Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lungi departures

I recently traveled home to the U.S. for a wedding, a reunion, and some family time, and am currently posting from a friend's apartment in New York City. What follows is nearly verbatim from my journal entry while waiting to depart Lungi (Freetown's airport) a few weeks ago.

I love this airport scene. Okay, I love it and hate it, as I am stuck in an interminable line in steamy heat. But still...

I’m in Freetown’s Lungi airport, several stages into the rather extended departure process. First step was lugging – with the help of a very kind housemate – my enormous suitcase along the dirt road from my house to Wilkinson Road. Second was the taxi – crammed with 5 passengers, 1 driver, 2 suitcases and a backpack – to the hovercraft launch. Then the hovercraft itself: a large ferry, of sorts, bottomed with an enormous black inflatable tube, which brings you from Aberdeen across the bay to Lungi in 20 minutes. (For a bit more money, you can save 10 minutes and take a helicopter, but this time I decided to try the water route).

And now I’m standing in line for what seems to be security, to be followed (I presume) by immigration, check-in, and boarding. Three hours after leaving home, I still have three more hours to my 10:30 p.m. scheduled departure – if the flight departs on time, of course, instead of the frequent 8-12 (yes, twelve) hour delay.

Meanwhile, I’m entertained by the scene at the airport. Jostling and loud, chaotic and confusing, the crowd is a pageant of colors and personalities.

I’m dazzled by the array of West African matriarchs, splendid in their colorful regalia, serene, dignified, and utterly immune to the chaos around them. The elder aunties sit in a line against the wall; my favorite, even plumper than the rest, is bedecked from head to toe in shocking baby-meets-fuscia pink. I probably like her best because she smiled at me when I first passed, stepping gingerly over her toes and trying to maneuver my massive suitcase without any casualties.

I’m amused by the patchwork of uniforms. Policemen wear silly blue shirts with white sleeves, or the slightly more dignified pressed blue sleeves. (I’ve yet to discern the reason for the difference). The porters wear either mechanic-style light blue shirts and everyday pants, or ridiculous orange jumpsuits – a choice that seems roughly generational. And of course there are the white foreigners, too many of whom are outfitted in safari-style khaki, often involving too-short, too-tight shorts on pale white legs.

I’m intrigued by the occasional altercations that pop up intermittently around the hot, crowded terminal. The most recent was a shouting and shoving match between a cop, a well-dressed Sierra Leonean man, and a disheveled, wild-eyed white man with a mop of wiry black hair and the obligatory khaki green uniform. It ended peacefully, as far as I could tell, and provoked only mild interest from the crowd.

The line snakes endlessly back and forth, a parade of towering luggage carts, some pushed by passengers, others by porters. The cart in front of me has been abandoned – I think it had something to do with a noisy argument earlier between a plainclothes porter and an airport official – and is left to be pushed along by passing porters and, sometimes, me. Eventually, the people behind me in line convince me to skirt the lonely cart and push onward. As we leave it behind, I wonder what will become of it – or its owner – and I clutch my own cart tightly.

Of popcorn and peanuts

So for those of you thinking that Freetown seems to offer little more than frustration and privation, I’ve got two words for you: peanuts and popcorn.

Both of these everyday delicacies abound around town. Peanuts, known locally as groundnuts, are a staple in Sierra Leone, grown widely and used extensively in local dishes. But this does not detract from their deliciousness when purchased, warm and roasted, from a roving streetside vendor. They are carried in a large flat tin platter, balanced (like most loads) upon the head of a (usually young and female) salesperson. Measured out by the cupful and wrapped in newspaper, they cost just a few pennies for a healthy handful.

And such taste! Forget your can of roasted Planters, munched from the living room couch in front of the Patriots game. Forget, even, those steaming carts of roast nuts that pepper the streets of Manhattan. These Salonean peanuts are simply a delight: carefully roasted and then exposed all day to the beating rays of the African sun, they are an explosion of hot salty flavor.

If peanuts are a predictable Sierra Leonean treat, popcorn is an unexpected delight. I can't remember the first time I noticed, while winding in a jam-packed taxi through Freetown’s maze of narrow streets and alleys, an old-fashioned, movie-house popcorn maker perched incongruously in front of a tiny tuck shop. Dazzling beside the dusty street, these red and chrome poppers – seemingly more at home in a circus tent than an African capital city – are a common sight around Freetown. Much of the time they sit silently, bellies full of fresh, uniformly delicious (seriously, PopSecret can’t hold a candle to it) popcorn.

But sometimes, when you’re lucky, you find one in action: popping cheerfully above the whirr of the generator, tempting nearby noses with the heavenly scent of newly-popped corn. I think the proprietors of one particular popper, along the main road through Tengbeh Town, time their popping to coincide with my commute. They sit grinning beside their trusty machine, knowing that its smell is torturing those of us stuck in taxis in the crawling, often standstill evening traffic. When I (inevitably) cave and buy a plastic baggie-full of that delicious, freshly popped corn – available sweet or salty – they calmly take my few hundred leones, utterly unconcerned that they’ve ruined my dinner.