December 3, 2010, 7:40pm
Chinatown Restaurant (Upstairs)
I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve somehow ended up a special guest in Chinatown.
The Search for AC
After our meeting in the morning at UNICEF, I was desperate to work in a place with AC. Unfortunately, the library at the American Embassy (where I’ve been working the past two days) is closed on Fridays. Unsurprisingly, there are no places in Sierra Leone where you can go and sit under a fan or AC for your own purposes. I asked Ahmidu if the university has any such facilities and he laughed, commenting, “The university does not even have fans!” So I racked my brain and sorted through the few contacts I knew in Freetown.
I called Ms. Wang, the lady who runs the check-out desk at the convenience store in Chinatown. Chinatown in Freetown is this building by the beach that has a 12-room hotel, a downstairs restaurant where Sierra Leoneans cook Chinese food (I ate here with Jim a few weeks ago when Uncle Ben left me here to go watch a soccer game), an upstairs restaurant where a Chinese cook cooks Chinese food (I had never been here before tonight), an ice cream shop with questionable ice cream, a funny store with luggage in the window, a small convenience store and bakery, and a traditional medicine shop that I had hoped would offer cheap massages, but is actually abandoned because the healer claimed she had a headache and went back to China.
Ms. Wang handed the phone over to the boss of Chinatown, a Lebanese man who was born in Sierra Leone and married to a Chinese lady. He is a nice guy and remembered me from the last two times I had visited. He said no problem – I could sit in the ice cream shop to work, since it had AC – and if my internet stick didn’t get service, he would give me the password to their wireless connection. Awesome! I asked Ahmidu to direct me to take public transport to the beach, which was an adventure in and of itself.
The Journey to Chinatown
First, Ahmidu put me on a poda-poda (local transportation bus – think 25 people crammed into a 12-seater broken down van with limited ventilation and sliding doors that often fall off the vehicle). I like taking the poda-podas because it is the way of the locals and most expats and foreigners have their own cars or charter taxis. The luxurious way is more expensive, but still affordable ($5-10 instead of $1-2 USD); still, I like to experience and become familiar with how people here do it. It’s so easy (especially in Freetown) to spend each day doing things the expat way and never knowing how the locals experience life. But I do admit, the poda-podas are tres uncomfortable.
The poda-poda was intended to bring me back to Mountain Cut, where Bailor’s house is, so that I could pick up my computer charger (which ended up being a waste of time because I haven’t used it yet). Unsurprisingly, it dropped me off at a place that I did not recognize. After all, it’s not easy to recognize places around here (for me) since everywhere is a little broken down, messy, and without labels, street names, or traffic lights. Sometimes I recognize an orange seller, but they move around so it’s not dependable. And the buildings are not that characteristic (to me) because they are all broken down with random slogans (today I saw a building whose walls boasted “The Elusive Gangsters” in spray paint – indeed, I saw no identifiable gangsters in the vicinity).
I walked through a few streets asking for Mountain Cut or Kissy Road (the nearest big junction) and must have walked in circles before ending up in the right place. Actually, I took a small detour to return a pair of dysfunctional earphones to Alie, the Lebanese guy by the Sierra International Hotel who has been very nice to me (he gave me a free adapter and was super friendly). He stayed true to his friendliness and refunded my money, advising me that none of the earphones I’d find on the street will be as good quality as normal iPod earphones, and drew me a map to get back to Bailor’s place. How helpful!
I eventually made it back to Bailor’s place and picked up my things. Then I headed out as per Ahmidu’s directions. Up Mountain Cut, opposite Kissy Road, and right at the first paved road by the mosque. I immediately ran into a roadblock – there were many young men hacking up large trees and carrying parts of trees on their head. It was a bit tricky to navigate through the branches and the confusion of roadblocked cars, but eventually I got by. I was to keep going until I hit Regent Road, the place where the poda-podas leave for Aberdeen (which will bring me in the direction of the beach). Eventually, the road I was on ended, and I was at a T-intersection with no clue where to go next. I asked the girl selling suspicious cakes where Regent Road was, and she stared at me blankly before uttering some indecipherable Krio-English. I rephrased my question and asked where I can catch a poda-poda to Aberdeen, and she said “HERE!”
