Free-for-All in Freetown: Sierra Leone, Part I

Friday, August 24, 2007 | Freetown, Sierra Leone (map)

During the rainy season, Freetown is about as lush as it gets.
The arrival in Sierra Leone is, like the country itself, at once overwhelming and underwhelming. From the climate-controlled calm of the plane, the airport one steps into is a sweltering, cacophonous free-for-all of customs officials, security personnel, baggage handlers, and other airport staff (many of them self-appointed). As for the hundreds of others milling around and contributing to the bedlam, their purpose isn’t clear. Overall, while the melee leaves many travelers flustered within a few moments of arrival, my first glimpse of Sierra Leone also came with another sinking feeling: This is it?

Lungi International, Sierra Leone’s only airport, is conveniently located on the other side of a wide bay (in fact the world’s third largest natural harbor) from the capital of Freetown. To reach Freetown by land, the trip is a jarring, painful ride over some of the world’s worst roadways, in the