Going to America
I have stopped asking why I have been chosen for this or that among all the other journalists. This is because as we work we are judged by the public – our numerous readers in our absence. I also believe that people are entitled to their opinion and that is how I came to accept (without asking questions) the US Embassy nomination to witness the last debate of the 2008 United States of America’s Presidential elections.
Leaving Freetown has always had a bitter sweet taste in my mouth. Sweet because I get a chance to leave behind the heavy work schedules (9am to 11pm) complete with its frustrations with government and private sector officials who only want to talk off the record and end up killing what would have been very good interesting and investigative stories.
Well, bitter because I get to miss the fun in the office and friends and foes alike.
And this was how I set out on that fateful Friday 10th October at about 6.30pm for a flight at 2.15 am on Saturday. Like most people travelling on BMI flights out of Freetown the time and date is very confusing. You are to leave on a Saturday, but then your journey actually begins the day before and if you are not careful you get to miss the flight and earn a hundred dollars fine for what the airlines call “non performance”. I was not to be caught on that, so I took the 8pm UT Air (courtesy Zeev) helicopter flight to Lungi and start the wait, for first the check-in which started at 10pm and then the flight itself at 2.15am.
Well it’s a good thing to be a journalist and that was how me and my colleague Williete John found ourselves near the top of the check-in line, and in the first class lounge. (I will not say here how – but that was it.) Well, we wanted some food and tea so we asked for the menu and low betide you the airport lounge menu was offering “sancwiches” – did you say printer’s devil? I thought that was to be used only by journalists, but … we had a good laugh. And it did not stop there, because close by us a former minister who was also travelling had also ordered food. When the food arrived he turned to the people close to him who were not eating anything and said “Bon apetit” (literally translated means -enjoy your food) – can you beat that? Well by the time the flight got ready I was already stretched out full length on the chair and I believe even snoring. I do not want to tell you that I copied one of our ambassadors who was the first to put his feet up and start snoring – but again that is what happens when you have a 2.15am flight.
The flight was uneventful except that the plane looked very much like the one used by Astraeus with identical clothing on the seats, and earphones which did not work. It was well though, because the movies were really lousy and it was more useful to catch up on lost sleep than watch them.
At Heathrow Airport around 9am in the morning we got off the flight into a maze of ups and downs and left and right turns until we got lost and had to ask directions. Williete who was continuing in less than three hours was told she had to pick up her bags and go through immigration and customs before checking in again. Me I had a five hour wait and of course my boyhood friend Tonio was on hand to drive me into town for a quick shower and some real food. Infact if I had known I would have kept my tooth brush in my carry-on bag rather than the suitcase I checked in. But trust women, – Williete did just that and I envied her because my mouth had the funny unwashed taste until I got to my friend’s house.
As we came out of the aircraft at Heathrow we were met by a corridor full of immigration officials with dogs. One of them ordered us to lower our bags to ground level so that the dogs could sniff them and continue moving. I was shocked but with the big July cocaine catch at Lungi I had no reason to be surprised.
At Heathrow the majority of the immigration officials were Asians. We waited patiently as some Sierra Leoneans were asked to sit down and wait as their papers were taken inside a room with darkened windows, until our turn came. The Indian immigration official asked me whether I was visiting for the first time – I said no that I had visited several times with a passport which was now expired and I did not carry it with me. He then asked me what was my profession and continued with the question what is the name of the paper I work for. He seemed not to be able to say after me ‘Awoko’ so I gave him my business card and that seemed to do the trick as he promptly stamped the passport and wished me well.
Williete followed me through having also swiftly completed her own interrogation and we headed for the baggage section. We collected our single suitcases and were waved through customs by a beautiful and smiling customs lady. Williete had to post some letters and then head back in while I rode into London proper.
The last time I was in London I was incensed by super life sized bill boards of Jose Mourinho then the Chelsea football club coach. I hated him and continue to do so because I support the great Liverpool. This time around there was no Mourinho – but infact I was sleeping in and out during the drive. The new thing which attracted me were giant fan like structures (wind mills) on a ware house and my friend told me it was a ‘green’ experiment and the wind mills supplied just enough electricity to run the ware house. This was a sign of the future.
After a quick hot shower and a little feast we raced back to the airport. We left early because England was playing Kazakhstan and we did want to be caught up in the traffic of football fans heading for Wembley stadium.
At Heathrow again, I searched for the Delta Airlines counter. I found it and was shown two machines at the beginning of the line and told that I had to check-in electronically. ‘My God’ I did not know how and I was thinking how to navigate this hurdle when one of the two Asian guys decided to do the conventional physical check-in. They asked what I would call regulation questions – did you pack this bag yourself – yes, did this bag leave your side from the time you packed it – No, did you receive anything from anyone to carry for them – No, are you aware of all the articles in this suitcase – Yes.
Then it was the scanner which rang even though I had removed even the smallest key I had on my person. I was frisked expertly and allowed to move on. Then it was the delta desk again before entering the aircraft. I was again asked the regulation questions and it looked so repeated that even the attendant did not wait for the answer.
Inside the Delta Airlines plane we were instantly greeted with loud music. The décor was superb and the atmosphere looked just fine. What I noticed though was that all the flight attendants were fairly older people, unlike the young faces which greet you onboard the West African or African flights. Did this mean that the American population were getting older? Well on a visit to Thailand several years ago it was very difficult to see an old person and this was the same in Malaysia. Although the Asians have a small physical frame yet all the food stalls, the shop counters and just about everywhere else, you met small boys and girls practically kids who should be in school working as adults. I was told they had a young population and so the kids had to start work early, well America where are your kids?
The flight to the US was again uneventful. At least the head phones worked although the movies were equally horrible – there were about six of them until I lost count and slept. This was another seven hour flight and a five hour addition to my watch. We arrived after 7pm but it was past midnight in Freetown
By Kelvin Lewis