I stood for a while waiting for poda-podas to come by. In the meantime, I bought a sachet of water because the journey had made me thirsty. I was expecting Family Care or Grafton, the regular brands of purified sachet water, and was surprised to stare at a sachet that proudly proclaimed: “PEEMAN.” What an innovative, creative, and questionably marketable name! It was supposedly manufactured at Foureh Bay College by Goderich road, a few blocks from where I was standing, so I texted Ahmidu to make sure it was safe to drink. Not taking any parasite risks here.
Eventually poda-podas started to come by. I played the clueless tourist for a few minutes, asking the bread-selling lady whether or not a certain poda-poda was going to Aberdeen (even though there are labels on the cars, apparently it’s not a very reliable source. She told me to ask, so I started asking.
Again, the poda-poda system here is confusing for newcomers. They don’t really respond if you ask them for a route that they do not follow. If they are going in that direction, they sort of slam the car in a hard-to-decipher “come hither” motion. I missed it the first time, and the apprentice (the guy who takes care of picking up and dropping off people, including the money collection) re-slammed the car door and stared at me intently. That clued me in to awkwardly run after the car until it stopped at the next junction where he ushered me into the overcrowded vehicle. Luckily I found a window seat, because I was to be in that car until it reached its last stop.
I’m not sure how long it took – it could have been almost an hour – I fell asleep a few times. The guy next to me was a dignified looking business man so I felt a little more comfortable closing my eyes, although I kept my body parts attached to all the zippered areas on my bag. Eventually I made it to the last stop. The money exchange system is also confusing, but eventually I got the hang of it. Just give money to the apprentice when he gestures that you haven’t given him money yet, and assume he doesn’t cheat you. I watched my nearby companions to make sure I was paying the same amount.
When we got to the last stop, I asked of this is Aberdeen Junction (where Ahmidu said the last stop would be) and the bus driver said yes, while the business man next to me insisted no! Either way, I had to get off, since it was the last stop. Once I stepped off the bus, the business man gestured to a nearby tall lady who asked me where I wanted to go. They were both kind souls – I could tell by their person – and it reminded me again of how friendly and helpful Sierra Leoneans are. I told her “Chinatown” and the businessman assured me that she would guide me as she brought me to a nearby taxi. I could have easily found the taxi myself; Ahmidu had told me that there would be taxis waiting in the area, but it was nice that she took care of it for me. Before she left, she told the taxi in rapidfire Krio to take me to Chinatown. I think he overcharged me ($0.50 instead of $0.25) but it wasn’t too big a deal. We drove along the beach for a short stretch, passing Aces (the club I visited last summer) and Leone Casino (the Chinese-owned casino I visited a few weeks ago with Carla and Uncle Ben) before reaching Chinatown, which is now familiar to me.
Adventures in Chinatown (& the Life of a Chinese Baker in Sierra Leone)
I made my way to the ice cream shop, only to realize (not too surprisingly) that the AC was not actually cold. Go figure. I sat down anyway and started responding to personal and business-related emails, and a few other odd tasks. After a few hours, I got tired of the uncomfortable seats, the strange soap opera playing on the wall (TV is one of those things that do not really comfort me even after a long absence), the sauna heat, and sitting immobile staring at the screen.
I made my way to the convenience store, passing the downstairs restaurant, and said hi to Ms. Wang (the lady at the check-out) and Mr. Shi (the guy in the bakery). He is always incredibly friendly, and today proved his friendliest yet. He first asked if I wanted to eat a particular kind of fruit, went to the fridge, and pulled out what looked like a very obvious orange. “Have you ever had one?” he asked, and I replied, “Isn’t that an orange? (ju2 zhi3)” to which he replied, “No.” Well, I know that oranges, tangerines, and other similar citrus fruits have a few different names in Chinese, but he used one that I didn’t recognize. I was momentarily excited that I would be introduced to a new exotic fruit, but as he started cutting it, it was very clearly an orange. Still, it was chilled, and after so much heat, it was a delight. After I had finished, he cut up two more, talking about the benefits of eating fruit in this environment. It is for some reason very comforting to hear Chinese adults tell me health-related benefits around here, whether they make sense or not (like when the Guo Ji boss said the winter melon drink had Chinese medicinal effects, and when the hot pot waitress kept recommending that young girls like me should eat lots of vegetables). I think it’s because they sound kind of like my parents’ or family friends’ suggestions, often as if they are drawn from questionable Chinese newspaper sources.
