My sixth visit to The Gambia during the Covid era

I have been to The Gambia 5 times so far. After I first set foot on African soil in December 2015, I felt in love with this nice little country and it soon became literally my second home. I went back there every six months, but life is unpredictable (and it's good that it is), and it interrupted my beloved Gambia's visits for two years.

How did the preparations differ from previous journeys?

I had the opportunity to travel again last winter (2019/2020), but the “Corona” just happened. The first wave, the second wave, the restrictions, the intimidation, the closure, the restriction of movement, the limits of contact, etc., also put my (otherwise usually very varied and diverse) life upside down. Travelling to The Gambia has suddenly become unreachable and virtually impossible. Planes no longer flew to this part of the world. In Europe, we were limited to four home walls and a job, but only if work was not possible remotely.

I waited and waited, but after the second one, the third wave came, and it was getting too much for me. And one day, a shift happened. Finally, everything was clear to me. The decision was immediate: “I will no longer wait for the situation to be ideal. I’m going”. So, I bought a plane ticket online, booked a PCR test, arranged work with my colleagues, and set off.

How did the journey go - what were the specials?

Photo Credit: Mojka Budihna

I did the testing two days before I left. Then the difficult hours began. Since I did not know if the test will be negative, I was a bit nervous. I prepared certain things in advance for travel, and for some, I waited until the last minute. When I finally received a negative result at eleven on Friday, a furious departure began.

I did the last urgent chores in the office, organised travel insurance, arranged someone to look after the apartment and garden, and somehow packed the essentials. I didn’t bother too much with packing, as this wasn’t my first trip to this destination, and I knew I didn’t need two full suitcases of clothes due to constant temperatures between 28 and 32 degrees during the day. I confirmed the organised transport to the airport and slept for a couple of hours until the morning. Since I live in Italy, I first went to the Slovenian side. On Saturday at seven o’clock, a van picked me up at the Vrtojba International Crossing and the journey started. I remember saying to myself that at the time when I return, the border will be open. This happened to be true when I returned.

It was unusual at the airport. I’m used to the liveliness, the crowds, the bars full of passengers waiting for their flights…This time it was peaceful, at times very frighteningly silent… At a safe distance, all equipped with masks and disinfectants, we were quietly waiting for our turn. Of course, we were repeatedly asked to show a negative Covid test.

The plane from Venice to Brussels was half empty. The flight to Brussels was calm, we sat at most two in each row, in the sense that there was at least one empty seat in between. The stewardesses calmly reminded us that we should always have masks on our faces, well, except when we were drinking or eating. The situation in Brussels was similar. However, when we boarded the new flight, the lady who let us into the boarding area was a bit unhappy, as the impatient passengers rushed to her and wanted to move on as soon as possible. That was the moment when I sensed that the story with “Covid behaviour” and social distance in The Gambia would be different.

Photo Credit: Mojka Budihna

On the flight to The Gambia, we had one “little” inconvenience. The plane, unfortunately, had an issue, and we had to make an emergency landing in Senegal. However, this turned out to be another small gift from space, as we spent two days in a beautiful hotel on the Dakar coast, all at the airline’s expense.

Photo Credit: Mojka Budihna

On Monday night, we landed in Banjul at one at night.

When I got off the plane, I saw an older woman next to me, who could barely move, and stubbornly refused to accept help from anyone, especially flight attendants. I approached her and simply told her that if she accepted the help, it would be easier for everyone, including us. Somehow she surrendered to fate and accepted the offered hand. From then on, everything went expeditiously.
The airport staff were very pleased that I could convince her to go through the procedures together. Therefore we had priority treatment. So, I thank her at this point that it also made my process through customs procedures faster. We all had to do a quick Covid test at the airport. I was most afraid of that because I have a terrible phobia about someone rubbing my nose, but there were no problems. A kind word finds a friendly place and so it did this time. I calmly asked the medical technician if he could be gentle with my nose and he calm me down and did his job perfectly.
I waited by the side for a couple of minutes and when they told me the test was negative, I just took my suitcases and walked out of the airport building. Somewhere in the darkness, I saw Jasmina’s face. We will not waste words on emotions, crying and endless hugging now.
Photo Credit: Mojka's personal archive

What was different in The Gambia this time?

