My time in the Gambia, West Africa, was met by different energies.
Some dark, some bright.
A chiaroscuro crosshatch of contrasting light.
I was helped across the border by a self-professed prophet, crossed the mighty river, was harassed by local scammers, kissed an adult crocodile, got caught-up with a python, danced naked in tropical rains, and got detained by corrupt police…
…well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.
I only spent a couple of weeks in the Gambia, which might seem like a lot to some people, but, as frequent readers will know, I like to spend at least a month in a new country to pierce the thick skin usually impenetrable to normal tourists. Or, if my schedule doesn’t allow me to spend a month I usually make multiple trips, to different parts of a country, stay with locals, use the most basic public transport, work and collaborate with independent and family-run businesses. I really don’t like group tours or all-inclusive resorts, being piled onto some air-conditioned coach and whizzing around all the famous sites of a country in a couple of days…
Fast tourism is not for me.
I support slow travel.
Sure, standing by the side of some dusty road in thick heat waving down rickety old cars and buses, scrambling on with your bags on your head, pushing through locals and cutting your leg open on the dicey metal seating as you sit down isn’t exactly ideal… in fact, it’s pretty awful. But those are bus journeys I’ll never forget – the conversations had with locals as we all sit together, bumping around in the back, with children and chickens and sacks of rice in every available space. I didn’t come to sub-Saharan Africa for style or comfort – I came for life.
But, as for those crazy buses and bush taxis,
just make sure you go for a big wee before you get on…
Unless you want to climb over people of get off.
I’ve never really met a girl who insisted on carry more than me, who had a knack for mixing up all the languages she knew and yet still managing to make friends with nearly every person we passed, to successfully barter with every street vendor, guesthouse owner, boat driver and cart pusher. Whom, when I suggested some crazy idea to, would just reply with a smile, a nod or a laugh…
Laughter is so good. Laughing is very important to me.
I mostly travel alone, and mostly prefer it… but sometimes there is nothing quite like travelling with a friend who, without speaking, understands you, shares your burden, and walks the long dusty road of freedom with you. It takes a brave soul to follow me… but I was surprised to find with her that I was less the followed, and more often the follower.
I remember we sat down in a trattoria in a back street in Florence and my German friends asked her name, and then somehow misheard her reply as ‘Nina’… she remained Nina to them from then on up until we left… and I never corrected them 🙂
I think Nina’s rather perfect, so that is how she will be known to you too.
So, back in Ghana me and Nina are at the airport waiting around for our late night flight to the Gambia with Nigerian Airlines. We’d wanted to travel over-land all the way to the Gambia but recent terrorist attacks in the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso had meant too many borders had been closed, and it wasn’t worth the risk. We hadn’t booked ourselves any accommodation, no tourguides, and had no friends waiting for us when we arrived in the Gambia – the plan was to simply turn up and hope that we meet somebody who could help, and we would sleep on the airport floor in the meantime… sounds a bit crazy?
I remember telling Nina that we should just have faith. Something would happen.
God would provide… He always does.
I was just walking up to the check-in desk to see if it was open, whilst Nina stayed back with the bags in the waiting area. It was still closed, and I was just about to return to my seat when I noticed a man standing around trying to read one of the airport screens. I guessed that he was probably on my flight and so approached him to see if I could help.
We began talking. It turned out he indeed was on my flight. I had this niggling thought in my mind to tell him about our plan to sleep on the airport floor, and so I did…
Well, it later turned out this man was known by his many followers as Prophet George, and he was heading into the Gambia on a personal mission to spread the Gospel. Not only did he instantly become a great friend to both me and Nina, but he also helped us find somewhere to stay for our first three nights in the Gambia. We shared meals, stories and long walks along the beach. I distinctly remember, and will never forget, sitting in his hotel room drinking tea and Prophet George saying that God had told him to help us, and that, in his words ‘James is a great man’… I remember him saying this, staring me straight in the eyes, me fighting back tears. I felt so exposed! I didn’t know what to say and I certainly didn’t feel worthy of being called ‘great’. I felt like a child sitting in that hotel room, trying not to cry over something a man I didn’t really know had claimed God had told him… but I couldn’t help but feel something in those eyes… I really felt like God was there in that room, some higher power was coming through. It both frightened and humbled me as these experiences often do.
