At the John F Kennedy airport we were not greeted with dogs, but as we stood in line I noticed that all the immigration officials had pistols strapped to their sides. When my turn came to be interrogated the immigration official looked at my passport and asked “are people interested in our elections back there?” I answered – yes and he said – humph! He then asked me in what language do I publish – French or Portuguese? I answered English then he admitted that he always got it wrong about those countries, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. He then asked me to place my index finger on the scanner and repeated again with the other hand. Then I was asked to take off my cap and look into the camera, after which I had to go collect my bag. I was again waved through customs after my form with nothing to declare was collected.
Nobody met me at the airport and according to the information emailed me by the American State Department officials I had to take a cab to the hotel. So I walked out the fairly empty but still busy airport and headed for the taxi spot. I showed the young black attendant who was seating in a kiosk for directions and he looked at the paper I was holding out to him and told me it would cost me $45 fare and another $5 for toll making in $50 maximum. This was my first sweat, I had suddenly become a tourist paying approximately one hundred and fifty thousand leones for a taxi ride from the airport to my hotel. Well that was less than the $70 dollar helicopter ride to Lungi.
At the hotel I grudgingly tipped the taxi driver $2 which was like six thousand Leones – well that was more than I gave out to people for nothing on a daily basis in Freetown. I did not regret because the driver did not even come down to help me with my suitcase he just sat and opened the boot – he was Asian (no disrespect meant)- but maybe my $2 dollars was not really appreciated.
At the hotel counter I gave my name and I was asked to submit a credit card. I told the front desk man (again fairly old) that I did not carry one and he told me to pay $450 – my God so these people meant to take back every cent they gave me as per diem? Well this is the reality of these trips, they are no jolly rides.
I got to my room all the same and started to unpack. I tested the bath for hot water and put on the TV. I went back into the toilet and brushed my teeth. Then as I undressed, the extensive coverage by CNN (American edition) of the elections caught my attention. I sat on the bed to catch up a bit and the next thing I felt was waking up at 4am New York time which was like after 8am in Freetown. This was Sunday. I sat watching TV and flipping through the channels until about 6am, then I got up to unpack.
At about 9am I went downstairs for breakfast. At the Lily’s restaurant which was in the hotel, I ordered tea, juice, eggs, toast and bacon. After eating I was presented with a bill for $16 (Le48,000). I enquired whether it was not bed and breakfast and I was told that the organizers did not pay for breakfast. Well this is America but I was hugely surprised because it had appeared to me to be a norm in all hotels all over the world that they charge for bed and breakfast, however small the breakfast was, but I paid anyway – this trip was proving to be very expensive for me, and it seems my dream of buying a superior camera which would allow me to take pictures from far off without being jostled by police and the presidential guard was slowly evaporating. At this rate I was going to have to spend even my own little money which I had saved for myself.
But it was now time to explore New York. So I stepped out of the hotel with my jacket on to protect me from the cool breeze and realized that the one way people will know that you are a stranger is when you keep looking up at the sky line. This is because New York is literally a concrete forest with the extra high buildings standing in for the big cotton trees in most of our forests. The roads too were broad and in truth it was awe inspiring for even a first timer like me who had been to other parts of the world and even to another state in this country (America). What eventually struck me was the clever way of getting the buildings to go skywards and so maximize the use of the land space. This was really efficient housing policy. Maybe this is what should happen in Freetown instead of the desperate way people are fighting to cover every available land space in the city.
The buildings were not the only things to see. There were the big four wheel drive cars, the stretch vehicles, and in the windows of the shops … expensive items. I wondered into a shoes store to look for a cool easy wear without laces and I had to make haste to leave the store, because the prices started ranging from $184 (Le 552,000) upwards. I would wait I told myself and indeed I soon discovered where shoes were a bit cheap, that is if you call $80 (Le 240,000) cheap.
I was beginning to feel hungry now so I started finding a Chinese restaurant, because we Sierra Leoneans love our rice and the Chinese are the only other people who mostly do rice in their restaurants. After a long walk, I found one and promptly went in. I ordered my fried rice and settled down to wait. When the rice came I was afraid to touch it because it was high – like six plates bundled together. So I asked the price and they said $16 (48,000). Well I could not leave so I decided to attack the mountain and do justice to it. I was hungry, but I could not finish – I finally gave up after going about two thirds the way. When the bill came though I was surprised (again) to pay $24. This was because of an additional tax of $8 – my God this country was becoming more and more expensive although I pictured in my mind’s eye, the NRA boss laughing at me saying this is what you Sierra Leoneans do n’t want to pay at home now you are paying more than that abroad. Well America is not Sierra Leone.
Encounter with a prostitute
As I walked back slowly because my stomach was over full I lost my way. So I kept going up and down. Well my philosophy whenever I travel is that ask directions and you will never get lost. So I turned to a white dressed up lady who stood by me on the road waiting to cross. I asked her for Lexington avenue and she said straight ahead. Then came the question where are you from? I said I am from Africa Sierra Leone, and she said how long do you take to fly from there I said five hours from Sierra Leone to London and seven hours from London to US so she added up and said between 12 and 13 hours I said yes. Then she asked why are you in New York some conference or something, and I said yes I am a government worker. As we crossed the road and continued walking she then asked well what is it do you need some company? I was mildly shocked but I did not show it so I countered, it depends on what it would cost me. So she said $400 I quickly calculated one million two hundred thousand Leones – my God! But still curious I said for how long and she said one hour so I employed the go away tactic, I said I can only afford 25 or 50 dollars, she stopped in her tracks looked at me and goodbye. So I continued walking and she also continued although a few steps behind me now. I said to myself so New York prostitutes behave almost like the ones in Sierra Leone. Well I asked her again, where I could find night clubs with some good music where one can dance and drink. She said everywhere along Lexington avenue there are bars where you can get a drink. So I left her and walked quickly as she encountered a friend with a loud greeting I guess they were in the same trade. If it were Sierra Leone I could have figured her out long ago maybe the dressing or the way she walked but not here I am a stranger. However as I walked down back to the hotel feeling sleepy due to the time difference (jet lag), my thoughts were for our (Awoko) entertainment editor Ophie who likes doing stories about prostitutes. I said to myself if Ophie was here they would kill him for us. Belated happy birthday Ophie.
By Kelvin Lewis