Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Sacred gators - 27/6/09

So it's been a while, thanks in part to the arrival of my bloke and in
part to what happens to my laptop in two posts time, but here we go:

The drive down to Fajara had been hard, and I'd been looking forward
to a shower and a decent night's sleep. On all of my previous visits
to Fajara I had been put up in the accommodation reserved for visiting
scientists, and very nice it had been too, but on this occasion it
looked as though someone had finally worked out my true status - I had
been assigned to the student accommodation.

My heart sank as I stepped through the door. There was no mosquito
net, and the air was so thick with permethrin it made me cough. The
penultimate straw was either the lack of air conditioning, which has
been the only thing that lets me get a decent night's sleep here, or
the shower which yielded a grudging trickle of brown water than ran
dry a few seconds later. The final straw though was that after all
the effort I'd gone to to tell everyone that Jeff was my husband we'd
been given a single bed. Don't get me wrong, I've had some of the
best nights of my life in single beds but in this climate you do not
want to be sleeping in close proximity to a source of radiant heat, no
matter how much you may adore said source of radiant heat. I checked
the envelope the keys had come in - surely some mistake - but no, this
was indeed the room intended for "Judy Bristol and Joseph Jeffries".
So I flounced out, like a diva who'd been left white roses in her
dressing room instead of ivory, and booked us into a hotel.

A quick note about Jeff; I did consider giving him a nickname to give
the poor lad a bit of privacy, but decided not to bother as just about
everyone reading this blog will already know my bloke's name (except
Bug Girl, hi if you're still reading!). He would in fact have had a
ready-made nickname - in Wolof the word Jeff means "reward" but if I
started referring to him as "My Reward" you'd all be vomiting on your
keyboards by the end of the sentence and I wouldn't want to be liable
for the repair bill.

Anyway I waited in the cafe at Banjul airport for his delayed flight,
committing further crimes against dentistry with the aid of the Coca
Cola Corporation, then steered him through the bewildering throng of
people who wanted to carry his bag and summon him a taxi and be his
friend and all for whatever gift he wanted to give them, after which
experience the hotel room felt like a sanctuary. He had brought me
presents; new books and movies, toiletries and clothes and wonderfully
soothing AfterBite. This last I applied liberally and frequently
until I realised it was 3% ammonia and was making me smell like the
alley behind The Tyneside on a Sunday morning.

I realised how much I'd missed him, and not just for the presents and
conversation and the reasons I won't go into because I suspect my Dad
and his Mum may be reading. Somehow just having him here, even when
we were napping or reading in separate rooms or even bickering made
all the thousand tiny frustrations every day working in Africa brings
that much easier to bear. It was nice too to have someone else to
share all of Fajara's attractions with - we negotiated the filthy
gutters of Bakau market to buy fragrant incense from a Senegalese
herbalist, swung in hammocks at Leybato's beach bar as the sun set
over the Atlantic and, umm, bought baked beans and mayonnaise from
Kairaba Avenue's luxury European supermarket. Well I wanted to give
him the unedited Gambian experience didn't I?

We also visited the Katichikali Sacred Crocodile Pool, which would be
well worth a trip even without the crocodiles. There's a fascinating
little museum of Gambian culture and our guide was the first Gambian
I'd met with a wonderful dry sense of humour, solemnly informing us
that the crocodiles' diet was 80% fish and 20% tourist (at least I
assume it was a joke!). The pool is located in a beautiful garden,
like a lush rainforest with well-tended paths. the place was clearly
ancient, the vast trees testifying to the fact. I took a photograph
of Jeff standing between the buttresses of a majestic silk-cotton tree
to show the scale, but unfortunately realised when reviewing the
pictures that the way it was cropped made it look as though he was
standing in an enormous wooden vagina.

The pool at the heart of the garden is almost perfectly circular, with
a bloom of vivid green algae on the surface worthy of a St Patrick's
Day display. Crumbling stone steps lead down to the stagnant water;
women bathe here to cure fertility problems and I could well believe
that these waters could promote the growth of at least some form of
new life. But I'd imagine that of far more concern to pilgrims than
the foetid water would be the crocodiles themselves, several dozen of
which lurked beneath the water's surface with only their nostrils
breaking the algal bloom or sunned themselves on the steps and path.

As sacred crocodiles these creatures are stuffed so full of fish that
they apparently have no desire to attack humans. Indeed the ones we
saw seemed to have no desire to move at all, but it was still some
time before I could be persuaded to touch one. It felt surprisingly
soft, I don't know what I was expecting but it was probably rock-hard
muscle and pure, compacted, primordial evil. Jeff of course knew no
fear, stroking them and shaking their hands and pretty much doing
everything short of picking them up by the forelegs and dancing a
tango with them. Amazingly we made it out with all appendages
attached. Maybe we were just too profane to be eaten by sacred
crocodiles, or maybe human marinaded in Afterbite held no appeal next
to a fish supper.

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