Sweet Salone, Salty Salone, Spicy Salone

((You’ll find my conclusion on the Banana Islands below this post.))

The food… Oh, the food. Trying the local cuisine is worth all the stomach aches and all the other nastiness that can come along with culinary pleasures in a new country (although I may have disagreed with that statement when I was lying prone in the back of a shared taxi halfway between Makeni and Freetown, contemplating the sweet release of death).

It’s a good thing there are cheap cookeries and street food nearby, because the selection of “groceries” here doesn’t inspire me to cook. It’s not that the foods aren’t something I’d eat at home – lots of (unrefrigerated) fish, veggies (potato, cassava, plantain, avocado, onions, cucumber and carrots) and fruits (banana, mango, and pineapple). It’s not that the food items themselves are foreign, but there isn’t an abundance of any sort of “set” of ingredients that triggers a dish in my head. So, I end up eating a lot of peel-able fruit and veggies, and then gorging on the local eateries (ranging from 70 cents to 15 dollars per meal).

There are lots of Lebanese here, so you can find shawarma and hummus, and of course there are lots of ex-pat restaurants catering to any style of food – Chinese, Indian, American. The most common local foods are:

Ovaltine – Most Sierra Leoneans have Ovaltine for breakfast, and maybe bread or rice or leftovers. This, however, has become my morning ritual: mango and banana bought off the street the night before, very sweet orange pekoe tea with powdered milk (or, yes, Ovaltine), and bread and peanut butter… and maybe a handful of cereal.

Fish and chips – literally a whole fish, grilled and served (head and all) on a plate with French fries and salad (ask for the “dressing” on the side, they’re heavy on the mayo). Eaten on plastic patio furniture steps from Lumley Beach, wash it down with locally-brewed Star beer. Consume with care, watching out for bones big and small… and occasionally spit out a whole bite onto the ground because the bones are proving too difficult to extricate from the flesh. (Alternatively: Chicken and chips – deep-fried or grilled chicken pieces and fries, 100 times better than the Colonel’s recipe.)

Potato leaves/cassava leaves with rice – My palate is not discerning enough to distinguish between the stew made with potato leaves versus the one made from cassava… except the potato leaves are a little coarser sometimes. The leaves are spinach-ish in colour but a little tougher, more like finely-chopped kale. They’re stewed in copious amounts of palm oil (which coats the rice and leaves your lips orange at the end of the meal) with a healthy dose of eye-watering hot peppers. Usually small bits of meat make an appearance – chicken or fish – the more expensive the eatery, the more meat you get. Watch out for bones and have water handy for the burning from the peppers (which keep the parasites at bay, so no complaints here).

Groundnut stew – Basically a peanut soup spiced with the same red and green hot peppers, hosting either chicken or beef, served with rice. The chunkier and peanut-ier the better, in my humble opinion.

Jollof rice – Rice steamed in a tomato-ish liquid – sort of resembling Mexican or Spanish rice – topped with (what else?) a hot pepper sauce, with hunks of stewed chicken or beef (or both) on the side.

Curry rice – As the name suggests, curried rice served with a deep-fried piece of chicken on the side, and maybe a small salad.

Fry-fry – My lady love. Buy a six-inch loaf of white bread on the street from one of the bakery vendors… and then choose your fry-fry lady. On display are: deep-fried rice “cakes” (balls of ricey flour); four-inch fish battered and deep-fried whole (watch for bones); miniature omelettes made with onions and peppers and lots of palm oil; fried plantain; fried potato; banana balls (battered and, yes, deep-fried bananas); deep-fried poached eggs; fried fish balls; skewers of snails-and-onion or goat/beef… it goes on. While you’re agonizing over your selection, your fry-fry lady (or man,
occasionally) will cut your bread to make a sandwich, and load an oily, peppery onion sauce onto the bread. Sometimes you need to go to more than one vendor to get all the ingredients you want – they all have their own selections. The prices are different depending on what you want, but a LUXURY sammie would never cost you more than 5000 leones ($1.25) – my evening fry-fry is never more than about 70 cents. If you’re feeling decadent, buy a nice cold Fanta (which is probably the same price as the sandwich) and find a bench or crate to plunk down and enjoy while the street passes you by.

Groundnut cake – There are a few different varieties: I favour the recipe that comes out like slightly-less-brittle peanut brittle… basically, it’s easier to munch on without breaking a tooth, but boasts the same hip-widening flavours (peanuts, sugar, oil). The other variety I’ve had is a lot more like peanut fudge – sandier in texture, crumbles when it hits the lips.

As important as what food there is, is what food there ISN’T. I cannot wait to get home for:
– Milk – we only have the powdered variety, or an extremely-preserved liquid type that has to be consumed as soon as it’s opened… and in the land of no refrigerators, who wants to drink room-temperature milk?
– Cheese – Stephen brought a kilo of Balderson cheddar home from Canada – on the same day I had to start taking antibiotics, which interact poorly with dairy. FML.
– Salad – it’s hard to trust raw vegetables here unless you peel them yourself, since you never know what water they were washed in (if at all).
– Bacon – Instead of bacon, they put Spam in club sandwiches here. Ugh.

Snapper and fries for dinner on Lumley Beach:

Banana Islands, Part Two: for real this time

The warmth and moisture of the rainforest on Banana Islands spreads to everything the air touches. By the time we packed up and left on Tuesday, even clothing we hadn’t worn felt damp. In general, air in Sierra Leone feels thicker: in the city, it’s the thickness of pollution – trucks spewing black exhaust, a garbage dump the size of a football field, on fire – and in the forest, the air hangs with moisture so thick you can almost see it.

We woke up Monday morning with clean air in our lungs, scouring the Freetown grit and soot out of our lungs. We wandered down to the beach before breakfast, collecting some shells and taking a few photos (“snaps” as they call them here), then we returned to the thatched restaurant surrounded by logs growing thick with fungi and hammocks made out of discarded fishing nets. We had a breakfast of instant coffee, omelette, toasted buns, Laughing Cow cheese, and honey, which was incredible: made from tropical flowers, it was drippy, extremely sweet and tasted like fruit syrup – like nothing I’ve ever had in Canada. I know the flavour of honey varies depending on the pollen that the bees use… but this was beyond any variation I’ve ever tasted.

