I spent nearly five weeks in Sierra Leone in January of 2011. I saw only two other "tourists" the whole time I was there, which is an absolute shame. Salone is one of the most beautiful and enjoyable places I've ever traveled, but it still suffers from an image problem. Most people responded with concerns for my safety when they heard I was going, a sad misconception given that these days it's one of the safest places in Africa. In truth I was probably safer there than if I had just spent the five weeks in Seattle.
Below you'll find the emails I sent home to family and friends while traveling, augmented with some logistical details to help facilitate others going, something which I heartily recommend!
Arrived safely in Freetown, after a relatively smooth 27 hours in transit.
Feeling flush from the a good night at poker a couple of weeks ago, I splashed out for a helicopter ride into town from the airport, $80 instead of the $40 hovercraft (thanks guys!). The fleet of aging Russian copters was retired after a crash a couple of years ago, and replaced with shining new German machines, with matching German pilots. It made for a nice dramatic arrival to Freetown. The heliport is only blocks from the swanky hotel I'll be staying at these first couple of nights, the waves of Man-O-War bay literally lap against the hotels foundation below my balcony. A recent steep discount dropped it into my price range, just barely, if only for a couple of nights while I adjust to the heat and time change.
Freetown has a safe enough feel to it (at least in this neighborhood, Aberdeen) that when I found myself wide awake last night at midnight (after my 9pm arrival) I felt comfortable taking a mile-long stroll to a large outside bar near the beach for a beer.
Sierra Leone promises to be good.
Just got out of the woods, from the Tiwai Island wildlife refuge, and am relishing the relative pleasures of a $25 hotel room here in Bo.Tiwai was fantastic, long walks through the deep forest, spying on monkeys and birds, and dugout canoe trips on the river at sunset, but I don't miss the massive tarantula that was waiting by my bed each night, or the rats that rustled through the roof of my rustic shelter as I tried to sleep. It's a deep forest experience that was very enjoyable.
Being here in Bo on a Saturday night ispromising, given my experience last Wednesday or "ladies night". There were nightclub and two bars on the same block as my hotel, a concentration that meant the parties spilled out onto the street. The noise normally would have been a nuisance, but as it turned out I was among the last to retire and so wasn’t bothered. I was just contemplatinggoing to bed earlier, wondering how I was going to get to sleep despite the throbbing music, when the nightclub I was in announced the start of a "coos coos" competition. That could be roughly translated as an "ass dance competition". Two scantily clad women from the crowd would get up on stage, turn their backs to the audience, and compete in sultry-yet-animated shaking of their posteriors, the winner being judged by the crowd’s response. When they were winnowed down to the final two, the partisans in the crowd for each dancer (the most ardently passionate of whom were other women) were surging forward and back, and erupting in screams of approval at particularly saucy maneuvers. The security guys had their hands full when a winner was declared, although it was all in drunken good fun. I think you understand why I didn't get to bed until 4:30 AM. Who knows what's in store for tonight. Sweet Salone has been good.
I lingered in Freetown for three days, enjoying the hectic atmosphere. One night I went into one of the big casinos on the beach there, and when I inquired about poker tournaments, I was looked over, asked to remove my hat, then led down a passage to a relatively sumptuous back room. There I found a table, filled with what looked like Russian and Lebanese players (the Lebanese the long-term merchant class in Salone, and the Russians here for the diamonds). They were playing a cash game, no-limit with a minimum $400 buy-in. I'm not a cash game player, so wasn't tempted. I was tempted, however fleetingly, by the $1200 tournament being hosted there two nights later. Just the experience of playing against that shady group of characters would have been nearly worth it, but seriously outside my budget for this trip. That despite the generous donations of the guys I play with in Seattle, just before I left.
