Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night ...

Forget the wonders of modern communication. It is the old-fashioned postal service that deserves our awe and admiration.

Seriously. You can put a stamp (purchased in local currency) on a letter in Anytown, USA and pop it in a little blue box, and you can be reasonably confident that it will turn up exactly where it was supposed to, in whatever corner of the world, intact and unopened. And it’s not a matter of American efficiency; the letter is passed from the US postal service to those run by any number of other governments – or vice versa – before finally being delivered to its destination.

Of course, it doesn’t always work this way. I was the recipient of a package, shipped to myself from Durban, South Africa, that arrived in Marlborough, NH in one piece – and still sealed – but mysteriously void of all valuable items. In the place of books and African crafts were rocks, hair products, and hair extensions.

And yet often, remarkably often, it does. Wanna send a postcard home from Timbuktu, Mali? No problem, it will get to Grandma in Three Forks, Montana. Wanna post a love letter to a heartthrob backpacking through Asia? Don't worry, he can pick it up in a village post office in Bangladesh. Wanna resign from your job in New York while sitting on the beach in Tahiti? Go ahead.

Sometimes this is a feat of logistical and political coordination. Doesn’t matter if the trip requires trucks, planes, boats, or donkeys; doesn’t matter how many oceans or mountains or borders it must cross; doesn’t matter how many thousands of miles… Hell, it doesn’t even matter if the two countries’ governments are on speaking terms. More often that you would imagine, the mail will get through.

One of my favorite “packages” was a coconut, still in the pod, shipped by my Aunt Faye from Hawaii to New Hampshire. She didn’t bother with a box or any sort of packaging – she just wrote our address in big black marker on the outside, stuck on some stamps, and sent it off with the good old USPS. We were so charmed, we didn’t have the heart to break it open.

Unfortunately, in this – as in so many other things – Sierra Leone is a bit behind the curve.

I just received a notice this week for a Registered Letter waiting for me at the Freetown Postal Service. I was delighted, and began imagining all the long-lost letters from my brother in Malawi and friends in the US.

So I found a few minutes to venture into the post office – just a few blocks down Siaka Stevens Street from my office – and made my way past the magazine sellers and fruit vendors and down into the dark, cavernous interior. I waited 20 minutes for the woman at the “Registered Letters” window to finish her conversation with her coworkers, dutifully provided my identification, and signed the registered letter form. She took out an enormous sack of letters, sorted through a couple of stacks tied with string, and finally pulled out a manila envelope sealed with packing tape.

Excited, I turned it over.

An application for a spot on my research team.

Sent October 20, 2006. More than three months ago.

From Freetown.

To Freetown.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tale from a former child soldier

The New York Times Magazine this week features a first-hand account from a young man who spent his youth as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. It's a painful story with a happy ending, and is definitely worth reading.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dust and Sand

It’s Harmattan season in Sierra Leone. According to Wikipedia, the Harmattan is a dry wind blowing off the Sahara, considered a natural disaster and with implications for airline traffic and the moods of man and beast. As far as I’m concerned, the Harmattan just means an insidious reddish dust that invades every nook and cranny of my house, my car, my clothes, my cat, and my ears, and that keeps coming back – like the immortal cat of nursery rhyme fame – no matter what you do to drive it away.

When I returned from my holiday vacation at 1 a.m. last Monday, I found a house practically blanketed in dust. I literally had to wash down my bedroom floor (with a wet T-shirt, because I don’t actually own a mop) before I could sleep. I then had the whole house cleaned properly a few days later… only to find the dust had returned by this weekend. Yipes. My car is a complete disaster – inside and out – and the only upside of my newly-dust-laden cat is that I can see by her little red footprints when she’s been nosing around where she’s not allowed.

A benefit of the Harmattan is that the nights are much cooler, which makes it much easier to sleep (something I’ll have to remember when I’m sweating my way through humid March nights). The benefit of this, however, is somewhat offset by the corresponding agony of ice-cold showers. As if mornings weren’t cruel enough…

To escape the dust and celebrate my return to Sierra Leone, I joined a group of friends in sleeping over at one of the nearby beaches this weekend. This is something I discovered in December and swore I would do as much as possible. You pitch a mosquito net from the branch of a tree, lay your bedding on the sand, and pay the local guys to grill you fresh fish for dinner, build and tend a bonfire, and fry some eggs and bacon for the morning. Under the stars, with the sound of the waves in your ears – what better way to spend a night? And what better way to start the day than with a dip in the ocean, or maybe a quick turn on the surfboard (before the day’s beach-comers have arrived to witness your feeble attempts)?

Now, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the beaches of Salone are the most beautiful I have ever seen, and must be among the world’s very best. White sand, turquoise water, and brilliant green jungle-covered hills collide in a breathtaking coastline, virtually unmarred by any construction. At Bureh, the beach where we spent Saturday, there is nothing but a thatched-roof structure that serves as a kitchen – set back among the palm trees – and a few matching thatched-roof tables. If you are sharing the beach with a few dozen people, it’s a busy day – and you can always walk for 5 or 10 minutes down the beach and find yourself in perfect isolation, joined only by crabs and brilliant white seabirds.

Spending time in such a pristine, beautiful setting is always a treat, but spending the night there – sunset, sparkling stars, sunrise and all – is unbelievably refreshing.

As I can see it, there’s only one downside. Bureh has no shower, nor any fresh water at all that’s not bottled for drinking, so you return home the next day saturated with sand and salt. I can tell you from experience that a cold shower does not remove this seaside residue. And thus today, two vigorous showers later, I found myself heading off to work with distinctly salty hair. Moreover, as I climbed into my dust-covered car, I realized that the day’s Harmattan debris would only add to this mess, and I cringed.