The popcorn was sweet. Just like Sierra Leone.
I sprung out of bed at the unholy hour of 4am, because that’s when I heard that the bus left for Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. When I got to the ‘bus station’, there was no bus, but to be fair, there was no station either. So I paid for a spot in the bush taxi for the border (I was the first to arrive and so I bagged the front seat) and waited for the damn thing to fill up. It was after 9am before we left. I could have had a lie in. Ack! But none of that matters, because I bought some popcorn from a lady sitting at the side of the road. Homemade and in a polythene bag, joy of joys: IT WAS SWEET. And fresh. Oh yeah. I decided there and then, that Sierra Leone is going straight into my top ten countries of all time. Three cheers for Sierra Leone!
Although, I do have to tell you about the thoroughly BONKERS taxi ride to the border. So, there’s me and this cute American girl called Sharanya sharing the front passenger seat. Then there’s the driver, and he is also sharing his seat with another bloke, whom he has to reach over to in order to change gear. Then there are four people crammed into the middle row and another four crammed into the back row. In a standard Peugeot 407 sept-place, those seats carry three each. THEN there were two guys in the BOOT of the car and – get this – a further two sitting on the ROOF.
16 People. In a car designed for 8.
T. I. A. mate, T. I. A.
On top of all that, it was a right-hand drive car; in a country that drives on the right. Hmm… good luck with overtaking. POW!
We had been going for a couple of hours when we passed an accident on the road (not ours, thankfully!). A bush taxi and a motorbike had come to blows, leaving the bush taxi smashed at the side of the road and the poor motorcyclist covered in blood and a fair amount of broken bone sticking out of his wrist.
Our driver didn’t want to stop, but Sharanya (she’s training to be a human rights lawyer, no less) forced him to pull over. Medically, there wasn’t a lot we could do for the poor guy who had fallen off the bike (I don’t even have a first aid kit), but we could – and did – use our mobile phones to get in touch with Medicine San Frontiers to come and help.
Once we were assured that an ambulance was on the way, we jumped back into the taxi and continued on our way. About 5 minutes later, a MSF ambulance thundered past us, so with any luck the guy would get to keep his hand. I hope.
The road was good for the first few miles, but then it rapidly turned to bad. We weaved around the inevitable potholes and chickens. We soon reached a river, which – in a flashback to Guyana – was a wooden raft pulled over the water by a chain. We finally got to the border at about 5.30pm, after having spent nearly nine hours picking our way through the jungle in the bush taxi with 16 people crammed in (and on) it, that I was convinced would fall apart a-la the Bluesmobile when it reached Chicago.
So we did the usual stampy-stampy passport tomfoolery (Sharanaya was tapped for a bribe, they didn’t ask me for one). Then we were told to go and see the health inspector. He pulled Sharanaya and I into his office. He asked to see our passports. His eyes lit up. You’re British? He shook my hand, and kept shaking it beyond what would have otherwise been necessary. The British saved me. They came in my darkest days, I owe them my life. I will never forget what your people did for me. Please give them my thanks.
It would appear – pay attention The UN – that there are some times when a well-timed and well-planned military intervention into a warring country can work wonders.
Goodbye, Sierra Leone. I’ll be back one day to see how you’re getting on. I know somebody has to be bottom of the UN’s human development index, but I hope next time I come it’s not still you.
So, over the border and into country number 96 – Liberia. Sharanaya and I haggled for a taxi to Monrovia and after a TERRIFYINGLY FAST bit of driving, we arrived in the capital.
Mand – the legend that she is – managed to find me a CouchSurfer to stay with, in double-quick time. Good job too – Monrovia is EXPENSIVE. I met the guy, Shadi, in the Boulevard Café in the Sinkor area of town – where all the embassies are. Shadi is a journalist originally from Jordan, who is currently working for UN radio in Liberia. Before he landed this gig, he covered stuff in Lebanon and Iraq – at one point he was pulled aside by Hezbollah and was convinced they were going to kill him there and then.
And you think what I’m doing is risky!
