Archives de catégorie : Travel

The last Saturday

Sitting on the front step of my house looking over our wooded compound, the sun is gradually setting on a warm Saturday evening, my last in Sierra Leone. In the past hour, we arrived back from grilled lobster on the beach and playing in the river just as it flows into the ocean. The tide was out and we could walk across the river and on to the shore. My son enjoyed lying in the water with the back of his head washed in the river. Returning home, the kids slept the whole way, and the passage through the market bustle of Lumley was relatively quick, despite the main opposition party holding a street campaign. I express pride that my Rav4 has completed its last major journey before being sold.

In the course of an hour back at the compound, we see everyone bar one of the inhabitants. In our absence, Moustapha, the caretaker, has organized a fire to burn rubbish, but a dead tree at the site of the fire is now smoking, worrying my wife T. Our neighbours, C and baby G, come out to play with J, while M helps Moustapha and his boys pull down the tree and cool the embers down with water. A young puppy that’s scared for its life and only arrived in the compound yesterday is being enticed out of its hide-out. For T, it’s the former dog reincarnated in some way, ‘Puppy’, who was recently put down down after colliding with a car coming out of the compound. Indeed the new dog does look remarkably similar.

An Italian man staying with our neighbour G comes out and runs his own dog around the compound, as the kids play about under the unoccupied but just refurbished new house. Then neighbour D wanders over with a beer to exchange news – he climbed one of the main peaks on the peninsula today and shows us a photo. The sun is setting over the sea, much more visible now bushes around the old house have been cut back. Warm social evenings with laughter.

Mood swings

It’s been that regular period of introspection (and blogging) otherwise known as the first week back from holiday. I haven’t always been victim to it, but there’s a phenomena in Freetown among expats which I call ‘re-entry depression’. It’s mostly described as the negative feelings felt when getting back on the plane to return to your job in Sierra Leone.

As I’ve written before, a few weeks in the West can be alluring. As was the case back in June, we holidayed in France, and were captivated by the quality of life. This was true even staying with my sister-in-law who earns a very humble salary and lives in social housing (surprisingly good quality in France). The flat had high quality fittings – of course running water, constant electricity, piped gas, super-fast internet and plug sockets that don’t come out of the walls. A well-stocked supermarket (Lidl) is 30 metres away and is incredibly cheap. And the metro station is less than 10 minutes’ walk, and puts you in the centre of the city in the same amount of time, and all the attractions there.

If the return to work had its difficulties, the first day back went well, and reminded me why I enjoy working here. Day two though was tough, with some colleagues driving me a bit crazy. On return home in the evening, I was immediately assaulted with a barrage of problems – the compound dog looked sick and was an infection risk, the generator was having problems, the water we’re buying looks cloudy, the caretaker doesn’t seem to be feeding his children or enrolling them in school… It’s a bit much after a hard and long day.

Day three involved some chats with friends about career moves as I look to transition to the next job. I also discovered that I was in-line for an unexpected pay rise next month (small, but still a welcome surprise), and I came across a bonus payment that I hadn’t heard of before, equivalent to a month’s salary, which gets paid to staff from their fifth year at the company (i.e. in two years’ time).

The evening though brought another wild change in mood. At our small church group that meets weekly, a friend who has been heavily involved in providing mental health support to those affected by the recent tragic flooding here unloaded some of the struggles of the past five weeks. The stories she told of the trauma of families reduced further into absolute poverty through losing homes, businesses and wage-earners, and seeing family members swept away by the mud, was humbling. Can we rich people ever really empathise with the poor? Can we really know the stress of having no hope for the future, extremely limited prospects and a daily struggle to survive? Who are we lucky people to believe in prosperity, life improvement and have dreams way beyond basic survival?

In sum, a week of mood swings. How different our lives look depending on the vantage point you’re currently at.

A week in France

A week ago, I was waking up in a small university town (Angers) in western France, at the end of a short break visiting my eldest daughter who’s studying there. Dare I say it, but I fell in love with France once again. From overseas (and reading too many articles in The Economist), France can look like a mess – poor integration, burdensome taxation levels, inability to reform, terrorism, etc. But on the ground, particularly in the ‘provinces’, you realise how much France works.

Angers is a small town – you come off the motorway and you’re almost immediately in the city centre. We parked up in a massive free parking area in the heart of the city under an avenue of plane trees. For an affordable sum, my daughter has a decent studio one step back from the river that runs through the centre. The ancient medieval fortress and cathedral are just 5 minutes’ walk away.

