Monday, 29 December 2008

The Most Wonderful Party in the World

This is an extract from my African travel blog, where you can read all of my adventures in Sierra Leone.

We did indeed finish the ironing at around 1:30 in the morning! We had a wake-up knock at 6am. Hirut's parents stayed at the beach house with friends last night, setting up. Above is all of our ironing put to beautiful use. Although, apparently, it was all irreverently gathered up and dropped on the floor! Noooooo... :oO

There was yet more dainty work to be done on arrival: the folding of napkins. Then pinning them with ribbons. But, oooh, don't they look pretty? NO! Don't you DARE wipe your mouth on that!

This is Shenge beach, about two hours out of Freetown. Completely secluded.

Down where the marquee is, you turn right, go up some steps, and you're at the beach hut. Herbert's trying to turn it into the next holiday home venture. They've formed a committee, planning a hotel and more beach huts. If they can balance tourism and still maintain the seclusion, I think they're on to a winner. It's a truly outstanding area of natural beauty.

The dinner was extremely scrummy. Llyal's mum and dad (absolute top people) had brought back smoked salmon from the US, so we tucked into that, followed by a wonderful buffet including lobster, caught locally, and chocolate and rum cake for pudding. The wine flowed freely, as did the Baileys and Champagne.

Family also gave speeches to celebrate Herbert's birthday, and Hirut also gave one. After which, I made for a long walk up the beach and discovered the crabs! Little holes in the sand about the size of your fist, and when the tide comes in dozens of crabs appear and scuttle about on the sand, running into the waves and back out again - they're so cute :o}

The sunset was absolutely spectacular.

At night, when most of the guests had left, we sat outside with Hirut and Llyal's parents and picked at the remains of the lobster whilst drinking fresh tapped palm wine. The kid came to change the cans and I watched him walking up the trees attached by a hoop of bark like this guy on the SL Tourism Video.

I learned that different trees have a different taste, from sweet, medium, to strong. The cans are emptied in the morning and evening.

It was a wonderful day. If anybody is going to Sierra Leone and wants to rent a beach hut in a stunning area of undisturbed beach, this is a project to look out for. Sierra Leone should definitely be capitalising on this type of tourism, although it's hard outside of Freetown because the law says the land belongs to the various tribes, and anything on it. Which is bad for development because who wants to invest in a building that could just be repossessed at any moment? This project is still just within Freetown though, so it's freehold. Interesting legal quirk.

Today we've just been recovering in front of the TV. Watched a couple of movies: Girl Interrupted, which I remember wanting to see when it came out but never got around to. Not bad, marginally entertaining, Angelina Jolie at her angry-sassiest, bit Sylvia Plath. The second was absolutely fantastic: Mr. Brooks. I'd never heard of it before, but it was like Dexter in film form. Extremely well done - there has to be a sequel.

We also went to the first tailor and picked up our clothes: red sequined skirt, matching tie-dye skirt and halter-neck. Very pleased with them. Will take some photos at some point.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Day in Freetown

This is an extract from my African travel blog, where you can read all of my adventures in Sierra Leone.

Forgot to mention: Tuesday morning, before I went to meet up with the VSO lot, Hirut and I went down to Lumley Beach again - she for a jog, and me for a swim. Alhaji insisted on accompanying her with the bottle of water, we can't stop laughing - he's a very sweet guy but horribly overprotective!

Yesterday was Christmas Eve. We spent it at Big Market in town, a place where you can find all sorts of curiosities, like these spirit bottles:

They're Mende and their original owner had given them up because he said they caused him too much trouble. They were his distant relatives and had been in the family for many generations, but he felt they brought misfortune.

Hirut was considering buying them, and I told her she'd best ask what's in them first as it might cause problems for customs. Luckily, Elizabeth the cook is Mende and when she showed her the picture she said there would be nothing in them. I remain unconvinced ;)

The neck rings on them (I think it mentions this in the Wiki article too) are because Mende see rings on your neck as a sign of beauty:

Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves that are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in essence", as portrayed in the mask. - Wiki

So, I guess these two are women.

You thought being put in a home was bad, but just think, your great grandchildren could sell you on to a flea market for an arranged price :op

There were loads of masks from SL, Mali and West Africa upstairs. Lots of cloth as well. I bought a beautiful necklace, and one for Hirut for Christmas.

Downstairs we found the herb sellers:

Everything from curing insomnia to growing your man a bigger mojo! 'You take my medicine, id work,' she'm say.

The long black pods, on the right, you burn like incense sticks to keep away the mosquitoes.

If that doesn’t work, the light wood in the sacks is stewed down into a tea to cure malaria.

