It took me months to admit to myself that I needed a vacation. I observed the travels of fellow volunteers–to Europe, South Africa, the United States–with detached amusement. Paris sounds nice, I had thought, but I’m just barely starting to understand Senegal. Besides, taking a vacation implies a deserved break from work, and the workaholic in me could not justify going on holiday from a lifestyle that is, from an American point of view, akin to a holiday itself. A few months ago however, around the 12-month mark, the detached amusement I had turned to jealousy. All those trips my friends were taking started to seem not frivolous, but necessary. If only I, too, could stroll the aisles of Walmart or drink good wine at a friend’s wedding. If only I, too, could eat at a sidewalk café, laugh with my parents, or drive a car. After over a year of doing any one thing, a person needs a break.
So a couple of weeks ago I packed a backpack, met with two girlfriends, and flew to Sierra Leone. It seemed at first like a consolation prize to go on a much-needed vacation and only stay within West Africa, but oh, how wrong I was.
Flights and visa logistics were better conducted through Banjul, the capital of neighboring Gambia. Jen, Emilie, and I spent a few days there as our warm-up vacation, and in it discovered the ideal nearby getaway for a Peace Corps volunteer. Where Dakar is expensive, Banjul is affordable. Where Dakar is spread out, Banjul is walkable. Where the Dakar regional house is small, messy, and crowded, the Banjul regional house is like a free hotel: clean towels and sheets, roomy air-conditioned bedrooms, a huge garden, a balcony, a spacious kitchen, and within walking distance of the beach, bars, restaurants, and the Peace Corps office. We visited the brewery of Gambia’s signature beer, Julbrew, and got several cold free bottles out of it. We visited a Mongolian wok-style restaurant, ate authentic pizza, and relaxed in a café where we were greeted by complimentary aromatherapy hand towels. We even stayed for free at Footsteps, a beautiful little eco-hotel outside Banjul run by two hilarious Brits that normally runs for $200/night, but had a promotion for Peace Corps volunteers. In short, we were blown away by the Gambia. And we didn’t even see the beach.
A few days later, we took a short flight to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Within minutes of changing our Gambian dalasi bills into Sierra Leonean leones, we were whisked through the Sierra Leonean landscape and soon noticed how much more tropically green it is than Senegal or the Gambia. After dodging yet another tourist trap, this time an attempt to get us on the expensive water taxi, we bumbled onto the large $0.50 public ferry amid hundreds of Sierra Leoneans on a morning commute into the city. We squeezed past women carrying on their heads bowls of fried plantains, boiled groundnuts, coconut cakes, and other street nibbles so thrilling and foreign to the Senegalese palate. We wedged ourselves amid the crowd onto a lower deck, clutching our small backpacks to our chests like babies, thankful that we had packed so little. As the boat approached Freetown, its rippling green mountains became crisp, along with the squished layers of houses–all of which must have perfect ocean views–perched on them. The Portuguese had called it Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountain), before the name morphed into Sierra Leone.
It turned out that having lived in Senegal for 14 months prior had its perks: we were ruthless in bargaining for a taxi from the get-go, and got the price we wanted, even if clumsily thumbing through our custom-made Leone-CFA-Dalasi-Dollar converter on our cell phones. Once in the taxi, it wasn’t long before we became intimate with a main character in the capital city: the traffic problem. For what felt like hours, our taxi inched along a two-way street and served as an unintentional slow-motion tour bus of Freetown life. There were the things we were used to in Senegal: the girls with cold bags of tap water for sale in baskets on their heads, the bread stands shaded by beach umbrellas. Then there were things that were new to us: loads of almond-shaped white bread for sale, HIV awareness billboards in English, grilled chicken being sold on the street, Pulaar last names printed on storefronts spelled in English instead of French (“Jalloh” instead of “Diallo”).
One of the things about choosing to live abroad for an extended period of time is knowingly forfeiting celebration of the beloved carnival of Halloween. Little did we know that Freetown would have its own Halloween celebration at an open-air beachfront bar our first night in country. At 10 p.m., we had arrived embarrassingly early and passed the time prancing about in the waves on the adjacent beach. As a charming side note, we later learned that that very beach is riddled with discarded syringes from medical waste. The bar, Atlantic, turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment, as it slowly morphed into a Halloween-themed dance party for mostly Lebanese middle-schoolers. We finally settled into a spot on the sand with our South African Savannas (a refreshing hard cider I dearly missed from my days in Cape Town) and our new friends from Peace Corps Sierra Leone who I tracked down through a calculated use of the internet. We compared notes on the Peace Corps programs in our respective countries (they are the first group in 16 years since Peace Corps withdrew from Sierra Leone during the civil war) and we learned a little Krio.
