Most of the foreigners in Sierra Leone are here to work or volunteer, rather than to travel for the sake of traveling.
I have yet to encounter a bona fide tourist who’s in the West African country purely for pleasure and exploration. Most of the sun worshippers at River No. 2 beach on Saturdays – arguably the nicest beach in Sierra Leone – are NGO workers like myself, taking time off work to enjoy the country’s undeniable beauty.
It’s not particularly surprising tourists are largely absent from Sierra Leone.
Most people only know of the country because of its brutal 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, where rebel and government soldiers murdered thousands of people and cut off the hands and feet of many others.
Since then, Sierra Leone has gained a reputation for being one of the poorest countries in the world, with extremely high rates of maternal and infant mortality. Crime and petty theft are common. Advanced medical care is largely unavailable and most of the roads are in awful condition.
Even if these conditions that discourage tourism didn’t exist, anyone wishing to visit Sierra Leone must still obtain a visa, at least three or four vaccinations and a generous number of malaria pills before they enter the country. It’s no doubt intimidating for many.
Heed the Warnings
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Sierra Leone a few months ago, trying to promote the country as a tourist destination for Europeans, even though the country still confronts major infrastructure issues like the inconsistent supply of water and electricity.
As a result of this list of warnings and dangers, development workers are full of stories about what you should and shouldn’t do. Many of them make sense for any sensible traveler.
You shouldn’t walk alone at night. You shouldn’t carry large amounts of cash. You should be cautious about making friends, until you know you can trust them.
But some of their advice I find myself ignoring. I eat at local restaurants where the food is cheap and I take motorcycle taxis that drive far too fast. I do this partly because my budget is much smaller than the average development worker in Sierra Leone.
No one drives me to work in an SUV and my budget for training is small, as is my living stipend. It’s enough to live and eat, but it’s nowhere near extravagant or comparable to a North American wage.
Even though the house I live in leaks when it rains too hard, is sometimes overrun by spiders and snakes and has no running water, it’s still far plusher than the home of an average Sierra Leonean. But when I tell other foreigners how I live, they often shudder and proclaim: “I could never live like that.”
Experience What Is
I go further to ignore other pieces of advice because I’d rather get to know the country I’m living in for what it is, rather than
experience the niche foreigners have carved out for themselves.
It’s certainly comforting to enjoy some overpriced bacon and eggs and a coffee at an assortment of popular ex-pat hangouts, but I’m careful not to make a habit out of it. Why travel halfway across the world to eat the same food I can get at home?
Admittedly, I often pine for the ease of a vehicle, and its air conditioning and seat belts, but I still believe I’d miss too much if I went everywhere in a car.
The journalist in me would ask the car to the stop, so that I could explore that village on the other side of the bridge on foot or talk to the women who wave to me as they sit in a circle, cooking their food.
If you’re always in an SUV with tinted windows, always in Western-style restaurants with air conditioning, you will indeed miss experiencing the real culture and atmosphere of your destination.
Of course, the manner in which you travel and the risks you take are personal choices. Living in a country as chaotic as Sierra Leone isn’t easy and every foreigner will have a different way of coping.
But human beings are incredibly adaptable, as I have very quickly learned about myself.
If you don’t push yourself into new and uncomfortable experiences, it’s unlikely you’ll ever discover how adaptable you really are.
How has travel pushed your own personal boundaries? Share in the comments!