Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lunch at Wiggee's

"Where do we stop for lunch?" That was the question once we had gotten off of the interstate. My friend, Ted Anderson and I, were headed for Minneapolis from Burbank, California, and we had decided to explore some of northern Oklahoma's country highways and roads. I mean, an interstate highway is an interstate highway.

So at Clinton, still some distance from Oklahoma City, we headed north on State Highway 183. Then we turned onto 33 heading to the northeast. We really didn't know where to go. But it was time for lunch. So for no reason at all and completely on a whim, we turned east along US 270/281 and headed for Watonga.

We could see the huge grain elevator silos easily five miles away. But we wondered about a restaurant when, lo and behold, there it was. Wiggee's! Wiggee's Burger Ranch. Just a few feet beyond the intersection of Clarence Nash Boulevard (State Hwy 8) and US 270/281.

Now Watonga is one of those little country towns that we all pass through as we travel. The official state map of Oklahoma says the population is 5,000. But according to Barbara Wigington--our hostess and part of the ownership team at Wiggee's--it's more like 2,000 or 2,500 now. (Photo from left to right, Diane Wonack, Barbara Wigington, Bill Wigington.)

Wiggee's is one of those great little places where the locals come for breakfast and lunch. It's the kind of place where, after you've been in the place for three minutes, you're engaged in a conversation with someone as if they were waiting for you to come in.

Now, when two big bald guys from Minnesota walk into Wiggee's, all of the conversation stops and the heads turn. Barbara greeted us with that wonderful way people speak in Oklahoma and explained we could still get the buffet, or, we could order from the menu.

When you finally make it to Wiggee's, order from the menu. Get a Wiggee Burger. They come in several varieties, all of which look pretty good. I chose one that appeared somewhat unusual: the Big Wiggee. Ted ordered the Ranch Wiggee.

If you're lucky, you'll be waited on by one of the friendliest waitresses you're likely to meet--Diane Wonack. And when she delivers your Big Wiggee, you'll find two burger patties garnished with cheese, mushrooms, jalapeño peppers, bacon, chili, and, if you want them, grilled onions. I had those, too. Ted's Ranch Wiggee was similar, sans the jalapeños and chili.

All this was cooked up by Bill Wiggee (the other part of the ownership team), who toils out of sight in the kitchen.

Paying the bill was the fun part. We, of course, had to explain what brought two guys from Minnesota to Watonga. Once we had explained that we were helping Ted's daughter move from California to Minnesota, Barbara revealed her Minnesota connection. At one point in her work career, she worked for Control Data when Control Data was one of the giants in the mainframe computer business. Well--turns out that Ted worked as a communications manager for Control Data in Minneapolis, and I did freelance work for the company for about a year in the early 1990s. Small world. Happens all the time.

We learned in our chat with Barbara that Watonga's claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Clarence Nash, the voice of Disney's Donald Duck. You'll notice above that the town has named a street after him. You can see the Wikipedia entry on Nash at

So if you're passing through Watonga, Wiggee's is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Address is 420 W. Russworm, but you'll see it when you drive into town. Here are some highlights from the menu:

Noon Buffet, all you can eat, $6.99

Burger and Fries, $4.99

All-You-Can-Eat Burgers and Fries, $6.99

All-You-Can-Eat Breakfast of biscuits and gravy, $4.29

Coffee or Tea, $.75 all day

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Carie Amundson saved my life! Well--kind of. Desperately needing a drink of water while sitting in my aisle seat on the way to Oakland, I couldn't open my water bottle. The top was bolted shut with some kind of atomic shrink wrap. I hate that stuff!

"Can I help you with that?" Carie offered.

I handed her the bottle across the chasm of an empty middle seat.

To my surprise, delight, and maybe some chagrin, she deftly peeled the atomic coating off of the bottle top. What I didn't realize at the time was that she held a tremendous advantage over me; she works at a convenience store and handles this kind of stuff all the time. This episode continued briefly when I also realized that removing the plastic cap on the battle presented a challenge. Smiling, Carie helped with that, too. (I thought she was very kind inasmuch as she restrained herself from pointing and laughing hysterically at me.)

Well--having quenched my thirst, I struck a conversation with Carie. She must have been raised well and with good manners, because she obviously resisted the urge to roll over in her seat with her pillow and just go to sleep. Instead, she proceeded to engage in conversation with me from Minneapolis to Oakland, including a layover in Denver. The result was, for me, one of the most enjoyable flights I have had in a long time. Sometimes traveling alone is a good thing. There is always the chance of that chance meeting that yields a memorable and fun story.

