Saturday, March 12, 2011

A "Homegoing" - Part 4a: Being there...

We arrived at Banjul International Airport on time (6:40 p.m. GST), and as I stepped off the plane into that hot darkness, apprehension and anticipation skipped off, hand-in-hand, right behind me.  Though not sure exactly into what I was headed - I certainly could not wait to find out.
As we waited on the runway for a bus to the main terminal, I was bathed in sweat due to the heat (and a sudden hot flash).  From the time I got a seat, to the time I got off at the terminal, the whole "only-wearing-deodorant-in the West" theory had pretty much become moot because - layered scents and Mitchum notwithstanding, I was as nose-stinging as everybody else by then!

Getting in the non-Gambian line, I struck up a conversation with a young blond girl walking next to me in the breezeway to passport control.  She'd been in-country for awhile working for an NGO and had just returned from a weekend in Europe (now armed with a more concrete knowledge of its geographical proximity to Africa, a white woman jetting off to Europe for a weekend didn't garner as much as a raised eyebrow from me - though it did give me some much-needed perspective down the road).

Remembering something I'd read about an airport fee, I asked if she knew anything about it.  She said they'd just instituted a new exit fee, but to her knowledge, there was no entry fee. And upon reaching the passport control desk, there wasn't one.  I got my entry stamp and asked whereto next.  With a flourish and a huge smile (the country is marketed as the "Smiling Coast"), I was directed to the luggage carousel.

It was wall-to-wall people, standing damned near shoulder-to-shoulder, in heat so thick - I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West when she got that water thrown on her ass.  And don't act like y'all don't remember that whole - "I'm melting!" - thing!  After awhile, the luggage carousel started to spit out its burden, and what felt like pure bedlam ensued.

There were passengers reaching over, under and around one another trying to retrieve bags; there was a swarm of local men everywhere, all shouting at once, asking if we needed help with bags or taxis; and then, there was the heat - times two.  Between constant, "No, thank yous," and anxiously searching the crowd of predominately Black faces for Gerald's, I started hot flashin' - times two, with sweat dripping down my face like I'd been rained on. 

After being nearly crushed amid the wave of passengers trying to retrieve bags and the locals trying to help them, and then wrestling the heavy, wheeled garment bag and its smaller, upright sister from the carousel (all while trying to hold onto the wheeled carry-on with the laptop in it!), I wish I'd said "Yes!  Thank you!" 

A little guy, obviously feeling sorry for me after watching my comedy of errors unfold, suddenly appeared, rolling cart at the ready saying, "Madame, would you not like some help?"  Drenched and overwhelmed I gave in (who could resist the "Madame?").  We headed to the baggage security line where they scan the luggage before entry to the main airport complex.

Once through, and with the little guy ready and willing to take the bags outside and find a taxi, I spotted Gerald - smiling and waving frantically.  I could hear him excitedly yelling, "Deborah!  Deborah!  I'm here!  I'm here!"   I was never so happy to see a familiar face!

As he made his way toward me, I told my dedicated helper, "Thank you so much, my friend's just over there, coming to meet me."  I gave him $5 for his good lookin' out  and when he thanked me so profusely, I was taken aback. I later found out from Gerald, that my $5 had been an extravagance.  The usual tip was $1.50 - $2.00 US.

That was to be the first of many lessons affirming the connections between people with very little and doing more with less in this place, and the way I'd been raised in South Carolina.  In that moment, being Black and American - a living, breathing embodiment of that "distance, deliberately created" to which Baldwin referred - felt at once, like a sucking chest wound, surrounded by warm fuzzies.  At least, with every U.S. dollar equivalent to 25 Dalasi in local currency at the time, I'd been able to help him HAVE a little more, but DO less - for a change.

After sweaty hugs and two-cheek kisses, Gerald introduced me to John, his sidekick and electrician from Belgium, who'd married a Senegalese woman and settled in The Gambia 10 years ago.  It was his car into which we piled and headed to the hotel I'd booked in Banjul.  It was non-stop catchin'-up for Gerald and me.  We'd not seen each other since my family moved from Florida to Maryland almost eight years ago.