After breakfast, we decided to explore Dublin and set off up the slippery path of packed mud towards the village, careful not to lose our footing in our flip-flops. We walked among the wooden Krio houses (mended over the years with corrugated metals), waving and chatting to the local residents. We saw chickens and goats running free through the forest (which isn’t unusual for Africa, people tend not to pen their small animals), and fruit hanging from trees – guavas, limes… We visited the primary school, a long one-room building with a chalkboard and some rickety tables and chairs. Outside, the teachers were finishing up their duties for the term, filling out grade sheets and recording marks. They invited us inside, where we were treated to a cheerful and bouncing song-and-dance performance from the students, as well as lots of hugs, laughter and grins from ear-to-ear.

We also visited the other guesthouse on the island, where the cook gave us a tour of the grounds and the surrounding area. We saw the remnants of stone walls on the island built by slaves, now sinking back into the earth as the rainforest reclaims the land. Our guide also showed us what used to be a large pit ringed by stones and filled in with soil, where slaves that were too tired or ill to work were left to die. After the British abolished slavery in 1807(ish), they used the Banana Islands to stem the slave trade which still ran rampant out of West Africa. Some abolitionists established Freetown as a colony of return for freed blacks, and the British military set up shop on the Banana Islands to prevent slave ships from entering the colony’s waters. Still on the island are a few very worn and sunken cannons, with the year 1813 stamped into their shafts.

After our tour of Dublin, we went back to the cove where we’d landed on the island – Dalton had offered (for a fee, of course) to take us on a boat tour to the other large island, Ricketts. We piled back into the wooden fishing canoe, along with Dalton and his cousin Malcolm, originally from Ricketts. The ride took about 45 minutes, over much calmer seas than our trip to the island the previous day – we saw the big fishing boats from Tombo (another town on the coast) like giants drifting on the horizon, as well as the small-business fishermen bobbing in their individual canoes, casting their lines in the hopes of scoring a few barracuda or snapper.

From the sea, the Banana Islands look untouched by man – just two massive hills of lush green vegetation, with the occasional palm tree sticking out at an odd angle. The shoreline is mostly rocky, waves crashing on the huge grey stones that line the shore. The two main islands (there are a few smaller ones as well) are not very far apart – maybe 25 metres – and are attached by a man-made stone bridge, giving the islands an hourglass shape if viewed from above.

Ricketts was smaller than Dublin, home to about 150 people. Malcolm showed us around to the Anglican and Methodist churches – there is no mosque on the islands, even though they are home to a few Muslims… but as Malcolm pointed out, god will come wherever you call. We also saw the chief’s house, painted with a mural of Jesus ringing his doorbell and “Jones Mansion” emblazoned along the overhang of the roof. Dublin was a plethora of fruit too – breadfruit, sour sharp (and its sweeter cousin), papaya and avocado. Malcolm called over one of the boys who were hanging around playing soccer, who scrambled up the trunk like a monkey and used a long pole to knock down two
football-sized papayas – which we brought back to Freetown to share with the house.

We also saw the cemetery, completely grown over with foliage – the rainy season has started and everything is growing madly, too quickly to keep up. Malcolm said that every September, once the rainy season has ended, the community gets together and cleans up the graveyard then holds a big feast as a way of remembering their forefathers, a tradition they have been carrying on for generations.

Ricketts also has a primary school, but it’s incomplete – when the SLPP took power after the war, money was given to the community to build a new school and housing for the teacher, but today only the shells of the buildings sit abandoned on a hillside, trees and vines weaving their way through the walls. When the APC took power the money dried up, so the kids still take their lessons in the Anglican church in the middle of the village.

Getting fresh water on the islands is a big problem, and is part of the reason Malcolm moved to Dublin, which has a well in the middle of the village. In Ricketts, the well is a mile away, so when Malcolm was growing up, he woke up at 6 a.m. to make four trips to the well to gather water for the family before he started school for the day.

After our tour of Ricketts we headed back to Dublin to frolic on the beach. It was high tide so the sandy part of the beach was underwater, meaning it was less likely we’d get knocked over and dash our brains out on the rocks. We got some colour on our pasty skin and some sand in our swimsuits, then headed to our hut to relax before a dinner of fresh caught lobster.

The lobsters were right out of the sea, sliced down the back and filled with garlic and tomato sauce, grilled over an open fire with a side of rice and garlic sauce. Definitely the best lobster I’ve ever had, possibly one of the best meals of my life. We dug in with reckless abandon, sauce under our fingernails and shards of lobster shell littering the tie-dyed table cloth.

The next morning we got up, took another swim, ate another delish omelette and took a walk in the forest, where I got a record 15 mosquito bites in about 20 minutes. We walked down the coast to the site of a guest house which has been built but has yet to open, for reasons we were never really told. If they do get it up and running, it will give both of the other guesthouses on the island a run for their money – it has the best beach by far and boasts the most secluded location, although the forest is so thick that almost any home or hut on the island can be considered private.

After our jaunt and a final swim, we headed back to Kent to meet our taxi man… who didn’t show up. I called to ask where he was and he said he wasn’t coming – which wouldn’t be a problem in other parts of the country, since taxis are always going by… but not in Kent. It’s off the beaten track, meaning taxis rarely venture down to the town – so when they do, they extort foreigners for all they can because they know we’re desperate to get back to the main road. Luckily, Dalton was also heading up the peninsula to get some supplies for the Slovenian couple who had arrived at the guest house the night before, so he was able to get us into his shared taxi. One Nissan, a trunk full of bags, eight adults, a child and a baby: four adults in the back, three adults and the kiddies in the front… and one guy on the hood of the car. The taxi took us to Tombo, where we caught another taxi to Waterloo, then a poda poda to the east end of Freetown – at which point it started to pour, and we had no idea what street we were on. After about 15 minutes of wandering we found a taxi to take us home, making it a two-and-a-half hour journey… not the most relaxing end to the trip, but better than sleeping under a tree in Kent.

