We were just a couple of recent university grads with a few weeks to kill in Africa, and instead of joining our friends somewhere typical — Kenya, Zanzibar, or Timbuktu — Dan and I got it in our heads that post-civil war Sierra Leone was the place to go. We were two idiots with almost zero experience in dangerous places, traveling by any means we could from Accra through Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, with a final aim of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
We’d heard the beaches there were nice. And we kind of liked that we were defying everyone who’d told us ours was a nitwit plan.
The Canadian High Commission in Accra told us we weren’t allowed to go. The organization we worked for told us the trip wouldn’t be covered by our insurance and that if something went wrong we would be on our own. At 25 years old, we mentally flipped them off. We were sure we could make it without breaking a sweat.
We were correct — for the first day or so. It wasn’t until the van we were in headed further north than expected in Cote d’Ivoire that I started to worry. When we crossed the demilitarized zone into rebel-held northern Cote d’Ivoire, I realized we were in over our heads. And when we were dragged out of the van, marched through a military compound and interrogated by a man who held our passports and yelled into a rotary phone that wasn’t even plugged into the wall, I knew we had made the biggest mistake of our lives.
To this day, though, I will swear to anyone who listens that we were saved by our decision to bring along some cigarettes. And if you ever think you could run into scrapes on your trips, I advise you to bring along a few packs of smokes, just in case. There are corners of the world — and probably corners of your block — where they’re worth more in social currency than the money you pay for them. They’re a thank-you, they’re a bribe, they’re an international translator. They belong in your backpack when you’re out in the world, even if, like me, you barely know which end to light.
If there are no atheists in foxholes then I doubt there are any nonsmokers in conflict zones. The journalist Deborah Campbell, who has reported from such countries as Iran, Syria, Israel, Palestine and Russia, told me cigarettes have often played a role in social situations on her travels. They “certainly were a way of thanking people who helped me, and lubricating social situations,” she said.
On our trip Dan and I found that passing around a couple smokes had a remarkable way of making a tense situation friendly, even if we weren’t partaking. Plus, when stress is high, you may very well need a smoke. Sebastian Junger, who spent months embedded with US soldiers in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, described this moment when a soldier admitted he was basically smoking at the suggestion of his doctor:
“I’ve only been here four months and I can’t believe how messed up I already am,” he said. “I went to the counselor and he asked if I smoked cigarettes and I told him no and he said, ‘Well, you may want to think about starting.’”
He lit a cigarette and inhaled.
“I hate these fuckin’ things,” he said.