Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bye from Sky

Wow, I can't believe it's been 4 1/2 months since I joined the trip. What a great reunion with the family and one helluva journey!! I don't think I could say it any better than Dad when he says traveling through West Africa is "Complete sensory OVERLOAD." The trip has not by any means been EASY, although it can certainly be rewarding if you're trying to lose weight. Introducing, the new, and improved, Watkinstravel Weight Loss Program! "Lose 30 lbs in 4 months!!" Trust me it works.. I'm a living example.. and no I'm not happy about this! But hey, it's a small sacrifice to be able to see and do cool things like ride in an open iron ore car on the longest train in the world through the Saharan Desert of Mauritania, or taking a cargo ship up the Niger River to Timbuktu. Seeing the remains of the formerly colonized Portuguese capital city of Guinea-Bissau was also a highlight. So was hiking the 16km up and through the canyons of Douki, Guinea, by the means of improvised bridges and ladders made from clusters of random sticks and bamboo.
Traveling through three very recently war torn countries without an M-16 was a little different for me, but was also a good experience nonetheless.
The wildlife was great: Camels, Hippos, vultures, monkeys, baboons, chimps, 10 ft crocodiles, antelope, parrots, tons of different lizards, flying fish, dolphins, huge spiders, warthogs, and I even spotted a wild lioness. The list goes on...

I can't not mention the fact that the majority of the big cities are filthy, overpopulated, and generally very unpleasant to be in with all the scams, hassles, and straight up abuse (by North American standards) as a white "rich" foreigner. I'm sorry to say, but anyone who thinks that's messed up for me to say that hasn't been where we have or you're either an African local, not Caucasian, or never been to North America. I can't tell you how many times either Ammon, Dad, or I have lost our minds, ready to beat someone to death for either blatantly lying, cheating, taking us for complete idiots, pickpocketing, or physically harassing the girls. Some countries and cities are worse than others.

On the other hand, we've met and stayed with some very hospitable and amazing hosts (Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia) and I take my hat off to them because without them I'm sure my opinion of West Africa would be different. Thank you so much, I'll miss you! Small towns and villages in the bush have some of the friendliest human beings I've ever met who would give the clothes off their backs to see that you were comfortable. And it's funny to see the children (and even some adults) react to their first time seeing white skin and hairy arms.

I will never forget the children or the local volunteers we visited at the orphanage outside of Monrovia, Liberia. We are in the process of sending help. I wish we could all do more. Thanks again to the LDS church members and missionaries for rescuing us upon our arrival to Liberia! Yikes.

I fly back home in a few days, but really hope I can rejoin the group again soon. I love and will miss my family so much and hate to leave them to the wolves without me, but luckily they are extremely tough so it'll be alright. For now I'm just excited to get my life started again back in Vancouver after being away in the U.S. military for the last five years. I encourage others to join if you can, just keep in mind it can really be something else!

Bye for now,


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Break at Big Milly's

Our first stop (other than the border town) was a very famous and popular backpacker resort, right on the beach, called Big Milly's Backyard, in Kokrobite. We hadn't seen foreign tourists since leaving Senegal nearly two months before so everyone was excited about getting to relax and socialize. In other words, Sky, Bre and Savannah were finally let off the leash and allowed to play.
I'd say 80% of the foreigners in Ghana are volunteers (it's the volunteer Olympics) and a lot of them take a break or relax at Big Milly's before flying home. Kokrobite is an hour ride from Accra so we were able to use it as a base and commute into town to take care of business. The passports that mom and I started the whole trip with are now completely full so we have applied for new ones (and Bre too), trapping ourselves in Ghana for at least 3 weeks. That gives us a good excuse and plenty of time to relax a little and we took full advantage (9 days). We met some great people, got thrashed trying to body surf some big waves, ate western food for the first time in months, stayed up way too late (much later than the usual 8-9pm), and generally enjoyed ourselves. It is also a great place to get info on my future plans so I am feeling a bit more confident and ready for the next leg.
Sky ended up getting sick with suspected malaria (not unusual out here) and has been off and on for a while since. I did most of the runs into Accra and can honestly say I don't like it. It is another sprawling mess and has a larger population than all the other West African cities we've been to (other than Abidjan). The traffic and pollution are horrendous and it takes a long time to run errands and get around. It's too far to walk and too slow to have to take the public minibuses around. The streams are also full of garbage and incredibly stinky. At least things are relatively cheap. It's funny but again now that we are somewhere with lots of tourists, everyone is constantly warning us about thieves, more so than most other places. It doesn't feel worse but mass tourism tend to bring out the worst in opportunistic thievery I guess. We haven't had any problems but then the locals do have a slightly different way of treating us here. I call it false hospitality because it is only skin deep. Of course that is more a product of the false people following you around and hassling you rather than a general trend. There just seem to be more touts and those annoying Rasta guys (rolling eyes) here hanging out. It was nice to finally get a break and run around in just swimming shorts all day on the beach again. Now I am a proper beach bum like you all suspect :)

