Early Liberia Impressions - More to Follow

June 13, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

We arrived right on time at Payne International Airport in Monrovia.  On the flight in from Accra, we bounced around a little with the many thunderstorms in the area, then descended to see a very green, jungle countryside.  The runway at LFW was very short and our pilot put the plane down hard and jumped on the brakes and thrust reversers, tossing us into our seatbelts. As we slowed and started to turn onto the taxiway it was clear that we were very close to the end of the runway.  The taxi was very short and then we pulled up to a small terminal that was little better than a small private airport in the US. We walked down the stairs and onto the tarmac that was asphalt with significant amounts of loose gravel. Some well-dressed men came out of the building’s left side and greeted one of the passengers--some sort of dignitary--and we proceeded to the immigration line.

Charlie moved to the front of the line and was processed quickly.  While we were in line, though, one of the officers came out and asked for the leader of our group.  I spoke up and he asked for our group’s official passports. Then, he told us that we could go to baggage claim and wait while they processed our passports.

Our bags arrived and they were checking claim tags before we could leave with our bags.  Managing to find our tags or use other ID with our bag tags, we gathered our luggage and took the time to hit the bathroom.  When we stepped outside, two young men were waiting for us with signs and we carrying our baggage to their two sedans.

It became obvious that our transportation was unaware of our trip and just bringing us to the hotel.  Our driver asked us if he could stop for gas on the way back--only about 100 meters from the hotel--which I found strange, but we agreed.

We arrived at the hotel, checked in quickly, but still found no note from our tour guide or any other information from TransAfrica or Tailor-Made Travel.

I was in touch with Mr Jarad Geiger from the embassy, trying to arrange dinner, via WhatsApp but still wanted to clarify our guide plans here.  I called Tailor-Made’s 24-hour number and spoke with Holly, a very helpful agent aware of our trip. She was surprised that we didn’t have the necessary info, but gave me the TransAfrica local number which I called.  I was using my Google Pixel phone and wifi calling to do all of this since they don’t have service in Liberia.

A TransAfrica agent answered quickly and told me that we our guide would meet us at 0730 at the hotel the next morning to begin our tour.  He then texted me the guide’s name and contact info. With that, we set dinner with Jarad at 1900 and he committed to come pick us up with a colleague of his.  I sent all of this info to our cadets using our GroupMe app and they all responded promptly. We settled into the room and relaxed for about an hour.

Jarad and his colleague, Josh, a foreign service officer serving in the political office at the embassy, picked us up in a white Chrysler Van and a 4x4 with US Embassy plates on time and we went about a mile away to their residential compound.  It was right along the beach with a view of the breakers. The building had a huge gate, tight security, and very high walls. We walked up to Jarad’s furnished apartment that was large and spacious with a balcony and well-stocked drink fridge containing soft drinks and beer.  Inside he had some excellent red wine and copies of Wine Spectator on the coffee table in front of the large, flat-screen TV.

We did introductions and stepped onto the balcony where we stayed for most of the evening.

The discussions were fascinating.  Josh is a former contract flight test engineer that worked with the Air Force before joining the foreign service.  Jarad has been stationed overseas for 20 straight years all over the world. He’s leaving in January and will take a post at the embassy in Slovenia--a nice bonus after Liberia.  

They were both pretty negative about the country and thought that they were headed for another crisis or economic crash in the next six to twelve months.  They were surprised that we had come here and said that if the Army Lt Col Defense Attache was here he would have certainly invited us out, too, and taken good care of us.  They told us about West Point and called it the “worst slum in the world,” and that when bad storms hit, since it is build on a sandbar, several people are just swept away. They advised that we just see it from a distance and don’t go in.  They described violence in the city and it was pretty shocking. They also told us about former warlords and child soldiers with known histories of committing murder and atrocities within their parliament or in cabinet offices. They described a country with very few serviceable roads--it takes 14 hours to drive 240 miles to Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown--and rampant corruption.  They said that Liberia is the fourth poorest country in the world, too, and that the Liberian Dollar had dropped in value against the US Dollar by about 40% in the last year.

Liberia has very few exports except for mineral wealth mined by international corporations and a huge rubber plantation established by Firestone in the 1930s.