We ate some yummy dinner in Boulevard before heading over to his pad – and guess what was on television when we got there? Blood Diamond! Of all the films to watch after just leaving Sierra Leone… Although like the nit-picker I am, I found myself muttering, “oh come on, that looks NOWT like the place…”.
Shadi woke me up at the reasonable time of 7am and I made ready to do my thang – first off to the bank for readies (which I couldn’t get for love nor, indeed, money). I ended up converting my emergency CFA, the currency that most countries in West Africa use (except for the awkward Anglophone colonies that insist on printing their own money (sound familiar?)). Then, off to the Cote d’Ivoire embassy – which had recently moved – so I spent a good couple of hours walking about trying to find the damn place.
Monrovia, like Freetown, is devastatingly impoverished – everything is in a state of half-repair – the roads, the buildings, the people. Most of the small businesses in the embassy area are shacks at the side of the road and many, many people listlessly stand about, as if waiting for the guys in the ubiquitous UN rhino trucks to hand out fivers the West no longer needs.
I am so glad that I’m not an aid worker around here. I think my head might just pop off in frustration. After picking up my Cote D’Ivoire visa, I headed over to the Ghana embassy, but again I was told that it would take 3 days to process the visa.
Now this is where the old who-you-know-not-what-you-know kicks in.
My dad, through one of his friends, managed to put me in contact with a guy in Ghana called Tanko who is one of the Odyssey Legends who probably deserves a place in the Pantheon of Uber-Heroes along with Milan and Gudborg from Eimskip. Not only was he happy to arrange my second passport to be brought over to Africa in a diplomatic bag, he was also happy to pick a box of tricks (including my replacement sleeping bag) and other stuff sent over by my parents to help me on my way.
I called Tanko and explained the visa situation. Don’t worry, he said, I’ll make some phone calls. I got my visa within the hour. What a legend. I’ll be meeting Tanko in person in a few days. Can’t wait.
So there was nothing to stop me heading out there and then – except for the small problem that I had run out of video tape. So I had to rummage around the city centre for a couple of hours looking for somewhere that sold miniDVs. But once I had them in the bag, there was nothing to stop me heading out there and then. I grabbed a ‘mini’ taxi to where the Bush Taxis hang out, and as is the practice around here, it picked up other passengers along the way – one of the was Dr. Eddie – a medical doctor who trained in America, but like Mohammed in Sierra Leone, he came back home because he knew he could do more good here. He now presents a radio show on Thursday mornings dispensing medical advice over the airwaves. It’s people like Dr Eddie who will save the world.
Once I was sitting in the Bush Taxi in the Red Light area of town (really, that’s it’s name, Red Light) I received a call from Shadi – I had accidently left a load of stuff at his place.
This was one of the few times that I was glad to be in Africa. I gave the driver some readies and he happily drove me (and all the other passengers) back to Shadi’s flat in the Sinkor area of town. Imagine trying to get a National Express driver to do that. Or a Greyhound driver!! Ha! Go fish.
I was a bit torn though, the lovely Sharanaya had invited me out for dinner with her fella who was working in Monrovia and it would have been nice to hang out with Shadi a little more. There was a direct bus in the morning to Cote D’Ivoire. But, sod it, I’ve lost enough time and July is nearly over. I had to hit the road.
So I’m writing this in the shared taxi on the way to Ganta. We are THUNDERING along the road, it is nighttime, there are no streetlights, MASSIVE potholes that must be skillfully avoided, BLINDING headlights coming our way every so often and the odd truck ahead with no rear lights that we see at the last possible second. I don’t even know if I should be travelling at night, but hey-ho, let’s go. My driver is called Bobby and the nice lady seated behind me said a prayer on behalf of us all before we left. Being a heathen, I put on my safety belt.
The driver of the bush taxi was a bloody MANIAC! He drove at a zillion miles per hour and I had to tell him to slow the hell down about seventeen times – not that he paid any attention and then – guess what? – he got a puncture after hitting a pothole too fast. But did that slow him down? No. He changed the tyre and hammered it as hard as before. And – predictably – hit another pothole and gave himself another puncture.
We didn’t have a spare spare. I rolled my eyes so far into the back of my head that I fell asleep.
