Today in Liverpool was beautiful weather, but the calendar is merciless. In a moment, we are waiting for November’s rain. Mud, robust wind and darkness before we really start the day. Fortunately, the world is getting smaller and a trip to the Gambia can cost cheaper than a week in Brighton.
The Gambia? Where is it? Is it safe there? How long does the flight take? Is it worth it? What about mosquitoes? And Ebola? And vaccinations? Is it an Islamic State? And what religion they confess? Is it clean there? And how will I get along? Can you pay by card? Do they have alcohol? What food do they serve? And finally – can I go there with my child?
These are the questions we have heard over the last week. They were addressed to us because we are the authors of the National Geographic guide to the Gambia.
We are not surprised by your questions. When we went to the Gambia for the first time, we knew as much as we read on some blog, where a traveller panicked that there are no supermarkets in this country and there are only one, non-working traffic lights at the pedestrian crossing. In reality, they have supermarkets and traffic lights in the capital at every major intersection and –surprise! – they work.
Now to the point. We will answer all your questions.
1. Where the hell is it and are they stealing there?
The Gambia is located in West Africa, on the Atlantic coast, at the mouth of a very wide (sometimes up to 30 km wide) river called the same as the country. Or rather, the country is called like a river because it occupies the greater part of the state, which cuts deep into the only neighbour country – Senegal.
What distinguishes the Gambia from other African countries, or almost from all over the world, is the low level of crime. According to official statistics, it is close to zero. There are, of course, pickpockets, and – especially on the largest bazaar in the capital – Albert Market, it is worth keeping an eye on your money. Lonely women should also be careful about the so-called beach boys – handsome buddies who live by seducing those who are eager for a tropical romance. But more serious crimes are not likely to happen here.
The Dutch businessman we met at the hotel told us his ‘adventure’. The previous afternoon he was withdrawing money from an ATM in the city centre. In the morning he realized that there was no wallet in his pocket. He rushed back to the ATM and found a wallet lying peacefully on the casing of the device. Both cash and cards were in place. Nothing was lost. Could such a thing happen in any other African or European country? Why is the Gambia completely different from other countries in this region?
‘It’s simple’, told us the antique dealer in Brikama, the most famous handicraft market in the Gambia, and showed us a small figure with rusty nails hammered to the wooden body.
‘What is this’? Magda asked in horror.
The merchant was silent for a moment.
‘Thief. When someone stole something, he was punished in this way.’
‘So this is not performed today?’
‘There’s no need to. We show children this doll. That’s enough’.
2. How to get there and how long does it take?
Flight to Banjul – the capital of the country, from London takes about six hours. The Gambia is not far away – just below Tropic of Cancer.
3. Is it worth going there?
Yes, if you are dreaming about Black Africa, and you feel like having a family getaway for a week. Kenya is in our opinion too snobbish (and expensive), Tanzania makes sense if you can spend at least three weeks on such holidays. Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia etc. are great directions for mercenaries looking for extreme emotions, not travellers who want to show children crocodiles, dolphins, or a friendly, safe African culture.
4. What about mosquitoes?
In the tropics, they are the biggest trouble, because they not only cut like mad, but some species carry serious diseases, the most common of which is malaria. But that’s why the season begins in November because it’s winter – dry period. There should be no mosquitoes. We were only bitten in one place – in the lobby of the most elegant hotel in the city – Kairaba. And we did not meet these bloodthirsty beasts either on the beach or on the river, or even on the swamps, where we watched the birds (the Gambia, is a birdwatcher paradise).
5. And what about Ebola and what vaccinations should I have?
According to the British government, the level of Ebola threat is the same in the Gambia as in Western Europe. So there was not one case of getting ill. Vaccine for yellow fever is obligatory. Vaccination is valid for 10 years (EDIT November 2017: according to WHO’s latest recommendations, the vaccine is valid for the rest of your life) and recorded in a yellow book that you must have with you as it may be useful to show on the border. The vaccination can be done no later than 10 days before the scheduled departure. It is also worth doing other vaccinations useful in the tropics: for jaundice type A and B, tetanus, polio, typhoid, diphtheria and meningococci.
6. Terrorism and Islam
Just a juxtaposition of these two words is for the followers of political correctness a mortal sin, but we do it with full awareness of the stupidity of such equality signs. It’s worth going to the Gambia if only to find out how tolerant Islam from the west coast of Africa can be. Terrorist threat level – again according to James Bond’s colleagues from Mi6 – ‘very low’. But terrorist attacks in The Gambia can’t be ruled out. You should be vigilant. But I think that for Islamic fundamentalists (to the Gambia they have from Syria further than to the UK) Gambian Muslims – that is 90 percent of society – are hopeless hipsters.
7. Is it clean, there?
Yes. And it smells good.
8. What language do they speak there?
In a few years – in every language. Because the Gambians quickly acquire new languages. No wonder, since everyone speaks at least six. Each of the five tribes inhabiting the Gambia speaks with their language (and the other four too, as the Gambia has only 2 million inhabitants). At school, lessons are conducted in English, so everyone who went to school knows English (boys practically all, older women often did not have such a chance). Most Gambians have a family in nearby Senegal, so it’s common knowledge of French. Tourists from Germany and the Netherlands who come here for years can communicate in many places in their own language.
9. Can I pay by card?
The use of credit cards in the Gambia is often associated with high fees and an unfavourable exchange rate. While VISA cards are widely accepted, Mastercard cards owners won’t be happy. Their cards can be used in a few points and the payment of them is associated with a 30% commission.
The currency in the Gambia is the Dalasi (GMD). The rate is currently 100 dalasi = 1.5 GBP. It’s best to exchange the European or American money in yellow currency exchange offices with the Western Union logo. In the whole country, the differences in the course are small, but it is necessary to count the banknotes that we will receive because the cheats occur.
10. Food and alcohol?
It is necessary to try the fruits that are the most important part of the local diet. At the beach, we meet Fruit Ladies – women selling plates of freshly cut fruit at a price of 50 to 250 dalasi. If we live in a hotel, the first Fruit Lady that will meet us on the nearby beach will serve us until the end of our stay. We just need to remember her name or the number of the stand. Freshly squeezed fruit juice will provide us with the Juice Man. As in the case of Fruit Ladies, strict regionalization is obligatory. ‘Our’ Juice Man, has exclusivity on us.
Alcohol is imported and expensive, but at a decent price is good local beer to buy in supermarkets and pubs. In stores, we will also get food for babies: milk powder, jars and of course – nappies.
And finally 11… Can I go there with my child?
Yes. But… Although we met in the Gambia tourists with really small children (even smaller than our Willi), we personally believe that to make this trip a joy for both the child and parents, the kid should be at least three years old. And this is not about immunization or antimalarial prophylaxis, but about really taking advantage of the charms of Africa. To go together, to pet the crocodiles, to observe and photograph birds together, to wander through the national park and look for monkeys on the palms, drink the baobab juice, reflect on the fate of slaves in the village of Jufureh and Kunta Kinteh. Walk around the most beautiful fish market in the world in Tanji. Canoes on the shallow waters of the Makasutu and Lamin lagoon.
When it gets rainy and cold we know where to go, right?