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Hard Landing in Freetown: Seat Belts Not Mandatory

MATERNAL MORTALITY Saffie Kallon grieves in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after leaving the hospital where her daughter Adama Sannoh passed away last week while giving birth. In the impoverished country, where there are not enough decent hospitals, childbirth kills one in eight women. For a special package on the issue, including reports and more photos, go to washingtonpost.com.
MATERNAL MORTALITY Saffie Kallon grieves in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after leaving the hospital where her daughter Adama Sannoh passed away last week while giving birth. In the impoverished country, where there are not enough decent hospitals, childbirth kills one in eight women. For a special package on the issue, including reports and more photos, go to washingtonpost.com. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 13, 2008

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Arriving in Freetown isn't exactly arriving in Freetown.

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Sure, the plane lands and the flight attendant chirps happily, "Welcome to Freetown." But there's a hitch. The airport's one dimly lit little runway sits on the opposite side of a very wide body of water that separates it from downtown.

That's when the adventure starts.

There are four ways to get to the city. If you had a big 4x4 truck, you could drive around the water. But that takes two to three hours on tortuous roads -- even longer in a standard taxi.

You could take the ferry, which many people do. But because it seems to sail only when the captain feels like it, the ferry requires a certain readjustment to African time.

There is also a hovercraft, a big, whomping boat with two huge propellers in the back, like one of those airboats you see in the Florida Everglades.

The hovercraft breaks down a lot. Locals talk about the adrenaline jockeys who pilot the craft way too fast, and about the time last year when the sucker caught fire and nearly sank. Nobody was injured, but the hovercraft's reputation suffered disfiguring wounds.

When my flight landed, it was nearly midnight, thanks to a four-hour delay at Heathrow Airport, which is a small, barely functioning third-world nation just west of London.

The ferryman had gone home for the night, the hovercraft was in bed, and I didn't have a car for the long haul overland.

That left only the fourth option.

The helicopter.

I had heard about the Freetown chopper a week before my trip. A friend learned I was going and mentioned it to me, laughing. "Look it up," he howled.


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