Monthly Archives: August 2011

Getting acclimated through acts of kindness

Today, my colleague from BRAC, Mbalu, and I went phone- and apartment-hunting. We left the hotel after breakfast, walked towards the nearest main junction, hailed a cab (a shared cab, which stops every so often to pick up/drop off folks who need to travel along the cab drivers’ preferred route), hailed another cab (shared cabs only go towards a certain point/junction in the city, then it’s time to find another cab that will help you go the rest of the way), and arrived in downtown Freetown. We shopped around for a phone (throwback Nokia, whattup!), and I was able to complete a sweet currency exchange on the street (got a great rate, seriously).

Shortly after handling my phone purchase in the city, we visited an apartment prospect: a renter of a friend of a previous Kiva Fellow – this time visiting by okada (motorcycle). Since the roads are bad near the main Murray Town junction, and in many parts of Freetown, motorcycles are your best bet (always gotta wear a helmet!). You basically wave a motorcyclist down that has a license plate and an extra helmet, and ask them to take you to somewhere nearby for around 2,000-3,000 leones, which is $0.50-$0.75.
Upon arriving at the apartment, Mbalu and I looked around, talked numbers and facilities with the renter, my prospective roommate. This was the mental pro/con list we came up with:

Clean and furnished
Ocean view (can’t hurt ;))
Safe (highest priority!)
Rent super affordable (most comparable places in Freetown charge $600+ per month, I pay a little more than half of that)
Quiet (except for the neighboring rooster and family of goats)
Reliable electricity
Some internet from home

30ish minute commute from office
A little far from shopping (groceries, mainly)
No A/C or hot water (which is ok.. though I might cry about it in a few weeks.)

We decided it would be nice that I stay at the apartment for now. If anything, I can see how the first month goes, and plan from there. We’ll arrange for a daily okada or taxi driver to come and pick me up, take me to the office, and drop me back home every day. I think it’s brilliant that you can arrange that here.

We later headed back to the hotel to grab my luggage, and hopped into a poda-poda (think of what the Scooby Doo van looks like, then imagine 18 people sitting inside) that also acts like a taxi service. Much cheaper than shared taxi, and very entertaining. Shoulder to shoulder with passengers, constantly shifting seats to let folks in and out, music blasting in the background. Never a dull moment.

Once we arrived at the hotel, Mbalu and I chatted about hobbies, family, life in general over lunch. She shared an incredible story about escaping the rebellion and war 10+ years ago, and the impact it has had on her family and the community. She shared the account of a kind man that helped them escape, and how she and her mother once had to “live in the bush” for 5 days to hide from the rebels. Friends and family members killed, houses burned, a city and country destroyed, citizens in hiding and constantly on the move. It’s one thing to hear about these stories in a book or a news article; quite another to hear from someone firsthand. She said that she will never forget the man who helped her family escape, and it is because of experiences like this that she wants to help people for a living. I wish I could capture how exactly this story makes me feel. There really are too many words.

After lunch, Mbalu and I grabbed my bags, with the help of hotel staff, loaded the car, and headed off to the apartment. It’s been a blessing having Mbalu here to help me adjust here. Everything would have been so much more challenging if it weren’t for her. I hope I can find a way to repay her for the kindness and selflessness she has already shown me in my 2 days here.


Day 0.5: Arriving in Freetown and the Hometown Hero

I woke up this morning to an odd humming sound that resembled a car engine or  generator. Been going on since last night, and my Lariam-induced dreams shook me up at 6:30am. I figured my mind was probably at its safest if I was awake, so I grabbed my laptop and headed to the poolside lobby. After running up 3 flights of stairs and crossing a glass bridge-hallway, I arrived in welcoming warm air, and the sound of waves crashing almost directly behind me. I turn and see the pinks and blues of the sky stretching their young arms from the ocean.

Good morning, Freetown.

I arrived last night after about a 28-hour long journey (SFO -> Chicago -> Brussels -> Freetown, with stops in Vegas and Gambia), with a few short naps, 2 large suitcases, 2 carry-ons that collectively weighed 50 lb (not unusual, since it’s advised most people traveling to Sierra Leone pack a mini-pharmacy in their carry-on) and some new, nice friends. It has already felt like an adventure..

