by jim weller
Stories From Sierra Leone: Screwed Right at the Start. Landing in Sierra Leone.
Screwed, Right at the Start
It didn't take long. I'm not referring to my flight from London to Freetown, which was two hours late. I'm referring to the fleecing I took upon arrival from the contact person designated to meet me; and who had been given strict instructions to make my entry as smooth as possible.
As soon as I stepped out of the plane the muggy Sierra Leone climate hit me. The air felt heavy, musty. The lighting was poor, not just on the tarmac, but all around the airport. Beyond the airfield was only darkness. I could feel a sort of impending chaos ahead of me.
I began my walk to the dingy looking terminal along with my fellow arrivals. The pilot did not pull up next to the mobile enclosed walk way, they had none. We didn't board the bus to take us to the terminal, because there wasn't one.
We walked, several hundred meters. I remember thinking that this is the closest to feeling what it would be like taking a journey back in time. With each step my adrenaline level increased.
As I had assumed, wrongly as it turned out, the task of the person meeting me was to walk me though immigration, help find and carry my bags, walk me through customs, and then change one hundred of my American dollars to Leones (Sierra Leone Currency).
With this money he was then to buy my ticket for the ten minute helicopter ride to Freetown and give me the change. I knew it wouldn't be a cakewalk but this all seemed fairly simple enough to me. It wasn't simple though, because the person meeting me had another agenda.
I believed then, and still do, in most countries people know how to greet and pick up a traveler at the airport that they have never met, especially if that is their job. You stand, where you can be seen, holding up a sign on which you have written their name, in big bold letters. I even made sure they told this guy to do this.
I looked for him, and looked, and looked; but no one, nothing. Next thing I knew it was my turn at the first passport check.
The man in the little booth looked and me, checked my passport, looked at me again, and said,
"You don't have visa."
Although I didn't realize it at the time, it was the perfect pre-indication of events that would haunt me for two years. Of course, I had my visa. I pointed this out to him, but without the same confidence I would employ later in similar situations.
He wanted to intimidate a stranger for some money. I was warned of these tactics but actually experiencing it for the first time was a little bit unnerving. I hesitantly held my ground; he gave in, stamped my passport and let me though.
Inside the gate the first wave of chaos hit. At least four young men rushed me yelling questions in part Krio, part English. They were talking too fast. One of them figured it out and applied more English, coupled with hand signals. They wanted to gather and carry my luggage, for small money, or large if they could get it.
Where the hell was my help, the person taking care of me? I stumbled around making my way to the baggage claim area. No lines anywhere, just more chaos. Somebody grabbed my shoulder and I turned around.
"I'm Abdul," the man said. "I need some money for change to give the guys in immigration," which I had already navigated.
Abdul was roughly five feet seven inches tall, had a slightly lazy left eye with an inch long scar under it, and was dressed in a short sleeve suit. This type of apparel is basically matching pants and light suit coat that is buttoned with the top one or two buttons left open. The suit jacket has short sleeves and is worn in Africa without a shirt underneath. It projects a business appearance while providing cooler comfort for the hot and humid climate.
Abdul's suit was somewhat dingy and wrinkled, like he had either had a very hectic day or that he had not cleaned and pressed it lately. The truth was, as I was to observe later, was that he not only neglected to clean it, he had also worn it for several straight days. This was to be a very common site when meeting "want to seem important," Sierra Leonean businessmen or officials that were not so important.
"Abdul, you're supposed to change money for me and get a helicopter ticket; and what about my bags?"
"Mr. Jim, give me two hundred dollars. I need to give these guys some money and buy the ticket."
I gave Abdul the money. He left and came back about ten minutes later. I asked him for the change. This was the precise moment that my two year struggle for accountability and control of outgoing money began. Abdul had been told exactly what to do but still had to chop what money he could, from me, his new boss.
"No Mr. Jim, I need to give to some as we go."
Since I had just arrived, I decided not to fight with him. I was tired and wanted to get my bags and get to the helicopter. Once across the bay, I would let my friend and partner handle Abdul.
We found my bags, after fighting among more chaos at the baggage carousel. It seemed that, "waiting your turn," was not a known concept. I guess Abdul was too important to carry bags because he got another guy to load them on a cart, which also gave him another chance to screw me for more money.
