A guest post
Getting There: Lufthansa and Brussels will get you as far as Abidjan and local carrier operating under them will get you into the country. There’s also Kenya Airways and Air France. Flights are still very limited and very expensive due to the Ebola outbreak; it’s not hard to get in or out with the right planning but don’t expect a couple flights to choose from every day, more like one to choose from every couple days.
On Arrival: Lungi International Airport isn’t so bad. Quick walk to the terminal and the bags arrived fairly quickly. But getting into downtown Freetown is another matter. I don’t want to wager how long a taxi ride would take as it’s a US$40 shuttle and boat ride into town after your plane lands. Also, there’s only one company — Sea Coast Express — running boats at the moment, so not a lot of options. When we landed it was about a 20 minute ride to the boat, 30 minutes to board, and 30 minutes across the water. And that’s on a good day. For other colleagues it’s been a 3-4 hour process; one mentioned she got the last boat leaving that day and that was at 17:00 (though we landed at 5pm and were fine). The boats operate on the flight schedule and less flights equals less boats. Bottom line is that it’s safe to assume there will be a boat for your flight but have a backup plan to spend a night in Lungi if you’ve missed the last boat out — much safer and simpler than trying to spend five hours drive there in the dark.
Getting Around: We hired a driver for the week, which is recommended. Taxis are common but so is picking up as many fares as once throughout the ride to maximize profits. Boda bodas are everywhere and fastest from their numbers and weaving through traffic. Buses are another option but unsure of the routes and the morning commute had queues about 75 meters long by 09:00.
It’s very secure, for walking around, even toward the evening. Just keep in mind that it’s a city and like any city in the world just don’t be stupid and you’ll be fine. Don’t flash money around, keep your valuables out of sight, and take taxis everywhere after dark, etc.
Staying In Touch: I was not able to use my personal cell line, which is a first as it promotes international access, including data. While I could have enabled some service, data and calls were prohibitively expensive. It was off to Airtel for local SIM cards, which did not take long to open a new account (about 30 minutes). Charging and top up stations are all over the city, so never far from finding someone who could provide more airtime at about 500MB for 50,000 Leone. An SMS is about 500 Leone and the average call around 2,000 Leone.
Where to Stay: There were lots of hotels offering a good range of amenities. Colleagues who had been here before, opted for the Country Lodge, which was sufficient and offered excellent views of the city. This time we stayed at The Hub Hotel, one of the newer facilities, which was excellent with a bar, restaurant, pool, good view, comfortable rooms, and is only going to get better as their gym is nearly done. It fills up quick though; and we had to make the booking a couple of months in advance.
Electricity is very reliable. The most we noticed at larger facilities were the generators flipping over in the evening, even at the start of the rainy season. Outages happened, of course, but the longest I think we waited was just a few minutes.
Eating Out: Star beer everything but a good selection just about everywhere we went. Food is very broad in the selection as well; chicken and rice is the most common. Discussion was local politics (the Vice President was recently ousted), and the Ebola response. As a Liverpool fan, all I could find were Man U. fans, so there was talk of sports but unfortunately no one understood basic good versus evil on that front.
English is the official language, to the point where I only even heard some other local dialects from other chiefdoms a couple times and briefly throughout my week there. Several local English papers and radio stations.
Shopping & Sight-Seeing: Probably missed it but didn’t come across a main shopping area. But stalls are everyone; some streets have them the entire length with everything from shoes to books to computer parts.
While I didn’t get a chance to go — ah, the tease of business travel — everyone who talked about sightseeing started and ended with the beaches. River Beach No.2 seemed to get the most mentions between its amenities but mostly the seclusion it offers for those willing to drive a little further to get there. Don’t think you can go wrong at any beach there.
Hotels average about US$130 with breakfast included; dinner would be about another US$25. Dollars are acceptable but Leones are preferred. Much more importantly, however, is Sierra Leone basically doesn’t use credit cards. The bank system is improving but it’s a ways away from making ATM’s a common sight. Our hotel accepted cards but somewhat reluctantly and with an additional 4% service charge. So bring cash and lots of it.
Odd Points: Get used to not shaking many hands due to Ebola, even for those you’ve just met – wasn’t odd but sensible given the situation, just off putting at first. We did dome fist bumps or bumped elbows; most just get right to the conversation. It’s best to not even try and deal with the awkwardness of not shaking hands versus trying to shake the hand of someone who is clearly uncomfortable but still trying to be polite.
Biggest surprise: Not a real surprise was how common health safety about Ebola was but I was surprised at just how much safety-related propaganda was all around. It’s everywhere, which course is a good thing and speaks to why (Ebola) is in decline now.