I guess, somewhere along the lines we have all been preconditioned to believe, somehow, because we are not perfect, because we make mistakes, that somehow we are not worthy of the love of our Creator… I too, have been subject to this.
I remember once in Ghana I lay in bed and a man came to me, a spirit I mean, he appeared before me, perfectly centered in my mind’s eye. He was a black man, dressed in African print with a small hat on his head. I didn’t know who he was all I knew was that he was very holy; God was shining through him and, as before, I felt unworthy… I wouldn’t allow myself to look upon him… I was frightened and pulled myself away, back into my little blue room at the Orphanage, that special place I will write more about soon.
Whilst it may not be clear to me who these people are that come into my life, these strangers that help me along my journey to Creation, I do know that there are no coincidences, that, to me, everything is divine, timed and planned long before we were conceived in flesh. The feeling of being connected to something greater, something unseen yet omnipresent, has always been great in me, comes over me in waves, and follows me wherever I go on this strange and wonderful journey of life…
George and Kobi, whoever you are, I hope one day by fate you stumble upon this page, and I thank you from the bottom of my soul for everything you did for us. It shall not be forgotten, ere we meet again…
I found the locals a mixed bunch in their reception of us two western travellers. Regardless of our mixed racial background we were both seen simply as ‘Whites’ which was sometimes very tiresome… and people always assumed we were rich. This guy, above, was kind enough to take us to his family house to use the toilet (nature calls) after we got off this ferry. Coming back from the loo I found Nina stuck in a dark room surrounded by loads of men trying to convince us to pay them to take us into Senegal… the price they were offering, even though they insisted it was a great deal, was a complete rip-off! I insisted we left, they got quite angry, started shouting, but I am as stubborn as a mule when I get the bit between my teeth, and kindly refused and thanked them for their services. I have no problem with standing my ground. You have to, travelling this way. The price we eventually paid for the same journey on a local bus was about 5% the price they offered… don’t be fooled.
You have to forgive people, the Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world… but I can’t deny that sometimes the hassling just made me want to leave. I experienced nothing of the sort in Senegal, just across the border.
However, things begin to change as you leave the major areas, where big overpriced hotels line the sandy shores and tourists drive around in rented 4x4s. We found a farm a couple of hours into the countryside, away from the coast, which agreed to host us for the rest of our time in the country.
There was no running water, only a pumped well, limited electricity, toilets were African-style (deep hole in the ground) and food was cooked on fire and rocks and was whatever the farm could supply paired with white rice. Spitting black cobras were often seen on the farm, along with huge monitor lizards, monkeys and a whole array of tropical birds… so naturally, I loved it.
The sounds and sights of the raw countryside were sometimes overwhelming. I hadn’t heard such a cacophony of natural sound since my time in the Indian jungle. Even just a trip to the toilet became an adventure of sight, sound and danger… A simple yet mindful life, is often the greatest gift. Washing your clothes by hand, soaking your body and hair in warm tropical rain, breathing clean air… un paradiso…
One day, as the warm tropical rains began to pour and pour over the green landscape we took off our clothes and ran around, no mind for snakes or scorpions. We danced and danced, our feet sinking into the sodden mud, laughing and singing to the holy waters showering down from above!
I set my camera on an automatic timer to get these hilarious shots! I assure you, if you are embarrassed my bums, boobs or willies then you probably shouldn’t travel with me, or maybe even read this blog…. When I’m testing people who say they want to travel with me some of the most important questions I ask are if they like being naked, dancing in fountains, dressing in funny clothes, improvised singing, that sort of thing… trust me, being naked makes you so much happier 🙂 Your body is holy. It is by all means sacred, so care for it, enjoy it, but do not be ashamed of it.
