showing up is eighty percent of life

We’d been sitting motionless on the tarmac for more than an hour before I really started to worry. It wasn’t the fact that it was almost certain we’d miss our connecting flight in London – it was the fact that the ground crew was trying to fix a problem that the captain delicately said was “not something the Toronto maintenance fellows have seen before.” Encouraging.

The excitement began on the way to the airport at 2:30 pm, when I got a frantic call from Kristy, who was smart enough to check our flights and found out that our flight to Paris was delayed by five hours – meaning we’d miss our connection to Nairobi. Air Canada had already rerouted Alex and I through London, and Kristy made a mad dash to the airport to catch an earlier flight to Pair-ee. I took my original flight to Toronto, met up with Alex at Gate 178, and boarded a Boeing 777 bound for London.

But the plane didn’t move.

8:20 pm: We board the plane, a good 20 minutes in advance of the scheduled takeoff. The Danish couple beside me is friendly, the in-flight entertainment has an impressive array of choices. Why was I so negative when I found out I was flying Air Canada?

8:44 pm: Oh, right, that’s why. The first officer comes on the intercom and announces that the cockpit has just been alerted that our plane was due for its 100-hour check – after 100 hours in the air, aircraft are required to have a routine once-over. So, he says, we’ll be delayed by an hour. The cabin lets out a collective groan. (On a Boeing 777, that’s actually a lot of voices involuntarily groaning at once – sort of had the same effect as the final cut at the end of Inception… if you saw it in theatres you know what I mean.)

8:50 pm: I start to wonder why they didn’t do this “routine check” before they crammed hundreds of people onto a pressurized tube with re-circulated air and no food. Right up until we boarded, the departure screens in the terminal showed “on time” beside the flight number.

9:00 pm: The flight crew comes around, offering water and weak, apologetic smiles.

9:45 pm: The captain himself comes on the intercom. This is how you know it’s serious. The maintenance crew found a problem with the aircraft that has to be fixed before we can take off. It’ll be another hour. Well, at least they found the problem right?

10:20 pm: Yup, they found it… aaaaand it turns out they don’t know how to fix it. It’s a procedure that the ground crew has never done before. I imagine the plane splintering into pieces over the Atlantic, when it turns out they were using a helicopter repair manual to guide the troubleshooting. We’ll be delayed another hour at least, maybe until midnight. The captain keeps using the word “optimistically” in a tone that suggests he isn’t.

10:30 pm: I start pondering a mutiny.

10:41 pm: I think about Louis CK for awhile. (Skip to 2:04 if you’re so busy.)

10:54 pm: Oh! Wait! They’ve fixed it! Now we have to wait while they do the paperwork. Thank you, bureaucracy.

11:20 pm: Well, at least we’re going to London. Maybe Prince Harry will be there.

11:44 pm: Hey there, it’s the captain again. Everything is fixed and ready to go, but guess what? Because we were supposed to leave three hours ago, he’s going to go over his duty period if he flies the whole route. So we need a third pilot. He’s on his way, they swear. This is what we call a “cascade effect”.

11:45 pm: A text from home – “This is some reality sketch show, right? You’re getting punked!”

11:57 pm: The women in front of me starts handing out her chocolate souvenirs to the starving passengers. “Sorry, grandma,” she laughs.

12:09 am: OH MY GOD WE’RE MOVING, a full nine hours after I checked-in at the Air Canada counter in Ottawa (with the desk agent who didn’t want to issue my boarding pass because my entry visa expired before my return ticket — and even argued with his superiors about it).

Once we got into the air, flight was uneventful: I watched most of The Bang Bang Club, ate some nondescript chicken and actually sort of slept.

Heathrow, Hour Seven.

We arrived in London around noon, two hours after our connection had departed for Nairobi. Air Canada had already re-re-booked us on Virgin Atlantic flight leaving at 9 pm — which became the third flight we were supposed to take to Nairobi: first it was a Kenya Airways flight from Paris, then the British Airways flight that left Heathrow before Air Canada entered British airspace. We got meal vouchers, and got laughed at when we asked for lounge access or free Internet. We wandered to find some food and then flaked out on benches, realizing that we flew all night to spend the day in what is basically a mall with runways attached, in order to take another overnight flight. I spent a while trying to count how many hours until I’d taste fresh air again (or in Nairobi, I think it’s enough to settle for non-re-circulated air), as the airport waiting room was probably eight degrees hotter than the rest of the airport because of all the body heat. I’ve never seen such a crowded terminal, or as Alex called it, a “people barn”.

About nine hours after arriving in London, it was time to board the plane for Nairobi. We got there in plenty of time, as we’d already explored the entire terminal, eaten two meals, downed a Magners and watched the episode of Man vs. Wild filmed in Kenya, where Bear Grylls evades a lion attack and then drinks water he squeezes out of elephant dung — a survival skill I won’t be trying. We found our gate number on the looming departure screens, noting that the Air Canada flight returning to Toronto was three-and-a-half hours delayed. (At least something can be said for their consistency?) Foolishly relieved we were switching to Virgin Atlantic, we found our gate and were in our seats about 20 minutes before the scheduled 9 pm departure. Note that word, scheduled.

It was hot on the plane. At first I thought it was just the sweaty rush of getting onto the aircraft and stowing our bags, but looking around I saw beads of sweat, makeshift fans, and passengers dozing in the warmth. There was no cool air coming out of the ceiling jets. Hm.

