Posted by: sean | August 19, 2009

All Roads Lead to Freetown (part 1)

This is a two-part post on a trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone.  The first post discovers the blogger in preparation of the journey, written as though the trip has not already happened, which is a lie…  The second post (which will be posted after enough time has passed so as to give the impression that the blogger went on the trip after the first post) recounts the journeying aspect of the journey.

Oh! Hello! Why, you’ve discovered me in preparation of a journey to Freetown…  I’m all packed up and ready to go and want to share useful travel tidbits with you on the eve of my departure, which is most definitely not in the past.  But first I want to make an observation: I’m not very good at the Africa Pissing Contest.  It is a game played by new arrivals and the aim is simple enough: wow those around you by listing the various places you have been in Africa with the aim being to establish your credibility on all things African, and, by extension, assert your worth as a human being.  The game differs from normal talk, where places in Africa and your having been to them might come up, and is either active or passive.

Active:  The new arrival is quizzed and judged by the community.  Information is teased out with the ever so tactful opener, “So, is this your first time in Africa?”  Typically, the person asking the question is quite confident that they will be able to out-piss the new arrival.

Passive:  The new arrival will un-zip and urinate all over a normal conversation.  “Hey, New Arrival, would you like a banana?”  “Sure! When I lived in Kinshasa there was this lady with bananas who would give us all the bananas we wanted for a good price.  But, truth be told, I’ve never had a banana as good as the bananas I had growing up on a raft on the Zambezi.

When someone tries to enter me in an Africa Pissing Contest, I tell them about my only other experience in Africa: a day trip to Tangiers when I was a teenager.  I watched a snake being charmed, saw some carpets, saw a camel, and ate some cous cous.  I’ve found that my Tangiers Offensive is a de facto way to win the Africa Pissing Contest because the instigator needs to know that you care about the pissing contest; somewhere in my rambling about how I lived in Morocco for a day the instigator usually realizes that I’m not taking the game seriously and could care less about having an Africa Pissing Contest.

Which is all to say, in a roundabout way, that I am about to freakin’ drive from Monrovia to Freetown, Sierra Leone.  Mark it THREE African countries.  Marvel at my steady stream arcing gloriously over the horizon.

Sean, do you like bananas?

Sure, I do! But sometimes they’re hard to peel. But they’re not as hard to peel as it is hard to organize an overland trip to Sierra Leone. There are many things to consider when organizing such a trip:

First, there’s the visa.  When I visited the embassy….um…yesterday…to pick up visas, the visa clerk told me that he had good news and bad news.  The good news was that I and my friends (Vishal, Gunna, Ben, and Jenny) had been approved entry to Sierra Leone.  The bad news was that the embassy was out of stock of the single-entry visas we requested.  Would we mind paying an extra $50 for the multiple-entry visa?  I had been warned that the embassy ran this racket, so I was prepared with several solutions.  Ah, that’s a shame, well, we can only go to Sierra Leone once, can we a) amend the multiple-entry visa to make it a single-entry visa, b) get a note from the ambassador explaining the shortage of single-entry visas, or c) cut the bullshit and give the single-entry visas that are undoubtedly really in stock? After three hours of waiting, talking to the Deputy Ambassador, and demonstrating that there was no way I was going to pay for a multiple-entry visa…the single-entry visa miraculously appeared.  The kicker is that the single-entry visas and multiple-entry visas are on the same sticker…one just circles the type of visa it is.  I was mildly furious.

Second, there’s the vehicle.  Through my colleague Pewee I found the number of man with ‘strong’ vehicles.  I tested out a couple…earlier this week…settled on a Toyota Landcruiser and began bartering.  I don’t like bartering.

You tell me how much you want to pay.
My man, why can’t you just tell me the price?
You just tell me how much you want to pay.
$30 is too small.
I know it is too small. Please just tell me what the price is.
You just tell me how much you want to pay.
$150 would be better.
Ok. How many days do you want it for?
That’s $500.
Would you like a deposit?
How much would you like?
You just tell me how much you would like to pay for the deposit
Nothing – I don’t want to pay a deposit.
Ok, here’s $130.

