The frozen bags of fruit juice were my salvation as I pedalled 250 miles across The Gambia on an undulating, twisty road in oppressive 90-degree heat. Even at 9:30 in the morning before it had heated up I could not resist these tasty treats. They didn't come as often as I'd like, sometimes not for several towns and as much as twenty miles, so I didn't pass up a one.
I didn't flinch when an enterprising young woman demanded ten dollars (twenty cents), double the normal price. I laughed and said "five," to which she agreed, realizing I knew the going rate. But if she hadn't budged, I would have gladly paid whatever she wanted.
She was definitely the exception as a price-goucher. People have generally been the opposite, tossing in an extra banana or flour ball or even ice ball. One woman brought me a bowl of rice and bowl of sauce fresh from her kitchen as I sat on the porch of her shop drinking a bottle of cold water I had bought from her. When I reached into my pocket, she waived her arms saying, "no, no." One of the young girls selling ice balls gave me two extra as I sat beside her breaking up the one I had bought to put in my water bottle.
I'm not sure how much of it is simple generosity or possibly feeling sorry for me riding in such heat, that I must be truly impoverished, too poor to afford a bus. When I asked a young girl the price of a stew she was selling, she said, "Five dollars, if you have the money." I had presented her with my bowl, somewhat similar to raggedy young boys who hang about with bowls looking for offerings. I'm rather raggedy myself and she and others may take me as an older version of such ragamuffins.
As I sat under a tree in the countryside a young girl passing on her bike asked if I was tired. Shade is a precious commodity. People are often clustered under large trees in the villages sprawled on matts. A couple of donkeys, who couldn't find a tree, hugged a wall and its sliver of shade.
During the climax of the heat in the afternoon I am able to take advantage of village water pumps, as during most times of the day they are a hive of women and sometimes boys filling all manner of water containers. I can slip in on such occasions and fill a water bottle, but I can't intercede to do any wash. When no one is using them I can get enough water to wash clothes and splash some water on me. Invariably a young boy will leave his shady spot and pump for me. Once as I was finishing up washing some clothes I was reprimanded by an older woman for doing my wash near the pump. She spoke no English, just pointed where I had dumped my dirty water, shook her head giving me a dirty look and held her nose. It's doubtlessly not the first time I have violated some taboo.
Despite taking longer and more frequent breaks in such heat, I still manage to put in six hours or so a day on the bike. The first and last couple hours of each day are fine for riding. The northeasterly winds have persisted, though not as strongly as in Senegal and Mali or carrying as much dust and sand, but they have given me an assist other than when the road turned north on its windy way to the coast. The riding has been a little easier without any speed pumps. There were at least two in every village I passed through in Senegal and Mali, entering and leaving, and then several extra if the village was a bigger one.
The Gambians slow of their own accord in villages, partially thanks to a greater number of police checks, only two of which halted me, one out of friendliness and curiosity, the other by a rare young woman solider being too serious about her job, even wanting to see what was in my panniers. I opened one and pulled out my vest, which was on top, and that was enough for her. Motorists, however, aren't overly respectful of cyclists. They seem to regard them as a nuisance and rarely swing wide when passing, generally holding their line and passing unnecessarily close as if the cyclist isn't there. There was hardly an instance of that in Senegal and Mali. Could be there are so few cyclists there, drivers don't mind giving them extra space, and it becomes a bother here.
Though the price of food is comparable to Senegal and Mali, there is a slight degree of more affluence in The Gambia. I see aluminum cans along the road. Homes and shops are more substantial, constructed mostly of brick rather than wooden slats. And many more people can afford a bicycle.
With its small size The Gambia has one of the highest population densities in Africa. I was concerned that might make it a challenge to camp. Two of my four nights I was caught in a stretch of small towns forcing me to be a bit creative, but two of the other nights I had idyllic isolated campsites with no concerns of being stumbled upon. One was just riddled with the thorniest bushes I have encountered. My tires survived, but my calves and ankles were lacerated.
Now that I have reached the Atlantic side of The Gambia, I can take a day of rest and indulge in my first dose of African beach culture. Then it will be further south back to Senegal and on into Guinea-Bissau before I take the 16-hour ferry from Ziguinchor back to Dakar.