Friday, March 20, 2009

Traveling About the Country

                 typical vehicle used in public transport with some people already loaded and waiting in back - above taken in Kenema

                                     Lorry Park with typical public transport - waiting for passengers - Freetown

How difficult was it to travel about the country? For Peace Corps Volunteers we were not allowed our own transport except for bicycles and what was called public transport. In the early days of Peace Corps in Sierra Leone volunteers were allowed motor scooters and sometimes motorcycles to get about. Volunteers in Community Development were given a bit more flexibility since they needed the vehicles to get to and manage projects. But we who were involved in education had no such luck. In those early days there had been too many volunteers injured in accidents on their scooters and Peace Corps Washington eliminated the use of scooters early on. And thus any travel we did, to visit friends, visit markets, or visit other areas required patience. First off you needed to get to the "Lorry Park," where Lorries heading in all directions picked up passengers. The next challenge was finding the lorry headed in the direction that you wanted to go. Usually the attendant lorry boys would shout out where they were headed and if you yelled loud enough you could get their attention and then the next step began. This involved bargaining for the fare. As Peace Corps the drivers and boys knew we had money and the challenge was to see how high they could make the fee for us. Although most times we could agree on a reasonable fee there were times when the game would go back and forth before either we would walk away to find another lorry, or finally the driver would agree with our offer. But this did not mean that the Lorry left the park. The next step then began when they would load you and your belongings on and then circle the park looking for more passengers to pick up. This could take anywhere from a half hour more to several hours before the driver was ready to head off to the destination. By then the back of the lorry would be filled with passengers, the roof might have geese or goats in addition to baggage, and in the front the driver would have his girlfriend or occasionally a passenger who he knew. There were rare times when I got to ride in the passenger seat. The lorries were variable in size from pickup size to large truck size. The small pickups might seat 12 or more in the back not including the two or at times three lorry boys who road on the tailgate. These boys helped with baggage both loading and on exiting. They ran errands for the driver. Many were ex-students who had left secondary school, and some had future plans to become eventual drivers them selves. Being crowded into the back was hot, steamy, and when rainy you were protected by whatever roof there was, but when goats relieved themselves you might get an occasional surprise from the roof. You sat where there was space. You fit in the back like sardines in a can. Many times , especially on a very long trip you got to know the other passengers very well. As we were all "suffering" the same conditions we all could commiserate with each other about the crowded conditions and many times it could result in some very funny comments and conversation. At long last we would all heave a sigh of relief - the lorry was leaving the park and heading out. On a dry season day the road would be dusty and everyone might eventually be covered with the red clay dust from the road. During the rain season you might get wet although there were blankets that came down to protect the sides. You let the driver know - as noted - beforehand so that he would stop along the route at your destination. You would then get down - your belongings would be unloaded and you would pay the agreed fee. During the trip many people dozed off. I often thought the gas fumes coming from the tail pipe made you sick. On a rainy day the road grit would come in the back and just add to the delight. And there were accidents. The drivers tended to be dare devils (some called them cowboys) and might on occasion race an opposing driver on a road, passing on a treacherous stretch if they were headed in the same direction, or racing for a one lane bridge if cars were in opposing traffic. There were needless to say a number of crashes on bridges, crashes on wet and slippery roads, and general chaos when any accidents happened. In upcountry Sierra Leone there were no road services, emergency services, rest stops, or conveniences. So what was travel like? Despite all the stress it was fun to accept and meet the challenges and when you arrived at your destination you could be proud of what you had been through. Sierra Leoneans did probably not have this feeling - but for us - you had survived the challenge most times with no ill effects - and despite the crowding, the heat, the smells, the dust - you were usually no worse for wear.

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