We talked about Redemption Beach and seeing the soccer goalposts still on the beach against which Samuel Doe had had his enemies shot by firing squad in the coup d’etat of 1980.

The pizza was pretty good and I’m sure the cadets enjoyed it.  After finishing it, I actually did NOT have heartburn for the first time in about 48 hours, so I felt good.  I laid off the beer and had a glass of excellent Rioja that Jarad offered.

They told us that under no circumstances should we walk around after dark in Monrovia, even in a group, and that we should, in general not go walking around without our guide.

They offered to set us up for dinner with them the next night at a place they called, “the best restaurant in Monrovia, for what that’s worth,” run by a Lebanese friend.  It turns out that much of the successful merchant class here is, or has been, either of Lebanese or South Indian descent. Many were now leaving, though, as they were not allowed Liberian citizenship because the Constitution of Liberia requires that all citizens be “of African descent.”

They returned us to the hotel and we all returned to our rooms, set to meet for breakfast at 0700 for an 0730 departure with our guide.

12 June

Breakfast was very good with scrambled eggs, sauteed mushrooms, potatoes, breads, cereal, coffee, juices, etc.  Everyone seemed to be in pretty good health and only one requested a Loperamide tablet.

We were ready in the lobby at 0730 and Jimmy, our guide, arrived at about 0740.  We waited until almost 0810 for our minibus, though, and Jimmy was definitely frustrated by this.  Jimmy has been a guide in Monrovia for about six years and speaks very clear, good English. He’s a member of the Kpelle tribe from the county of Bong a few hours from Monrovia. He appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s.  Our driver is Emmanuel and he’s much younger than Jimmy--about 25 or so.

He told the group that we’d be going to West Point, walking around, and visiting a pair of schools there. We’d also go by Redemption Beach on the way.

Elaborate later on Jimmy’s discussion of the tourist industry.

 

On the drive, Jimmy pointed out several government buildings, the University of Liberia, United Nations and EU buildings, as well as the old US Embassy, now used as housing for embassy personnel.  We turned up Broad Street and went uphill from there to Ducor Hill to an immense abandoned resort hotel called the Ducor Palace. We parked in a brought asphalt area and were the only cars there.

First we went to the Roberts Memorial that pays tribute to Liberia’s first president.  It’s statue on a small ride atop the hill surrounded by high relief bronze sculpture plaques showing the arrival of the Elizabeth carrying the first freed slaves and others from the American Colonization Society as well as dispictions of local tribes meeting them, ultimately integrating with the “Americos.”  Jimmy told us about Liberia’s early history with some level of pride.

From there we stepped over the abandoned Ducor Palace and began our tour there.  First we went to the old swimming pool. Eddie actually walked out on the old, very questionable diving board and sat on the end.  Jimmy started laughing saying that in all of his tours he’d led, no tourist had ever had the guts to do that. We told Eddie that if the board broke and he fell into the stagnant, green water (probably only two to three feet deep) that he was on his own--no one was going to help him.

Jimmy explained that the hotel had begun construction in 1967 and was ultimately bought by Muhammar Qaddafi from Libya as part of his Pan Africa efforts and investments.  However, afer the coup of 1980 and the ensuing civil wars that lasted well into the ‘90s and early 2000’s, it had been abandoned and generally stripped of everything except some of the marble on the floors and walls.  There was considerable graffiti on the walls, some of it actually quite beautiful. The parking lot actually had a security guard--for what reason, I do not know.

We stood on the balcony and looked out at West Point, the Port of Liberia and other landmarks to the west.  From rooms on the east side we looked over central Monrovia and Broad Street. In some ways it reminded me of the ruins at Mesa Verde National Park.  I’d also visited a similarly abandoned resort during our trip to Cambodia in 2014 that was left fallow with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge to power. Like its Cambodian counterpart, the Ducor Palace was photographic paradise and I could stay there all day taking photos accentuated by the puddles of calm water on many of the floors, the holes in the walls made by both bullets and rocket propelled grenades, and more and more graffiti.

From the Ducor Palace, we drove down the hill and headed into the West Point Township slums.  We parked at a Total gas station and walked out onto the wet road, watching a front loader scoop tons of wet, smell garbage.  



 


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