Delightful West Africa – Hotels and Money on The Gambia’s Coast
After coming from francophone Senegal (see previous submissions), the tourist scene in Anglophone Gambia changes drastically:
– In Senegal, you meet mostly French tourists on individually organised trips and quite a few French expats in the restaurants and bars.
– Gambia's coast is full of package tourists from England, plus sizable minorities from Scandinavia, Netherlands and Germany.
The differences in body proportions, body art, facial expression, diet and general behaviour are remarkable.
In the Beach Hotel (walk-in rate 60 Euro), they feel disturbed by non-package tourists and their individual desires. Trip Advisor and the Lonely Planet guide praise this hotel for its friendly service.
They don't provide laundry forms in the rooms. You have to walk to reception, hand over your laundry in your own plastic bag and wait until they have photocopied the laundry form from a folder.
"Please make one more copy right now for the next occasion", I say.
I get another disturbed look.
Later you have to pick up your laundry from reception, where it waits on the counter in your original plastic bag. Don't leave your shirts too long at reception. The receptionists don't like to look at your plastic bag for hours on end.
The room safe costs eight Euros per week extra. Unlike anywhere in Senegal, access to their wi-fi network costs extra as well. Every receptionist at Bijilo Beach Hotel quotes a different wi-fi price, from seven Euro per hour to seven Euro per day to seven Euro per seven days. This money obviously goes straight to the private pocket.
Finally I settle with a night receptionist who offers seven Euro for seven days of wi-fi access. He takes my money without a receipt or a note in his files. On that night I have to bring my laptop to reception so that he can type in the confidential password while I look away.
But the wi-fi network "Bijilo Beach 1", that serves the tourist accommodations and pool area, is not available in the reception building. So we walk out to the pitch-black swimming pool area and sit next to each other on a flat deckchair with plastic mattress.
The deckchair has just been hosed, we both have wet trousers now. I get a good wi-fi signal.
I move to Garden Hill Hotel (walk-in rate 55 Euro). Internet access here is through a USB device provided by the Qcell mobile phone company. The hotel has exactly one such device for all guests. You may use the device for a maximum of one hour per day. The price again varies wildly from receptionist to receptionist. After new year, they don't renew the contract for the tourists' internet device; the guests remain offline. One receptionist offers that I can rent another Qcell device from his friend.
One night after dinner, I end up in a grimy internet café (there are only few, and only grimy ones). The attendant says they would be open for another hour, so she sells me one hour of online time (0,9 Euro).
The attendant talks with a chicken dish visible between her lips, barely understandable. The whole internet place smells after her chicken dish, barely bearable. After I start typing on the battered, clamped keyboard, she walks around behind me (she assigned me a terminal that makes observing my monitor easy). Then she starts to shout into her mobile phone.
The other customers all go, but I still have ten minutes online time. "You're the last now, you know", she informs me. Now she is clearly understandable.
Aliou, my night time taxi driver, steps into the shop to pick me up. In the car I tell him how terrible she was. "And she doesn't talk English like a Gambian", he assures me, "I believe she's from Sierra Leone."
Like most bigger hotels on the tourist coast, Garden Hill has only European package tourists – except me. There are almost no black guests.
One evening I enter Garden Hill's groomed, formal restaurant in the company of Gambian Theresa. She gets wild, disgusted looks from several Scandinavian tables.
Theresa wears fresh jeans, a loose, long sleeved shirt down to her knees, flat sandals and almost no makeup. Her hair is decent. She is 27 and a nurse at Banjul's Royal Victoria Hospital. She could don a white shirt and be a waitress right there. I don't look like I just arrived on a charter plane from Manchester either.
The waiters treat us perfectly friendly, but the Scandinavian package tourist tables stare at Theresa in rage. There is one thirtyish Scandinavian woman whose eyes scream scandal at the sight of a young African female in a European-cantered package hotel restaurant.
Down on the beach, I've already seen this Scandinavian woman. She has nice round breasts.
"What is the problem in bringing a decent African to a European-cantered package hotel restaurant", I think to myself as we scan the menu. "Theresa is a conservative Gambian good girl (to Gambians, a so-called home girl). Have you ever seen the local streets of Brikama or Serakunda – how the ladies put on a striking fashion and coiffure show when they just shop for dinner?"
