Skipping forward quite a bit I’m now writing as we’re en route to the Roberts Airport, almost a two hour drive outside of the city to the east. It’s been a whirlwind 42 hours (so far) in Liberia and we’re all ready to leave, I think.
This is a very depressing country with few redeeming values or reasons to be optimistic beyond the demonstrated resilience of many of it's people that have survived so much.
Still, there are very few countries that I will be so happy to leave.
I’m only half joking when I say that Monrovia is a potential preview of the Zombie Apocalypse with it's skeletal buildings, poverty, bullet and RPG holes in walls, collapsing infrastructure and population density.
As I type, we’re at a traffic checkpoint, stopped, watching police scream at two obviously American motorcycle riders on their shiny new motocross bikes.
Our driver just cleared the inspection, though, and we’re not going to see the conclusion. Instead, we’re driving fast to the airport with the windows down because the fan belt on the bus won’t allow us to use the air conditioning. We’re on a quasi-four lane highway lined by businesses with no curb, divider, or controls/lights. Pedestrians cross wherever they choose and cars stop randomly for them causing brakes to squeal and minibuses to swerve. We turn right onto (strangely) a smaller two lane road that supposedly will lead to the international airport in 27 miles, then merge on to another road.
We’re driving now by the Samuel Kanyon Doe soccer stadium. Yes, that Samuel Doe, who executed his predecessor in a bloody coup d’etat. I ask Jimmy, our guide, about it and he says that Doe had the stadium built during his time in power. I ask why they haven’t changed the name of the stadium and he said it’s because he contributed so much to soccer in Liberia. Yeah, and Mussolini made the trains run on time, too.
We pass a sign that says that the EU paid for this road and is paying for it's maintenance until 2021. It’s a good road now…
We just went through our second police checkpoint, this time without a stop. It’s 1225 and there are many school kids walking along the sides of the road in their various uniforms, presumably because it’s lunch, but who knows. We see kids in school uniforms at every hour of the day.
The air conditioning belt just snapped. Our driver pulled over to the side of the road and told us he would try to reconnect it (somehow). I just said, “No, let’s go. We don’t need air conditioning. The windows are already down.”
Just rolled through police checkpoint number three.
We’ve also passed two large government office building, one the ministry of health and the other a new building to house all other government ministries and learn that they were both built by the Chinese.
Further out of town and along the coast, we pass many large homes in the distance (not along the road, with the poor, but seaside) that are quite large and in every conceivable state of repair--from block walls and no roof, through fully complete and apparently maintained well, to abandoned to the jungle and squatters.
I driver swerves to pass a land cruiser and just ducks in front before a head-on. He’s no Idi by a long shot.
As we get more rur, we see farming area around the homes and compounds growing corn and bananas. There are piles of trash interrupting jungle overgrowth of vines along the side of the road.
We’ve covered the first 20 miles in about an hour, but we seem to be rolling along now on a hilly but straight road. The number of palm trees increases, as does the number of half-built and abandoned homes. We pass by some wetlands in which women and children and wading, harvesting greens of some type, I think. Next is a rainy season pond that, in the dry season is a soccer pitch--since the pond has goal posts and crossbars at two sides.
The wong-like white airport appears in the distance across a field of sparsely planted banana trees. Sadly, it’s not open yet, and we turned into a sad little, moldy terminal that was only marginally bigger than Wayne Airport where we arrived two days before.
Jimmy and the driver dropped us at the door and, since we had arrived almost four hours before our expected departure of 1645, we decided to walk over to the Farmington Hotel and get some lunch. It was only about 200 meters away and we just carried our bags. Jimmy offered to carry us over in the minibus, but that wouldn’t taken longer by the time we loaded and unloaded. Still, he walked over with us to say goodbye.
I gave him USD $20 and thanked him. I didn’t say goodbye to Emmanuel. He didn’t seem interested in us at all throughout the trip, so that didn’t surprise me. If Jimmy decided to share some of his tip with home, that was his decision.
We entered the very nice Farmington Hotel and we're directed to the dining area where they had a very nice buffet lunch with many local selections awaiting us. It was relatively expensive at USD$20 apiece, but the cadets got their money’s worth by the time they’d ravaged the dessert table. The best and most interesting dish was a sort of spinach purée stewed with some spices, chiles, and and tough beef or goat. It was very good over here rice.
We connected via WiFi and started to check on the status of our flight. Each of us, checking a different site or app got a different response for the Air Cote d’Ivoire flight 759 to Abidjan. These discoveries ran from 'no flights today to Abidjan’ to departures at 1600, 1625, and 1645. The Air CdI site showed no Wednesday flight from ROB to ABJ.
