I Walk the Line
As I walked into the Sierra Leone border checkpoint, I breathed a sigh a relief to see the glass windows and booths where travelers present their passports to get stamped in – a sign that maybe this country was just a little more developed and had more of a normal “system” of processing visitors compared to the place I just left. I’d just spent an hour in the commissar’s office only a few feet behind me, as exiting Guinea would prove to be one of the most harrowing events of my travel career. By the way, if you haven’t already, you really should read my Guinea report—right now–as its events are really tied in with my entry into Sierra Leone.
Despite finally getting the green light to literally “escape” Guinea (maybe I’m being to dramatic, but it really was pretty insane), I still had to get into Sierra Leone. Just because you leave one country doesn’t mean the next country will let you in. My high quickly came down as we walked right passed those empty immigration booths and directly into the next “commissar’s” office. Looks like what just happened in Guinea would repeat itself here. I was deflated.
Mother May I?
The only comforting thing about this next exchange was that English is the official language of Sierra Leone. I was told to take a seat while a lady reviewed my documents and explained that the border was closed and she’d have to bring in “the boss.” As disappointed that I was that this ordeal had still not ended and I hadn’t yet “made it in,” the exchange with this lady seemed much more down to earth and friendly. She apologized to me several times as the minutes ticked by. It was a much more laid back and hospitable vibe, overall.
When the boss finally arrived, he too, was much more relaxed, sporting a short sleeve knit top – exponentially more casual than the last commissar with his brass buttons, bars and stripes. I listened to his spiel about the border being locked down and responded with nothing but compassion and respect for the situation. While there were no threats of jail time or even mentions of sending me back, it wasn’t clear whether or not I’d be able to pass or not. I pictured myself defeated and having to turn around and meet with the Guinea commissar all over again and wasn’t looking forward to that. But the travel gods continued to watch over me that day, as the main man finally informed me that he was going to let me enter. And it was about to get even better.
I don’t how or why this happened, but suddenly my ride into Freetown had been “arranged.” For a small fee, I was going to be escorted into town–a three-hour ride–by the commissar’s lieutenant, who’d take me all the way to the city in the state-owned Mercedes. My horror of a border story was now turned into something I’d brag about to my friend’s back home.
The ride through the country was nothing less than glorious. First, like magic, all of a sudden, beautiful, flat, paved roads appeared laid out before us. The contrast between the roads of Guinea and Sierra Leone was stark, even a little hard to believe. Was I hallucinating? Was this smooth layer of asphalt all a mirage? And how come it didn’t end? I kept waiting to see the edge of the road that would turn to dirt or open up into giant craters, but it never happened. It was smooth sailing all the way.
And the icing on the cake: Our Benz flew past every military checkpoint with a honk and wave. No one messes with the lieutenant. I was riding on high for the entire trip. A couple hours later, buildings appeared and traffic picked up. We’d entered the city. I said goodbye to the lieutenant as we pulled into my hotel, thanking him for the ride and the great company. Part of me flirted with the idea of offering to get the lieutenant a room for the night – I imagined the two of us taking on the town, making it rain in the local strip club and dancing all night, A Night at The Roxbury style. But I was exhausted. And I certainly didn’t want to press my luck.
I’d read that Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries on the planet so I wasn’t expecting the lush oasis of a hotel and beach that I suddenly walked smack-dab into. Lumley Beach was a strip of sand on the peninsula that was home to all the big tourist hotels and seaside restaurants and bars. I’d checked-in with just enough time to throw down my bags and walk across the street to witness the most calming sunset I can remember – it was like a gift from God, saying, “Now, now…it’s all okay now…it’s all okay.” I grabbed a fresh juice and a beef wrap at the Lebanese-owned Olba restaurant while the sun slowly slipped away. I was so grateful I’d made it. First into Guinea, and now the second hurdle that was Sierra Leone. No more overland border crossings! I sipped and smiled, knowing the rest of my trip from here on out would be a piece of cake. You know what they say, ignorance is bliss.
