by jim weller
Stories from Sierra Leone. Learn from History or........
Learn From History or ..........
My first night, sleep had been sound, mostly because I was worn out from the trip. There was no doubt I was not in the US anymore. The Cabenda Hotel was hot and damp. I had to change rooms twice because the air conditioner did not work. I was not as yet used to this kind of heat, it was not the temperature but a kind of heavy humid heat, so sleeping without air conditioning would have been miserable, even as tired as I was.
My first day was spent riding around Freetown, inside the city and around its outlying areas. My friend Mark, the person who brought me here to help keep operations and administration in check, wanted to show me the Western Peninsula to see some of the beautiful beaches. He was mostly getting me used to some of the city and its surrounding towns.
Most striking to me were the rough road conditions. I was bounced up and down, and swayed side to side for several hours on mostly city streets. It was not only uncomfortable; it was time consuming, dodging giant holes in the semi paved streets and rattling across washboard ruts on gravel roads. I was forced to depend on the overhead grab bar above the passenger window to remain stable, resulting in a sore right arm.
The beaches were some of the most beautiful on earth, and almost untouched. There were no homes, hotels, or businesses along the coastline as far as the eye could see. The paths down to the beaches were rougher then the roads.
Between the main highway and the beaches were sometimes small villages with huts and a couple of cinder block buildings, such as churches or town halls. The few people on the beaches were locals who were fishing, building wooden fishing boats, cooking on open coal pots, or going about their daily business.
Building one or more resorts along the Western Peninsula seemed like a smart investment. A way to bring tourism and promote the country and its beauty, not to mention create jobs. Offering paying customers the ability to relax, swim, fish, and soak in all that beauty in Africa could bring opportunity, and money.
On the other hand, what a shame it would be to build anything that obstructed the calm ocean breeze and the scenic coastline filled with palm trees and pristine white sand being soothed by the ocean waves. All this, set upon the background of the green mountains, was as relaxing and serine as any spot in the world.
It was a stark contrast to the rough and tumble city, overcrowded with people and poverty, filled with deteriorating buildings left from the ten year plus civil war. There, it was struggle and strife, do what you can to live and to pray for the best, pray, because to just hope for the best is not possible.
Late in the afternoon we arrived back in Freetown and our first stop was a restaurant bar called Alex's. Alex's was located in a section of the city called Aberdeen just a couple of blocks from Freetown's Beach Road, and vast Atlantic Ocean.
Along the Beach Road, unlike the Peninsula, there were restaurants, a few hotels, and open air bars right on the beach. It was a big gathering place, especially for the youth on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening. Several months later the government closed all the open air beach bars to enhance the scenery, or at least that was the reason given. I'm sure money was somehow involved.
Alex's was slightly hidden, if you didn't know it was there, no way you could ever see it. The building was constructed of bamboo with a palm leaf roof, something you would expect to see in pictures of Africa. The bar and part of the restaurant was covered, while the patio was open and overlooked a cove named Man O War Bay that was always dotted with local fishing boats.
A few homes and a couple of hotels could be seen along the cove, as could the giant hovercraft docked on the shore a few hundred meters away. The hovercraft was another choice for those making their way to Lungi Airport, if they didn't wish to seek the heart stopping adventure of the "You bet your life Helicopter Service."
For diners, plastic tables and chairs were set in the warm sun on the patio, as well as under the cool shaded palm roof. For drinkers, like us, bamboo stools awaited at the bar. I was delighted, not only to get an ice cold cocktail, but to be done bronco riding for the day. Thankfully the stools were padded, although rather thinly.
The owner, Alex of course, introduced us to a couple of Americans who said their names were Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, a couple of interesting fellows, one from Tennessee and the other from Kentucky. They said they came to Africa to inspire people, we were glad to meet them.
Our barkeep slide our drinks in front of us along with two cans of Coke a Cola. You pay for the drink, and you pay for the can of coke. The first lesson in ordering any cold drink in West Africa is to ask for additional ice, it's doled out like gold. I know it sounds stupid but the ice is just not as good as in the US. Without this decisive step, you'll be drinking warm Hooch and Coke half way down the glass.
It took only a few seconds to get into our second drinks. As they were being poured, I asked where the men's room was and excused myself.
Most bathrooms in Sierra Leone have a worn and dirty toilet with a sink that might, if you are lucky, have running water. Usually the toilet does not flush so there is always a rubber barrel of water with a small bucket to pour with when you are finished. The smell is always at least unpleasant. Sometimes there is a bar of dirty soap but paper hand towels are usually not an option, although some will have tissue or toilet paper to dry hands with, best not to wash your face though.
Alex's bathroom was not exactly foul, but untidy enough that I concluded my business as quickly as possible. I reached for the door handle to exit and gave it a turn downward. It did not work. I jiggled it, pulled and pushed it, even cussed it. It did not work. I was locked in. My first day in Africa, in Sierra Leone, in Freetown, in a public place, and I was locked in the men's bathroom.
This was the revenge of an old friend of mine, Kim Spaulding. "If you don't learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it." It was not my past, but the past of a friend who had performed the same embarrassing act several years ago when he locked himself in the bathroom on his first day at a new job.
His embarrassment had been the butt of my ridicule and laughter for years. I never tired of getting a tremendous kick out of telling the humorous tale at his expense. Now it was I, upon my arrival at a new position, who suffered the lonely fate of unwittingly being imprisoned in the toilet.
I tried the door a couple more times, again with no luck. I didn't want to pound on it, thus letting other patrons and bar employees know what had happened. I couldn't use my cell phone to call Mark because he had just given it to me that day and I had yet to program any numbers.
What I did do was cuss Kim Spaulding, although that didn't help my situation either. There was only one course of action, pound on the door and cry out like a small child that didn't know how to wipe his own rear end.
"Hello, hello, hello, anyone," Bang, bang and bang, I knocked on the door. Finally, somebody came. They seem perplexed, as they inquired as to what could be wrong while I yell that I'm trapped in the men's room. They tried to open the door and sure enough it does not work.
The guy goes to get someone else, who in turn has to get someone else. Soon half of Freetown is outside the door wondering what is going on. It wasn't until the owner, Alex, is able to pry the door open, and I step out of my crap house coffin.
Everyone returned to his routine, Mark shook his head, and I sat back down at the bar. The ice in my Jack and Coke had melted. Screw the ice, I drank it anyway. First day and first lesson in Africa, when trying something, even as simple as a door handle or light switch, expect it not to work.