Kenema to Koindu, Sierra Leone
June 2, 2010
On this trip we don’t have much other choice than taking the scenic route…we are going overland in Africa after all and public transport…and if by scenic route i mean LONG route…that would also be an accurate description but in this case, the road from the diamond town of Kenema to the border town of Koindu between Sierra Leone and Guinea truly was the most beautifully scenic route that either one of use has ever been on. It started out much like any other travel day, by leaving rest and relation and entering into the other R and R…reluctant repacking all our stuff into our packs and trying to find the correct garage that will provide a car going our way. Because the country side completely flourishing outside of the roads in West Africa are generally picturesque we’ve grown to love and hate our travel days…but this day it was all (well mostly) love. We found our vehicle, i chowed down some cassava root, mashed like a potato and topped with palm oil and beans for brekky, peed in a hole, almost got charged to do so and ran off to our vehicle(a land rover in great shape and the best car of the journey thus far) ready to take off. The off-roading safari car was an indication of the drive through wilderness along a red, dusty, dirty road (or sorts) but the surroundings made up for this immensely and immediately as we swept into the deep surrounding jungle, our little winding road like a wlrijeeeee. K and i once again had the front seat and couldn’t stop gazing, jaws dropped (figuratively…i would have had a dustmud smoothie otherwise) and heads swiveling.
Still a sea of green on all sides, but this time more dense, wilder, completely surround and sometimes almost engulphing when we’d dip into an entirely canpoied section. Palms of all sorts a sprouting amidst the flood of green vines and foliage, magnificent acacia trees climbed high into the sky, trunks bare except for the canopy, spread outward like an extended guarding hand, guarding the jungle hundreds of feet above the rest of the jungle. Some trees were covered in blankets of other vines, or moss symbiotically (it was so pretty i can only hope and perceive them as such!) winding around and draping down in yet another blanket of green growth. We’d cross a small bridge and streams wound into another world of branches and vines and then wound out of sight. We bumped up and down along the road deeply cut out by rains and the natural world aggressively trying to reclaim its ground. At one point, as usual during an 8 hour trip, i started nodding off which turned into lifeless extreme head-bobbing mode which apparently was quite entertaining to KT and disturbing to the villages she watched react as we cursted through carious towns. Come one and all to gaze upon the lifeless body of the toubab hanging out the window…”toubab! toubab!” ohh…what the…dead toubab? Kids no longer waving, just staring, maybe running, haha…. And considering that after i woke up i discovered not only was my shirt a new shade of brown (it started white, really) but my nostrils were a new shade of black. It started with the shirt, then i traced the dirt tracks up my arms, creased with dirt, then to my face, where it looked like i spent my last 4 hours in a chimney…and then, oh dear, the nose…it itched. I did a conservative wipe with my knuckle and it came out shockingly black. Yep…that’s black…deeefintiely black soot. Turns out our nice car hads its own hidden malfunction…exhaust pipe leak. No cars we’d be taking have ACD so windows are always down…as it should be in insane heat…the car would probably overheat anyway even if their were AC. I literally felt like i had rubbed on oil, rolled in dirt and explored a mine…which with a mixture of sunscreen, dirt blowing in the window and the exhaust situation was pretty much what i’d done, but at least i didn’t have to move much (voluntarily) and the views were nice…scratch that…they were incredible.
Turns out Koindu was our driver’s home town and he was so incredibly nice that he drove us to the nicer guest house in town, and then went out to find the owner and then the key when the owner turned out to be busy. He even negotiated the price down and waited for K and I to scrounge our wallets for any remaining money (there are no banks here and we thought we’d be in Guinea that night) to see if we could buy dinner…we did…delicious street food sandwich of avocado, baguette and tuna…all for a dollar. The drivers assistant even collected mangoes off a nearby tree for us to munch on while we waited for the key. Once inside we immediately sought a method to scrub and remove the dirt layer from our bodies, noses, ears…you get the picture. Bucket bath it was…and a cheap meal had on the porch as we watched the sun set, a lighting storm come in and cool air finally arrive for the night. As we sat out peacefully watching the scene and the fireflies flicker…we had to wonder…do electrical storms make fireflies horny? Good travel day…good travel day.
