The Smiling Coast
19.04.2013 - 19.04.2013 71 °F
The Gambia is a slice of another country; it is cut right out of the middle of Senegal in a wedge around The Gambia River. In some places it is a mere 7 miles wide, the oddest way to draw a political boundary you can imagine. We docked in Banjul where the landmark is the July 22 Arch that commemorates a bloodless coup in 1994 (not a very impressive monument or coup, I think). We took the ship’s shuttle bus into town, driving by places of incredible poverty as well as by the Presidential Residence. Over a portico on the latter hung a banner, Behind Every Great Man is a Great Woman. Women seem to be greatly revered here and they should be. They work hard while carrying babies with them everywhere; they are dressed in stunning textiles and headdresses; they have excellent posture because they carry things on their head most of the time. Most speak excellent English and seem to form a kind of instant bond of sisterhood. The Gambia is called The Smiling Coast - why I don’t know - and its people do smile a lot when they talk to you. We spent much time in the Albert Market where men are hard at work sewing on treadle machines and upholstery tables and women arrange their vegetables and fish. It feels more crowded and vibrant than other west African markets, although just as odorous. Young men called bumsters* crowd around tourists seeking to be guides, intermediaries, interpreters - and get paid for it. Bumsters are hard to fend off; we almost wanted to engage one in order to discourage the rest of the pack. At one turning in this immense market, a bumster told us that we were off track and in a dangerous place. Advertising his services or being genuinely helpful? We didn’t know, but we left. There were no taxis anyplace, and we didn’t want to walk further to the museum, so we took the shuttle back to the ship where another huge market had been set up on the pier.
In the talk on The Gambia by the ship’s shore concierge, he showed a slide entitled “Bumsters v. Cougars,” a photo of older female tourists who had been romanced by young Gambian men, apparently a local scheme. Now we have left continental Africa to begin the journey across the Atlantic. As we listen to the news of Boston, we are aware that we are returning home to a place that isn’t the same as when we left it.