Monday, August 13, 2007

Everything is Possible, Nothing is Simple

Sierra Leone has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I've ever been. And one of the friendliest. People in Senegal are very friendly too, but sometimes it seems almost aggressive and maybe motivated by self-interest.

But Sierra Leone has a low key vibe that expresses itself in friendly helpfulness. Walking through the seemingly never-ending rain (Sierra Leone's rainy season is for real, not like Dakar's occasional drizzles) I can't count the number of times complete strangers shared their umbrellas with me.

And when I left my wallet in a taxi, I was utterly shocked, before I knew it was gone, to find the taxi driver honking in front of my hotel, waving it out the window for me. Considering he'd dropped me off at a nearby intersection and I'd never told him where I was staying, it was an especially impressive feat of good samaritanism.

Many of my fellow Dakar journalists began grumping about the flat, brown of our city, and how it compared to the lush, hilly city on the beach where we were staying.

And then we tried to leave.

For reasons no one has been able to explain to me, the airport in Freetown was built across a wide bay from the rest of the city. There are four ways to get there. A three-hour drive on bad roads, around the perimeter of the bay; an even longer, crowded, delayed ferry ride across the water; a short, but expensive, and not entirely safe helicopter ride; or a pretty expensive, not too long hovercraft ride.

We opted for the hovercraft.

But when three other journalists and I arrived 20 minutes before the airline had told us the hovercraft was scheduled to leave, we were greeted with unfortunate news: the hovercraft wasn't running that day. We learned later that the operators of the hovercraft decided to give their employees vacation during election weekend. Who cares about the people who might have to fly? They should have known to take the ferry.

But there's always a solution. Next to the hovercraft dock, there was a guy with a speedboat.

Well, more like a guy who works for a guy who owns a speedboat. But he said he could take us across, as long as we cleared it with his boss.

With the minutes ticking by, we were starting to feel stressed. The airline we were flying routinely overbooks their flight, and if you arrive late, you are guaranteed not to have a seat, even if you have reconfirmed. But things happen on their own time here, so when we called the speedboat owner, instead of discussing things on the phone, he just said he'd come on by.

"Where does he live?" we asked the speedboat driver of the speedboat owner.
"In town," he told us. 30 minutes away.

We tapped our toes and tried to seem patient.

Eventually Ivan showed up.

And so did Alan.

As two of my colleagues negotiated with Alan, a third colleague and I negotiated with Ivan, not realizing what the others were doing. Alan had a speedboat. Ivan had a giant boat. Both were willing to take us, but Alan said his boat was ready to go and Ivan said he needed to wait for his captain.

Speedboat it was.

Thirty minutes later, as we sat on the boat and drifted in the shallow waters near shore waiting for the speedboat driver to show up with gas, and all the speedboat crew had disappeared, we began to get angry.

And so we started shouting for the drive. Four white chick journalists stuck on a boat with nowhere to go and a plane to catch.

The upshot: we got to the airport, even though nobody showed up with gas (the nearest gas station didn't have any, from what we understood).

And we got on the plane, unlike twenty or so others who had to cross the bay back to Freetown and wait until Tuesday. Even though one of our crew was NOT ON THE LIST of reconfirmed passengers. In Freetown at least. She was on the list in Dakar.

It pays to be pushy. And everything is possible, even if it's not simple.

The airline manager refused to back down, even though his list was wrong and her ticket was right. But after two hours of arguing, he agreed to put her on "standby". With a grin on his face, he issued the very special, only because he was so nice, entirely irregular "standby" ticket. That looked exactly like our boarding passes. And worked exactly like our boarding passes.

It's important to know when you've won a battle, and sometimes that requires letting the other person claim victory.

And so I'm back in Dakar.

After that ordeal, I may revise my plans to head straight back to Freetown for a vacation on the city's fantastic beaches. And I may hold off on pitching a travel story on why everyone should visit Sierra Leone (there's no war anymore, I swear!)

Besides, after what I discovered in my purse this morning, I'm not sure I could show my face in town again.

It seems I have stolen the cell phone of the speedboat driver.

Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries. And I stole someone's phone.

I thought it was Selah's one of my friends on the boat. I asked her. She said yes. I threw it in my bag so she wouldn't forget it, and it was still there this morning.

But I saw her using her phone last night, and it was in her purse.

I'm not sure, but this might be one of the stupidest and meanest things I've ever done.

I'm working on a plan to send it back to him, with my apologies. Anyone know how reliable mail is between Senegal and Sierra Leone?