Kenema, Sierra Leone
June 1, 2010
We returned to the rush of the city, was it Freetown or Feetown? It seemed like everyone wanted our money, calling out to us on the streets. One night in Freetown was enough to rest up before hitting the road again on the route east to Kenema, a city known for its vital place in the diamond trade. That night I dreamt of an American man sweetly sweeping two dirty backpackers into his beautiful embassy vehicle and whisking us away in a smooth and air conditioned automobile paradise. Well, the dream might have been just that, but our angel came in the form of a Sierra Leonean woman named Mariette who had lived in the U.S. and still had family there and in the UK. She saw us confusedly (once again) trying to find transport out of town and came to our rescue. Impressed at these “two brave girls, very brave…adventurous!” she took us in like our own children immediately getting on her cell phone to arrange her co-worker to pick us up and help us find accommodation once in Kenema. If we hadn’t been on our way out she amazingly offered to take us all over town, but in this moment she was a savior in getting a reasonable cab rate (not the white girl tourist rate which is about 4 times the normal price) to the garage where the bus/people packing would begin. She was our new African mom and we wanted her to come along! But alas, time for the travelers to move along now.
When we pulled into Kenea after 7.5 hours crammed into yet another ambulance van, snacking on various street food that the vendors excitedly run up to you at the windows calling out their items hoping you’ll cave to a craving (I often do…watda got there? Fried dough…ie, African doughnut? Bag of peanuts? Popcorn? Mmmm…sure!). Buying and eating food also helps to pass the time and soon enough the quieter, cute, quaint streets of Kenema greeted us. As well as a personal guide thanks to Mariette. Salomon turned out to be very nice and incredible helpful. His friend, Ish, also escorted us. When K and I were first naming places we might like to stay, I squinted into the guidebook to pick out the cheapest price I could find and questioned “Sameday Guesthouse”? They exclaimed in shock and nearly died laughing. “Sameday”….ohhhhh…i get it….a brothel…shit! Thanks Lonely Planet for mentioning it as the best of the cheapest guesthouses. They couldn’t get over it and had to show us the place which they did the next night confirming it as THE entire red light district. K and I shouted through the pounding bass… “can you imagine! We would have stayed here…in the day we might not have ever known!” Luckily the guys helped us find another place that hilariously reminded me of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland (yes…Disney. again) complete with flickering lights, power-outages, cobwebs, odd décor, weirdly patterned wallpaper, massively cracked walls, and an eerily tinkling wall ornament (the air-conditioner was pumping air out and blowing it). When the tinkling stopped we knew the AC wasn’t working…not a good sign…tinkle wall ornament! Tinkle now! (note: we laughed for at least 20 minutes about this…at least). AC was a major selling point and we settled into our “air-conditioned eden” –Kay, quite happily, even after it became a frozen ice box.“We’re going out? Are you suuure I don’t need my sweater?” “K…it’s 100 degrees out there…really.” Oh right…talk about the place…right
Kenema was lovely, a steady energy kept this small place moving at practically all hours. When the heat outside our room had subsided we headed into the evening to seek food, strolling in and out of all the candlelit stalls to browse the tables and see what tempted our taste buds. K found some grilled street meats, cooked right there, and I browsed more intently on huge potato wedges and fried plantain. So good and sooo cheap. You can eat anywhere in West Africa on the street for under a dollar. Now that’s tasty.
The next day we set out to find a nearby hike in the Gola Forest Reserve. Turns out there wasn’t much hiking to be found…”you want to walk in the forest? Here? Why? What are you researching?” Apparently just wanting to walk around and explore turns a skeptical eye…especially without a guide! They took down our passport numbers and let us set off into the heavy jungle…ahem…or more like a road/walking/animal path that wound up and around a little hill and then back again. That’s it?! Damn…we needed a guide for what exactly? Well, the views were nice enough and we high enough above the town to get some good views, a good sweat (not hard in this heat…but hey…it’s make you feel mildly accomplished). Perhaps there were more trails to be found deeper in, but all we could see were little neighborhoods and no paths. Huh. Bushwhack, get a car out of town to more hiking or return to town for more food and air-conditioning? Answers always C. Always C.