And I'm sure that Carie has much to talk about also. Understand that she is in her mid-twenties and I am 62. I was thus able to offer her six and a half hours of a lifetime of advice on just about everything she needs to do in life, including what to study in school, where to travel, when to travel, with whom to travel, how to deal with boy friends, and much more that I can't remember.

Such experiences make traveling fun. I hope to have many more like it. And I hope Carie does, too--but next time maybe with a twenty-something guy on the other side of the middle seat.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Bucket List--A long way to go before I rest!

Ok. So here is my Bucket List. I'm not sure that I agree 100 percent with it, or that it may not be altered, but here it is. Basically, I thought of all of the places I would like to go--most of which I have not yet visited. I came up with a list of 30 places that can be categorized as a country, region, city, or site. On a spread sheet, I listed the 30 places down the left side and also across the top. I then compared each one to the rest by answering the question, "Would I rather travel here or there?" Thus, I compared Machu Picchu to every other place on the list and selected it 29 times (an obvious first choice). And when it came time to compare the other places to Machu Picchu, I still preferred Machu Picchu. That's how it got 58 votes. (It's easy to see on a spread sheet.)

I did have some anomalies; I noticed that I sometimes made opposite choices. For instance, I noticed that when I compared Samarkand to Viet Nam, I chose Samarkand; however, when I compared Viet Nam to Samarkand, I chose Viet Nam. I am not sure why that happened, other than to say that I took several days to do this exercise. Also, thinking back, I did not establish a firm set of criteria from which to make a decision. My decisions were mostly emotional and based on my readings and general interest in geography, politics, commerce, people, and history.

So in the list below, you see my choices ranked by priority. The number in parentheses following each location indicates the number of votes for that place. You may wonder how I came up with these locations. Some come from my interests, such as View Nam (I never served in the military during that conflict, but I want to go there), and Angkor Wat, which has interested me ever since I learned about it as a kid. Some come from my ham radio contacts that I've made around the world. I would make contact with someone in the Seychelles and then grab my atlas to see where it was. Same for the South Pacific islands. I realize that is a region, but I couldn't pick just one island. There are several archipelagos I'd like to see in that part of the world. Samarkand made the list because of a book I read, The Amulet of Samarkand, a fantasy about a young magician and a 5,000-year-old djinni named Bartimaeus (Book One of The Bartimaeus Trilogy). It seems quite exotic, has 2,500 years of commercial history, and is smack dab in the middle of the Silk Road, the collection of ancient travel routes from the Asia and the east to Europe.

Now you'll notice that Hawaii is not on my list. Turns out that we have been planning for some time to go to Hawaii in September for a couple of weeks. As long as those plans were already laid in, I saw no reason to included it in the list. However, I did include Rome, France, and the Caribbean Islands--places I have visited before. Rome is such a great city and I will one day travel there again (maybe on my way to Pompeii). France is on my wife's wish list, but as you can see, I would just about go ANYPLACE other than France. I included the Caribbean Islands because I've only been to the Turks and Caicos Islands (Providenciales and Grand Turk), and I want to vagabond from Trinidad and Tobago up the volcanic island rim to Cuba. Actually, when I look at my list, I could easily move island vagabonding adventure to number two.

So take a look. Tell me what you think.

1 Machu Picchu (Peru) (58)
2 Samarkand (Uzbekistan) (53)
3 Cuba (48)
4 South Pacific Islands (48)
5 Viet Nam (48)
6 Greece (47)
7 Caribbean Islands (45)
8 Australia/New Zealand (44)
9 Angkor Wat (Cambodia) (42)
10 Pompeii (Italy) (39)
11 Prague (Czech Republic) (37)
12 Namibia (36)
13 Morocco (35)
14 Egypt (33)
15 Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) (33)
16 Malta (28)
17 Nazca Lines (Peru) (26)
18 Dubrovnik (Croatia) (23)
19 Costa Rica (22)
20 Kenya (22)
21 India (17)
22 Seychelles (Indian Ocean) (15)
23 Belize (14)
24 Mauritius (13)
25 Easter Island (Chile) (12)
26 Montenegro (12)
27 Turkey (12)
28 Aztec Ruins (Mexico) (5)
29 Rome (Italy) (2)
30 France (0)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Bucket List (Not yet formal)

