“Palm wine flows like the nectar of the gods,” read the ridiculous text that appeared on our cell phone. Clearly the authors of this SMS, our friends who had already been traveling in Sierra Leone, must have become hooked, wherever they were. Our ghost-like travel companions, Grant and Lindsay, were connected to us through text alone. We were never able to meet up with them, but we followed in their footsteps, reading each message like a potential clue in a scavenger pub crawl. It is no surprise that at the time they sent that starry-eyed signal, Grant and Lindsay had been at Tokeh beach.
Tokeh beach is beautiful. I say this, knowing that I’ve made every previous location, through word and image, seem similarly tantalizing. It is the same frustration I have with the Lonely Planet: since every sight worth publishing is wonderful, it becomes impossible to distinguish one fabulous beach, wildlife sanctuary, or authentic food stand, from another. Eventually, you have to commit to an itinerary for the day, and hope it turns out to be as good as the tourist industry wants you to believe.
In any case, Tokeh was great, not only because of its picturesque quality and warm water, but because of the company that came with it. And since my travel motivations are dominated primarily by a constant quest for food and booze, I am easily swayed by any beach where I am handed an ice-cold European beer and am encouraged to get in the water with it. Our hosts, Issa and Ingrid, met at Tokeh four years ago and fell in love. Issa, whose family is part of the Lebanese diaspora that settled in West Africa a few generations ago, inherited the beach front property from his father. He is now restoring the hotel space to its former glory, many of its buildings having been ruined during the civil war (visit http://www.tokehbeach.com). Since Issa is still in the process of re-establishing Tokeh Palms and Tokeh Sands, if you open the most recent version of the Lonely Planet, you will find incorrect information listed for the accommodations at Tokeh beach, making it for the moment an under-the-radar find.
We met a man named Omar at Tokeh, who, to my delight, was Pulaar. In Sierra Leone, Pulaars call themselves, “Fula.” The language is essentially the same as the way I have learned it in Senegal, though there were obvious regional differences. Since Pulaar is one of the most common African languages, its speakers spread all over West Africa and into Sudan, it is a real honor to travel far from the Senegalese corner I know and still be able to communicate with people in their native tongue. Omar was shy, but joked with us that we were “bean eaters,” a tell-tale sign we were in fact in the midst of a Pulaar.
Ingrid took Jen, Emilie, and me on a tour of Tokeh village, a short walk down the beach from the hotel. There, we encountered our first gaggles of village kids calling out “white man, white man,” a curious alternative to the hissing Senegalese “toubab.” We walked past the computer lab that Ingrid is helping to build through a charity she runs. Though it is primarily a fishing village, Tokeh seemed well-connected, with intermittent electricity, sturdy housing, and many types of food available on the street.
At dinner, the palm wine did indeed flow. We poured it out of a large, industrial-looking plastic jug brought from the village. It was a murky white, and despite its sparkling quality, sat heavy in our stomachs. It was quite good. The five of us talked about Stockholm, Beirut, and the other places we have lived. Jen dazzled us with stories of the hundreds of countries she visited in a six-year span while working like a pirate’s captive on Holland America cruise lines. Cameroon, Falkland Islands, Egypt, you name it. Jen speaks of passing through the Panama Canal the way the rest of us casually mention trips to the dentist we might have taken over the years.
There is something to be said for replacing all need of showers with the prospect of ocean swimming. The next morning, I awoke at 7 a.m., alone and therefore content, the sky already bright and the waves beckoning me to come bathe. To my surprise, the water was warm, and I floated for a long while. Without prompting, Emilie and Jen awoke soon after and joined me. We finished the morning off with a fishing trip, during which I flirted with plenty of seaweed yet was the only one to catch nothing.
And then it was time to go. Our car’s engine had not even started, though, when we sensed the anxiety of people in Tokeh village: news had just arrived that some people had been killed in a car crash minutes beforehand. Sadly, it included a local man, a staff member of the Tokeh beach hotel. Our car drove away carefully, past the clinic where injured people were being carried, past the accident site, and along the road past villages where the locals in our car leaned out the windows to spread the sobering news. I wondered, as my car companions continued to invite eight people into a five-person vehicle, whether they chalked what had happened up to God’s will, or if they would admit that seatbelts save lives.
