Solo to Africa 4-The Postscript

My solo week in The Gambia was drawing to a close but I’d booked a trip for the last couple of days-to the interior to stay on an island, Jenjanbureh Camp, in the middle of The Gambia River.

A mini-bus came to collect me and my overnight bag and having already picked up half a dozen or so people I swung up into the vehicle to a spare seat, finding myself mixed into a bunch of jovial Dutch. I’ve always found Dutch travellers to be friendly and chatty and these were no different. And while they were all of that nationality, knowing that their language is rarely spoken outside of The Netherlands they kindly spoke English for my benefit for the entire trip.

We went via Georgetown, arriving in the late afternoon. The ‘camp’ was run by a German couple and very much in the style of ‘In Search of the Castaways’, a film I loved as a child. I was taken to my room, basically a jungle hut in the trees. Inside, a bed and had been constructed from rough-hewn timber, with a rope-pull shower adjoining. There were small, mesh-covered windows. I was charmed. My group assembled for a buffet-type dinner consisting of various stews and vegetables, which were all delicious. Over a glass or two of wine I got chatting to two women who’d travelled together and we shared life histories and plans. When dusk fell the lanterns were lit. There was no electricity at the camp. When I retired to my room I found two or three lanterns hanging there, too. I fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle around me, an unforgettable experience.

Next day we breakfasted at the same outside table under the trees then we were off down river by boat, the vessel reminding me of another film-‘The African Queen’ with Humphrey Bogart, a boat with rickety wooden decks and a wide roof where I sat with the two friendly Dutch women as the sights and sounds of the river drifted by.

There was only enough time for one more trip to the market to have tea with Gibriel and say goodbye, then I was on a plane and heading back to the UK, with a stash of beautiful carved masks and a batik picture, all made by him. But what of the chess set?

smart

Several weeks went by and I resumed life at home, forgetting about the money I’d paid for my hand-crafted set. Until one day, returning from work, I found a large cardboard box on my doorstep. I was certain I hadn’t ordered anything that large. I hefted it into the hall and undid the top, whereupon a deluge of polystyrene beads flowed out and onto the floor. I delved into the box and with drew a tiny, wooden figure. A pawn! I pulled out all the figures. They were exquisite! And at the bottom of the box was the chess board.

A letter was taped inside the box lid. It came from a couple. They’d holidayed a week or two after me and met Gibriel. He’d handed them my chess set to bring to the UK and somehow get it to me. They’d moved house and lost my address, then managed to find it. I was ecstatic then, not just for the chess set, but for the wonderful integrity of my West African friend and for the kind, honest couple who carried and sent this precious item to me.

My two solo holidays taught me one reassuring truth; that the vast majority of ordinary people are honest and kind. And you can’t ask for more than that.

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…

Home Alone?

                An item on a radio magazine programme recently concerned people who, by accident or design will be spending Christmas alone. Listening to these individuals explaining their situation, one stand out feature came across. The women had made a deliberate choice to spend the day in solitude, whereas the men felt themselves to be ‘shut out’ through no fault of their own and felt aggrieved. Some of the stories were painful to hear, such as the father who’d split from his wife and would not get to see his only son due to his ex having a new partner.

                There is a strange irony to all this. Even in this era of [slowly] increasing emancipation it is, at best unusual to see a woman sitting alone at a bar or a restaurant table, whereas a man in such circumstances would not be considered out of the ordinary or an object of speculation. The Dad who felt abandoned could simply take himself off to a hostelry. He might not know anyone but would at least be able to observe the revelries from the fringe or even get involved. The women in the programme had all planned their solo day already. They would not be leaving their homes, but knew exactly what they would eat, watch and do, and all were eagerly anticipating and expected to relish their time alone.

                During a mid-life period of singledom I took the bold step of booking, not one but two holidays as a single traveller. Although this rash action was partly a result of a messy relationship break up I forged ahead with the first- a week long skiing trip- not without a modicum of self doubt. ‘Think of it as a course you are going on’ encouraged a friend [I was a virgin skier]. I will never forget boarding the coach to the resort and explaining to the puzzled holiday rep that there was one in my ‘party’, or descending to the dining room at the hotel and forcing myself to ask if I might join a couple at their table when there were no empty tables available, then the continuing, painful experience with a lone breakfast supported only by a book as a prop. When I descended to the basement to join a beginners’ ski class the holiday underwent a miraculous conversion. My fellow beginners were a charming, friendly, inclusive bunch who invited me to join them for meals, après-ski, breakfast and outings for the entire week. The encouraging friend came to collect me from the airport, finding me cheerful, refreshed and hopeful-hopeful enough to approach the next lone exploit with confidence.

                I went to The Gambia, without the support of a ski class, but with a ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I engaged fellow travellers in conversation, chatted to fellow diners, went for tea with stallholders in the market, booked excursions, including a two day trip up river to stay in a thatched hut with a party of Netherlanders. Everyone I met was friendly and kind.

                These days, as blog followers know, I travel, dine and spend Christmases with Husband, a companion who, on balance, I prefer to be with than without-but I wonder when lone women diners and travelers will ever be a natural phenomenon?