I've been overseas every year for the past decade, so it ought to be routine by now. But travelling to the Gambia is not like travelling to Japan or to Switzerland. For starters, we needed visas.
Most visitors to the Gambia don't need visas, but the United States is special. American tourists are required to fill out a bunch of paperwork and fork over $100 (each). Because we have family overseas, we are always a bit nervous when our passports are out of our hands, but the process went smoothly and we had them back, with the necessary visas, in just a few days.
Then there was the medical side. Immunizations (yellow fever, typhoid, meningococcal, hepatitis A & B) and medications (malarone to be taken daily as an anti-malarial, Cipro in case of traveller's diarrhea, probiotics in case we had to use the Cipro) cost us some $1200. We were spared the rabies vaccine, although if the doctor had known how many stray dogs we were to encounter, the story might have been different. Our insurance company believes in funding preventive medicine, they say, but clearly their idea of tropical disease prevention is encouraging people to stay home.
And finally, the new wardrobe. As nearly all of you know, I'm not a shopper, I don't care anything about clothes as long as they are comfortable, and the occasions for which I will put on a dress or a skirt are so rare as to be barely perceptible. (Weddings of family members. That's about it.) But then Kathy happened to mention—fortunately, in time for us to do something about the problem—that I'd need to wear a skirt or dress (mid-calf or longer) whenever we went out in public, and even at home if we had visitors.
I suppose most women would have just packed a few dresses and been fine. I needed to go shopping (oh, joy) and climb over a major psychological barrier. Dresses, after all, are the tools and symbols of oppression. Oppression of women by men, of children by parents, of students by teachers. Unless you happen to be the queen, or to live in Scotland, skirts are not associated with power.
While I might not be as sensitive as some in my family to shirt tags and wrinkles in my socks, it's still an issue for me, and I still remember, and not happily, the time when as a very young child I was required to wear a certain dress—beautiful, and hand-made with lots of love, but very scratchy—for an interminable period. Really, it was just long enough to go to the photographer's for a professional picture, but it was torture to me. I'm grateful that most of the time my mother was more merciful when it came to my clothes, but dresses = discomfort was ingrained in me from an early age.
And then there was school. As if school weren't oppressive enough all by itself, in those days all girls were required to wear dresses or skirts and blouses. Even on the playground, even in gym class. Girl Scout uniforms were dresses. Church clothes were dresses. Believe me, if it had been possible for me to get used to wearing skirts, I had plenty of opportunity to do so. It didn't happen.
On top of that, dresses in those days were not loose and flowy, but short and tight. It was the era of the miniskirt; even for the more conservative among us hemlines had to be above the knee, greatly limiting movement and action. A dress was a prison. But the times, they were a-changin.' When I went off to college I left my dresses behind me, and after graduation being a computer programmer allowed me to land a job without much in the way of a dress code. I'm not certain, but I think the next time I wore a skirt was at the rehearsal dinner before our wedding.
Hence my psychological shock at Kathy's statement. Oh, tourists can get away with anything for the sake of their euros, and students sometimes wear jeans and t-shirts, and the rules in that patriarchal society are much looser for men—though Porter still could not wear shorts despite being just 13.5 degrees away from the equator. But mature women do not show their legs in the Gambia. Not if they want to be respected. Kathy quite rightly did not want her American friends to embarrass her Gambian friends. We probably did, anyway, because Gambian women dress beautifully at all times, and even the men have a keen sense of style. But at least we weren't immodest. (Incidentally, Gambians have a much healthier attitude toward public breastfeeding than Americans; it's legs that have to stay covered.)
Nothing about the experience was as bad as the anticipation. The shopping was the worst, but Kohl's and Target (both online) came through with three acceptable skirts at reasonable prices. They were even comfortable, as skirts go, because they were soft and loose and long. I ended up only bringing two with me, not wanting to take the time to do necessary hemming on the last one, but why should I need more than two? We wouldn't be going out in public that much, would we? (Well, yes, we would. But two skirts were still sufficient.)
My sister-in-law made an odd but brilliant suggestion, in the form of mid-thigh underwear from the Vermont Country Store. I was skeptical, and indeed they did not suit me as underwear. But as something to wear under my skirt and over my usual underwear, they were perfect for the Gambian weather situation: temperatures in the 90's and no air conditioning. The over-underwear did a wonderful job of absorbing the sweat that otherwise poured uncomfortably down my legs. (As a Floridian, I'm accustomed to hot weather, but deal with it by  wearing shorts, and  relying on air conditioning.) There's also no overestimating the psychological value: they felt like shorts on my body, which helped undo some of the mental discomfort. I had one other trick up my sleeve as well: When I caught myself feeling overpowered and bowed down because I was wearing a skirt, I imagined being a Scottish chieftain, and that actually worked—even though my skirt could hardly have looked less like a kilt.
We were out in public a lot. As Kathy explained, the Gambia is a hard place to be an introvert. Although I would usually rip my skirt off in favor of shorts as soon as we walked in the door of her house—in order to cool down a little—for most of our two weeks in the Gambia, I lived in a skirt.
And we developed an uneasy friendship, the skirts and I. After returning home, I washed them and put them away in the back of our closet, so glad, as they say, to see the back of them. But one day, after sufficient time has passed, I will pull them out again and wear them for some occasion, perhaps a party. I'm glad to have them in my arsenal of clothing. Being loose, long, and of soft material they are a far cry from the dresses of my childhood. Besides, they are full of wonderful memories!
As for the rest of our trip preparations, I suppose they were mostly normal. We had our tickets, our visas, our "yellow cards" showing yellow fever immunizations, our anti-malarial meds, the proper clothing, and a few gifts. It was time to begin the adventure!