I am now in my final month in The Gambia and one of the things I will certianly not miss is the journey between the Kombo and Soma. Before I left the UK, one of my many concerns was what the transport would be like. I'm not the best passenger and have had many a hair-raising journey abroad biting back the tears - but I was pleasantly surprised by The Gambia. The state of the taxis and the constant tooting of horns can be somewhat misleading, in fact I'd been here at least 7 months before I got into a car that didn't have a cracked windscreen. Often doorhandles are replaced by bits of string and it is quite common to have the one communal handle for the windows which can be obtained from the driver on request. However, on the whole the taxis here drive quite slowly, pavements are fair game but they will give you very audible warnings. The biggest danger is the unpredictability of cars suddenly pulling on and off the road in front of each other, but *touch wood* I haven't yet seen any collide.
Travelling up-country is a different matter altogether. I absolutely hate it and couldn't have been more relieved when I completed my last gelli journey on Friday. Vans begin their life somewhere else and serve someone well, spacious interior for transporting things, wheels that stay attached, inflated and turn, all the usual things you look for in a reliable vehicle. After a long and useful life, they are passed on to someone else who just needs a run-around for transporting crap, they can be maintained at home by someone who knows a thing or two about mechanics, or likes to think they do, and will pass their MOT if a twenty is left discreetly under the sun visor. A few years later when a good woman gets tired of the broken down heap of junk sitting in her drive way and even the scrap-metal yard doesn't think it's worth pulling apart, it somehow makes it's way accross the water to a gelli park somewhere near me.
When you read documents about health & safety abroad, they often include a section on transport. The advice is usually along the lines of 'don't travel at night' and 'if you don't think the vehicle looks road-worthy, don't use it'. Well it's very easy to say that, but if that is the only vehicle that is going where you are and your other transport options are non-existant, you're options are slightly limited. Needless to say, about fifty percent of the time I have travelled up (or down) country by gelli, we have broken down. The breakdowns vary in nature. Sometimes things fall off; windows, fan-belts, steering wheels... Sometimes there are very perculiar noises and we just grind to a halt, but there's always something.
Even on the best of journeys, it's an experience. Gambians are very touchy-feely people and have none of the 'personal space' issues we suffer with. You can be squashed up against someone who will have their arm around you to give themselves more room, whilst being jabbed in the back of the neck by the elbows of the person behind who is sleeping against the back of your chair. Babies are often passed around to sit on whichever lap is available. The person next to you may turn around to talk to someone behind, apparently unconcerned that they're pinning you to the window. It's fairly common for someone to lean accross you to spit out of the window.
I'm always my most relaxed and tolerant on these journeys.
The last time I travelled back to Soma with Marcus, we had a spectacularly bad journey involving 4 separate gellies to get home. The running theme of the day appearing to be wheels falling off. After it was decided there was no hope left for one vehicle, we managed to flag down a passing empty gelli. The consensus seemed to be that the driver of the first vehicle should pay our fare, he didn't seem too keen. He is in the middle of the crowd of people pictured below, not getting away with it lightly!
I stole this photo from Marcus' blog - perfectly summarising many things; Gambians love a drama, nothing is done quietly and everyone gets involved. People are often restrained, sometimes punches are thrown, but minutes later everyone is laughing and joking. This isn't the first time I've walked away form a situation in despair.
On Friday I made my last trip from Soma to Kombo. We did have an hour long break-down, but it was all made that much easier knowing I never have to do that journey again. Train fares have gone up again at home, there's been chaos caused by unusually early snow-fall. I can't wait.
Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.