Sip a sundowner on the West African coast - a vacation in The Gambia
By Philipp Laage Nov 29, 2011, 19:27 GMT
Bakau, the Gambia - The tiny West African state of The Gambia is one of contrasts: A beer at one of the typical roadside snack bars costs the equivalent of just over a dollar and holidaymakers perch on rickety, white plastic chairs.
But at a nearby smart hotel, a gin and tonic costs 6.50 dollars and the bar stools are comfortably upholstered too.
Regardless of whether tourists decide to slum it or go for luxury, the scenery in this country is the same. The fiery sun hangs low over the Atlantic Ocean, there are acres of fine-grained sandy beaches to enjoy and the sky is generally empty of clouds.
This is the kind of panorama one might expect in the Canary Islands, except that we are quenching our thirst with a sundowner much further south, in Bakau, a town on Gambia's Atlantic coast.
The miniature country is named after the river on whose banks it lies. It has been independent since 1965.
Today, Gambia derives most of its income from tourism, thanks to its sparkling white sands. The drought season lasts from late autumn in Europe until February, and during this period the sea is still welcomingly warm.
Bakau is one of the best-developed places in Gambia, a tourist hotspot at Cape Point where the river flows into the ocean. It boasts a range of hotels, restaurants, markets, shops and internet cafes.
'You'll get on fine in The Gambia, people always help you out,' said Warren Hagist, an American student on a backpacking trip, before tucking into a portion of Maafe. The snack consists of rice with chicken in peanut-butter sauce and costs around 1.20 dollars.
The Gambia is one of the world's poorest countries and outside the hotel complexes, the cost of living is extremely low.
Within the vacation resorts the same standards are maintained as at most other beach hotels around the world. Everything is clean and the sun shines down relentlessly on the loungers.
'Some people like it when we say 'hello' or 'goodbye,' while others don't speak a word to us,' said one young Gambian woman employee at a four-star hotel, explaining sun-seekers' relative lack of interest in getting to know the country.
Outside the hotel compounds it is more or less impossible to start up a conversation with locals.
'You tend to find that there is a very narrow dividing line between those who are friendly and those who are just pushy,' said 20-year-old student Esther Hathaway, referring to some Gambian men who seek favours in return for their friendship - although most advances turn out to be harmless.
After dinner, many Americans are keen to check out the Kachikally crocodile pool. It is a both a tourist attraction and a sacred place.
For people in Gambia, the crocodile is a symbol of fertility and they believe that a visit to Kachikally can cure them of various ailments. One of the resident crocs is so tame that it even allows itself to be patted by visitors. The creature is covered with algae.
Holidaymakers tired of lazing on the beach will find more animals in Abuko Nature Reserve. The list of creatures in Gambia's most noted nature reservation even includes hyenas. Three lions from South Africa are scheduled to move in soon.
The park is covered by a thick tropical canopy and the mahogany and other trees are populated by all manner of monkeys. Giant spider webs are draped across the plants in this fascinating natural habitat.
Since Gambia is so compact, the country's coast is easily explored.
Among the sights are the party zone at Kololi Beach, the quiet fishing villages of Gunjur and Katong and the bird sanctuary at Tanji.
Transport is provided by a fleet of private minibuses and taxis, while several European airlines fly in regularly to the capital Banjul.
In the evenings, many Americans gather for their last sundowner. The beach is still busy and plenty of children are swimming. Smoke spirals rise from the barbecues and the day's last fish catch is unloaded.
Memories like these are likely to remain vivid for a long time to come.