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

Much of the city is still in ruins, and there is not much in the way of colonial-era architecture that survives, mainly the stilt houses built above the abandoned Hill Station. Tin shacks -- some serving as shops, others as beer stands -- line the narrow roads, and they are invariably jam-packed, with people spilling into the street and making traffic unbearable at certain points.

The eastern part of the city is where the slums are, so most visitors tend to stay in the western section, where the best crafts are sold. The largest arts depot is known as the covered market, where people hawk everything from paintings to jewelry to tapestries, with most items costing no more than a few dollars. However, as some of the goods are imported from nearby countries, finding authentic crafts can be difficult.

The most interesting carvings are found in small shacks scattered around the city, where the artisans also take requests.

When I was there, I saw one local craftsman, Mohamed, put the finishing touches on life-size head carvings. In a week's time, he turned two large pieces of wood into detailed, lifelike recreations based on a photo. Some features were exaggerated, but for the most part, they were quite fine. Working out of the same small hut where he lives, he took obvious pride in his work, even as he and his wife struggled to raise four children.

But what will most draw people to Sierra Leone lies outside the city limits.

A weekend refuge for expats is owned by Franco, whose small hotel on the beach (officially called Florence's but known popularly as Franco's) has six rooms, costing about US$50 a night each. Franco, who looks like a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Nick Nolte on a bad day, speaks a language that no one else understands.

His English is virtually nonexistent, and his Krio, the local language, is inflected with his native Italian. Someone who speaks Italian can communicate a bit, but even that is a struggle.

Cousteau's friend

Franco came to Sierra Leone in the 1960s for the scuba diving, he said. An acquaintance of Jacques Cousteau, he found his bit of paradise and never left. During the war, he was beaten up by soldiers and decided to wait out the fighting by spending most of his time offshore on his boat. The rebels, he said, don't swim.

Luckily, it is not necessary to communicate with Franco to have a fabulous dinner. He keeps a refrigerator stocked with a wide variety of French and Italian wines and makes a savory fish carpaccio with fish caught that day (US$10 to US$15 for a meal with a bottle of wine).

Villagers who live in the nearby jungle will take care of you at either site for a few dollars, setting up bonfires and even cooking a dinner of freshly caught fish and rice. We brought wine and candles, and they laid out a table on a wood plank salvaged from the remnants of what was once a luxury French resort nearby, making a meal in the middle of nowhere feel surprisingly civilized.

This story has been viewed 3922 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top