Leaving Freetown, I headed down the peninsula, famous for having some of the most beautiful beaches in Africa. I spent two nights at River Number Two, a resort that is a bit more costly than I usually like to pay, but I was willing to pay because of the nature of how the place is organized. It's completely run by the local community, the management elected every three years. The profits are all shared amongst the village: every child goes to school, the houses are noticeably more comfortable, and weddings and funerals are covered communally. The business was started before the war, and when the rebels headed their way, they wrapped all their valuables in tarps, buried it in the sand, and fled into the bush or out to sea in small boats until it was safe to return, repeating that flight multiple times in the year the rebelswere active on the peninsula. It's a pretty unique and beautiful place, and worth the extra cost to me ($60 a night). I was there over New Year's, and that night I went out into the village, following the sound of loud throbbing music, expecting to find a bar/party, but instead came upon a religious service. Just my luck, but in truth it didn't look that much different than a dance floor, although certainly magnitudes more chaste than the scene last Wednesday night in Bo.
(Sitting here in Bo typing, a Voodoo/Juju society marches by in the street, a large masked figure dancing wildly as men in matching costumes beat each other up, apparently ritualistically, but with real effect).
From River Number Two, I moved on to York (after a night in Tombo, the busiest fishing port in the country, and an unbelievably frenetic scene), the oldest Creole village in the country, also on the peninsula, so also with a lovely adjacent (black sand) beach. I stayed there at the hostel run by the Atlantic Whale Foundation, a small NGO that historically has mostlydone conservation work in Tenerife, but due to a connection with a Sierra Leonean professor, has ventured into low budget development work here for the first time. Run by Susan, a British volunteer, they have done an extraordinary job of forging a strong connection with the local community. Their first big project, just six months ago, was toprovide the materials to reconnect the village plumbing to a small dam, on the condition that the community provide the labor. There is now running water at the spigots in the street for the first time in 14 years, making obsolete the long trek to fetch water multiple times a day. Currently they have a Dutch farmer/volunteer in town for five months to coordinate the building of a chicken farm to house the 1000 laying chicks that will be arriving in February. Right now most eggs inFreetown are imported from India, at a premium. The upshot is that they are doing good work (if you're looking for a great charity) and forging strong connections with the local community, connections that I was able to coat-tail in on by staying at their simple hostel. That meant late nights drinking palm wine, and invitations to attend wedding celebrations where late night drunken dancing was obligatory. On that dance floor, a particularly drunk and somewhat aggressive (not to mention short and rotund) matron set her sights on me, clamping her hand firmly on my ass as we danced, much to the amusement of the crowd. I escaped her clutches by dancing instead with the sweetly-intent four-year-old daughter of the local teacher I had met earlier. When the little round drunk one tried to aggressively cut in on the little girl to reclaim her prize (my ass), I put my foot down, and with the help of her friends ushered her off the floor. The night for us ended a bit later when I spied her now sitting in the lap of Mathew, the Dutch student, who was in no condition to fend her off. I rescued him, and along with Musa, a local friend of Mathew's, westumbled home. A very good time over all!
I'm up in the air as to where I move on to from here in Bo. I've got a nasty blister under a blister under a blister (literally three layers deep) under a callous on my toe, and don't want to risk getting to far off grid in case it gets infected. I may head up to Koidu, where the diamond fields are, or I may head down to Bonthe on Sherbo Island, either way at this point I'm pretty certain it will be good.
I hope you all are well!
Boat to Bonthe
Air-drying in the tropical night air after a bucket bath, a
towel far to much to ask for at this abandoned catholic mission now rustic hotel, standing naked on my second story balcony overlooking the sea, a bustling candle-lit street scene below unaware of me in the dark, truly a deliciously sublime experience.
