One of the reasons why I decided to choose Barcelona as the city where I’d study my degree was, in large part, due it’s great position as an international hub. It has plenty of routes to many countries around the world from its international airport and I wanted to make a profit out of it.
I hadn’t set foot outside European soil ever since I traveled to Cambodia back in 2019. In recent years, my interest in the African continent had grown to a big extent and I had been considering different travel alternatives in Sub-saharian Africa.
Vueling is one of the biggest airlines with base in Barcelona-El Prat airport. It has routes to numerous destinations throughout Europe. However, within its offer, there are a few surprises. Vueling operates two flights a week to Dakar (Senegal) and Banjul (Gambia). In fact, it is the only airline that flies from the European continent to the Gambia as of 2021. This flight is also the longest the company can offer, and that’s exactly the one we are taking today.
My initial idea was to fly to The Gambia and return from Senegal. That’s the plan I initially offered to my good friend and partner in this trip, Matías. He thought the plan was cool and hopped in, just unlike anybody else, which after a few days of thinking about it politely rejected the offer. Nevertheless, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Senegal was closed to Spanish citizens, leaving us with The Gambia as our only option. We planned our trip meticulously for months and now was time to go. Our first time in Sub-saharian Africa is just a 5h and 15min flight away.
The route is not exempt from controversy. A recent article by the Spanish media outlet “El País”, pictured the VY7574 flight as a successful way of money laundering for various mafias. It didn’t look like it, at least today. After arguing with the lady in charge of the check-in process we were ready to go. The plane wasn’t too crowded. A friendly Gambian approaches us and asks us if it is our first time in the country. He seems happy and pictures his country as a beautiful place with friendly people and almost no crime. However, he warns us of one thing: “since it is rainy season, you’ll have to watch out for the mosquitoes”. This doesn’t alarm us too much since we are taking antimalarics. After takeoff, the captain announces the temperature in Banjul: 98% humidity, it’s going to be tough.
While flying over the Sahara desert, our expectations of seeing the capital city of the unrecognized “Western Sahara” increases. We run from window to window trying to spot Layounne. It turns out we are flying over it. In the middle of the desert, we spot what it looks like a huge fence, cutting in half. Could it be the border between Morocco and Western Sahara? The question would hunt us down for the rest of the flight. I’ve always been fascinated about the Sahara desert. Its vastness, its stories, its legend. From the sky it looks like a sea of sand, which I think it’s an accurate description.
We land on time — 14:40. As we leave the plane, the heat automatically kicks in. A bus takes us to the terminal and we queue up while an airport worker hands us a paper which we would have to fill and deliver to the agents when going through customs. As we wait, we engage in different conversations with an Italian and Spanish woman and we share and discuss some aspects of our trip. We shortly arrive to the COVID-19 rapid testing area. The tests are performed quickly and efficiently and after some more minutes waiting we get out passports stamped — we are officially in The Gambia.
We try to make our way through the airport while we search for a place to buy a mobile data sim-card. We decide to choose Africell: 5GB for 15€. Seems fair. Our next challenge is to find a taxi to our hotel without getting ripped off. As we leave the airport, many taxi drivers approach us. The first offer we get is 20€. Before leaving, we had done some research in order to avoid scams — turns out a fair price is no more than 8€. We try negotiating and another taxi driver appears and takes us to a board with the “official fares”. Our lodge was located in Senegambia, which according to the board was 16€. We decide not to keep arguing and accept the deal. The guy tells a taxi in a nearby street to come and tells us we must give him 50 cents for being a “nice help”. We accept and get in the taxi. The car didn’t have any seatbelts. As the driver takes us to our hotel, we get a first look at how the country really looks like. My first impressions are something similar to what all the indicators made me think — The Gambia is highly underdeveloped and lacks good infrastructure.
The taxi makes his way through a caos of cars and pedestrians. Matías accidentally takes a photo of a car with military guards which shout at him. “Police!, police!”, says our driver, now angry. It takes a while to find the Mandinka Lodge — its location on Google Maps is wrong and almost nobody knew where it was. When we arrive, the taxi driver tries to explain us that this is not Senegambia anymore and that he will charge us 20€. We are already suffering from the extreme weather and we don’t want to continue arguing so we take the offer.
The place we are staying is pretty decent — it has running water, a mosquito net and a fan. Pretty much all we need. There is also a little pool and a small area to hang around. The structure of our room recreates a “hut” and has a circular design. After leaving our staff there, we head to the village. We walk a long road to a place nearby the beach where we could get our money exchanged to dalasi, Gambia’s own currency. We exchange 100€ and the worker gives us 5,900 GMD in bills no bigger than 100. They don’t even fit in my wallet. We automatically feel like walking money. We don’t have anything in particular to do so we head to Senegambia’s Craft Market.
As we come in, numerous vendors try to drag us to their shops. We weren’t interested in buying anything but these people really know how to convince one. We end up buying two overpriced traditional shirts and Matías gave some money to a woman who convinced him to play a “traditional” Gambian game with him. We leave the market and try to find our way to the beach. We end up in a wealthy zone which has numerous hotels, bars and a considerable amount of police. We can’t find the way to the beach from there and the sun was already setting so we decide to call it a day and go find a place to have dinner. As there aren’t any traditional Gambian food places we decide to go to a pizzeria. There were a few male Europeans sitting and flirting with young Gambian girls which reminded me of the huge sex tourism industry this country suffers. The pizza was huge and pretty tasty. When we arrive back to our lodge we have a swim in the pool. Our first day in Gambia is over, and what a day.