Tuesday, March 18, 2008

As in Cuba, so in The Gambia

This is such a worthwhile – and I thought very moving – piece, and a good reminder of the need to keep spending (critically, not necessarily in large amounts, but often) while on holiday in any developing nation, but especially one as poor as The Gambia. As well as doing what Alison Littlewood wishes she'd done in Havana, by simply buying curios and souvenirs ad hoc, to keep the wheels going round, it's also good to buy souvenirs and spend a little money on items that you know are a cut above the usual in terms of ensuring a fair deal – so I'd recommend Asset – the Association of Small Scale Enterprises in Tourism, who have a whole range of Gambian "products", from tours to recycled stationery that all support the local Gambian producers more than the big companies can.

In case the Guardian pulls the story at some point, here's the text:

Everyone needs that little wooden tortoise

Alison Littlewood will never forget her trip to Cuba last year. Not because of what she did or bought, but because of what she didn't ...

Holiday in Cuba, with insurance: £1,695.94
The sun pressed in through the open top of the Jeep. We applied sun lotion, the dust on our skin turning into little grey sausages under our fingers. The land zipped by, royal palm trees with spikes protruding from the top like flags. The closed faces of gathering hitchhikers. A child, peering up from its mother's arms, as we overtook a pony and trap. Oxen, heads bowed while their harnesses were rigged to a fallen palm. I peered over my shoulder, through the dust, as they began to drag the load away. A man walked behind them, waving his hat at their faces, willing them on.

Jeep safari for two, with guide: £80
Our guide shot past the other Jeeps, pushed a cassette into the stereo and turned up the volume. Miguel clearly liked having a young couple to drive around. He floored it, hit a pothole and skidded to the right. The Jeep behind beeped his horn. His boss, maybe. I grabbed my partner Fergus's leg, tight, without really meaning to. Then we came out of it, sliding the other way, first towards a cactus hedge. We laughed, to show we didn't mind. Miguel laughed too, although he drove more slowly after that.

Suntan lotion for a fortnight: £36.96
Miguel fought with the gear lever, crashed it into first. Heaps of earth were piled in front of him, more being forked on to the road from the back of a truck. A crowd of men sweated in the midday sun, some pressing earth down into potholes with their boots. They stopped, knowing looks on their faces, called out something in Spanish. "Perdone, perdone," their tone sarcastic, and they laughed. I knew it meant "Excuse me" - I had seen it in my phrase book. They stared, leathery faces looking at milk-white flesh. "Perdone." I did not know enough Spanish to answer. I clung to Fergus's leg, and looked at the road. "Gracias," Fergus kept saying. I could have reached out and touched their bodies. "Gracias."

They closed behind us and continued filling in the holes. "Are they paid to do that?" Fergus asked. "No," said Miguel. "It's their village. Their road. So they come together and they mend it." They mend it so that we can pass through.

Holiday reading - books, newspapers: £25.17
We stopped at a school, but it was a Sunday, so there were no children: only scrawny black chickens, scratching in the dirt. The guide told us that anyone can go to university here. Anyone who passes the exams. Miguel was a civil engineer; he built bridges before becoming a guide. He could make more money that way, from tips. His boss had been a teacher; luckily he got out before they changed the rules. Now teachers, doctors and nurses can't work with the tourists. They are needed in schools and hospitals.

Cappuccinos and croissants, departure lounge: £8.65
We ate lunch in a villa by the sea, with plastic sheets in the windows. There were murals on the walls, mermaids, trees that were turning into faces. We ate pasta. The manager looked on, approving. "No meat," we had said. "No meat." He thought we said "No eat", and looked disappointed. "Rich foreigners," he must have thought. "My food's not good enough." When Miguel explained about vegetarians and he realised we would need something different, cooked just for us, he looked so happy. He brought it out for us, beaming.

New bikini: £19.99
The hat kept appearing in the window. It was a battered cowboy hat. It bobbed up again, a face pressed into the corner, peering in.

Airport sandwiches: £3.50 each
We gave the waiter a tip, to show we weren't ungrateful, expecting things to be cooked specially without appreciation. He nodded and smiled.

Outside, the man with the hat was there. A tortoise puttered around our feet. He had it on a string, and its little wooden legs waved at us as it went. I laughed.

Perfume, duty free: £36.98
He had a bunch of necklaces around his neck. I tried not to catch his eye. There had been a lot of them at the fishing village, circling. Wiry little women, aggressive mouths barking out numbers, holding necklaces made of shells and seeds. I looked at the table he had laid out. There were wooden keyrings, carved fish, maracas, leather belts. The usual.

Digital camera: £129
We were there for experiences, not for things. We had decided. Souvenirs looked tacky once you got them home. We knew; we'd done it before.

"Two pesos, two pesos," the man said, indicating the tortoise. It zipped around, legs waggling. How did it work? I didn't like to pick it up. More people came out behind us. The tortoise scurried. Its shell was made of half a coconut. I remembered our suitcases, almost full to begin with. I imagined our hand luggage when we went home, full to bursting, being annoyed because we couldn't find our bottle of water.

We walked away. Our Jeep was parked next to the door. Miguel opened it up and we climbed inside.

Bottle of water from airport dispenser: £1.50
I pressed up against Fergus's knees. "Two pesos," I heard. "Two pesos." The people behind us hadn't stopped, either. The man had followed us and was waving the tortoise in the air. "Two pesos."

"Do you want one?" I said. Fergus shook his head. We were here for experiences, not things. What would we do with a wooden tortoise? It was a child's thing. We didn't have children. The man walked away, and I saw his eyes. They were rheumy and damp, as though with tears.

"It's an act. It's how they get you to buy. Of course he looks sad," I thought.

I looked again. His soul was there, in his eyes. And his soul was full of pain, the kind you can't fake. It was built in layers, one disappointment laid over the next. Fergus was talking to the guide. I opened my mouth, started to say something: "Oh, go on. Let's get one." But my voice somehow never came out.

I looked, and in that look, I saw his life. He would have nothing else to do now but to go home. No one else would come that day: we were the only ones, and we had bought nothing. Maybe his wife would be waiting. After a while, he might greet her with a shake of his head.

Later, I wondered how long he had spent making these things. Twisting his old hands around them, forming the shells, the shine of a tortoise emerging. Putting in the mechanism, some trick he knew. And all the time, maybe he was thinking of me, or someone like me. Seeing this thing take shape, the thing he made, and all the time hoping that we would like it.

Wooden tortoise: £1
It wasn't until afterwards that I realised: all he'd asked for was a pound. It was all he wanted. A pound.

Car parking at the airport: £68
Everything seemed so fast, on the drive home from the airport. In Cuba we had edged our way past bull carts or men on listless horses. Here, cars shot past, all heading somewhere. No one giving any quarter, not wanting any in return. After we dumped the suitcases, I wandered around the house. It had that familiar/strange feeling a place does when you haven't seen it for a while. I sat down in the study and looked at the bookshelves, an image of that wooden tortoise flashing into my mind. Then those eyes, that sadness.

I took a little of it away, I think. I left him nothing, but I took away a little of his sadness. I hoped it lightened his load, but really I think he had more than enough to go round. I've imagined it since - pressing a note into his hand, telling him to keep the change. Seeing the wonder in his face that someone had so much to give away. Seeing him smile.

I looked back at the shelf. It was crowded with things that were gradually going dusty. No one needs a little wooden tortoise, I thought.

But I knew that wasn't true. I did need one. Everybody does.

© Guardian, 17 March 2008

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