Liberia - June 11, 2011

Hey everyone!  Here's part two of my Liberian adventure.  Sorry for the length.  I shall title this piece "On the Road Again".

A few weeks ago my staff took me out to lunch.  We went to the “nice” restaurant just outside town. They had one thing on the menu…actually there were no menus.  We just asked the waiter what they were serving and it was water soup and rice.  Now, water soup does not quite fit its name.  I would have called it “putrid bowl of bush meat rotting in brown murky sauce”.  I was told that it was deer and I made them swear it wasn’t monkey.  Who knows what it really was.  Could have been cat or dog or rat or pygmy hippo for all I know.  There were one or two pieces of meat that might have been almost edible, except they also mixed some fish in the bowl.   At my last job, a colleague went on vacation for a while (I can’t remember exactly how least a few weeks).  He had a beta fish on his desk and it was my job to watch over it.  I fed it every day like I was instructed, but he didn’t tell me how to clean the bowl.  I should have taken the initiative to figure it out, but for whatever reason it didn’t cross my mind.  One day I came into the office and the poor fish was floating belly up in a bowl of smelly green sludge.  And that’s what water soup smelled like; a fishy bowl of green sludge with an expired beta floating in it.  I ate the minimum amount that I could without being extremely rude because my staff was paying for my lunch and it was the first time we all left the office together to be social.  I mainly ate rice and put a piece of meat or two on the plate to make it look like I was eating it. Thankfully, I did not get sick.

 Part of my mission here is to open up a new office/residence compound.  Yesterday was the final day of moving.  I was a bit grumpy around 11am as I had been on the road since 7 and knew I had a very long, hot, tiring day ahead of me with no food…the same as the day before.   It is virtually impossible to find edible food, cooked and ready to eat, except within the confines of our house kitchen…the shops have crackers, but it’s not like there’s a fast food joint on every corner.  And let me tell you, a person can only eat so many crackers.  Crackers are for babies and convalescents and the occasional wine and cheese party.  Crackers are not food.  Anyway, Shad, my Operations Assistant, and I were in Ganta, the largest town in our part of the county.  We were buying some shower fixtures and other items for the new house and I just needed to eat.  Shad took me to the happenin’ spot in town, the Beer Garden Bar and Restaurant.  It looked okay enough.  Well…of course all they had was water soup and rice.  Shad asked “what kind of meat?”  “Cow meat”  “No Fish?”  “No Fish”.  I figured what the hell, we’re in the “big city” and not the outskirts of town, so it’s not bush meat.  And there’s no fish in it.  Worth a try.  Oh boy, Big mistake.  This was brown murky water with a tinge of red.  I took one small bite of meat and almost up-chucked in my bowl.  The longer it was on the table in front of me, the more I became accosted with the scent of sewage.  One piece of meat was accordion shaped and I can only guess was an internal organ of some kind.  My friend back home likes to joke that if I want to lose some weight in Africa, I should just lick some rancid meat that a vendor is selling on the side of the road.  That’s pretty much what I did, but worse because I chewed and swallowed.  In the end I had a little plain rice for lunch.  The venerable George W. once said “fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me…uh…you can’t get fooled again.”  Those immortal words have never wrung more true.  I have now officially, O-fficially learned my lesson.  Water soup, BAD. Crackers, GOOD.  Thankfully, my friend’s prediction did not come true and I did not get sick.

Other than eating water soup, the main death defying acting here is driving in a car.  The roads are barely more than dirt tracks cut through the jungle.  They are covered with potholes and bumps and rocks of all shapes and sizes.  There is one steep hill that is essentially made up of a series of small boulders embedded in the dirt.  It feels like you are driving up a dried out waterfall.  When the roads are dry, you can expect huge clouds of dust to fly up from the wheels of any vehicle that may get in front of you, sometimes causing complete white-outs.  There are also thick clouds of black smoke emanating from the tail pipe of just about every overloaded truck.  It is incredible how much stuff they pile on these vehicles; cargo (like bananas or rice), with buckets and wheel barrows hanging off of the back and about 30 people crammed on top and hanging from the sides.  There’s no a/c in our vehicles so you have to have the windows down.  I think I should challenge the world record for holding one’s breath.  Every time we come upon a truck struggling to get up a hill, I take a deep breath before we hit the cloud and hold it until we manage to pass.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there is a constant stream of traffic on the road.  It’s pretty remote.  You could be driving for long stretches and not see any other vehicles.  But sometimes you get stuck behind one car or truck and can’t manage to pass because of the terrible condition of the road.  When I get back to my house in the evenings, I usually look like I’ve gotten a sunburn and then I’ll take a baby wipe and realize that it’s just caked on dirt.