Cote d'Ivoire

Cote d'Ivoire (CdI) turned out to be nothing like I'd expected and actually better and easier in a lot of ways which was a very nice surprise since it's currently having the most problems in West Africa with it's ongoing civil war crisis. We did have a significant amount of CFA currency left over from Senegal so as soon as we crossed the border being out of money was no longer an issue. We stayed a night in Tabou, just across the border and right on the beach. It was tempting to stay and get delayed again but Sky kept us "on schedule".
The biggest city in CdI is Abidjan and it has a horrible reputation for crime and expense, even in the best of times, and we wanted to avoid it as much as possible but knew we'd have to change buses there at least. There is no overnight transport in CdI at all, which gives an indication of how bad the security concerns are there. Almost everywhere has overnight transport. So we made our way to Abidjan slowly in order to avoid a late arrival and ended up stopping in Sassandra, another quiet beach town once very popular with tourists. We were the only ones there I think and people were surprised and happy to see someone again. A lot of stuff had been shut down and the little market was mostly empty. Oddly enough, CdI felt a little like paradise to us. Sierra Leone is an ex-sketchy country, Liberia is still sketchy and has nothing, but CdI is an ex-successful country so all the old infrastructure is still there. Sort of. For the first time in a couple months and several countries, we had 24hr power, plumbing (non-bucket showers and flushing toilets) and mostly smooth roads. The countryside showed us all the signs of mass deforestation for the creation of plantations as we passed seemingly endless rows of rubber, oil palm and coconut palm trees. During our long walk into Sassandra we were given a lift by an old Dutch plantation owner. Strange guy but he refused to leave when war broke out, calling CdI his home, as it has been for the past several decades, hanging out with locals and blaming most of the troubles on the US and France.
But rolling through the bigger towns and cities it was easy to see the shantytown shacks all crammed together on the edge of town. It looked like the usual market squalor until you realized that it wasn't the location of the market but families were living in the little "shops". We'd worried about corrupt police and the many check posts along the way but they never did more than glance at our passports, smile and wave us on. There were a lot of stops though. Dad counted 16 just on the 5 hour ride between Sassandra and Abidjan.
Abidjan was the hell we expected, especially around the market area where the main bus "station" is. It was noon and yet the drivers were afraid to drop us off and wander around to find our next ride. Each company has a couple vehicles and operates from little stalls scattered around the huge market area so there is no way to know where to look for the one you want. The market was teeming with people, ankle-deep mud, foul smells and unfriendlies. We'd been told to sit tight while others checked things out but that turned out to be useless as only the most ridiculously expensive options were considered on our behalf (as always). It wasn't until I started running around (with a handful of "helpers" following) that things started working out. That didn't prevent others from making very rude, unwelcoming comments, demanding money or shaking sticks at us. But then the Adjame market has always had a bad reputation. Needless to say, we were happy to leave on the first ride heading further east. Without further problems we made it to the border and were the last people across as they closed up at sunset. The Ghanaians were welcoming but again afraid for our safety. We were told that many Ivoirians come across the border to rob the otwn and the border guards were involved in the occasional shootout. So, in order to ensure our safety from the thieves and riff-raff now that it was dark, we were escorted to the hotel by two now off-duty border guards. Even with them watching, the moneychangers on the street were the only ones to ever (that's all time ever, ever) try to short-change me by using a rigged calculator and a huge wad of bills that were not accurate. Good thing I always check carefully. Overall I'm glad we made the decision to cross the country via the coastal road and I have no interest in seeing more. Oddly enough, we spent almost exactly the same number of hours crossing Afghanistan. It's just sad to see yet another country that had so much self-destruct so quickly.

