I used to be a control freak. I used to be a really anxious traveler. I used to think that comfort came from knowing all the possibilities and being prepared for them. I used to think it was all about getting to the destination. I used to think that happiness came from control. I used to think getting to the airport 3 hours in advance wasn’t a suggestion, it was imperative. Sierra Leone changed me. It showed me that things work out, smiles help, and stress doesn’t. Sierra Leone showed me it really IS about the journey, even if that journey is to the airport.
This is my journal entry about Sierra Leone almost breaking me, but leaving me so much better in the end.
November 23, 2013
Today I woke up at 5:00 am so I could be all ready when my driver came at 6:00 for the 6:40 ferry. Chatted with my mates, hugged my Sierra Leonian mum and at 6:10. Hopped in my truck to get to the water taxi ferry. Upon arrival I was told to sit and wait. I was a little bit suspicious as there were no other people waiting for the ferry, but it was early and it wouldn’t be the first or last time Africa surprised me. A person came over 20 minutes after my arrival and asked why I was so early. I told him my flight number and said since my departure time was 8:20, a 6:40 ferry was actually just cutting it close. I then suffered almost cardiac arrest when I was told the first taxi was actually 5:00 am and the next one would be at 2:00 pm.
I asked what the likelihood of them accepting a credit card would be. I got the obligatory, “Ya, maybe you can try” answer. Which roughly translated means: dream on lady.
The driver bounced up and immediately said he was going to call Dr. Jalloh (the founder of the Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society and my incredible host while I volunteered as part of a site visit for Animal Experience International). I went into problem solving mode and asked about the car ferry that was across town. It took 45 minutes to cross the bay (to get to the airport) and it would be leaving at 8:00. I was also told I could charter a private speed boat for $350. If finding money hadn’t been such a worthy opponent earlier in the week I may have thought this as an option. However, bank machines were in short supply in Freetown and Western Union wouldn’t open until later, I only had the money in my pocket — not much. I asked what the likelihood of them accepting a credit card would be. I got the obligatory, “Ya, maybe you can try” answer. Which roughly translated means: dream on lady.
Dr. Jalloh didn’t answer his phone but the driver had a plan. He ran to the truck and he sped us to Dr. Jalloh’s house. Being behind the SLAWS clinic I was greeted by my two best dogs, Marc Antony and Number Two. They wagged and wiggled all over me as the driver woke up the neighborhood and Dr. Jalloh knocked on all the doors of his neighbors asking for some spare cash for what I realized was my only option — hiring a speed boat. I kissed the manky dogs on the head and we sped in the direction of the dock. Of course it was directly across Freetown and everyone had decided to wake up and immediately get in their car, just moments earlier.
Traffic moved at a snail’s pace when it was fast and the digital clock decided to start ticking to add a soundtrack to my insanity. My life at this point was an episode of 24, with a counting down digital clock beside all scenes. At 7:00, we made it to the dock. I was told I would needed to be escorted on the speedboat and a worker from the clinic was coming. It was Mr. Soloman, the sweet man who always seems to draw the little straw as he always seems to be picking up the people from the dreadful airport. He was also the person who told me the wrong water taxi time.
I decided this was probably going to be the least horrible part of his day and made up my mind to be extra nice when he arrived. When he got to the clinic that morning I am sure Dr. Jalloh had not been the pleasant and happy vet we all know and love.
I sat in the truck pleading for a giant Godzilla monster to clear the streets of Freetown but leave the airport intact.
Soon Mr. Soloman appeared in the review mirror arguing with the owner of a speedboat. I didn’t have time for this silly high-low game. I got out of the truck, flashed him a smile and said we needed to go. He told me I was being taken advantage of and they were charging to much money for a 10-minute boat ride. It was 7:20 and I didn’t have time to care. I knew the trip would be more than ten minutes and I knew they could smell the desperation on me. Then Dr. Jalloh showed up with wads of money in his hand. We were ushered down the ferry drive and a very unseaworthy boat stood before us. I could buy a better boat for $350. But this is what we got.
As they filled the engine with petrol, someone tried to sell me bracelets. He told me I had to hurry if I wanted a deal. I told him his city needed to hurry if they didn’t want a crying crazy girl on their dock. He laughed politely and backed away.
Mr. Soloman and I were almost thrown on the boat and Dr. Jalloh asked if I was okay with the sea. I yelled to the shore, I better be! Mr. Soloman sheepishly gave me a Sierra Leonian flag bracelet that he or Dr. Jalloh had bought from the poor man I previously made uncomfortable. A sweet gesture that did not go unnoticed. I put it on and put my clock away. This speedboat was about to be on its way. With no windshield and holes in the rusty hull, I had my doubts. I slipped my passport and cell phone in my dry bag and secured it in my pocket. If we went down, I wouldn’t be stuck in Freetown forever!
Mr. Soloman looked nervous when I asked if he could swim as they tried to start the engine. The grim ‘no’ that I got made me pat Mr. Soloman on the shoulder. “It’s okay, I’m a lifeguard. You’re safe with me.” 1… 2…. 3…. 4... and finally on 5 the engine sputtered and started.
He seemed unconvinced I wouldn’t try to drown him for this error, I was a little unconvinced myself.