Picking up a local free newspaper, it’s immediately apparent the wealth of cultural activities taking place over the coming weeks, even in this small town. The day after we arrived there was a giant sports day for the city, with events all over the place, including kayaking and volleyball in the river. Over the same weekend there was a jazz festival, while the following weekend hosted a book festival and a tattoo festival.

In the interests of time, I won’t mention the medieval history (including the world’s oldest existing large tapestry), the ancient cobbled streets, the fine cafes and restaurants, the tiny bakeries and butchers around the corner and the incredible weather. Last Friday, I headed out around 10pm for a stroll around town, the sun still setting, the temperature perfect, and the town a buzz with families, as well as students celebrating the end of the academic year. It’s exactly 15 years on from my first real experience of France – three months spent in Grenoble living with students and trying to learn French. The same vibe was there, only this time I could understand everything everyone was saying.

The planned ‘2030 pivot’ is still a long way off. But after this trip, I felt more likely that this coming period of life will now see significantly more time in France. I know madame would be happy with that. Perhaps it’ll be a life split between the French provinces and Abidjan – the former for comfort, the later for engagement. We’ll see. L’homme propose, Dieu dispose.

Back in Freetown

Over the last few months, a lot of my expat friends on returning to Freetown from vacations have said with a sigh that it was difficult to get back on the plane and return. For my part, there was a part of me that stepped on the plane yesterday with a spring in the step. Considering I was leaving behind a two week old son and a delightful 21 month old daughter, that may seem a bit perverse, but for the time being Freetown is home in a way that not many other places are for me – we have a family house, a car, space, good internet etc.

Related to this, I remember speaking to a retired UN friend of mine who spent several years in non-family postings. He told me a few months back that he used to find it quite hard adjusting to life with his family in Nairobi during return trips. Suddenly there were responsibilities and family needs, when before he had plenty of personal time, and few jobs outside of work. There can be a certain claustrophobic-ness in suddenly landing in a space with loved ones, babies to look after, and little time to pick up a book. When you do this in a small packed flat, the feeling is increased.

But life without family loses much of the colour – and it becomes a life largely revolving around being the master of your own free time. I’m determined though to avoid a non-family duty station in future at almost all cost.

The French dream

For a reason I haven’t quite fathomed, depression over brexit inspired in me a strange and particular desire to read a few of those vicarious books about Brits who abandon everything for rundown rustic homes in southern France (or elsewhere on ‘the continent’). Perhaps this sort of thing won’t even be possible come 2019. I’d already read a couple of the classics of the genre; ‘A Year in Provence’ and ‘Driving Over Lemons’. ‘Under a Tuscan sun’, which I think is the Italian equivalent is sadly not available as an e-book.

Such publishing successes have spawned many copies, especially of the home-made variety (no pun intended). After all, the dream of a southern French retirement to enjoy the good life has been a British middle class obsession for a large minority over a number of years, as TV shows like ‘A Place in the Sun’ testify. In the end, I plumped for: Michael Wright’s ‘C’est la folie’ and ‘A piano in the Pyrenees’ by Tony Hawk. I added in Bill Bryson’s travels around Europe (‘Neither here nor there’) for good measure. Having finished all three, I can say I’ve scratched my itch.

For me, such a move would have its attractions – the pleasant weather, the possibility of being close to mountains and lakes, good food, and relatively cheap and attractive housing. Being comfortable in French helps as well. For some that would be the definition of the good life.

But reading these books left me pretty sure that if a French home lies in my future, it wouldn’t be a full-time residence. An over-riding feeling from these books is the self-focus involved on having a comfortable life.

I feel life should be about something more, and it’s fair to say that that something resides in the city. These rural dreams have almost no-one under 40, have none of the buzz and intellectual stimulation of the city, and don’t really have a sense of contributing anything to wider society (unless you count restoring a crumbling chateau for future generations, or writing an escapist book that thousands might enjoy) or being part of a dynamic Christian community. Maybe it’s a function of age, but I really think of life as much more about making a difference.

But perhaps if we want a place in future to retreat and write (a la Montaigne), and if children are close by, then maybe a stone cottage in the hills will have a place.