Cargo boat to Harper, Liberia

Finally, after weeks of waiting anxiously we drove up the ghastly docks through the early morning mist, lurking on the eerie Atlantic waters. The first thing that came to my mind was "ship graveyard" with the pealing paint and rusting iron bodies....All I hoped was that our ship would float...unlike half of the other docked ones. We said goodbye to our AWESOME host Eva and her brother James who dropped us off. We started our next adventure when we stepped onto the boat and recieved warm welcomes from the crew. We got special priviledges being able to set up camp on the bridge deck where as everyone else was crammed on the lower deck together. There weren't many passengers since it was a cargo ship. We sat in the cool breeze on deck and watched the night slowly transform into day, the sun glimmering on the open ocean. We were stuck waiting for 9 hours before the fuel was loaded and we set sail. We weren't well prepared for the 41 hour journey, as usual, with only a couple loaves of bread, some sardines and cookies for the six of us. Luckily the crew was super nice and prevented us from starving. Bre went down to the little kitchen and spent the night cooking delicious pasta with the captain etc. It's amazing how much of a difference it is being on a boat compared to being crammed in a shared taxi for two days. I am almost willing to say it was worth waiting a couple of weeks to take the boat. During the day mom created a nice little shelter out of sleeping bags and blankets with clothes pegs, clips and safety pins. The sun was blazing hot in the afternoon and gorgeous as ever, reflecting off the water in a golden stream. It was fun, from so high up to watch the birds swoop down and prey on the mass of flying fish. For the first time since The Maldives, we got to see more wild dolphins. They are so adorable, leaping through waves and playing along side our vesssel. In some parts, we saw a ton of them near and far. I counted at least 7 in every 5 seconds!!
Mom, being her usual crazy self was trying to draw the lightning storms to us, thinking it would be "so fun!". Sure enough, knowing her luck, we got exactly that. It was far off, thankfully, and quite the show watching the huge bolts of lightning streak the distant sky. We hung our legs over the railing and soaked it all up, each flash lighting the starry night. We slept under the bright, low hanging stars on mats and it was so great! We really enjoyed the trip. The best experiences of my trip, personally have been the cargo ships! Great memories of the Caspian Sea on my 16th birthday, Black Sea and the Niger River.
We arrived in the morning in Harper, headed to Cote d'Ivoire/Ivory Coast.

