Three Weeks In Freetown – A Comedy of Errors

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised?
I’ll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.

Shakespeare

panorama-sunset-freetown

Freetown Panorama at Sunset

Where to start…? So I am now three weeks into my latest adventure to go work in Freetown for the next 2 years as an Oxford Policy Fellow. It has been a crazy few weeks to say the least.

The day before I flew was lovely but very, very hectic. Although as always one only has one’s self to blame… Apparently when you tell employers you are flexible on your leaving date they take your word for it! But I digress. I spent the day with a lovely German who was kind enough to calm my nerves, ensured that I hadn’t forgotten anything important and assisted massively in the packing of all my stuff more than once. More than once you ask? Yes… so the first little hiccup on the way to Freetown, Sierra Leone occurred at Melbourne Airport. A little miscommunication led to my baggage allowance on my flights too being different for two of my three legs… So at the airport I ditched everything we deemed to be non-essential.

Now I am over here a few of those non-essential items, could be said to have been essential, in particular my sheets and thongs. Why I thought my thongs in a tropical country were not essential I truly don’t know. And – wow – do I wish I had brought my sheets… the ones I bought over here were both exceptionally expensive and feel awful. But again I digress on a tangent. But thank God for German organisational skills, truly they are incredible. So a massive thank you Frauline Fanti for all your assistance and ensuring that this time my adventure began with most of my belongings coming along with me. You truly are amazing if you are reading this.

sunset-freetown

Sunset over Freetown

So after sorting the bags and a slightly teary farewell (with the exception of Big Max of course) I was off on my 40 hours journey to get to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The first two flight were some of the best I have had in a long time, no one sitting next to me so I was able to sleep a little bit which was a refreshing change! That being said I I got to Casablanca feeling pretty exhausted and with a 12 hour layover there. Honestly it was miserable, there is nothing to do and no where to go… I nodded off a few times but tried to stay awake to look after my things. Eventually I was able to get onto my final flight to Freetown.

Arriving in Freetown at 4am – what an experience. It was pouring with rain and pitch black. Just keep that in mind for the rest of this little story. The airport you fly into in Sierra Leone is across the water from Freetown and it is quite the experience. Hard to put into words what it is really like and even if I did not sure I would be believed. Its chaotic, slow and a perfect introduction to Sierra Leone. I had the presence of mind to change some money. A moment on the money, it is exceptionally dirty, and you have to carry lots of it. The biggest domination is 10000 but I usually get in 5000, $1 US is $7500 Leone, so you inevitable have to carry around wads of cash.

So keeping in mind at this point I was exhausted, with a large wad of Leones, in the pitch dark and it was raining. I had been told that a representative of the hotel (the Swiss Spirit) was going to be at the airport to assist me in getting to the hotel. No one was there… I had been given general instructions previously as to managing the airport and I managed to get onto the ferry. But was unimpressed to say the least. I assumed as a result that the hotel representative would at least be at the other side of the ferry crossing. Wrong again apparently. No representative.

Luckily on ferry I had got chatting completely randomly to a doctor who works for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation who saw me looking around completely lost and offered to give me a lift to the hotel… Thankfully he at some point in the conversation gave me his card, otherwise I wasn’t sure what I would have done as I am not in the habit of taking lifts from strangers as I like my kidneys inside my body… he and his wife dropped me at my hotel, where despite requesting and being assured I would have a early check-in (at 7 was the agreed time around when I arrived) I wasn’t able to get into my room until 10am… Sleep deprived me was deeply unimpressed and I still am. But I was finally able to get into my room, have a shower and a brief nap before I headed straight to work! That night – my first in Freetown – I was advised not to leave the hotel due to fears there might be riots! Thankfully non eventuated but it was a hell of a trip to Free Town and hell of a first day.

freetown-streets

Streets of Sierra Leone on the Way to Work

The next week and a half was just work work work. I got to Freetown on a Thursday and worked everyday the weekend of the following week. 9 days in total which was intense. In and out of meetings, meeting loads of new people (of whom I can maybe, maybe remember a handful of their names…) and working long hours. All for a good cause though and highly interesting. Was a fascinating and bizarre week and a half though. Now that I am a few more weeks into this adventure and don’t have to work weekends everything is becoming a bit more familiar, but for that first week and a half aside from work I had no idea really where I was because all I was doing was work.

My second weekend I thankfully mostly had off and was able to head to Bureh beach, which was absolutely amazing!

beach-hard-loft

Bureh Beach

Had a very relaxing day with the McKinsey crew. Lazing around the beach, body surfing, watching the locals surf – who were phenomenal, the best I saw was a little kid surfing on a boogie board… fresh fish and rice for lunch and a few drinks made for the relaxing day I needed post such a long process in getting to Freetown and the past 9 days.

