• Sailing, squash and sushi: Another Monrovia August 17th, 2010

    The sushi was surprisingly good. Not cheap, but then sushi never is. A healthy dose of natsukashii as they say in Japan. As was the game of squash preceding it. Not a bad way to spend yesterday evening.Who would have thought that Liberia had a squash club? The annual tournament winners board dates back to 1976, but since 1995 the names no longer appear. Playing squash probably didn’t figure in the minds of many club-members when gun-fire ruled the streets of Monrovia.

    Liberia Squash Club

    Squash and sushi, surreal as they still sound to me here in Monrovia, were an unexpected way to celebrate a year on the road. On the evening of August 16th 2009 I was enjoying a few farewell drinks before wheeling my bicycle off the south coast of England and onto a ferry bound for France. At the time I envisaged being a little closer to South Africa than here in Monrovia. Anyone reading this website over the past 6 months will know other unforeseen events have slowed my progress.

    I don’t think my wrist has been mentioned in recent posts. It’s five months now. There remains a slight stiffness and swelling around the scar, and I don’t have the same amount of flexibility as I do in my right wrist. I possibly never will, but all things considered, things could have been a lot worse. I’ve wisely stopped walking alone in African cities at night.

    I almost forgot to mention the sailing. More ex-pat surrealism. One hour’s drive south from Monrovia lies the town of Marshall. There is little to denote that it is a town – thatched huts and a few concrete buildings line the 15km dirt track that ends at a palm-fringed lagoon. The ocean surf is audible, but out of sight from the pink villa that sits by the calm water’s edge. A Lebanese family relax on the wooden veranda enjoying the view. In front of the villa a small catamaran lies moored alongside a laser dinghy, whilst out on the lagoon dug-out canoes glide by, transporting local villagers to some invisible village. It is a tranquil scene, the sound of the distant surf broken only by that of an engine. Out on the lagoon a young Lebanese man is speeding across the water on a jet-ski. ‘It’s a lot of fun’ remarks one of the Germans I’ve joined for the afternoon. So is sailing I say, something else I haven’t done for a long time.

  • Poolside in Monrovia August 12th, 2010

    “To the casual visitor at any rate Monrovia is a more pleasant city than Freetown. Freetown is like an old trading port that has been left to rot along the beach, it is a spectacle of decay. But Monrovia is like a beginning.” (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

    The air conditioning in this apartment is constantly on, even when nobody is here. “It helps stop the mold from coming on the walls” my host tells me. He doesn’t mind it running all day. The bills for the apartment, like the rent, are covered by his employer. It’s not cheap. The cost of staying one month here would take the average Liberian more than 5 years to earn. That is assuming he had a regular job. Most Liberians don’t. It is a sobering thought. I would feel better if I knew the money was staying in Liberia. It’s not. The landlord is Lebanese.

    If it wasn’t raining I might sit outside on the balcony. It overlooks a pool and the pounding surf of the Atlantic. I have to step out of the high-walled compound to be reminded I’m in Liberia, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the World.

    A number of other ex-pats live in similar western-furnished apartments, most without this view, here in Monrovia. This city is awash with UN organizations and NGO’s. More than anywhere else I’ve been. Before arriving here I imagined that living and working in the city would be considered as a ‘hardship’ post. Perhaps it is on paper. From the ex-pats I’ve met in the past few days I would say it is anything but.

    There are a number of large supermarkets close to where I’m staying. Most foodstuffs are far more expensive than in supermarkets back home – almost everything is of course imported and then whacked for tax. The cashier seemed surprised when I handed over a small bundle of Liberian dollars to pay for my items. Here most people (foreigners) pay in US $. I can even withdraw them from an ATM, which came as a surprise.

    I planned to only be here a few days. Long enough to get a visa for the Ivory Coast and pick up a package being sent out from the UK. It seems however that I’m going to be here a little longer. I have the visa (they issued it the same day – $75 for 30 days) but the package (a replacement keyboard for my laptop) is taking a while long. ‘Approximately’ next Tuesday I’m told. I can think of worse places I’ve stayed in and had to wait. When that rain stops I might go and read by the pool.