Another Cargo Boat Journey

Once upon a time we thought cargo boat travel was cool. Well, if you look at our past history crossing the Caspian and Black seas, it wasn't too bad and was almost comfortable. Not so this one. We were dropped off at the pier at 6am on the day of departure only to learn that we were still waiting for fuel. They'd been waiting a week at least for fuel. Luckily the tanker came by at noon to fill us up and we watched while for the next two hours they not only filled the boat's tanks but also a number of plastic drums for cargo, all the while trying to defend themselves from a bunch of guys trying steal the fuel in little buckets, plastic bags or just running off with whatever they could grab lying around. Our boat finally loaded, we set off at around 2pm and quickly realized we weren't going to get anywhere very quickly. We were fully loaded with rice, fuel and cement on the usual low riding 50m cargo boat. We'd been given the place of honour on the very top of the boat, on the roof above the bridge, in order to avoid the filth and other people riding the lower decks. We were totally exposed to the sun and wind but found that even with the forward motion there was almost no wind. We also later learned that we couldn't make it to the port by closing time the following day so they were going to slow down a little and arrive when it opened the day after that, giving us a grand total of 41 hours of sailing time on a boat that some of us couldn't walk around on (or even really sit up on) without feeling seasick. That kind of thing is not supposed to happen to me but there I was lying in misery for most of the ride.
We had just enough space for a couple of chairs or to all lay down in the evening. The boat kept a steady 10 miles from shore so we really didn't get to see much of the land, but we did enjoy finally moving on and watching all the dolphins and flying fish everywhere. Flying fish are so cool and it was a first for both dad and Sky, who thought they were great as well. There's just something awesome about watching 50+ fish suddenly all jump out of the water ahead of the boat like a bunch of little rockets. We were extremely lucky that we had no rain as we slept outside. We could see huge thunderstorms on land each night but other than a few drops, we were far enough out to be dry.
We were also lucky to have a great crew that treated us well and even found some food to keep us from starving. One of the guys even got off with us and walked us past the pier (covered with raw rubber. It feels like rubber but is a yellowing, brownish goo blob.), through the town of Harper and helped us get onward transport to the border. Harper was the hometown of one of the better presidents of Liberia and so was well built up at one point but now it reminds me of the colonial decay of Bolama (Guinea-Bissau) in that there are lots of nice buildings all crumbled and abandoned. It would've been interesting to hang out a day and explore but alas, we had to move on. Our chosen mode of transport was 6 motorcycle taxis (great convoy fun) for about 20km over very rough dirt track/road through the jungle. Bre's bike fell twice, Sky had a near bail and dad had a flat tire so it took a while. The flat tire was patched with the aid of rubber taken from one of the rubber trees on the side of the road. They just bled the tree for the sap, mixed it with some water, applied it to the patch and then heated it with a match and stuck it on the tube. Wow. No major problems at the border and the Liberian police, customs and immigration are (with only one exception) the most professional in West Africa.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Monrovia was suffering from fuel shortages while we were there and is not a pleasant looking place at all. Our host, Eva was an amazing and wonderful lady and really took care of us while we were there. She is a radio producer for UNMIL radio in Monrovia so she knows everyone and all the stories. Her family has 2 homes on their land and are currently building a 3rd which we stayed in and had built around us.
