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The Gambia

Posted on 13 April 2010 by Amateurs

The Amateur Overview
Probably the most up to date info on The Gambia in the World right now. Seriously, we just left 2 days ago.

The Gambia
Capital: Banjul
Population: 1.7 mill
Economy: GDP (PPP)- $2.6 billion (161st), Per Capita (PPP)- $1 430 (155th)
Exchange Rate: 1 Euro: 36 Dalasi’s
Human Development Index: .456 – 168th
Sporting Trivia: The Gambia is yet to win an Olympic medal. The national Football league has one team named after the national phone carrier GamTel and also a team from the Armed Forces.

>>> Travel Info: Refreshingly English Speaking. It’s Africa’s smallest country but what it lacks in size it makes up for with charm. The entire coastal area is easy to navigate with shared taxi at a low price. Up country is a different affair with terrible roads being the order of the day, but you pass through lively small villages. Also, we are just impressed that it has ‘The’ in its title ‘The Gambia’, it’s unique and quirky much like the coastal sprawls. The people are super friendly across the country and you’ll find their smiles more than contagious.

Visa Requirements: For members of Commonwealth nations a visa isn’t required, so entry is free. There were a few people having some issues at the border when we came through, so make sure you get the correct stamps in and out of Senegal.

Parlez-vous Anglais? 85%. Yes, its English speaking but it’s still not 100%. Gambians converse in their local tongues and sometimes the Australian accent meant we often struggled to get our point across in the first instance.

@ Banjul & around the Atlantic Coast
Where did we stay? In Banjul we stayed at Princess Diana Hotel right near the July 22 Arch for 250 Dalasi’s (7 Euro) which had decent rooms and friendly staff. We spent a couple of nights staying @Kanifeng YMCA Hostel, basic rooms, with sketchy shared bathrooms for 180 Dalasi’s (5 euro). They are doing some good work with the local community with various development projects and a school run out of the building.

In Eastern Gambia – @Bassa Bante Su where electricity is the feature you’ll need to search for. We found probably the most basic place we’ve ever stayed for 100 Dalasis (2.80 Euro), probably the cheapest place we’ve ever stayed, but the power outage early morning was like a bad nightmare – it’s steaming hot in April and with no fan you can expect an extremely long night.

How did we get there? From Dakar we jumped in a sept place (9 – Seater shared taxi) to the border at around 7am.

This is a look at our actual ride to The Gambia and beyond with a few bits and pieces in between.

Difficulties: A fair few people around who want to help and chat. Using lines like ‘we’re all one blood’ etc to get you to see a shop etc. Still it’s nothing if you keep calm, the worst we had was being told we weren’t friendly as we didn’t buy a coffee for a bloke who had tried to get us to an Irish bar. A few locals tried to lead us there – our advice would be don’t go, it’s obviously a haunt for the local ‘bumsters’ looking for foreigners to make a quick buck.

Learn from us: Due to the heat, most of the street food stands close down around 12pm. Make sure you get in before 11am to get the freshest foods otherwise you’ll have to wait until dusk before the locals bring their best meals back out to the street.

If you’ve been travelling about Northern or West Africa in the Francophone countries, you’ll find this is a great place to rest up before continuing the journey on. If you’re looking for Internet, most of the connections in Banjul are sketchy, but you will one that is very reliable in the park next to the Arch.

The traveller scene: First of all, we fdid find it slightly amusing. You can read the gist of it here. The Gambia is home to a thriving sex tourism scene, mostly in the form of Western women visiting The Gambia to meet young local guys. At any bar you head to you’ll find the dance floor filled with +50yo ladies dancing to a reggae groove with their new companions.

Getting a feed: We stumbled across our cheapest feed so far in Bakau. Fish balls, delicious beans on a bread roll at a small street stall for 9 Dalasis (20 Euro cents). It’s amazing and around other places you’ll find grilled meat & onion on a baguettes for between 15-50 Dalasis, although its hard to find after lunchtime. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the soup dish FuFu, a Nigerian dish along Independence drive in Banjul. It’s pretty special and dirt cheap.