Well--I haven't actually developed a formal Bucket List, but I could get a good start on one if I needed to turn one in for a class. It would include such places as Angkor Wat, Viet Nam, Australia, New Zealand, Prague and the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Dubrovnik, Greece, the Central American countries, Easter Island (and others in the south Pacific), a return to Rome and Italy to see Pompeii (and to Florence again to see The David one more time), and a number of African countries--Kenya, Namibia, Morocco, Egypt and others, India, the Maldives, Malta, and Mauritius, and all of the Caribbean islands, including Cuba, and the Nazca Lines. Not that I will ever have the money or the time to go to all of these places. But I started to think about a formal Bucket List when I discovered this trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands (, both of which would be ranked rather high on my list--Machu Picchu in the top five, most likely. This is an 18-day adventure in a small group offered through Overseas Adventure Travel ( and matches almost exactly a trip I once mentioned to a friend--the only missing point of travel from my original day dream is Easter Island. This looks like a neat adventure. Now I just need to figure out how to fund it. Alas--there's always a catch.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Centro--The Old City

We spent some time in the old part of the city, known as Centro. We took the Sabalo-Centro bus from our location in the northwestern part of the city through the Golden Zone into the Centro district. Here you will find an old-fashioned market place and a downtown area like the old downtown of St. Paul. We walked past the landmark cathedral (didn't go in) during our search for Plaza Machado, which we found about five blocks from the cathedral. A book fair was in progress, and several artists were displaying what I would call political cartoons--at least they were drawings with captions such as we would see on the editorial pages of American newspapers. During our walk to Plaza Machado, we also found the Archaeological Museum. Once again, we decided to keep walking, preferring to explore that part of the city. We found a nice family-style restaurant in Centro called Panama. Kind of a cafeteria atmosphere, but wait staff did serve us. Particularly distracting was the dessert tray, which somehow managed to wheel by our table a half dozen times during our meal. While we didn't make this a major portion of our trip, I have mentally earmarked it as an area to further explore. I think it could provide some interesting revelations. If you ever go, you may want to check this site,, for ideas about what to do and see.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mazatlan Sunset

In Mazatlan, at sunset, there is sometimes observed a phenomenon known as the green flash. It occurs just as the last bit of visible sun falls below the horizon. At that moment, the green flash--like a green spark--sometimes appears to observers. I have seen it, though not on this most recent trip. I set out to capture it during my recent stay there, but was unable to to do so. Nevertheless, the sunsets are quite nice to watch.  They looked something like the one above.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hangin' Out In Mazatlan

So this was a hang-out-and-not-do-anything kind of vacation. We were there from March 21-29. No itinerary other than to get to Mazatlan and enjoy the weather. Oh, we did some modest stuff--took the local buses here and there. Ate at a couple of neat restaurants, and one awfully overpriced one at which we got hustled to buy a condo. We were surprised by rather cool and windy weather Tuesday and Wednesday (March 24, 25), and it served as a reminder to bring something with long sleeves, even to Mexico. Could have used a sweatshirt those days. But, as we are from Minnesota, we just naturally think of Mexico as a place to run about in swim suits and without shirts (well, me anyway). Not always so! Although, there is considerable difference from the sun to the shade. But on the cool days, even Char found it hard to be in the sun. I typically do not sun bathe, but I went one time with Char down to the pool to catch some rays. Got red, as expected, but because of my Swedish skin, which tends to burn when exposed to an incandescent light bulb, I knew not to over do it. So I avoided a nasty sunburn.

One of the neat things about staying at La Marina (the blue-and-white building in the photo above) is that mobile vendors come by--one daily, one three times a week. Gilberto, the fish man, comes daily, and offers residents a choice of fish or shrimp--whatever the fishermen have caught during the night. So the seafood is always fresh. Sometimes, when the fishermen party on a Sunday night, they don't always make it out to sea on time, so Gilberto has been known to show up on a Monday with slim pickin's.

Guman, the vegetable man, shows up with fresh (mostly) produce on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. All sorts of stuff. Potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, bread, limes, bananas, cilantro, cantaloupe, pretty much anything you'll need to plan a meal. This turns out to be handy because the in-house restaurant (which is inexpensive and pretty good) only serves dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. It serves breakfast and lunch daily.