    Poolside in Monrovia

  • Journey without maps August 10th, 2010

    “It would have been easier if I had been able to obtain a map. But the republic is almost entirely covered by forest and has never been properly mapped, mapped that is to say even to the rough extent of the French colonies, which lie on two sides of it”. (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

    Eighty years on from when Graham Greene travelled on foot through Liberia (in actual fact he was carried much of the time) it appears some things don’t change. I don’t think there is a road map for the country. But then there aren’t many roads. As for the forest, much of that appears to have gone the same way as Sierra Leone – slashed and burnt. What one sees, at least on the 120km journey from the Sierra Leonean border to the capital, Monrovia, is a continuation of secondary growth – unremarkable bush interspersed by toilet-brush palms.

    The road is a good one however, and the people equally as shocked and friendly to greet a white man riding a bicycle past the door step of their mud-thatched abode.

    One of the Liberian immigration officers informed me that a “colleague” of mine crossed through this way several months ago. We continent-crossing cyclists are of course employed by our governments (at least in the minds of many Africans) and receive huge compensation for our efforts. “He was from China.” “Are you sure he wasn’t Japanese?” I questioned. The immigration officer thought for a moment. “Yes maybe”. My colleague I guessed was Hiromu, whom I’d cycled with for a day some 7 months ago. He’d recently e-mailed to say he was in Niamey, Niger, and would be heading to Ivory Coast within the next few months. There is a good chance we’ll meet again. Company on the road would be much appreciated.

    Before riding into country number 11 (12 if I count Western Sahara) on this journey I changed my remaining Leonean currency into Liberian dollars and dined on a plate of ochre soup, unidentifiable meat (goat maybe) and rice, washing it down with several cups of Sierra Leonean palm wine. I’d bought 2.5 litres in Sulima and brought it across the border with me, much to the satisfaction and amusement of several immigration officers.

     Palm wine, it must be said, is an acquired taste. The first time I tried it in Sierra Leone I almost vomited, but subsequent samples of the stuff were either better, or else I just became hardened to the taste. Tapped fresh from the tree this sweet milky-white beverage isn’t all that bad considering it sells for about $0.25 a litre.

    Without a decent map it was difficult to ascertain the distance to Monrovia. In Sierra Leone I found that people were often very accurate in quoting me the distance from their village to the next. Someone might say 7 miles, then another would step forward and say no, it’s 8 miles. Others might then agree with the second speaker that yes, the distance was 8 miles. Much to my surprise they were often right. This goes against the norm in Africa, where time and distance have little measure.

    Well in Liberia it appears no-one knows anything about distances, not even police check-post officers. They will look at their watch, say 3 miles and tell you it will take 40 minutes to drive there.

    One interesting feature about Liberians is that they have their own particular brand of handshake, which involves flicking the middle-finger with the thumb as you release your grip. This Americanism, if that is what it is, complements the calls of “Hey man, what’s up”, that is often called as a greeting from the roadside. Liberia is after all a nation that can point its history to the Americas rather than Europe. During the mid 19th Century thousands of freed slaves from America settled back in what is now Monrovia.

    Liberia these days shares a greater similarity with its northern neighbor. It too suffered a long civil war. Two in fact. There is still a large UN peace-keeping presence here and tourists aren’t likely to be sunning themselves on Monrovia’s beaches any time soon.

    It was almost dark when I entered Liberia’s capital. Much like Freetown, and most African capitals in fact, there is little light on the street at night. This makes seeing the cavernous holes, which can be anything from 1ft-6ft deep, somewhat difficult. A strong dynamo-light would be a useful addition for cycling through Africa.

    My outdated guidebook to west Africa provides scarce detail on Liberia, and like the FCO website, warns against travel outside of Monrovia. Personally I always feel safer in African villages than I do in any of their cities. How long I’m here for I don’t know. Several weeks ago a number of keys on my laptop decided to stop working. Efforts to remove and clean the keyboard have proven unsuccessful. I could of course continue without, but writing a blog update using the on-screen keyboard is really a test of one’s patience (this is being typed on a good old-fashioned Internet Cafe PC). So I’m here waiting in Monrovia whilst a replacement keyboard makes its way from the UK to me. This may also require some patience.

     

    First night in Liberia 

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