Sierra Leone

 

         Mamadou, our Guinean taxi driver, helped us to negotiate a price for a taxi to Freetown, but his assistance had its limitations. We had been advised by PCVs in Conakry not to announce immediately our intentions to buy all the seats in a taxi (locally referred to in French as déplacer, meaning to move or to displace) as it would cost more that way. They suggested that it would be better to find out the price of a single seat and then multiply it by the six seats we would eventually be buying.

          The Sierra Leone unit of currency is called the leone, and there are roughly 2,800 of them to the American dollar. Something that costs 700 leones (such as a bottle of Coca Cola) is written as "Le700."

          As we approached the area where the taxis were parked, we took an immediate dislike to the Sierra Leonean drivers. From the get-go, they quoted us a price of Le25,000 per person for the trip to Freetown, and they confirmed that there was room for six people in each car. Armed with this information, we told them that we would buy all six seats. Doing the math, we came up with a price of Le150,000. After just a few minutes, they informed us that the price would not be Le150,000 but Le175,000 because the car was not a six-seater; it was a seven-passenger vehicle. I asked a driver where the seven people could possibly sit. Would there be one on the roof? One in the trunk? He took me to his car and pointed out that there would be four in the back and three in the front: two in what we would call the "passenger seat" and one sharing the driver's bucket seat with him, with the driver having to reach across the passenger in order to use the stick shift!

          We refused that arrangement, citing not only the fact that it was unsafe to drive that way, but objecting to the manner in which they had first agreed to one price and then immediately changed it to another. At this point, it was difficult to know exactly who our driver was, as we were dealing with a cluster of men, each of whom was contributing his own two leones into the situation. Add to that the gaggle of curious bystanders, vendors, and money-changers who needed to know what was going on, and you have the makings of a bona fide spectacle!

          When they saw that we weren't buying into their line about adding the Le25,000 to the original asking price, they launched into a new tactic: explaining to us how expensive gasoline was and how difficult it was to obtain. We told them that we did not doubt this information at all -- our objection was to the change in price after we had made our agreement.

          I wasn’t sure how Donna and Ross were taking this, but I suggested that they follow me. Granted, I have not been everywhere in Africa and, having just arrived at this border, I had just as much experience in Sierra Leone as they did, but there appear to be some universally accepted practices in this part of the world. I decided that these drivers knew, both individually and collectively, that they had mistreated us and that they would soon come around to make a correction to what they had done, if we could just wait out the situation for a short time. I suggested to Ross and Donna that we take a breather on a bench in a shaded area in front of a store. We weren’t even all settled down when a driver followed us to say that he agreed to our price of Le150,000 for the trip to Freetown. We put our bags into his car and were gone within a few minutes.

          We were unanimous in the instant disliking that each of us took to our driver Ahmed. He was surly and disagreeable. We had to stop four times on the Sierra Leone side of the border: for custom checks, passport checks, and other bureaucratic formalities. In each of the places, we were able to pass through very quickly. In fact, at one point, where there was a sign saying that we would have to open our luggage for inspection, an official told me, "You are respectable people. No need to open your baggages (sic)."

          One of the stops was in a building where we had to fill out the standard entry form that has to be given to officials when one arrives in a new country. We entered the structure on its north side and exited on the south, with Ahmed waiting for us. He told us that he had paid Le10,000 in customs duty for us, and we told him that we had nothing dutiable in our luggage for which we would have to pay. We took his statement as bogus, simply a means of getting what he could from us.

          The road was unpaved, dusty, and bumpy a good deal of the way to Freetown. Cars and trucks ahead of us raised clouds of reddish dust that made visibility difficult. As the trip progressed, we could see each other turning dustier. A simple wipe of the brow with a handkerchief showed a reddish-brown smear. I was sitting in the back, behind the driver, with the wind and dust blowing in, making a fright wig of my hair. Donna and Ross didn't fare any better. Our hair was so coated with dirt that we couldn't move our fingers through it. At one point when we stopped, I saw my reflection in Ahmed’s rear-view mirror. Not only was my skin a different color, but the hair on the left side of my head had the Ann Landers upswept look. (No, I did not take a picture. You'll have to use your imagination!)

