Jon Does Gambia: Day 1 "The Mark Arrives"
So we made it! A bunch of people living in Sweden had planned a trip to the small coastal African country of The Gambia. I was so psyched for this. This is my first trip to The Motherland. I had been beating myself up for years for not going to Africa while I was stationed in Turkey. You could take trips to the continent via the base for pretty reasonable prices. I never took advantage. Weird since going on one of those base trips led me to meet Swedie. But I missed out. I had come to terms with the fact that I’d never go.
Then I did a My Heritage DNA test which (correctly or incorrectly) concluded that my roots are in Nigeria. While waiting for the results, I privately hoped that I would be from Gambia or Ghana. I have friends from those places and I would love to call them my distant cousins. However, my dream didn’t come true. My roots were in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Those friends will have to remain just friends.
I had heard about Gambia, though. The people were said to be friendly. I was going to be looked at as the same as a white person. What? Am I never home?
- You’re white in Africa, man.
It stings a bit. And they’re right. I suddenly had a taste for mayonnaise when the plane landed! Just kidding, but seriously, arriving here made me realise how “white” I am. I guess colonial may be the better word.
I knew I would be a mark. In an impoverished country with a tourist market, I can well expect and understand that people will look at me as today’s meal ticket. This guy must have expendable income. They may want a piece. I was ready to learn the game and then play it. But I didn’t want to be anybody’s sucker. Getting “hustled” isn’t fun.
After a relatively painless flight (Bash is a wild maniac, but what can you do?), we landed in the warmth of The Gambia. Transport to and through customs was quick and painless. I wish I could say the same for baggage claim. Only one generator-operated belt was working and we were on an A330. There had to be 300 people waiting by that little ass belt. Suddenly the Swedes weren’t so interested in single file lines! Imagine that.
I fought through the crowds and got all 58 (it was really 4 and a stroller) bags we packed for this one-week trip. While waiting for the last bag, a guy had begun talking to me. He was friendly. Asking where I’m from and about my family. Ah, a nice local man. I had a small spat with Swedie mid-conversation with my new friend so I didn’t feel like dealing with his hustle. I figured he picked up that I was bothered, so he walked away. I got the last bag and then he returned. Well-whaddaya-know! He offered to help me bring my bags to where I was going. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know what customary to tip. I had a 20kr bill, a 50kr bill and a bunch of 500kr bills that was for the trip. Homie was gonna have to get a 20. He started over-helping (unsolicited). Geez, I just got here.
He came back and told me that I was at bus 6. The funny thing was, everyone who he or I talked to saw that I was in the middle of a hustle. I was that deer that had been shot that was now running around bleeding out while the hunter waited me out. Everybody knew it but I didn’t want to admit it. I saw Amat and he had that look like:
- Damn son, they got you, huh?
Of course this is all Swedie’s fault. I had come to terms with the fact that this dude was gonna get money from me. It would be 20kr. Oh, and by the way, another guy saw me looking for a place to throw away the plastic bag that was around the stroller. I didn’t want to litter in the airport. Of course the airport didn’t have a trash can anywhere near me.
- You need the trash?
- I take it.
Now I had two guys following me around. One had taken over pushing my bags in the cart while the other was carrying a large wad of plastic. Was I going to have to pay both of these guys? The look in Amat’s face said yes. I couldn’t give the dude with the plastic a 50kr bill. That’s crazy. Is pushing the cart worth 50kr? What the fuck, man. I just got here. I don’t know the rules! I wanted to go home. And NOBODY was telling me shit. They just all looked at me with stupid looks on their faces like I’m supposed to figure it out. They weren’t even making small talk with me. I was on a proverbial mark island.
I decided that the one guy who had hustled me from the belt should get some cash so I can think a little bit. I’ll give him the 20kr bill and he’ll leave me alone. I reached in my bag and felt my bills. I once commented long ago in a post about money how the Swedish bills are different sizes and how that’s kinda weird to me. Well today I was glad as hell about this. The 20kr bill is the smallest bill and I felt that in my bag without taking out the 50s or 500s. I didn’t want dude seeing my money. I gave him “all I got”.
- Come on, man. At least a 50. You don’t have 50 kronor?
Damn! How dare he?
- Sorry man, that’s all the Swedish money I have.
Meanwhile I was at the exchange desk about to give the guy a few thousand kronor. This wasn’t a good look. Sandra slid my captor 20kr. He gave a disappointed look and moved on with his 40kr to the next sucker.
We still had a plastic carrier to take care of. What do I do now? I didn’t know what the conversion rate was or what was reasonable in the local cash. I didn’t want to insult the guy nor did I want to give so much that I’m back at an exchange place in two days. This cash needed to last all week. I looked at the exchange guy for help. He had that same stupid look on his face that everyone else had. I tried to act like I had it all under control.
- Nice shirt, man!