He sat me down in his small bakery area and we chatted while he made 8975142 cake rolls, cut up 918273 loaves of bread, and decorated 4 birthday cakes. I still only understand about 40% of what the Chinese people here talk to me about, but they still think that I’m fluent and that I’m from China. He thought that I had a Chinese passport, asked me why my English was so good, and how many years it’s been since I went “back” (to China), so he clearly still thought I was Chinese. I thought I had made it clear before that I’m through and through American, but apparently not clear enough, and I started to feel like an imposter after he fed me so much Chiense food.
At one point, the Lebanese boss came in to say hi, and suggested that I try to cut one of the slices of bread. I did, and succeeded, although it was not a pretty slice – jagged edges! Afterwards, Mr. Shi, the bakery man, decided that I was a smart cookie because I was able to cut a slice on the first try; apparently he has tried to teach people before and they can’t do it after multiple tries.
We chatted about all sorts of things. He has been in Sierra Leone for 2-3 years and has never been back home, although he is visiting for a brief period of time next February. He, and the other 4 workers in Chinatown, work from 10am to 11pm every day, sleep at midnight, and do not have any days off except for once a year on new years. Wow! That sounds unbelievably overworked, but he said it with casualness. As such, he rarely goes off grounds and has not visited any of the other places in town (ie. Guo Ji factory or the Leone Casino) to socialize with other Chinese people. He didn’t seem to regretful, though. Apparently the boss’s wife (who is Chinese) forbids them to leave the grounds in the evenings. I wish I could have asked or understood more details, but it’s a strain understanding his accent and the bits of Chinese vocabulary that I don’t know.
He kept telling me to sit down and tried to feed me more baked goods, although I refused most of them because it was simply too much and they weren’t particularly novel baked goods (fresh white bread and sponge cake rolls), although they were certainly more delectable than the local good sold on the street. I asked if he could make a few Chinese bakery items that I’m familiar with, and he confirmed every one of them from moon cakes to egg custard tarts to yogurt (okay the last one isn’t a Chinese bakery item). He explained to me how to make them and even showed me his handwritten cookbook which reminded me of my mom’s cook book! It was all in Chinese and he clearly thought that I could read it all (but I couldn’t even understand his verbal explanations). I kind of flipped through it like a picture book and made awed sounds (I was awed, but really I could only recognize occasional trigger words like “egg (dan4)” and “cake (gao1)” and “ball (yuan).” Eventually, it was mealtime and he gave me two sets of cake rolls and a carton of juice before I left, on the house. Wow! How friendly. The Lebanese boss then brought me up to get settled in at the restaurant for dinner.
The Lebanese man (I really should learn his name) brought me out back and I commented on the lovely view and asked if this is where the hotel rooms are. He said yes and called the keyholder to show me the one empty room. It was quite large, with a kitchen like area (but with only a sink and counter, no stove), a divider, a full bed, television, desk, and window. Quite nice! They have 12 rooms (some are new), started setting up in April 2002, and opened December 2002. He also said something about setting me up with the bakery guy because he was shy, and then said he was kidding – I’m not really sure if that’s what he said, but that’s what it sounded like. Hm. Anyway, then he led me upstairs to the upstairs restaurant, where I’ve never been.
It’s a little confusing talking to the Lebanese guy in English, the Sierra Leonean workers in Krio, the Chinese people in Chinese, and having them all be second languages and a bit accented and broken by both parties. Moreover, despite being familiar in every language, I can’t for the life of me understand the way that they communicate with each other.