Yesterday we finished all our tourist-y stuff – shopping for fabric, jewellery and batiks. Today it’s just the last minute things: packing, one more trip to the beach, one more trip to Mary’s cookery for lunch, maybe a final World Cup game. We’re going out to an African restaurant tonight for dinner – which reminds me I have a fragment of a post on food that I’ll try to finish up and post today as well.

Dalton’s guest house as viewed from the boat ride to Ricketts (the thatched roof is the restaurant):

Banana Islands… Part Two

Then, we did some stuff and came back to Freetown.

…just kidding.

I meant to write a full post about the rest of our trip to the islands, but I never got around to it last night or this morning. I promise to finish it tonight and I’ll try to post it tomorrow (I know you’re on the edge of your seats), but things are getting down to the wire since we leave Salone in 48 (!!!) hours. I’m sure I’ll still have some things to say by way of wrapping up once I’m back in Canada, so if you’re interested, stay tuned even after we’ve lifted off the tarmac here in Freetown.

The rains are really ramping up here — lying in bed last night I could feel the thunder in my chest. I’m sad to be leaving, but I can’t say I’m sad to be missing the rainy season.

Hope all is well with you and yours!

Banana Islands… Part One

Banana Islands is one of those places that makes you wonder why people live anywhere else. It’s the kind of place that I thought existed only in travel brochures – Robinson Crusoe meets Treasure Island meets Survivor. I half expected Jeff Probst to jump out from behind an avocado tree and announce the rules for today’s immunity challenge.

The islands lie just off the southern-most tip of the Freetown peninsula about a two-hour drive from Freetown. Our taxi driver, Almummy, took us along the inland route which is longer in terms of distance – but the roads are much better. We got to see some of the small hamlets within the peninsula and it was nice to feel
better-acquainted with village life, and be reminded once again that not everyone lives in Freetown, which can really seem like the centre of the Salone universe at times.

We got to Kent (the closest point on the peninsula to the islands) around 2 p.m. on Sunday. Waiting there was Dalton, the owner of the guest house we were staying at. There are two guesthouses on the Island: the Banana Island Guest House and Dalton’s – aside from coming highly recommended, Dalton’s is only 50,000 Le/night (about CDN$15) compared to 220,000 Le/night at the Banana Island Guest House.

Dalton ushered us down to the boat launch, scattered with
brightly-painted wooden canoes – the seafaring vessels of the small-business fisherman. No wharf or dock, just a small cove with a sandy beach and lots of people milling around… with the Banana Islands looming green and gray in the distance. There, with the Atlantic lapping at our toes, we met Debra, Dalton’s wife (and who, it would turn out, is perhaps the best cook I have ever met – especially considering the conditions she’s working in). We piled into what he called his “small” boat (about 16 feet long, with four sets of seats) and he revved up the outboard motor for the 30-minute trip across the water.

The day was windy and the trip was choppy – we roared over the waves and crash down the other side, bobbing in the water like a cork. A few times I thought the bow might go right under, but Dalton knew what he was doing and we landed safely in the cove on the main island, Dublin. We clambered out of the boat into the shallow water, and Debra led us up an old stone staircase into the jungle – marked with a single remaining lamppost from the days of the Portuguese settlers. The island is home to a scattered village – traditional wooden Krio homes tucked in the jungle, along cleared footpaths in a grid pattern. There was one store, which didn’t seem to be operational. The walk to the guest house was about five minutes with flowers and small plants brushing our ankles, along the well-worn paths made slippery by rain and moss.

We were the only guests at Dalton’s (although I don’t think there were ANY guests at the Banana Island Guest House, probably because the rainy season is getting underway). Arriving at Dalton’s, Debra seated us in the open air restaurant – two six-foot tables overlooking a rocky beach, and a giant tropical tree growing through the thatched roof – while she went to make up our room. Each room at the guesthouse is half of a round, thatched concrete hut with a bed frame and side table made of poured concrete. No electricity except for about an hour during and after dinner time, provided by a generator. We opted for a room with a built-in bathroom, since finding our way to the outdoor latrine at night in the rainy season might have proven challenging. While Debra prepared the room, we sat and watched the clouds drift in, eventually opening up and pouring rain. What do you expect from the rainforest in the rainy season?

When the room was ready we dropped our bags, changed into swimsuits and charged towards the beach… about 15 metres from our front door. It was still raining but the mix of the cool rain and warm ocean was the perfect antidote to 2 ½ hours of traveling. We rinsed off the sweat and dust and mud, then returned to our room to dry off for dinner, which Dalton had gone back to the village to fetch.

Dinner was half a grilled chicken each (a chicken which had been alive when we set foot on Banana Islan only hours before), and rice with garlic sauce. We sucked the bones dry and ate every grain of rice – Debra’s cooking was just fantastic. I know it partly has to do with the Maggi (a “spice” mix that comes like a bullion cube, my suspicion being that the main “spice” is monosodium glutamate)… but they put Maggi in everything here, and Debra’s cooking was still above and beyond – especially when you consider she’s slaving over a tiny outdoor fire in the middle of a rainforest on an island. We retired to our room for some of the coconut cookies we brought from Freetown, and lit a candle once they turned off the generator. We read for a bit, then fell asleep to the sound of the creatures of the rainforest on one side and the ocean on the other – the waves crashing on the beach, so close to our room it sounded like the biggest crests might even slip under our door and lap at the foot of the bed.

More tomorrow…

(Almost) a week in the life of Salone

As promised… an epic update. Get comfortable.

I haven’t been having very good luck with interviews lately. I was supposed to interview the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists on Monday but got stood up, so Alex and I doodled around downtown (hoping he’d have time for me later in the day – no dice) and started our souvenir shopping… we went to the big market downtown (aptly named “Big Market”), where every vendor has basically the same stuff yet swears that they make it all – or at least that it’s all made in Sierra Leone, which seems like a bit of a stretch. Because many of the items in different stalls are similar (or identical) it becomes difficult to know who to buy from – you can’t go to every single shopkeeper, bargain them down to their lowest price and then compare all their rates, it would just take too long. It really becomes a game of getting the vendors down to a price that I think the item is worth, a price that I’m willing to pay – maybe it’s not the lowest I could have gotten it for from the 16th vendor I bargained with, but I don’t want to spend half my trip in the market haggling with vendors, when frankly they need the extra 60 cents far more than I do.