          The road was so bumpy that I was continually thrust upward, hitting my head on the roof. The only way to avoid getting batted around was to slouch down in the seat, a position that was not only bad for posture but contributed to an aching back and sore shoulders as we continued. Donna, though eight inches shorter than I, had lots more room above her head, but had her head battered nonetheless. Ross, in the front seat, had more head room, but had to contend with the grab bar to the right of his head when we hit the bumps.

          We weren't too far from Freetown when the road turned into asphalt. Within sight of the point where the Sierra Leone River flows into the Atlantic, Ahmed stopped to get gas, and we had a firsthand look at how dire the situation was. There were only a few cars at the station, but more than two dozen men with large plastic containers that they were trying to fill with petrol. They all clustered around the pump, with no apparent queuing system that we could discern in order to determine who was next. Ross thought that they did have some sort of system, though. Despite the many NO SMOKING signs – sound advice around flammable gasoline – many of the men smoked near the open cans.

          It was also hard to tell who was in charge – who was deciding which guy would get gasoline and which one would not. At one point, Ahmed asked me to help explain that we needed gas; I guess he thought that that would help. I said all right, that I would do that, but he never showed me whom he wanted me to talk to. The one guy who was taking payment for the gas indicated to us that he would be able to sell one liter, but Ahmed objected, saying that he needed more.

          After about forty minutes, Ahmed was able to buy one liter of gas. We could see from our guidebook map that our destination was all the way on the west side of Freetown. We were entering from the east, which meant that we would have to traverse the entirety of the city. Ahmed stopped a second time, further into town, this time bypassing the gas stations and going directly to the black market. As he negotiated prices, he continually turned them down, saying that they were too high.

          We were, grimy, hot, tired, and hungry, deciding that we needed to do something to propel ourselves out of the situation. When Ahmed was out negotiating at one point, we agreed that we would offer him Le20,000 for the purchase of gas, if he could just get as much as he could – at least to get us to our destination. That turned around the situation. He added some of his own money and got about ten gallons of fuel.

          We had wanted Ahmed to take us directly to one of the hotels we identified in our guidebook, but he insisted on stopping at a point in town and registering at a taxi garage, which meant that the final leg of the trip would have to be negotiated and paid for individually. He had us at his mercy, and he knew it. We were too battered and beaten to fight any longer.

          We arrived at the hotel of our choice, the Cockle Bay Guest House, at 6:30, just after it had gotten dark. We noted immediately that it had two strikes against it: there were no lights on and it was situated across the street from a huge garbage dump. We asked if they were open, and they said yes. We asked about electricity and the man from the reception desk told us that there would be two hours of electricity that evening, from 9:00 to 11:00. We decided that the Cockle Bay Guest House would not suit our humble needs.

          We steered Ahmed down the road to Jay's Guest House. Since we could see all the lights on from the street, we guessed that there would not be an electricity problem there. Our strategy all along had been for all three of us to stay in the same room. When I went to the reception desk and explained that there were three of us, the clerk asked us how many men and how many women. I said that there were two men and one woman. I anticipated that they might balk at having an unmarried opposite-sex couple staying in the same room, so I referred to Donna as my wife, thinking that that would take care of it.

          They didn’t have a room with two beds, suitable for three people. Their policy said nothing about an unmarried couple staying in the same room, but the clerk told me that "two men of the same sex" were not allowed to stay in the same room! That was a new one for us! We told them that we would take the two rooms and decided that we would just not let them know who was in which room.

          At least we were out of the car and into a hotel. The first order of business was a shower. Each room had only one towel. I showered in the room that Ross and I were going to share. When he went to the reception desk to ask for an additional towel, the clerk told him that there could not be another towel for his room – only for the room with the married couple!

