Travel is always a collection of first impressions, sensory overload, and when possible, void of expectations. The first two are inescapable, and for most of us the reason we pack up and go; to not only experience new first impressions but be impressed, to not only have your senses overloaded, but opened to new smells and sights not yet imagined. Expectation, however, is without a doubt the most difficult to control and maintain. Especially when put within the context of something like Peace Corps Service. Travel is only one facet, and one motivation of many that inspire such a commitment to materialize. I even squirmed in my seat when I wrote the word commitment; it’s hard to call an adventure such a thing when you happen to be only one ten days into what should be, when and if completed, a 115 week endeavor of service. I attack expectation by breaking this reality down into bite size pieces so that I can better handle the bigger picture of my new world. Little victories are key I’ve been told, so many times already. Your first proper Krio greeting. First complete conversation. Walking through a village and being able to say hi to anyone. Little victories will release expectations and make my slowly built new world a pleasant one, and I am excited for the ones I have achieved and will over the next two years.
First impressions and sensory overload began immediately. Our senses are one of the last primal links we still have; hearing, seeing, feeling our environments before we have a chance to quantify and analyze it. Humidity choked my pores within five minutes of exiting the Air Brussels jet into Freetown (Fritɔŋ in Krio). Despite its international title the airport was tiny, the single terminal barely larger than the Airbus we had arrived on. Customs agents yelled at us as we had our passports and WHO cards checked for proper clearance. I say yelled, but we had been forewarned that yelling was simply how locals communicate. The biggest ordeal was trying to locate everyone’s bag, a monumental task when you consider 56 people checked 2 bags each. After that, it was into the African afternoon. We walked outside to dozens of people staring and leaning over each other to get a look at the many “Pomui” (Whiteman) that had just arrived. I took my first ten seconds outside to stare back and enjoy the new smells. I’d remembered reading a guidebook that had advised to ‘appreciate the smells of Freetown if a first timer’, and it did not disappoint. Everything was exotic; exhaust from cars, pollen from trees, spices from people’s sweat resonating from the food they had eaten.
We were rushed onto buses heading for the nearby docks. We were to take a ferry over the Sierra Leone river and into Freetown’s east side. The airport is separated from Freetown by a large estuary that is only traversed by ferries. Locals hissed and argued with ship men as they learned we had reserved the entire ferry for Peace Corps, having expected to take the ferry into the city. Once we were all on board our trainers gave us a crash course in the immediate health risks that were now so real to us.
“See that bag in front of you? Take a swig of water and swallow the Mefloquine pill. That’s your Malaria prophylaxis. Lucid dreams and hallucinations are a potential side affect, that said, it only affects about 1 in every 10 individuals. Tomorrow you will have your first round of rabies shots as well as your hepatitis B shot.” Whatever stresses there would have reasonably existed at this point where completely drowned out by the collective euphoria of everyone on board the slowly rolling ship.
We docked in Freetown and our convey of buses and vans continued, this time with a police escort of several motorcycles to ensure our safe and speedy delivery. Having finally had a chance to sit down since arriving in country, people started to fade quickly, all of us exhausted from the day behind us. Thirty five hours of travel had blended into one day, with most of us lucky to get a few hours of sleep. Still though, we clung to consciousness jut to catch a first glimpse of the energy and hustle of Freetown, even in a poorly lit night. In darkness the city is electric, pouring over with the same vigor as its inhabitants.