Monday night, Secretary General of the U.N. Ban Ki-Moon was in town, and since roommate Caroline had been hired to photograph his visit, we were in the know as to his whereabouts. We joined the secretary general on the beach to take in a game of soccer played by the Freetown amputee soccer team – players who lost limbs during the war, but play on crutches and could kick my ass up and down the beach. When the S.G. arrived in his ridiculous motorcade of 17 vehicles, the players were singing and dancing, belting out a song of welcome (I couldn’t catch the lyrics beyond “Ban Ki-Moon!”). Of course, when I say we “joined” the S.G. for the soccer game, I mean that we were told to stand on the opposite side of the road from the U.N. entourage, who were lounging on a patio under a cabana, in order to maintain a “security perimeter” – security from what I have no clue, since none of the passers-by seemed the littlest bit interested in Ban Ki-Moon. I wouldn’t be interested in him either if I had a family to feed… unless he was offering to give me one of his 17 cars or a chance for my kids to sleep in his luxury hotel bed under a bed net.

On Tuesday we went to River No. 2 beach, halfway down the Freetown peninsula coast. It’s supposedly the most idyllic beach in Salone, partly because it’s so well-kept. The surrounding community has banded together to care for and promote the beach, with fresh-cooked food on hand and beach huts to rent. Of course, it comes at a premium – you have to pay to enter with a car or motorbike, you have to pay to use the beach furniture, and the food isn’t cheap by Salone standards… but the investment shows in the state of the beach. It’s free of garbage and there aren’t any “beach boys” wandering about trying to sell trinkets or beg for change… and the co-op doesn’t only use the money to beautify the beach. They also use it to fund community projects – and every kid in the neighbourhood is in school.

Even without the care of a forward-thinking community, the place would be paradise. We got to River No. 2 beach via taxi to the western-most part of town, then poda poda (delivery van fitted with benches) to Lakka, a village about 2/3 of the way to the beach, then okada the rest of the way on less than ideal roads. As soon as we climbed out of the poda poda there were tons of okada drivers jostling to ferry us onwards, but I just yelled out “Who has helmets?” and chose the first two drivers who could produce them. In total, the trip took about an hour, maybe a bit more… and it was worth it. Much like the chimp sanctuary, the beach provides real breathing space from the confines of Freetown.

The beach is a strip of white sand as far as the eye can see, bordered on one side by the lush rainforest and on the other by the rolling waves of the Atlantic. According to one of the guys who runs the co-op, the flag of Sierra Leone (green, white and blue vertical stripes) is based on the landscape – the green of the forest, the white of the sand, the blue of the ocean, all lying side by side. We were the only people on the beach that day, save for a couple of guys from Maine who arrived after us and left before us. (Something I’ve noticed about Americans here: when I’m asked where I’m from, I say “Canada” – but Americans tend to say “Minnesota” or “Maine,” and just assume that one knows their American states.)

The beach is named for River No. 2, which has its mouth about half way down the beach. We hired a wooden canoe and paddler named David to take us up the river to some waterfalls – and almost immediately had buyer’s remorse. The scenery was beautiful – mangrove forests and the occasional tropical bird, but none of the monkeys or crocodiles we were told we “might” see. The trip, which was supposed to take 45 minutes each way, took almost twice that; I don’t know if the current was unusually strong or if our paddler was just inexperienced, but about an hour in I started to wonder if I should just abandon ship and ride the current back to the beach. But we stuck with it, and it was worth it in the end. The waterfall was the meandering type, not the “gushing violently” type, and David took us to the top where there was a freshwater pool to swim in… his sister was also there, doing laundry on the rocks with her two young boys – who were THRILLED to see white people. We all jumped in the water, took some photos and then headed back to the boat, the return trip much shortened by having the current in our (David’s, really) favour.

Of course, as we drew near to the beach and I could almost FEEL the waves tickling my feet, huge raindrops started plunking into the water in the bottom of the canoe. We headed into the open-air (but thatched-roofed) restaurant where they’d prepared us barracuda skewers and chips (delicious!), along with nice cold Star beers. Once the food was gone the rain took its cue and started to let up – within 30 minutes we were basking in the waves, wiggling our toes in the fine, white sand… and developing what would prove to be a wicked sunburn.

Wednesday I was supposed to interview the Minister of Information, and again I got stood up. So we spent another day doodling around town… which actually isn’t hard, since sitting on a patio and ordering a drink can eat up the better part of an hour. I also went back to SLBC to pick up a copy of my debut on Sierra Leonean TV… my conceit won out over my desire to forget it ever happened. Yes I looked ridiculous and embarrassed myself but HEY! I was on TV! In an oversized maroon suit jacket!

Thursday, Alex and I got an early start since we were heading for Makeni, the capital of the northern province. We caught a taxi near our house to take us to the east side of town, where poda podas and taxis wait to take travelers up-country. We got seats in a typical soccer-mom mini-van taxi – four people to a bench that would fit three back home… needless to say it was a bit of a squish, but at four dollars a head for a three-hour journey, who’s complaining?

It was great to see the countryside – the hills along the coast gradually gave way to rolling green fields dotted with trees and shrubs, as if a giant hand had reached down, taken hold of the landscape and tugged some of the wrinkles out. The vegetation isn’t as thick inland, but there are still lots of palm trees and the land is all green – this is not the Serengeti. Think The Jungle Book, not The Lion King.

We initially thought we’d stay overnight in Makeni, but like most of the country it suffers from a fatal tourism flaw – not a lot to see or do. Being so underdeveloped, there isn’t a lot of money for promoting tourism in the country – things like museums or recognized historical landmarks (I’m sure the relic are there, there just isn’t anyone making them known to foreigners). Some things, like the beaches or the chimps, sell themselves… but in most of the country, once you’ve spent a few hours wandering around and chatting to people, there isn’t a lot to occupy the wandering mind. Of course, there are options for local entertainment – getting a beer in a local bar with a soccer game on TV – but we decided an afternoon in Makeni would be enough.

