I’d been warned about the Banjul/Barra ferry – the ferry across the River Gambia and usual entry point for travellers to Senegal. In fact I’d heard so much about it I was half expecting to walk into something akin to Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. I’d asked people if they’d been on the ferry, and the general response involved a gradual slackening of the jaw and a distant hollow look, before a response along the lines of ‘ah yes, the Barra ferry. Good luck with that.’ I approached with a mixture of tense nervous excitement, and total bloody fear…
Well, I wont say I was disappointed exactly, but the whole thing ran rather smoothly, and I actually found the experience quite calming in its own way. We arrived with the sun around 7.30 – just as a the ferry from Barra came into port. I was with a driver and an older English couple and we’d already found ourselves a huge trolley and loaded our bags onto it, and as we stood in the half-light the gates opened and the ferry’s cargo poured out in front of us. It was a steady stream of abundance – vehicular and human: people carrying wares for market, some with great lurid pillows of material on their heads, others with who-knows-what in rusting wheelbarrows; there were mothers with babies tied to their backs in sarongs, groups of school children in their bright white shirts and head scarves. An open-sided lorry rolled past us with a hammock strung at one end containing a dozing form, an ancient truck, more holes than body, a car with blacked-out windows containing some dignitary or other… As the stream thinned, we started to pick our way onto the ferry, now part of another pulsing ragged company. We climbed up ferric stairs to the upper decks to where narrow seats lined the boat’s alarmingly thing outer walls. Behind us, vehicles had started to board, cramming into the available space and as we swayed on the light swell, it was impossible to tell if the sounds of creaking metal were from the lorries ranged beneath us or the ferry itself. We awaited launch.
Not more than 5 minutes into the short journey and I look down to see someone in the fairly intimate act of adding what looks like honey to the end of one of my right trainer. I have no idea how he got there, or indeed what on earth he’s up to. I remove my foot exclaiming ‘oi!’ at him and what is now three crouching mates. ‘S’ok, s’ok!’ he says and draws my foot back gingerly. He draws my attention to the (very) mildly flapping front part of trainer and tells me he has ‘the very best glue in the country’ for the job; and because, like so many Gambian scamsters, he’s made the situation seem like a fait accompli, and one my shockingly stiff and inbuilt sense of politeness simply can’t cope with ending, I let him carry on. He takes another globule of honey on a ragged dishcloth and applies it gently to the shoe, then reaches into his bag (it’s barely a bag to be honest – like the truck we’d seen earlier, more hole than substance) for a needle and thread. I’m, by now, wincing with frustration at my inability to extricate myself from this situation, but resigned to the fact that it’ll be over shortly enough. I barely register a whimper when he starts on the other shoe and one of his mates starts washing my now fixed trainer. I pay up, of course, confusedly humiliated (for me, for him, for the whole stupid situation), but safe in the knowledge that with my ultra-fixed trainers, I could probably walk on that water down there if I wanted.
The rest of the crossing passed serenely. I stood near the bridge and let the sun warm me; I spoke briefly with a male nurse who was about to walk three hours upriver to the hospital at Farafenni; I watched a girl emerge from the skylight in a white bus taking photographs of the approaching shore. There is a zone that I only seem to access on ferry journeys, somewhere between reverie and a kind of watchful mental paralysis. It’s a state I wish I could access elsewhere as it has a peculiar magic about it – alive with possibility and poignancy. As we docked at Barra though, the moment was broken by the sudden upsurge in activity and volume. A great tinny roar over the loudspeaker informed us it was time to depart and as I looked down over the narrowing front of the boat I spotted our bags, guarded by our impossibly tall Senegalese driver. He flashed a wide, wide smile and beckoned us down the steps. We joined the throng and walked along the narrow corridor past the battered vehicles waiting to board. The Gambia/Senegal border was next.