Monday, November 17, 2014

Gambia day 3: Petting crocodiles and monkeys

monkey forest park

Monkey Park 

My third day in The Gambia started with a walk through Monkey Park. Normally, this is the place to see green velvet monkeys and red colubus monkeys. In the morning, however, all the monkeys were OUTSIDE of the forest, more precisely in the gardens of the Kokoli Beach Club Hotel where they hoped to snatch some breakfast. 

Luckily, Monkey Park is renowned for it accommodation to 153 bird species and 180 types of butterflies. 

The forest is also home to pythons, adders, mambas, and cobras, but they are afraid of people and rarely come out, certainly at this time of year when they are hibernating.

monkey forest park
monkey gambia

Kachikally Crocodile Pool 

Our next stop was the Kachikally Crocodile Pool in Bakau where you can walk amongst the crocodiles and even pet them if you like. 

When I tell someone that I cuddled a crocodile in The Gambia, no one believes me. But making friends with crocodiles is fairly easy at the Kachikally Crocodile Pool. In fact, the crocodiles are friendly and approachable because their hunger is being stilled with lots of fish (the official argument, though, is that the crocodiles are docile because they live in sacred water). Whatever the reason, they really are tame, and I could even rub my hand over the animal’s flabby belly. 

Even locals go to Kachikally, though not with the same objective as tourists. The pool in which the crocodiles bathe is a shrine and soaking yourself in the water is said to offer protection and improve good fortune. Many women go here for fertility reasons and then name their children Kachikally out of gratitude.

kachikally crocodiles
kachikally crocodile park
kachikally gambia

Royal Albert Market 

We then had a stroll at the famous Albert Market in Banjul. Locals sell fish, vegetables, fruit, and clothes here, but not in the most hygienic of all circumstances. The uncooled fish in particular attracts many flies. 

As you may have learned from my blog Traveling Cats, the stallholders didn’t want to have their cats photographed. Most of them were yelling and one woman even through salads at me. I asked a few Gambian people what this was all about, but no one really knew.

royal albert market
albert market gambia
royal albert market gambia
albert market banjul

Lunch at Laico Atlantic 

Lunch happened at Laico Atlantic, a beachfront hotel with a penchant for the eighties. Laico Atlantic reminded me of the Spanish hotels where my grandparents and I used to stay twenty to thirty years ago.

laico atlantic gambia
gambia beaches

Ministry of Health 

After lunch we headed to the Ministry of Health to talk about Ebola and how it has affected the region. I already knew that there was NO ebola in The Gambia and that the government had taken several measures to keep the disease from invading the country (such as closing the airport for infected countries and medical check-ups for everyone who enters The Gambia), but I still learned quite a lot about their measures to educate the local people on Ebola prevention. It’s a pity that tourists are avoiding Africa completely right now whereas Ebola is only present in three countries.

gambia people
gambia woman
gambia africa
gambia kids

The Coconut Residence 

We then left our former resort, The Bamboo Garden Hotel, and checked into the new The Coconut Residence. The place was absolutely adorable and we were happy to have a few hours off before heading for dinner. After being welcomed with a hibiscus juice served in a coconut, I took a seat on the balcony of my bungalow to catch up on some blog-related work. I had the visit of several blue velvet monkeys and a cat.

blue velvet monkeys
monkeys swimming pool

Sheraton Hotel 

The day ended with a visit of the chic and elegant Sheraton Hotel and dinner at their excellent outdoors buffet. 

Disclaimer: I visited The Gambia as a guest of The Gambia Tourism Board, The Coconut Residence, and SN Brussels Airlines. The opinions are my own. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gambia day 2: The roots of Kunta Kinteh

roots tv series

Has anyone read Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family or seen the TV mini-series based on the book?

In the seventies, both the book and the series were a huge success. Roots sold over one million copies in its first year and won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The mini-series was watched by 130 million people.

In case you wouldn’t know, Roots tells the dramatized story of slavery in The Gambia. It follows author Alex Haley’s family line, starting with his famous ancestor Kunta Kinteh’s enslavement in 1767 to his descendants’ liberation.

Kunta Kinteh Island

Last week, I did an excursion in The Gambia which was entirely dedicated to Kunta Kinteh and his life as it was portrayed in Roots

In the morning, we took a small cruise ship from Banjul to the North bank of the Gambia River. We first disembarked on Kunta Kinteh Island, formerly known as St. Andrew’s Island (named after a Portuguese sailor who died there of malaria). This used to be the last bit of African soil that many slaves saw before being transported in ships to the Americas. 

Before exploring the ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage site, our guide told us about its history, about how the Germans built the fortifications, and how the island becomes smaller due to erosion and might be gone one hundred years from now. 

He also told us stories about slavery in connection with Kunta Kinteh Island. We learned that prisoners were given mandatory names and that slave trackers raped female slaves so that their children could serve them as well. The women then strangled their own babies to protect them from misery. What makes Kunta Kinteh’s story unique is that he fought to preserve his cultural heritage (like refusing to take the English name that the slave drivers gave him). 