- Thank you
He kind of shrugged at me. I gave him my Swedish 500s and the plastic holder leaned in on our transaction. I know they’re trying to make their money but this was over the line. The guy in the nice shirt, Sandra, me AND the plastic carrier counted out all of my vacation money. I was now angry. He could have given me space. Fuck this. I was now out. No more playing the game. I’ll take care of my bags and cart and I’ll find my own bus. What I didn’t notice was the guy at the desk wrapping one of my 100 (20kr/$2.35) bills around the wad of money right before he put my stash in a brown paper bag like the drug deal was successful. It was his suggested tip.
I walked out and my new financial consultant followed me. I was so annoyed that I told him I’d take the plastic. He offered to take my cart and I said I got it. I was now stern (rude) in my voice and uninterested in being nice or playing the game. I had been hustled and that was okay but leaning in and counting my money was too much. He backed off and I walked to bus 6. It was very easy to find right outside in the parking lot. It’s almost like I didn’t need help at all!
The bus driver tried to help me. I was rude to him.
- Naw man, I got it!
I didn’t have it. I was throwing our bags in the bottom of the bus like a damn idiot. The guy shrugged and backed off. I caught his “oh, they got you too, huh?” look. Swedie told me the guy is probably the bus driver and he’s not trying to hustle you. I tried to convey in my glance to her that this was all her fault. I don’t know if she picked up on that. Or if she agrees with me. I then let the bus driver load the rest of our things properly and sheepishly walked onto the bus. Everyone looked at me like I was the first person ever to be hustled. Like it was my fault or something. I sat at the back of the bus on the empty row. I needed to fart anyway. I explained that I get that it’s a game but I didn’t know the rules. I thought I was gonna have a buffer of some sort. Maybe I’d get to observe. It wasn’t like that. I was one of many marks that day. It just sucks that I KNEW what was going to happen and it still happened. That helpless feeling is the worst. I take that back. Everyone silently looking at you as the sucker that you know you are is even worse. My first hour in The Gambia was a doozie.
In other news, our hotel was very nice. Driving to it made me feel as white as I’ve ever felt in my life. I was told that while I’m here I’d be considered a white man. To me that was ridiculous. That bus ride made it seem more feasible. The white thoughts started flooding into my head:
- Oh my, the town seems so poor
- I wonder if I could help these people
- Well that house looks nice, so it is possible
All this while riding on a bus through the town to a hotel resort. Yeah, I can see why they’d call me a white guy. I’ve been a part of a struggle, but not this struggle. I understand this struggle as much as the white people that come to this resort.
We arrived and were warmly greeted. I tipped the bus driver out of sheer embarrassment. Our room was nice. The mosquito net around the bed reminded me that we were NOT at home. It also reminded me to remember to take my malaria pills each morning. Check! The palm trees reminded me of home, as did the beach that was visible from the balcony. The pool was close as well! This was going to be a fun week! We got settled in and had drinks and dinner with friends. I immediately wished we had done two weeks instead of one. I just knew this was going to be fun. Starting out as a mark wasn’t so bad after all.
Then bedtime came. We were all tired. I had heard about a drum performance at the restaurant. That was right outside of our room. The drummers/dancers were setting up just as we were going in. I guess we’d miss this one. Then I had to pay for our meal. I brought Alli with me because teamwork makes the dreamwork. Leaving Sandra outnumbered at bedtime is just irresponsible. Attitudes are at an all-time high then. The drummers began playing as we headed back to the room. Alli was intrigued. She seemed too tired to appreciate it, but I thought this was perfect for Bash.
I got Bash dressed and brought him back out to watch the drummers. He loved it. They played beautiful music. Then dancers came out! Bash loved it even more. They were getting it. I was excited to get to share this moment with Bash. I almost pulled my phone out to take some video, but when I looked around I noticed all the white people in my vicinity had their phones trained on the performers. It felt a little invasive. I didn’t want to be THAT white. So I fought the urge and just watched it with Bash. One woman danced exactly like my friend Gary does. I wanted to film it just to show it to Gary, but I fought the urge. I enjoyed some more. Then I saw a woman going around with a tip basket. Now THIS was worth some money. I ran back to the room and grabbed some money. I ran back out and gave the money to Bash so that he could tip. He did.
Bash was feeling the beats. It was literally moving him to do some dance moves. If that MyHeritage DNA test had said I was Gambian, I would have completely understood my and Bash’s connection to this beautiful music. Bash eventually got on stage and danced with the performers. He tried his best to do the steps that they were gracefully doing. I was moved almost to tears. It was time to take out the camera. I’ll be white for this moment to be captured. And while the camera’s out, may as well get that woman dancing like Gary. He would love this. The night ended on a beautiful note.
This was only the first day of the trip. I had been hustled and charmed on this day. What more does The Gambia have in store for me? Until next time…