Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

January 25 – February 9 2008 / West Africa: The Home Land

A ship-based trip through Mali, The Gambia, and, briefly, Senegal
Part 5 - Continuing Up The Gambia River, As Far As We Can Go

Part 5 - Continuing Up The Gambia River, As Far As We Can Go

This morning when I came up for early coffee there were two black men sitting in the lounge; we greeted each other, and a bit later I found that they are the two guides that were with the pirogues yesterday. Both of them speak excellent English and are very aware and interesting and interested and now I wish I had been with them on the river. One of the small problems with these kinds of trips is that one's guides often speak English that is hard to understand, one spends a lot of energy trying to understand and to make oneself understood, energy that is lost for actually seeing things. So I often just end up ignoring them.

Besides my most important and valuable mode in travel is simply to look for myself, to try to see and understand and interpret myself.

But I like these two guys, and I would like to have gone out with them. When John comes along for breakfast we spend a few minutes talking to them about politics in America; they have seen the presidential debate a few days ago and have good questions and ideas about our politics. They admire our politics and they are right.

So nearly all day today we are traveling up the river--we can imagine or know that surely the Portuguese and the others came up this river, looking for--looking for slaves, for gold, for whatever they could find. But maybe not, maybe they just hung out on the Atlantic coast, waiting for Africans to bring them things to sell.

We pass by a place where the two banks of the river are rather close, and on one side we see the ratty blue ferry that carries people from one side to the other. People are lined up waiting to get on, and there are hugely-loaded trucks waiting. The short line of people walk on, and once we have passed them, the trucks drive on. I miss seeing them move across the river.

Farther up-river, there is the odd pirogue with one or two people in it. Just now I saw a red pirogue with one man in it, near the green shore. What on earth can he think of us, on our fancy small ship. We pass by shores of mangroves, their narrow snake-like roots evenly spaced. There goes a glittering black and white kingfisher: hovering, darting, fluttering, peering intently straight down at the water, searching. He rockets down, SPLASH.

A white horse stands hock-deep in the greenish-brown water, being washed of dust by his person.

Huge rafts of ducks are seen, we herding them in airborne drifting skeins with our little boat.

A huge broken kapok tree lies half in and half out of the river.

There are palm trees, and fields of giant lacy phragmites reeds.

The heat is a formidable, almost crushing barrier to activity.

Now it is 11:30 and the heat has risen, and the river and the sky are the same pale pale blue, with the two strips of pale green down the sides of the water.

We are told that tourists don't come up here much, up the river this far. I don't know. I feel terribly dislocated, not sure where I am. I need to work very hard, think very hard, about what I am seeing and what it means.

Just now this twittering South African woman who is on the trip, supposedly as some kind of leader, is giving a talk about how to write a journal. She says, look for the funny stuff, and gives as an example a sign that says, Project No Compromise. She thinks this is FUNNY?? It is HEROIC. What a twit.

She's rattling on about stories, of misadventures and so on, more or less to laugh at. But that's not what my journals are about. My journals are about what it means here, what it is about, who the people are and how it all fits into other things I know. At least that is why I write them, to have some time to ponder these ideas. So, thus:

--At the Bamako airport, we walked out of it the first time, and I noticed, as we hurried by trying to keep track of who we were supposed to be following in the chaos, a low concrete wall with a row of spigots, and a small bench in front of them--oh—I thought--this is a place for the men to wash their feet, and possibly their privates, before praying, and sure enough, there was a small enclosure with low yellow walls, and there within it were about half a dozen men kneeling and prostrating themselves in prayer. A chapel at the airport, just like at home.

--In the Dogon village, a gaggle of young girls, pressed against my window as I sat, safe, in the vehicle waiting to go. They wanted my water or its bottle. I finished the water, and, looking in the other direction, asked Ballou, Can I give them the bottle? Yes, he said. Still looking in the opposite direction, I stuck the empty bottle out the open window of the front seat. SCARBBLE SCRABBLE SCRABBLE like goldfish at the food, or sparrows at the piece of roll you toss to them. I can feel the bodies thumping against the car, and the voices shrieking--a few seconds later the bottle is gone and I look over at the girls and make a mock shudder and the girls laugh.