And so, I gave $130 to a man to rent his Toyota Landcruiser and drive it from Monrovia to Freetown.  No paperwork.  If I were the owner of a Toyota Landcruiser and someone gave me $130 to drive it on some of the worst roads on the planet across international boundaries between two post-conflict countries, I would be very concerned.  The man smiled as I drove away.  As I said, this whole trip to Freetown has most definitely not yet happened, but if I were to be a whiz at photoshop and tweak a picture as a sort of “this is why the car owner should be wary” foreshadowing, I would create the below picture.

river car raft

Will the car have to go on a wooden river raft?  I wonder if that will happen…

Third, there are the vehicle passes.  In order to drive a car into Sierra Leone you are required to get a Sierra Leonean vehicle pass and an ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Brown Card vehicle permit.  Actually, I’m not sure the ECOWAS vehicle permit is required, but I had heard that they asked for it at the border.  “ECOWAS vehicle permit” is maybe slang for “bribe”.   Nonetheless, because I have the utmost respect for government processes, after securing my Sierra Leonean vehicle pass I began the nebulous task of obtaining an ECOWAS vehicle permit.  Naturally, I thought a good place to start would be at the ECOWAS headquarters.  It turned out that the headquarters didn’t give out the permit, but a branch office in the basement Ministry of Foreign Affairs did.  I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but was denied entry because I was wearing shorts.  The man at the door with baggy jeans, flip flops, a neon shirt and plaid tie told me to come back when I was properly dressed.  This being the same day that I spent three hours at the Sierra Leonean embassy, I was not really in the mood for undue pomp and circumstance.  I asked the doorman where I could find a neon shirt and baggy jeans.  He did not reply.

I came back the following day in my finery and saddled up to the ECOWAS counter, which was, literally, two steps inside the door that I was refused entry to on the previous day…  Hello!  I’d like an ECOWAS Brown Card! The person behind the counter looked at me quizzically. I explained the ECOWAS Brown Card to the ECOWAS employee.  They told me that there was no such thing.  I explained that the people at the border would ask for it.  The employees talked in a huddle.

Soon, and I’m not quite sure how this happened, I was sitting in the President’s Office of Protocol.  That is, I was in the office that organized the President’s movement and public appearances…for a vehicle permit.  After half an hour of talking with Protocol, they referred me….to the ECOWAS counter.

I went back to the ECOWAS counter, grateful that I had a chance to see the inner workings of the Office of Protocol, but slightly upset that I was now on hour three of my vehicle permit hunt.  Once again, they told me there was no such thing as an ECOWAS Brown Card.  I agreed and asked them for a phone number where I could reach the ECOWAS counter the next morning when I arrived at the border and was asked for the permit.  And suddenly there was such a thing as an ECOWAS Brown Card.  An employee took me outside and we walked up to a Police Chief guarding the President’s building.  This man can issue you a Brown Card. Really?  I pondered.  The Liberian National Police can give me an ECOWAS Brown Card….but ECOWAS can’t????  And suddenly I realized that there was no such thing as an ECOWAS Brown Card.  I went back to my car, mildly furious.

Finally, you need a good map to show the way to Freetown.  The last thing you want is to get lost in the middle of nowhere.  Vishal happened to be talking with some people from the Special Court for Sierra Leone and they kindly drew him a road map.  Here it is:


Please note that the map is drawn the wrong direction – Bo and Freetown should be on the left side of the map, since we would be driving West…not East.  You are probably thinking that this cartographical error led us to question other aspects of the map.  It did not.  We have packed the map, ready to leave for Freetown at 5am….tomorrow morning, the Toyota Landcruiser set to arc over the horizon much like one’s stream does during a successful African Pissing Contest.



  1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I have no witicisms to add. Have a great trip! Can’t wait till you get back!

  2. OH, I can’t wait for the rest, you have to post it soon! This is the funniest post yet, and that’s saying something. Now I have to get a kleenex to dab away my tears of laughter.

  3. hilarious… post more!

  4. I’m so glad I was forwarded a link to your blog. This is awesome. When, in the future, do you return? And nice work on that Photoshop.

  5. Sean, you ARE Graham Greene in a neon shirt and baggy jeans.

  6. I’m surprised Ethan hasn’t commented yet, but this is brilliant. I am reassured that you made it out alive due to the time delay in posting. Love the map.

  7. Nice to know the ‘bartering’ gene was passed on….as to pissing…step up to the plate, I know that gene is in you or do you not remember the great bartering that took place for the leather footstool in the back alley’s of???…looking forward to Part two.

  8. Wow, I’m really behind the game to be the 8th commenter. You know, the problem must be that you don’t post enough. I expect the follow up story to be posted promptly. Also, did you ever read my post office blog from Senegal? Last paragraph:

  9. That raft lokks a lot like Tom Sawyers at disney. Fess up, your wearing cutoffs and a straw hat right now and greeting kids!

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