Makeni was a stronghold of the RUF (the rebels) during the war, so we went to see the old city hall, a big pink building that served as the RUF headquarters at one point. Then, once we’d seen the market and the soccer stadium, the tour was more or less complete… so we wandered the streets for a while longer, bought some of the gara cloth (tie-dye) they make in the north – and decided to catch a bus home. This is around the time the cassava leaves I’d had for lunch decided to disagree violently with my digestive system… so Alex bought out the entire back seat of a mini-van taxi going home (paid for four people instead of two so we could have it to ourselves) so that I could lie down. Most of the time, I prefer to live and spend like a local… but sometimes, you have to look at each other and say “It’s just eight bucks.” It was an extremely unhappy ride (but luckily our driver was a maniac so it was only about a two-hour trip), followed by an extremely unhappy taxi ride back to the house, and by 2:30 a.m. Friday morning I passed the threshold where my travel clinic handouts told me to start taking anti-biotics… and I feel a million miles better today (Saturday), so it must have just been E. Coli or some other vicious (but easily treatable) bug. I’m still fairly weak and on tame foods, but the worst has passed – and I think I’m off cassava forever.

Last night Alex, Harry, Caroline and I went down to an ex-pat bar on Lumley Beach called The Atlantic to watch the England-Algeria game… unfortunately it wasn’t a very good match, ending 0-0 with no real exciting plays. It was weird to see so many white people in one place, eating expensive cheeseburgers and drinking Carlsburg instead of fried plantain and Star. However, it was fairly beautiful watching the sun sink over the waves behind the silhouettes of a game of soccer on the beach – and it was nice to be in a restaurant where one can feel safe to order a salad.

Tonight is Adam’s birthday so we’re all going out to a club he rented on the beach to see cultural dancers and magicians… I’ll report back, of course. Sunday and Monday we’re going to Banana Islands and then all of a sudden it’s Tuesday afternoon and the plane ride is just a hop, a skip and three days away.

Information blackout

Well hellooooooooo.

No, I haven’t been kidnapped by diamond miners or swept away by a Lebanese millionaire — the Internet stopped working and then I came down with a nasty, nasty sickness (but I’ve dispatched the antibiotics now so I should be back to “normal” in no time).

I don’t actually have a real entry to post — I’ve just found myself at an Internet cafe so I thought I would check in and let everyone know that we’re still alive and (mostly) well. It’s been a very sweaty few days in Salone, although the sleeping weather is much better now

Great Apes!

Alex and I spent last night at Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary, about 45 minutes outside of Freetown (still on the Freetown peninsula). We hired a driver to take us out there yesterday around noon, through the hills of the city, past the fortress that is the American embassy (some things are the same the world over), and smack into the village life of Sierra Leone. Still, there were always people along the road, selling fruit, phone credit and/or cookies or just lounging in the heat – rare was the instance where we were truly alone, until we turned onto the road for the park itself. The road up to Tacugama was paved at one point in time, but the lack of upkeep made the last 1000 meters a bit of a slog – luckily we had Med, a competent and kindly taxi driver (who was on time, too!).

The taxi deposited us at the bottom of a hill that I’m “inclined” (groan) to say was almost a 45 degree pitch. The sign at the bottom of this final stretch of road warns visitors that only 4x4s should attempt the climb – so it was up to us to hike the last 100 metres. We said goodbye to Med, set-up to meet the next day for the return trip to Freetown, and set off.

The sights, smells and sounds of Sierra Leone are no less intense outside the city, but they’re definitely different. The blaring horns, shouting voices and pounding music (or soccer match commentary) give way to chirping birds, screeching chimps, and the gravelly croaks of frogs. The lines of traffic snaking through the narrow and bumpy streets are replaced by hordes of ants marching their way along their own miniature highways. The half-finished buildings injured by war and ramshackle stores along the main roads give way to lush greenery and moss-covered trees (almost everything is covered in moss, in fact). Rich, damp earth fills your nostrils, erasing any lingering stench of burning garbage, exhaust fumes and body odour.

In short, it was a very welcome respite from the city. Don’t get me wrong, I love Freetown – the people and the energy are what gives Africa its charm, in my mind… but it’s also really nice to take a break from the hectic pace of life in the city.

We checked in and were escorted – along a skinny trail dotted with rocks and tree roots – to our quarters for the night: a round, thatched hut painted yellow inside, with a double bed, couch and private bathroom. Outside was a brightly-coloured rope hammock and small covered patio with a table and two chairs, overlooking the rainforest – in fact, the entire hut was shrouded by rainforest. Hello, paradise.

We dropped our bags, had a snack and decided to do one of the hikes that the sanctuary advertises as activities around Tacugama. There were a few short trails that were listed as about 30 minutes each, but we decided to make the three-hour-plus trek to Charlotte Falls – knowing that if I didn’t do it right away, I probably wouldn’t at all. We sprayed ourselves until our skin was thick with 30% DEET, and set off. The trails all started off wending their way down the steep, final incline to the sanctuary, but soon diverged into the bush. They were marked with a clever series of shapes – the trail to Charlotte Falls was marked with triangles, to get to Congo Dam you follow the circles – however, we sometimes came to a fork in the path where the way forward wasn’t clearly marked… and it became a matter of making a guess and then hoping to see your chosen shape within a few hundred meters.

The trail was the same lush forest as surrounded the sanctuary: damp, mossy and raging in so many different colours of green. The hike to the falls was mostly downhill – sometimes treacherously so, and I was tempted to sit down and scoot my bum along the red earth and fallen leaves – leaving an ominous feeling about how much energy we’d have for the return journey uphill. The trail took us through Charlotte Village, where we said hello to some of the villagers and admired their old wooden Krio houses. Seeing village life always leaves me conflicted – it seems like such a wonderful and uncomplicated existence, but I don’t know if I’d survive at it… I don’t know if I could adjust to the lack of “stimulus” – although, if traveled has taught me anything, it’s that I (like all humans) can be remarkably adaptive when the opportunity presents itself.

Anyway, we passed through the village and carried on to the falls, still downhill and through a series of wending and slippery paths – until finally on our left, over the dense foliage, we caught a glimpse of misty sheets of water cascading over water-worn rocks in the distance. We kept following the triangles until we had the falls in plain view (although still a ways away), at which point we came across a sign that said “No Trespassing – Property of Mr. and Mrs. Williams”. Not knowing what to do, we gladly sat down for a break, squished onto the only shady rock we could find.

