Catching the travel bug: N’Jowara, The Gambia

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

The day before I found out how “sicker than a dog” really felt, I had a motorcycle ride unlike any other.

There I was bouncing along narrow dirt roads, skirting freshly plowed peanut fields, and clutching the waist of the family planning worker. He had offered to take me to the villages near N’Jowara, The Gambia where I was to live for the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in order to show me around.

As we bounced, I noticed the furrows of the not green at all peanut fields that waited for more rains to come.

At each village, I smiled, ran through my small repertoire of Wolof greetings, and felt totally lost. Still, I went to bed giddy that I had finally had a day of something to do besides settling my belongings into my humble, one-room abode.

I’d only been in my village for a week after being sworn in as a volunteer–just the right amount of time to figure out how little I knew.

For example, getting water out of a well using a rope tied around the handle of an empty cooking oil can bucket was no easy task. Forget about carrying the bucket to my house without sloshing out half of the water before I got there.

Still, I was optimistic. One of my closest Peace Corps friends was going to visit me the next day, and eventually-my job as a primary health care educator would start. Eventually. No one knew when. But, eventually.

Yep, I was optimistic– until I woke up the next morning moaning.

I clutched my stomach, chilled, shivering, achy, willing myself to health. “OOOooooarrrrrrooooooo.”

“Amie M’Bye. What’s wrong?” asked Janneh Badja, through the closed corrugate door to my room.

“Jamie,” he said, using my real name, just in case I didn’t hear him.

I was given Amie M’Bye as my African name in a ceremony in Peace Corps training. It was a Wolof name and from what I understood, meant everything.

At this moment, I had a little of everything not good.

I thought I had moaned quietly. I felt mortified. I didn’t know Janneh that well. I wanted to appear capable and not like an American who couldn’t help herself, much less anyone else.

“What’s wrong?” he asked again.

Janneh lived with his wife and two children in one of the three rooms at the back of what was once a Lebanese trading store. N’Jowara was once a vibrant trading town before independence in the 1960s. After independence, the Lebanese moved mostly to Banjul, the capital. With them went most things to buy and the village was left with an odd deserted aura about it.

The front part of the building where we lived was a former store front. It was totally empty. The three room living quarters directly behind was spacious by Gambian standards. My room was to the left; Janneh’s family to the right, and a shared room in the middle. Janneh was a civil servant, educated, and knew English fluently.

His wife Coogie was not educated and spoke Mandinka. I knew my smidgen of Wolof and no Mandinka. She and I mostly smiled and repeated each other’s names whenever we interacted. Our conversations were riveting, truly, but I liked her. She had a kind heart. I adored their eight month-old daughter Mymuna.

So far, in those early days, Mymuna seemed to get me the most.

“I’m sick,” I groaned out from where I lay on my bed’s foam mattress pad, noticing just how hot my room felt—the kind of temperatures where bed sheets stick like glue.

“I’m sorry,” Janneh said, still though the door. “Can I get you anything?”

“Nooooo,” I whimpered out, unable to stop myself from feeling pitiful, even though I’m the type of person who would generally limp along on a broken leg insisting that nothing is amiss.

I buried thoughts of being stuck in an African village, the only westerner for miles. The only taxi that left the village in the morning had already gone. Because there weren’t phone lines, I didn’t have a phone. Crap.

Yep, I was pretty much stuck. I lay shivering, sweating and wondering what I could have possibly caught.

I’d been faithful about boiling my drinking water. I was taking my anti-malaria medicine faithfully. I had had my shots, lots of them. But, then again. . .there was that fresh milk someone gave me the day before on the village sweep. Could TB set in this early?

There was another knock on the door.


It was Hadi Jobarteh, the only female teacher at the village school, and so far, my only close friend. Janneh must have gone to get her.

I crawled out of bed to let her in, sick that I was feeling so sick instead of my chipper, I can handle anything self.

“Amie, come to my house. Don’t be alone.” Hadi wouldn’t accept no for an answer and waited for me to feebly shrug into clothes, and then led me on my wobbly feet up N’Jowara’s dusty main street (kind of the only street) to her two room house that was part of a larger compound of buildings.