We spent the night in Bo in a hotel room fit for a disco-themed horror film. Full of dark corners and outfitted with a bed practically still damp from sex work, the room was situated next to a nightclub that thumped dance beats all night long. In the morning, we scooped up our musty belongings off of the dank clotheslines in the room, resigned to the fact that it was pointless to wash our clothes if there would never be any place to dry them.
Several hours and SUV-worthy roads later, we arrived at the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Tiwai is a small island in the turbulent Moa River. It is a protected reserve home to 11 primate species, 135 avian species, as well as pygmy hippos, river otters, and other rare wildlife. The animals here live freely, so spotting them is a special occurrence. Our guide, donning flip flops, binoculars, and a machete, hacked away foliage as we zig-zagged across the island. High in the trees, we spotted several different kinds of monkeys leaping across branches. We crouched breathlessly, hoping they would not see us from hundreds of feet away, but they always did. Unaccustomed to humans, the monkeys often disappeared quickly. There were trees with gigantic ribbon-like roots and intimidating birds. Not surprisingly, the ever-mysterious hippos were nowhere to be seen.
We set up our tents, talked over candlelight, and listened to the Savage Love podcast on our speakers. Unexpectedly, Tiwai Island had no shortage of cold Star beer, which helped wash down our tasty groundnut stew dinner.
Leaving Bo, we connected with an Italian contractor who gave us a free ride and some bottles of Italian wine. My heart sank when he told us that we had missed his frozen shipping container of sausage and cheese from Europe by only days. We arrived back in Freetown at the home of Tunde, the mother of a Peace Corps volunteer in Kolda named Pamela. Originally from Sierra Leone, Pamela spent her high school and college days in the D.C. area, and coincidentally serves in Senegal in a site not to far from mine. Her mother still lives in Freetown, and welcomed us with delicious food and a room to sleep in. I loved waking up to pork with fresh chopped spring onions, bread, butter, and coffee.
With one full day left to soak up Freetown culture, we embarked on an epic shopping trip where I scored some sparkly Nigerian fabric. Exhausted from the markets and, as Jen might say, “in search of bevy,” we settled into a bar/cafe, and met with Joseph, a former research assistant of Ismail Rashid, a professor I had at Vassar who is from Sierra Leone. Joseph, who was on a paper-writing break, explained the topic of his essay as an inquiry into the ways young Sierra Leoneans use home-made pornography as an act of rebellion against the state. We ordered a round of cassava bread from a passing street vendor and chatted the afternoon away.
Sierra Leoneans don’t seem to be as aggressive as people in Senegal. Or maybe it is just Wolofs whose super abrasive behavior seems to rub off on other Senegalese (ask anyone, Wolofs are something else!). In Dakar, it is nearly impossible to stroll around in a market without being shamelessly harassed and stalked. People hiss at you, and think nothing of repeatedly interrupting your conversations. It seemed far more relaxed in Freetown. Not only did I love speaking English, I enjoyed the people of Freetown and their–forgive my generational lingo–chill vibe.
Sierra Leone is a major buzzword within the international aid community, and judging from the astounding amount of white SUVs on the road in the capital city, it is still getting a lot of NGO action. The NGO presence was astounding. Every other car was a tell-tale white Land Cruiser or other white sports utility vehicle. Is there some secret universal pact among all NGOs for a blanket lack of creativity? Is it physically impossible to stamp a UNICEF, or Peace Corps, or Medecins Sans Frontiers logo on an SUV that isn’t white? Monotony aside, is it not problematic to further symbolize one’s “white knight” status with, let’s see, a big white car?
Our final night, Jen had a premonition that if she decided to stay in and go to sleep (as she was inclined to do), Emilie and I would end up having a fabulous night out; if she went out with us, however, the night would end up a disappointment. Kind of like how washing your car guarantees it will rain later that day, thereby once again muddying your car. Jen stayed in, and she was right. Emilie and I met up again with Ingrid and Issa, then more friends, danced, switched clubs, danced more, and downed some horrific vodka/green olive/tabasco sauce shots along the way. Sometime just before daybreak, we ended up at the home of a British diplomat. I, of course, planted myself on the floor at his coffee table, the self-appointed barista of chorizo, gourmet cheese, and wine for the next couple of hours. We mooched off his hot showers and air conditioning, crashed, thanked him, then reluctantly hobbled to the airport later that morning.
I had put Sierra Leone on my to-do list as if once checked-off it did not need re-visiting. I feel that now I have been, I would be foolish not to go back…