The driver fixed the tyre around 3am and we got into Ganta ten minutes later. I tried to check into a hotel for a few hours, but the cheapest place wanted €25 for a grotty little room that I wouldn’t pay a fiver to stay in even if it came with a Vimto lollypop. I really don’t understand how they can justify charging these ridiculous prices, in a country where most people survive on less than a dollar a day, who the hell can afford to stay there? It’s not like there’s a ton of tourists passing through these parts. Gah!
So I headed over to the shared taxi area, asked them to wake me when the taxi was full and slept in the passenger seat. In the end, it was taking so long to find anyone else who wanted to head on to the border, I jumped a motorbike for the frontier.
Arriving at the border later that morning, I said my goodbyes to Liberia and entered Cote D’Ivoire. A quick lesson in Cote D’Ivoire current affairs: the country is split in two and has been for number of years. The north is run by the ‘rebels’ and the south by the ‘government’, but they are really just two autocratic political parties who wouldn’t know what a free and fair election was if it slapped them in the face with a wet kipper.
ANYWAY, there’s going to be an election in November, upon which the Ivoirians are pinning their hopes to, like a drowning man clinging to a rock. With any luck, one party will win convincingly and the other party will accept the will of the people.
The only feasible border with Liberia is in the Northern (rebel) half of the country.
Here goes nothin’…
I got tapped by the guy on the border for 5000CFA (about €7) but I managed to get away with just giving him 1000. The bloody visa cost me $75 so I wasn’t in the mood for being generous. Then I had to try to get to the next town. Ha. Not easy. There were less people at the border than there will be at Gary Glitter’s funeral. I eventually – after MUCH haggling – got a motorbike taxi to take me to the next town. West Africans do not have much in common with their North African counterparts – they have no concept whatsoever of the joy of haggling. They just fire an outrageous price at you and then stick to it no matter what, even if it is transparently une-tax-anglais.
So I climbed on this motorbike and blimey – I thought the road was bad on the Liberian side. This was more like the obstacle course from ‘Junior Kick Start’ than the main highway between two nations. We made it through the first several checkpoints (one every kilometre, seriously) without incident, but then about halfway to Danané the police pointed out that the back tyre was flat and so the driver went off to find a mechanic.
Getting tired of waiting, another motorbike taxi came by and the police suggested that I get on the back of it. The only problem was that there was already a rather large lady passenger. By now, my behind was already hurting pretty badly but after a quick argument between my original driver and this other guy, I was sitting behind this lady on the metal luggage rack, carrying all my bags which were as heavy as hell. Every time we went over a pothole, I winced. And there were a LOT of potholes. It wasn’t until later when I got to the hotel that I realised why I was in so much pain… I had two HUGE ant/spider/snake/something nasty bites on my bottom.
But for now, I just had to grin and bear it.
I got to Danané around 3pm, keen to press on to the capital (in all but name) Abidjan. I was told that there was a bus going at six, and was mighty excited. Then I found out that it was leaving at six in the morning. Normally, I would find some other way of getting on, but hell, I’m in a rebel-controlled bit of a country. I thought it best to wait until morning.
The guy at the bus station was incredibly helpful. He sorted me out with a ticket and took me to the hotel down the road in the bus! He chatted with the hotel owner and got me a really good price. Top bloke!
I should mention at this point that Lonely Planet have sent me a new camera op. His name is Rocco and while I doubt he will be as sexy as Laura, I’m sure he’ll do a good job. The thing is he’s in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He arrived today. I’m kinda a little off schedule because I didn’t breeze through Guinea as quickly as I had hoped, so I could catch the Sierra Leone embassies before it got to the weekend. I wanted to arrive in Ghana tomorrow night, but now that I’m staying in Danané, I guess I’ll be getting in on Saturday.
I also intended to spend this afternoon catching up with my blogs and maybe – maybe – actually getting some video editing down. As it was, I sprayed a ton of liquid Germoline on my oh-my-god-my-skin-has-gone-black bum bites, winced like a rabbit getting a paper cut and fell fast asleep.