Sol if you want dinner on the nights that the in-house restaurant isn't open, and you don't want to cook, you'll have to look elsewhere. We did try some restaurants. Pancho's is just a few hundred feet from the corner of Calle Garzas and Avenue Playa Gaviotas. It's a nifty place that sits on the ocean and is divided by a public access to the beach, that is, public access to the beach runs right through the restaurant. It features open-air, but covered, dining as well as indoor dining on two floors. Menu is quite comprehensive. Full selection of typically Mexican cuisine, plus items you might see in the states as well. We've eaten there before (a couple of years ago), and the quality of the food and service is quite good.

Not so with The Shrimp Factory, which is on the corner of Calle Garzas and Avenue Playa Gaviotas (yes, just down the street from Pancho's). I should have suspected that an establishment with that name would be suspect. The waiter directed us to a menu selection for two, which offered a variety of seafood--fish, shrimp, lobster. That, with a drink and the standard chips and salsa, came to about $60. Overpriced, I thought.

But the real insult was that a street hawker, Alejandro, walked across the street from his kiosk on the corner right into the restaurant and started to talk with us. We thought he was a restaurant employee just being nice and friendly. I can't believe how naive I continue to be. No one is ever nice to you without a reason. There is always a hustle. Always. Every single time. We were a captive audience sitting at our table. The short story is that Alejandro watched us enter the restaurant, came over and made nice to us, then left and watched us while we ate, and when we were about done, showed up to make his pitch for a condo. He was so smooth in the way he handled us that it took a day to realize how much our privacy had been violated. I was not only angry with him, but with the restaurant management. However, I got over it, because carrying a grudge requires too much work. Lesson learned. It's just the way things are.

The restaurant incident was just one small annoyance of an otherwise enjoyable week. From our fourth-floor balcony, I rather enjoyed watching the goings-on on the beach. On one occasion, a couple rode by on horseback. People came out in the early morning and late evening to fish. On another occasion, a little boy, maybe three years old, came out early one morning with his father and grandfather. As the older men fished, he took it upon himself to fill the sea with sand. He was rather diligent about running up a slight incline, grabbing a handful of sand, then chasing the receding water to throw the sand in the sea. That was fun to watch. He was having a good time. (not sure if you can see it in the accompanying photo, but the little guy is in the process of throwing sand, which is visible just to his right under the palm fronds.)

We spent a lot of time reading, which, at least for me, is a luxury. Char was on her fourth novel by the time the week ended. I was way too ambitious in my packing. I think I took five books along, but spent all of my time in the 2008 edition of The Best American Travel Writing. I was particularly interested in the stories that came from Africa and the Middle East. What an interesting collection of essays--no destination pieces here. The articles are more of an exploration of current local culture and lifestyle. While I think the articles selected revealed a heavy New York bias on the part of guest editor Anthony Bourdain (of the 25 essays, six are from The New Yorker and four from Travel & Leisure), I've nevertheless found the pieces I've read so far quite interesting. Makes me want to go to a place and immerse myself in the local culture for a time. That's always the best way to travel, in my opinion. Not always possible, but still the best way.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mazatlan 2009: Currency Exchange

Interesting discovery regarding money exchange, which I suppose most folks know. Prior to coming to Mazatlan, I stopped at the Travelex booth at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to get some pesos for our trip. I hate to show up in a foreign country without some of the local currency. I changed some money and received 12.84 pesos/dollar. Of course, I didn't get enough, so in Mazatlan, I stopped at one of the ubiquitous bank ATMs and withdrew some money. (It's one of the great advantages of having a debit card.) I was surprised to learn that the exchange rate was 14.08 pesos/dollar. Lesson learned. At least for Mexico. Show up with enough to get to the hotel and settled in, then hit an ATM. Chances are you'll get a better rate of exchange.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rock Solid Appliances (or Solid Rock Appliances)

In Sierra Leone, a washing machine is a rock. This was evident everywhere. Women would wash clothes in basins or big pans or stand in pools along a roadside or in the river and soak clothes. Then they would beat them on a rock.

We took a tour of an orphanage in Makeni, the Children's Rescue Operation Project. We walked through the house, out the back, and around the side. As we passed it, Abu, our driver, pointed and said casually, “That is the washing rock.” You see it in the center of the photo of the house with a small tree in front of it, and again in the close up photo.

It's hard on the clothes, to be sure—washing them on a rock. We were warned prior to embarking on our journey that we should be prepared to have our freshly washed clothes returned with tiny holes, a by-product of using the manually operated rock washer. Actually, this never happened while we were there—that our clothes came back with holes. Rather, they came back smelling of smoke—as they would if I had been near a campfire. Our clothes were washed daily and they must have been hung to dry near the cooking fire. They always smelled of smoke. Sometimes they were still damp. We had to put them on a drying rack to let them finish drying.

