An early Christmas present

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since we left Sierra Leone.

We’ve been back in Liverpool longer than we were in Freetown. So if this year seems to have gone by in a blur, our time in West Africa might almost not have happened.

Christmas with the in-laws in Ireland was a very different affair from last year’s beach jaunt, although there was still time for a dip.

The Christmas Swim has become something of a tradition in Greystones so, after run over the cliffs to nearby Bray, I joined my brother-in-law and a few dozen of Ireland’s more (fool?)hardy natives in taking the plunge.img-20161228-wa0024-11b

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Brrrr: Spot the difference

The Irish Sea, I can confirm, is a whole lot colder than the sub-tropical Atlantic. There was certainly no Santa hat and PJs this year for the Flump, who stood shivering miserably in the drizzle, and even the usually tough-as-old-boots One With The Common Sense decided no wisdom lay ‘twixt those waves.

Rather than a backdrop of coconut palms, and whisky with fiery ginger for refreshment, it was the Wicklow Mountains and a flask of hot tea.

But I was glad to take a (very) brief dip to make a symbolic connection with last Christmas, when we were preparing to bid farewell to Sierra Leone.

Similarly, the continued popularity of this blog – it attracts more than 500 page views per month and is approaching 22,000 hits over its lifetime – has helped maintain this link. It has encouraged a few people to drop me a line to ask what they might expect when they arrive here.

Before you move somewhere, it’s hard to know whether you’ll be able to buy milk (in Salone, you won’t), or – as one vegan asked – how easily you might find dried pulses (very).

A section covering the practicalities of everyday life as an expat was the one thing I thought was lacking from the otherwise excellent Bradt guide to Sierra Leone. I told them as much when I offered some information while we were there.

So I was delighted to be contacted by Bradt’s updater Sean Connolly, who asked if I would write a short section covering this for the third edition, released a month ago.

I really wanted to describe the shock that many expats get when they realise just how difficult it is to get even simple things done in Sierra Leone, along with some brief practical information – similar to that under the Expat Life tab of this website.

But squeezing that into fewer than 1,000 words, while preserving Bradt’s easy-reading style, was quite some task.

Even tougher was conveying just what a challenge life can be, without losing sight of the fact it’s us expats who have it easy. I didn’t want it to come across as a massive whinge.  There are, after all, good reasons why visitors are so fond of the country, and why I often find myself flicking through an Afrobeat selection when I’m out running.

My worst fears were realised when I was sent some trimmed copy and noticed my concluding paragraph – summing up how overcoming these challenges lets you appreciate Salone as a friendly, fun and fascinating place – had been edited out.

I know how tricky it is when you need to lose words to make things fit. And I can be a fairly brutal editor when I want to be. But I was extremely grateful to Sean and the editors for welcoming my suggestions to tweak the edits to preserve a sense of my fondness for Salone, rather than having my name against a relentless grumblefest.

It came as an early Christmas present to pick up a copy of the newly-released guide in Waterstones and see my words of wisdom(!) there in black and white.

It’s been a while since my byline regularly appeared in the printed press, so it was great to experience the buzz of doing something a bit different.

And it came as a particular fillip given I’d missed out on longlisting of a children’s writing competition I’d entered, and that my attempt at a memoir of our time in Salone had first stalled and then gone West completely when our laptop was stolen in a burglary.

Guidebook information starts to go out-of-date from the minute they’re published and doubtless some of what I saw – particularly relating to prices – will soon be rendered inaccurate by inflation.

But hopefully it’ll give people a little advance warning of how they might settle into Salone – and perhaps even whet their appetite for what’s to come.

And on a personal level, it’s got me thinking again about how best to write that travel memoir you’ve all promised to buy…

The floods in Freetown

A few people have contacted me in light of the awful news from Sierra Leone, where hundreds died as a result of the mudslide just outside Freetown.

Thousands of others are reported to have been left homeless as a result of the floods.

The mudslide affected a mountain area on the main road out of the city. However, many of the pictures are clearly of more central areas. I’ve tried to make out from photographs the areas worst affected but the obvious chaos makes this difficult. There are reports that corpses were washed down into Lumley Creek, a short distance from where we lived.
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To be continued?

It’s been more than three months and we’ve been away from Sierra Leone for long enough to have started missing it.

Every so often, when we pause for breath from our busy “normal” lives, we find ourselves missing the colour, the chaos and sheer fascination of life in Freetown.

And we felt that more keenly than ever during our journey to London to attend last Friday’s UK Blog Awards finals. As usual, we were running late and hadn’t found time to eat either side of dropping the Flump with my sister-in-law.