We really had no plan for Liberia and had hoped to pass through quickly. There is nothing to do and only completely crazy tourists would transit out here. There is very little info about here but I had heard about a boat going down the coast to Harper and since it would allow us to bypass the north of Cote d'Ivoire (our next destination) where all the rebels and hassle are, we decided to wait around for it to leave. The problem was that there is very little transport of any kind going to Harper and we ended up in Monrovia for 3 weeks, 2 of which were just waiting around and expecting the boat to leave any day.
Eva and her extended family were great and we had a really nice set up but Sky and Savannah were going crazy just hanging out and waiting around. We just read and played cards and lived on fish, rice and porridge. There are tons of UN vehicles and personnel on the road and all the vehicles on the roads seem to be either Landcruisers from some NGO or shared taxis. Lots of UN helicopters overhead too. We went to the beach one day and it was nice, quite empty and smaller than Freetown's. The beach is known as "where all the white guys hang out" since locals don't really swim. I think we were the only true tourists in the country but we did see a bunch of aid workers sunbathing a swimming. The city is a mess and we rarely went into town (we were ~10km south of the centre) as it is full of blown out buildings and the main road is potholed from all the mortar shells still. Even the President's mansion is burnt down (though not from war apparently). The only good news is that the President (the 1st female one in Africa) and a lot of the people on top are actually trying to bring about positive changes. Slowly. President Bush came for a one-day visit and had the entire city shut down for security reasons.
The 1st Sunday we went to church with Eva's family and it was way out there, full of singing, dancing and Hallelujah. Our 2nd Sunday was a failed attempt to find our own church nearby so the 3rd Sunday we called around and had someone pick us up. We got to talking with a few and were inviting to see an orphanage that had been set up in a nearby village by some members, so the next day we all went on a field trip into the countryside to check it out. I'm really glad we did. It's a beautiful land, lots of green and we passed some rubber plantations before heading out on some rough side roads into the bush. If I've been sounding angry and bitter lately it's because it's so frustrating to see such beautiful countries with so much natural wealth and potential destroying themselves. Almost every building we passed was a blown out shell. Everything was destroyed and people were back in little shacks made from sheet-roofing. The orphanage itself was even more depressing. It's in a blown out building, 40 little kids, 4-12 years old (most of the younger ages), with their volunteer caregivers sleeping on thin blankets on the hard concrete, drinking purified murky stream water, wearing an odd assortment of clothing donated from somewhere and sitting on rubble and logs in a bare room for a class. They were pretty excited to see us and most looked pretty happy and cute even though they had nothing and had been living there for a year. They're the lucky ones though because there are over 150 known orphans nearby that have been turned away for lack of food to feed them all. And that's the norm out here, there are so many projects but still tons of problems and corruption so few ever get the help they need. We're thinking of organizing something to help them and maybe there's a reason we were delayed because the next day we got word that the boat was ready to leave.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