I can remember my mother using a ringer-style washing machine. She would take the freshly washed clothes out to the back yard and hang them on the clothesline. Even in winter. Our clothes would freeze then, but they would dry. That was a lot of work. What must it be like for the women of Sierra Leon who have only a rock to wash clothes and the brush or the roadside or the ground to lay them on to dry?

Big Joe and Little Joe

One of the more interesting and fun experiences during our time in Sierra Leone was our interaction with the children. As soon as we got out of the truck, the children surrounded us. They would take our hands and tell us their names. And after about a half dozen kids told you their names, they would start to ask you to repeat their names. So, the deal was, we memorize a whole bunch of names, but all they need to do is remember ours. Very challenging. But, for the most part, they were delightful. This actually happened to us in two communities: Makeni, where we stayed, and Manonkoh, where we spent most of our project time.

While we were out-side, the children were with us con-stantly. And as you might expect, certain kids show up all the time. Their regular presence gives you a chance to get to know them and to become friends. I think each member of the group formed friendships with one or more of the children. Certainly I developed somewhat of a relationship with the little guy I'm holding in the photos. I met him on the first day I went to Manonkoh. His name is Joe, and he learned that my name was also Joe. And so, from that first day until the last day in Manonkoh, he was at my side whenever I was there. He was attached by an invisible elastic band. When I would get out of the truck, he would suddenly be there. And if I walked off or moved around to take a picture, he would soon appear again at my side. He rarely smiled, and we didn't converse much. But he did lobby me from time to time to take a picture of him and a friend. He is the size of a two-year-old, but I suspect he was perhaps three or four. He sort of took possession of me. When other children came up to me and took my other hand, he would chase them away. I made an effort to stop him from doing that, but he was rather persistent. I actually had to physically restrict him from hitting some of the other kids. (Just as an aside, the children were very rough and tough on each other. In many ways, they are no different than children anywhere.)

You can see that I wore a yellow bandanna while I was there. One day, late in our stay, I took out a bandanna and tied it on Little Joe's head. That raised quite a stir. Several children asked me for a bandanna, and I did finally give away a few. After I gave Little Joe the bandanna, he disappeared for a while, only to show up a few minutes with a woman who must have been his mother. He held up a bag to me. In it was two guava fruits. It was his gift to me.

In addition to telling us their names and requir-ing us to remember them, the children also con-stantly asked us to "snap" them. Snapping, of course, refers to a snapshot--a photo. Their method of communicating this was to come up to us, hold their tiny little fists over their eyes as if to simulate the picture-taking process, and then call, "Porto, porto, snap me, snap me."

Now, porto translates as white man. Actually, the term is "el porto" and hails from the first white visitors, the Portuguese. But the "el" often got dropped, or would be pronounced more like, "Aporto, aporto." You get the idea.

The process of taking a snap is to make the photograph of the child, and sometimes his or her friend, then turn the camera around to show them the viewing screen so that they could see themselves. This usually resulted in a lot of oohs and ahs.

Now, there was a risk to snapping a child. The crowd around your legs might only be four or five kids at any one time. But as soon as you took the first picture of the first child, the crowd would quickly grow to 10 or 15, and often more. The more photos I took, the more requests I got. This was the same for everyone in the party. The children just swarmed around us. They pushed and shoved each other to get in front of the lens. They never tired it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sierra Leone--Initial Impressions

So, ok. Sensory overload in the third-world of Sierra Leone, at least for this neophyte, first-world interloper, is akin to lighting a cigar by sticking your head in a blast furnace. Pretty overwhelming. What follows are some off-the-top-of-the-land-rover impressions. I'll be posting more, so come back. In the meantime, in no particular order, here they are:

You sleep with earplugs because the dogs bark all night long.
Sometimes the earplugs don’t even help. They start about 10 p.m., about 15 to 30 minutes before the generator shuts off for the night (and the lights go out). Some nights are quieter than others, but they bark every night. It’s like turning on a switch. We didn’t hear a dog bark all day long. But at night, we didn’t hear them not bark. And these dogs are ugly. Take a look at this one. He is lying in front of the parsonage in Makeni where we housed ourselves. He growled as I approached to take this photo. I suppose that might be expected, as I am a stranger. But there was something odd about the dogs in Makeni. I never saw anyone pet them and I never saw them present themselves to humans the way domesticated dogs do. They were always alone with no master. I wonder if they were actually wild (or unowned) and just living among humans as a means of survival.