          Jay’s was blessed with an un-crowded bar one floor above the street, its open patio overlooking the neighborhood. It seemed to be a good place to get a nice cold beer. I tried Star, the local Sierra Leonean brew, and realized that I also had a front row seat to the gas crisis. Across the street from the guest house was a gas station at which dozens of cars were parked so that their drivers could get some petrol. It was a tense scene and I had the feeling that we might unwittingly be witness to an insurrection that was fomenting. We sat there, temporarily refreshed from our showers, and openly talked about going into town first thing the next morning to see about changing our reservations so that we could leave the country as soon as possible.

          On Tuesday, what we wanted to do most was get out of Jay's. We identified a more expensive hotel in the guidebook – the Solar Hotel, described by the Lonely Planet folks as "a bit run-down but is comfortable and overflowing with character." All the bungalows that could accommodate three people were taken, so we had to book two rooms. The grounds were fairly clean, included a swimming pool, and we soon met James Sandford, the managing director, a Brit who has been here since the fall of 2002 and is a wealth of information, especially concerning the Sierra Leone work ethic and the labor troubles that ensue when trying to direct a staff of forty employees.

          Once we installed ourselves into the Solar, we were in agreement about one aspect concerning that day: the last thing we wanted to do was spend a significant amount of time inside another motor vehicle! We walked to Lumley Beach and headed toward an Internet café, after we had a delicious lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Upon our return toward the hotel, we stopped to see the sunset from Harri’s, a bar/restaurant on Lumley Beach. The high point was a platter of fruit that Anna cut up and served us. It was hard to tell, but she didn't seem to be an employee of the restaurant. Rather, she appeared to be an independent contractor. She cut up a pineapple, two mangoes, and two avocadoes for us. We didn't quite get to see the sunset, as the sun slipped below some clouds about half an hour before it set. Each night we were there we repeated our visit to Anna for the sunset-and-fruit ritual.

          By Wednesday, we were ready to brave the roads again. We had heard about River Number Two from several sources, and James told us that if we saw nothing else in Sierra Leone, we should go to this beach and take a boat up the river. The taxi ride took almost an hour on an unpaved road. We had arranged for David, our driver, to wait for us, thinking we would take in the sights for about two hours. Some folks at the beach proposed a boat trip upriver that sounded good to Ross and Donna, inasmuch as they were promised monkeys and crocodiles. I decided to stay behind at the beach restaurant while they took their cruise up River Number Two. (NB: there is no River Number One.)

          Donna and Ross returned to report that while there were no crocs or monkeys upriver, they had seen several species of birds which made the trip worthwhile. We all agreed that it had been a pleasant place at which to while away a few hours.

*****

          The Thursday morning edition of the Salone Times (“The Newspaper You Can Trust,” “Salone” being a local abbreviation for the name of the country) proclaimed, “FUEL SUPPLY WILL LAST FOR 2 WEEKS.”

          Freetown, originally a settlement for freed slaves under British protection, is now filled with UN offices, all part of UNAMSIL (United Nations Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone). The main driveway to our hotel is shared with one of the UN buildings. We had an opportunity to greet and chat with UN soldiers posted at the entry to their buildings; many of them are from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

          The omnipresent white motor vehicles sport the logos of the UN and its various agencies: UNICEF, UNHCR, UNFPA, WFP (World Food Program), and WHO. The only speed limit signage on the roadsides pertains to the UN vehicles: 40 for cars and 32 for trucks more than five tons. These signs were hardly needed, as there are speed bumps spaced at regular intervals, doing their job to control the flow of traffic.

          Freetown doesn’t appear to have anything that we would call publicly funded mass transport. Taxis are either shared or hired for exclusive use of one’s party (called “charter”). Other than that, the major means of getting around town is via the privately owned minibuses that ply the roads with their customized paint jobs and mottos inscribed under their front windshields. On a ride through town, I took note of some of the minibus messages. They are invariably in all capital letters. A small sampling includes: TO GOD BE THE GLORY, GOD BLESS ISLAM, JUST BELIEVE, FAITH, BE PATIENT, BRINGING HOME THE HOPELESS, GOD TIME IS THE BEST, IN JUSUS (sic) NAME, PROMISING, EASY MAN, PARENTS BLESSING, SWEET LOVE, EFFORT, GOD BLESS MI MAMA, CONFUSE, MATRIX 02.