With extra time now in our “hiking day” we made a point to check out one of the many Lebanese owned diamond shops. The heart (or jewel?) or the diamond trade, the store fronts reading “DIAMONDS” are everywhere. Like Freetown, the storefronts have hand-painted signs along the tops of their buildings and may or may not indicate what’s actually still inside. “Internet café?” “Oh no…they’re gone now”. I can’t tell you how many times this happened. The worst was a sign for a coffee shop…a rather inviting one at that…it rang out comfy couches, jazz music and coffee that wasn’t of the instant variety. “Drat! It’s a hardware store!” So when we wandered into a “DIAMOND” store for the third time and still and only saw electronics I had to ask. “Oh hii, sir, do you, em…do you have diamonds here?” It seemed like such a sketchy scenario, the large older Lebanese man slouched back in his chair behind a tattered desk, “oh you want diamonds? You like them?” Ha. Well…we were just curious…wanted to see what they looked like in their raw, uncut form. He was very nice and sure enough, pulled open a drawer, reached inside and pulled out and unfolded an in conspicuous paper that help a scrap, a pebble or wait…no…that was it?! It’s tiny! It was pretty cool looking on close inspection…a little like a shiny rock fragment with glassy streaks (very geological terms here). This is the thing causing so much war and destruction on our earth. The concept seemed so preposterous, and well, tragic really. This raw gem was the stuff of expensive jewelry and a certain artistry. He also showed us the low grade stuff, mostly black and gray pebbles for industrial purposes like its powdered form used in aircrafts and guns. Both are exported to major dealers aboard who then distribute to the main sellers. Interesting in business and beauty but still unfortunate to think of all that has happened in Sierra Leone because of this little rock. And well, I guess it ain’t little when you mine out huge hunks the size of your head, like our other friends saw when they visited Kenema. But no matter what the size of the diamond, the death and destruction caused by it seems no match…or maybe it’s just no match to the almighty dollar. These things still fetch a fortune. Well, one marriage proposal later, we sauntered out of the store a bit underwhelmed, perhaps we should have tried to actually visit a mine, ahhh well.
We spent our last night hanging out with our new friends/escorts, happy to finally not have everyone in sight trying to get our attention (although i think they were all still staring) and hang out at the local spot for a few drinks, which is all it takes to have a hilariously good time when you’re always a bit dehydrated. Back to the Haunted Mansion for a nights rest, and just like that it was time to head back to Guinea!
Freetown, Sierra Leone
River No 2, Sierra Leone
May 27, 2010
Unfortunately, because Sierra Leone does not really allow journalists i was a bit hesitant to take out my massive camera while in Freetown. But enjoy the sights of River No. 2!
Though I’m pretty sure there was still a rope involved, or a stick, the border crossing in Sierra Leone (SL) seemed a bit more official. There was actually a building filled with hilarious posters apparently displaying their movement towards development, like the illustrated comparative, “Life with GST vs. Life Before GST” or, my favorite, “How to handle the Leone properly”. This was a photographed guide with two columns instructing how to and how not to handle their currency. Say, for example “do not fold the Leone” “do not soil the Leone” “place the Leone in a wrist pocket like this” which btw looked more like a fanny pack. And there were the assortment of health posters, one in particular about the flu and instructed one to not “spit around”…indeed.
Yes, we were now in an English (as a second language) country and I didn’t have to feel mute anymore! Although…neither did my ears. I thought I would really enjoy the English but I thought wrong. When you can’t understand anything, the cat-calls and general banter towards the white folk mostly just blends into street noise….it’s so much easier to ignore when it sounds like garbled syllables. Now I was about to get a full-force dose of frustrating conversations that go in circles, misunderstandings, and every mans valiant attempts to become my best friend/girlfriend/wife as a passerby. Although the funniest thing I heard, and one of the first, was during the immigration process where some dude in a smaller separate building took our information (or pretended to, which we find is sometimes the case) once more (there are always various stages of seemingly the same thing) into a large notebook (or tiny school test booklet a la Guinea). Before he returned our passports he plainly stated “Ok..ok…good. So. We are not allowed to ask for money, but if you would like to offer some?” “Wait, what? Come again?” “We can not ask you for money, but we will not say no if you would like to give.” All his colleagues leaned in for our answer. “Ahh haaam hmmm. No we paid for our visas so we’re good!” Classic. I guess that’s a step towards eliminating corruption right?…they give you the option! We don’t demand, we just ask. But apparently even this is not universally supported; we noticed that stopping corruption is actually priority for the Sierra Leonian government with statements like “You’re NO counts” on our immigration forms (yup…we were pretty proud of our ‘no’) and billboards across the city proclaiming “Say NO to corruption!”. We really never encountered problems in SL and it does look like they have really picked themselves up after their war-torn years through the 1990s and into 2005.