Roosters wake you every morning.
The roosters are in cahoots with the dogs. When the dogs stop barking, the roosters start crowing, removing any chance of sleep in the dark.

House spiders are as big as your hand.
Oh, yeah! This is definitely not an exag-geration. Take a look at this guy in the corner near the ceiling in the hallway. Ultra huge. Which added a certain level of anxiety when nature called in the middle of the night and you found yourself navigating down the hallway with your flashlight. I mean, intellectually you knew that the gargantuan arachnid from Hades really couldn’t tear off your leg, but still, you did feel the need to shine your light into the corners and the urge to hurry along. (Isn't that just the coolest picture!)

It is hot and humid, probably into the 90s every day.
Sierra Leone is seven degrees north of the equator (560 miles). It is a tropical country. Two seasons divide the year: rainy, from May through October, and dry, from November through April. While we didn’t have a thermometer, I’d say that daytime temperatures reached the 90s most days during our stay, and nighttime temps remained in the mid- to low 80s. I would sleep without covers in just a pair of gym shorts. Next to me about two feet away was a small, portable, battery-operated fan. We all had them. They helped keep us cool. After dressing in the morning, I would pretty much be wet from sweat in 90 minutes or so. One morning, a modest 45-minute stroll through the surrounding residential area in Makeni left me practically soaked. That’s why I wore my yellow bandana. Cool, right? (I know, I know. Please—no fan mail.)

Good health care is rare and drastically needed; one in eight women die in childbirth.
This is a sad fact that takes some effort to comprehend. Most Americans can walk into a drug store and get over-the-counter medications that are scarce in Sierra Leone—ibuprofen, antibiotics, and other common drugs. Most Americans, if they really need to, can find a doctor to see them in a couple of hours, or at least, a day. That would be a luxury in Sierra Leone. In this chronically deprived country, trained medical personnel and supplies are scarce, and so is access to them. This is the issue addressed by The Lance and Julie Burma Foundation’s effort to establish a clinic in the remote village of Manonkoh (pronounced maa-no’-ko). Pregnant women often go into the bush to have their babies—often alone, sometimes with a local midwife. It’s a real roll of the dice. I’ll talk more about this in a subsequent article.

Median age is 17 (half of the country's population is under age 17).
Pretty amazing. Am not positive about the reason for this—it may partially be the result of the civil war (1991-2001), or it may be because of the standard of living. Life expectancy at birth is 40 years overall, 38 for men, 42 for women. The infant mortality rate is 160 deaths per 1,000 live births (in the U.S. it is six per 1,000).

Women are the material handlers—they carry everything, mostly on their heads.
Now this is one of the most amazing phenomenons I have ever seen. Within a community, women move all kinds of items from one place to another—on their heads.
They will carry a five-gallon container of cooking oil or water (water weighs 8.35 pounds/gallon), open pans of water (and not spill), sand, firewood—you name it. Street vendors carry their merchandise on their heads. One of the most unusual occurrences of this was in Freetown where a woman was selling charcoal. Charcoal is sold in baskets about 12 to 14 inches in diameter. The woman I saw had seven of these heaping baskets of charcoal on her head. If she had raised her arms, she could not have reached the top of the stack. I have absolutely no idea how she could remove one of the baskets without tipping over the entire stack. When workmen were repairing the concrete around the Manonkoh school, the women in this photo moved sand from the local sand pile to the school where it was mixed into concrete. And take a look at this woman coming through the bush from collecting firewood. What you cannot see from this angle is her daughter following her with a basket on her (the daughter’s) head as well—and—the mother has her baby on her back. They walk quite naturally, stop and converse with each other—much as we would do with a backpack hanging on our shoulder. I mean, we’ve all seen pictures of this, but to see it functioning in daily life makes me appreciate their ingenuity. Why don’t we do that? Machines, I suppose. We invent machines.

