Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gone gone gone, she been gone so long...

I've been gone so long. I feel as if I'm sheepishly crawling back into this space to see if I'm still welcome. If someone will throw tomatoes or old shoes at me... I'm ducking.

Waiting...

Phew! Ok I see I'm safe. Well my excuse is that life has been happening in a big way. Some experiences that are beyond the world of blogging and far closer to the world of book/screenplay that have come my way...

But also I have traveled and though I had no Internet connection, I did write about the experience and I share it here:


Notes from a business trip in Sierra Leone…

A simple three day business trip to Sierra Leone is basically anything but that. The 2 hour flight becomes an 8 hour journey, since once you arrive in the country, you discover the airport is across a large body of water from the capital city…

My last visit involved boarding an ancient Russian helicopter to get the last leg across. Back then, the helicopter was run by a shady little company called Paramount Airlines. The beast was at least 40 years old, struggled to move, and held it’s passengers like captives, with all the luggage in the middle and rough benches around the perimeter. There were tiny round windows with no glass, which was a good thing because the heat inside was literally unbearable. The few wafts of breeze through the windows kept us going… All said, the journey from the airport to Freetown was about 10 minutes, but those were terrifying… Two years ago they crashed for the final time and that very day, the pilots and all staff closed up the offices and left the country. Their signboards still line the streets to Freetown…



I was pleasantly surprised this time though, climbing aboard the helicopter at Lungi airport. It was obviously bought over from the UN when they evacuated a few years ago, and was a significant step up from the ancient beast.

There are two other methods of reaching the mainland from the airport but the chances of all options being operational at the same time are slim to none. The hovercraft takes about 45minutes, the ferry can take 5 hours, the speed boats only 25 minutes, but they bash along on the waves, and have been known to run out of gas half way…
So I braved the helicopter, which is now only a 7 minute journey on a professional looking craft, with airline seats, luggage compartment in the back, and headsets to block out the noise. Luxury!

But the improvements in Sierra Leone since my last visit seem to have ended there. On arrival.



There was some sort of a commotion in the lobby as I arrived. My attention was quickly pulled from the rusting airconditioners outside, and the dark wood paneling that choked the small lobby, by the reactions of the staff. Having seemingly woken from their working trance, they all gathered around the tiny elevator at the far end of the room.

In their signature broken English, I pieced together that all the back and forth was about the elevator being stuck and some poor sod being stuck inside.

The men in the lobby, some cleaners, some guards and various other hangers-on, all gathered around the old metal door with some large object and began to pry it open. There was a lot of noise, rough banging and eventually the door was sufficiently damaged, and pulled aside on an unnatural angel. Inside, a white man’s chubby, hairy calves were revealed, along with a tote bag hanging down with the words “London Museum” visible. The floor of the elevator car had jammed half way between the two floors.

One man ran for a chair from behind the reception desk and was met with hesitation and resistance by the lady who had no interest in having her seat be used in a rescue effort. She was supposed to be checking me in, but apparently had no interest in that either.

Eventually the man was pulled, twisted and finally’ born’ like a red pudgy newborn, feet first out the bottom of the elevator door, a bit shaken but still with a witty comment for the staff, “I’ll be taking the stairs from now on!”.

This is the type of scene that plays in my head at every African hotel I’ve been to. This is the worst nightmare that has had me climbing 14 stories continually up and down to my room in Nairobi, Kenya on a 4 day trip – getting exercise by sheer circumstance… There are the persistent power outages and the general African lack of maintenance that render elevators a no-go area for me.



My colleague had brought me supposedly to ‘one of the new hotels’ but NOT the one that I’d been booked into, that actually had it’s own website and had been reviewed on Tripadvisor. That was too good to be true. Turns out there are a myriad of NGO and church conferences going on in town this week – surprise, surprise… and hence the lack of rooms.

So, for $130 a night, I got the Kimbima Hotel, a building overlooking the ocean, which claims to be a 5 star hotel but still manages to look like a dismal depressing dungeon…



The place literally looks as if it were built without an architect, by 10 rival groups of 7 year olds, each group trying their best to mismatch what had been done by the group before. No door closes properly, many staircases lead to nowhere, windows lead onto walls, and columns, trellises, tiles and all are installed on angles. Electricity sockets are not straight, doors are not straight, stairs are nor straight nor are each the same height. Uniformity and straight lines are not concepts in building here. There are cement, wood and tile surfaces with various patterns, paneling and interlocking bricks and all can be found in one room or one area.