Well, after we made it through immigration, proved our worthiness as a tourist, and showed we were immune to yellow fever and a gaggle of other things (some untrue), we were soon in our van and bumping along as usual as our long day came to a close. A few hours later and with darkness all around, I stayed awake, watching all the other head-bobbers, in hopes it would give lively energy to our restless driver (I hope those are not signs of sleepiness!) and soon the lights in the distance and the familiar feel of salt in the air welcomed us to Freetown. A bustling, fevered place, candles lit up around the street vendors, little lamps lighting their nocturnal food offerings. The streets were crowded, music blasted and food was cookin’…damn this place never sleeps! but all two weary backpackers wanted was to climb the stairs of a dingy building, a hotel I might not ever have noticed if it weren’t for a guidebook name and a helpful man on the street, take a shower and pass out. Accomplished.
The next day I wanted out. I hated Freetown. I was spent from 2 days of travel that was luckily somewhat salvaged by beautiful views, and was tired of the celebrity (positives and negatives) attention of being white. And what were we welcomed with in Freetown but swarms of people on the street all vying for our attention..quite annoyingly I might add: “White lady! Hey! Hey! Good friend! What is up? Hello! Hey babe! Baby!” Although the worst were the “change boys” on every corner asking “hey, you need change? Change. Change. I have change for you. Dollar? Euro? Change!” Oh lorrrrd, let me be! K and I began walking around asking each other where in the world we would ever get our money changed…”man, I really need to change some money, but ya know it, I just don’t know where to go!” That first day we also walked right into the most packed of street marketplaces you can imagine. It chewed us up and thankfully spit us out. You could barely take a step forward without tripping over somebody, some vehicle, or some mucky puddle. Women were even grabbing at us to buy stuff…they were laughing about it, but I was getting pretty pissed. Luckily, we once we got out and walked around a bit more we got more settled in, had some good food, found calmer parts of Freetown and slowly began to accept the new vibe of a charging city. There was a liveliness to the place that I’m sure could be a lot of fun. I mean, it’s 2am and music is still blasting, sellers are still selling…that sounds like a place right up my alley! And this little peninsular town, packs ‘em in with over 1 million strong. Sometimes being a foreigner just makes it all a bit overwhelming.
Of course I did enjoy it at times. The gigantic cotton tree in the middle of a roundabout was incredible to see. Something so old (500 years + perhaps) and majestic almost lost among the bustle of the city and buildings around. K and I thought of all this magnificent tree has seen. There was new street food to be had and I found an old comfort in a jar of peanut butter I just had to buy. That and ice cream soft serve right across from our hotel. Nothin’ better on a hot, muggy, crowded day. But escape was imminent, we did need out and thus headed to the lovely stretch of coastline that runs right out of the capitol. It was, although…and as usual, an effort to get out including a round-about-wrong-directions-does anyone-actually-speak-english-here? sweaty hike with our packs to even find our transport, K getting lightly hit by a car (no damage done)and K also having a rat hung in her face (alt. medicine?)…you just gotta settle into the misery…just settle in. On the upside, people were helpful, we did find our rides and K also say a sign for “Peeman’s Table Drinking Water”. Ahh…sooo good! Hahahaha. One of our rides of course turned out to be a speeding moto (remember…that’s a motorcycle for all you new readers) taxi with apparently no other way to get there over the rutted muck where K’s ridiculous day added our mosquito net exploding out of it’s sack like “a part-popper that spread a sea of white skyward”. My driver was showing off and going so fast I missed the net fireworks but luckily we both safely made it to the less stressed beach at River No. 2. Don’t worry….adventures still to be had…of course.
