Friday, May 22, 2009
I've made it to Sierra Leone!
Getting to the Brussels the airport wasn’t too bad, and by the time I got in the right lane (thanks to a Canadian who was in an opposite lane with me- we swapped- me to buy a national ticket, he an international), and on the right platform- I read the train number first not the platform number, I was on my way. I was also at the very end in the check-in lines, it took me forever just to find aisle 12, practically in another building, but I was the only one there and the check-in ladies were shocked I was going to Africa in just one bag- a fact that has continuously shocked me as well. Let’s hope I don’t regret thinking I can do a lot of laundry. After buying my small bottle of water for 3,50 euro (nuts!) I made it to the gate, after three passport checkpoints, and was on my way.
We will be landing in Senegal in about an hour and a half, and then on to Freetown… I think the Senegal landing will give me a bit of an understanding of what I am getting myself into, but who knows… I have learned that flexibility (a word beat into my psyche during Semester at Sea) will definitely be my middle name on this trip. I figure each challenge has worked out for the best- my committee fell apart and I got a great team that helped me get ready to go. My airlines reservations nearly doubled in price, and I got a flight into Sierra Leone directly (well sort of) with two days to cruise Brussels (which I think was just about right… could have been better if I was feeling rich), so now I am focusing on the positive that the housing situation which has me from living with Christiana to various hotels will work out as well. It is what it is and will be what it is going to be and that is about that.
Lowering into Senegal, the clouds are a pale dusty brown- more reddish than blue. They are thick, like soup- a creamy French onion or a lobster bisque. The density of the clouds is surprising to me, as I have just heard the pilot announce that we have “good visibility.” Our landing gear comes down with a pop, and I thought of the stories my parents have told me about their attempts to land in Senegal and having to circle the airport and make several attempts before a successful landing- maybe not the best stories to pop into your head and you are careening through soup-like skies to the runway. Through the soup came a sea of houses, like any large town, only browner and more neutral, with sand colored roads and little greenery around concrete dwellings. I was in Africa, and it looked like I knew it would, and my apprehension was replaced by excitement for my next stop, Freetown.
After a brief stop on the runway in Senegal, we traded about twenty passengers for eight. As we begin to push back from the walkway in Dakar, the cabin staff announces that they need to spray the cabin with “perfectly harmless” aerosol spray to meet local health regulations. Sure enough, an attendant on each side walks down the aisle towards the front of the plane with two aerosol cans spraying high above their heads. My guess is I am better off not knowing what it is, but it does have a sweet and citrusy smell. As we make our way down the runway I see that the concrete homes come fairly close to the runway with little separating the airport from the town. At the end of the runway, where we u-turn to come back down the runway and take off, children are playing soccer and pay no mind to the giant Airbus A 330 in their backyard. Again we are underway, next stop Freetown. As we climb in altitude I am surprised at what a large city Dakar is, and all the what looks like to be fishing boats in the bay, and am interested in learning more about it, my guess is that soon enough I will have enough homework, however.
We came in slowly over the ocean as the sun was starting to set and it gave the water a shimmery yellow tone- no soup clouds here. Sierra Leone was much more green and lush than Dakar. I can understand the rains and humidity now. We flew over lush lakes and rivers and pockets of villages here and there. The landing gear came down with an even more violent pop and I did not see an airport but think Freetown must be on the other side of the plane. The bay, as told, is quite large, and the sky is pretty hazy so I can barely make out buildings in the window across the aisle.
We walked down the steps and towards the airport in what was definitely heat and humidity, but it didn’t seem all that bad- I was wrong. As soon as I walked in the door I saw the sign with my name on it, what a relief that someone was right there. Two women introduced themselves to me and took me into the VIP lounge and then managed to process my passport and get my luggage while I had a chat on the phone with Christiana, my contact here. It was then that I found out the hover craft was broken and I had to take the helicopter across the bay to Freetown.
One of the women, after grabbing someone else’s luggage and having to return it, checked me in at the helicopter station where I found out the helicopters were not small, but rather large crafts that seated 22. I didn’t think that sounded so bad until I got off the shuttle bus and looked at them head on. Of course by this time, I and my fellow passengers, were drenched from sweat from being in an enclosed building in 88 degree weather with equal humidity, only to squish into Soviet era cargo helicopters for the flight across the bay.
The helicopter had row seats so there were eleven of us to a side. Behind us were circular port windows several of which were open. In between the two rows, which of course faced each other, was our luggage covered with a cargo net. Three crotchety Russians were our pilots and spoke not a word to us, but turned on their engines and away we went- sort of. It took us a long time to get up and going and I was pretty sure for a time that we wouldn’t make it in the air. I am sure I was clutching my backpack a bit more than necessary. We did finally make it up and over the bay, the engines were loud and the ride so shaky that my teeth chattered the whole way. Needless to say I was more than relieved to touch down on the ground.
Once we got over the city it was neat to see the different sections of town, the soccer stadium, and the beautiful beaches. I am looking forward to exploring the city a bit more and really learning its ins and outs. Christiana was waiting for me when I got off the helicopter. I think both of us cannot really believe that I am here- I sure can’t. She has international on her mobile so I called John for a two minute check in to tell him that I was here and okay and that he definitely did not want to take the helicopter when he came.
We collected my baggage and her driver pulled the car around so that we could venture off to the hotel. The road was very bumpy and only a small portion of the drive was paved, the majority of the roads looked like reddish dirt and mud, Christiana had told me they had a hard rainstorm this morning. It is part of the raining seasons, so I can expect a fair amount of rain my whole time here.
Christiana pointed out various parts of the city and then we pulled off to a side road and into a gated area which was to be my hotel. It is very lovely with gardened grounds to wander upon, and I would like to look at them a bit more tomorrow. It also has a restaurant which serves breakfast and dinner; I was not too hungry today though, so just ate one of my granola bars I brought along. My room also has an internet connection and air conditioning, which I thought I wouldn’t really need, but man, am I glad to have it! So, Christiana left me here so that I could relax and recuperate and begin afresh tomorrow. So I spent my night relaxing writing my thoughts and preparing for the next four and a half weeks...