Out on the town: There’s lots going on around the coast – bars, clubs, prostitutes and European ladies with young local guys. You can do anything here but make sure you get involved with the very cool local music scene loaded with reggae. You can do anything here and party pretty hard if you’re that way inclined. We hit up a few bars around Sinatra’s on the main strip in Bakau, a cool local bar and here you’ll also find young men who’ll want you to buy them a beer in exchange for drugs. You can grab beers at bars for 25 Dalasi’s (80 euro cents) and i’ts nearly always ‘happy hour’ at any of the bars on the Senegambia strip. The Senegambia strip is full of touts, all friendly enough and you’ll soon become a pro at working out how best to fend them off. If you need a club Wednesday night is ladies night at Wow nightclub and it brings in a pretty diverse crowd which makes for a fun night out.

Banjul itself doesn’t have a great deal to offer however there is an Australian opening up a new bar on the main street just down from the Arch in town.

>>> The Amateur Low Down

Highlight: After our Senegalese Visa debacle we decided to try secure our Malian visa before travelling the 1000km to the border. We searched in vain for the Consulute to no avail until we asked a young Gambian Navy officer. We were led to a small shopfront and told the consulate no longer exists, however, here an old Malian businessperson calls a guy who calls another guy who calls back to organise an official approval for a Visa for when you reach the border. It’s an experience and lesson #47 in unorthodox ways to obtain a Visa. Via this way, your only expense is the 50 Dalasi’s to top up the old Malian’s phone credit.

Biggest Surprise: It might be the smallest country in Africa but it punches above its weight in breweries. The local beer Julbrew was by far the best we’ve come across to this point. It’s definitely worth knocking back a few to get amongst the Gambian beer of choice. You’ll hear about the sex tourism scene here, but seeing is believing.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: The signs on the sides of the streets here are remarkably progressive, with information about littering, AIDS and many other development issues. Our impressions were that Gambia has better infrastructure (along the coastal strip anyway) than the other African nations we’d come across so far.

You can support the positive steps taken here in The Gambia, and help locals build upon this by following responsible and sustainable tourism projects, like those listed here.

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Posted on 08 April 2010 by Amateurs

The Amateur Overview
Everything you’ll need to know from the street side of things, Senegalese style.

Capital: Dakar
Population: 14 mill.
Economy: GDP (PPP) $22 Billion (111th)- Per capita- $1752 (147th)
Exchange rate: 1 Euro: 656 CFA
Human Development Index: .464 (166th)
Sporting Trivia: Traditional wrestling is once again the national obsession with big name fights on. There was even a 2 hour special we saw examining the controversial finish of a major bout a few weeks earlier.

>>> Travel Info
One of the giants of West Africa, this Francophone country serves up some great beats, brought us the sept-place (7 seater local taxis) and got us back on the nightlife bandwagon. It is much more touristy than the countries we’d come across to this point, which brings the inevitable positives and negatives.

>>>Visa Requirements
We are now experts in this field. A number of countries have a visa waiver for Senegal. Australia is not one of them, but we were under the impression you could grab one at the border. As we now know it isn’t possible, despite our “c’est possible’ protests and we lost 3 days, a lot of time and money. Picking up a visa in Nouakchott is a pretty simple affair, just bring along a few passport pictures, an address in Senegal and 1700UM (5 Euro) and you should be on your way within 48 hours. It took us slightly longer as we were after a double entry visa as we were going through The Gambia also. Check out the full story of our Visa troubles.

Parlez-Vous Anglais? 35% – French is definitely more than helpful here. We hit the tourist hotspots of St Louis and Dakar so there a plenty of English speakers around. Between these places French would be more of a requirement along with a few basic lines in Wolof. The problem being that often it is the people who come up and speak English who are trying to scam you or get you along to their bar.