We left Kenema for our run to the Liberian border and I finally figured out why Sierra Leone has such a bad reputation for corruption. The ride out to the border was one of those Guinea-style horror rides, totally cramped in a little Peugeot on bad roads. There were as many as 6 guys on our roof, which is not allowed so 100m before each police checkpoint (and there were many) they would stop, let everyone off and walk across, the assistant to the driver with the bribe money, and then 100m after the post they would get back on and the police would never see a thing. Right.
We were stamped out of SL at a town almost 2 hrs before we were dropped off at the border. There was another police check there and they wanted to "inspect our luggage". Out here, that is a dead giveaway and your signal that they will want a bribe. All through west Africa so far we've had to pay a lot for luggage. It's not the world norm and there is no set rate so I fight long and hard over it. The reason they do it is that is the bribe money. Bribes are to avoid hours of luggage inspection at each stop since that is the current way the authorities unofficially threaten you. The cops have a pretty good system going for themselves out here then. They get paid to do a job and then you pay them even more so they can be lazy, which is why you should refuse every time and offer your luggage. They are actually to lazy to check it anyway and will almost always just wave you through. Mom (bless he innocent heart) and dad go first into the inspection room and they didn't even realize that they were being asked for bribes in code (like "It's New Year's Day, you are very lucky today.") to the point that they embarrassed the guys when they finally blurted out "Oh, you mean you want a bribe?". You're not really supposed to use the B word (that would make the whole thing so much more criminal) and they let us go. Then a customs check where I spat out all of my water on their floor without thinking about it and getting yelled at (I thought there was a bug in my water). We were on a roll that day. Then another police check, then the Yellow Fever health check (even though we were leaving and they didn't check us coming in), then a final immigration check. Wow. At each one we have to wait while they inspect and write down all our passport info so it takes a while with a group.
Across the bridge that is the border and past the Pakistani UN troops to the first Liberian checkpost, then immigration, then another health check, then finally customs. It took only 2 hours total..... The Liberian authorities were surprised to see us but were nice enough and probably the most professional of all the countries in Africa so far. Liberia is supposed to be like a little America (if it fell apart). SL was set up by the UK as a country to send their freed slaves (hence the name Freetown), Liberia was set up by the Americans for the same reason several decades later. Liberia then modelled itself after the US. The flag is like the US one but with one star. The government works on a similar system, Monrovia is named after a US president and all the police uniforms look the same as the highway patrol ones in the US. They also only give good exchange rates for the US dollar which is a bit strange because everyone else seems to be getting away from the dollar these days. They even have more American accents and foul language than we are used to. The nice part was the paved road from the border to Monrovia. It took us 3 hours instead of 2 because we had 6 more police checks where we had to get out and once again record our passport info. No problems except for the very last one. They even looked less professional than the others which is kind of funny and the guy that stopped us mentioned a luggage check so I knew right away what was coming. I represented the group and watched them bringing in money from the locals in other cars. I saw old ladies pleading that they had no more to give them than the little bit offered. And then he turns to me and has the nerve to ask five times more than everyone else for the "registration service". Imagine, the sun is going down, I've been on the road, crammed into little cars, suffocating on gas fumes or exhaust to the point of a really bad headache for the last 11 hours. I'd barely slept the last 3 nights due to a combo of nightclubs and bedbugs. I'd only eaten two little bananas and an egg sandwich with ants running through it for the whole day. So I'm starving and have lost a ton of weight in the last few weeks because the food out here is so spicy that I can't eat more than two bites and living on bananas just doesn't cut it. We'd passed through at least 20 checkposts that day and while money was changing hands, it didn't come from mine and the people were friendly and respectful to me. And I have a problem with authority anyway on top of all that and I'm generally extra grouchy these days. Do you think I stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out a stack of bills like he was expecting and started pleading that it would be enough? Oh no, no no no, not at all. You guys probably will never see me again because I'll be lucky to get out of Africa in one piece, the way I keep telling these people what I think of such "service", but so far they keep letting me go and the money is still in my pocket.
So we got into Monrovia. Great. What are we doing here again? It was beyond Sierra Leone. SL was bad a few years ago and got better then Liberia got really bad in 2003 and now it's "better" and Cote d'Ivoire has the problems. But better is a relative term. What is "better" in a country where sons were shooting their mothers and rebels were using human intestine as fencing only a couple years ago? There may not be groups roaming the streets at night with Kalashnikovs these days but people still have a little of that wary/hungry dog look that makes you think they are sizing you up a little as a meal and the nice people still aren't going very far at night. Yeah, vacation. Right. You were still thinking that we just sit on the beach sipping on whatever it is that people sip on holiday. Nobody in their right minds would come here. It's another country for extreme tourists and I hadn't felt as uncomfortable as when we first arrived in a long time. I suppose if you were one of those people that was wandering the Earth searching for the meaning of life and the essence of humanity then you'd have to come to this little corner of Africa to completely disgust yourslef and lose all respect for the human race. And then you'd sift through the ashes and decay, praying for some kind of miracle to keep you sane.
Here's our miracle: We were initially dropped off in a very dirty and busy market area (several Km from the centre) that was a "station" without really being much of one. We were supposed to be staying with a host somewhere in town but we were unable to get a hold of her on the phone. We'd contemplated heading into the centre and trying again but couldn't find a ride. Then, suddenly, I spotted the missionaries ahead. Our heroes. They told us that we should get out of the area as it was unsafe and started quick-walking us to the nearby chapel. Both of them were black, one from SL, the other local and they were nervous too. Damn. They let us rest at the chapel and we were able to use it as a base to get sorted out and find our contact. It was a new place with security but inside it felt like a little piece of home. We met a bunch of members and were driven all the way across town to our host.
So we made it safely and interestingly enough, the missionaries told us later that they normally get off the bus much later and had just randomly decided to get off early that day and almost instantly ran into us. Wow. Someone is looking out for us.....

