Solo to Africa 3

After a couple of days in The Gambia I’d begun to understand the reason why so many middle-aged, single women had been on my flight and been met off the plane by beautiful young men. On the beaches and and around the place the women could be spotted with their companions, eating in restaurants, wandering hand-in-hand or canoodling on beach loungers. The young men had been purchased and paid for. I was unable to make a judgement. But years later, when I read a news article on the topic and learned that the men thought the women ‘horrible’ it was clear that any judgement must be of a world where some populations are disadvantaged by others. Inequality was the culprit.

I was to have a night out with Lamin, our holiday rep, who was keen to show me another side of Banjul, The Gambia’s capital. We went to a club. I got a taste of how it felt to be the only white person in this venue packed with gyrating dancers, inhibiting at first and then less so with the lubrication of beer. I wonder now how it was possible to get beer in this strictly Moslem community? But I assume it has always been possible and will remain so. At last I joined in to the dancing with gusto, the music compelling, even though not live. There were several more clubs [and beers], before I was returned to my hotel room a little worse for wear.

In the morning I went over to the market, where Gibriel had arranged for someone to mind the stall while we cycled to the crocodile pond. We set off, chatting as we cycled in the hot sun. It was only a couple of miles and soon we were arriving to a tree-lined track then to a gateway, where I paid for the tickets and we walked into the compound. I imagine that now you would not be able to wander freely among these killing machines without a protective fence, but this was 1996 and there we were, strolling around the crocodile infested waters with the huge reptiles sleeping or inert all around us. I’d been assured it was all safe. The crocodiles were well fed.

One of the animals, ‘Charlie’ had been hand-reared. We sat down next to him and touched him [although not near his fearful mouth]. Then, after some encouragement I stepped across the crocodile in a pretence of sitting [though without full weight]. Most people, when looking at the photo of me astride the crocodile believe it is a stuffed animal or that the picture is fake. It is not.

Gibriel grabbed my hand as we walked around the pond. Would I like to have babies with him? They would be very handsome, he said. I told him I was flattered, but already had children. There was nothing threatening, intrusive or tricky in his proposal, he remained amenable after the rejection and we continued as friends. I carried on visiting the market to take tea with him and chat. I’d spotted a beautiful, carved chess set and wanted to buy it. It was promised to someone else, he told me, but he would make one for me and send it in the post. I pondered this, then gave him the money for it. The chess set may or may not turn up, but he’d been wonderful company and given me cups of tea.

I had one more adventure to look forward to. I was going inland up the Gambia River to stay on an island for a night, travelling by minibus in a small group…

Solo to Africa

I followed up my first piece of solo travel, a ski trip to Bulgaria by booking [that same year-1996] a holiday to The Gambia, West Africa. I’d realised I could cope on my own. No, there was nobody to sit next to on the plane. No, there was nobody to make hissed asides about the other passengers to. No there was guaranteed fellow-diner, fellow-planner or fellow-sharer. But neither was there anyone to disagree with my preferred itinerary, to set an agenda, to complain if I wanted to look in a shop, go on a trip or chat to strangers.

Africa, though was a leap of faith; far further from home, far more alien. And this time there’d be no skill to learn, no tuition as a prop, no ready-made group to tag along with. But it was a package, meaning there would be a tour guide and a good, big, anonymous hotel with what looked [from the photos] to be pleasant rooms and facilities.

Profiting from my experiences of the Bulgarian trip, I weathered the flight, the transfer and my first meal without feeling reduced or pathetic this time. But it was curious to note that there was a disproportionate number of middle-aged, single women on the plane. and as we collected our cases in arrivals, taxis began to zoom in and disgorge beautiful, young black men, into whose arms these women flung themselves.

After we’d touched down in Banjul and a tractor had fetched our luggage I went along to the team talk, the one where the tour operator tries to flog you as many expensive trips as they can. One or two sounded appealing and I ended up opting to go along on a two day outing later in the week, to the interior by mini-bus and staying on an island in the Gambia River, which sounded interesting.

The hotel grounds extended to the beach and I ventured along there on that first day. My room, along with most others was situated amongst the landscaped tropical palms and flowers and giant monitor lizards could be spotted weaving their way around the gardens, tongues flickering in and out in a hunt for tasty prey. On the beach I sought help from a friendly gay couple in taking care of my belongings while I set a tentative toe into the sea, where the waves were lively, to say the least. During this cautious bit of paddling a young man who seemed to be passing by engaged me in conversation, offering to be my ‘guide’. I declined.

But from then on, for the next couple of days I was dogged by the young man. Whenever I stepped out of the hotel gates he was there. He accompanied me up the street, followed me around the tourist market, opposite the hotel, approached me whenever I braved the beach, haunted my every waking hour. I was unable to shake him off-even when I took a trip along the beach to a neighbouring hotel to see a girl I’d met on the plane who was on a drumming course. He came with me into her hotel, sitting with us as we tried to chat, until her drumming teacher came along and spoke to him and he made a reluctant exit.

From then I felt free and the week’s adventures began…