I couldn't see much of the capital city as we entered because it was dark, and street lights were few and far between.  I could make out some single-family home neighborhoods, government buildings and paved roads though.  Once we reached the LAICO Atlantic, Banjul (owned by the Libyan Arab African Investment Company headquartered in Tunis), they struggled with the luggage, while I went to check-in. 

Expecting my late arrival, my key and "Hotel Passport" card were ready at the front-desk.  The back of the card reads:  "This card is your passport in the Hotel.  It will be requested by the reception staff when collecting your key, by bar or restaurant staff when charging to your room and by the cashier for meals included in the price of your stay. Please therefore retain this card at all times until surrendering it to the cashier on departure."

I think, it's to make sure only "paying" guests are availing themselves of the "amenities" - but that's just me.

He led us to my room, showed me how to work the lights with the key card and the guys followed him back to the lobby, saying they'd meet me by the pool for a drink.  I said, "Just what the doctor ordered!  Let me wash my damned face - the rest can wait!"

There weren't a lot of people hanging out, so I found them quickly.  The night was warm with a light breeze - and it was beautiful sitting out there!  Gerald and I both had a Guinness.  I rarely drink beer, but this one was downright refreshing given the day I'd had!  Since he was driving, John decided on a locally bottled, Fanta Orange soda.  Amid fits of raucous laughter, we talked for about an hour - them, excitedly bringing me up to date on the center's progress (these fellas had been busy!), and me, recounting what I'd learned so far about international travel, while intermittently practicing my French on Jon - and failing miserably!

I told Gerald I wanted to see just what all they'd been doing and rising to leave, he suggested, "You better get plenty of rest then!  I've arranged for you, a personal tour guide to be with you during the day."  Surprised and a little wary, I asked, "And where will you be?!" Reading my mind, he said laughing, "Oh Deborah, but do not worry - you will love her!

He explained he and John would most likely be at the center working during the day and he just wanted to make sure I'd be able to see as much of the country and its culture that I could.  "But you are also more than welcome to come and work too if you like!" he said laughing.  I got the two-cheek kiss goodbye from both of them and Gerald said, poking John in the side - "We will not come for her until around noon tomorrow because she is NOT a morning person!" 

Laughing (because anyone who knows me well - would cosign that), I walked them through the lobby to the car.  Gerald asked had I changed any money yet and I said no.  He reached in his pocket and gave me 1000 Dalasi saying, "Some pocket money, in case you need to get anything before we come back for you tomorrow.  We'll settle up once you change some money."  Before they pulled away, I leaned in the window and asked him if he'd made those "arrangements" yet.  Patting my hand, he said,  "It will be no problem Deborah, don't worry!!  Tomorrow, I will do it tomorrow."  Shaking my head, I said good night and went inside.

I got back to the room  and realized I was tired, but not sleepy.  I took a Guinness from the fridge, went on the terrace and smoked a cigarette (it was advertised online as "non-smoking" - for the most part, I'm a rule follower).  Sitting there in the shadows, that full feeling began to creep up into my chest as I said aloud to myself, "Welcome home sistah."  I finished my beer, had another cigarette and went in to take a shower.

The husband had warned the shower would be compact - built only to wet yourself down, lather yourself up and rinse yourself off.  He was right.  It felt a little cramped (and so not suited for languishing!).  Taking the shower head down to ensure a thorough, whole-body rinse, I thought, "Damn good way to conserve water, 'cause I'm sure as hell ready to get out of this cubicle!"  I can't lie, I like to languish.

When I slid into my pajamas and got between the sheets, all clean, lotioned and "Butterfly Flower"-smellin', the body just said, "Aw-w-w yeah!!" - and promptly fell the hell out.  A loud knock on the door around 9 or 10 p.m. jolted me awake.  It was a young man on staff with an aerosol can, coming to spray the room for mosquitoes (not sure if mosquito nets were available upon request, never occurred to me to ask).  I waited in the hallway until he was done and then went back in, surveying the room to which I'd not really paid much attention upon my arrival.

Very clean (I already told y'all back in the Brussels bathroom!  Not Clean - pet peeve), with all the amenities one would expect or need:  two twin beds (cheaper), a safe, tucked away in the very spacious armoire, the obligatory, pay-as-you-go mini-bar/fridge, a television and a desk.  A screened, sliding glass door leads out to the small terrace facing the Bird Sanctuary behind the hotel. As stated on the back of the "Hotel Passport, breakfast and dinner are also included in the price of the stay.