This afternoon we go across on the small boat, only a few hundred feet really, from where our ship Callisto is at anchor in the river, narrow now, to the shore. There's a sort of resort there, or what passes for one, and a couple of buses which take us a very short distance to a little village where there is a market, a much smaller and more local market than the ones we have been to. I hold my camera resting on my arm and my finger on the shutter, and I shoot and shoot, sometimes watching our guide speak as I point the camera discreetly in another direction, and all the pictures come out!

People seem more friendly--I exchange smiles and gestures with a mother or grandmother of a little baby who's crying. Arabic-looking men deal in lengths of pretty fabrics. I count four Spiderman t-shirts on the backs of teenaged boys. An enormous, I mean enormous, boombox , half broken, plays CDs for sale. Flat baskets of small red peppers, yams, tubers I couldn't identify. Mothers with small kids in tow and where else are they going to have them besides next to them at market? Low tables with packages of what looks like soap or other cosmetics. Very dark men and women, thin small faces and small features eye us but not in an unfriendly way.

Our guides have been on the ship since last night. There are two of them, well-built, very dark, barefoot at every opportunity--and extremely well-spoken and easy, having learned all our names instantly, filled with good information and stories. Ours leads us effortlessly and carefully through the market, shaking hands here and there as he meets people he knows.

Later, back on the bus, he tells us a little about himself. He has just gotten married last summer, and his wife is pregnant. She was chosen for him--a distant relative not related by blood--which means, it turns out, not related through the mothers, who will have nursed the children. Thus the relationship is through milk really, not blood. Anyhow, they did not know each other, but now he tells us that he loves her very much. His father has four wives, four moms he says, but he will have only one, because if you have more than one, there are so many children you can't provide education for all of them. All our money goes to the family, he says.

He talks about his family compound. It is hard to reconcile this intelligent, well-spoken and modern man, I guess I would have to call him, with life in a grass-enclosed circle of earthen thatched round, well, huts. He explains how the middle class, like him, well-educated actually have less than $1 a day--not sure I believe that--and that of course they can only afford bicycles. A lot of their money goes to send their siblings to school. He comments on the unfinished houses--it takes many years to have enough money to finish the house, he says. Just like South America, I think--but I don't see nearly as many of those sad buildings here as I have there. I think these people are more ambitious. Tougher, more determined.

After the market we load into the buses again and go to where there are mysterious circles of low worked stones, made of laterite clay which hardens when exposed to air. The standing stones are deep red, heavily pocked, clusters of them. There's a small round museum in which an earnest very dark man, wearing a conical sunhat, tells us we are highly welcome and presents his place to us, with its circle of placards and low ceiling of woven mats. Outside, two young boys and a man play music of drum and finger-harp. Birds flitter in the trees. The tourists walk among the stones, their mystery long forgotten and not apparent to us. The light is low and golden.

After dinner some of us load once again into the boats, into the bus, and go to the village dancing place, where there is a fire, many dozens of little kids, barely visible people dancing, and the drummers. A row of white plastic chairs for us. Kids immediately come and sit on our laps, mostly boys where John and I are sitting. The little boy on John's lap is quite unselfconscious, just perching there and watching the dancers, one hand resting on John's knee, his legs dangling down in front. One of the two on my lap is filled with the pulse of the dance and every little while is overcome and has to leap off my lap and into the dance circle, where he moves in perfect rhythm and controlled frenzy.

The kids are so innocent, so trusting. We are unthinkably distant from them but the little body on my lap feels just like my grandson’s, even smells like dirty little boy, nothing bad.

When we come home in the night to the boat and a hot shower I am tired but happy.

At breakfast one empty coffee cup is found to have an enormous, exciting nasty-looking insect in the bottom, a sort of fuzzy wasp-like creature. It's somewhat alive but is quickly dispatched. Nobody gets too excited.

Early we board a peculiar craft, like a big pirogue but with a flat top more or less covered with foam mats and some small pillows, with a partial awning of white cotton. There is not much of a place where I can sit comfortably. I feel grumpy, since we are spending the whole day on this, but I make the best of it.

