For a sheltered 21 year-old American who never traveled much within the states (US), much less outside the country, flying to Africa from Seattle, Washington, was quite an adventure.
Coming to Sierra Leone to work as an intern-reporter, this would be the first time that I traveled anywhere long-distance by myself.
In terms of traveling in America, I had driven down the West Coast on a few different occasions, going through Oregon and California. I had also flown by myself to a couple Midwestern states (Colorado and Texas), but each of those flights took no longer than three hours.
Internationally, I had traveled once to Japan and Vietnam, but that was before my teens and I was always with my family.
So my first, solo journey to Sierra Leone consisted of three separate, long flights: From Seattle to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; then from Philadelphia to London; and finally from London to Freetown.
Each flight was at least six hours long, and all in all, it took me nearly two whole days of traveling to arrive at my final destination.
The first part of my trip, from Seattle to Philadelphia, felt like it was the easiest, in terms of flying conditions and comfort. Perhaps it was the sense of safe haven I felt from still being within the boundaries of the United States and I hadn’t yet felt like I was going anywhere too far.
The flight from Philadelphia to London, however, felt much longer. I was seated in the very back of the plane and didn’t get very much sleep, despite the fact that it was an overnight flight and I theoretically should’ve been exhausted.
Once I landed in London, the safe feelings of comfort and tranquility appeared to vanquish and was replaced by a combination of nervousness and excitement.
For the first time in my trip, I felt like I could see myself from the outside looking in, and I saw an exuberant young man about to enter a whole new world – although at times, internally, I felt like a scared little boy.
One additional note about London: Americans tend to have a strange curiosity and interest in different accents – even those that sound different within our own country (i.e. east coast accents, southern accents, etc.) – and I am no exception. While in London, I was fascinated by the evident English/British accent with which everyone spoke, and as a result, my level of excitement seemed to grow to another level.
Little did I know that the accents and dialects that I would encounter in Africa would be an entirely different world of its own.
If flying to London from the states felt long then the final stage of my three-part trip, flying from London to Freetown, felt like an eternity.
It was the shortest of the three flights, lasting just over six hours, and I slept much better on this plane. But each time I woke up, I felt like the flight attendants would inform me that there were still five or six more hours to go.
For example, I fell asleep immediately once we boarded the plane, and when I woke up we were already in the air.
“Excuse me, how long have we been flying?” I’d ask a stewardess, to which she would reply, “About an hour now, so we still have about five more hours to go.”
I fell asleep again after watching an in-flight movie with no sound because my seat didn’t have functioning headphone plug-ins.
Upon waking up a second time, I’d ask another flight attendant, “How much longer do we have?”
“It’s only three o’clock now,” he answered. “So you still have six more hours to go.”
Now how did that happen? A couple hours ago there were five hours left in the trip and now there are six? Maybe if I can fall asleep again time will pass and when I wake up next, hopefully we’ll be in Sierra Leone, or at least close to it.
Another nap and another update, this time from the captain himself over the intercom: “Looks like we’re right on schedule to land in Freetown in about five hours or so.”
At this point, I decided to give up on the logic of time and try to enjoy my in-flight meal of cold beef with noodles and another soundless movie.
By the time we finally landed in Freetown, my body felt like warm pudding after staying in a seat for nearly an entire day.
Going through customs and security at the Lungi airport was not a problem at all, and I thanked my lucky stars that my lone checked-in piece of luggage – a fairly small suitcase filled mostly with first aid supplies, food and reading material – made its way from Seattle all the way to Africa without getting lost.
What happened next caught me a little off-guard. In America, when you arrive at an airport, you have to fight other arriving travelers for a taxi cab. But I soon learned that in Africa, it was the other way around: a large group of cab drivers and airport workers surrounded me as soon as I picked up my suitcase from baggage claim, trying to get me somewhere, anywhere.
“Are you taking the hovercraft?” one man would ask with a thick accent. I found myself having to ask people to repeat themselves constantly because I had a difficult time initially deciphering their English – or at least the English that I’m used to hearing.
When I couldn’t find my colleagues who were supposed to pick me up at the airport, I admit, I felt a great deal of anxiety and a slight feeling of panic. But I knew I had to cross the water, one way or another, to get to where I needed to stay and I could figure out where that was once I got across.
A taxi driver took me all the way to the ferry grounds, about 15 minutes away from the airport, before I was able to reach a contact in Freetown who told me to go back and take the hovercraft instead. So the driver and I made our way back toward the airport and I was able to board the hovercraft, despite the fact that there were initially no more tickets left.
About an hour and several tips to random “helpers” later, I finally made it to Freetown and met up with my colleagues, who kindly drove me to the hostel where I would be staying – all this, a few minutes shy of midnight.
So my first journey from America to Africa was finally over as I crash-landed on what would be my new bed for the next two and a half months. And if anyone were to ask me if I would ever do it again, my answer would be simple and without hesitation: Absolutely.
There’s a saying in America that explains why; it says, “Why do I pound myself on the head with a hammer, over and over: Because it feels so good when I stop.”
Yu Nakayama is a student of the University of Washington journalism school. He is in Sierra leone on a short stint as an intern at Awoko Newspaper By Nu Nakayama (Intern)