Posted by: sean | October 18, 2009

All Roads Lead to Freetown (part 2)

This is the second part of a two part post, the final chapter in the Duology, in which the blogger, having concluded final preparations for a road trip to Freetown, sees the fruits of his labor.  Rest assured that this trip in no way took place in July.  The blogger values you, the reader, too much to keep you waiting for three months.  Though two months have passed since the last post, which, he swears was the full duration of his trip to Freetown, the blogger will recount events as though they happened over a four day weekend in July for artistic reasons known only to him.

“Where is your ECOWAS Brown Card?”  I was at the Liberian border and, sure enough, it turns out there is such a thing Brown Card.   I told the official about my previous attempts to secure a Brown Card in Monrovia and that ECOWAS itself was unaware of its existence.  I then refused, via some transitive property, to pay for documentation whose existence the issuing body largely refuted.  As I grew angry and made it clear that I was willing to use the full weight of my connections in Liberia to prevail, Vishal, sitting to my left, grew more apologetic.  The official responded to our Good Traveler, Bad Traveler routine and finally let us go with a warning that in the future we would be required to produce an ECOWAS Brown Card, or else.

We piled back in the car and proceeded across the Friendship Bridge to Sierra Leone’s unfriendly immigration.  There is not enough time to recount this experience, but the short is that Jenny had to pay the immigration officer’s “school fees” due to insufficient space for stamps in her passport. The “school fees” had magical properties and endowed the official with the ability to find a space for the stamp in the passport.  As we pulled away from immigration, the car erupted into celebratory woops and to set the mood we sang along to Kanye West’s Diamond’s From Sierra Leone….for about five minutes until we came to the first in endless series of police checkpoints.  Each of these checkpoints were little gems, either we would have to get out and go into a police station and talk to the squad or an officer manning a rope gate would saunter up to the car and do his darnedest to get money out of us.  Sometimes the interaction was blunt:

“Hello officer”
“Hello, where are you going?”
“London! No, Freetown”
“Ok, what do you have for me?”

Sometimes the officers tried to be more tactful:

“Hello officer”
“Hello, where are you going?”
“Freetown! No, London.”
“And how will you leave your fine officers who are guarding this post?”
“We will leave you in peace!”

I consult our wonderful map

I consult our wonderful map

The roads in eastern Sierra Leone were rough, but not as rough as we had anticipated.  I only had to use the four wheel drive twice and after a while was giggling as I raced through puddles and dodged potholes.  I liked to think that my occasional blurting of “I’m your driver!!!” after a particularly large puddle was endearing, but it probably wasn’t.  Eventually, we came to a river raft crossing (wouldn’t you know that my shot-in-the-dark foreshadowing in the last post was correct!), by far the highlight of the drive.  At this point, I was happy that I had no official paperwork with the owner of the car, but slightly worried about how long the walk to Freetown would be if the wooden raft wasn’t up to snuff.  Fortunately, it was snuffy enough.

River raft

After four hours on dirt roads, we passed one police checkpoint….which must be Sierra Leone’s version of the Pearly Gates, for afterward the road opened up to a two lane HIGHWAY with lines and signs and we couldn’t stop talking about it for an hour.  Ben took over the driving as we neared Freetown, giving me a chance to take in the scenery, which became breathtaking the closer we got to Freetown.  Freetown is set on a mountainous peninsula on the ocean.  It is the Monaco of West Africa (though others in the car disputed this statement) and, if things keep improving, you will be taking packaged holidays to Freetown in ten years (which no one in the car disputed).

After twelve hours of driving, Vishal, Gunna, Ben, Jenny, and I felt like family so we checked into a giant room at the wonderfully tacky Family Kingdom.  It was Friday night, so we grabbed some dinner then prepared to get swept away by the famous Freetown nightlife.  Maybe it isn’t famous, but we decided to build up in our minds that it was.  We went to a bar called Paddy’s, which was supposedly the spot, but due to a knife fight the week before it was empty.  So we got fantastically drunk in an empty bar.  Then we checked in at the Office, which resembled a Liberian bar on crack and was conveniently adjacent to the Family Kingdom (I don’t have the energy to make a joke about this coincidence), and had a wonderful time.  I thought that Monrovia had a small social scene, but after seeing two people who had crashed at my house at the bar, and watching Ben catch up with the Deputy Minister of Education, I was ready to marvel that you could drive twelve hours across countries and still see familiar faces out and about.

