Looking for a new travel destination? Tired of the ‘this-country-is-the-best-in-the-world’ sponsored travel pieces you find online? We get it. Tourism comes with its own marketing efforts that can sometimes give a false idea of reality. Imagine this: just as you are sinking into a hammock whilst the ocean breeze tickles your hair like a tropical deity, bedbugs crawl into your bathing suit, your stomach starts turning (perhaps the fresh lobster wasn’t actually fresh) and you find out your accommodation has no running water. Ever.

At VSL we try to paint as honest a picture of the Sierra Leonean travel experience whilst promoting tourism. That seems contradictory; isn’t promotion in itself biased? And isn’t the writer herself known for her avid love of Sierra Leone? Fair points. That’s why I decided to let someone unbiased talk about his experiences. The horrid, the thrilling, and the fantastic.

I introduce to you Ruben Middelkoop. A 29-years-old Dutch man who traveled to Sierra Leone for 17 days, two years ago. He shares with us his travel experience and some of the pictures he thought captured the trip well.

What brought you to Sierra Leone?

I had become interested in Sierra Leone through conversations I had with you. It made me want to see what life was like there. I had never been to Africa before; yeah, I went to Morocco, but that’s quite different.

Also, I like these kind of holidays. Nothing pre-arranged. I’d rather explore a country than be comfortable in Spain. And I wanted to explore the culture, the people, and feel the place.

I had some free time on my hands and decided to go. Didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. It was an impulse and I went with it.

What was your impression of Sierra Leone before your visit?

I was more expectant than imaginative, because I couldn’t form an image as I had never traveled to a comparable place before.

Besides, I traveled there just a few months after the end of the Ebola Virus Outbreak. I was on the 4th or 5th KLM flight since they resumed their Sierra Leone flight. I was curious and knew that it must have been different from what I saw on the news. That motivated me to go as well, seeing for myself how things were.

To be honest, I was more surprised by the responses I got from other Dutch people. Someone I knew who works for an NGO told me that she thought it was ‘heavy’ that I went there. My niece asked me, ‘yeah aren’t people just hungry there all the time?’ Kind of like imagining a straw hut every 50 meters where people meet.

I did imagine it to be chaotic. Many cities outside of Europe have that vibe. That thrilled me. The movement and pace of these cities. I imagined Freetown to be like that too.

However, I was naive about the visa thing. Back then I thought you could only go through Brussels to get your visa, and it’s quite expensive. Speaking of which, I did not expect it to be cheap like Southeast Asia, where they are more tourism-oriented. There is a large gap between poor and rich in Sierra Leone, and having a western stomach equals paying more for western dishes.

What surprised you?

The whole millennial scene. The enormous drive to see how young Freetonians were moving. Everybody who I met was so passionate, motivated to make a career.

Also, the difference between poor and rich surprised me, and how ignorant the rich Sierra Leoneans can be towards poverty. I saw so many big watches and cars, whilst the poorest people were selling groundnuts on the beach, even young girls.

What I did not like was the lack of choice in accommodation. There’s either Radisson Blu, or staying with someone you know. No real mid-range options for people like me.

What was great was that I did not feel unsafe for a single moment, not in Freetown or when I traveled alone to Tiwai Island with lots of cash in my pocket. Oh, and that people were surprised to see me take a poda poda. The prejudice going both ways. I was being confronted with the fact that I was white and male and the assumptions people have with that.

Lastly, it surprised me how helpful people were. When I was on the market with an okada driver, he stood up for me when the seller was overcharging me. And it helped that most people speak English.

What was your most beautiful experience?

I still get goosebumps when I think back, but it might not be the nicest experience. We were having dinner on the beach in Freetown and when I finished my chicken a little boy took my plate and gave the remains to his blind father. That really stuck to me.

Also, when I went to wait for the boat to cross to Tiwai Island, which is deep inland, kids came to pinch my arm and marvelled at my arm hair. I was a strange object to them. I did not mind at all, it was so sincere, I enjoyed their curiosity.

Many things were beautiful, such as the surfer community at Bureh Beach. Going to the stadium was impressive, how busy and lively it was.

Also, the arrival on Lungi airport stuck with me. People flocked towards me whilst walking to the boat, beggars too. That’s when I noticed that there were many poor people and amputees. It was heavy. But then, on the boat, I had a lovely conversation with a Canadian Sierra Leonean. It was  a warm welcome, and people were happy to explain to me how things worked. I liked that. In the end I did a lot by myself.  The Sierra Leoneans made it easy for me.

Would you recommend it to others?

Friends who like to backpack; but, knowing someone there would save a lot of cost because of accommodation. And then I stayed at G’s house, who lived with Manon. It was expensive, especially in terms of accommodation.

Please do it in terms of country and culture, but in terms of accommodation it was more challenging. It’s good that has changed now. It was more targeted towards NGO’s and expats.

It’s not too far away. I would certainly recommend it. But there.

Is Sierra Leone for everybody? Or do you need to have a specific kind of vibe/mentality?

I would recommend backpackers and people who are a bit more adventurous to go. Those who want to experience different cultures but are willing to be explorative and flexible. The cultural activities are not that many. But if you go to the Freetown Music Festival, and go surfing because the beach is amazing, and take an okada around and know places to stay; certainly, do it. Be willing to be flexible.

Also, go to challenge your perspective of the world. People associate Sierra Leone with diamonds and the war. But that’s not how it is. The people can offer you a lot.

If you’re willing to be openminded, then going to Sierra Leone is an amazing experience.