Vervet monkeys and gorgeous red colobus monkeys are soon seen in the trees. It is still a bit chill and they are entwined and keeping warm--which we saw in Zambia. The colobus are russet and cream and black, and have wonderful long tails for keeping their balance.

Big raffia palms line the shore, smaller palms hang over the water, hippos erupt from shore and cruise the water around the little boat, which proceeds with engine barely turning over. John has a picture but the pink-brown round ears and bulbous eyes barely show.

And such a wonderful thing--one of the islands is a chimpanzee rehabilitation reserve, and yes, yes, there unmistakably is a large chimpanzee, who sits at water level and angrily shakes a large bush repeatedly at us. I look at him, his human face, his large furry brown arms, his gestures of reaching and shaking. In the bush next to him is another, peering out at us. The guide tells us that they would like to be fed, and since we aren't feeding them, the two of them are angry--they howl raucously, and go off in a huff. I never imagined I would see this fine animal—our closest relative and not so very different from any of us.

The smells are glorious on the moist cool air: a sweet one--maybe fruit opened by the chimps?--a musky animal smell which I think is theirs. Presently coffee from below deck.

The smell of smoke, fires somewhere, unbearably evocative and nostalgic of something--a past I did not actually have but which somehow haunts me. “The torment of places of which you can never be a part.” Later, talking the travel business at length with Greg the guide, I share this mantral phrase with him; his eyes widen in recognition and we agree together that that is the central sorrow of travel, a sorrow addictive in its alluring power.

Lunch is handed around on the little boat, we squat or recline uncomfortably, and the heat rises, and the sun.

To a small town, where we are given a talk by an earnest man, described as a historian, and a member of Parliament, about this town, always overrun by one country or another, hoping for an advantage--Brits, French, Dutch, even Scands—all of them wanting to have the advantage, buying slaves, gold, groundnuts for oil--and, says this man, wax. Where from? I ask. He doesn't know and is embarrassed not to. He's learned WAX so I let it go.

Next to the site of The Freedom Tree, a replacement but still. It's where slaves, escaping here to the Brit area, where slavery had been abolished, would hug the Brit flag and get their names recorded and thus be free. A wild, passionate, electrifying story-telling man is there, but he's told to hurry it up by one of our minders--he takes it with good grace but I just hate it. How many people have ever come to hear him? He says that he goes to schools, has been on tv, and tells his story everywhere. I feel a terrible frustration in him, a talent exercised only in tiny blazing intense bursts.

Oh, all the waste in this world.

Then the school, where our buses pull up and there's the school band, in their blue uniforms, girls and boys, at the Armitage Senior High School. The brass instruments are crude short curly horns, I don't know what they are. The kids play with gusto, and then we are marched into the auditorium, open on one side and painted green with a white stage, a list of head girls of the past posted prominently. This school was "Established in 1927 by our Colonial Masters," says the principal proudly. I want to stand up and cheer. Some famous Gambians have attended here--the Vice President, the Speaker of the House. On stage is the chorus mistress in her yellow clothing and headdress, and the girls in their blue. One of them wears short white socks and high black heels, and another has a cell phone and I think is taking pictures of us as we sit on a row of benches.

They have learned and sing our National Anthem, and of course I belt it out and get stared at. I loved it that they have learned and practiced this for us. It's a fine tribute. At the end, I lead our group in America the Beautiful. And feel proud.

Then it's into some classes--a math class that is quite creditable, in fact more than--and next door, I just get a brief glimpse that the teacher is actually teaching the Dirt Factory [my name for teaching that dead things return to become earth again]. It's all very confusing at the end, and I just get a chance to tell him that I teach that too, and and and and--

Then it's all over

and off briefly to the Methodist church, I guess a famous one but by that time I am too tired and hot to do anything but look respectful and interested.

But I’m struck by the young minister, so earnest and quiet, who says the main minister is away tending to his people, but he will be here on Tuesday and so we can come back and he will teach us about Jesus Christ. He is calm and quiet and confident.

The word, here, is, unmistakably: HEROIC.

Everything they do here is heroic.

Carrying so many burdens, of disease, of history, of geography, of prejudice, of climate--and yet they carry on, hopeful, forward-looking, energetic, creative, inventive. Determined.