The plane comes to a stop and everyone stands. Between the jumble of shoulders, heads and arms reaching for overhead lockers I catch a glimpse through the window – outside, flood lit and stark in the darkness, a building bears the uneven label “Lungi International Airport”.
We all move slowly to the exit, the conversation a babble of Krio, European and Chinese languages. At the plane door, a blast of heat and humidity as the West African night assaults us and my shirt is wet by the time I reach the bus that takes us the fifty metres to the airport building.
I strike up conversation with the person next to me – a European doctor returning from holiday. She was present throughout the ebola epidemic and talks passionately of the country. We walk past an unmanned health screening station – a piece of post-ebola heritage – for a quick passport check. Beyond, behind a dirty glass screen, men shout out offerings of currency exchange. I hand over £100 and in return receive several hundred notes in neat stacks. Flustered I stand clutching them and attempt to count. The teller looks at me bemused, and takes one of the piles and rapidly counts them in front of me “1, 2, 3, 4…”. I stop him when he reaches 80, “I’ll believe you!”
The pile is almost 2 inches thick – I stuff a few in my wallet and the remainder in various pockets.
Suitcases collected I step outside. The airport is on the farside of the bay and a boat transfer is necessary to get to Freetown itself. My new doctor friend reassures me the process is straightforward, and indeed within seconds I am swept into a flow of people moving from the arrivals area. “You need a transfer?” someone asks. Money is taken, my bags numbered, receipt given. The noise, crowd, activity and heat is startling.
We all climb onto coaches and a 10 minute ride takes us to the jetty. “Have you been here before?” a Chinese gentleman asks me as the coach bumps down the dirt track.
“I haven’t.” I reply. “Why are you here?”
“I work in construction. My boss told me to come,” he says grumpily and gazes moodily out of the window.
We walk down to a shelter just above the water line – a rickety wooden jetty reaches out to sea, disappearing into the darkness, and the waves break onto the littered sand just below us.
Twenty minutes later we are called to our boat. I see it at the end of the jetty, rocked alarmingly by the swell. We clamber into the enclosed passenger area.
“How long is the ride?” I ask my new doctor friend, anxiously, as a wave of nausea passes.
“About 30 minutes.” We sit together and she tells me something of her 4 years here, of working before Ebola, of seeing the first cases at the hospital in Freetown, of the deaths of patients and some colleagues, of the fear, of the amazing commitment of many, and of the recovery.
We pull alongside the key in Freetown and climb off. We are reunited with our bags and outside a driver stands with a sign bearing my name. She knows him and gives him a cheery greeting. He walks me to his car. “Ah,” he says. “In ebola she was a machine! She saved many lives.”