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.