*****

          English is a language of instruction for Sierra Leonean school children, but that does not necessarily mean that we were able to communicate flawlessly with people just because we speak the same language. There is a decided accent, somewhat reminiscent of the lilting Jamaican speech that makes some utterances incomprehensible. A few examples of these:

          At one point, while I was walking along the road next to Lumley Beach, a man asked me, “Where do you walk?” I told him my destination, which got a puzzled reply. He wanted to know where I worked.

          As we drove through Freetown, Ahmed transformed into a Grey Line Tour operator, pointing out some local sights. One of these was the “low cot.” I didn’t see a cot – low or otherwise – anywhere on the horizon, but we eventually did pass a building that had a sign in front of it, indicating that it was the law courts. The problem in my understanding him had been not only in the different pronunciation of the vowels and the missing “r,” but also in the fact that his emphasis was on “cot,” whereas an American would have put it on “law.”

          In a conversation, I told a Sierra Leonean that I was living in Mauritania. He responded by saying, “There is low cost in Mauritania.” His emphasis in the phrase “low cost” was on the word “cost.” I thought that he was talking about the prices of goods and services, so I replied along those lines. He showed me a puzzled expression and then repeated, “No! Low cost! Low cost!” and then attempt to make himself understood by explaining how the “low cost” flew into Mauritania and ate all the food. Eventually I understood that he meant to be asking about “locusts,” once again with the emphasis on a different syllable.

          Upon describing the scene at the far end of the ferry terminal, a man told me, “If you’re lucky, you’ll see the boss.” I later figured out that he had meant “bus.”

          A guy at a public telephone service shocked Donna when he told her, “I’d like to mate with you later,” by which she later inferred that he meant “meet.”

          Somebody looking out to sea at a vessel coming in to port told Donna, “It’s our fear coming in,” by which he meant “fuel.”

          A man asked me where I was leaving, and I told him where I had been and when I had left there, only to find out that he wanting to know where I was living.

          That being said, people are extremely polite in their speech. Everyone calls Ross and me, “sir.” Donna fared a little differently, though. Men were polite, all right, but many of them, including police officers, gave her their addresses and phone numbers.

*****

          Our first stop in Freetown on Thursday morning was the office of Bellview Airlines. We needed to reconfirm our flight to Banjul for Saturday morning. The flight was scheduled to leave at 9:45, and we knew that we would have to overcome two major obstacles in getting to the airport on time: first of all, heavy traffic through the major part of Freetown, and secondly, a ferry crossing that was not too frequent, nor did we know if we could trust it to get us to the plane on time.

          One of our options for the trip to Lungi Airport was to take a helicopter from the western end of Aberdeen, where our hotel was. As James explained the scenario to us, though, it did not seem to be the safest possible choice, in that he told us that the Russian pilots who typically flew the helicopters went from the bars to the heliport for the first flight of the day at 7:30 AM. We decided to save the helicopter flight as our last resort.

          It seemed to us that a stay near the airport on the night before our flight would be the most secure way to be able to make it to the plane in time. I have discovered in my travels that the phenomenon of the airport hotel is not universal, so I have stopped assuming that there would be such a place. But James told us that there was such a hotel and that it was fairly new. We decided to stay there for one night, hang the cost, just to be able to make the flight. (There are only two flights a week to Banjul, so if we missed Saturday’s we would have to wait until the following Wednesday.)

          The airport hotel, being new, meant that its phone number was not listed in the printed phone book. How do you call a place when you don’t know the number? Eventually, I learned that the directory assistance phone number for land telephones is 012. At a telephone call service, a helpful employee called 012 many times, until he eventually got an operator who gave me not one, but three numbers for the hotel.

          All afternoon, we tried calling the hotel’s three numbers. In every instance, one of the numbers rang with no answer and two of them rang as busy. We had to find another way to make a reservation at this hotel. We tried a few travel agents. One told us that they didn’t make hotel reservations any longer, and the others told us to go to the hotel to make the reservation.

