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. There were puddles of water in the street, on the curbs, everywhere, and the water was remarkably dark and dirty except for the rainbow diffractions of oil in some. Table and tent umbrella merchant stands lined the streets with one or two women in charge of each that contained food of some sort and a variety of little kids ranging from nursing babies to six- and seven-year-olds running around. Men were at stalls selling not food items like clothing, shoes, hardware, and stacks of third-hand, cracked cover cell phones.
Jimmy quickly set us up with three kay-kays and the bumper car race into Westpoint began. The cacophony of honking horns, hawkers selling goods, wheels plashing through puddles, and screaming kids was saturating. We cleared stalls, chairs, people and other vehicles by significant millimeters, traveling at about 15 mph. I decided to take a video with my camera that turned out pretty well.
We stopped in an open parking area along a long wall that, I’m sure, was used more often as a pickup soccer pitch. The walls around the area suggested that a high school was on one side, a health center on a second, and a Catholic school on a third. We walked towards the non-walled side that was an entrance into the residential area.
The good news about Westpoint is that the ground base was all sand--we didn’t have to walk through mud. The bad news was that the sand was very dirty with puddles of unknown composition.
We were immediately struck by the tight, squalid conditions. Many of the buildings we're about eight feet high and made of concrete block that was crumbling at any exposed edge. These were covered with a patchwork of corrugated aluminum sheets often shared between homes. Entries we're bare except for a sheet or drape of some kind, but colors of paint on doors, walls, and window shutters we're often vivid and primary. No “home” appeared to have more than about 60 to 100 square feet of space and probably slept six or eight.
Children we're everywhere, most six or under. Women were cooking or preparing food, laundry was hanging from most exposed wires and cables, and we saw little indication of indoor lighting. The smells we're so intense that you quickly just flicked the olfactory switch to “off” and stopped caring.
We arrived at a low building with a new roof that burst with the screams and cheers of little kids and soon realized that we’d arrived at our first school visit.
This was a one room schoolhouse with about 80 preschool and kindergarten aged kids (though some seemed to be seven or eight) led by one man whom, we were told was a volunteer. The kids roared with delight when the cadets went to the front of the room and began speaking to them a little.
There were lessons on the two old chalkboards showing all of the letters of the alphabet and, on the other side of the room, a simple science lesson defining “matter.”
The director/teacher explained that the school was free for the children and run by donations. Under his direction, the kids parroted back some phrases as a group. We saw no individual recitation or questions. The room was packed completely with kids and we could barely walk around. The director showed us where the roof had been replace with new wooden underlayment paid for by contributions from visitors. Jimmy said for a second time that donations were welcome and we got the distinct impression that he had directed us to his friend’s school specifically to generate donations from us--a thought that recurred several more times during the day.
We thanked the director and I gave him USD$10. I’m not sure if the cadets donated anything.
We walked farther (I presumed to the north) towards the inland water side and heard more cheering--we’d arrived at another school. This one had two rooms and appeared to have three teachers (or two and a director). The kids seemed to be ranging from about third grade to maybe middle school age and we're all dressed in clean blue uniforms. Every seat was filled. The director led them in chanting drills that seemed inocuous, but were simple and apparently part of a show they point on for tourists. Their accent was difficult to understand, but then, due to the rhythm, we realized he was just saying “One, Two,” and they’d respond “Tie my shoe!” and so on. I took a video of this and, eerily, having just read “Allah Is Not Obliged,” it reminded me of drills for child soldiers. Becky was struck in the same way. When we mentioned it to the cadets hours later they said that they had not considered that. However, Matt watched the video and you could tell that it gave him chills.
In the other room of the schoolhouse, groups of three boys and then three girls were each doing the same memorized short skit on the value of staying in school that generated cheers from all of the other kids--again like it was a show for us. We did, however see real signs of lessons on the board, some progress reports belonging to a few of the kids, and a teacher actually conducting part of what looked like a real lesson.
Near the end of the visit we broke up and took some individual photos. A group gathered around Austin as he showed them photos on his cell phone, including shots from the total solar eclipse in Wyoming last year. On departure, I handed the director a twenty and, again, I don’t know if the cadets donated or not.
From the second school, we continued towards the water and came to a beach of trash with three building on stilts over the water and rickety wooden bridges leading to each. Chickens, dogs, and two small children rummaged through the trash looking for anything edible or of value.
In the first building at the beginning of the bridge was a room in which vats of water were being heated for showers that one could purchase in the out building over the water. The other two over water buildings seemed to have similar arrangements and included toilets that vented directly to the water with about five feet of space between floor and water surface, a la Slumdog Millionaire. Two young men were sending the hot water vats and collecting money from patrons. In the outdoor area on land, Matt warned us to not look to our “3 o’clock” because a little girl had decided she didn’t need such formal facilities and had just dropped her trousers to relieve herself in the open air.