Breakfast on the Beach
I was cheated out of time for both my Guinea and Sierra Leone stops, due to an airline schedule change that forced me to remain parked in Bissau for five nights. Because of that, I’d have just one night in Freetown. My flight on to Ghana was this afternoon, and getting to the airport was a multi-hour process including a ferry across the water. There would be only time to enjoy just a couple hours on the beach across the street before I needed to get going. I really wanted to see more of Freetown, but given the circumstances of the last 24-hours, I was in no position to complain.
I wandered back over to Olba for breakfast on the beach, as I watched the lizards dance over the sand and enjoyed my coffee, orange juice and eggs. While I would have rather spent the morning out, exploring the markets and sites, I enjoyed this tranquil and peaceful morning and, truth be told, probably still needed the rest to continue coming down from all of the excitement and stress that had played out the day before. My mind needed this reset. After a long, lazy breakfast in front of the water, it was back to the hotel to gather my things and head over to the airport, which would be a process in itself.
Freetown sits on a giant peninsula, while the airport is on the mainland – hours away by car. There’s a ferry to make the trip much more efficient. I paid the hotel a $50 transfer fee, which included a van to the ferry terminal, ferry ticket, and finally, a van from the mainland dock over to the airport. I enjoyed the entire process, though it was rather lengthy. I was surprised at how nice the ferry terminal was set up – it included a V.I.P. lounge with WiFi, AC and full bar.
Disaster Strikes Again!
I thought the worst was behind me. No more sketchy land crossings – I had nothing but normal, scheduled flights ahead of me, on reputable airlines at that. With a fresh Covid test in my hand, and visas in my passport, I was convinced the tail end of this voyage would be issue-less. I was wrong.
“Covid test?,” the man at the airport entrance asked.
I handed him my last test, less than 72 hours old.
“No, I need the one from this country.”
I explained to him that, no, I’d just arrived last night and was leaving today – and that the test I had presented was brand new, from the day before yesterday, in Dakar.
“You cannot travel with this. You need a test from Sierra Leone.”
We went round and round for ten minutes. I tried breaking down the simple math: that I’d only arrived to your country hours ago, and am leaving now – I’m basically on transit. Even if I wanted to take a test here, the results wouldn’t have even been procured in time. The requirement to have a Sierra Leone test for such a quick stop simply doesn’t make sense.
My reasoning and logic didn’t connect with the young man, as he delivered to me the devastating news that there would be no way I could travel today – it was impossible. My heart sank. Not because I wouldn’t have enjoyed another day (or two) in Freetown – but I absolutely had to make to Ghana today…because my connecting flight to São Tomé, from Ghana, was tomorrow. I quickly pulled up flights on my phone – today was the only option. If I didn’t get on this flight, I’d miss the weekly flight to São Tomé that left Accra in 24 hours.
This was the first time I’d ever called the American embassy, but I was desperate. I think I got through to the ambassador – who apologized that she couldn’t do anything for me in this situation. Fast forward a nail-biting 45 minutes later–after the young man had made a call to his supervisor–I was finally granted permission to enter the airport. I thanked the man profusely – he didn’t have to go to the trouble. I understand that he was just following protocol. He didn’t have to put in an effort to help me out, but he did, and I am so grateful. Also, I must note–to his credit–I never had to use the $100 bill I had in my front pocket on standby. This was not an attempt to shake me down.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Never, ever get mad, especially with officials in Africa – it will get you nowhere. I’ve learned to be pleasant and always begin with offering the up the phrase, “I’d be happy to cooperate…” and then go on to state how you feel the situation has been misunderstood. I made sure to do this several times, even after other officials joined the conversation, adding that I understood they had a job to do and rules to uphold. I offered as much respect as I did urgency. Of all the close calls on the trip, this one seemed the closest – the man told me numerous times to just forget about today’s flight. I am so glad I didn’t give up.
The man was clear to me that I wasn’t out of the woods yet. He was just part of the Ministry of Health, letting people into the airport. I still had to clear three layers of checkpoints as soon as I walked through the door. I wouldn’t breathe easy until I had my boarding pass in-hand. Thankfully, 40 minutes later I was in the lounge having my first alcoholic beverage of the entire trip. I thought now was the perfect time. I enjoyed two glasses of red wine to celebrate my escape from Sierra Leone. Once again, I left elated and more thankful than ever that I was able to continue on. This trip was almost done. I didn’t think my heart could take another upset.
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