 When there’s been a lot of rain, the roads become a muddy quagmire.  The other day we came upon a truck stuck in the mud, blocking our lane.  We had to stop and wait for an oncoming truck to pass.  However, as soon as the two trucks were parallel, the oncoming truck started to jackknife into the shallow ditch on the shoulder and slide head on toward us.  The truck wasn’t moving very fast so it was all happening rather slowly, but we still could not throw the car in reverse to back-up quickly because the entire road was covered in at least 4 inches of mud.  Thankfully the truck came to a stop about a foot from our bonnet.  Then we had to try and drive diagonally through the maybe 15 foot gap between the (now) two immobilized trucks, hoping we weren’t going to start sliding into one of them. We made it, but just barely.

Then there are the motorbikes.  Crazy guys with no sense of safety who will carry anyone and anything on their bikes.  Today I saw a little boy in the front squinting against the dirt flying up into his face and then the driver and then 3 other people and some cargo.  I don’t know how they manage to drive on these roads.  You have to constantly dodge obstacles…the holes, livestock, motorbikes…so you are never really driving on the correct side.  You just have to gauge which part of the road will allow you to move forward with the least amount of damage to the car and without getting stuck.  It’s only when you come across an oncoming vehicle that you have to revert back to your side of the road.  Getting in an accident is one of my biggest fears. I don’t want to get injured or killed from the accident itself or from the angry mob that often appears. 

Recently a UN military police vehicle hit a motorcycle just outside Saclepea and severely injured the driver and passenger. The UN vehicle took the victims to the local health center but the doctors couldn’t treat them so the UN vehicle proceeded to the hospital in Ganta, an hour away.  The driver died in the hospital.  Word traveled fast back to the town where the driver was from called Lowee.  People from Lowee went down to Saclepea and were angry that the police didn’t arrest the vehicle driver and impound the UN vehicle.  So they beat the policemen and then burned the police station to the ground.  The next day the police emergency response unit went to Lowee to arrest the perpetrators and shots were exchanged, though no one was hit.  Traffic accidents, especially those involving foreigners, can create serious security threats.

Oh, and the bridges…they are my favorite…and by bridges, I mean old wooden planks that are not nailed down and have holes on the side and should not have cars and trucks driving over them.  One bridge is particularly insane.  I call it “The Bridge of Doom”.  It has gotten progressively worse since I’ve been here and is frequently blocked by a truck whose tire has fallen through.  Now it’s so bad that trucks unload their cargo, carry it across, drive the truck across and then reload the cargo.  We went over the bridge when a truck was half way done unloading and like 5 hours later we went back and the truck was just finishing reloading on the other side.  The bridge is only like 20 feet long, if that.  What a crazy amount of work to move forward 20 feet.   Attached is a picture.  This was actually the bridge at its best.  Now most of the side rails are gone and there aren’t really any vertical planks.

My life here is pretty much consumed with driving and vehicles…sometimes I feel like I live in my Land Cruiser and I’m pretty sure that some of my internal organs have become dislodged from all the bumping and jostling.  Part of my job is to manage vehicle movements and it seems like there is always a vehicle breaking down which causes me hours of work rearranging the day’s plan and trying to get the vehicle repaired.  One of the biggest constraints that any NGO or organization has in the field is access to reliable vehicles.  Not a day goes by where something doesn’t fall off or snap or crack or otherwise cause me grief.  And apparently donors (and that’s a term that encompasses governmental and nongovernmental entities) don’t like to pay for new vehicles for emergency situations.  But how can you get the medicine or shelters or social workers to the refugees if you don’t have vehicles that work?  It’s not like there are Zip cars or U-hauls here.

Driving through the countryside for hours on end is never boring though. There is always something to look at and ponder; whether it be the passing villages, the random person on the side of the road seemingly miles from anywhere else (where did they come from? Where are they going?  How the hell are they balancing that huge tree trunk on their head?) or the jungle landscape.  This part of Liberia is pretty dense forest.  Sometimes there are walls of green on either side of the road and other times the road is more open and hilly you have sweeping vistas of jungle. 

For all the trees though, I don’t see many birds.  In fact, except for the annoying chickens in my yard, I don’t think I’ve seen any.  You would think the sky would be littered with them.  I haven’t really seen any animals at all except for insanely huge insects and roaming livestock (little baby goats are so darn cute).  Sometimes you will see huge termite mounds on the side of the road and even in villages. These mounds are at least 5 feet tall and sometimes that big around at the base.  The ones in town inevitably have a goat lying on top.  I would hate to encounter one of those mounds on foot.  I picture the giant ant scene from Indian Jones 4 when millions of ants swarm over the guy and a minute later he is nothing but a pile of bones.  One time we saw in the distance some big animal laying over half of the road.  My driver frantically shouted at me to roll up my window.  I wasn’t able to do it in time and we passed by the creature which we decided must have been an obscenely large iguana or some such lizard.  The driver had thought it was a crocodile.  It would have been a fairly small crocodile.  I laughed that he was so panicked because my window was down.  Had it really been a crocodile, I would have wanted to stop and have a look, and I even would have risked it with my window down.  But maybe he knew something I didn’t…maybe there is some incredible leaping Liberian crocodile that is known to latch onto the arms of people stupid enough to have their window down as they speed past.

