“Welcome to Gambia – would you like some food,” says the smiling immigration officer with the yellow uniform and points to a room in the back of the immigration building. Inside five smiling officers are seated around a dish of Benachine (rice with oil and vegetables) taking turns dipping their greasy fingers in the spread.
“Sama Hrarid Djere Djef” – Thank you very much my friend I say but politely decline the offer. I easily get our four Gambian entry stamps and mistakenly believe that now everything is in its most beautiful order. Happily, I return to our waiting taxi.
“Follow me and bring all your luggage” says a creaky, low-stem and round-headed man who suddenly emerges out of the blue. His uniform is unlike the immigration officers blue. He shows his little identification sign and says he is from the drug police.
Now I do not know if the drug police on the border with Gambia are busting many western tourist families with small children on their way to a beach holiday for drug trafficking. But for some reason from the very beginning we are treated by the arrogant, corporal man as if we had already been sentenced to a severe punishment for a serious crime.
Next thing we are led through an office with large empty tables where we could appropriately have had our bags searched and onto a gravel parking area where a simpleminded junior drug officer who is almost as arrogant as his boss instructs us to show him “all our baggage”. We have been on our way from Guinea Bissau for six and a half hours and are a little tired – but still we start laying up our stuff in the dirty yard.
After a careful review of half of our bags (including the thorough inspection of all the pill bottles in our toilet bag – one never knows if suspicious people like us might have tugged any ecstasy pills in with the painkillers) – I am then asked to present myself at the manager’s office. Here I am told to empty my pockets and the contents of my bellybelt on his desk. At this time, I had about 2.000USD in cash (West Africa is mainly a cash region) that I have no ambition to leave on the chubby man’s desk. So, I simply say no, “What do you mean by no?” Says the man who already has his hand halfway down my money belt. “I mean no,” I say, looking directly into his eyes.
“You’re showing me the money for inspection right now,” he then says.
I’m tired. The man is an idiot. Charlotte is waiting impatiently outside – also irritated by the ongoing search she is herself exposed to. Our two young children are waiting alone in a hot car on a border with a driver we have only known for a short while and with whom they cannot communicate. So I choose – completely idiotic – to tell the man that I am a journalist who sometimes writes travel reports about the countries I visit for the Danish newspapers. And that until now – based on this meeting and an awful long wait on the Transgambian highway (explanation follows in the upcoming Senegal post), so far, I’m not really impressed by Gambia. In other words, something that could be perceived as a threat. A threat that if this jerk does not let me of the hook now I will write that he is a jerk.
See if I ever made a mistake during my travels – this could be a strong candidate to the mother of all mistakes. One big mistake. One. Great. Big. Mistake.
Almost immediately, the drug officer starts screaming violently into my face. His bullet round head is located only about 10 centimeters from mine. He screams that he is just doing his job. That I do not have to tell him how to do that. That I can write whatever the hell suits me. That I can go to hell if I do not do exactly as he says. That he can decide if we are allowed to get into the country or not (in despite of having already received our entry stamps). That I should never ever stare him in the eye. That I am welcome to tell anyone I wish that he is a very thorough and very serious and very professional drug officer. And so on and so on. Maybe his shouting lasts for five long minutes. Spit is spraying in cascades all over his small and confined office.
I have a strong desire to punch this hothead right on his apparently very well-functioning mouth. I realize however that this is probably not the perfect move if my desire is to straighten things out. So I constrain myself while he goes on and on and on shouting at me. Eventually, the gas runs off the balloon and he gets tired. Totally exhausted he collapses in his chair. I take out my pile of cash and lay them on his table while holding tightly onto the wad. For the next 30 minutes, I’m subjected to Gambian border history’s most thorough search (done by the junior officer) before I finally get to go. Welcome to Gambia.
The Lemon Creek resort we are going to stay at is, however, absolutely stunning. We are here in the low (rainy) season and I have found a deal on Expedia allowing us to stay at this luxury hotel with 4 beds, aircon, huge breakfast buffet (even though there are almost no other guests) for the bargain price of just 34 Euros a night. We even get a balcony with a view to bot sea and pool. The garden resembles a tropical paradise, colorful birds fly around, monkeys jump around between the tall slender palms in the green garden (begging bananas from the guests) and the cicadas violently sing.
It would be safe to say that the pool area is not very crowded. The first day we see only two other guests. Two quite bulky Scottish sisters from Edinburgh. One flows out into her beach chair next to her Gambian boyfriend, who, with his regular features, his six-pack and well-groomed hair looks like a more handsome, more well-trained and much younger version of Bob Marley.
With her black god beside her, she enjoys life. I have seen documentary programs about them. “Fuck-boys” Charlotte calls them. Beautiful black men in search of white women who can support them. I would like to photograph them, but it seems (for once) a bit too intimidating.
Based in the Lemon Creek we go on excursions. I have an English friend who – like me – is trying to visit every country in the world. His name is Lawrence Williams and he runs an Eco lodge in Gambia (and has been detained and nearly thrown into prison camp in North Korea..but that’s another story ..). Lawrence has recommended us a few small excursions. Some time back he even offered us to stay at his lodge with him (even though it is officially closed for the rainy season) but since he tragically was involved in a serious traffic accident in East Timor a few months back he is still on crotches / recovering and hence is not as planned here in Gambia.
So we go on a jungle walk, visit a little crocodile zoo where you can touch the crocs and buy crocodile teeth necklaces. We also have lunch at Cape Point at Calypso Beach Bar where wild crocodiles swim around near the Atlantic shore next to the beach bar. There we can feed the wild crocs with (dead) fish. After that Jonas scares a large iguana sitting on a tree trunk so badly that it jumps and lands right on Ava’s face. After a few confusing seconds it realizes something is wrong and continues its journey into the bush.
Also we visit our Gambian sponsor child – pls see separate post here
Every evening we go down to the beach in front of the Lemon Creek hotel. The cover photo of my Lonely Planet Senegal and Gambia guidebook portrays local young men dancing in the sunset. I would like to shoot a similar picture. I do not see anyone dancing though but every night, football is played on the beach while the sun sets and reflects its rays at the water’s edge. One of the evenings it is a Gambian division 1 team that is practicing. They are really friendly and if I just promise to send the pictures on Messenger, they are more than happy to perform their magic tricks in the sunset in front of the very happy photographer.
Gambia is indeed a diverse country. From poverty and waste everywhere in the local villages to paradise at the resorts. From friendly, helpful, hard-working people in the towns and super service-minded staff at the resorts to corrupt and arrogant police officers at the borders.
Wow – what an experience at the border! That is something I would definitely not want to go through. I am happy to read you made it out of there with your money still with you!