Gambia, on New York Times Best Seller Travel List

Guest post and photos by Jamie Rhein

When I recently clicked through the New York Times, “52 Places to Go in 2019″ list and saw The Gambia, I was surprised. The 28th destination on the list is where I once lived as a Peace Corps volunteer.

As a health education volunteer in the Peace Corps, I lived in one of the three rooms of the living quarters in an abandoned storefront building in N’Jowara, The Gambia, West Africa.  A young family of a husband, wife and two children lived in another room. There was a shared room between ours. The storefront stayed abandoned at the front. We lived in the back where a huge mango tree produced fruit for a couple glorious months.

Inside a one room abode of a Peace Corps volunteer.

N’Jowara did get a few tourists, mostly backpackers, who somehow ended up way off the beaten path at my door. Villagers steered them my way because I spoke English and was a westerner to whom they might relate. Visiting me meant they might enjoy three mile walk to another village to meet with a traditional birth attendant or perhaps attend a naming ceremony for a newborn. Or perhaps, I’d take them to the Friday clinic in my village where I helped give health talks to women who brought their babies for wellness checks.

It definitely meant getting water from a well, using a pit latrine, sleeping under a mosquito net, and taking a bucket bath in the wash area in my backyard.

Having visitors meant that we would probably have benachin also known as Jolof rice for dinner. That was upcountry village living. The coast near the capital city of Banjul was a totally different scene.

Even back then, The Gambia was a hot spot for European tourists, particularly Scandinavians who hightailed it out of winter darkened Denmark and Sweden for some fun in the sun. November through February are the best months to visit. These months are when temperatures and the humidity from the wet season have dropped. Also the economy hops.

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At a village clinic

Farmers have sold their peanuts, the number one cash crop, and Gambians during a good harvest have reason to celebrate.

Tourists find night clubs, white beaches, decent restaurants, crafts markets and taxis that make travel easy around the coastal region as a draw. Gambians who make a living off the tourist industry know English since English is the official language of business.

The Gambia was once a British colony so English is a by-product of that time.

Village store

Once in awhile, Peace Corps volunteers play tourist themselves. I played tourist a couple of times when I needed some R&R.

This meant staying at a fancy hotel in Banjul, the capital with one friend and staying at The Bungalow Beach,  beach resort once with another. When I bounced in glee on the bed of our room in the beach resort, marveling in the splendor of air-conditioning and running water in a gleaming bathroom, my friend remarked dryly, “I live this way.”

Although it’s been years since I lived in The Gambia or visited there, reading the New York Times article gives me reason to celebrate and think about another trip. When I lived there the only way to get across The Gambia River from the North Bank Division to the capital and the touristy areas was by  boat.

The options? A ferry that was loaded to the max with trucks, cars, motorcycles and people with a wide assortment of goods and farm animals or a large wooden water-taxi boat that tossed about in waves. When the ferry went depended upon the tide. When the small boats went depended upon the number of passengers. A bridge across the river is to open this month. Eureka!

Also there are direct flights to Banjul from Europe. When I last traveled to The Gambia, I flew from New York City to Paris then to Dakar, Senegal. From there it was a van style taxi  to Banjul. On the return flight I flew from Banjul to Dakar and onto Paris.

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If You Go:

Here are Five Must See Places. Nature, History, Shopping and the Beach included.

Abuko Nature Preserve – The first preserve to open in The Gambia. This 260 acre preserve highlights the flora and fauna of the Gambia with gazelles, crocodiles, monkeys and more than 300 bird species as part of the repertoire. I don’t know if monkeys still climb on your head, but this friendly guy climbed on mine.

Juffure – I never did make into Juffure, the village that’s the ancestral home of Alex Haley, author of Roots. Juffure is close to James Island which has the ruins of a slave station. I did go by Juffure on a boat that traveled up The Gambia River. The Lady Chilel wrecked after my Peace Corps days. Although the Lady Chilel is not an option for traveling up the river, there are companies that do make river trips.

Check out Jane’s Boats. The Lazy Day Cruise looks interesting and reminds me of trips I’ve taken in Vietnam and Thailand.

Albert’s Market, Banjul – Albert’s Market is the capital’s largest market where you’ll find everything from bright patterned fabric to batteries and cookware.  There’s a handicraft section as well.

The Beach – Near the town of Serrekunda, Kota Beach is one option for a leisurely day hanging out on a white sand beach with an endless view of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gambia National Museum – For an overview of Gambian history, head to this museum housed in an old colonial building.

Also, if you do go, keep an eye out for Peace Corps volunteers. Perhaps, you’ll be invited on a village visit. Bring chocolate and apples if you are.