It was my sixth visit of The Gambia and it was very different this time. I immediately noticed that Covid had caused huge damage. People find it harder to live, they barely survive the month because in a country that primarily lives off tourism, there are practically no tourists. I have been asked why I am travelling to The Gambia at Venice airport. When I explained and showed the document that I was going to The Gambia as a volunteer and sponsor of a girl child, it was okay.

Restaurants, beaches, tourist spots - was it any different?

The big difference, which was visible immediately, was that many hotels and restaurants are closed. The owners just couldn’t stay opened and they sent their employees home. On the other hand, some bars stubbornly persist and, despite not having guests, hope for better times and did not close. Wherever we stopped for a drink or lunch, we were accepted as kings, and they appreciated every earned dalasi. There are almost no tourists on the beaches, you only meet locals who where having fun with their families, especially on Fridays and Sundays. Despite all, I must say that The Gambia remains to be a land of smiling people. Their spirit was not taken either by Covid or its consequences which developed even more severe poverty. They remain heartfelt and cheerful, spontaneous and open. It touched my heart when they stopped me on the street and shouted “Mojka, oyoyoyoyoyo, you are back!”

To explain, many of my friends in The Gambia still think that “oyoyoyoyoyo” is a Slovenian greeting. When I first came to The Gambia in 2015, everything was unusual for me, and I reacted to everything with a loud oyoyoyoyoyo”. So people still greet me that way today.

Many tourist points are closed, but we were not bored because of that. Jasmina and I just set out to explore new ones. And believe it or not, The Gambia possesses them immensely. We just need a little research spirit and goodwill, and we found them.

Between various events, hanging out with Kumba (the girl I am sponsoring through Kids Are The Word organization), visiting Kids Are The World nursery, and hanging out with the locals, 16 days in The Gambia literally passed like a flash.

Where did you take the test? How did it go?

A day before taking a test, I had to go to the bank to pay 2500 GMD for a test. Then next day I went to do the test in Bakau in a bit of a bad mood because I knew I was returning to cold and rainy Slovenia. I looked for the mask again and reluctantly put it on because during my stay in The Gambia I forgot about it quite a bit… The testing was fairly quick, without any special complications, outdoors, under a large, prefabricated tent. We waited for about two hours, then the medical staff came, did the testing and a little annoying waiting for the result again started. However, I didn’t burden myself too much with this, as I knew that even if the test was positive, I could wait in peace in The Gambia for the time of quarantine, as I had everything in order in the company I run. The co-workers did their job as well as if I was there.

Photo Credit: Mojka Budihna

On Wednesday at noon, a message came with a negative test result, and we had to head to Kotu to collect the PCR test certificate and then quickly back home to pack suitcases.

Photo Credit: Mojka's personal archive

How was it when you left? What else than otherwise?

We went to the airport quite early due to the Covid controls, this time my Kumba accompanied me for the first time. The goodbye was extremely emotional. But that’s life, nothing much to do at that moment. Well, Kumba knows that MamaMojka will be back soon.

There were no special complications at the airport. They carefully inspected all the luggage, checked the documents, including PCR test. In Brussels, I boarded another plane and soon flew to Venice.

What are the positive things about travelling during Covid’s time?

I will never regret going to Africa at the time of Covid. This trip has given me a lot. Above all, the power to get rid of all sorts of fears. And I can say that probably everything went smoothly precisely because I simply did not doubt myself and my decision for a moment. I came back healthy and full of new insights and experiences. And in the end, I can only repeat what I always say: “Be bold and courageous. When you look at your life, you will regret more what you did not do than what you did.”

Do you want to have a meaningful vacation?
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