We left the bathing facilities and walked through the trash heap to an adjoining area with large open steel barrels--several dozen of them. Some had charcoal smoke coming from them and we realized that this was the fish smoking and preserving area.
Jimmy led us through a passageway and a woman was laying small whole silvery fish (about 8-12” long) on to thin wooden slats. The charcoal and wet wood chips were already smoking.
She told us that they would smoke the fish for about 24 hours and that someone would tend the process overnight.
We retraced our steps back to our arrival lot and then out on to the main Street of Westpoint. Jimmy asked if we’d like to ride kay-kays back to the bus or just walk and I said that we’d walk so we could see more and than 'in for a penny, in for a pound,’ we might as well have full experience.
And that we did. We dodged kay-kays and saw the sellers at work close up. We passed tiny shops of all varieties presuming that the owners and their families all lived in or just behind the shops. Among the more interesting sights we're baskets of tiny crabs and giant sea snails.
We walked by one little girl in a pretty blue and white dress squatting a
On the curb brushing her teeth with a fairly new and clean looking toothbrush and paste. Then, we all shuddered as she spit the foam into the street, reached down with her brush and rinsed it in the street puddle, put it back in her mouth, and returned to brushing.
Our next stop was the National Museum. We drove down the hill on Broad Street and past the US embassy and parked across the street from the National Museum. We walked inside and we're greeted by a very serious guide/docent who told us that we could take no photos of the exhibitions, but only group shots near the exit. He then made it clear that donations were accepted at the exit--something Jimmy reiterated several times during the tour.
Our guide was very knowledgeable, but spoke with a pidgin accept that was all.ost unintelligible. He also insisted that, despite museum’s small size and several excellent printed narratives at each display, we stay close to him
He grew visibly bothered when any of us spoke among ourselves or made comments to each other about the displays, too.
The museum ahd been recently (2017) redone and was the most modern we’d seen on our trip. The ground floor covered culture, tribes, costumes, and the history of the region, while the second floor covered more contemporary history, focusing largely on the civil wars between 1980 and 2004, as well as the Ebola outbreak of 2014.
Our tour ended with a very amateurish photo slideshow of former President Shirleaf containing photos of her and many dignitaries as well as some good shots from her youth.
We all gathered around the exit and took photos, then put a few bills in the donation box under the close surveillance of our guide who seemed to think that everyone should make their own independent donation and take the time to reach into their own wallet and was quite perturbed when we did not comply. The whole thing was sad because it really was a good little museum, spoiled by a very antisocial guide.
We next went to the Liberian Inauguration House in which all of their their president's took office. We saw their seat or the one and that of the vice president. As well as photos of each president, no matter how heinous their reign.
Outside, we saw the tomb of President Tubman who led from 1944 to 1971 during as close a time as any to a 'Golden Age’ in Liberia. He died in office and his successor would ultimately be executed my MSgt Samuel Doe during the coup d’etat of 1980. Doe’s picture was on the way, as was that of his successor--convicted human rights violator and war criminal, Capt Charles Taylor. On the lawn outside hall we're Doe’s and Taylor’s limousines, each up on blocks with unlocked doors enabling us to see the small TV and minibar.
Note: Taylor’s ex-wife is the current sitting vice president of Liberia!
The exterior also had a monument to the pioneers of Liberia erected for the centennial of the republic’s establishment in 1847.
With this, and the time barely past 1230, Jimmy said we were almost done for the day. He pointed out a couple of old churches we would visit the next day and I wondered why we wouldn’t just see them today.
He said that the next day we would see those sites and Providence Island before going to the markets for souvenirs and leaving for the airport at about 1200. We did, however, drive up and down Broad Street to see more of the city before returning to the Bella Casa at about 1300.
Actually, our timing was good because, by the time we began our return the rain was falling heavily.
As we parted for the day, I told him that we planned to visit the US Embassy the next morning from about 0800-1000 and could then do what he had planned, time permitting. He said that he was okay with that and that I could contact him by SMS to let him know exact times.
We went for lunch in the Bella Csa restaurant and sat as a group ordering light food and watching soccer reruns on the wide screen TV.
Service was very slow, as usual, and I don’t think we left the restaurant before 1530. Becky and I shared a bowl of local-style fish soup and some frites.
We met in the lobby at 1845 and Jarad arrived shortly thereafter. We piled everyone into his minivan or the short ride the the Royal Palace Hotel and top floor restaurant.