The prices at River 2 were stupidly expensive and since we’d heard that Tokeh Beach, just down the way, was supposed to be cheaper and a funky little place, so we trudged off with our packs down the beach, the manager at River 2, Captain George, still calling out lower prices. Our first challenge in finding a lower price was the river mouth that connected with the ocean in a riptide like fury…greeeat. Luckily it was lowtide and Capt. George said it was safe to cross, though all along, he probably knew we’d come staggering back. Ya…let’s do it…it’ll come up to our kness…no problem. We were later informed that soldiers had actually died in this river drowning in the quicksand that apparently doesn’t exist anymore. Well, if it ain’t quicksand….it still retains part of it’s quicksandy heritage. Two steps in and thwooomp! I was plunged mid to high thigh…shit! After the initial shock and bag above head rescue, I couldn’t stop cracking up. Each step I was sure I might be swimming across, but we sludged across the 15 yard crossing to the other side, where suddenly, Tokeh looked very, very far. Can’t go back now. We trudged on. The beach was empty, white sands, little shacks in the distance, most likely abdandoned, little islands out at sea dotted the horizon. The place was beautiful, but at the time, all I could do was settle into the misery and focus on that green-roofed building getting slowly closer. And perhaps we all already know where this is going. Exhausted upon arrival to a sun-sheltered shack, K walked on while I watched the bags…places abandoned, closed for the season, and equal to the same price we’d found at River2 but not as nice. Well….at least it’s a nice beach to walk along. Aaaand back we went. This time we avoided quicksand slogging for a boat ride across as the tide had now fully come in (K being so frugal that the $2 charge made her consider crossing again…i was not in the mood to swim with my luggage however). Slightly embarrassed and fully exhausted…here come the white girls again. We managed to bargain a relatively good deal and 4 hours after arriving to the coastline, began to relax. Eh…we reeeally wanted to earn it.
And it was worth it. The spot was fantastic, nary a soul in sight, apart from the locals. This place booms in the high season, but for us, practically solitude…ahhh yes…glorious. Palms lined the shore, massive boulders in the distance at the curve of the coastline masking more hidden beaches beyond our shoreline, the river winding back into the huge, rising green mountains behind us that stood tall among a hanging mist, waterfalls crashing somewhere in that dense green…we couldn’t think of a more picturesque beach setting. The scene got even better with our delicious dinner of most fresh barracuda, most likely caught that day. Fish and chips and the Sierra Leonean coast stretching before us…and no where to go but day dreaming…or maybe for a walk along the shore (sans luggage), a swim in the very salty waters and then back to my chair to just relax and breath it in.
One day they were having a massive celebration that turned out to be a boat christening. Many of the people from the surrounding villages came to take part in the ceremony. The large wooden, carved out fishing boat started in the back of the campsite and you could hear the cheering and singing from the beach. The boat was slowly moved by using massive logs to slide on…like a ladder set up on the sand, placing each log about 5 feet apart. Then everyone would push and pull and yell and sing and chant. It was a pretty awesome sight to watch. Amazing they can get it to move so well and once the boat neared the water, people were cheering and splashing around, laughing. Guys hopped in and out of the boat…at one point pushing it and at another inside directing the others. And once it took it’s last labored slide into the water, the masses went crazy and all the guys tried to pile into it, still some necessary labor needed, some pushed and pulled it through the waves until they could get deep enough to rev the motor and take the first joy ride (well, actually they had to turn back and get weights because the motor wouldn’t quite reach the water…ooops). It’s truly amazing what they do with these boats though. They’re pretty big, but still, just hand built wooden sides with wooden planks across and a little lean-to in case it storms out at sea. Apparently they take the boats out in the evening, drop the nets and spend the night, returning early the next morning (or that’s what i interpreted through broken english…). I don’t think i’d want to sleep at sea with only a tarp covering me in a storm…these guys are hardcore…i’m sure there are casualties…it’s Africa…things are different here. But if all goes well, these guys do some good hard work and bring back the freshest fare on the coast. We sure appreciated it…the food as well as the entertainment of the maiden voyage!