Thursday, April 7, 2011

Welcome to The Gambia

Border crossings always make me edgy. You’re completely at the mercy of the officers manning the post and if they arbitrarily decide to make you wait for two hours, then wait you must. If they decide that there’s an ‘exit tax’ to be paid - not at all uncommon in these parts - then frequently you must pay it or face an endless wait for the return of your passport. Each different border crossing potentially brings with it new demands or challenges although having breezed through the Mauritanian border post - notorious for the intransigence of its officers and lazy attempts at procuring ’inducements’ - I was expecting entry to The Gambia to be similarly straightforward.

Exiting Senegal was easy and so I strode the 20 yards to the Gambian passport control post next door not anticipating any problems. I showed my passport, was asked the obligatory questions and allowed to be on my way. As I re-entered the hallway I noticed a guy emerging from a door behind me at the same time. “Hey man,” he said, “what’s up?” I mumbled a response but kept moving assuming he was trying to sell me some Gambian currency. Still he persisted; “Drugs police. I need to ask you a few questions.” I turned and had my first proper look at him and there before me was a dead ringer for Whittaker dressed as Chuck D - LA Lakers' shirt, baggy jeans, Nike trainers and a New York Yankees' baseball hat on his head. I kept going as, dressed like that, I assumed he was taking the piss for someone’s amusement. He advanced and grabbed my arm and showed me his card which I barely looked at as I still couldn’t take the guy seriously. “I don’t want to see your fucking card,” I said as I pulled away and headed for the sept-place taxis which would take me Barra and the ferry to Banjul. ‘No way he’s a cop,‘ I thought. Wrong.

As I discuss how much it’s going to cost me to get to Barra, I get tapped on the shoulder by an officer in uniform; “This officer needs to have a few words with you,” he says pointing at Snoop. I look at him again and realise that I’ve, er, made a slight miscalculation. As he leads me back to passport control he’s seething and I can hear him say “I’m gonna fuck you over. No fucking respect. I’m gonna teach you a fucking lesson.” He brings me to the unlit detention room but mercifully leaves the door ajar. He’s practically screaming at this stage and still I’m having trouble swallowing that he’s a cop. “Call your fucking embassy,” he spits, “I’m detaining you.” I try to tell him that as he wasn’t wearing a uniform I had no idea that he was a cop. He’s not buying it, telling me that he showed me his card. “I’m gonna fuck you up,” he keeps repeating. Enter Good Cop. For every Bad Cop there has to be a Good One, right? This one enters - not wearing a uniform either but definitely not looking like Snoop and is told the gory details. “Oh,” he exclaims upon hearing the expletive, like some fucking shocked Victorian parent “why did you use that word?” Again I explain that it’s all a misunderstanding and that I have apologised but Chuck D isn’t having any of my apology. In fact I think at one stage that he’s actually going to cry, but though the tears don’t run the tantrum continues. I have to empty my two packs item by item - damn it my bag needed to be repacked anyway! - just to prove that I’m not carrying any narcotics. At one stage it occurs to me that maybe they’ve planted something on me - yeah, complete paranoia but it feels bizarre that I’m even in this detention room because I’ve hurt someone’s feelings - but the investigation ends with the removal of the last item of clothing from my bag. Once I’ve repacked I await the inevitable lecture or at least a claim for some ‘compensation’ to soothe away the pain I’ve so clearly caused the traumatised officer but that’s it. I put on my packs, leave the detention room without a word and enter The Gambia.

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