This was Jarad’s favorite hang out and he admitted to eating there more evenings than not. The Lebanese owner knew him well and we got the best service of our trip.
The menu was Asian fusion with sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai curry dishes. Jarad said the food was the best in Monrovia and that it was one of only two places in the country at which he trusted he could use his credit card safely.
Becky ordered the tuna tartare and I had a Thai Green Curry and shrimp plate.
We continued with deep discussions about the value of overseas and special duty assignments, lessons learned and connections made during jobs like this, and the positive and unpredictable impacta they can have on one’s career. It was another relaxing but highly rewarding evening.
Jarad also told us that we were on for our Embassy visit the next morning but that he had a fairly tight schedule and could only see us from about 0845 to 1000. I tried to relay that information to Jimmy by SMS, but he never responded. An hour later, I sent the same info to the TransAfrica rep that had been so helpful the day before and he confirmed that Jimmy and our driver would be at the Bella Casa at 0800 the next morning to take us to the embassy.
Breakfast was again good. In terms of room quality, wifi, and breakfast, the Bella Casa was o e of the beat hotel on our trip. It even had a little Nespresso-fueles coffee shop.
Jimmy was on-time and I asked him, on Becky’s suggestion, if we could leave our bags in our room and pick them up in your way to the airport. I noted, though, that checkout was at 1200 and we’d need to be back by then. He agreed and we we're on our way.
Emmanuel dropped us off in front of the consulate and the guard gave us friendly directions back to the main entrance. We cleared the first level of entry with a call from security to Jarad’s office, locked up our cell phones, and proceeded to the Marine Guard checkpoint.
The Marine at the window helped us quickly and Jarad brought us up to his office to show us around. It looked exactly like every other DAO I’d visited in every other embassy. We did learn, however from a photo on the wall, that Benjamin Davis, Sr, had been stationed in Liberia at the embassy from 1910-1911.
Jarad then led us to the USAID offices where met Dr Jessica Mea. After a short walk to a conference room, we spent the next 45 minutes listening to her describe USAID's work and many challenges in Liberia and how she'd worked through the Ebola crisis.
Originally an emigree from Romania after the end of the Cold War, she was an epidemiologist who’d serves as a professor at UC-San Francisco and done extensive AIDS research. She’d worked for the CDC for the last dozen or so years as a public health officer in Uganda and West Africa.
Our discussion ranged far and wide from birth rates, health infrastructure, poverty, prostitution, and the Ebola outbreak to the role of religions (Christian, Muslim, and Animist), women’s rights, gay rights, education, and economic development. Overall, she was not at all optimistic in Liberia but did say that there were positive pockets and examples of progress in Africa, citing Rwanda as one of those.
Again, we had an amazing experience that I’m sure few could match.
Jarad had to get to a meeting, and we hurried our after thanking him profusely and presenting him with the coveted Astro coin.
We cleared our way out of the embassy, retrieved our phones and found Jimmy and Emmanuel at the curb waiting for us.
Jimmy next took us to the first church in Liberia, the Methodist church established with the first arrivers and it proudly proclaimed across the front that it was established in 1822. We went inside the dark building with hand-painted “stained” glass and a dominating painting of John Westley. Neither Jimmy nor our “guide” could give us much information except to say that the building was constructed in 1822, which clearly was not the case. It was well-maintained on the exterior, but strangely so with “bricks” painted on some of the exterior walls with stripes of white paint over red paint.
We next went to a market to find soccer jerseys for the cadets, but didn’t realize that we’d be walking there. It was no big deal, but we did climb and descend a pretty big hill.
We entered the garment area and Jimmy took us to a Lebanese dealer who gave them very good deals at about USD $5 apiece. They may have actually been able to pay less, but it was so hot inside the store that they just wanted to buy the jerseys and get out--not a bad sales ploy.
Traffic was building now, more quickly than our sweat, as we headed towards Providence Island. We could see it up ahead, just past a bridge that connected it to our part of the city and, opposite, the mainland. Jimmy told us that during the Civil War, rebels blockaded the city by taking over the bridge, essentially starving it of many mainland products--he didn’t mention any issues with resupply by the ocean port. He then added that the American ambassador came directly to the bridge to negotiate with the rebels and bring relief to the city, which he did.
Traffic, though, was at a standstill and it looked unlikely that we’d have much time there if we actually moved since it was now almost 1130. We were getting a little antsy and tired of Monrovia and told Jimmy that we could see the island and just wanted to get back to the hotel, clean-up just a little before mandatory check-out at 1200 and load up to go to the airport.
He agreed to return and we were back quickly after a ragged u-turn in the middle of the four lane road by Emmanuel.
Skipping forward 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.
Our 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 rural, 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 wing-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.