Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A Holiday in The Gambia

I have just returned from a week's holiday in The Gambia. The week was supposed to be just relaxation but once we got there we signed up for a few outings - can't resist looking round just a little bit :-) We flew into Banjul international airport where there was a veritable battle over our cases with dozens of porters trying to get them onto their trolley… it was clearly going to be one of "those" holidays… tourism is one of the biggest trades and people need to make a living from it! It is a very poor country with over 1/4 of its people living below the international poverty line. It was quite funny though - we paid a porter to take the cases to the door, another to take them to the coach, a third held his handout to put them onto the coach!

The Gambia is a long, thin, low lying, small country moving inland from West Africa along the River Gambia. It has two quite clearly defined areas, north which is westernised and south which is largely traditional.  It has tropical weather and the charts show that the temperature in February is about 32 degrees. It wasn't when we were there!! I don't think it got down to 32, it was over 40 most of the time!

We stayed out of town in the middle of nowhere at a place called Brufut, there was nothing much except the hotel so it was very quiet and peaceful. Nearby areas such as  the Senegambia strip and Bakau town are pretty modern places with bars, restaurants and places of entertainment as well as shops, supermarkets, chemists etc.
There is a good tarmac road from the airport to where the hotels are, the locals call it the M1, there is another road going from east to west - apparently the M25 :-) Road signs etc are few and far between. tarmac is a rarity with sand being the common surface. In the rainy season roads are virtually impassable because of mud so the cars that people have over there are mostly 4 X 4s.

The river is about 700 miles long and up to 11 miles wide. We travelled the tributaries for a day seeking out beautiful birds in the mangroves. This day out was booked at the hotel, a coach was laid on to pick us up and take us to the boatyard. First impressions of the boat - well let's not go there :-)  We had two choices, sundeck or bar so we chose the sundeck. We were ordered to take our flip flops off - "shoes off, shoes off…" so we obliged and walked up the steps to see spread before us about 6 mattresses with frayed, ancient covers, wet from the low lying cloud over night - and all looking rather dilapidated.  As soon as the sun broke through though everything dried and we were set for the day. Coffee with brandy was served soon after we arrived, the most beautiful, light, crisp garlic bread mid moorings, champagne and orange juice just after that and lunch not long after that!! We were spoiled rotten. The birds were a little shy, but pelicans, stalks, whimbrel, oytsercatchers  and loads of others, I have no clue what they were called, were all there to be seen and photographed. After lunch we had a swimming stop. This was a revelation! One poor lady wanted to get in the water to cool down but was worried about the depth - apparently about 7 mts., I got in expecting to swim but it was so salty that was impossible, all I could do was float. When the lady lacking in water confidence saw me bobbing about on top she realised she had no worries. Neither swimming nor sinking was going to happen.

We spent a day travelling in the south looking at villages, there are still villages that  have to draw water from a pump house well. Children are not usually allowed near the wells, obviously any breakage would result in the loss of water to the whole village, but the villagers are clearly used to the old Bedford Army wagons arriving and know that means visitors - so the children were out in force asking for sweets and money, showing us how the well works and displacing folks actually gathering water who seemed to disappear into the background leaving us to the tender mercies of the village  young.

Extended families live in family compounds. This is normal and commonplace. In muslim areas these compounds may include several wives and sets of children. It seems that children, however young, look after the next age down, we saw that as a recurring pattern wherever we went. Tiny children gathered up even tinnier children and carried them around :-)

We drove for miles along sand tracks, past several villages and family compounds. We saw miles of walled off plots of land. Apparently people buy a plot of land and put a wall around it. As and when it is needed for a house, or they have money to build, they may build a wall or two. Over a period of years a house may appear on the plot. Meanwhile the termites build their homes on these plots with no thought whatsoever for the owners! A "comfort stop" was on the schedule, we stopped, in the bush, ladies to the right and gents to the left please :-) That was a bit of a shock to first time visitors!
As we passed one village we saw a large group of vultures. Apparently this was the place where carcasses were put, they were eating a dog at the time. The guide called them Sanitary inspectors!

We arrived, eventually at a village school. The Government provides school buildings and teachers but parents have to provide school uniforms, food etc.,  for some families that is impossible so some children still do not go to school. The headteacher at the school we visited was quite a lady! She opened with two classes, invited the tourists, invites them to leave as much money and goods as they can and uses it for education. She now has ten classrooms, a library almost complete and 550 children on role. There is an accommodation block for the teachers, whose monthly wage is about 500 dalasai (£12.50) each and the children are fed once a day at school.
The children sang and danced for us - it was delightful! They showed us their vegetable plots, where they sell the surplus food, their classes etc. They were all talking in English and many of them, at least the older ones, could hold a reasonable conversation with us in English. Looking back into the room where we had been invited to leave all of our wordily wealth and virtually everything else too, my husband saw the headteacher and travel guide squabbling over the binoculars he had put in the box :-) She won!

The music and dancing was spectacular, we watched groups several times over the week, their costumes were lovely, very colourful, very sparkly!  They sang, danced, did fire eating, all sorts with the most amazing energy.  There seemed to be lots of symbolism in the dancing, sadly I had no idea what most of it represented.

Several nights, after dinner, in the dark we walked along the beach. It is the Atlantic Ocean and huge rolling waves break onto the shore sending brine in white fluffy lines onto the sand.  The first time we went, as we walked, we realised the "brine" was running hell for leather back to the water as we moved. There were hundreds of white crabs from the tiniest things as small as my little finger nail up to about 6 inches across. I tried to film them but did not have the right equipment there :-(

To see photographs from the Gambia Click here

I am not convinced that I want to return - we love Africa with its colour, music, traditions, crowded, roadside stalls selling anything, animals wandering freely etc, but it is getting quite westernised and losing it's appeal in the process. Also it is still very poor, that one can do so little for them whilst there is quite upsetting.

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