Assistant Professor of Political Science Melissa Labonte is spending 10 days in Sierra Leone and will send occasional dispatches from there – depending on the reliability of the power supply and her Internet connection.
I arrive at Freetown-Lungi International Airport at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 19. IPED graduate and my former student, Jay Endaya, is due to meet me on the “Aberdeen side,” with the person who will likely be my part-time driver during my stay. The airport is very much what I expected — and it’s probably good that we landed in the dark because the photos I’ve seen of the airfield during daytime include abandoned aircraft wreckage.
Lungi Airport has to be the worst located airport on the entire planet. It sits on a peninsula and there are three ways to get into Freetown proper (and your hotel): car, ferry and taxi. The land route takes at least 4 hours. The ferry takes about an hour, but weather can complicate this and there is always the chance of too few life vests for too many passengers. The helicopter is expensive (relatively speaking) but fast (15 minutes). Each option has its risks, including the helicopter route; one crash in June 2007 killed all 22 people on board. So, you pick your poison and hope the travel gods are with you.
The neon sign telling us where we have landed read “F EETO N INTE NATIONAL A POR. ” The first thing to hit you when you leave the plane is the humidity. I’ve managed three summers in Richmond, Va., and have traveled a fair bit in tropical countries, but it’s not quite the same as the equatorial humidity here.
The second thing to hit you is the chaotic environment. Getting through customs was relatively straightforward, but it’s what’s on the other side that was a shocker. Dozens of porters (no clue if they are “official” or not) grab at your luggage, and beckon you to follow them here or there, either to the ferry or to the helicopter offices. They make a chalk mark on your luggage, which designates a temporary “ownership” and deters poaching by other porters. I took only two carry-ons for this trip, knowing this would be something I’d face. But Mohammed, the porter who eventually caught up with me, persisted and so I finally gave in and let him wheel my bag out to the helicopter office.
My helicopter ride was uneventful. The most unnerving thing about it was finding out that the Syrian pilot flying our Russian craft got his license in Nigeria. ‘Nuff said. We land. More chaos. My bag is nowhere to be seen and Mohammed is on the other side of the peninsula. Other passengers are similarly worried, and it takes about 30 minutes for them to “reappear.” By this time, Jay is in the parking lot with his colleague, Henry, and the driver, John. So we head to the hotel and. as I swat a few mosquitoes away from my ears and drift off to sleep, I realize I’ve finally arrived in Sierra Leone.