@ Saint Louis
Where did we stay: L’Antantide Auberge De Jeunesse- twin room 6500CFA (10 Euro) per person/night. Basic breakfast included, mosquito nets, nice courtyard and friendly staff.

How did we get there: From Rosso in a sept-place the 2 hour journey cost us 2000CFA (3 Euro) each. This was a super cramped ride in the back row. Try to stay firm on minimising/avoiding baggage costs. The garage is back on the mainland about 5km from the island so a taxi into town set us back 1000CFA (1.5 Euro)

Difficulties: A fair few people are around the place trying to get you into their shop. St Louis is a beautiful city, with great old buildings and is really a top place for some photos.

Learn from us:
Get you Visa before getting to the border.

The traveller scene: After coming from Mauritania, it seemed that their were tourists everywhere here. Their are plenty of bars around with expats and it seems a lot of French still here in this former colonial West African capital.

Getting a feed: At local restaurants we scored some Mafe for 1000CFA (1.5 Euro). The real highlight for us though was a late night spot we came across selling great mince and onion baguettes for 500CFA (70 Euro cents).

Out on the town: This is where we jumped back on the booze bandwagon and St Louis has a fair few options for getting out on the tiles. There are a number of bars with live music to get you started. We also hit up Laser club with some Peacecorp volunteers for the salsa – 2000CFA entry. The Iguana Bar is a good place to finish up the night for some western style music, and you’ll find it slightly amusing seeing everybody dancing in front of the mirror wall. You won’t laugh at the beers here though, expensive at 2000CFA (3 Euro) a pop. There is no cover charge here, but if you head in and don’t buy a drink straight up you might get a few hassles. Gazelle, Flag and Castel you can get at most places for 1000 – 1200CFA (under 2 Euro). Gazelle is the biggest, cheapest, and probably the nastiest option.

@ Dakar
Where did we stay: Chez Nizar- room 5000CFA (7.60 Euro) per person/night. Very basic, right in the heart of Dakar, cool view from the roof, the shower water only just squirts out, you get what you pay for here.

How we got here: Coming in from St Louis took us around 5 hrs. It really isn’t that far, only around 250km, but the last 50km or so into Dakar was an absolute crawl for us in the traffic. Cost per person 5000CFA (7.50 Euro). The taxi from the Gare Routiere Pompier was 2000CFA, although we reckon it’s possible to get for a bit less – it’s not that far into the centre.

If you want to check out some of the roads around Senegal and in and out of The Gambia, we filmed bits and pieces on the road.

Difficulties: Dakar was by far the craziest city we’d been to so far, our first big African metropolis. It was alive with street markets, awash with expats and annoying over eager touts. Pickpockets are operating all the time everywhere and we narrowly avoided an attempted effort early one afternoon. We can’t say this place isn’t dangerous as we’ve also met fellow travellers with much worse stories and injuries.

Learn from us: Do a bit more research about what is going on, it’s not the easiest city to get around and it’s hard to find information locally without people trying to sell you something.

The traveller scene: Travellers from all around are here, particularly in the centre of the town and along the coast.

Getting a feed: We indulged in the Senegalese dish Yassa here at a restaurant for 2500CFA (4 Euro). Again, the best bit was a street food vendor selling baguettes with meat and onion for 500CFA (70 Euro cents)

Out on the town: On the main stretch Le Viking has 350ml Flag beers for 1000CFA (1.5 Euro) which is full of expats listening to live music, whilst upstairs has a different clientele. Later on across town you’ll find Koulgroul a packed nightclub with a lively atmosphere and great value beers 500ml Flags for 1000CFA. Just quietly, people at this place can dance.

>>> The Amateur Low down

See it all for yourself – The Senegalese sensations in pictures.

The Highlight – It has to be Saint Louis’s colonial era buildings, musical vibe and kids playing soccer everywhere on the street. Even with dodgy cameras you can grab a top quality snap here with the colourful buildings in the background. Whether they are decrepit or recently renovated the reds, yellow and blues bring the buildings to life.