After a day in Kenema, I backtracked to Bo, and then took a extremely dusty (cargo forced the rear door of the minivan to remain open) five hour drive to Mattru Jong, a dozen miles upriver from the coast. I spent the night there, (hobnobbing with the local civil servants, consistently found at whatever excuse of a watering hole you can find in small town Sierra Leone) and then the next day took a five hour boat ride out to Bonthe, on Sherbro Island, and took my bucket bath. Bonthe has a long history, and was once a bustling colonial administrative center, but now is a backwater amongst backwaters, with no vehicles other than a handful of motos, and very little power, even from generators. But it's rich in dilapidated colonial buildings and friendly people. My fellow passengers on the boat ride out were shocked to see me joining them, and then very curious as to what I was up to. I've not met a single other "tourist" in Salone (other than an avid South African birder who flew in to see one particular rare bird) and have regularly encountered intense skepticism that I'm not working here. At the very least people assume I'm here to buy diamonds or gold. Regardless, the boat ride was long enough to forge some friendships (and teach folks how to use my camera) that made for an even more enjoyable three days in Bonthe. The civil servants at the local "bar" (a few tables and chairs pulled out into the middle of a street) seemed to be constantly fighting with their wives, mothers-in-law, or mistresses; which was briefly entertaining, but ended up driving me to sip evening beers at candle-lit roadside stands instead, often at the one run by Alice, an affable matronly trader I met on the boat.
My ultimate island goal was to get out to the Turtles, a string of low-slung palm-fringed islands off the far other end of Sherbro from Bonthe. Getting there proved to be a challenge, there's only one weekly regular transport boat out there, and I had just missed it. After a couple of days of wrangling with local fishermen who wanted to charge a a huge price (fuel is really expensive), I met the affable Amara who works for a British conservation organization using their speedboat to monitor illegal fishing trawlers off the coast (a horrific problem, they sweep the ocean clean with their huge nets, and chase off the local traditional fisherman by swamping their boats, or sometimes even firing on them). He agreed to run me out to the islands for just the price of fuel, still expensive but just affordable. We spent three hours skimming over the water getting out to Bakie Island, where I expected to be camping on the beach, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that a small guesthouse, built by a Frenchman years ago, but reported by the guidebook to be roofless and dilapidated, had recently been refurbished by the small fishing community on the island, the proceeds again used collectively. Sitting forty feet from the water, a hundred yards down the beach from the village, it was pretty damn comfortable, particularly since it came with Tommy, my own personal manservant. About forty-years-old (some of them clearly rough, he introduced me to his father, who actually looked younger), he would appear every morning before I woke with a hot thermos of water for coffee, and then lay around dozing, but rousing himself to attend to any need that might arise, from cleaning the room, to summoning a boy to climb a palm tree to pick me coconuts, to arranging my meals, and sensing when the attention from the village children was becoming to much and shooing them off until later. It worked for me (and for him, I was generous).
Mornings would find me sipping a hot cup of coffee, watching the sunrise over the sea (shallow and calm behind the barrier islands), cranes patrolling the water's edge, fish hawks swooping overhead, terns doing splashy dive-bombs, swimming cormorants dipping under water only to reappear thirty feet away gulping down a fish, neon blue kingfishers hovering and darting in pairs, flying fish skimming over the water, jack fish (three feet long and as thick as my thigh) bring the water to a boil in a feeding frenzy, fishermen shouting greetings as they paddled out to their grounds, Tommy napping in a hammock nearby, it was pretty much just one comely chambermaid short of paradise. Paradise or not, after three days, it was time for me to move on. Unfortunately my timing with the local transport boat was again less than ideal, it wouldn't be arriving for four more days. I used to think that flying with Uzbek Air, on an aging soviet jet, at midnight, in a snowstorm, was the most foolhardy transport choice I had ever made. But no more. The only option to waiting four days for the regular boat to Shenge, across twenty miles of open ocean, turned out to be with Blackie. Blackie is a fish trader, who works out of a dugout canoe with a small outboard engine on the back, but rather than trading in the normal smoked fish, Blackie trades in fresh fish, able to do so because in his three-foot-wide dugout he carries an ancient chest freezer and also an old Frigidaire, the only of their original functions which they retain being insulation, so Blackie fills them with ice, fish, and burlap bags. For the cost of the fuel plus $40, Blackie was willing to ferry me across to Shenge. The biggest part of our negotiations was my convincing him to remove the Frigidaire as a nod to my concerns for the eight inches of free-board the canoe had with it loaded. With just the
chest freezer (which was to heavy to remove) we had nearly ten inches. Ishagah, the college educated man from the village who had organized the grant they had received to renovate the guesthouse (who I had spent my evenings with having spirited conversations about the existence of god), assured me that it was perfectly safe, so despite my reservations, we set off for the five hour crossing. Almost immediately I was wondering what the fuck I was doing.