And I think: "Down on the beach, Theresa swims with shorts, T-shirt and bra. She excused herself for her shyness, but I assured her that I like it. Very much unlike you disgusted, enraged, aghast Scandinavian female package tourist, she'd never walk on the beach in Muslim Gambia topless."
As often in Gambia and Senegal, everything is very personal, even in big hotels, if you don't stay perfectly aloof. You introduce yourself to, exchange wellbeing reports and shake hands with cleaners, waiters, gardeners, pool attendants, security men. You can see their disappointment three days later if you forgot their name or even their face. They are obviously happy if you address them by name or even recognise their personality – like giving them a home-burnt CD with their favourite music. If you want to take their picture, they are charmed.
Female receptionists and waitresses can be rude or flirtatious. Many will follow you to the registry office right after their morning shift. If, after some days in the care of one certain waitress, you bring an outside female to the premises, it's all smiles and small talk superficially, but you can sense irritation.
One time I brought a female African companion to a breakfast room where even two waitresses believed to hold superior rights on me. The tension on all sides was much stronger than the coffee. As my companion made a phone call sitting in front of her breakfast, she casually remarked to the waitress: "My sister, just move these salt and pepper a little closer to my omelette."
The air conditioner in my Bijilo Beach Hotel room leaks. Two men appear for repair. For their entertainment I play Senegalese pop. Upon that, one man starts to play Senegalese pop from his mobile phone, so that I have to turn the laptop off. The next one-and-half hours of unsystematic try-and-error repairs are spent with Senegalese pop squawking from a cheap mobile phone.
Both men mention upcoming concerts where we all could go together. One man has a Christmas singing in his village and I am strongly invited. Whenever I see them in the next days they remind me about all the concerts and the Christmas event that we all should atted together.
There is a night time security man who likes to chat about the live music I had when I come back from concerts between 2 and 4 a.m. He is friendly and not forcibly jovial and searches the local papers for more music events. He likes the music, but as a night shift security man, he neither has the time nor the money to see top stars live. I burn him a CD with his favourite music.
Later he says: "Please visit me and my wife in the village. It is only 100 kilometers upcountry. You could spend the night, that's only 2,7 Euro per public mini bus. Wednesday is my day off, would that be fine?"
The Garden Hill has one female receptionist called Mama (properly, Mariam) who always seems angry. I actually try to avoid Mama. As I check out, she calculates my bill on her mobile phone. Her pen doesn't work properly.
"Next time you bring me a better pen", she fumes.
I get back to my Bijilo Beach Hotel room around 11 a.m. I find the cleaning lady working and a second maid lounging comfortably in the chair. I say I'd go away for another 20 minutes, but she convinces me to wait in the room: "Why, I'm Fatou, your cleaner, there's no problem".
To surprise her, I play popular Viviane N'Dour's music from the laptop. But Fatou surprises me even more. As soon as the tama drum kicks off the nervous mbalax rhythm patterns, Fatou throws away her mop, starts dancing furiously, lifts her shirt to reveal a feisty tummy and admires herself in the mirror.
I mention that I will see Viviane live.
"You take me there", asks Fatou? "Why, I'm your cleaner."
When I move to the Garden Hill Hotel, the maid awaits me near the room. She ushers me in, sits on a chair, makes an important face and makes me sit opposite her. She asks my name.
Hans: "I am Hans. And I guess you are Fatou (Fatima) and you like Viviane N'Dour."
Her jaw drops to the floor.
Hans: "Don't worry, all ladies are called Fatou here and you all like Viviane, don't you?"
Fatou has to agree. I play Viviane and of course she starts to dance.
Finally, Fatou gets to the point: Her husband is a taxi driver and she can wholeheartedly recommend his services. What's more, if I had laundry to do, she personally would take care of that at less than the official hotel rates. She brings a laundry form from the reception (there's none in the room) and we agree to remove 25 Dalasi (0,7 Euro) from the price for every item.