Krio is the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, spoken by almost everyone in Freetown, akin to the role Wolof plays in Dakar. A type of creole, it is mostly English, but relies on the intonation and syntax of several West African languages. Therefore, even as an English speaker, I could not parse Krio as I heard it spoken by people on the street. Yet certain sayings, like “‘ow de body, ‘ow de work?” (meaning “how are you?”); “we go see back” (meaning “goodbye”); and “no bad” (meaning “I’m fine”) came easily and amusingly to me. To this moment, uttering the phrase “fine fine chop,” which means “really good food,” has not ceased to make me laugh. “Salone” is the Krio pronunciation of “Sierra Leone.”
A major goal of mine in Salone was to eat some cheap fine fine chop, and that we did. Advantage number two of having already lived in Senegal was that we could eat street food to our heart’s content and not worry about getting sick. We each ate a big plate of couscous, noodles, grilled chicken, boiled eggs, onion sauce, fried plantains, ketchup, and mustard, all for only $1. We stopped by a beachside road stand where a woman who called herself “Obama” served up fresh grilled fish, chicken, salad, and cold beers. As I write this in my home in Senegal, the night is being pierced by the brash chanting of a loud mosque–a reminder that nowhere in this more devoutly Muslim country could a vendor sell cold beers out of a cooler on the street.
On our second day, we hitched a ride with a white Zimbabwean to Lakka Beach, about 30 minutes outside Freetown. Leon explained that he was from “Rhodesia” and that he was a diamond miner, upon which my travel companions and I exchanged alarmed, furtive glances within his SUV. It was all I could do to stop myself from blurting out, “Have you by chance seen the movie ‘Blood Diamond’?”
Lakka Beach welcomed us with ideal weather, comedian-like boys, cold beers, and a perfect little hotel with bungalows resting on a peninsula. With our powers of manipulation, we bargained down to a price of $10 per person/night. Though November is said to be the best month to visit Sierra Leone, we seemed to hit a sweet spot where we were still early enough in November to avoid the crowds, thus our luck with hotel pricing. Our private porch had a hammock and was just meters away from the water. We dined on the sand with our portable speakers and iPods. We ate grilled barracuda and watched as our lobsters were plucked from the water, still snapping as they passed our table on the way to the grill. They were cooked and seasoned beautifully with garlic and lemon. It reminded me of a line I read from the Lonely Planet West Africa edition about Sierra Leone: “Whether you pitch a tent or let locals string a mozzie net under a thatch roof on a local beach, a night that begins with a bonfire and a barracuda dinner often becomes a magical moment.”
A pleasant change in Sierra Leone was how much more easily we could speak with locals since they spoke English. We conversed with the restaurant owner who recounted stories of his training and the places in the world he’s visited. A gaggle of young boys we befriended told us about their favorite subjects in school and taught us more Krio. We learned that when bargaining with a stubborn taxi driver who won’t lower the price, the Krio expression is, “You love money too much, you bad bad man!” That night, we fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves, awaking to the same constant sound the next day.
Talk of the civil war came up frequently in our conversations with locals, yet there seemed to be a distinct optimism in their tone. The country has been peaceful for several years now. One indicator of its stability is the return of the Peace Corps, an organization known for being hyper liability-conscious. As I imagine is similar in many countries that have bounced back from war, people in Sierra Leone seem to refer to three distinct phases of their life: what they did before, during, and after the war. “The war” figures as an understandable interruption in their personal chronologies. Many we met were able to escape during the war. Some were not. Because of the short period of time we were there, I didn’t feel comfortable asking my new friends to delve deep into what the war was like.
The next day, we skipped down the coast to another beach, called River No. 2. This is the most classically beautiful of all the beaches near Freetown. The lush mountains seem to cradle it, and a shallow river weaves itself into the beach, making for a beautiful sand-and-water landscape. There are plenty of rustic cabanas and windswept wooden beach furniture, evidence that the beach gets quite popular in prime season. Unfortunately, the sole hotel there has eerie and unfriendly management. After spending a moonless night in the dank and overpriced accommodation, we were ready to trek to new spots highlighted in our Lonely Planet.
In order to simply move further down the beach, we had to wade through the river in what at times felt like quick sand. We piled our backpacks on our heads African-style and allowed all the clothes we were wearing to get wet. Eventually we passed by crumbling hotel structures that had been abandoned and attacked during the war. Ahead, new wooden chaise lounges looked promising. It was there that we met Issa Basma, a young Sierra Leonean-born man of Lebanese descent with a British accent. He was in the middle of directing a team of construction workers on new beach bungalows made of fresh bamboo. Issa explained that we were technically his first customers in his renovation of the not-yet-finished hotel, so he offered us a good rate. He gestured to an upstairs veranda, where his Swedish girlfriend, Ingrid, greeted us. Thus began an amazing day and night at Tokeh beach.
You know it’s a special day when you can wake up at 7 a.m. on the beach and immediately jump into warm ocean water. More tales from my Sierra Leonean adventure in Part II. Click on the Flickr link on my sidebar to see more pictures.