In my more adventurous days I did a lot of travelling, plenty of it solo. This is strange to a lot of people. I think either you are a Travelling By Yourself person, or, you are not. Don’t you get lonely, lots of people have asked me, what do you do in the evenings (these people know I’m not the type to make insta-friends with whichever other traveller happens to be in the same hostel, at least not often)? The answer is, I did a lot of reading, and a lot of writing. How many novels have I started scribbling sitting on beaches in exotic places? I don’t even know what happened to them. Abandoned when I get home and life makes me think about real life instead of my own creations, I suppose. But I wrote about real life too. Descriptions of what was going on around me. What I could see and hear and smell and – since waiting for food is the perfect, slightly awkward situation which can be improved with a notebook and a pen – taste. Now I am more settled – all be it settled into a hyper-transient, often downright surreal Expat Life – it has been a long time since I have sat down by myself with nothing to do but watch the world go by and take notes. And I hadn’t realised I miss it.
Last month I went to The Gambia to do some work with our office there. It was not my first time there, and it’s certainly not my favourite place, so I had nothing on my post-work agenda other than Avoid The Tourists and The Touts. So this is what happened…
I’m on mission (that’s charity speak for on a work trip, possibly specific to Senegal, West Africa, or Francophone countries, I’m not sure) in Kololi, The Gambia. Having been deposited in a Would Have Been Fancy Once Upon a Time hotel at the bottom of a highly suspicious dirt track (next to, but not in sight of the beach), I have ventured out for food (the hotel restaurant is shut for the season). My options consisted of taking the Highly Suspicious Dirt Track that leads to Tourist Central (aka the Senegambia Strip) or a little snack bar opposite the hotel entrance. I chose option two.
From where I am currently sitting, I can see no less than three England flags, not including the row of St George’s Cross bunting. The middle-age Englishman who presumably owns the place is complaining loudly about ‘these people’ – in his defence I’m not entirely sure whether he’s referring to tourists or to Gambians and, to give him the benefit of the doubt, it’s not entirely impossible that he’s talking about a more specific group of people – and how long it’s taking for a pizza to be delivered to his own restaurant. Behind me is another old white man accompanied by a far too young Gambian girl and I wonder if the Adele track loudly crooning ‘she… she’s half your age’ is making him uncomfortable. In another comer, there are a couple of dreadlocked men smoking, and the waiter is rushing about trying to change the gas, which does not bode well for my dinner. There is a mural – terribly painted – on the wall featuring a scantily clad African girl serving a table of toubabs. Across the road (if we can really call it a road) there are four prospective taxi-drivers all soliciting for customers, and just one taxi. And, peculiarly, one tuk-tuk.
The owner is watching me scribbling away – I think he thinks I am reviewing his shack. I suppose I kind of am.
Inevitably one of the dreadlocked men starts talking to me – harmlessly, and I don’t mind a little oh-you-LIVE-in-Africa chat. Of course this turns into a Wolof test, which only goes to show how Dakarois my Wolof is. Gambians seem to use far fewer abbreviations – ‘Naka nga def’ instead of ‘nanga def’, ‘naka nga tudd’ instead of ‘noo tudd‘ – which my very far from fluent ears can’t process fast enough, and of course it’s peppered with English instead of French. The waiter (named Mbaye, which just so happens to be my Senegalese surname – I know this because my new friend has been correcting the English owner on his pronunciation) has just presented me with a basket containing HP sauce and salad cream (along with a plethora of other condiments), and although I’m eating spaghetti, I’m almost tempted to add them because of their sheer Britishness.
Later in the evening, my new friend introduces me to a Scottish man staying in the same hotel! He runs a small charity “sponsoring children, some education stuff”. He tells me about his minister friend in my home town (which church? oh it’s just run out of a community centre…) and sure enough a quick google later reveals an evangelical project sending Muslim kids to Christian schools in order to provide them with the light of the gospel. I’m saying nothing. Still, nice chap. I suppose most missionary types are, on the surface.
My second dinner excursion takes me further afield. I was accompanied up the Highly Suspicious Dirt Track by a Marginally Less Suspicious Taxi-driver with no taxi (I stifled a laugh when he told me his name is Byron). l ventured as far as the next street, also known as the Senegambia Strip. It’s the Kao San Road of West Africa. Bar after bar interspersed with strip clubs and tour agencies. It is full of Mancunians and sex tourists and Mancunian sex tourists. And men trying to get your attention from every possible angle I retreat around the corner to the most local looking place in sight.
Day Three and I have had quite enough of the hassle that is everywhere around here. I could never live here. Today’s chaperone up the Highly Suspicious Dirt Track was much more unwelcome. And then my resolve slipped (it’s been a Very Long Day) and I let him half-lead me to his friend’s restaurant since I was going that direction anyway, and then of course he wanted a reward for leading me to ‘the best’ shack on a street of restaurant shacks. Or he wanted to sit and eat with me while bombarding me with more cliché comments (“black, white, we’re all people, man”, “this is the smiling coast of Africa!”). I was having none of it (which, of course, means I’m a racist) and escaped to another identical shack across the road, where I was instantly pounced on for a discussion about my religion by the Nigerian manager – “Hi, my name is whateverhisnamewas and I am a believer”. Great.
There are mosquitoes biting my toes. There is something strange about there being so many mosquitoes when it’s so cold. On the plus side, my dinner is costing a total of £1.60.
I didn’t write anything on Day Four, mainly because work was utterly horrid and I was in a dreadful mood, so I embraced the tourist strip for the promise of cold beer and the best pizza I’ve ever had in Africa (no but really), accompanied by a good book. I felt a little better after that and much better after a work-related rant directed at the unsuspecting Scottish missionary type who I crossed paths with on the way back to the hotel.
So there we have it. (Another) four nights in The Gambia was quite enough for me, enough that I even ran out of things to write about, and I was happy to be home in Dakar when my flight landed (strangely, half an hour before it was scheduled to take off, making me glad to be one of those people that gets to airports three hours early). Seriously though – that pizza might merit a trip back.
2018 edit: I did hunt out that pizza when I ended up back here on a visa run!