Having managed to shake off the persistent stalker I’d picked up on the beach by my hotel in The Gambia, I began to explore my immediate surroundings, starting with the ‘tourist market’ across the road. Here were dozens of stalls selling a vast array of hand-crafted items, from batik to baskets, from cushion covers to carvings. There were pungent aromas from the spice stalls, raucous laughter and animated gossip from the sellers. Having recently moved into my very own, modest home with painfully few belongings I was keen to liven it up with some colourful and individual things. I’d also met others who’d returned from west Africa with carved wooden masks and thought I’d love one or two for my walls.
I was browsing in a wood-carving stall, deliberating over masks, when the slender, smiling stall-holder began to engage me in conversation. Most of the goods on view were his own handiwork. ‘Where was I staying?’ he asked, and when I told him, ‘The Senegambia, across the road, he laughed. ‘The Senegambia Prison’, he said. In the tourist market, the stallholders called the hotel a prison because so few holiday-makers actually made it out of the hotel gate, preferring to spend all of their holiday within the confines of the resort, seeing nothing of the country, its culture or its people and spending nothing in the markets! He offered me tea and we continued the conversation.
I wanted to visit the crocodile pond, I told him. Did he know anyone who would take me? He was making the tea-placing loose tea leaves plus a heap of sugar into a kettle, filling it with water and placing it on to a tiny gas burner on the ground. Then he suggested that he, himself could accompany me and that we could cycle there, which seemed like a wonderful idea. I would rent the bikes, which were on offer at the hotel. My guide’s name was Gibriel. We arranged the trip for a couple of days time.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, breakfast had become much more sociable since I joined the holiday rep, Lamin each morning at his table. And after a couple of days he suggested we should have an evening out in the town. What could go wrong? I agreed and we set a time the next evening for him to come and collect me in his BMW, which he called a ‘little scrap’.
I joined a day trip in a 4×4 to look at villages and have a beach barbecue. My friends, the gay couple were on board, too. While visiting the villages was an eye-opener it also felt intrusive to peer inside the modest, mud homes and take photographs, even though the villagers must have received a fee for hosting us. But it troubled me. As we left each village a gaggle of shrieking children pursued the vehicle and we lobbed out pens, pencils and exercise books, which they fell upon in a screaming, tangled heap. This was not sensitive tourism.
At the beach barbecue another fellow-passenger, a young girl told me she hated her room because there were lizards running up the walls, a feature that I’d been charmed by, and I wondered why she’d selected west Africa for a holiday.
Later on, back at the hotel I got ready for a night on the town, hoping that my long skirt was modest enough for the occasion as Lamin turned up in his scruffy black BMW…