After a bag of chips and a lot of water, we started hearing voices in the distance – the voices of children. Then, through the woods came a group of about 20 schoolchildren ranging in age from 8-10, coming from Freetown on a field trip. Their leader seemed completely happy to trespass, so we followed along with the kids, who were chirping “Auntie! Auntie! What is your name? Auntie, auntie, where are you from?” at me. We got right up to the base of the waterfall and enjoyed the spray on our backs, took some pictures of the kids and talked with them for a little while, and then we were back off (uphill) home. It was much less painful and shorter than expected, I think because we were both so dazed and sweat-soaked and dehydrated and hungry.

The lodge doesn’t provide dinner (but they do sell beer, which we immediately availed ourselves of) – so once we had showered in extremely cold water and relaxed with books on the porch for a while, we set about putting together a simple pasta dinner, carted in our bags from Freetown. The hut had a shared outdoor cooking facility, and a gas ring in the bedroom… with all the utensils one could need. (As well as a garbage disposal system that separated organic waste, cans/bottles/plastics, and papers – which puzzled me in a country that burns its garbage and certainly doesn’t have a recycling program). Penne and canned tomato sauce never tasted so good, and I’d be embarrassed to tell you how quickly we snorfed down our food, sitting out on the porch in candlelight. It would have been romantic if we’d actually stopped to think about it.

The hut had solar electricity, so we read in bed for awhile but passed out by 10 pm – four hours of hiking was probably more exercise in one day than I’ve done in three weeks in Freetown combined, thanks to the heat and the ubiquity/relative affordability of shared taxis.

We were up at 8 am, reading on the porch when a woman from the lodge brought us breakfast – instant coffee, hardboiled eggs, warm bread, butter (a first in three weeks), Laughing Cow cheese, strawberry jam and boiled cassava – to which we added a mango and two bananas. Sated, we headed up to the main building for the main attraction of the trip: the chimp tour.

Tacugama has been operating since 1995. It’s a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued chimps, the former usually a result of bushmeat hunters and the latter because of people who think having a baby chimp as a pet would be cute (or lucrative – as a performer or slave labourer). We started in the quarantine area, where new arrivals spend 90 days. Then, they’re moved into a starter area (still in a cage), where they have to get used to not being in direct human contact – they stay here until they’re acclimatized enough that the sanctuary thinks they can interact successfully with other chimps.

Chimps are extremely social, sharing 98.6% of their DNA with humans (although an adult chimp is five times stronger than a human, when provoked). Once they can be integrated, they start living together in large enclosures with jungle gyms and swinging ropes, where they can become dextrous at living the way a chimp lives – swinging from branches and sleeping in trees, not living in a house and sleeping in a bed, as they might have if they were a rescue. This is where we really first got to see the chimps in action – dangling wildly from the two-storey jungle gym, tightrope walking, galloping along the ground, stuffing their faces with potato. You’d have to be a really sour person not to get a warm feeling in your chest watching them play. There was some mesh strung up across our viewing area to protect us – the interlopers – from stones thrown at us by the chimps (who are very territorial)… but only one chimp decided we needed to be taught a lesson about trespassing, and he didn’t have very good aim.

One of the neatest parts of the tour was watching our guide interact with the chimps – calling out to them in chimp noises, addressing them by name, scolding them from stealing food from each other… and genuinely laughing along with their antics.

From the play-area, we moved along to the next stage in a chimp’s progression at Tacugama – jungle enclosures. We saw the chimps in both the smaller enclosure (where they’re not allowed to mate, made possible by an implant in the female chimps), and the larger one where four babies have been born. The end goal is to have these chimps released into the wild, but at this point they have nowhere to release them where they aren’t in danger of being poached for bush meat.

At the final, eight-acre enclosure, we were lucky to see the babies playing in the treetops and their mother Julie (the oldest chimp at Tacugama) lounging on a tree branch. One of the other chimps was playing on an overhanging branch and our guide kept calling out “Be careful, man, that’s dangerous!” with real worry in his voice. Julie just hung out in her tree and gazed right at us – what I wouldn’t give to know what was going through her mind.

Overall, it was a pretty magical 90 minutes, to top off a pretty wonderful weekend.

The Eagle has Landed

Apologies for being MIA… it’s a combination of not really having much to write about (I spent the weekend reading and enjoying the tropical breeze, which was wonderful for my mental state but didn’t result in any exciting adventures to chronicle), and finally having Alex here. I met him at the helipad on Monday night and we swept off to a nearby restaurant featuring a patio on the beach, feet away from the crashing waves. Waving palm trees and an ocean breeze – not the worst intro to West Africa. We gulped cold Star beer – the local brew – and ate hamburgers and French fries – putting off the run belly for one more night.

Tuesday we went downtown so Alex could start getting his bearings – and get a sense of Africa. I first visited the continent three years ago, so I had sort of forgotten the way it feels to be assaulted with the sights, sounds and smells for the first time. I’d be the first to tell you that one can’t lump all African countries into one pile, but in many ways the sub-Saharan region is similar… It’s complete sensory overload. I was able to relive the experience of stepping foot on the red earth of Africa through the expression on Alex’s face: wonder.

Things are dirtier here, they are chaotic, yet… they roll along. As I said yesterday to refer to our taxi (of course not to the driver’s face), which stalled numerous times and didn’t have the smoothest transmission, “It’s a shitbox, but it works.” We still got from A to B. The same can be said for day-to-day life here. Coming from the West, we’re so used to things working as they’ve been designed – and we get frustrated or indignant when they don’t, or when they’re delayed or have to be Frankensteined to run at all. Here, it’s about making the most of what you have. And when you live here, you have to live that ethos. Case in point: My Birkenstocks are literally rotting off my feet, to the point that the sole is cracking and I’m in danger of tripping with every step – as if the poorly-paved roads weren’t dangerous enough. I took my sandal into a local tailor, and he deftly stitched the sandal strap back into the sole – two quick stitches with heavy duty thread – and I was good to go. Yes, they’re not going to last me much longer… but they’re going to last longer than they would have had I just thrown them out at the first sign of
disintegration, and laid out the cash for a new pair. Another example: The poda poda (a van fitted with three rows of benches, used as a public taxi) I took home the other night had a broken sliding door. Instead of trashing the vehicle or trying to mend the finicky mechanism that makes the side door slide along the body of the van, they simply removed it altogether, and then welded on some hinges – now, the door swings outwards, kind of like a giant back-door on a normal car. It works.

