My Red Hot Pants in Gambia


It was already odd that I was on water skis pulled behind a motorboat driven by a stranger named Ali. However, the actual ridiculousness of my situation was due in large part to my bottom half clad in sparkling red spandex pants. This is definitely not what I had in mind when I pictured The Gambian River but I'll take it!

I have only one explanation for my choice in attire: On the 4th of July, birthday of the great nation I call home, Peace Corps volunteers and ex-pats alike begin to realize that wieners on the grill, iced lemonade out on the porch, and the fireworks our little brothers shoot at us are part of an American tradition that actually makes us a tad nostalgic. Dare I say, patriotic even?

GambiaTherefore, as the motorboat looped around for one last spin, I pumped my fist to the rhythm of "USA!" and grinned at the double-decker wooden fishing vessel that had been fashioned into a party boat. I shifted my weight out of the wake and watched Peace Corps volunteers donning red, white, and blue dance and cheer, while the staff bailed out the first deck of the boat with buckets, amused at the antics of these somewhat strange American people. Then I wiped out.

I found it ironic to be celebrating American Independence Day in a country colonized by the very same people. I guess that's why England’s motto was "The sun never sets on the British Empire." As the story goes, the British sailed up the river and took the land as far as their canon could shoot. Thanks to those rascally Brits, Gambia juts right into the heart of Senegal making transportation from north to south fairly difficult. While the boundary obstacles often make me sigh, I couldn't help but admire its beauty when I had actually crossed the border into the smallest country in West Africa.

Our boat sailed peacefully down the river, with only the laughter and cannonballing volunteers to disturb the uninhabited river. Mangroves guarded our passage along both banks like water nymphs, their roots poking up out of the water like spikes. Their waxy leaves caught and reflected the light from the water with every splash off the boat. There were no other boats and no other people, except for the motor boat that pulled up next to us and took me on my wild ride down the river later that day. Before my shiny red backside got dragged out of the water, the only other river companions I was worried about were the crocodiles and hippos notorious for patrolling the Gambian river.

One of my favorite things about The Gambia (besides the comfort of my native English language) is when I got tired of the river, there was also the ocean!

After a long day on the river, the Leyboto Hotel in Banjul proved the perfect place to kick back on a Peace Corps budget. Tiki hut rooms are scattered a mere 20 feet from the beach and are interspersed with palm trees, exotic flowering bushes, and hemp hammocks strung from totem poles. Guests pay 600 dalasi and up for a room depending on your need for air conditioning and mini bars (30 dalasi equals about one dollar). Even more convenient is the fact that the owner doesn't care how many people you pack into one room. Every day I went out on the road and around the corner to The Baker's Dozen, a little pastry shop offering the typical English meat pastries and pineapple upside down cakes. I also became addicted to their café lattes, a drink I can't usually get back home in Senegal.

That night, with waves crashing and the stars flung out across the blanket of the sky, I helped make a bonfire on the beach out of drift wood and dried palm leaves. I fell asleep next to the fire with the salt wind in my hair and sand on my cheek, the last embers burning behind my closed eyes until they became a part of my dreams.

Whitney Jenkins, raised a country girl on her family's cattle ranch in Nebraska, has always had a taste for adventure. After graduating from Creighton University with a degree in creative writing, she joined the Peace Corps. Now she lives in Senegal and works with local farmers propagating fruit tree orchards as a way to make her local community more sustainable. Whitney's talents include singing with her mouth closed, disturbingly accurate impersonations of Jay Leno, and finding the magic in every place she goes.

My Red Hot Pants in Gambia