A morning stroll

I was up country this week. After rising early, I took a stroll out from the hotel while awaiting breakfast. It was before seven but you already had the feeling a hot day was coming – far hotter than what we get on the coast. The hotel itself was Lebanese-owned and the separate bedroom blocks around a narrow quad each had a large 4×4 parked outside.
Outside the gate, the high wall, and the G4S security guards, the mud road was wide and looked like it had recently been flattened. The ground was moist with dew yet to be burned off, and the majority of traffic outside was schoolchildren walking in all directions, and the odd dog shuffling around. The hotel was on the outskirts of town, so the land in the vicinity was a mix of small homes and fields. There was green space. A stream with croaking frogs ran through fields a short distance from the hotel, and I picked one of the mud crossing paths and headed to a small bridge. Children said hello as they passed. Around homes, kids were washing themselves from buckets, lathered from head to toe in soap. Parents were sitting on their front steps greeting passers-by and exchanging news with the rest of their families. There was often laughter in the air.
I’m sure they knew I was from the hotel. They probably considered I was one of those crazy people who’d waste $80 for a bed for the night. I obviously had more money than sense.
An idea came to me to make a little video one day juxtaposing the start to the day here, and then with some busy professional in the West. Emphasising (unfairly, but for a point) how the latter could go to work without anyone saying hello, and never sharing a joke. At the end they would both see representations of the other – the westerner would say a charity advert showing a miserable African, and the West African would see something aspirational showing the apparently glamorous life in the paradisiacal west.
In less than a month I’ve been in deep snow in the foothills of the alps, spread out on perfectly cut lawns at an English country house on a warmish Spring day, and here several hours from the coast in Sierra Leone. It’s a privilege.

Gleis 7

Evenings in Switzerland have a unique feel for me: it’s something that I’ve struggled to identify clearly, but while on holiday there last month I was convinced I needed to write a post about it. As a happy coincidence, in the last few days I started reading Alain De Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’ which helped shed further light on the experience. Much of this is about trains.

The feeling is one of slight melancholy combined with dreamy possibilities, and also security. To set the scene, firstly there are the long evenings, which after a decade principally spent in West Africa are really enjoyable. In Summer (which is the main time I go to Europe), there’s the light the stretches well passed 10pm. Believe me, when this is no longer part of your normal life, it’s wonderful to experience.

Such dusks aren’t uniquely Swiss, but in Switzerland it’s just an element in a wider setting. Firstly everything seems so orderly – litter and pot-hole free, wealthy, and well-organised with golf-course-like greens stretching out to the distance. The combination of livestock farming and thin electric fences that vanish at distance mean the countryside can look like one undulating lawn.

Secondly, almost no-one is around after-hours so you get that feeling of being solitary in an empty but developed landscape: people quickly head indoors for the punctual evening meal. I was already thinking Edward Hopper when I thought through this experience, but De Botton brought a lot more detail. In chapter two, he writes about Hopper and Baudelaire, the latter of whom T. S. Eliot said had invented a new kind of romantic nostalgia through his appreciation of places of modern travel: waiting rooms, train stations and seaports. Hopper highlighted the dreamy and transitory quality of travel, particularly at night. The spirit of escaping our normal lives at home, of seeing into people’s lives, and the superiority of the outsider in our culture form a kind of modern poetry.

In July we enjoyed evening walks with baby Daniella around the small Swiss village where we were staying. She loves being in transit. Our walks often went alongside – or crossed over – the small regional railway track which ran past our home. I realised the illuminated empty carriages travelling through the evening landscape were a key part of the experience I was feeling, a sort of nostalgia. De Botton talks about how when you’re on a train, you’re out of your normal environment and you can feel much freer to think and dream. Often you see people’s lives from the window allowing the imagination to think of a different life for yourself.

When I was thinking through these things, I remembered my longest summer in Switzerland in 1999 when I stayed with my friend Thomas for several weeks. It was almost the only time I’ve been in Switzerland away from the family setting. At the time, there was a scheme on the Swiss railways called ‘Gleis 7’ (platform 7). If I recall correctly, you had to be a student under 26 (though I think the following year they changed the rules and you had to be a Swiss student). Paying a sum (I think around $100) gave you a card which allowed you to travel free on almost the entire national transport network after 7pm. In that sort of situation, it’s like you own the train network – hopping on and off at will, and without the stress of tickets, or indeed the stress of getting them stamped track-side. You sink into the train seat as if you were in your own lounge.

I never got to go inter-railing (instead it was Greyhounding across the US), but it’s no longer just for students, so maybe it could still happen one day. I’m sure the experience will be slightly different from slumming it in stations and sleeping on overnight trains. But it holds the possibility of an adventure in a Europe that I’ve so little explored. And hopefully with some of the poetry of late-night train travel as well, through the well-organised landscape of Switzerland.

The height of the crisis

I remember the end of 2014 like a crazy dream. Hundreds of Ebola cases a week, the stress of constant 7-day work and pressure, and above all, the existential menace that this deadly disease could catch any one of us. I say a dream, because almost everyone I was close to at the time has left. Many had families and could no longer bear being apart. Others were only there on surge, destined to leave after a few months. The dream is no more.