The machete is the universal work tool.
Oh, we’ve all seen movies of or read stories about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, or seen or heard other gruesome accounts about people being killed or maimed with machetes. But truth is, this common tool is ubiquitous and has many uses. It is the Oddjob (remember Goldfinger?) of Sierra Leonean tools. The machete has different shapes depending where in the world you live. Generally, it is about the length of your arm and has a blade 24 to 28 inches long. Some are fat, some thin, some straight, some curved. The machetes in Sierra Leone have blades that widen at the tip and curve forward, like the one used in the accompanying photo. This worker is helping to construct a bamboo fence around a local well. He is trimming the bamboo to size. (Incidentally—take a look at that bamboo. Its diameter is about four inches—kind of like PVC pipe. And also incidentally, women cut it down and carried it to the site. The stalks are 15 to 20 feet long! Yikes!) One of the well workers used a machete to loosen ground while digging the fence hole around the well. Machetes are used to cut through the bush or to cut sugar cane, and even in the house to cut large foodstuffs. When we visited Yonibana, a town about two-and-a-half hours away from our base in Makeni, the people we visited presented us with coconuts and proceeded to open them with machetes. And, when Abu, our driver, locked his keys in the cruiser, he promptly found a machete and used it to remove the rubber window lining in his effort to get into the car. (Yes—he finally got in and recovered his keys.)

Average income is $400 per year.
This is the figure we talked about when we were in Sierra Leone. However, in trying to verify it from other sources, I am discovering that estimates vary. One 2003 World Bank estimate put the average annual income at $530, another from the CIA Factbook put it at $800. A December 8, 2008, article on says 70% of the population gets along on 70 cents a day, or $255 a year. Not sure it really matters, because the point is that it isn’t very much money. While many necessities and foods may cost less there (bread costs $.65 a loaf; you can buy 10 eggs for $1.30), $33 to $66 a month can’t go very far. This is one of the facts that confounded me: for all of the selling that was going on in the country, I kept wondering who was doing the buying.

The cost of sending a child to school for one year is $45.
Not much, is it? The school year is divided into three semesters. Students pay $15 per session. That does not include textbooks. Most of the time, the teacher writes the lesson on the blackboard and the children copy it into their notebooks. As the children get older (junior high, I’m guessing), the cost per school session rises, mostly because of required materials. I’m not sure what that cost is, but I couldn’t imagine it to be much more that the basic $45. This is troubling for me. I spend $75 twice a month on cigars.

Running water and electricity are a luxury.
True. Electricity used to be there, but was destroyed during the civil war. (Makeni was the rebel base during the civil war.) The plumbing remains in the buildings, but the water supply is lost. On a trip to Lunsar to conduct a de-worming program for the school children there, I watched an Italian work crew pulling new electrical transmission lines through the towers. (See the photo.) The line of towers extends right to Makeni, where we stayed, so it is only a matter of time before the wires find their way inland. The government is serious about rebuilding infrastructure because it is needed to rebuild the economy and develop a tourist industry. We were supposed to have running water at our hotel in Freetown, but it was sporadic at best. The hotel had an annex, which did not have water at all. The main building did, but just barely. In Makeni, there was none available to us or anyone we knew, save, perhaps, guests at the fanciest new hotel in town.

Bathing involves pouring water at ambient temperature over your body.
Most of us have probably done this at one time or another in our lives. Probably camping. There is always that initial shock of the cold water and that first, quick deep breath. What saved us was that the ambient temperature was near 90 most afternoons. We would return from Manonkoh around 5 or 6 p.m. and start vying for time on the computer, phone, or for the shower. There was a separate shower room, perhaps five-feet square. Original plumbing was still there. A pipe extended from the wall at about seven feet. The shower head was gone, of course, but it didn’t matter, because so was the water. One member of our group cleverly thought to bring a camp shower, which is a heavy rubber bag that holds five gallons of water. It has a handle, which was quite useful and allowed us to hang it from the original water pipe. Regrettably, at least for me (because I am a giant), the hose and valve at the bottom of the bag was about waist high—so I had to be creative in finding a way to cover my body with water, which usually involved me getting lower somehow as the bag was as high as it was going to go. Truth is, however, that the water was actually at a rather refreshing temperature, and several members of the group commented about how good it felt. (Amazing what you can become accustomed to, isn’t it!)