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Hanging Out at Bureh Beach

It is definitely somewhere I am planning on trying to get back to as much as possible. We drove back in the dark which was again an interesting experience.

night-driving

Road At Night

First time I was sure in my life that someone was going to die because of a crazy driver who was speeding, overtaking other cars where the pedestrians were walking (off the road). One guy literally had to jumped out of the cars way. Thankfully I was wrong and no accident that I saw happened.

night-driving1

Driving At Night

A few side anecdotes at this point.

  • When you order food in Freetown, even if your at the same restaurant and order exactly the same thing, it changes… I put this to the test the first time it happened at my hotel. I ordered the same thing whilst I was there 4 times and each time it was different! This included coming with different sauces, or it being the whole fish or two fish fillets.
  • The first party I went to was great, very interesting to meet new people, and to find them eating their pet goat, delicious if quite spicy! The pet goat was given to the lady whose birthday it was a few months past by a village chief by way of thanks and unfortunately her landlord was getting sick of it so it became the centre piece of the party!
  • My first meeting I attended I thought was a disaster, the guy I am working with at the end of it privately went “wow that went surprisingly well”. Clearly I must continue to adjust my expectations.
  • Traffic in Freetown can be horrific. My worst experience so far is what should have been a 15 minute journey by car becoming an hour and 15…. Definitely something I am going to have adjust my expectations around as well.
  • Most cars here do not have seat belts in the back… so sit in the front if you can is my new mantra! Also one of the most common noises here is the sound of cars beeping their horns – you know just to let you know the car is there
  • The sunsets here are spectacular!

 

The third week into my two years in Freetown saw me move up to my new house. Or should I say Mansion. It is HUGE. Five of us live here and you still hardly see each other. Both amazing and bizarre

chai-house

My New Home 

And so to the most terrifying experience I have had thus far in Freetown. Two nights after moving into my new home, I was out for dinner with a new friend of mine here, her partner and a few of their other friends. The dinner went quite late and I get back home a bit after midnight. The car we took lights blew and so we utilised the hazard lights for lighting. Slightly disconcerting but we got both there and back safe and sound. I then had to walk about 5 minutes to my house as my friends car couldn’t quite handle the terrain (it is very steep and bumpy down to my house, and plus the car had no lights…), during which time I was nearly attacked by a pack of dogs… But thankfully I got home safe and sound. Only to find myself locked out of my house. By way of context I had thought that the house was left open, as every time I had been there it had been open – even if no one was there – and yet here it was locked. I spend the next half an hour trying to contact the other house mates, none are home, three are at the beach and the other is out and uncontactable. I try and contact others who may have a key, either they don’t have one or I can’t get onto them.

Oh shit.

Locked out of the house after midnight with no way of getting in. What to do? After about 10 minutes of chewing over my options I contact the friend I was out to dinner with and ask if I can stay on her couch. Thankfully this isn’t a problem. The only issue is getting there. Got to get back to the main street (about a 15 minute walk in the pitch black and back by the dogs that were howling and nearly attacked me earlier)… Thankfully the compound guard accompanied me. We walked two thirds of the way and no dog attack, and then guard hails two motor bike taxis… No helmet, lights that barely work and on a very shitty road, somehow, I survived to tell the tale and we got to the main street. The guard runs across the road and tells me to stay put and takes about 10 minutes to negotiate a taxi, it was a long wait just standing on the side of the road in the dark by myself. Nothing happens and we get a taxi to my friends, took a little while to find it in the dark but eventually it is all good, I pay for the taxi and for the taxi to take the guard back to the compound and then I go into my friend’s house where they take fantastic care of me and I settled down for a pretty awful sleep but safe sleep on their couch. The next morning the guy who was meant to give me a key, picks me up and drops me home with a key! Home safe and sound, thankfully not attacked by anyone, not robbed and not attacked by dogs. Safe to say Sunday I did nothing and had some frayed nerves. Also I missed the provincial trip I had meant to go to. Got home to late. These things happen though I suppose.

So thus far that is my journey to the other side of the world, to Freetown – Sierra Leone. A trip to what should be my new country for the next few years as an Oxford Policy Fellow. I can only hope it gets slightly easier. Still looking back on it I am already laughing at a few things. And if you can’t laugh at life then what is the point.

selfie-over-freetown

Signing of Selfie Over Freetown

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One thought on “Three Weeks In Freetown – A Comedy of Errors

  1. James!
    Thank you for writing this reflection piece. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!
    I am so proud of you and what you’re doing over there in that spectacular country.
    I’m heading to USA after Xmas for a few months…
    Keep posting your daily anecdotes and weekend adventures and scary stories and general reflections. They’re fantastic to read and we can all learn so much about life over there through your wonderful journey.
    Stay safe and keep in touch,

    Jess

    Like

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