I stepped out of the airplane door; chin tilted towards the sun, grin like a Cheshire cat.
“Excuse me miss, can you come here?”
At the bottom of the steps was a line of Gambian security officers and one of the youngest was beckoning for me to come over.
“What on earth have I done wrong?” My mind raced in panic as I gingerly approached him.
“What’s your name?”
“Where do you come from?”
This confused me as I had clearly just stepped off a Monarch plane I assumed he knew came from London, but I answered him, being the authority-fearing person I am.
“You are very beautiful woman.” He threw me a curveball. “Welcome to my country.”
I backed away as the shuttle bus arrived to take us to the terminal and I realised I was not in trouble. I re-joined Jai (the striking female blogger from Savoir There who I was about to be travelling with for a week) as she had been behind me taking photos of the plane.
“The strangest thing just happened..” I began to tell her.
Except in the Gambia it turns out that gushing, unexpected compliments are not strange at all. More like the norm.
The taxi driver: “You are one in a million.”
The transfer driver: “So do you have a Gambian boyfriend?”
The pool boy: “You shine bright like a diamond.” (Yep he stole a line straight from Rihanna and thought I wouldn’t notice.)
I never knew being complimented could be so wearing but after a full week of it, myself and Jai began to grow a little tired. I must admit none of the advances were ever threatening, I felt completely safe the whole time I was in the Gambia, but it was telling that in mixed company the situation was entirely the opposite.
I asked one of the female bloggers who had travelled to the Gambia on a press trip the week before us and her experience was totally different. Similarly, when we met the group of (male) British tree climbers at Mandina and told them some of the lines we had been fed they were totally surprised. On a journey with the same driver they had been taken to see his compound and met his wife and felt warmly welcomed into their household. On our drive we had been told repeatedly that in Gambia it is normal to have many wives and persistently asked for our contact details. When I said I had a boyfriend I was told, ‘he doesn’t need to know.’
So why were Jai and I singled out? Perhaps, because we were travelling as two young women together, we appeared exactly that – single. And maybe, the men hoped, looking for a Gambian lover.
Mamadi, our private guide for four days in the Gambian, treated us with utmost respect and went out of his way to show us the best bits of his country. But by the final day, as he began to drop his guard, we learnt a little more about the context surrounding the way Gambian men act towards Western women.
“My friend has an English girlfriend,” he told us. “She bought him a house for £18,000 and he has 4 cars. He has made it.”
We questioned him on how many times the girlfriend comes to visit the Gambia – about twice a year was the answer. “And is your friend faithful whilst she is away?” I asked. A shrug was the reply.
A true story or not, our guide seemed to think this set up was the Holy Grail, and he wasn’t the only one.
When Mamadi took Jai and I to the local market he was high fived from all sides. Mamadi was apprehensive to tell us why but we had our suspicions. He stopped to talk to an old lady who had called out to us. She appeared to be teasing him and he shook his head in embarrassment. Then suddenly the lady grabbed my arms and began mining a dance with me.
“Please tell me what she is saying?” I asked Mamadi. He blushed.
“She says this is how she will dance at our wedding.”
Guess we had better book the venue then.
Compliments do seem to be part of the Gambian nature though (and my newly inflated head would like to believe some of them had no ulterior motive). Towards the end of my stay at Ngala Lodge, the boutique hotel on the beach we spent our first half of the week in, I bumped into the chambermaid for the first time.
“Oh I am so glad I met you,” she exclaimed, ”Everyone keeps telling me I clean the room of the beautiful girl but I haven’t seen you until now.”
I didn’t know what to say. My appearance does evidently not warrant this reaction but it made me smile regardless. In fact, it made me smile all week.
Interestingly, we discovered that apart from travelling with a man, riding a bike was also a great way to shrug off any unwanted attention or ‘bumsters’ (as the hawkers are known locally). We borrowed some wheels from the staff at Ngala Lodge and freely explored the local area and market, whizzing off as soon as any vendors tried to give us the hard sell. We were very appreciative of the men at the resort though when it came to adjusting the rusty seat on Jai’s bike – after much effort from 5 men the task was completed!
Back at the airport prior to our departure, I spotted, for the first time of our trip, evidence of the type of relationships Mamadi spoke of. When I say evidence, I mean, two separate white woman saying goodbye to what appeared to be their Gambian boyfriends. Hardly evidence but still notable compared to the rest of the passengers who were travelling home in couples. As Jai and I joked that we’ll be relieved to get home and not be the centre of attention, one of the English tree climbers told us we should be flattered.
“Come back in a few years and you’ll be gutted to not get any attention.”
Sounding just like the douche I suspected he was, I’m not sure I agree with that one entirely. But I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.
Have you ever been the recipient of overzealous compliments on your travels? Did you find it flattering or uncomfortable?
I travelled as a guest of Gambia Holiday specialists Gambia Experience.