On my flight from Brussels to Freetown (via Gambia), I met a nice woman from the east coast, who sat in front of me and would be staying in  Freetown for a few days for work. We struck up conversations about our stays in Freetown, background, etc., and realized that we would be staying at the same hotel on our second night. She was traveling with a Sierra Leonan co-worker, who was able to help us fly through immigration and the airport with ease (I think he was more of a hometown hero, but he modestly declined). Both of our check-in luggage arrived, to my pleasant surprise, and as soon as my friends confirmed their last pieces of luggage, we bypassed a few persistent luggage carriers (and young salespeople who were offering “free SIM cards for a photo of your passport,” haha), and followed the hometown hero to his car, as he kindly insisted on dropping me off at my hotel.

After following the hometown hero, we noticed people everywhere were running up to greet him for a few seconds (someone even jumped out of their slowly moving car to hug and greet him, just to run back towards their car and jump in). It was funny and very comforting to be with someone who spoke Krio and knew the land and people well.

So initially, my plan was to stay at the Lungi airport hotel. In order to get to Freetown from Lungi airport, you must cross a body of water. Yeah, no idea why the British planned that, but the three ways of crossing the water are by ferry, water taxi, and helicopter. I was going to stay at the airport hotel (5 min away, not requiring water crossing at night), and meet a colleague in the morning who would take me across the water and to my next hostel, but my new friends convinced me that it would be much easier for me to stay in the same hotel 2 nights, and cross the water that night with them, instead of tomorrow. I obliged (who am I to turn down a new friend and the Sierra Leonan hero?) and am so thankful I did.

We drove towards the water and onto a massive ferryboat, and watched the boat fill with tourists and locals, while enjoying the crashing waves and Freetown sunset on the upper deck. After an hour-long water-crossing to Freetown, we hopped back into hero’s car, enjoyed  a lengthy drive on a very bumpy, curvy road (apparently characteristic of most roads in Freetown, eeps, must inform the tailbone), and arrived at our hotel. My friend and I checked into adjacent rooms on the “3rd floor” (aka bottom floor that looked like the hotel basement). We quickly had dinner at the hotel restaurant, while attempting to make contact through our smart phones. I had a hiccup connecting with mine (was trying to reach colleague who was going to meet me at Lungi airport hotel- I wanted to make sure she didn’t make that trek across the water to get me in the morning since I wasn’t there), so had to text a friend in the US to see whether he’d get in touch with her (P.S. Eric, if you’re reading this, you are a lifesaver!). My connection kept breaking, so per my friend’s advice, raced to the reception desk to ask if I could use her cell phone (hotel phones can only make room-to-room calls, no outgoing calls). She informed me her phone credit was low, so I agreed to pay 10,000 ($2.50) to buy her more credit if I could use her phone. I was thankfully able to connect with my colleague, crisis averted!

After dinner and a hectic but valuable phone call, I took a short, cold shower (running hot water is definitely a luxury here, although I thought this hotel had it), and read more through my Lonely Planet Sierra Leone guide. Took my malaria meds, ate a Trader Joe’s fruit rollup, put down some clean sheets, and hit the bed.

Overall, Freetown’s roads, smells, humidity, and customer service remind me strongly of India’s. Underdeveloped, bumpy driving/walking terrain, no reliable electricity, nice people that are in no rush (will be a major adjustment, since I tend to move quickly), warm, humid air.. I haven’t felt the notorious initial culture shock (yet) since Freetown seems so familiar, but I’m sure I haven’t yet scratched the surface. Here’s to hoping it welcomes me well… [7:15 am]

Since I didn’t have internet this morning when I wrote this, this is what I had planned: Today, I will meet with my colleague, hopefully look at a few prospective apartments, register with the embassy, and purchase a cell phone. Maybe even snap a few photos of my current temp residence and try local cuisine.

Shows how plans shift like the weather here. Update: It’s 3:11 pm. After I wrote this message, I went back to my room and tried to sleep. Fail. Got up, showered, and had breakfast with a lovely, passionate Argentinean human rights lawyer who lived in Mozambique for 4 years and would be in Freetown for a few days. She gave me some great tips on my stay:

1. “Use THIS (pointing to head): it is not just a pretty accessory.” Basically, when it comes to health and safety, be smart. No big bags (useless Longchamp), no outside water, no ice, and bug spray everyday around the ankles. Oh, and mosquito nets! So necessary.

2. “Ask for something 8 times.” No, seriously. Don’t know why this is or how she finalized on this number. But ask for something many times..

3. “You will feel miserable during your first month. Then, you’ll see, you’ll feel ok about everything.” Kiva warned me about this! She informed that things will be hard: daily commutes, weather, lifestyle, attitudes, etc. etc. She said don’t feel alarmed if I feel that way, because everyone goes through it. “You will too, and just remember that it will pass and things will get better.” Golden advice.