No matter what part of the island you’re on you’ll come across some intense games of street soccer through the sandy streets which spontaneously turn into wrestling matches. The city is alive and it’s great to be part of people going about their daily routines here.

Biggest Surprise: We were joined in town by Jesse Jackson, Robert Mugabe and Akon. for the 4th of April celebrations for Senegal’s 50 years of independence. The lack of festivities going on around the streets was staggering as we had some strong images of what a celebration of this magnitute might look like Senegalese style.

The day before the controversial ‘Monument to the African Renaissance’ the brainchild of the current President Wade was unveiled. Other than a few speeches we caught on TV and a small military parade it seemed around Dakar that it really was a celebration that was kept away from most people. The streets in the town were eerily empty, on the Place D’Indenpendence, at the Presidential Palace and everywhere their was silence.

The streets did come to life for 5 minutes when the day’s wrestling main event had come to an end, with people who were glued to any radio, TV suddenly rushing out to celebrate their man’s victory.

One thing you can do to break down a barrier: Street kids are all around in Senegal and the most helpful Senegalese guy we met just happens to be doing something about it. To help break down barriers to education, check out Education without borders and support the work they are doing in Senegal.

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The Crossing that wasn’t.

Posted on 07 April 2010 by Amateurs

There’s nothing quite like crossing an African border.

Firstly, you’ll spend 30minutes at a local garage negotiating in a foreign language for a bush taxi at a fair price, you’ll be up early trying to beat the heat and then you’ll find yourself in a sardine tin arrangement amongst luggage and 7 others in an old wagon.

After a few hours on the road, the relief upon arrival is like no other. Push through the hawkers and try to get to your bags before someone else does and follow the dusty tracks to the entrance gates. Battle with border guards and fork out an imaginary ‘exit tax’ and you’ll make your way onto the ferry to Senegal. At least that’s how things go at Rosso, Mauritania.

The border crossing here is renowned for its hassles but we weren’t anticipating the issues we would have over the next few hours. There’s a first time for everything and this was the first time we had been refused entry into a country within an hour.

We’d met a Senegalese guy in the taxi with working with a local NGO, Education Without Borders. Jackpot. It’s always a dream crossing with a local, they’ll help you through the craziness, fend off ‘helpers’ and minimise any ‘taxes’ at ferry gates and immigration. We thought we’d run the perfect race as we boarded a ferry to leave the desert behind.

But we’re Amateurs so you know it would be too good to be true and our optimism soon turned into despair an hour later when we were informed that you couldn’t purchase a tourist visa at the border. We were aware that Australians didn’t have access to the visa waiver that some nationalities have but our research had outlined – it was definately possible. Despite continual protests and “c’est possible” pleas we were shown the exit of Senegal and sent back across the river to Mauritania.

Our Senegalese fixer not only tried to help us with the border police, he also accompanied us back to Mauritania and through immigration. Needless to say, the 5 hour car trip back to Nouakchoutt in 42 degree heat capped off a perfect day’s travel.

We’d later also realised we didn’t get an entry stamp back in to Mauritania, effectively rendering us illegal aliens in Mauritania for however long it took to get the Senegalese Visa.

They said next day for the Visa, no worries.

75 Euro, 4 days later and after a lot of frustration we had our visa from the Senegalese Embassy. Probably the most precious ink we’ve ever seen on paper in the end. We may have even gotten our visa quicker if we were more help to the visa officer who was searching for a VW Golf from Germany and wanted some advice. Our lack of car knowledge had come back to haunt us.

Luck favoured us on the return journey. No one checked our passports properly, pressumably as we were by now locals on the highway and the police had already had their laughs at our expense 4 days earlier, hence we weren’t fined/arrested for overstaying a Visa. This would not have been ideal and we were preparing to pay a hefty sum.

What can you learn from us? – Read widely, don’t rely on the book and a few sources and you’ll be sweet to hit the road. We found out the hard way that in Africa you’re not all sweet. Do whatever you can to make sure you get a stamp in and out of every country. It cost us plenty of time and money.

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