Food is pretty good, though some of it can be quite exotic (we didn’t go there).
Bush meat was off limits. No monkey! No swamp rat! We did eat meat in some of the sauces that we poured over our rice. We could recognize the chicken. We didn’t ask about the other. The cooks prepared one sauce that had both meat and fish in it. Almost daily, the evening meal included rice with some type of sauce over it. Other foods included fresh fruits—plantains, mango, oranges, bananas—roots, French fries, and once in a while, fresh coconut (which is actually rather bland tasting). For breakfast, we might have some kind of porridge, which was prepared as a kind of soupy oatmeal. We were also served a type of fried egg with various ingredients in it—we called it an omelet—that was rather tasty, if a bit greasy. And, of course, the favorite fallback food, peanut butter (brought from the U.S.). For lunch, we often had tuna or chicken salad sandwiches, made from canned meats. For those of us who are coffee addicts, we had to settle for instant coffee—ouch!

We did stay away from the exotic stuff, though. As you can see in the ac-companying photos, people do kill and eat moneys and swamp rats (also known as grass cutters). These photos were taken on the main highway between Makeni and Freetown on the trip home. All along the highway, people stand and sell whatever they can find. As in the photo above, monkeys were hung on posts for passersby to inspect. Our driver, Abu, stopped the cruiser to bargain with the young man who had the swamp rat. We were traveling 65 miles an hour or so when Abu spotted the young road merchant holding the grass cutter above his head. By the time he had stopped the cruiser, the young man was running after us to catch up. But, alas, the deal did not go through: the young man wanted 22,000 leones (about $7.50) for the grass cutter, but Abu was only willing to pay 15,000 ($5.00). So we drove on. Abu explained to us that he has a Nigerian friend who considers the grass cutter his favorite meat.

During our trip home (which would eventually take four hours), we stopped for a stretch break. One member of our group suffers from motion sickness. We pulled off the road at a spot where we could drive into an open area and turn the cruiser around. Of course, the roadside vendors came over to see us. They were selling gas and various food items, not the least of which was some monkey meat. It looked as if it were barbequed. I try to imagine who is buying and eating this meat. And I try to be cognizant of the fact that what may be an appetite suppressant for me may be particularly appetizing for someone else. But for whomever that is, we are light years apart culturally.

In a way, the trip back to Freetown is a microcosm of the struggle for survival in Sierra Leone. Take what you have, what you can make or gather or catch or kill, and take it to the road. Perhaps a passing traveler will buy it. Perhaps you can get money to buy the things you need.

(I’ve got more initial impressions, but I had to stop here and get this posted. So come back soon.)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sierra Leone—A most unusual encounter

My December trip to Sierra Leone was no ordinary travel escapade. It was more of a working trip—something I think of as voluntourism. We were there 10 days and we spent a lot of time getting closely involved with the villagers of one community. I traveled there as part of a seven-member group under the auspices of The Lance and Julie Burma Foundation ( The foundation’s stated mission is to enrich the lives of the people of West Africa specifically in the country of Sierra Leone through support of education, healthcare, and economic development initiatives.

We more or less did that—more in the sense that we moved some education and healthcare initiatives ahead, less in that our work didn’t include any economic development activity.

While we didn’t really go to see the sights, we did see some sights. Took a home-brew tour of Freetown, the capitol. Stayed in Makeni in central Sierra Leone and managed to get downtown a few times. Drove to another town, Yonibana, a 2-1/2-hour ride (one way) that I will talk about but never want to take again.

Our accommodations were light years away from what any normal vacationing traveler would consider acceptable, although in their own right, they were acceptable. The food was different but good. However, our bodies had to adjust to it—gastronomically speaking—a process that worked itself out in a couple of days.

It is a wholly different place than most of us can imagine. Traveling and living there produced the kind of intense awareness that dramatically affected my perspective. I have spent a lifetime living or traveling in first-world countries and suddenly thrust myself into a third-world country trying to recover from 10 years of civil war. No electricity in most of the country. Little clean water. Poor, if any, healthcare. A broken economy. Extreme poverty.

Still, the adventure was not disheartening by any means. It was rather enriching and enlightening. To see people living in a place so remarkably different than my own, and to see them happy and joyful—well, I had to ask myself how that was possible. And I’m not sure I have the answer. It just doesn’t seem as if people living in some of the living conditions I saw should be happy. On the other hand, some of them have lived that way for 800 or 1,000 years. In my semi-philosophical moments, I tend to think that life is what life is; we have two choices: be happy with what we have, or not.

Ok—I’m not a philosopher or psychologist. No need to roll your eyes. But as I said, this was not the usual travel experience. It was more than a visit; it was somewhat of an immersion, a close look at another culture. I recommend it. Don’t let the opportunity pass should it present itself to you.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some stories and photos about my visit to Sierra Leone. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to comment. Just click the comment link at the bottom of each post.