Yesterday I had an interview in the morning at a local patisserie (five-dollar smoothies, but worth it for the fruit injection), then Alex and I did some groceries and flaked out at home. We went to the beach about 4 pm and frolicked in the soup-warm water, getting bowled over by waves. We went out for dinner at a local restaurant for Star beers and local fare… I think Alex was feeling the pull of something a little more “civilized” than eating fry-fry while sitting on broken wooden boxes beside the road. There’s no doubt that Africa takes a bit of getting used to… and there’s no reason to rush the process.

The power has been unfortunately shoddy since Alex arrived. We were getting power almost 24/7 for the first two weeks I was here and now it seems like it’s been off more than on. At least I have someone lying in bed with me in the stifling heat of the no-fan and
lots-of-candles. The trick is to shower and then get directly into bed, moving as little as possible… and leave the fan plugged in and switched on, in case the power makes a miraculous appearance in the night (so far, so good).

Today we planned to do the “attractions” downtown. This isn’t exactly a place for tourists, yet – but there’s a big arts market downtown (aptly named “Big Market”) and the National Museum housed in the old railway station (picture the depot in Road to Avonlea, not Grand Central Station). We took a taxi downtown and I headed into the offices of one of the biggest newspapers to interview the editor… and turned Alex loose on Africa. He returned to meet me at Nix Nax (downtown snack joint: Fanta soda, groundnut soup and jollof rice) in one piece – he’s got the hang of it quickly! However, our plans for sightseeing got interrupted with a text from one of the local freelance journos I interviewed last week, inviting us to attend the weekly government press briefing at the You Yi Building (a gift from the Chinese about 20 years ago, houses most of the government ministries). We both jumped at the chance.

The briefing was held in a mid-sized board room with chairs ringing a T-shaped table – the leg of the T about 3 times longer than the top. The government officials/guests sat along the top of the T, while journalists and members of the public sat along the rest of the table and on chairs ringing the perimeter of the room. Starting 20 minutes late, (“BMT – black man’s time,” Benjamin joked) the briefing dealt with the creation of the planning committee for the celebrations of Sierra Leone’s 50th anniversary of independence (1961-2011), and the Minister of Information briefly touched on the new agreement to lay undersea internet cables to Sierra Leone (so maybe it can finally be hooked up to the international banking system). Questions were permitted only on these two topics, and the Minister felt free to comment on the “quality” of the questions… and gave the first question to a reporter from the newspaper he owns, the New Citizen. However, the atmosphere was generally very friendly – the minister didn’t seem hostile or closed – although of course the only questions allowed were those dealing with the items on the agenda.

There were members of the planning committee for the 50th anniversary there, and some got up to speak. One member asked the room (filled mostly with journos) whether he would be able to count on the media’s support to further the cause and garner attention and publicity for the celebrations. The reporter from the New Citizen stood up to guarantee his paper’s support. So much for the fourth estate. As the editor I interviewed this morning would say, “If you want publicity, take out an ad in my paper.” Unfortunately not all media outlets share this vision. At least not yet.

Regardless, I scored an interview with the Minister for next Wednesday, so it was a day well spent. There was a Syrian Trade Fair (“First ever in Freetown!”) in the lobby of the building, so we decided to check it out. I expected booths of serious men proposing business partnerships and resource-extraction ventures: instead, it was a showroom of lush towels, decadent sofas in rich colours adorned with gold, glinting gold-and-glass teaware, garish costume jewellery in every colour, and a parfumier (mixing up imitations of famous scents for a fraction of the price). It was other-worldly… and Alex and I now have a friend to stay with in Damascus, if we ever happen to be in that neck of the woods.

We’re heading up to the FBC campus tomorrow to sight-see – and I, of course, have an interview. Then the weekend brings a trip to the chimp sanctuary, where I will be happy to spend 48 hours with my brain switched off – sort of a sanctuary for the mind as well, I hope. Hoping to finish my interviews by next week, so we can have a week and a half of true vacation… hard to believe this joyride chugs back into the station in two weeks.

Just call me Katic Couric

This morning started like any other: tea on the porch, a slow and winding taxi ride through Freetown traffic, gearing up for a day of interviews.

It ended with me on television.

I was set to interview the director general of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corp at 8:30 this morning. Since I’d never been to SLBC before, I asked my cabbie last night if he knew where it was and how long it would take me to get there in the morning – he said it would take half an hour, and he would be happy to come back in the morning to drive me. I agreed, stating “no cha-cha though, I pay three-way” – I didn’t want to charter the car (which would cost 15,000 leone – about 5 whole dollars). Instead, I’d pay him 3,000, but he was free to pick up and drop off passengers along the way.

So, I called him at 7 and asked him to arrive at 8 – he was perfectly on time and I was starting to feel good about the whole experience… until I started to doubt his ETA. At 8:20 we were still on the beach road. Now, as I said, I didn’t know where SLBC was, but… I knew we weren’t even close to it yet. At 8:28 I asked one of my fellow passengers how far we were from SLBC. “About 30 minutes… you know, the traffic!”

I started to freak out, since starting in two minutes I was supposed to be interviewing the top dog of the country’s only national broadcaster (TV and radio). But, there was nothing to be done – I called and said I would be late, the director general seemed unfazed and said it was fine, and we continued on our way.

I show up, find his office, and sit down to wait. I’d dressed respectably for the interview since he’s kind of a big deal (a skirt and t-shirt, I have NO IDEA how people can wear full suits and long sleeves here, I would die of heat exhaustion). He comes into the waiting area and greets me warmly, then asks the fatal question, “Before we do our interview, there are a few of our journalists here who want to do an interview with you. Is this ok?” Wait, what? Oh, he must mean that they want to be interviewed for my project. Feeling badly about being late, without even thinking I chirp, “Oh sure, no problem.”