We headed towards customs and I felt somewhat at ease since I had someone to smooth the way through the pushing and shoving, cutting in line, and random arguments. When my turn arrived I put my bags on the table and a big guy who was dressed like a third world dictator at his trumped up inauguration looked at me with a frown, most likely reserved for all fresh meat in the country.
They had me open up the bags and went through them, albeit without really looking too hard. Seemed they just wanted to get me passed and move to whoever was next. The dictator look at me as said something in a rough deep voice.
"You di af ting di cler?"
I looked at him and said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
He said it again and I looked at Abdul who stood there like he'd never been in the country before. The dictator repeated it again. I shook my head.
"I don't understand."
The guy, now annoyed as hell, said, "You di speak English?"
I said, "Yeah, but I don't understand what you are asking me."
He repeated himself again, I looked at Abdul again. The guy said something in Krio to Abdul.
"He's asking if you have something to declare, like money."
"Okay, I understand, but since you have all of my money, no I don't have anything to declare."
I looked at the dictator who didn't see any point in pushing things with nothing to gain. I'm sure Abdul gave him some grease later. Abdul's silence was to see if I would come with anything so he could eat more of my money he was holding.
Abdul bought my helicopter ticket and I again asked him for the change. Of course there was none. I looked at his lazy scared eye and shook my head. He then sat next to me in the semi open area as I waited to for the helicopter to arrive, probably to look for another opening to get money.
I looked over at a young lady who sat next to me on the flight from London. She was meeting her husband who she told me worked for a telecommunications company installing what she described as high speed Internet connection in Sierra Leone. Unless her husband was working at the US Embassy, high speed internet and Sierra Leone, as I found out later, was not happening.
The young lady looked miserable, like she had reached her destination and now wanted to leave, right away. I felt sorry for her because there was no one to greet or help her, one of the problems of having an airport located in a place accessible only by ferry, hovercraft, or helicopter. Abdul was a petty hustler and pain in the ass, but he did at least point me in the right direction, even though he chopped some of my money in the process.
Abdul made a special point to ask me to make sure to put in a good word with my friend, and boss, Mark. He wanted me to make sure and tell him what a good job he did and remind Mark that he was owed some money for all this.
I asked Abdul if he knew that Mark and I were good friends for over thirty years. I asked Abdul if he really understood what I was going to tell Mark. I asked Abdul if he was sure there was no money left over from the two hundred dollars I gave him. The questions didn't faze him.
He ate about eighty dollars of my money, which he would for sure here about in short order.*
*As it turned out my, and Mark's, patience with Abdul ran out a few months later after pulling similar stunts and then demanding to be paid more. We replaced him with a young female who did us a great job for us at the airport.
The helicopter, Russian made and operated, arrived with a load of passengers leaving Sierra Leone. They seemed to be stepping a little livelier then me and my fellow arrivals. The helicopter's service reputation had already preceded it, far before I even planned my trip.
It had only been a couple months before that the Togo National Football Team had been killed being transported from Freetown to the Lungi Airport after a match with their Sierra Leone counterparts. Their helicopter dove straight in to the ocean. The incident caused flights to be cancelled for several weeks, as well as some strained relations between Togo and Sierra Leone.
This meant that the helicopter transport was basically a one way ticket to either eternity, if you crashed in the Atlantic, or hell on earth, if you made it and landed in Freetown. Mark, who had taken the helicopter right before the Togo players, always referred to it as the, "You bet your life, helicopter service."
I presented my ticket and boarded what was really a cargo helicopter full of, well, cargo that included passengers and their luggage. Everyone sat against the sides on flip down seats with the bags and boxes, held down with cargo netting, filling the middle of the cabin. There were open windows, seat belts, and a looped strap hanging from above for each passenger to grab on to.
Where I sat there was a protruding metal tie down that was sticking me in the lower back. Nothing I could do and certainly no one to complain to, especially since the major concern was making it across alive, so, no room for amenities.
The pilot flipped a switch and the main rotors spun and whirled. The noise level elevated. The wind began whipping through the cabin. We experienced lift, then thrust, and when I next opened my eyes, I was, well the best way to put it, not in eternity.