boss, Poncelet, able to eat during the day. I am curious as to the long-term implications of this, and if the further into the fast we are, the more irritable everyone will be, but so far not much seems to have changed. In the supermarkets in my area (there are many right around me, up to five on one block), they are promoting Ramadan sales and Ramadan hours, open later into the night to accommodate the bellies of the 90% Muslim population. Although very few women cover their heads, and I have met many Muslims who drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, faith is definitely a point of pride for many, and Ramadan is recognized and celebrated as a sacred and spiritual month.
This past weekend, I convinced Poncelet to drive Marquis and I to a local nature reserve, called Abuko. I was told it was peaceful and beautiful, and had been excited to go for a few weeks. However, as soon as we got there, there was rain like I have never seen. We are in the rainy season here, so it has rained lots and rained often, but this was beyond anything I have ever seen. So there we are, the three of us, sitting in a small hut with six Gambian tour guides, hoping the rain will pass. It didn’t. We decided to walk a little bit anyway, in a moment when it was slightly lighter, but as soon as we had walked for about 15 minutes, it was back, full force. We couldn’t even see five feet in front of us, and the path seemed to flood immediately. It was definitely an adventure, but I hope to go back and enjoy it another time. Later that evening, two other guests at the hostel, Nigerian interns at the Gambian Tourism Board, taught me how to make a Nigerian stew. I was skeptical when I saw we would be using chicken, shrimp, fish, clams, pork and beef, but it turned out well and it was fun to share with them. Sunday, we went back to our favorite brunch spot, an $8 all you can eat elaborate brunch, viewed as one of the nicest restaurants for miles. It is delicious, and it had finally stopped raining which was a good break. We relaxed a bit and walked around our neighborhood, and then YMCA director, John, took us to dinner in Senegambia. Senegambia is a very touristic area, where the majority of the nice hotels, dance clubs and many restaurants are located. I find it hard to walk around there, because Gambian men always want to talk to you, to “be your friend” and to accompany you to taxis or help you find something, in exchange for a tip. There is always someone who wants to sell you a lion statue (there are no lions in Gambia), a necklace or a pair of sunglasses reading “RayDan.” The hotels are gorgeous and all overlook the beach, but I find it far too much to handle. The dinner was delicious, and we listened to live music afterward, crowded into a bar with dozens of European tourists.
While we were sitting there, John got a phone call and told us there was no work Monday. Worried, we asked if everything was ok, if something was wrong. No, he told us, nothing was wrong, the president had just decided, on Sunday night, to name Monday a national holiday. Banks would be closed, and nobody has to go in to work. Sunday, July 22nd was the 18th anniversary of his take-over from the previous president, but he chose to announce a national celebration in his own honor for Monday, Sunday already being a day of no work. So yesterday, we visited a monkey park, where the monkeys were friendly, with dozens of brand new babies attached to their stomachs and backs, looking like little ET mini-me’s. The babies were pretty ugly but I got some good photos which I hope to upload later. Last night, I decided to return the favor and cook a little bit, so I made Mexican food, something nobody here had ever tasted. I made onions and peppers, beans, salsa, guacamole, and an attempt at Mexican rice I am pretty proud of. Throughout this process, I was playing very loud country music, and Malang, my caretaker came into the hostel kitchen. He danced to Sugarland, Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. So at least I know that no matter what else I do, I will leave here having spread the joy of burritos and American country music with the Gambian YMCA.
As a side note, I had quite a few near-death experiences this weekend, or so I was convinced (don’t freak out Mom and Dad I promise I’m ok). Firstly, there was the cab driver who did not turn off the engine while filling up the gas tank, telling me to stop worrying and “be happy.” Then I almost got run over by a man, his bicycle, and his live chicken on the handlebars on my morning run. On the same run, the only person I have seen here with a gun, one of the many guards of the American embassy, stopped me and asked me to take my headphones out. I spent about 30 terrified seconds racking my brain regarding my passport, my visa, my activities since being in The Gambia….for some reason at that moment it made sense that if they weren’t in order he would shoot me…but he just wanted to tell me it was “respectable” that I was “training” so early in the morning.
The outlook towards physical fitness has been very interesting to me since my arrival in The Gambia. Because I am not in a big city, and areas here vary from incredibly crowded markets, banks, supermarkets, embassies, offices, schools, open fields, farms, etc., the beach seems to be a very central meeting point for locals. They gather at Fajara, the beach we prefer over the Senegambia beaches because of its fewer number of “bumsters,” as the local government calls them, and the significant amount of local/foreigner interaction, in a much less incentive-based manner. The first time I went to the beach, I was astonished by the number of men doing push-ups, sit ups, squats and sprints along the sand. They call this their “training” and usually follow it with a soccer game. I have never seen a Gambian woman involved in any sort of “training.” So when I run on the beach, near the YMCA, or anywhere else, I generally get a lot of stares. Not only do I stand out, but who is this crazy girl running on the side of the road? Many people stop me curiously, ask me if I am training, and I get thumbs-up’s from a few. One very old wrinkly man even offered me some water and told me my face was “burning.”
For now, at work, I am editing English essays, writing grant proposals and project proposals, and starting to get one in particular off the ground. I have applied for funding through various sources for the creation of a web portal through the YMCA Computer Center. The portal will allow local businesswomen to call in through their mobile phones-many people here have phones, but most do not have access to internet- and report what goods they are selling, at what prices and where. Many women in this area make their living by selling produce on the street, and Poncelet has been trying to work on this project for a long time, a women-helping-women idea, as the site will be managed by a young Gambian woman at the YMCA, fresh out of the Computer Training Program. Not only will it be an economic help, serving as free advertising, but it will also empower women and remind them that what they are doing is an important part of local society, culture and economy. I am finalizing our summer program curriculum, making handouts, and getting excited for the kids to come next week! I only get two weeks with them, but I know it will be a great way to finish out my trip.
For a while, I was incredibly homesick and felt very far from home. This was in no way a reflection on the incredibly friendly, welcoming nature of the Gambian people, but very little here reminded me of home, and it was easy to miss a lot of the things I take for granted on a regular basis. But as time goes on, I am already realizing how much I will miss it when I leave. I am excited to come home and see you all- either in the frenzy of eight days before going back to CMC, or at CMC- but as time starts getting faster, I know it’s going to be upon me before I even realize.