And all of a sudden I’m standing in an air-conditioned television studio.

The producers and cameramen are buzzing about, the host welcomes me with a smile, they pour me tea, and look disapprovingly at my outfit. I start to apologize for my appearance, explaining I had no idea I would be on TV. Someone tried to tug at my sportsbra (which shows above the neckline of my t-shirt) so I’d be showing less skin, then gave up and returned with a maroon blazer about four sizes too big. I wasn’t wearing make-up, my unwashed hair was in a terribly unkempt pony-tail, and worst of all – I had no idea what I was going to say about my research. I felt like a kid dressing up in mummy’s clothes, playing TV news.

And that was my debut on Good Morning Sierra Leone. I tried to console myself with the fact that no one would see it… but my second interviewee today (head of the photo union) opened with “I just saw you on TV!” and walking home one of the local men called out “Hello Rose! I saw you on TV today!” Oh. Right. It’s the only television station in Salone. If you were in Salone and watching TV between 9 and 10, you were watching me. I hardly remember what I said, something about the improvements in the media over the last 10 years, and some stupid gushing white-person crap about how lovely the people are. I wasn’t the only person on the show – they were also interviewing two local men about development projects – so it was this weird experience where they’d ask them a few questions about their experience, then ask me a few questions, then back to them… and so forth.

The crowning jewel of the experience came at the end, when the other two men each wrapped up – they were both promoting certain
viewpoints/ideals/projects, so they just summed up what they’d been saying. Then the host turns to me and says “Miss Rosemary?” and I respond with “…what do you want me to say?”

I’m going back to SLBC on Monday to get some documents, and at the same time I should be able to get a copy of the interview. It will be handy to have around for any time I start taking myself too seriously.

So turns out, there’s no point worrying when you’re 20 minutes late for an interview. There are bigger fish to fry… and you don’t even know about them yet.

Hats off

(Ed. note: I wrote this yesterday but the Internet was so
infuriatingly slow last night I didn’t want to sit on the back porch any longer waiting for the post to send, for fear of malarial mosquitos.)

Today I saw a man carrying a toilet bowl on his head. I’ve been avoiding the “People carry everything on their heads here, it’s so crazy!” blog post, because it’s so cliché… not to mention condescending. But, people really do carry everything on their head – it’s not just an over-played image from National Geographic, and I continue to be impressed by Saloneans’ balancing skills. I can’t even carry a single book on my head, but here is a sampling of what I saw people carrying on their heads today (often completely balanced, not even using a hand to steady it): a stack of towels tied together three feet high; a two-foot heap of women’s underwear on a platter; about 100 bananas; 12 pairs of folded jeans; everything you need to sell cassava stew on the street (a pot for rice, a vat for the stew, bowls, utensils…); a two- by three-foot slat stacked with bread loaves; six dozen eggs; a small tree wrapped in a tarp; and a tricycle.

I didn’t have fryfry for dinner tonight, but I did discover some incredible street snacks downtown on Siaka Stevens – doughnuts and “groundnut cake” (giant chunks of melt-in-your-mouth peanut brittle which I am definitely smuggling on the plane back to Canada for everyone to try… too bad fryfry doesn’t travel well). So yes, I am coming home fat.

I was downtown because I interviewed the chairperson of the Independent Media Commission (like the CRTC of Sierra Leone, in a way), who I met by chance when I was up at the college… and it turns out I used some of her writings in my thesis proposal, too. I guess the Salone media scene isn’t a huge one. Tomorrow I have an interview at 8:30 am with the director general of the SLBC (Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation)… not too keen on getting up so early – the heat makes me lazy – but I can’t really complain since I’m getting an interview with one of the top dogs. It’s amazing how scheduling works here: I’ll call to ask if someone is willing to be interviewed, and they say “Come over now!” or “I can come at three today.” The furthest in advance I’ve organized an interview is about 22 hours… except for the one interview I have with a foreigner, who asked, “How’s next Wednesday for you?”

The heat makes time float by. For example, today the IMC chairperson was an hour late in meeting with me… but I just sat in the lobby of her office and stared into space. At home I would have been extremely bored, so I don’t know if it’s a heat or the fact that I have so much to think about and digest being here, so an hour with nothing to do is a welcome chance for my brain to catch up with my surroundings. I also passed about three hours just sitting in “my” office (Stephen is letting me use the Journalists for Human Rights office as a home base)… I guess I sent an email or two and read a journal article, but still. It’s the same on mornings at the house when I have nothing to do. I sit on the back porch with tea and read or write, and all of a sudden it’s noon.

One thing I’m starting to get really sick of is being stared at in the streets. Just like Rwanda, there are very few white people out and about (and most of them are hiding in air conditioned 4X4s)… so just by virtue of walking in the market, I attract a fair amount of attention. At least in Rwanda they had a Kinyarwanda word for foreigner (“muzungu”) – here they just call me “white girl!” Most people stare as I walk by, waiting to see what I’ll do or where I’ll go. Vendors assume I have lots of money and try extra hard to get me interested in their wares. Men take my hand and say they want to be my friend, they tell me I’m beautiful (I tell them my husband will be glad to know they think so), and a popular phrase is “I like your style.” It’s mostly men – the women just seem to watch me or ignore me – and it really runs the gamut from creepy to friendly. Some I can tell just genuinely want to say hello, whereas others are more persistent. It’s another reason I’m looking forward to having Alex here. Partly because it will discourage the men’s attention, and partly because I’ll be a little more oblivious to the staring – I’m sure they will still look, but I won’t feel quite so naked.

The kids can stare all they want. I have yet to see an ugly Sierra Leonean child. The kids up at the college yesterday were totally adorable; the girls kept wanting to touch my hair and my skin, and the boys wanted to take pictures with my camera. I think I find children here easier to get along with because they are much more open – less socialized into certain behaviours that are foreign to me. Cultural difference doesn’t turn me off (just the opposite), but it’s also exhausting. It’s tiring to adjust my behaviours and expectations, encounter after encounter, day after day. But kids? They’re just soaking it all in, and so am I.