When you are driving around you always catch a whiff of someone burning leaves and grass.  I don’t know if they are just clearing the land or what, but there will inevitably be smoke coming from somewhere.  It has this sweet tangy smell that is somehow enticing and off-putting at the same time.  It smells exactly like store bought barbeque sauce and I will never be able to grill again without thinking of it.

I really love the earthy green and brown colors of the landscape.  But you don’t realize the sameness of it all until you see the rare yellow or pink flower along the side of the road.  For a brief minute my spirits soar.  I don’t normally care that much about flowers, but now it makes my day if I see one (which is definitely not every day).  Another item that adds some variety of color to the scene is the buckets that people use.   They must have all come off the same ship from China because every shop sells the same kind…they are bright with multicolored stripes of yellow and purple or blue and black or green and orange and just about every other color combination in stripendom.   I’m a curious person so I like to look through people’s open doors and windows as I walk or drive past their houses.  Sometimes, from what I can tell, the house is basically empty, or their might be a wooden chair or bench or mattress on the floor.  But there are always…always…at least two or three bright striped buckets inside or in front of the house. 

 The Saturday food market also adds some color to my life.  It’s in this large rectangular yellow building on the edge of town.  The outside is surrounded by stalls selling house wares and clothes and other such stuff.  You walk up the steps to the building and enter through the open doorway and are immediately hit with the smell of fried fish and spices and the murmuring voices of vendors and buyers.  There is a section for greens where you can buy bunches of cassava greens or potato greens (bet you didn’t even know that potatoes grew leaves).  Then there is a large section where people sell eggplant, little tiny peppers, ochre, green tomatoes, and nuts.  Each vendor basically offers the same things and the tables have the items divided into neat little individual piles for sale.  You can also get little bags of spices, like salt and sugar, and little tiny bags of pasta…literally the bags have 5 pasta shells in it.  Or 10 pieces of spaghetti that were broken in half.  I’m not sure if this is considered a serving size or if this all that people can afford to buy, but you would have to put all of the bags in the entire market together in one pot if you wanted to equal one portion that you’d find in an American restaurant.  The back of the market has beans, fish and meat.  There are tables with big heaping piles of dried fish.  God knows how long they have been sitting around.  I didn’t really walk through that meat section because of the smell, but they had stacks of fish and chicken feet and pigs feet and what I can only presume is cow and goat.

I am a rounded, full figured woman.  It’s interesting to be in a place where that sort of body style is appreciated.  Here it is expected that a woman would be rounded…it’s not excess caused from too much McDonalds (or Chipolte as the case may be for me) but the natural roundness that a woman should possess, especially a mother, especially after popping out like 5 children.  On the other hand, the men are totally chiseled.  Theirs are muscles earned from manual labor and a generally hard life.  It would take an American man copious amounts of protein shake and hours at the gym to come close.  I don’t say this to be prurient, rather it's an observation on how obvious it is that different ways of life result in different physiques and different expectations surrounding them.  And no you cannot have my “fun time” number.

Liberians have their own handshake.   You clasp hands and shake, then you both slide your palms down so that just the tips of your fingers are touching and you snap your fingers off the other person’s.  I love it.  Sometimes you can get it just right and make a perfect snapping sound.   I just find something cool and sassy and stylish about it.  So much better than our standard handshake and definitely better than the awkward European cheek kissing where you never know how many freakin’ kisses you are supposed to do. 

So, one funny story before I go.  A few weeks ago the cook in one of our compounds made me lunch.  Typical fare…kidney beans and pasta.  I had a can of green beans that I wanted her to cook.  I handed her the can and said “can you heat this up?  I really want some vegetables with my lunch”.  A little while later I was ready to eat and I noticed the can sitting on the table.  I picked it up and it was burning hot!  HA! She must have boiled the can.  The kidney beans came out of a can, so it’s not like she doesn’t know how to open one.  I figure she just took me totally literally.  If I had said “Can you cook these green beans for me?”  She probably would have opened the can.  I hope she was thinking “crazy white woma” when she was waiting for the water to boil. I could probably prattle on forever so I’ll stop here.  I have one more week to go before I’m off to Bangkok.  My first trip to Asia! Yay! I’ll write again after that.

I’ll leave you with the parting words form the billboard that is posted as you are leaving the town of Ganta: “Bon Voyage. Avoid Drugs. Prevent HIV/AIDS. Support Girls Education.”  Amen.