I first wrote this post in my journal by candlelight at Kunta's Bar and Grill. My first trip to the beach was on Tuesday, the day before Bakau Banter #2.
Everything about Africa is amazing. Everything. I often cannot believe that I'm really here, though all my senses tell me otherwise. Plane travel really warps one's sense of scale. Every time I feel a sense of spatial disbelief, I imagine a map of the world, imagine Canada, imagine Gambia, and I am simultaneously floored and grounded.
Everything is amazing, in every sense of the word. And everything is intense: the colours, the smells, the heat, the moisture, the joy, the smiles, the poverty, the dust, the greetings, the harassment, the fruit, the friends, and the adventures.
Today. Today was a true adventure. It made the kind of travel story that I will tell every time someone asks me about my trip to Africa.
Today I finally went to the beach. Finally. Seventh day in Africa, first day in the ocean. Every day has been full of new towns, new food, new people, and a new language -- and I have hardly had time to enjoy the Gambian pace. But, due to a scheduling conflict, my language trainer and I have pushed my Wolof lessons to the late afternoons and evenings for a few days, so I finally have some daylight hours to explore. After sending some e-mails and doing my Wolof homework, today's highest priority was, of course, the beach.
Cape Point is a short walk away from my hotel, perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. Atlantic Road became increasingly touristy as I walked towards the beach, but I could brush off most souvenir sellers with a simple "Mangee dem" (I am going). I greeted most everyone I passed, practising the elaborate string of Wolof greetings and was met with lots of smiles and hearty laughs. The smiling coast indeed! I reached the end of the road and, nestled between a pair of resort hotels, was a path leading to white sand and to the eagerly-anticipated Atlantic. I started down the path and was startled by a small voice.
I thought I was alone.
"Hello. You're staying at the Ramana Hotel. I said hello to you last night. You were with your Canadian friends."
My identity was, I knew, anything but secret. What could I expect after five days wandering around town practising Wolof? Every conversation consists of "What is your name? Where are you from?" (Man, Eileen laa tuda. Canada laa jogee.) But, the town was keeping a closer watch on the solo female toubab than I realized.
I turned around to find a skinny young boy, no older than 14 or 15. At his age, it was hard to tell if he was just a child wanting to be my friend and touch the ghostly hand of a toubab, if he was just curious and friendly (as most Gambians are), or if he was old enough to be a bumster, a label for young male prostitutes which are common on Gambian beaches. Regardless, he seemed harmless enough, if not a tad annoying, so I was happy to chat.
He accompanied me to the sand and guided me to a grove of palm trees under which he told me I could read my book and no one would bother me. I said I wanted to swim and started to walk towards to ocean. He insisted I leave my bag under the tree and I insisted otherwise. He was sufficiently convincing that I decided to take the risk -- I had strategically only brought things that I wouldn't mind losing and I wanted to see where this was going. So, I removed my skirt and shirt, very self-conscious that I was a pasty white woman in a bikini and the only others were this young boy and a group of fisherman -- and in a Muslim country during Ramadan. I had previously been assured that bikinis are fine on the tourist beaches of the Kombos, but I'm not convinced that that's wise during the off-season.
I walked towards the ocean, followed by my eager young Gambian shadow. He asked if I knew how to swim and I assured him that I can. He, I learned, cannot. "Maybe you can teach me?" I told him no, and to be careful and stay where it is shallow. I stepped into the ocean, so refreshed by the salty water that I forgot about my shadow. I was on a sand bar, so I had to walk out a fair way before the water was deep enough for me to dive in. I was so happy to be in the tropical waters that I paid little attention to the boy.
I paid even less attention to the current. Three front crawl strokes and I had been pulled out over my head. The current was pulling me quickly and, mildly panicked, I set my sights on getting back to the sand bar. I am not a strong swimmer, but I love the ocean and knew that I could easily out swim the current if I acted quickly.
The foolish young boy did not heed my advice. He did not stay where he was safe and, like me, was being carried by the current. And he couldn't swim. He grabbed my hand and I tried to swim, but my strokes weren't nearly strong enough for the two of us. Getting nowhere, I let go. Selfish? Maybe. Self-preserving? Definitely. He could tread water just fine and we weren't the only ones on the beach.
I got myself back to the sandbar and watched while two older Gambian boys -- maybe 18 or 19 -- swam out to fetch him. Mildly embarrassed and thoroughly concerned, I joined the three boys and the growing group of fishermen. Me, the solo bikini-clad white woman that left a young Gambian teen to flounder in the current. Great.
"This boy can't swim!"
"Why did you leave him? Is he your friend?"
"He's not my friend. He just followed me. And I'm not a strong enough swimmer for the two of us."
"He can't swim!"
"I know. I told him to stay where it is safe. And he didn't listen."
"He is foolish. This place is not safe."
And, with that, I was absolved of (almost) all blame. Everyone started yelling at the boy in Wolof. I had no idea what they said, but it definitely wasn't "What is your name? What country do you come from? How much is this pile of mangoes?"
I took the opportunity to retreat to my palm tree and sheepishly read my book. I was promptly joined by one of the older boys. He assured me that Lamin (the young one) was okay, just stupid and foolish and had vowed to never swim again. I also learned that Lamin accompanies tourists to the beach daily. I wasn't surprised to learn this and, at a few points, had wondered if this was just a grand charade and I was going to find myself caught in the middle of a scam. But no, regardless of what the boy's motives were, I was sure that he was genuinely eager, foolish, and a poor swimmer.
After a while, Lamin joined us at the palm tree and the older boy wandered away. After receiving my concern and assuring me that he was okay, he progressed to more important matters: Did I need cocoa butter rubbed on my back? No, I didn't. In fact, I wanted to read my book by myself, thank you very much. Please take your hand off my back. I was firm and the youngster got up to leave.
"I will need medicine. And you need to pay for it. Only five dalasi."
Five dalasi or not, this child did not need medicine. And, even if he did, 20 cents Canadian was not going to go far at the pharmacy.
"You people are very bad. White skin very bad people."
Fine. Whatever. Now I could read in peace. And it was indeed peaceful and free of harassment until I got up to leave.
It was the older boy.
"I want to be your friend."
"You want to be my friend?"
"Yes, I want to be your friend. You you have e-mail? Can I e-mail you?"
"You don't have e-mail?"
"I do, but I don't give out my e-mail address. I'm a very private person." (Ha!)
Sigh. The boy followed me to the edge of the path, all the while unsuccessfully trying to get my contact information. His parting words? "You'll come back tomorrow? I can see you tomorrow?" Right.
Seriously?! This is my life and I love it. One week down, 24 to go.