Wed, Nov 09, 2005 - Page 13 News List

'Hawaii without the tourists'

Even the brave might think twice about a holiday to a West-African nation that is trying to recover from civil war. But there are compensations...

By Marc Santora  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , FREETOWN

On the beach in Sierra Leone, the bonfire was growing. Aside from our group, made up mostly of UN and relief workers, there was no sign of human activity for kilometers. The perfect white sand, the pounding of the waves, the burnt sky that felt close enough to touch -- it was ours alone. When the sun was gone and the moon was bright, we swam, and each stroke was illuminated by brilliant phosphorescence. It was like Hawaii without the tourists.

Sierra Leone is a stunningly beautiful place. But it is also a heartbreaking one. In Freetown, the capital, the signs of the 11-year civil war that ravaged this West African nation are everywhere. Children who had their limbs lopped off by rebel soldiers loiter on dusty trails. Garbage is piled high on the streets during the day, only to be set ablaze at night,

providing the only light, as electricity is still rare. Former soldiers sit around drinking the local beer, eerily silhouetted by the midnight pyres. There is a reason this country has not yet found itself on the itinerary of even the most intrepid backpackers. Despite its beauty, it is very much on the edge of civilization.

Once the jewel of the British colonies in West Africa, Sierra Leone has more recently been associated with the most outrageous atrocities. The civil war, which started in 1991, left at least 50,000 civilians dead. Over half of the country was displaced. Children as young as 10 were forced into military conscription forming platoons called Small Boy Units, learning how to use an AK-47 before learning how to read. And most notoriously, during the later stages of the conflict, men, women and even children had their hands and legs amputated in a campaign of terror and violence.

Chinese investment

But it has been four years since the fighting ended and there is new hope within Sierra Leone. Chinese investment is flooding into the region following a widening strategy of going to politically unstable countries where Western investment has been slow. Still, the chaos that greets travelers on arrival offers a glimpse of the difficulties inherent in travel to Sierra Leone.

Because Freetown is on a mountainous peninsula, the airport is actually outside the city, in the town of Lungi. As the crow flies, Lungi is only a few kilometers from the capital, but it is separated by the Sierra Leone River. The roads to the ferry across the river are battered on both sides and not safe at night so the easiest way to get to Freetown is by helicopter. A metal shack serves as a terminal for the Paramount helicopter company; although a ticket costs only US$37, extra cash slipped into the right hand can get you on a shuttle faster.

By night, at the Copa in Freetown, wealthy locals, Lebanese diamond merchants, soldiers, aid workers and prostitutes all party with a strangely apocalyptic euphoria. The electric slide was the dance craze of the moment when I was there this spring. On a veranda, stifling hot even with a breeze, a group of about 20 local women shuffled along on the dance floor before the hip-hop music kicked in and the rest of the crowd got its groove on.

A local gin is brewed nearby, something foreigners are warned to steer clear of because it has been known to double as paint thinner.

Freetown is relatively safe to explore by day. However, the roads are narrow, often running along steep embankments and most taxis are driven by former soldiers, who, not surprisingly, can be a bit on the reckless side. Locals will pile 10 into a small sedan, paying a nickel for a ride, but a taxi can be rented for around US$5 an hour to go anywhere a visitor wants. Drivers more experienced in dealing with Westerners can be hired through the hotels, a safer alternative. A day should not cost more than US$50.

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