I was met by a Sierra Leonean waitress and a Chinese cook who asked me where I would like to sit. I tried a few languages before the cook understood the Chinese version: I want to sit wherever is the coolest. He plopped me in front of the AC, where I’m currently thoroughly enjoying the cold air. The restaurant was completely empty and has been except for a group of Chinese people who are either well dressed employees (unlikely) or semi-important hotel guests.
They brought a menu, which is a legit Chinese menu with reasonable prices, and as such, I can’t quite understand the Chinese (menus are hard to read!) and don’t quite trust the English (translated Chinese dishes are always suspicious, awkward, and fake sounding). I flipped through a few pages and on the cooks suggestion, ended up getting a fusion and customized selection of fish, vegetables, and noodles. I’m not even sure which items they were, but whatever they were, they were delicious. When they arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes – such authentic looking Chinese food, full with soy sauce and homemade Chinese chili sauce!
Right before the food arrived, the bakery man came up and apologized that he could not eat with me (I had originally said that I wanted to eat with the staff and not alone, but it may have been lost in the language shuffle) because he had too many cakes to bake. The chef prepared the food with lightning speed and delivered it, commenting ever so Chinese-politely that he doesn’t know whether it will suit my taste (“he2 ni3 de ko3 wei4”) to which I assured him it would.
I ate that food way too quickly. It was delicious! I stuffed fish, vegetables (ahhhh heaven-sent vegetables), and noodles (which were approvingly laden with egg, shrimp, and other additions rather than just being a lump of starch). He offered to bring some Chinese tea, but I was too hot for a hot drink, so he had the waitress bring iced lemon tea. The whole time, I wasn’t quite sure whether this meal was on the house or not, but it’s been over a half hour since they took my plates away and I still haven’t received a bill. I get the feeling it is, but I guess I’ll find out soon.
All in all, it’s been a fun adventure, although I’m confused as to why I’ve been treated like such a special guest. Perhaps it’s because the boss was nice to me and brought me to the restaurant.
Now they are playing Christmas songs. “Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer…”
I’m thoroughly enjoying the AC and Chinese decorations, but I will probably head out soon before it gets too late. It’s great to get out of the house and explore the city on my own for a bit, even if it’s visiting familiar places. I never really learn the layout of the streets or the system of travel until I do it myself instead of following Ahmidu or Bailor blindly. Next time, I can’t wait to go somewhere new!
The meal was on the house, courtesy of Mr. Jaffa, the boss of the place. When I went downstairs, he was still friendly, said something along the lines of “We have to take care of our people, Chinese people” and when he asked how I was going to get back, made some joke about how he would have smuggled me somewhere if the Chinese workers at the convenience store didn’t know I was here. I took it as banter, but he repeated it a few times with weird winks and I raised an eyebrow… haha. Then again, this is Sierra Leone and I get that all the time. I also have a new phone stalker, some guy at the restaurant… everyone here wants to be “my friend” no matter the age or gender. I don’t mind, I just make sure to stay in public places where I can’t get duped.
Anyway, I got back safely by way of taxi. I left with a Chinese guy going to the nearby Guo Ji center and he kept repeating to take care of myself on the way home. Before he got out of the car, he told the driver in broken English that I was his friend and to make sure I got back safrely. At first I got kind of freaked out because the taxi driver drove much farther than Aberdeen Junction (I’m not good enough with geography to know where we’re going, especially in the dark, but I can differentiate 2 minutes from 10 minutes). We never went into unlit or uncrowded areas, though, and he ended up taking me to St. Johns, which is in the center of town and much more convenient (and probably safer). There I caught another taxi and escaped the clutches of the man-eating poda-poda bus. Back at Bailor’s house frantically rubbing Chinese herbal oils (“wan4 jin1 you2″) on my 852351235 bug bites and Champion acid burns. What a great feeling to have gone out and come back on my own! I didn’t do anything risky or novel, but it is exciting all the same. Plus, the Chinese food was amazing.