Since I was up, I decided to send the husband and sons an email letting them know I was safe.  The laptop battery was about spent, so I figured I might as well plug it in and let it charge overnight.  I should have just gone back to bed because none of the outlets could accommodate the plug! 

I went to the front desk and the guy on duty smiled as I recounted how I'd searched high and low, but could not find a suitable outlet. He said, "But Madame, you would never have found one, you need an adapter to use your American electronics here!" 

Seeing as I was going to be in the country for awhile, I forked over the 150 Dalasi, took my adapter and went back to my room to send my emails.  I must've missed reading that in my haste to book - because there was no Wifi access in the room!  I called back to the front desk, only to be advised that Wifi was only available in the lobby areas!  I have to say, that was the only drawback about the hotel for me.

Since I was expecting those other "arrangements" to come through the next day, it wasn't that big of a deal, but in the interest of Gambian tourism, they might want to look into that set-up.  I decided to wait until morning and went back to my room, set my phone alarm for 8:00 a.m. (right in the middle of breakfast being served so as not to miss it!) and fell asleep watching the BBC channel.

I slept very well.  So well in fact, I got up at 7:15 a.m. - before the alarm went off!  Starving, I threw on some sweats and flip-flops and headed to the restaurant for breakfast - camera in-hand (for those of you who've done any late-night clubbin' - y'all know - things that look good in the dark, tend to look a whole lot different in the daylight!).  Set up in the inside dining room was a smorgasbord of British, American and Gambian staples - and you could get omelets made to order while you waited (which I did)!  Rather than eat inside, I decided to go back out to the poolside-table we'd shared the night before.

The pool, now abuzz with activity, slapped me in the face with that "geographical proximity to Europe perspective" that I mentioned earlier!  Aside from the staff, I was the only black face in the joint!

With music and water aerobics going full-tilt,  everybody was quite friendly.  I was just absolutely undone that I could be in Africa, with just as many white folk as I'd left back home!!  All I could think about was how ignorant I'd been all my life, AND -  how woefully inadequate our education system in America was, is, and continues to be for Black folk.  I had a cigarette and went back to my room to call Gerald.

I reached him on his cell, and he and John were at the center.  He couldn't believe I was up and about so early in the morning.  He said he and John would be by around noon with the young lady who'd become my constant companion during my stay.  I told him, since I'd not taken a shower yet - that was perfect!

After I'd showered and dressed, I decided to go out and investigate the digs.  There was really nothing a foreigner would lack if they chose to vacation there.  Time was still - sort of.  I felt like I'd been transported to peace and tranquility.  Living up to the moniker attached to the country, every staff person I met had a smile and a conversation for me.  Most were surprised when I told them I was from America.  One of the landscapers said, "We don't get many Black Americans here.  It's good to see you sistah!"  I was, at once, happy - and ashamed.

Noon came - no Gerald.  I called him on his cell to find out where they were - of course, he was at the center.  "We'll be there right away!"

I decided to wait by the pool.  On the way, I stopped at one of the hotel bars for a Guinness.  I was served by one of the cutest, most amiable, little chocolate girls who reminded me of myself (in much younger days!).  Her name was Bintou, "But everybody calls me Mama" she said, smiling.  She'd become a welcome face in the short time I was there.

I took my beer and went outside where a local vendor was set up.  His name was Ibrahim, and he was making some of the most beautiful sand paintings I'd never seen.  Here's a video of the process.  I apologize, I'm no computer wonk and I've yet to figure out how to re-size my videos - with crispness intact - for Blogger ("Tomorrow, I will do it tomorrow" as Gerald said!):

Yeah, no - it is not only in The Gambia that sand painting is done.  But Ibrahim is a businessman (and a capitalist!) just like any other businessman all over the world - marketing to the unsuspecting buyer is everything!  As I watched him, I realized, if I could draw as well as he does - I could sand paint too!  It's exactly how I made my Christmas stockings with our names on it - but with glitter, not sand.

As I said on the end of the clip, I had to go.  Gerald, John and my new friend were waiting in the lobby.

To be continued:  A "Homegoing" - Part 4b:  Links, lineage and the legacy of "Black Rice"

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