But I’ll always remember that surreal time, including the very regular visits to the bathroom to wash hands; scrubbing hard just in case. Most of all I think of those evenings at M’s with colleagues in which we struggled to talk about anything else. We were all suffering from extreme fatigue – but the wine, the dancing and the attempts to discuss other matters (or at least life before Ebola) were like a caffeine boost to keep us going through the hardest times. It was winter in more ways than one, but somehow we survived, if only to go our separate ways.

Like any crisis, there’s an indelible mark left behind and you consider those times in all the richness of the experience. In many ways, these are the standout moments, the story of what was going on when your first child was born, the world events that you saw firsthand. Like war, they are terrible in their time, but memorable ever after, and something remarkable to have experienced. When we danced like 14 year olds and when we played card games, daring that most remarkable of feats in Ebola times – the human touch.

Notes from a small country

A few weeks in Switzerland made me realise there really is a qualitative difference between big countries and small countries. If you wanted a place where services, infrastructure and quality of life (by a certain definition) were high, Switzerland would come top in many rankings.

But perhaps I betray my childhood in the UK (admittedly a place Bryson wrote about in ‘Notes from a small island’). In Switzerland, I get the feeling that – with the possible exception of tennis – you feel on the edges of influence and world impact. The place seems to put dampers on significance – it’s a place to be contented and comfortable, but not to give you ambitions of impact.

The French Alps feel a touch more rundown and squalid (we’re talking relatively here). There’s a little less order, and so a more relaxed sense that you’re not going to break the rules. You do feel that there’s a younger more ambitious population, a grander scale, and more noticeable impacts of globalisation and immigration. I hope to visit and explore the beauty of Switzerland all my life, but outside a few years in Geneva at some point, I doubt I’ll ever live there.

Notes on return from paternity leave

The road to and from the office in Freetown is not generally an enjoyable ride. At night as you lurch up the narrow twisty lane, unlit by street maps, it seems to go on incessantly. You go home in first or second gear, mainly because of the pot holes. There’s no pavement for those walking and the motorbike taxis (Okadas) overtake on all sides. In my old car, I’m also nervous of stalling and being unable to restart. There is almost always some sort of accident on each journey. Today I observed a beautiful new Ford 4×4 driven by some Chinese go through a roundabout in front of me. Three minutes later, I saw a huge truck crawling uphill that scrapped down the side of the said car and took off the rear body panel. This morning – after the President announced bars and clubs could reopen – I saw some horrendous car crash remains on my early cycle around town.

It’s a far cry from the last five weeks – driving a new modern car on modern roads. What a different driving experience: everything so ordered and smooth. Last night a friend was telling me about running over a person’s toes while driving through the crowded market. The poor man was in serious pain, but you pity the driver as well. You do well to avoid the mob mentality in these sorts of situations. It makes me nervous driving.

« In these holidays I got to taste experiences I hadn’t had for nearly a decade: filing my own car with petrol, packing my groceries at the supermarket and cleaning my house. »

I was thinking of writing a social media post that way but thought it a bit risqué. But it is actually the truth. From Brazzaville to Dubai and everywhere in between someone has packed my bags at the supermarket, cleaned my house and clothes, and filled my car with fuel (when I had one). It honestly felt weird at the supermarket – no sooner have you unloaded the trolley than you realise that your stuff is just accumulating at the other side of the conveyor belt and the cashier isn’t able to process any more items. For a moment you think ‘hang on, doesn’t someone normally do something with my stuff?’ and then you realise ‘oh yeah, that’s my job’. You have to rush past the till and then try and find something to put your stuff in. I won’t complain about paying ny card though. There is a modern convenience I miss in West Africa.

The holidays were above all about spending time as a family with my now 8-month-old girl. It sounds like a truism but it was magical.

This week, back in the gym in Freetown, they were showing pictures on the television of Bournemouth getting promoted to the Premier League. There was a shot of one of the players celebrating with his young daughter on his shoulders and although I’ve seen such things before, I was really struck by the power of the moment. I thought, ‘Wow. Imagine having your child on your shoulders in the middle of a cheering stadium. What an incredible experience. That would outweigh any silverware for me.’ I guess fatherhood changes you.

It’s quite remarkable having a little baby sleeping beside you (in between you and Mum). You hear plenty of parents say that the worst mistake they ever made was letting the baby sleep in the same bed as them because it’s so difficult to correct. Maybe I’ll be saying that too before too long. But I’ve never heard people state the other side of the coin – you have this amazing little angel sleeping beside you – I often just watched doe-eyed. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. And in the morning when they wake up, they give you a few kicks and when you open your eyes, they are incredibly happy.