Getting to Grips with The Gambia

Dawn on Mandina Bolong Tributary, Matasuku Forest
Dawn on Mandina Bolong Tributary, Matasuku Forest

I never expected the ‘up country’ or ‘up river’ part of The Gambia to be so completely different from the coast.  Roughing it does not begin to describe how differently people live in rural Gambia.

Aghi's Restaurant, Barra
Aghi’s Restaurant, Barra

I could title this particular blog ‘putting your money where your mouth is’.  I was the one who wanted to go ‘off piste’ in Africa.  No one twisted my arm to do it.  What took place was a bit disconcerting.

It started with the ferry ride from Banjul to Barra.  Normally that would not be an issue but,  as one of the ferries wasn’t working, it was a 2 ½ hour wait to board.  Another ½ hour later after crossing the river, our schedule for that day was thrown into disarray.  But, hey, this is Africa and sometimes infrastructure is not quite up to standards Brits are used to.  Get over it! (I said to myself).

Boarding the ferry in Banjul
Boarding the ferry in Banjul

Rather than motoring over to Georgetown after our tour of Niumi National Park and Jinack Island, we ended up staying in the area.  Unfortunately it was in a (not yet completed) lodge in Mayamba village near the ferry terminal.  It looked good from the outside but had no amenities. Though my room was clean, it had a useless mattress and cushions for pillows and a window that wouldn’t close. There was a family with domestic animals living in the back garden of the premises.  It didn’t particularly bother me but it meant that there were noisy goats eating grass outside my room at 4am  (at least, I think it was goats!)

Jinack Island Beach
Jinack Island Beach

It was a day later at Tendaba Lodge that everything unravelled.

Apparently, I was supposed to have a room with A/C.  When I was told that this message did not get through, I was philosophical and not too worried.  But I did make a fuss about having a proper mattress which, thankfully, was organised.

My room at Tendaba Lodge
My room at Tendaba Lodge

I was so pleased to have got a decent night’s sleep and was getting ready for breakfast when there was a knock on the door.  It was Ebrima, my personal tour guide. “Modou, the driver, is sick.  He has been vomiting since 4:00 this morning.  We must do the birding tour very quickly and then get him to the hospital.”  I was very concerned because Modou seemed like the sort that was indestructible.  But then I saw him lurching around and vomiting, I realised he was in a bad way.  It was either horrific food poisoning or something worse.

"What? Me, move? I am the King of the Road!"
“What? Me, move? I am the King of the Road!”

What Ebrima had failed to tell me was that he didn’t have a driving license. I was going to be the designated ambulance driver.  By now I was imagining that Modou had malaria or something equally horrendous so I took the keys and off we went.  And it would be 180kms to the hospital.  This was not a joy ride.

Village children in The Gambia
Village children in The Gambia

Within a few minutes of leaving the compound, we had to pull over to let our sick friend ‘use the toilet’.  Of course, there really weren’t any toilets in these rural villages (nor running water or electricity).

Villagers having lunch
Villagers having lunch

 

I somehow managed to navigate at top speed down the two lane highway avoiding: cows, goats, people, bikes…and dealing with police, immigration and military road blocks along the way.  At one military check point, the soldier became furious with me because I mis-understood his hand signal; I had moved forward when he wanted me to stop.  So, he then decided to search my luggage even though he could see there was a sick person with us.  Very, very frustrating.

But with steadfast determination – energised by the fear that someone could die on my watch – we managed to get Modou to the hospital before his symptoms became any worse.

What an experience for my first ever trip to The Gambia!  Next time, I might stay at the beach resorts.

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All images The Roaming Scribe, Lynn Houghton

Bergamo – a city in the clouds

 

The Carabinieri of Bergamo
The Carabinieri of Bergamo

 

The ancient hill top town of Bergamo
The ancient hill top town of Bergamo

 

Many years ago I embarked on a journey to Italy with a group of opera buffs; one of my first ever forays abroad as a grown up. Being obsessed with singing at the time, part of the reason to visit Bergamo was to see a museum dedicated to Donizetti.

Through the archway of the Piazza Vecchia

Actually, it was a school that had a few exhibits dedicated to the great composer but it was still interesting.  I remember gazing into orderly shop windows and taking a ride on the funicular from the Cittá Bassa to the Cittá Alta.

But my most powerful memory was the pealing of church bells.

Now, on returning to Bergamo, I understand why I remembered the bells.  As our tour guide, Marco, regales us with stories of yesteryear, he tells us that the church bells were sounded every night one hundred times to announce the closing of the city gate.  This tradition began many hundreds of years ago and continues to this day.   No wonder I remember the incessant ringing.

Marco, our tour guide
Marco, our tour guide

And Marco told us a personal story about the alarm bells.  He had taken out a girl for the first time and he was nervous. They were sitting overlooking the valley when the sonorous and loud clamour of the bells began. The girl was startled and embraced him out of fear.  He was quite happy about that and it meant the date went very well from that point on.

The stunning hill top fortification, which had built up over millennia, was virtually abandoned once town folk decided it was safe to build homes on the valley floor below. Bergamo’s Cittá Alta, so the story goes, became a ghost town overnight. This came after the unification of Milan and Bergamo in the early 19th century under the rule of the Austrians; Bergamo was jointed together with much of the surrounding area including the alpine lakes.

Austrians had a strong influence on the Bergamese dialect which is full of distinctly Germanic umlauts.  An example is the word for a polenta dish: Chisöl.

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About a century ago, many Bergamese realised that they had a treasure on their hands and began to move back to the old city and to renovate it.  The popular and populated Cittá Alta is now one of the most expensive places to live in Italy, if not Europe.

Venetian fountain
Venetian fountain

As we drove through the city gate to began our tour, the first place mentioned was the famous gelateria and café “La Marianna” www.lamarianna.it.  La Marianna is famous for creating the chocolate ice cream flavour Stracciatella renowned the world over.

We walked through the Piazza Vecchia which was revealed to be built upon Roman ruins, something only recently discovered.  We were amazed at the beauty of the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni chapel), which is annexed to the equally impressive Santa Maria Maggiore, a masterwork of Renaissance architecture and decorative art. It contains the tomb of the soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni.  On leaving the Santa Maria Maggiore, we noticed a strange coat of arms on the steel gate.  It was bronze and depicted three sets of male genetalia!!

A coat of arms with selection of male genitalia
A coat of arms with selection of male genitalia

 

We also popped into the stylish 5* Relais Lorenzo Hotel to see the ruins of the city wall which are nestled in the basement room of the hotel.  An extraordinary hotel in which to stay and spend a few days in this unique and ancient town.

Ruins of the city wall in the basement of the Relais Lorenzo
Ruins of the city wall in the basement of the Relais Lorenzo

On this occasion, another highlight was a wonderful lunch at DaMimmo Restaurant on Via B Colleoni.  Our meal featured local specialities including a Piccolo antipasta (made from polenta), a dish of traditional ravioli followed by a charred, roast lamb shank on a base of polenta.  The pièce de résistance was a simple dessert of cheese accompanied by miele del Parco dei Colli (local honey).  Bellisimo!

Traditional dessert
Traditional dessert

 

All images © Lynn Houghton

This trip was sponsored by www.wonderfulexpo2015.info and Turismo Bergamo and the Lombardy Region as part of the British Guild of Travel Writer’s Annual 2015 AGM.