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Speaking the official language of a foreign country doesn't just make life easier; it also makes life more amusing, not least because you can understand the local media. As I strolled round the Gambia's Atlantic beach resorts this morning, the headline of the local newspaper caught my eye: 'Mass Arrest of Bumsters' proclaimed the front page of the Sunday Observer, while inside there were plenty of other notable headlines, including 'Football Witchcraft Palaver', 'Surgeons Deliver 46-year-old Foetus' and 'Student Surprised to See Black Hole Eat Star'. What a paper; I just had to buy it, if only to find out what a bumster was.
Touts are a basic fact of life in the tourist areas of Africa, but in the Gambia they're infamous, not so much for their voracity as for their nickname; everyone, from newspapers to policemen, calls them 'bumsters', which makes it practically impossible to take them seriously. Bumsters are young, unemployed youths who hang round the beaches of the Gambia, hustling tourists and trying to make money any way they can. The Gambia has high unemployment and no welfare system, so for school dropouts it's not easy to make ends meet, and being a bumster is an obvious temptation. Tourists are rich, stupid and easy meat, and it sure beats having to work the peanut fields for a living.
It does make wandering around the beaches challenging for visitors, though, as we found out yesterday within a few minutes of arriving in Fajara, one of the resort areas on the Atlantic coast. The taxi dropped us off at a pleasant-sounding hotel, but unfortunately it hadn't got enough room, so we started wandering round the area, peering at the map and generally looking like little lost toubabs.
One guy latched on to us and said he knew a great place just down the road that might be suitable. The map in my guidebook seemed to bear no relationship to reality, so we figured we might as well go along with him, but by the time we decided to follow him, the word had spread. As if by magic, bumsters started materialising out of thin air.
'Hey, how ya doin', you wan' room, I have good room, give you good price, where you from?' they chanted, by now numbering eight with others homing in, seemingly appearing out of thin air from under rocks and from behind bushes. 'This place you go, very good, we show you good place, no?'
The problem was I couldn't take them seriously at all. One guy, a particularly ugly specimen, was wearing a red string vest and baggy shorts, and he couldn't have looked more gay if he'd tried; given that this guy was known to everyone round here as a 'bumster', I had trouble keeping a straight face. Surely even the baking sun of the Gambia isn't strong enough to make people think that red string vests are cool, is it? I idly wondered if Fajara was the seaside equivalent of Soho; these guys certainly looked sleazy enough.
'If you want another place, I find you good place,' the chorus continued, and meanwhile our initial guide, who was keeping quiet and seemed almost as irritated by the bum-boys as we were, led us to the hotel he'd mentioned. In we went, trailing an entourage that positively reeked of 1980s gay chic, and found a lovely apartment for four at D850 per night that sported satellite TV, air conditioning and loads of space. We took it.
However, it looked like the bumsters were still interested in hanging round with us, and they loitered outside the apartment, looking like they might start break-dancing or moon-walking at any moment. The lady renting the apartment explained that they wanted some money for their help, but we told her that apart from the initial guy they'd been nothing but a bunch of rude louts, so she told them to leave, and we slipped the guy who'd shown us the hotel a D10 note as a thank you.
Five minutes later, as we basked in the warm glow of CNN, the lady came back and said the guide was outside, and wanted a word with us. It seemed our bumster friends were proving harder to shake off than dog shit in the tread of your Doc Martens, but when Chris went to investigate he found out that our guide had been rolled by his bumster friends, and they'd stolen his D10 tip. He wanted another one, and as he seemed genuine enough we handed it over, resigned to the fact that we'd never know if this was yet another scam. Toubab tax is a funny beast...
Apart from one niggling bumster who tried to talk to Sarah and got soundly ignored by all of us, we haven't had any more hassle from the local irritants, which is weird after yesterday's baptism by fire. But today's paper explains all; yesterday more than 200 bumsters were arrested by the Gambia National Guard, which was deployed in the tourist area following increased reports of hassle. According to the report the bumsters are being detained before being 'transferred to Sapu, Jahali and Pacharr Rice Development Fields to engage in meaningful agricultural work', which sounds pretty extreme, but at least it means that our newfound string-vested friends are probably digging paddy fields by now. Happily, the guy who showed us the hotel is still kicking around, so it seems justice has been served and the bumster threat has been eradicated from the Atlantic coast... for now, anyway.
Like 1980s gay fashion, though, I have a bad feeling that they'll be back...
Two Days Later...
Unfortunately the effects of the police swoop on the bumster population are starting to wear off. The path from our hotel to the beach, previously a pleasant stroll through trees and past hotels to the white curve of the Kotu shoreline, has started springing ugly surprises every few paces. One particularly repugnant troll has taken up residence in the bushes by the road, and whenever any of us walk past he springs out, yelling, 'Hey, hey, how you doing?' Ignoring him elicits louder protestations, until you have no choice but to acknowledge him; I had my first experience of our new neighbour as I wandered down to the beach this afternoon.
'Uh,' I said without breaking my stride.
'Hey, where were you yesterday?' he asked.
'Yesterday?' I asked, thinking that I might be able to string him along by simply repeating the last word he said each time. Deep in my mind, a voice said, 'Do not feed the monkeys.' I tried to ignore it.
'It was my wedding yesterday,' continued the bumster. 'Where were you?'
'Where was I?' I repeated, sticking to my guns.
'Yeah. I got married.'
'Married. Why weren't you there?'
This threw me, and for a split second I forgot all about repeating things. This perfect stranger was asking me why I hadn't been at his wedding – this required further investigation. The voice in my head repeated its warning, but I'd been bumstered, and I heard myself engaging before my brain could step in.
'But I don't know you. I've never seen you before,' I said.
'Yes, from Friday, I showed you to your hotel, Golf Apartments, you remember.'
Oh god, I thought, this was probably one of those string-vested morons from the other day. 'Sorry mate, I don't know you,' I said, and strode on.
'You come and meet my wife,' he said. 'She's just over here.'
'Listen my friend,' I lied. 'Perhaps you should go and meet your wife, because it's a little sad to be inviting perfect strangers round the day after your wedding. Now I don't know you, and I'm going to the beach. Goodbye.'
'You're very rude,' he said.
'You should hear me when I'm angry,' I said, and hit the road, only to find the guy who'd found us the hotel a few yards down the road. I thought I could trust this one; he'd been rolled by the others, for a start, and he had a happy face.
'Hello', he said.
'Hello,' I said. 'How are you?'
'I am well,' he said. 'I am working over here.'
'That's good,' I said.
'I am making tea', he said, 'but I have no sugar. Can you help me?'
'Um, sorry, I'm clean out of sugar,' I said.
'Perhaps you can give me five dalasi for sugar then?' he tried.
'Oh really, not you as well,' I thought, and repeated my get-out clause: 'No thanks, I just don't have the time. Sorry, I'm off to the beach.'
This time I ran. And to think, this was the off-season...