          While in Freetown, we made a visit to the US embassy. As part of our vacation request forms, PCVs need to indicate whether we will register with the wardens at the nearest Embassy in each country we visit. I usually opt for staying in contact with the PC office, since they are generally easier to get into than the embassies. At the US embassy we saw the posting of a warning that the area around our ferry terminal was, as of two weeks ago, the scene of unrest. We knew that we needed to factor this into our decision of how we would get to the airport on Saturday morning.

          Our map of downtown Freetown showed the Paramount Hotel in the middle of Victoria Park. I decided to inquire there, in the hopes that maybe the airport hotel was affiliated, and that we could make a reservation via the Paramount. As it turned out, the Paramount Hotel is now the country’s Department of Defense.

          Toward evening, back in Aberdeen, our area of Freetown, I learned that the Cape Sierra Hotel was affiliated with the Lungi Airport Hotel. The desk clerk gladly made the phone call for me to see about a room. That’s when I found out that the hotel was fully booked for Friday night. I took a moment to compare the phone number that the clerk called with the ones that I had received from the 012 service; it was, of course, not one of the ones I had received.

          I had the name of another hotel, the Mahera Beach. The clerk couldn’t call for me because the number was for a cell phone, and the phone system here is set up so that only land line phones can call each other, just as only cell phones can call cell phones. I went to a phone counter, where the clerk made the call and eventually told me, “The number dial is not exist.” Her grammar, though incorrect, got the point across!

          We decided that if the Mahera Beach hotel were full, too, there would have to be other options available. In any event, we decided not to take a chance on the drunken Russians, and to rely on the Friday ferry, so that we could wake up as near as possible to the airport on the morning of our flight.

          On the way to the ferry terminal, we needed to stop at an ATM so that I could withdraw the necessary cash to get us through the next day. Fortunately, we knew that we didn’t have to worry about leaving the country with extra leones, as I know some people in Mauritania who are going to Sierra Leone soon and they said that they would buy any extras that I brought back with me.

          There are only two banks in Freetown with ATMs. At the first one, the machine was out of order. At the second, when I inserted my card I got the message, “Your card is unsuitable for this ATM. Please remove your card.” Now what to do? I went into the bank to see about getting a cash advance on my Visa. The clerk told me that the costs would be Le40,000 “for communication,” Le10,000 “just in case of decline,” and then 1.75% of the total taken. Too expensive. By contrast, the fee for Donna to cash a few travelers’ checks was much more reasonable, so we went with that option. In order to get the cash for Donna, the bank had to open up an “impersonal account” in Donna’s name.

          Our ferry crossing went without incident. I was sitting next to a man who had a couple of live chickens with him – the kind of thing that Donna noticed, but, at this point in my living here, I hardly paid attention to. When we got to the Mahera Beach Hotel, we took an instant liking to its setting, but found out that it was also fully booked, owing to a World Health Organization conference there and at the Lungi Airport Hotel.

          We had seen a sign for the Suffiezain Guest House nearby, so this just had to do, no matter what. When we saw it, we realized that it was the kind of place that most people we knew would take one look at and then run away from:

small rooms furnished with only one double bed each, sheets that barely fit, exposing stained mattresses, buckled thin linoleum on the floors, a shared bathroom with a toilet that didn’t flush, evidence of electricity because there were outlets and lights, but none of it worked.

          We really had no choice – we took the rooms and then decided to leave the premises and go to the Mahera Beach Hotel for a pleasant dinner before we settled down to sleep. During our walk, we passed a few monkeys with long yellowish tails who were climbing around on the trees at the edge of the UN barracks.

          Dinner was pleasant enough and we made our way back just as it was getting dark. Predictably, I had my worst night’s sleep in the longest time, waking up all night long imagining that there were critters crawling all over me. The electricity was turned on for most of the night, so the badly-needed fan did circulate, but the current was turned off at 6:20, just as I was waking for the day.

          I was never happier to see the dawn. I opted not to bathe at the Suffiezain, since the bathroom’s window was tiny and it was dark in there. I took care of that at the airport.

          Our Bellview Airlines flight left about ten minutes early – a new first for Africa? – and arrived at Banjul International Airport, The Gambia, about twenty minutes early.