With our train still 30 minutes outside the capital, the One With the Common Sense remarked: “This is where you miss being able to yell out of the window for a bag of popcorn or plantain chips.” Continue reading

Our expat experience – the last word

I don’t suppose you ever completely know what you’re heading into when you move abroad but it’s fair to say we hadn’t the first idea.

As I look back to those first days in Sierra Leone, I struggle to remember how I kept the Flump entertained through those long days with only a few books and the odd toy, and nothing so much as an electric fan to temper the searing March heat

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Keeping hydrated was our prime concern early on

It must go down as one of the most challenging times in my life. We had so few possessions, no reliable means of transport, uncertainty over the arrival of our freight and, unsurprisingly, doubts as to the wisdom our choice.

It was tough at the time but we just blamed ourselves for being a bit feeble. Besides, wasn’t it our own fault if we were ill-prepared?

Anyway, how could we complain when a short walk outside would reveal how tough life really could get? Continue reading

My Sweet Salone top five

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Chaotic transport and poor infrastructure might keep Sierra Leone off the mainstream tourist trail for a while yet but new flight choices could soon tempt the more adventurous traveller. 

Dutch airline KLM will fly to Freetown three times a week from March 26, after a two-decade hiatus. It’s currently offering £470 returns from London or Manchester and there are signs that rivals are dropping prices, making a long weekend or week’s break more feasible.

So what are Sweet Salone’s top attractions? Here’s my favourite five:


5. The Sierra Leone Marathon

Okay, so I only ran the half distance – my body really wasn’t ready for 26.2 miles – but whatever you feel fit for, it’s worth making the journey for a race with a truly special atmosphere. The charity Street Child puts together a fantastic itinerary that allows runners to meet some of the kids they’re raising money to help, both in rural schools and the host town of Makeni.

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Finally, farewell

It might be five weeks since we left its shores but only now can I say we’ve truly left Sierra Leone.

Of course, the emotional ties – to places, friends and former colleagues – remain. But the thing that’s kept our minds well and truly anchored to Freetown is physical: a 45kv generator and the bloody great, off-white lump of rusting metal it’s encased in.20160409_133110

Until yesterday, it was still sitting outside our former back kitchen window swaddled in/held together by a big blue tarp. And that meant our watchmen were still sitting out front, “guarding” it, as though any old petty thief could stroll in and pinch something that took 10 men an entire afternoon to manually heave from the front gate.

I don’t have details of how they managed to shift the great hulk. The canopy was twice the size of the generator, which was big enough to power a small office, and arrived by crane from the back of a lorry. But we’re informed it has left the premises.

So now we can pay our watchmen their final wages, hand the landlord back his keys and repay the interest-free loan we had to take from The One With The Common Sense’s employer to cover the cost of the sodding thing (along with an entire year’s rent) in the first place. Continue reading

Back to ‘normal’?

I’m struggling to get Sierra Leone out of my system, quite literally.

The results of my re-entry medical check have finally come through, and it turns out I’ve been harbouring some more parasites.

This time it’s Giardia lamblia. They’re not so grizzly as the earthworm-sized roundworm that made its home in my guts recently (and which thankfully didn’t emerge from my nose, as a doctor told me can happen).

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Giardia: cheerful or menacing? [Photo: schmidty4112/Flickr]

They most commonly manifest themselves through eggy burps, which have – to The One With The Common Sense’s relief – been notable by their absence.

However, I’ve displayed plenty of the other symptoms of giardiasis listed by the NHS, including abdominal cramps, nausea, fatigue, bloating and – to The One With The Common Sense’s chagrin – “foul-smelling flatulence”.

So the diagnosis explains a lot and I’ll cling to it as an excuse for as long as possible. Continue reading

Ending on a high

We’ve been back home a week but my brain hasn’t quite assimilated that we’ve left Sierra Leone.

Since touching down at Heathrow I’ve felt like a rabbit in the headlights. Or, at least, one dazzled by the neon glow from the logistics warehouses at the back of Terminal 4, which seemed impossibly modern after the equivalent sights at Lungi.votenow-1

I’ve spent most of the week hiding indoors, much as I did during my first seven days in Freetown. More than a sort of reverse culture shock, however, it’s a common cold that’s kept me confined to quarters.

It made for a low-key end to a tumultuous year. But 2017 got off to a great start when I discovered this website had been shortlisted in the Travel section of the UK Blog Awards.

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Beside Freetown’s festering seaside

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Gaze out from the water’s edge at Kroo Bay and you see a typical West African seaside vista.

It’s not picture postcard exactly but attractive enough, with traditional wooden fishing vessels rounding a coastline punctuated by cotton trees and the odd leaning palm.

But this is no place for a picnic.HPIM1471-1.jpg

Turn 180 degrees and you’ll take in the rusting metal roofs of tiny slum dwellings that house somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Continue reading