Toubab - A term used by Gambians to refer to
Europeans; believed to originate from the old colonial practice of
paying messengers two shillings, or two-bob, for their
The Toubab has returned to The Gambia. We're just at the start of our third trip out here, which is notable because it's very rare that we ever go to the same place on holiday twice. On the flight over, in between catching up on some well-deserved sleep, I pondered for a while on why we keep returning.
There are lots of reasons to visit. The best weather coincides with the worst of British winter, the wildlife is astonishing and diverse, and the country is perpetually in a gear that's at least three clicks below that of even the Westcountry. Somehow these reasons didn't quite hit it on the head for me, and it wasn't until the travelling was over that I realised why.
I've written about my dislike of getting here before but, just to briefly touch on it again, our journey to west Africa begins with a long drive through the night, an exhausted check-in and boarding procedure that seems to go on forever, and an infernal flight where I am woken at frequent intervals to be served dire food and to be routinely abused. Banjul airport is hot and dusty; a sweaty place particularly when you've been in the same clothes since the previous day and are dressed more for 3°C at Gatwick than 35° on an airstrip. Being herded onto a transfer bus and being talked at by an incessantly cheerful but often ignorant tour rep is usually the final straw: when she told us that Alex Haley was a chap who lived through slavery and then made a film about it I gave up and stuck the iPod on. This may have been rather rude, but entirely justified. We dropped off at two hotels before ours, stopping at the second for rather too long to admire an insignificant lizard, and 500m from the end of a 3,000km journey I almost cracked. Cold beer, shower, nap. Or just shoot me now. I no longer care either way.
Ten minutes later, thanks partly to a scuttle for cover from said lizard, we arrived at the hotel. And this was where I remembered what it's all about.
Some of you may have witnessed me in a foul mood, and if you can picture me in that kind of
frustrated sleepless anger but with a boiling-hot head and sticky clothes you'll probably be fearful of the safety of the Gambian welcoming parties at this point. There are always a few brave souls who come up to greet the bus and get first dibs on the new customers, and my tetchy exhaustion dared any of them to approach. You bloody are, too, eh? Ok, let's just get the cases off an into the damn hotel. Head down, get on with it. I'll be back when I've had time to sort my head out. I'd love to talk, but I can't cope right now. My head is just in the wrong place for all this. Beer, shower, sleep. Sorry.
I turned round to give the first case to Lainey, and she was gone. Hellfire. And other words. I threw it over to the side of the road and went back for the others. I hauled them out and chucked them over with the other one, looking for Lainey. Come on. I need to move. As I cast my eyes around I caught the tour guide's eye. 'Been here before, eh?' she winked. I followed her nod and there was Lainey, wrapped in the arms of Bob, Bob the Builder, our best friend in The Gambia for the last two years, and before I knew it I was with them, shaking his hand and bear-hugging him. Seconds later we were joined by a bird guide who had run from the bridge back by the other hotel to greet us after seeing my hat in the bus window.
This was why we keep coming back.
We hurried to get our bags to the room. I still needed to have a beer, clean up and have a snooze, but I had to re-acquaint myself with a few people first.