You may have noticed that I get naked rather a lot.
My friends back home certainly have.
I often get comments like “you’re always in some exotic place wearing hardly any clothes”… haha!
I think it’s important to be proud of your bum.
They say you need to feed your mind, body and soul…
And being naked is definitely good for all three.
I mean, gosh, why would you travel across the other side of the world, risk all sorts of dangers, to settle for an awkward selfie by the Taj with a bus-load of people you’ll probably never talk to again?
Next time you go travelling, I advise you to get your bum and/or boobs out a bit more.
You might just like it…
We did brave it and leave the safety of the farm once in awhile and ventured back into civilisation. One time the Police decided to confine me in a dark room with horrid strip lights because I had some prescription sleeping pills in my bag without the prescription… well, that was another saga. After hours of trying to convince them I wasn’t a criminal they eventually agreed to a bribe. I asked to go and consult my ‘wife’ (Nina) who was in the back, and somehow we managed to hide most of our money down her bra without them seeing, so when we put what was left on the table (a couple of notes) they felt so sorry us they not only let us go scott free but took us down the road for a coffee whilst we waited for the boat!
That’s Africa for you…
And, oh yes, pretending to be a married couple definitely made our trip a lot easier. People seemed really happy to help us when they thought we were married, and a lot less inclined to grope poor Nina…
On one of our last days we made a trip to a local crocodile pool. In a deep, water-filled hole in the ground hundreds of crocodiles lay submerged beneath the water. The site has been sacred to the local peoples for centuries, and today you can still visit Katchikally, if you can find it… you will have to drive through some of the poorest areas around, with bad roads, but locals seemed happy to help us find the place.
I had mixed feelings about the place. So often such sacred sites get exploited for tourism
and something didn’t feel right to me.
The crocodiles out of the water seemed just a bit too docile, and whilst I was assured it was because they were so used to humans,
I still wasn’t convinced… although I have to say I am naturally suspicious of these sorts of things.
I knelt down and gave one of the crocs a kiss on the back.
A kiss of freedom. A blessing only in sentiment perhaps, but all I could give.
One day, I see a world where all creatures will be free again, unrestrained and unconfined.
I see the same fate for Man too…
I asked my guide if I could go for a swim in the pool with the crocs. He just laughed, clearly thought I was joking, but when I asked him again he went deadpan and simple said it wasn’t possible… worth a try, no?
He did, however, let me hold one of the new-born baby crocs they were nursing at the sanctuary.
Since the times the local tribes first started worshipping the crocodiles it has always been a site of pilgrimage for people hoping to conceive – local legend says that bathing in the waters of the pool can increase chances of fertility.
It didn’t take much convincing for Nina and I to get our clothes off once again. The guide brought us over some of the sacred water, not before asking for an ‘offering’ of money, which I refused, saying I would do my own offering of prayer. We poured the waters over our heads and it felt like being born again.
My time in the Gambia may seem brief to me in retrospect, and is certainly a bit scarred by such ambivalent experiences. However, the hospitality of a man named Mohammed Touray I will always hold dear. I still have his name written in my note book in Arabic. He was a man that, regardless of what may be seen as ‘religious differences’, understood the God that I believe I also understand… to an extent. He was someone who saw God in everything he did, in everything that happened. He was happy to be alive, every day, always humble and thankful for what he had. Evenings spent round the campfire smoking with him, some of the words exchanged… they will never be forgotten. Such hospitality is never forgotten, neither is friendship. Meeting people like these is a big part of why I travel, and I will be forever grateful for moments when we cross paths… out there, in the big wide world.
I still regret that I never did get your portrait, Mohammed, ‘Mo’.
It just didn’t feel right to point a camera at you somehow.
Perhaps, then, we are destined to meet again.
And, I hope, I can remember your face… the way I remember your soul.
I dedicate this post to you.
Your comments and shares are always appreciated 🙂