Leaving Sierra Leone

Leaving Sierra Leone was a masterpiece. Every moment was recorded in my head, like the surreal digital camera work of Michael Mann in one of the late night taxi scenes in Collateral. I sat outside the BAST house, staring at the Africa Bar, at the large fruit bat flying overhead, at the brightly lit monstrosity of a US embassy sitting on the top of the hill away north. I drank a Tubourg pilsener and smoked a 555. It was my last moment aboard Leicester Square.

The driver was silent the whole way. Perhaps he understood that I wanted simply to absorb Sierra Leone one last time. Without commentary.

We passed through the circle at Hilltop Flats and then past Mamba Point, turning into Spur Road and dashing down the hill, slowing for speed bumps every hundred yards. We drove quickly past the wall painted AfriCel orange hiding the compound where K.F.F. lives. And then down all the way to the Lumley Beach Road where the hard right hand turn takes you past Atlantic Bar. The traffic in Spur Road was horrendous. People on foot flitted past the window going to where I did not know. They were selling their biscuits and batteries and Fantas and myriad other bits of junk by candlelight. They were going nowhere.

Cars cut in front of us, moving at a crawl, the sheer will of their determination the only reason they eased ahead. Why they will never turn that into something tangible, something to counter the sense of their own fatal determinism, I know not. I think it has something to do with climate, or post-colonial lethargy, or something.

Once on Lumley Beach the traffic disappeared and in five minutes we were on the last rough bit of Salone road I would ever drive. We passed Ramadas, Roys, Plan B Wine Bar, China Town, Beach Apple Bar–all busy and well lighted and somehow cheery. In all, the trip took thirty minutes. In a half hour I saw everything about Sierra Leone that I love and loathe. I boarded the heaving old Russian Mi7 without any remorse, regret, or rueful rage. I was simply leaving.

Sitting in the airport at Lungi, I drank cold Beck’s, one after the other, determined not to take any of these filthy Leone notes back with me. I arrived at 21.45 and sat in the airport lounge until 03.30 when we finally boarded the BMI Airbus 321 bound for Heathrow and, finally, Stuttgart. I had worn my IMATT ball cap, a sort of all-access pass that got me quickly through customs. But the other edge of the sword was a constant stream of locals (baggage handlers, security guards, regular joes) reaching out to shake my hand.

“IMATT, we love you!”

“Oh, my friend. IMATT save this country.”

“Mistah IMATT! Yah, good friend!”

“IMATT please assist me–I must take a taxi.”

“IMATT, you give me you hat?”

“IMATT, gimme small-small.”

“I watched your bags, gimme something.”

I won’t miss Sierra Leone. But I will miss my life there. For one year I was not an American. I wasn’t a Sierra Leonean either; I was something else. I was, as Captain Renault described Rick once so eloquently to Colonel Strasser, a citizen of the world.

Many of my friends had already gone on. But I left a few behind. R.F. rang me four times to wish me well. And G.H. rang me whilst making popcorn lamenting that there was no one to watch a film with him. Even T.S. called, though he really had nothing to say, just a rambling goodbye. He simply rang off after a few minutes with a heavy, “Okay, bud. Catch ya later.”

There is a real sorrow in diverging paths. I have shared great hardship and great joy with these men and women and I will have a cry some day when I’m finally home and can sit alone with a glass of Glenfiddich. Until then, I’m still full of the excited angst of returning to the Marines, giving a brief tomorrow to a handful of senior officers, and getting on with the next adventure. Perhaps it was good to have had so many delays in my flights today (we even diverted for three hours to Grand Canary for a passenger who had a seizure). It took a full 24 hours to arrive in Stuttgart, where I sit on the tarmac now, typing. It’s given me the chance to let things wash away. As I step down off this tiny Lufthansa regional jet, I will simply marvel at the modern world–happy to be home again.

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