Gambling in The Gambia

There’s nothing like traveling in The Gambia, nothing.  The geli geli is a mode of transportation from one inaccessible bush village to another.  The vehicles are generally some sort of stick shift Mercedes curbside classic, gutted camper built in the early eighties.  My Peace Corps site mate likes to call them apocalypse vehicles.  And that is just what they are, truly. There is no explanation how these things are still running, jimmy rigged down to the steering wheel as they are.  Ingenious? No. Creative? Absolutely. Safe? Well….


I hefted my bag over the seat and crawled over after it.  The inside looked like the geli had ploughed into the fifty cent shelf of a party store. Sparkling tassels, tissue paper cutouts, Mexican paper bells, shiny plastic stars, cheesy pictures of the prophet next to Manchester United teams from the 70’s so photo shopped they verged on psychedelic. The whole ceiling was decked out in party decay.  Fake vinyl seats patch-worked into some Frankenstein seat with its soft foam guts busted open and haphazard welding overhaul skeleton poking out. Holey rusted floors smelling of petrol, African dust, and some sort of animal excrement?
            “What happened to the glass?” I asked pointing to indicate the windshield for lack of Mandinka motor vocabulary which I’m not sure even exists.
             ----‘Really?  A mango crashed into it? ----Oh, I did not mean to laugh, of course I know it’s serious. ----Yes, I’m very sorry a mango crashed into your geli. ---- No sorry, I am not going to pay to get it fixed. ----Yes indeed, it is a wonder you can see at all. ----America? Sure I can take you to America if you fit in my bag. ---You can? Well hop in? ---Yes, America is nice. ----Yes, Africa is not easy, deh.’

After sitting for nearly two hours in African sweat pouring heat waiting for the geli to fill up, maximum capacity (as stated on the side of the vehicle): 18 persons, actual passengers climbing in: 34 (not including children), the driver announces our departure with a dead turn of the ignition.  Who knew so many bodies could fit into one space for two and a half hours of rollercoaster, rock crawling, water filled ditch, roads.  Even if you never talk with them, you really get to know the person sitting next to, or on top of you.  Somehow sweating all over each other, amongst other body function exchanges, is an experience that binds you through the uncomfortable level of human endurance and suffrage. 
            Our driver started the geli up with gargling, wheezy gasps.  Five teenage boys pushed the vehicle from behind to get it going and as the geli jerked to life it jumped straight into third gear with a noise akin to the death rattle.  The boys sprinted after the geli grasping for a ladder that’s been welded to the back door, but four of six welds are detached and they whoop and holler with glee as it swings back and forth on them.  They are ‘apparentees’ and handle the passengers, money, and cargo thrown on top.  Their chief job is to swindle you if they can, and harass or hit on you as much as possible. No shame. Most of the time during the journey, they cling to the ladder outside of the vehicle or precariously perch on the roof ducking trees and eating flying bugs---Yeah! Protein.         

  ‘It’s a problem, no? Does transportation have to be this way? No. Then why is it like this if it’s so awful and everyone complains about it? We’ve always go this way, or donkey cart, but this much faster. This is dangerous! Yeah, I knows it, hold on tight, tight!’

            The geli traveling along at seventy kpm when it ought to be going fifty, was on the verge of shuddering to pieces with every bone jarring bump, creak and brake slam. In controlled race track like environments, or the Baja Races, it’s hard not to wonder how well these expert road navigating drivers would do.  Near tips and close call collisions with cow/goat/person are unavoidable.  Often, it’s hard not to think about all the terrible ways one can die, and do die in death traps like these.  Will the mass of bodies around you provide cushion or will they crush you?  Is that carbon monoxide I smell? NO! Don’t fall asleep! --- Sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you so hard, but you probably shouldn’t sleep.  I wonder how many years this is knocking off my life… oh man, was that a goat that just fell off the roof?

Sami Pachonki

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