There is mold in the hallways, in the rooms, in the chairs. I hope it’s not in the sheets.

This morning I came out of my room and met the cleaning crew. They’d swept up all the creatures of the night and managed to tip hundreds of wellfed cockroaches onto their backs. As I descended the 7 stories down to the breakfast room, I passed many twitching roaches, each having lost this one little battle, surrounded by yesterdays’ dust and crumbs…



On the beach though - you can’t help but have positive thoughts. The promise if each new wave as it laps the shore is infinite. I took a long walk down the beach, after learning the president had announced a new holiday, one day in advance, in the middle of my 3 day trip…



In Ghana, though we live in a coastal town, there is no serene beach, no long luxurious stretch of mother nature’s cool white sand to play in. All the patches of sandy coastline are divided up between hotels and various communities that would rather use it as a toilet than construct latrines…

So I love this about Freetown. There is a gorgeous stretch of beach, just a walk from the hotels. It’s just beyond the huge UN Peace Keepers compound that was a hive of activity only a few years ago. It stands empty now. I hear they left everything in tact when they moved out. Every airconditioner, TV set, fridge. A local guy is now renovating it, apparently with the aim of converting it into a hotel. I can only imagine what changes will be made…

Walking along, as I dig my toes in the sand, I pass the remnants of cafés that boomed with music, patrons, cocktails… dotting the boardwalk along the beach in the UN days. Even the American movie Blood Diamond alluded to the hedonistic bar scene that existed.
Now, there are only crumbling reminders. The bleached wood chairs and tables, in varying stages of disrepair, with rust stains, like blood pouring from their wounds, these are the carcasses of the false economy that ran Freetown. When the UN left, the bar scene died. The prostitutes now circle at night, their eyes are wild and desperate. I watch them, younger and younger, circling the fewer prey…

I come to a dilapidated gazebo on the beach. On the sides are painted warnings, “No Weapons Allowed” with rudimentary drawings of rifles with big red X’s over them. This was a disarmament stand during the war. It’s a reminder that this beach held much more than waves and cocktails and party goers, not so long ago.

I’ve been told they’ve sent many of the ex-child soldiers off to Afghanistan and Iraq to do menial labour jobs. This is considered good as they will return with some money in their pockets. I’m not sure how true this is, but what about the legacy in their minds? In their violent and vacant hearts?



Back at the hotel, as I climb the dusty path to the long winding road along the bay, I can’t help notice the hundreds of dogs I pass. All are sleeping, spread carelessly across the dusty rocky ground. They lie in the paths of cars and pedestrians, a symbol of the despair around them. Each house along my path leads down to the water. They should be prime real estate! Instead, they are unpainted, half built or half torn down structures, with squatters sitting in the exposed rooms, washing their few tattered clothes and stringing them across the unkempt yards, blowing in the breeze like captive birds…

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16 comments:

Maya Mame said...

Welcome back Holli, it really has been long!

It seems despite our complaints, Ghana is not that bad (and often better) than its neighbouring countries when it comes to power outages, lifts not working, etc.

Still, your description of the serene beach, tempts me, even though I had an almost as serene experience last week in our very own Accra (on a hotel owned beach, of course!).

Wendy (aka quillfeather). said...

You are definitely forgiven! Love these posts. You write beautifully, Holli.

deb said...

Your writing makes me lean over close to savour every word, the images they convey, the message.

So glad you've posted , that you're sharing this part of our world with your eyes and heart.

I've had you on my blogroll since I found you, and so glad I checked here today.

deb @ talk at the table

Heather said...

Welcome back! so glad to read your writing again! What a fabulous story. that poor man in the lift, and that bug, urgh.

Am thrilled to hear of exciting news too! how wonderful!

now go go away so long next time, you hear?

Rob and Mandy said...

Very interesting blog with some great photographs
Regards

http://anewlifeincyprus.blogspot.com/

Pauline said...

I found the decaying houses of Freetown very picturesque, and this is what I remember when I think of Sierra Leone; but your post suddenly reminded me of the drab hotels I stayed in. The false UN economy, as you put it so well, has apparently made its victims, though I have to say that the expat-sponsored nightlife of the UN mission's glory days seemed pretty dismal to me, with its cheap hookers, sweaty drugs dealers and lawless white men.

christopher said...

I was absent from blogging for a few weeks as well...but your time away seems to have been more interesting.

Lora said...

the beautiful thing about the internet is that it always waits and it always provides the rest of us something else to look at while you take a little break. welcome back! we missed you, but we understand

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