Kunta Kinteh Island is now abandoned apart from a large colony of Golden Silk Spiders.
st andrews island
kunta kinteh island gambia
kuntah kinteh island
slave island
slave yard
golden silk spider gambia

Slavery museum in Albreda 

Next, we left by boat to go to Albreda and Juffureh. 

As soon as we disembarked in Albreda, we were welcomed by a group of waving children and women who performed little tricks while crushing herbs. Poverty reigns in the village. A steady income is as good as non-existent and the inhabitants largely depend on small donations from passing tourists. Many of the villagers begged for money and were unwilling to take no for an answer. Most of them, however, just sat around talking and putting vegetables from one basket into another, while their dogs and goats slept next to them, numbed by the heat. Life is slow in Albreda. 

Our first stop was the Albreda Slavery Museum, which mainly consisted of drawings, pictures, and informational panels. Outside the museum is an exact replica of a slave ship. The museum wasn’t anything special, but I think it’s worth visiting the area as it’s one of the poorest parts of The Gambia and really opens your eyes on poverty and different ways of life.

children in gambia
gambia women
albreda museum
albreda slavery museum


We then walked to Kunta Kinteh’s home village Juffereh. Once more, we were struck by the poverty of the place. Juffureh may be a historically important community with a famous ancestor, but life is not treating the people well here. The begging, which now involved tugging at our clothes, made us feel uncomfortable. 

In Juffureh, we also met one of Kunta Kinteh’s descendants. She offered a certificate for sale as proof of our visit. 

juffureh gambia
binta kinteh
sunset gambia
africa sunset

Adventure time

After the Roots Experience Tour, we thought the day’s adventure would be over. Actually, it had only just started. 

While we were heading back to the south bank our boat’s motor broke down in the middle of the river. We had to be rescued. That meant waiting for a little canoe to row us to the mainland. 

Back to where we started, we waited for a bus to pick us up at the entrance of Albreda. It was here that we learned that time in The Gambia had an entirely different meaning. Everything in The Gambia lasts twenty minutes, even if it’s two hours or forty minutes. "That’s how the term GMT was invented," our cruise coordinator joked. "You mean Greenwich Mean Time?" "Here it means Gambia Maybe Time. You can never be sure when someone or something will arrive."

After about an hour, a ramshackle little bus took us on an hour and a half drive to the ferry port. During the trip, one of my fellow travelers wanted to open the window and had the pane in his hands. The air smelled of fresh herbs. 

The ferry was a different story. I felt as if we were being transported inside a garbage container. The passengers were mainly locals. Some had their goats on a leash; some carried a coffin. An authentic experience, to say the least. 

Back on shore, we immediately went to Poco Loco to enjoy our evening meals. There was singing on stage and the atmosphere was jolly. The crowd consisted mainly of white, older ladies and their young, black lovers. It was yet another part of this country - the part in which fun, comfort, and money took center stage. A small ginger cat found its way inside and perched itself on my lap - one of the many starving inhabitants of The Gambia.

Disclaimer: The Roots cruise was sponsored by The Gambia Tourism Board, Bamboo Garden Hotel, and SN Brussels Airlines. The opinions are my own.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Razor Reel Film Festival 2014

film festival belgium

Just like previous years, I'll be hosting several Q&A sessions with filmmakers at the Razor Reel Fantastic Film Festival in Bruges. Below are the trailers of the movies I'll be talking about. Enjoy. 

Der Samurai 

Today, November 9 at 8 pm, I'll be doing a Q&A with director Till Kleinert about his celebrated movie Der Samurai. In his film, a young police officer finds a man walking in the woods, wearing a dress and carrying a katana (samurai sword). The samurai invites the police officer on his destructive crusade towards a nearby village, a journey that will change him forever. 


Forget everything you know about good taste and normal filmmaking. Todeloo is a low-budget film made by a group of friends, and, most importantly, it takes place entirely in a toilet. It stars a toilet lady, a tax collector, a drug dealer, a bunch of local junks, and a serial killer who tries to flush his victim's body parts down the drain. On November 10 at 8 pm, the makers of Todeloo will be talking about their crazy project. It'll most probably be an unusual Q&A as well. 

White Settlers 

Simeon Halligan has already proven with Splintered that he knows how to make a good horror movie. He's back with White Settlers, a suspenseful chiller about a couple that moves to an isolated farmhouse. As darkness falls, they suspect they're not alone. They don't belong there and they certainly aren't welcome. If you want to know more about this film, then come to my Q&A with director Simeon Halligan on November 14 at 6 pm. 


The revenge thriller Julia centers on a woman who falls prey to an unorthodox form of therapy to restore herself after suffering a brutal trauma. Director/screenwriter Matthew A. Brown will talk about this movie during our Q&A on November 14 at 8 pm.

Have you ever been to the Razor Reel Fantastic Film Festival? Which films of the festival are you looking forward to?