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sierra Leone

We have finally made it to Ghana. I am really far behind on the blog so I'll try to catch up quickly over the next little bit.

Sierra Leone. Every time I mention it to westerners they almost always say "Blood Diamond" and mention the movie. I actually haven't seen it yet from what I've heard it is a pretty accurate and horrifying portrayal of SL in 1999. 1999, that's not that long ago. That was the worst of the most recent fighting and full peace didn't come about until 2002. The problems in the area have been going on for decades though and there have been very few tourists in recent years. People think we're crazy to be over here but I talked to a few people that had been here recently and said it was great. I'm glad I listened to them.
The first thing I noticed (after English) was the friendly and welcoming people in Kabala (the kids were waving and saying hi without begging), followed by the uncrowded bus on paved roads to Freetown. You have no idea what paved roads mean to us right now. We were hosted in Freetown by a guy from CS who had a small place in the Lumley area. His mother and younger brother (his grandparents, father and sister had been killed) were very kind in opening their simple place to us but the sudden change to the coastal humidity just about killed us. Freetown itself didn't appeal to us at all, being way too crowded, with horrible traffic and lots of beggars, often with missing limbs. During the wars, many people fled there in search of protection and have stayed on after so it grew too fast and there are a lot of poor, sprawling shanty towns everywhere. We had to stay longer than we wanted because we needed to pick up more visas (Ghana and Liberia). It's funny but in a lot of ways the sketchiest countries have the easiest visas to collect. Liberia did it on the spot with no questions asked, while Ghana (arguably the most visited country in West Africa) was the rudest we've dealt with since Macedonia refused us the first time. So we had to sit around a few days and get a feel for things. To me it felt different. Maybe war has a way of bringing people together but I think they're trying a little harder to put things back together or else they had a better system in the first place. What were the clues? That little extra effort. Tableclothes and garbage cans at the cheap places we always go to, people actually forming lines to buy tickets, a little less litter everywhere (that's a relative thing). And that goes beyone the help they are getting from outside. Freetown is stacked with landcruisers and jeeps with every NGO name you can think of and there are huge billboards everywhere talking about AIDS awareness and disease prevention. I still have my doubts about how much practical work is actually being done and a few locals have expressed similar thoughts to me.
But perhaps the strangest difference was coming out of the Muslim world into a mostly Christian city. It's so Christian that it feels like the missionary olympics. There are churches everywhere, each of a different denomination and full of recent converts. When we took the bus out of Freetown we had two different preachers get on and give us their performances. It was actually pretty funny and straight out of the hallelujah book. I was happy as it finally proved my point that it is not only the Muslims with their call to prayer that will "interupt" and "annoy" the public with their religion. We were surprised to find the LDS church here and went to church on Sunday for the first time in a year or so. I want to say it was like home but it wasn't. I was wearing shorts and sandals while they were in their best suits :) They were using a small room in a building and had no music with the singing but that didn't stop them from being very enthusiastic and liberal with the rhythm.
Another highlight was going to the nearby chimpanzee sanctuary for a quick tour. It is up in the hills above Freetown (the whole peninsula is the only mountainous stretch close to the coast in all west Africa) and we learned that a few months ago the chimps successfully staged a breakout, with a few of the leaders still at large. They are 98% related to us and the story includes lots of plotting and figuring out the system because they recognized the exact opportunity to do it. Being in captivity has also taught them that they are 5 times stronger than humans (they are normally afraid of people because we are taller) and they killed some local in the process too. Maybe people can't help it, it runs too deep in the genes. It's now been accepted that they use tools and some have even been shown to use plants as a medicine. Wow.
As an odd side note we also watched the final matches of the African cup football. The final game was won by Egypt (we weren't cheering for them) and it was on an Egyptian channel. Dad saw himself in one of his big commercials that he did over there. It was him in a pink Cadillac driving "Marilyn Monroe". What are the odds?
Next we visited Kenema and from there went to Tongo Fields to see the diamonds. Because a lot of the civil war was actually about controlling the diamond trade, Tongo was one of the last strongholds of the rebels and our guide pointed out a number of buildings that were once used by rebel leaders. There was a lot of war damage in the area but in countries as poor and run down as this it is hard to distinguish between war mess and the normal mess as opposed to a place like Bosnia or Beirut where it is pretty obvious. In Tongo it was a little easier to tell and the rebels made a pretty good mess of things. They even dug up the little airstrip looking for diamonds! Kenema and Tongo's streets are lined with diamond buyers so we were introduced to one. Most buyer's (actually most shop owners and businessmen) in SL are Lebanese (a common theme in the whole region as the French used them as their middle men) and are generally resented for being so much better off than the locals. The diamond guy was nice enough and let us hang out in his office looking at his rough diamonds while he bought and sold with people coming in. They do still look like diamonds, just not very shiny and still pretty small. Most are industrial quality now because they are the leftovers. His biggest on hand was 2 carats. The largest ever pulled out of SL was 968 carats. Damn. The rules are that the diggers sell to buyers, buyers to exporter and exporters to foreigners that take them out to be cut and polished and the prices go through the roof with all the middle men. Of course we were offered to buy some if we wanted in which case we'd have to smuggle it out and effectively making it a blood diamond in that that's what was happening during the civil war. No we don't have any but it would've been easy enough. What about the authorities? Can you say corruption? Or is it plausible deniability? Our trip out of SL will highlight that but I'll save it for the next blog.