Dugout before the Frigidaire was removed
Leaning back with my hands on the gunnels was the only way I could keep my weight from rocking the canoe wildly. My concerns only grew as we emerged from behind the barrier islands and the dead calm sea changed/ shifted to gentle swells, that if we hit at the wrong angle would again send as into what I perceived as wild rocking. Needless to say I was pretty tense, but I swear that the puddles the apprentice was constantly bailing from between my legs wasn't piss (to say leaky dugout is to be redundant). I wasn't comforted by the arguments Blackie and the apprentice were having about what was the proper heading. Blackie however was completely nonchalant, and insisted on stopping any vessel we saw, ostensibly to inquire about buying fish, but seemingly also to put the big white man on display and share a laugh about my transparently terrified demeanor. Good times.
After hours of being well out of sight of land can't tell you how relieved I was to sight first "the bush" and then the jetty of Shenge. A shabby little guesthouse has never felt so luxurious as the one there, as I sat around the courtyard drinking beer, chatting to locals, and feeling grateful to be alive. The next day I took a much larger, but hardly any faster boat, jam-packed with locals and cargo, back up to Tombo on the peninsula, five hours, with constant bailing but mostly not much fear of sinking. Tombo, despite being the biggest fishing town in the country, has no jetty, so our boat just ran up towards the beach, leaving us in water still chest deep or higher, as we disembarked. That led to a scene that you can add to your list of ridiculous images of Kevin: me at 265 pounds riding on the shoulders of a 165 pound but completely buff "dock" worker through the waves up onto the beach. Again, I tipped well.
I'm now in Mekeni, in the center of the country, hoping to organize a moto trip for three days over the north side of Mt. Bintumani down to Koidu, before returning to Freetown and then flying home on the 28th.
Mandatory helmets here in Freetown, my driver handed me mine, a bright pink child's bicycle helmet. Add it to the list of ridiculous images.
Spent a couple of days in Makeni, a central market town with not much in the way of attractions, but a pleasant for it's friendly hectic atmosphere, where again I found myself in beer fueled conversations about the existence of god (mostly with Muslims, who in Sierra Leone are pretty relaxed, twice I've been told that for Ramadan they give up drinking beer during the day). From there I moved on to Kabala, up in the cool hills of the north, from where I planned to strike out by moto over the north side of Mt. Bintumani. But when it came down to it, I realized that I was just to spent to have the energy for it. As enjoyable as travel in Salone is, it's grueling, and maybe I'm getting old, but the idea of spending a few days at the beach instead suddenly had great appeal.
So I left Kabala behind, leaving for Freetown, and in so doing escaped the clutches of "Mannie" a slick and charismatic Rasta con man. He claimed to live in London, and I initially enjoyed his company, but he had his story blown when it turned out that he knew glaringly less about the British education system than I do. Not sure what his ultimate play was going to be, but with reg flags flying it was good to give him the slip. Given all the beers he bought me as part of the setup, I think I may even have come out ahead.
So I've spent more time in share-taxis in the last few days than I had planned, but in Sierra Leone, that means enjoyable company (I've never seen a people who's faces are so stern in repose, but who so easily and quickly break out in to broad grins, for me, for each other, sometimes for no reason at all), and also lots of striking images. A man walking nonchalantly in the middle of nowhere, a mid-sized generator balanced on his head. A toddler naked and lathered up with soap in a basin at roadside. Wild brushfires burning and swarms of birds circling overhead to pick off the small animals as they flee the flames. A long black snake slithering across the road, which my driver informs me was a "mamba". Reading the names of the passing poda podas was also entertaining, my favorite was "My name Mr. no take lollipop". And of course al the driving around has given me ample oppurtunities to hear at police checkpoints "you, white man, get out of the car". Nobody has gotten a bribe out of me yet though.