Both Fatous open my room door even when I shout, "Wait a moment, don't open now." They simply ignore my wish for another second of privacy.
The instruction sheet in the Bijilo Beach Hotel mentions a Do Not Disturb sign, but I don't find it. With his usual disturbed face, the receptionist prints me a sign from Word: "Please Do Not Disturb Please."
Fatou ignores the sign.
The Kairaba Hotel Poolside Coffee Shop
Gambia's Kairaba Hotel is a five star establishment of the self-declared variety. Nonetheless I visit its poolside coffee shop on several afternoons for its many unique selling points, it's kind of a refuge even:
– they do a delightful cappuccino or latte for 1,8 Euro
– the restrooms somewhat resemble facilities of the same purpose in the west
– the music is never too loud
– the waiters are open for a chat, including music recommendations, but never ask you for favors like transferring credit from your phone to their phone
– the waiters never mention their birthday
– the waiters never call your local companion, jokingly, "boss lady" and never hand the bill, jokingly, to her
– while walking towards you, the waiters never try to open a 0,15 Euro plastic bag of drinking water with their teeth and then spurt the liquid all over the floor
– the waiters at the bar never park themselves opposite your bar stool in a warped position and perma-pop peanuts with hectical, starving movements
"100 dollars" demands my very first Gambian taxi driver. I find that a tad steep. Only after some seconds I realize that he means Dalasi, Gambia's local currency.
100 dalasi is also the highest circulating banknote, that's 2,7 Euro. A cosy hotel room on the tourist coast may be 2400 dalasi per night. If you stay four nights, you hand 96 bank notes to your receptionist – plus more grubby notes for laundry, food and safety box rent. Often you can pay the hotel in Euro and sometimes by credit card, but that's at least five percent more expensive than handing stacks of dalasis.
Even on the tourist coast, Gambia seems to have less ATMs than Senegal. The most visible ATM in the main tourist road is open-air and often out of service. One time it eats my card, but a service man is nearby; he claims that my card is too bent, even though it works anywhere else. I prefer the air-conditioned, indoors Ecobank ATM in Banjul; it always works and never keeps my card.
The ATMs have options for the following amounts:
– 100 Dalasi (2,7 Euros)
– 150 Dalasi (4,05 Euros)
– 200 Dalasi (5,4 Euros)
– 250 Dalasi (6,8 Euros)
– 300 Dalasi (8,11 Euros)
If you press "Other", you get a maximum of 3000 Dalasi (81,1 Euros) or 4000 Dalasi (108 Euro). You can draw multiple times. You often must draw multiple times.
Sometimes I need Dalasis, but have no convenient access to a functioning ATM that's not suspect of card-eating. Fortunately, small money-changing offices are everywhere. The Euro cash in my safety belt was meant for ATM-less countries like Guinea-Bissau, but I use it in Gambia out of convenience.
The money-changers publicly post one rate and give three percent more only if you ask for it. Some even don't post any rate, so that you are forced to ask – and might get entangled in the usual painful interviews about name, country, hotel, wellbeing and Gambia impression, until you finally can't get out anymore. If you change 300 Euro cash to pay hotel and rental car, you get 111 bills of 100 Dalasi and make a mental note to bring a money-counting machine and a trolley next time.
At one point, the best rate for Euro-cash is 37,8 Dalasi, available at only one money-changer for a short time, while 37,0 is default in the most competitive area of moneychangers. Per ATM I get only around 36,1 (perhaps because I have a credit card without separate international fees). On 23rd of January 2011, the cash rate climbs up until 38,8 dalasi per Euro.
I walk around several moneychangers on Senegambia Road and compare their Dalasi-rates against the Euro and the Senegalese CFA. I arrive at the third changer and show him my notes to see if he can compete. He struggles hard and finally, in the mix of Euro and CFA, I see that I will get slightly more Gambian Dalasi than elsewhere.
"I will always give you the best rate", he boasts. "Next time you come straight to me, no need to visit all the other money changers!"
I look at him: "You're a Muslim?"
"Muslims can have four wives?"
"So can I have four money changers?"
1-0 for the tourist.
I sense a more positive vibe in Gambia, compared to Senegal…