Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christmas in a Whorehouse

Jan. 13, 2008

by rachel
After the scars, we went way up river to most eastern city, Basse. It’s the wild west of The Gambia, where, even in the cold season, the afternoon is a blazing hot dusty mess. The main street is full of people, full of life, full of “others:” Sierra Leonians, Guineans, Nigerians, Senegalese, Jahonkas, Mauritainians. So we walk through the bustle in peace, in peace as just another “other.” We ebb and flow with the chaotic energy that cuts the exhausted sandy haze. We stop for delicious meat pies and frozen yogurt, true gems worth traveling 300 km up river for. MTV videos featuring beyonce, shaggy, 50 cent blare from the small TV perched on the counter next to the meat pie box. We watch, hypnotized by the flashy, loud, sex-ridden images – bombarded and overloaded.

The vibe of this far away town in tiny Gambia is refreshing, inspiring almost. It’s not until we walk just past the outskirts of “downtown,” that we get barraged by Gambian children, yelling "Toubab!: The peaceful daze cut short.

We came to Basse for Christmas and to hang and visit our fellow PCV, Evan. Saying he’s a cool guy is an understatement. We chill in his round thatched roof hut during the day, moving as little as possible to evade the heat. In the evening we set off to the main drag, about a 2 km walk. He leads us on a detour to one of the three hills in Basse. A hill! It was glorious to walk on an incline more than ten degrees. I looked down and saw corrugate roofs dotted with trees and mobile phone towers sheathed in the dirty haze laying low on the horizon. I felt the unfamiliar: elevated, far away, hidden.

Later we stop to eat chicken and spaghetti and then head to one of the local bars. So there we were, Christmas Eve, me and the guys, drinking the cheapest brandy, gin, and local beer, so cheap you feel a headache coming on before you even fall asleep. The place was crowded with middle aged men and much younger women. The bouncer was a stern old man with a stick. We sat, chatted, raised our glasses to another holiday that doesn’t feel like the holiday should.

During the dry season fires in the distance are common, but as we looked up to a mushroom cloud of black smoke coming from the market, we knew this wasn’t the usual trash fire. This one was close and grew fast. A mob of people filled the pot-holed streets and sprinted towards the action. We got up, left our drinks, and joined the rush; anything for some unscripted excitement. The fire blew through a cassette shop, the next store over, and then to the open air stalls just behind. We stood there right in front, mesmerized with the flames, as the firemen hastily dug in the ground for more water. But it’s the dry season and everything is crisp and parched, even under ground. I kept asking how the fire began. Arson? A cigarette? The pummel of flames reflected a deep orange in the stunned faces. We then stopped to think for the first time since joining the mob running towards an out of control fire late at night, and immediately got the hell out of there.

We sauntered back to Evan’s place, shivering as the frigid cold of Basse’s nights in the cold season fell upon us. For us, it was so cold as we attempted sleep, that even jeans, socks, and a sweatshirt covered with a sheet couldn’t stop the heat from the day escaping our bodies.

Christmas day did not feel like anything special, except phone calls from home. We met up with other PCVs who were around for the holiday. We ate potatoes, turkey, some salad, and then Evan took us to a whorehouse. It was just a bar in a compound three blocks from downtown. We had no clue what nice little surprise Evan had in store, but as we sat down with our boxed wine, we noticed six rooms in a row. Some with doors open, some with doors closed. Young women and older men came in and out. It was all very matter-of-factly and understated. The bar itself was nice with truly cold beer and soda. Women and men were dancing to Shania Twain and other country greats, followed by reggae and other Bob and 50 cent wannabes. (The local music here is cool with the kora over some latin like beats, but when they try to copy “the west,” it just atrocious!) So there we were laughing, chatting, singing, all the while soaking in the comforts of a local whorehouse on that saintly day of Christmas.

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