Being back in Freetown is probably a good thing, because it will give me a chance to extend my visa before rather than after it expires, and so likely avoid somebody's effort to extract a bribe, and also to do a little shopping now that the prospect of hauling things all over the country isn't restraining the impulse. I'll leave things at my hotel here in Freetown, and after I get my visa take care of, head out to Johnson Beach, where Jane and Tito (a British and Salone couple I met when I was on the peninsula earlier) have a beautiful simple guesthouse on a stunning stretch of beach. Three days there, then it will be back to Freetown on Thursday, and flying home on Friday.
The ever-nimble Kalimba climbing, Black Johnson Beach
Freetown is know for it's beauty pageants, so I was eager (and un-attentive to details) when I paid the heftier than usual cover charge to get into a nightclub last Saturday, but those details make all the difference. Apparently sombody decided there needed to be some gender balance, and so the couple hundred chairs in the audience
were much fuller of eager young women than men, this because they were hosting the first ever "Mister" Sierra Leone, not "Miss" as I had hoped. Ooops. Sorry, I didn't really stick around long enough to
be able to report back.
Black Johnson Beach
Spent last weekend in Freetown, becoming enamoured of it's rabbit-warren hills, covered with old Krio wooden houses, then got my visa extended Monday morning before heading back out to the peninsula to stay at Black Johnson beach. Jane (from the UK) and Tito (from Salone) opened up a simple but very comfortable guest house there a couple of years ago, on what is clearly one of the most beautiful spots on a beautiful coastline. I had met them when I was staying at York weeks back, and so headed directly there when I was ready for a little more paradise. Good choice. Swimming, reading, sitting around bonfires at night, listening to reggae, taking boat trips up and down the coast, it was pretty idyllic. We were close enough to York for me to easily pop over to visit my friends there, which was a bit like a reunion, they were all very entertained by my dugout canoe story. On one of those share taxi rides to York I saw something for the first time. A car pulled up, appearing to be crammed full, even by Salone standards, but the driver popped out and assured me there was room. He then proceeded to pull a teenager out of the back, cram me into the tiny space he had been occupying, and then put the teenager in the driver's seat, climbing in to sit on his lap, then driving away perched up high. Nine of us in that Corolla. Only a couple of miles for me though.
Tonight is my last night in Salone, hopefully spent visiting Kiran and Michael, two VSO volunteers from Ghana who I met in Burkins Faso two years ago, who should be flying into Freetown today.
The Atlantic Whale Foundation charges $10 a night for a bed in their dorm rooms, and will provide food as well. Just roll up into town and ask for "The Foundation". Kolleh is one of the primary locals working with the foundation, you can call him at 078 640 955 to give them a heads up that you're coming.You can get in touch with the AWF: firstname.lastname@example.org . Their website: http://whalenation.org/index.asp?page=backpackerssl.
Black Johnson Beach
Jane and Tito charged me a total of about a $100 for three days and nights, all inclusive, a pretty screaming good deal for how beautiful it is. Call Jane at 076 452 063, or Tito at 076 621 017. You can email Jane at: email@example.com
There's no phone reception on Bakie Island, but the fellow there (Isagah Jalloh) takes a boat out everyday to a spot where there is reception to check his messages. The best plan is to text him, and then he will call you back when he gets the message. His number is 076 440 230. He knows a boat captain in Tombo who is reliable, so can arrange a safe (but likely a bit expensive) trip out to the islands. You can also take the weekly boat from Shenge or Plaintain Island. There's really no reason you can't just show up (slim chance that they will be booked up), but you can also email Isagah at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I again paid about $100 for three days and nights, all inclusive. Bringing my own rice was appreciated, but not required.
Didn't come up with any really great hotel options out in Aberdeen. Charm's Beach was not particularly comfortable or friendly, but I talked them down to $15 a night. Jay's Guest-house was considerably more comfortable, and easy to catch a share taxi to-and-from Aberdeen proper, for $35 a night with fan. My favorite, for $25 a night, was Sierra International downtown.