At the front, under the white bags, you can just make out little bags of pebbles. They’re grey not white, and these are the famed ‘edible stones’ some women get addicted to eating when pregnant. I bought one to try it, but haven’t yet. You can either eat it or rub it on your skin as powder, to take out the oil (natural powder puff), or grind it up with water as a face mask against heat rash. It’s supposed to suck all of the impurities out of you.

I also bought 'black soap', which is made from banana-leaf charcoal and rolled into small balls. It's also good for heat rash and skin cleansing - amazing smell to it. They also had tiny little bottles of crystallised mint for smelling salts, and others of ground mica: natural mascara. Cosmetics as well as medicines.

This woman had cures for things you didn’t even know you could get! Vaginal douche anyone? :oO

So, we had a lot of fun poking around the market and looking at all the curiosities. Then we swung by Lumley Beach for ice-cream and a drink, and returned home for some quality TV watching: Spiderman 3, 13th Floor and the fantastic US series Dexter, about a serial killer who kills serial killers, who's investigating himself as a forensic scientist! It's excellent and Jaime Murray from Hustle was in it, too! Think I'll have to buy it at some stage.

We really veged out. Then we decided to go to Paddy's, which is one of the main nightclubs in Freetown. It's a big bar and dance floor under thatching, open on all sides, but still really warm that night. We got there around 11pm, which was still really early, so we perched at the bar and had drinks until it livened up, then had a bit of a boogie. I wasn't really feeling the vibe: lots of chairs but a very small dance area, so felt a bit cramped. They had a brass band playing carols when we first got there, then it gave way to the regular top 10. Was fun, but I wasn't 100% in the mood, so we headed home quite early, around 2-ish. I was finding the continuous stream of social events a bit of a shock to the system.

Today (Merry Christmas everybody!) we got up really late and had breakfast, then Hirut's Aunt Mamoona came to visit. Really nice lady who's lived in Ethiopia for years with her husband. They've just retired back to Sierra Leone, so she's getting used to the change. We had a wonderful Christmas dinner on the balcony of yams, cassava, meat soup - then a buffet of plantain, jollof rice (a major national dish), meats, salad and all sorts. It was scrummy, and followed by chocolate cake, iced jelly and ice-cream.

We exchanged gifts late in the day, under the tree. I'd bought a necklace for Hirut and she'd bought one for me. Her parents gave me perfume, and I had one 'mystery gift' which arrived in the post about a month ago. I'd saved it and taken it with me. I had no idea who it was from, and it was wrapped in red monster paper. Inside was a beautiful bag in my favourite style, made from funky fabric. I realised it was my friend Vikki who had made it for me. I'd asked if she could replicate one from an old bag I had that was falling apart - she's great at sewing - and she had! Was really sweet of her. :)

Mum and Dad both phoned, but I didn't talk long. The line with Dad was really bad - huge delay between turns, and it's hard to talk in a public area, so I said I'd catch up with them when I get back.

Was a lovely day :)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Nairobi, Accra, Freetown

This is an extract from my African travel blog, where you can read all of my adventures in Sierra Leone.

View from helicopter window coming into
Freetown from Lungi Island.

Made it!

I was panicking a bit yesterday, as I was still totally out of whack from the food poisoning and a big fall out with VSO over the housing situation. I hadn't totally finished packing, but decided that, as we had to be at the airport for 2am, it wasn't really worth going to bed. I got everything packed up just in time. I was worrying about the baggage limit, I didn't remember my suitcase being that heavy! Mostly it's the metal and plastic casing, I think - adds on top of the content.

At 2am I get a text from Hirut, who's picking me up outside Ndoli's, saying she thinks she just woke the taxi driver up. He was supposed to be at hers but he fell asleep! So, she was running late. They finally beeped me at about 3am and I ran over to meet them.

Kanombe airport was quiet. We walked straight through check-in feeling dazed and slightly confused at being up at such an ungodly hour. Thankfully, we didn't have too long to wait in departure as our flight was at 4am.

I passed out immediately and slept straight through to Nairobi, which takes just over an hour to reach.

Nairobi was actually far more pleasant than I remembered it. Hirut enlightened me that not all of the toilets there are squat holes. I hadn't noticed the sit-downs tucked away to the side. There were also vastly more shops and caf├ęs than I found the first time around. We only had three hours to kill there, so we amused ourselves in the jewellery shop. I bought a pretty turquoise charm in the shape of Africa, with a little gem of glass about where Rwanda is. It's to go on a charm bracelets my mother started when I was born. Everywhere I go, I get something for it.

