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?
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.