Vishal, me, Gunna, and Jenny

Vishal, me, Gunna, and Jenny

The next day we reserved for touristic activities, like eating at a bakery, and checking out Freetown’s Mamba Point hotel (There’s a Mamba Point in Monrovia.  What would the Sierra Leonean version look like?  These things fascinated us for lame reasons), and walking around town.  We had dinner at a nice restaurant where we bumped into Glenna and her brother Grant.  Glenna is an independent journalist working the beat in Liberia and her brother ran a survey for the Carter Center in February.  It’s a small sub-region.  They recommended that we head out of town to Beach No. 2 on our way back to Liberia.  So the next day we did.

Beach No. 2

Yes, this is Beach No. 2 on a bad day.  This is why you will be taking packaged holidays here in ten years.  When you come I can recommend a wonderfully tacky place to stay.  After the beach, we began the drive back to Liberia, planning to stop in Kenema in the north on the way back.  With Gunna, Ben, and Jenny asleep in the back, Vishal and were having a grand old time up front when I realized that I was flooring the gas and barely going 30.  Uh-oh.  As we climbed the hills, the car lost momentum and slowed to a near stop.  We were in the middle of nowhere on the remote side of the Freetown peninsula.  Vishal woke up the backseat with the news that we were in serious trouble.  Luckily, the car managed to limp back to Freetown and we pulled into the first legitimate gas station to find a mechanic.  The first rule of Liberian and Sierra Leonean gas stations is that everybody who hangs out at the gas station believes that they are an expert mechanic.  And their tool of choice is a stone.  I am serious.  The mechanic at the gas station said that there was a problem with the clutch, which was time consuming and costly to repair, so we decided to get a second opinion.  What better second opinion to get than to follow a random customer to an alleyway where their mechanic could look at the car?  The mechanic opened the hood while fifteen other mechanics milled about.  He reached in the car with his stone and started removing pieces of the engine.

Engine trouble

Not good.  We were now immobile in a random alleyway in Freetown at 6pm and had no estimate of what the mechanic would charge to put things back in the engine.  Ben, because he loves to barter, went off with the mechanic to buy the necessary pieces, and, somehow, we were on the road in the hour.  Ready for Kenema!

Kenema is a diamond town in the north and happened to be holding the national party conference for the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), easily recognizable in their orange shirts.  As chance would have it, when I was an intern at the Carter Center I met the party leader, Charles Margai, and showed him around.  The next morning at breakfast, I told this to a random party member who turned out to be the national head of budgeting or something or other and offered to set up a meeting with Charles Margai for me.  I declined…what would I meet with him about?  Later I heard a knock on my door and opened to see a burly man who told me that Mr. Margai was ready to see me.  I again declined.  It is a weird sub-region.

When in diamond country, why not try to see a diamond mine?  Vishal and Ben walked into a couple diamond traders’ offices, but no one was willing to take us to the end of the rainbow.  While they were in one shop, a boy entered and dumped a bucket of diamonds on the counter.  It is a diamondy sub-region.

Back on the road, we decided to visit Tiwai Island wildlife sanctuary where, “many animals that are rare elsewhere thrive…including chimpanzees, pygmy hippos, river otters and white-breasted guinea fowl.”  The guinea fowl must be lost.  Anyhow, it required driving out of the way, but beyond the park the road linked back up with the main road, 12 miles from the border.  We had time, why not?!

It was not easy to get there; the road turned off thirty minutes beyond Kenema and then snaked through the jungle.  It was horrendous.  We drove for two hours, occasionally stopping and asking people if we were on the right road.  We were.  30 miles down the road to go.  Ten miles.  Two miles!  Then we arrived in one village where I met a man who made me the unhappiest man on the planet.  Yes, the island was one mile away.  Yes, we could go there. But the road beyond the island that linked up with the main road 12 miles from the border (read: home) was closed.  Why? The bridge was down.  Really?  When did that happen? 12 years ago.  We looked at the clock, it was 2pm, the border closed at 6pm….  I turned around and drove back down the horrendous road – a road that while driving down the first time kept inducing the thought: what a road, thank god you’ll never have to drive down thaaaat again.

We careened toward the border.  I no longer giggled or playfully blurted out “I’m your driver!”  We began to recognize the checkpoints.  The final checkpoint before the border was in a town and you had to get out and go into the police station and talk to everyone inside – on the way there that stop alone took thirty minutes.  Time we did not have.

Nearing the checkpoint, we saw that the foolproof rope gate was down.

Should I stop?
Just go!
I’m not going to stop.