We decided that, in case Charlie’s source (1600 deposit) was correct, we should walk over. Becky was checking with hotel staff to see if they knew the schedule, but their expert wasn’t around, so we walked to the front door.
The manager, who looked Lebanese, was very kind and courteous--and clearly happy that we’d dropped USD$175 on his establishment, so he offered up a free shuttle to the terminal since rain had begun. We took advantage of that, tipped our driver with some remaining Liberians 100’s and entered the decrepit little place by comically walking all four legs of the labyrinthine rope cue with no one else in line. The security guards were clearly amused.
We entered and we're pleased to see three check-ins for Air CdI. From there, check-in was easy and event free, as was clearing of customs and security. Quaintly, the gate agent hand-wrote each of our boarding passes after checking our passports. She then handed me a printout of my ticket, which, it turns out had another name on it, unknown to us all. Richard, however, was scheduled to return to Monrovia from Abidjan' on 22 June. Bon Voyage, Richard. All were accomplished in probably less than 2000 square feet of terminal space and we were in the only waiting area. Security was funny because the older gentleman working it said that he would have to dump my water bottle. But, at the last minute he said, “It’s okay. No problem. I trust you!” And handed it to me across the inspection desk. Good for me, but not great for airport security.
The little waiting area had a few shops, some broken chairs, and was occupied by about 30 others. There was a transfer bus outside. An Air CdI agent walked around and took our tickets. We tried to ask her what time we would board and finally understood her to say, “When it’s announced.”
“But when will that be?”
“I don’t know.”
It turns out she was wrong. Five minutes later, the exit doors to the tarmac opened and everyone just starting walking to the bus without an announcement. Since is was only 1525, we now deduced that Charlie’s source was correct and our flight would leave at 1600.
We were flying on another Q-400, albeit one that looked a little newer than the ASky one on which we flew two days before.
The flight was delayed by about 20 minutes because of an indicator light on the cabin door that was showing it wasn’t fully closed, but they resolved that and we were on our way a little bit late. The flight was uneventful for us, but for the cadets up a few rows, apparently one of the passengers smelled so bad that another passenger asked to be moved to another seat. The plane was about 75% full, so that was easily accomplished.
Service was very good for an 80 minute flight, with three flight attendants--all very tall. They served us a small sandwich, plenty of drinks and were working constantly.
We landed in Abidjan and immediately noticed a difference--even though we didn’t have a jet bridge. There were large (A330 and B787) aircraft from Air France and Brussels Airlines, the runway looked organized and busy, and we stepped into an immigration area that was modern and well-lit. The e-Visa desk was just inside the door and they were not only ready for Becky when she arrived, they actually greeted her by name when she came in the door.
I was impressed with this service by the company SNEDAI. You basically completed all of the application on-line and paid the fee weeks in advance, then, upon arrival, you presented your passport, they took the necessary biometrics like photo and fingerprints, then they created her visa in a little laminating machine and stuck it into her passport. The whole process took a total of five minutes. She was then only a few minutes behind us in the regular immigration line.
We were moved as a group to the diplomatic and first class line and were equally impressed with how quickly they processed us. From there, we went to baggage claim that actually had a moving carousel and luggage carts like any European airport. Bags, came out, bathroom stops were made, and we cleared the customs inspection, too. George was waiting for us and we chatted briefly.
The cadets were just amazed at the difference between Liberia and Abidjan and all smiles. George couldn’t have been more friendly. He is Ewe from Togo, Benin, and has been a guide for 13 years. After the Cote d’Ivoire Civil War ended, he was invited into the country by several leader general officers and asked to set up tourist itineraries and to do liaison work with communities to reestablish the countries overland tourist industry. He served as a liaison for some communities and seems to know the country inside and out. He proudly opened (completely) a full Michelin paper map of Cote d’Ivoire and described potential 14 and 15 day adventures that he has led in the past covering all of the major villages, ethnicities., cultures, etc. We’re clearly with the right guy.
He then told us what we’d be doing for the next couple of days before heading into Ghana and set our departure time the next day for 0800.
The team settled into the bar for a local beer and some ordered food. We were surprised by the costs--about twice the price of things in Dakar--but then I reminded them that per diem allowances in Abidjan were among the highest in Africa at $225 per night for lodging and $113 for meals.
For some reason, the bar was not air conditioned and we all go remarkably sticky and sweaty just sitting there. We adjourned to our rooms at abou 2130 and all seemed to have slept well.