I don’t know about you, but sometimes in life you just really want an instruction manual. I have heard the joke before about how there is no manual on how to be a parent; except there is. There are 9 million parenting books, (although they continuously contradict one another) but there are none about how to ride a river ferry in the Gambia. Well there certainly should be. So I have created a list/all inclusive guide for you to enjoy… and maybe laugh at a little
1. Leave early, if you are traveling on a Friday leave earlier. There are no standards or carrying capacity in the Gam. The number of people that fit on the ferry goes across. There is no counting, weighing, or anything of the sort.
2. There used to be three ferries, then two, now one… with one engine. It only goes in reverse.
3. Cars and trucks load onto the ferry first then passengers. Though with the new and improved bribing system people can get onto the boat with the vehicles.
4. Since some people can load onto the ferry before others, sitting room shrinks quickly. This brings me to a series of points.
a. There are no lines, you shove your way in. (No seriously, I have never seen a line here… not even the National Assembly… there was even more shoving among parliament members than the average citizen.)
b. When the women in their full African print dresses, head wraps, heels, and massive purses start to run; you do too. No seriously, RUN.
c. There are very few seats on the ferry, especially when you are well beyond carrying capacity. Everyone else has to stand for the hour-ish trip across. Mind you everyone stands because there is no room to sit. (Now do you understand why you should run?)
5. With temperatures hitting as high as 106 degrees at midday you should bring a hat and a rag because you will sweat… and burn.
6. You will be physically touching another person the entire way. This Ferry will not be full in American terms...it will be packed, sardine style. Personal space is not an option.
7. The boat probably won’t sink, in case it does, don’t expect a life vest just swim hard. There are no hippos at the crossing so it should go relatively well.
8. When departing the Ferry, cars and people embark simultaneously. This is potentially the most hazardous part of the journey. Just breathe. Avoid the tankers and gully-gullies. Weave through people like you have never weaved before and go to a designated meeting point if you are travelling in a group.
Congrats! You have survived your first hypothetical journey across the River Gambia. You are now in Barra, a village-ish-town with tons of hawkers selling the fruit of the season (mangos now), peanuts, bagged water, car parts, chickens, soap, coke-a-cola, rope, saws, tires, and anything else you may need for a journey into the bush aka up-country.
I must admit, I may or may not have avoided standing in the hot sun on more than one occasion with my minimal knowledge of the local language and a few smiles. (Sometimes exhaustion wins out over my feminist tendencies) Once I sat with the captain as he drank tea and asked about my stay in the Gambia. Another time I requested to sit in one of the cars aboard as well as an 18 wheeler truck with a dangerously high view of the ocean and river waves meeting to creating a motion which eventually rocked me into some level of sleep despite my fear of immediate death.
O life in the Gambia… where everyday transportation is a story in and of itself.