The next leg of the journey was Nairobi to Freetown, which is about five or six hours. The plane went via Accra in Ghana, where we sat on the tarmac for an hour whilst the flight crew changed and passengers got off and on.

Accra is a massive city with great big squares of water where I think they grow something. It was kind of cool to stop off there, even if we didn't get off the plane, and nice to be travelling in daylight to see it all.

Eventually, we got back in the air for our final hour-and-a-half to Freetown. The flight took us over Benin, which is somewhere else I've always been interested in. It was exciting to be so close to these places I'd only read about.

The first thing I noticed about Sierra Leone is its thick, green, dense jungle. Trees everywhere, and a huge winding river through it all. Very beautiful. Then we came down to land and this river just opened up into a massive tropical estuary of golden-white sand, tiny bark carved canoes, numerous palm trees, islands, and little beach-side settlements. A very impressive descent.

At immigration, a woman approached. Hirut's dad had said this lady would take care of the visa, so I filled out a form, paid my $95, and my passport was stamped.

The main airport is situated on Lungi. To get from the airport to the mainland, you need to take a helicopter!

Sweating in the sudden tropical heat, all the worse for just having stepped off an over-air-conditioned flight, we battled our way to the exchange bureau to change $s into Leones. We bought our tickets, then walked to the air hanger next door and awaited our final flight.

The helicopter was quite an experience. A huge, I guess, military-style contraption with all our luggage piled up down the aisle, making it feel pretty cramped. Passengers buckled in on benches either side, facing each other. I was next to some Ghanaians on their way to Freetown for a wedding. We all looked a little nervous and wondered if we'd have to parachute out when we got there.

A lot of fun, though, and a beautiful way to meet Freetown. The photo above is from the window as you come in to land - so many heavenly beaches.

Hirut's dad, Herbert, was waiting at the pad with a big air-conditioned 4x4 to pick us up with our luggage. My initial fears of him being part of an elite Sierra Leonean mob, for managing to make my visa issue 'disappear', were set aside pretty quick. He's a retired economist for UNDP :op

The drive through Freetown was really interesting. It reminded me a lot of Kampala because there were street vendors and food sellers everywhere. A country coming out of a 10-year, devastating war; a non-functioning state, and still there's this whole enterprising sub-economy going on: bright coloured clothes, fruit and sweets stacks on huge platters on people's heads, children playing and laughing. So vibrant and alive. The key feature Rwanda is missing, really. For all Kigali's clean streets and immaculate public grass, its African soul is a little flat. Like you walked into the box office administrative department of a street carnival.

Having said that, the poverty was more visible, and the effects of war and neglect upon the buildings were clearly seen.

From Flickr

Taken by Hirut

Eventually, we turned off the main road (Wilkinson) and up a long winding hill to a very big house at the top :op

It was beautifully decorated with Christmas wreaths and ornaments, extremely tasteful. The house was in four tiers: Hirut's parents' quarters at the very top; a huge communal living room in the middle, with a balcony for eating breakfast on and from whence you had a distant sea view; the ground floor was the kitchen, TV room, office and dining room; then, as the house is on a slope, there was another ground level to the left of the garage, which opened into a large guest annex with kitchen area, large white leather sofas for sprawling on, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. We were completely self contained with our own fridge and TV, venturing up only for breakfast and dinner, which was prepared by Elizabeth, their cook. Extremely spoiled. The shower also had warm water when there was electricity, and the bed was a king-sized sprung mattress. Heaven.

Soon after arriving, we were served food: traditional Sierra Leonean dishes of new rice (red with the husk) and curry made from greens and fish. People eat lots of fish as SL is right on the coast. Greens are a type of leaf vegetable, like spinach, which is finely chopped. It was a mouth-wateringly spicy dish after so long eating the bland, flavourless melange of Rwanda, where everything is just boiled with a pinch of salt. Food in West Africa is hot, flavoursome and down-right wonderful :op~

Cutting greens SL style from SL Tourism Board DVD

[NB 2013: When I say the taxi 'beeped' me, I don't mean he sounded his horn outside my gate at that time in the morning. The practice of 'beeping' in Rwanda means calling someone and hanging up. They can see who called on the screen and know that it is time to act on whatever arrangement you have made - i.e. to say they have arrived at a venue or that they are waiting for you. It can also just mean 'I'm thinking of you'. It's a good way of saving credit as you are not charged for the call unless someone picks up the phone. However, sometimes people beep as a way of asking you to call them back because they've run out of credit. It's tricky to know what the meaning of a beep is, but you get there with practice. Also, for those who are curious, I think the helicopter was an Mi-8.]