And then the captain came on the loudspeaker.

You guessed it, a malfunctioning AC unit. I’ll spare you the play-by-play – but it was two hours of sitting on the plane at the gate before we even began the eight-hour flight to Nairobi. Luckily for the flight attendants, the previous 24 hours had worn us down to the point that we couldn’t do anything but giggle.

I arrived Tuesday morning at 9:30 local time, 13 hours late, with almost 36 hours of airplane and airports caked on my body. I’m finally in the apartment I share with the lovely Paige, I have tea with powdered milk, I have an Internet connection, and I’m just about ready to sleep horizontally for the first time in three days. Life is rapidly improving.

I’m sure our ordeal was a one-time thing. It won’t happen to you if you visit me in Kenya. It’s glorious here, so go on and book those tickets! Just maybe not through Air Canada.

into the single digits

Today was my last day as a producer at CBC Radio in Ottawa, at least for now. I leave for Kenya in nine days, where a reporting job awaits. And I think Alice Bradley and I were separated at birth… this is exactly how I react/cope/deal with airports:

I’m really not a fan of flying. Not just the hurtling through the air in a screaming death machine part: the whole process. The packing. The boarding pass-getting (will I do it wrong? Probably.). The panicking on the way to the airport because the cab/train/subway is taking longer than I think it should take. The double and triple-checking that I’m in the right airport/terminal. The long, arduous security line. The possibility of being manhandled. The idiotic shoe-removal. The waiting around the gate for two hours because God forbid I don’t get there super early. The purchasing of overpriced snacks and magazines. The visiting of every restroom in the airport, because when I get anxious, my bladder goes into overdrive.

BUT! Then I see videos like this. And I remember why I can’t wait to lift off.

That one’s the best, but LEARN and EAT are pretty good too.

Anyway. Nine days. Less.

what’s funny in Kenya?

That’s what American comedian John Ramsey is trying to figure out. Here is his best guess:

John Ramsey is volunteering in Kenya for a year with International Justice Mission, and while he’s there, he’s been honing his craft for a Kenyan audience. He’s written about trying to figure out what makes Kenyans laugh, and it turns out that the jokes that he “liked the least were the ones that worked the best.” (Although, he’s careful to point out that “it’s not that I get Kenyan jokes and don’t like them (like primitive humor) – I just don’t get most of them at all.”)

The above clip is from the show Churchill Live, an extremely popular “late night” show in Kenya which reaches 10 million viewers (in Kenya, the surrounding countries and the diaspora). Props to John Ramsey for trying to connect with Kenyans through their own language and sense of humour, instead of hiding out in embassy smoking lounges cracking jokes about colonialism.

ps – Kenya friends – they film Churchill Live at Carnivore every Thursday evening… who’s in!?

mtl: the victory lap

this wasn't on the list. but it perfectly illustrates why mtl is numero uno.

I have a list. I am a person of many lists. When I write lists, I include things I have already done, just to cross them off. Observe…

Thing to do in this fair city one last time:

  • brunch at Bagel Etc.
  • hawaiian poutine at La Banquise
  • ridiculous Mason jar cocktails at Distillerie
  • table d’hote at Khyber Pass
  • sheesha on St. Denis
  • tour St. Joseph’s Oratory
  • picnic at Lac des Castors
  • consume the entirety of Cheskie’s
  • Burger de Ville
  • hawaiian burger and yam fries at Meat Market
  • Roquefort mussels at L’Academie
  • belvedere on Mt. Royal
  • Marché Atwater
  • Frites Alors!
  • chicken creation at Boustan
  • ask Aleana where the best Thai is, and go there
  • rice pudding at Beautys
  • tightrope walk on Mt. Royal
  • buy (and consume) all the cheese at PA
  • tam-tams!
  • bow down to the LARPers
  • eat at that amazing $5 thali Indian restaurant near the humane society that everyone keeps telling me about, even though the metro will cost as much as the meal
  • wine. park.

And then also get vaccinations, work visa and pack.

It’s a long list, which is why I got a head start on it before I actually got down to writing it out. I only have a matter of hours left as a resident of Montreal, and then it’s off to Ottawa for a month of orientation for my fellowship in Kenya. The trip itself has been delayed because of work visas, which is unfortunate in most senses, but fortunate in the sense that I will have the entire month of July to be funemployed… and therefore take extended visits to Montreal. I must finish what I started here.

Then in August, I shape up and ship out to Nairobi. I’m moving to Kenya for six months to work for the Nation Media Group. Newspaper, tv, and radio reporting, hopefully with a healthy dose of general exploring on the side. You can come, if you want. Just bookmark this blog. Or subscribe. Or send me emails begging for updates. Or actually come visit me. Flights are only about 24 hours long, and it’s trans-Atlantic so you probably get free liquor.

the day we went to the Oratory also happened to be the "Blessing of the Mustangs" -- no jokes. Fo' five dolla, a priest (?) will bless your mid-life-crisis automobile.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next year. And if you’re in Mtl, y’all best be checking at least some of the things off that list, because they are interesting and/or delicious. They are my favourite things. Just call me Oprah.

(And speaking of Oprah, love her or hate her, she has popularized a lot of wisdom over the last 25 years. Whether or not she came up with it in the first place, you have to admit she was a force for positivity. And Mighty Girl has gathered some of it in one place.)

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.