4. “Lean on the expat community.” There are a lot of expats here – from Egypt, Scotland, Lebanon, etc. I’ve connected with a few through Kiva Fellows alum who served in Freetown, and hope to stay in touch with them (aka invite myself everywhere) until I have a nice social circle.

So what am I up to now? I just woke up from a nice nap, watched the news, read a little bit, and am jamming to music in my room while it storms outside. I was thinking of taking a small walk outside of the hotel, but that probably wont happen today. Maybe I’ll find my two friends and plan for dinner. But nothing will be set in stone.. for obvious reasons. 😉

Til next time.

Update 5:00 pm: Literally a minute after saving this message, the reception desk notified my that my colleague from BRAC, Mbalu, was here to meet me! We chatted for a bit and decided we’d purchase my cell phone and apartment-hunt tomorrow. Since it is Eid and almost evening time, most businesses are closed. Might as well rest up while I can!

Officially a Fellow!

Last Friday, twenty-three friends and I made the transition from being Kiva trainees to fellows after completing a week of  training at Kiva’s headquarters in San Francisco! I was initimated before even stepping into the Kiva office Monday morning, unsure of what to expect out of training. Was this going to be microfinance boot camp? I hadn’t been in a classroom in almost five years, would I be able to soak everything up?

Our days were full of discussions, program tutorials, information sessions, and ice-breakers. Our class (KFP 16, formally) spent, on average, 12 hours a day with one another. Now, you would think one would grow tired of the daily early-morning-to-late-night marathon, but in all honestly, training week was amazing (I woke up Saturday morning sorely missing the early morning chatter over coffee at the Kiva office, good ol’ summer camp syndrome). Throughout training, we also had ample time to also get to know the Kiva Fellows alumni and members of the Kiva staff — all such wonderful, passionate people.. a few who had even visited Sierra Leone before!

Through the long sessions, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, post-session ice breakers, I felt as though I grew as a part of a family. There’s something to be said about surrounding yourself with like-minded, passionate, and genuine people; I feel like everyone’s optimism, ideas, wisdom, sense of humor, and overall awesomeness rubbed off on me and positioned me better to get the most out of my fellowship and keep a positive mindset. Not only that, but I became less anxious over the thought of moving to Sierra Leone. Once I realized we were all in the same boat, that we had each other, that we all were only a Skype call away, my anxieties settled. A little fear and worry still lingers, and still will, naturally, but hopefully over time I’ll grow to enjoy my new surroundings.

Kiva love. Congratulations, class 16!

So now what? It’s hustle time! I have only a few days left to make last minute Target and REI runs, stock up on my dry food essentials, clean my room (definitely am procrastinating with this one), squeeze in time with family and friends, and wrap up my pre-fellowship fundraising. I leave next weekend, and will arrive in Sierra Leone early next week, when I’ll be welcome by hot monsoon rain, humidity, and mosquitoes, my news BFFs.

Make sure to stay in touch on either on this blog, via email, over Facebook, or on Skype, and I will do the same! Until the next post… I bless the rains down in Africa.  Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.. 😉

Kidding. Tsamina mina zangalewa: I’m going to Africa!

Foreword: this post is best experienced with the following song playing (click).

Yes, I’ve changed placements (again), this time to Sierra Leone.  You all must think there’s some running joke going on now. Where will I be going next week? And the week after? It’s all a mystery! 😉

I can tell you this much: my switch from Samoa was not expected, and was due to unfortunate and complicated circumstances concerning the partner-Kiva relationship. Kiva asked whether I would be able to take on a challenging but exciting assignment in Sierra Leone. My jaw dropped when I heard the proposal: Sierra Leone was on my list of placement preferences, but I was in total disbelief (50% rooted in surprise from the jump in continents, the other 50% rooted in nerves). I spent a few days speaking with two fellows who recently served in Sierra Leone, and with one who just finished his 4-month fellowship (shout out to Eric, Becky, and David – you guys rock). After shooting multiple email threads, Skype and phone conversations, and Q&A rounds with the Kiva program staff, I decided I was sold on Sierra Leone.

So what this means now is.. I will basically be doing what I planned on doing while transitioning from from Philippines to Samoa: readjusting, researching, and taking deep breaths. 😉

Keep you all posted on my travel dates and plans as they firm up.

Wakka wakka!