The speedboat took off! Wait. No. That isn’t true at all. The non-speed boat chugged through the harbor sputtering like a dying animal. I looked at our captain who had a concerned look on his face. I followed his field or vision and saw we were taking in water. My ability to not swear impressed even me. His first mate, a 13-year-old boy with a questionable tattoo of breasts on his tricep, started bailing out the water. We still made our way to the harbor and then the open ocean.
Mr. Soloman pointed out a ship that was being loaded with iron ore. He then proceeded to tell me about mining in Sierra Leone. Yes, nothing stills the swirling mind of an about-to-drown (maybe) traveler like learning about the natural resources of a country. I politely nodded and smiled. He was being nice. I could be nice too.
We skirted and sputtered around huge cargo ships almost capsizing in their giant wakes, the whole time my brain only thinking: 10 minutes, my ass.
We arrived to shore just to find a ferry blocking our access route to dry land. I strapped my backpack on (another reason to only carry what you can carry) and we climbed up the side of the ship. Seriously. Like a pirate, I boarded the ferry just to run off to a cab. I chose a young looking guy with a black eye and a huge piece of gauze taped to his head. I instructed him to drive dangerously, as I suspect he was already used to doing, and we were off. It was 7:50.
“How long does it take to get to the airport?” I asked.
“If I take the fast road, it takes 10 minutes,” he told us. Who would ever choose the scenic route?
We swerved around law-abiding drivers and honked at those who didn’t get out of the way fast enough. Then it happened. A police officer flagged us down. I was in no mood for this silliness and barked orders at the driver. Stay here and leave the car running. Before I left, Dr. Jalloh gave me 50 euros. I jumped from the car and took my wallet out.
“If I shake your hand can we be on our way?” The police office raised his eyebrows and held out his hand. I slipped $40 in his expectant hand and asked, “How da body?” (which means ‘how are you’ in Sierra Leone).
He responded “Da body fine ma’am. Have a fine day.” I jumped back in the car and told our driver to drive on. Yes, yes corruption is bad. Normally I wouldn’t have bribed a police officer but this is the system in Sierra Leone and if we cannot change it right now, we can work in it.
We were going the speed of sound when we crested a hill to see the most irritating act of community health on the planet. An organized Sierra Leonian fun run. Hundreds of people crowed the streets and they all ran towards us. I looked at Mr. Soloman and cried, “This only happens in movies!” He started to apologize and I again tried to sooth him. “It’s an adventure and we are doing our best! It’s okay buddy!” He tried to tell me how upset he was that he was told the wrong times for the water taxi and I again told him it was okay while I appreciated the amount of honking the driver was doing to clear the way. These health nuts, there is a car on the road! Make way! My brain screamed as I smiled at Mr. Soloman.
We arrived to the gates of the airport. Cabs aren’t allowed in so I took off like I heard a starting gun. The road is about 800 meters from the gates of the airport. Another good reason to only carry what you can carry. I looked at Mr. Soloman and told him it was time to make his Sierra Leonian Olympians proud. He laughed and we sprinted. It was 8:08.
The guard stopped me at the door asking why I was running. I have a flight in 2 minutes I breathed at him. He then told me to run to the check in. I scared the poor attendant with my apology, which came out like an out of breath rabid animal. “Imsosorrytherewasanemergencyandmyflightissupoosetoleavebutimhere GASP isthereanywayicangetontheflight GASP.”
The attendant told me I was very lucky. Wahhhhhhhht. Did it all work? She wrote out my boarding card, complete with the wrong spelling of my name and told me to run to customs. I yelled thank you and tried to see Mr. Soloman through the airport windows but couldn’t find him. I flew to the customs agent who saw my new Sierra Leone flag bracelet and commented on how it looked. I panted a thank you and he looked up concerned.
“My dear, take a breath, your plane has not arrived yet. It’s on AT. You are still early.” I looked up and saw the other passengers standing expectantly at the gate and a wave of relief washed over me. Then confusion. AT? “It’s African Time, my girl! You be okay, take a breath my dear.”
He took my passport and looked up with a gleam in his eye. “Ohhhh Livingstone! That is a great name! You know stones are strong, they are tough and sturdy and they weather the storms. That’s why you made it here on time. You are strong. You are a living stone!”
We laughed and I shook his hand. What an angel.
Our flight came 20 minutes later. Enough time for me to call Dr. Jalloh and thank him for the Herculean effort. Then the phone ran out of credit. Of course.
Sierra Leone changed me. It showed me that things work out, smiles help, and stress doesn’t.
I got on the plane and chatted with the person beside me. Since we took off so late he doubted we would make our connection in Ghana. I then recounted my eventful morning and told him to have faith. A flight attendant came by and I asked what were the chances of us making the flight. He said he would check. Since he had a French accent I gave him a merci beaucoup and his eyes sparkled as he walked away.
When he came back he told me in French that he had talked to the captain and they would get the captain of my connecting flight to hold the plane. Wahhhhhht. Surely there were lots of us on board, he said he didn’t know how many. It may just be me. He then went on the p.a. system and asked. About 10 of us needed the plane to Ethiopia. He then told everyone the good news that I had just heard and the people cheered!
Since I had had a crazy short transfer last time I was in Ghana, I told the other passengers to follow me. I knew the weird and poorly marked door that transfer passengers needed to find. We arrived to our plane only 8 minutes after our expected departure time. Sorry other passengers. No one seemed to mind though, we were all on African Time. I doubt anyone noticed. It would be more unusual to depart on time, apparently.
I am now somewhere in between Accra and Addis.