As soon as I barreled through the gate, people rushed out from the streets to flag me down and police officers came out of the station.  Poop.

I stopped.  The officers angrily directed me to park in front of the station.  Poop.  Vishal, sensing that I was now too short-tempered to go inside the station, jumped out of the car with our documentation to smooth things over with the officers.  After he disappeared inside, another officer approached the car.

Are you a liiiiiiiicensed driver, “Driver”?
Yes, here is my license.
Get out of the car.

I was escorted to the police station and into a room with three officers.  They closed the door.

Tell me why you decided not to stop at the checkpoint.
I didn’t see any sign and there was no gate.
You will have to pay.
No, there was no sign, I stopped as soon as I realized when the people came out on the street.
You did not stop.
Then by what fluke of physics I am here right now?

This was not the smartest thing I could have said.  The arguing escalated, with the officer maintaining that the gate was clearly marked and me disagreeing.  We decided to conduct revisit the scene of the crime and walked out to the gate, where in the interim the officers had placed two giant signs, spaced close enough together that it would have been impossible to drive a car between.

Can you tell me why you did not see this signs and you refused to stop in accordance with the law?
Can you tell me why your officers just put those signs up there?

This was not the smartest thing I could have said.  The arguing escalated as I demonstrated how it would have been physically impossible for my vehicle to have fit through the gate had those signs been there before.  The officer was stoic and told me to follow him back inside to pay my fine.

I’m not following you inside.

This was not the smartest thing I could have said.  He grabbed my arm, and I realized that I was on the verge of being thrown in a Sierra Leonean jail.

You’re…NOT…going to follow me inside?
Fine, I’ll follow you inside.

Back in the office, without Vishal’s Good Tourist to help me, things deteriorated further.  I was done with being nice to corrupt police officers.  I decided to try a different line of defense that seemed to work.  I stood up and, angrily waving my arms, declared:

Even if those signs were there, and I ran them, you can’t fine me because I had no intent to commit the crime.  There has to be intent.  No intent, no crime. I’m innocent. I’m free.

This is of course not true.  I could have been charged with checkpointslaughter.

There has to be intent?

If you say something with enough confidence, stupid people will believe it.

Yes, there has to be intent.

The officers paused and I decided to capitalize on this possible turn of events by making them feel ashamed of not knowing my fake version of their legal system.

You really need to know your own laws.

As they mulled this over, Vishal came in, saw my face, quickly diffused the situation, and we left.  I maintain that my tactic of making up the law would have worked.

At immigration, Vishal was first through the Sierra Leonean gauntlet.  He ran across the Friendship Bridge to Liberia hoping that somewhere in the annals of Liberian law there was a provision that, “By the grace of God, who has shone his light on this land of Liberty in spite of the unholy Devil, when one man in a party touches forth on Liberian soil, immigration is hereby mandated to stay open until all members of his party entereth Liberia, land of liberty set forth by the grace of god in spite of the Devil and all his evil works.”  It was a long shot.

And it seemed to work.  The only slight problem proved to be that the Sierra Leonean authorities forgot to actually stamp Vishal’s passport when he exited.  I’m not sure why one sovereign nation would require that you have proof that some other sovereign nation let you exit it in order for you to be allowed to enter…but Liberia does.  This despite the fact that Vishal had a Liberian visa and residency permit.  Actually, I’m pretty sure they did this because they were looking for any reason to make us pay them money.  Eventually, Vishal made some phone calls and the head of immigration was asked to let him enter – but kept Vishal’s passport in order to save face and delivered it to Monrovia the next day.

The ride back to Monrovia went smoothly.  We arched over the horizon, a tired stream of urine.  The sunset cast the landscape in rich hues of yellow and orange, much like dehydrated urine.  And we didn’t stop until we reached Monrovia, at which point everyone had to pee.  Some literally, others, when pressed, in the form of an African Pissing Contest.



  1. I was waiting (months!) for this, and was not disappointed. Your insistence on “intent” I will definitely pull out of my sleeve one day…

  2. Checkpointslaughter is a serious offense young man…you were very lucky. Vishal…thank you, thank you…I have no idea where Sean gets his ‘damn the authorities’ attitude from. And just one other slight concern…resembling a Liberian bar on crack???
    Agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Elie…we waited patiently for the pissing contest to come to an end and you gloriously have ended the contest with a ‘stream’ worthy of past stories. Future entries better not wait as long….or I will ruin your credit rating…;-) Love Dad.

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