As we passed villagers on the way, I wondered if they thought they’d been stuck with a clunker of a volunteer. I looked like shit.

Hadi tucked me into her bed with a cup of hot tea (boiled water, of course) and went back to school to teach for the afternoon after assuring me that Mama Badja, the elder woman in her compound, would watch out for me.

As I lay in Hadi’s bed, in one of her two small rooms with its two glassless windows and a curtain that fluttered in the breeze in the open doorway, listening to children playing in the midst of chickens and goats while women talked to each other while doing their morning chores, it felt comfortable-safe.

Mama Badja, whose face was wreathed in clichéd wise wrinkles, stopped in to pat my leg and tell me that I’d get better.

I would, but not yet.

Instead, by the time John, my Peace Corps friend arrived that evening, I was even more green around the gills and desperate to feel better. I had started taking malaria pills as a just in case.

John helped me in the taxi the next morning-the first step of my trip to Banjul where I could pay a visit to the Peace Corps nurse.

“Stay as long as you want,” I whispered to John, collapsing onto the torn vinyl of the backseat. “Hadi said she’s making you chicken yassa.”

I love chicken yassa, and I was too sick to stick around. Plus, John was my first guest. He’d have to enjoy my hospitality without me.

Years later, I can still conjure up the desperation after leaving the black sedan style taxi, and cramming into the back of a bush taxi, a reconfigured pick-up truck like vehicle. I sandwiched my shoulders between two other people’s until I shifted enough so that I could turn in order to rest my arm on one of the slats of the taxi’s side, one cheek on my arm.

That taxi, after crossing the branch of the Gambia River on the small ferry that chugged across from one mangroved shore to another, bounced and bounded down the red dirt road, wafting dust each time it stopped. I was too sick to notice that my ears were slowly filling.

A man on the taxi, who spoke English fluently, noticed my sorry state and promised he’d help me get to the Peace Corps office and the nurse.

He did, staying with me on the next ferry crossing, this one a choppy journey across the mouth of the Gambia River on a ferry loaded down with enormous trucks mounded with goods, cars, cattle, and people on foot who balanced luggage on their heads as if practicing for a circus act.

“Good luck,” the man said as he left me lying on one of the couches in the Peace Corps office’s common room.

The Peace Corps nurse pronounced that I had a virus and not malaria–medicine would not help, and sent me to a nearby town where a training was going on at a Peace Corps owned training center. Since I didn’t have another place to stay, this seemed sensible. Volunteers share rent on apartments near Banjul so when they come to the city for R&R or official business, or get sick, they have a place to stay. I didn’t have a place yet.

“There will be volunteers and staff who can take care of you,” the nurse promised as she sent me on my way in a Peace Corps vehicle with a driver.

I didn’t want to tell her I had only one change of clothes and little money since I hadn’t wanted to appear that I had come to city for a long stay, using being sick as an excuse.

Turns out, the training was over that night, but I had a place to sleep and bedding. No towels though. No soap. No phone. No food. There was toilet paper and electricity. Yeah.

I moved the mattress to the floor since the bed-springs were funky. The bed felt like my head was lower than my feet. Plus, the pillow smelled. I threw it across the room.

I’ve been left to die I thought.

Obviously, I didn’t.

The next morning, after hallucinating that weird people were milling about in the room and climbing onto the matress with me from time to time–it was the malaria drugs I’d been taking, I hauled myself down to the western style grocery store to buy saltines and tomato soup, stuff my mom use to make.

A friend brought me a can opener and a pot since the center didn’t have either.

Finally, the sun shone. The Peace Corps nurse, hearing that I was in an abandoned state, came to fetch me the next day feeling awful. She took me to her house where she fed me, I watched the video Grease with her young daughters, had a bath, she gave me clean clothes, and I decided that there is heaven on earth after all.

As far as catching another bug over the two years I was in the Peace Corps, I didn’t. If we don’t talk about the small case of impetigo I had above my lip once, the time I was bitten by a puppy and the rabies shots that made my face swell like a balloon, and that bad case of gas from girardia that made me feel as if there could be a mighty explosion.

Other than those things, it was smooth sailing.