Thursday, March 13, 2008

Liberia

We left Kenema for our run to the Liberian border and I finally figured out why Sierra Leone has such a bad reputation for corruption. The ride out to the border was one of those Guinea-style horror rides, totally cramped in a little Peugeot on bad roads. There were as many as 6 guys on our roof, which is not allowed so 100m before each police checkpoint (and there were many) they would stop, let everyone off and walk across, the assistant to the driver with the bribe money, and then 100m after the post they would get back on and the police would never see a thing. Right.
We were stamped out of SL at a town almost 2 hrs before we were dropped off at the border. There was another police check there and they wanted to "inspect our luggage". Out here, that is a dead giveaway and your signal that they will want a bribe. All through west Africa so far we've had to pay a lot for luggage. It's not the world norm and there is no set rate so I fight long and hard over it. The reason they do it is that is the bribe money. Bribes are to avoid hours of luggage inspection at each stop since that is the current way the authorities unofficially threaten you. The cops have a pretty good system going for themselves out here then. They get paid to do a job and then you pay them even more so they can be lazy, which is why you should refuse every time and offer your luggage. They are actually to lazy to check it anyway and will almost always just wave you through. Mom (bless he innocent heart) and dad go first into the inspection room and they didn't even realize that they were being asked for bribes in code (like "It's New Year's Day, you are very lucky today.") to the point that they embarrassed the guys when they finally blurted out "Oh, you mean you want a bribe?". You're not really supposed to use the B word (that would make the whole thing so much more criminal) and they let us go. Then a customs check where I spat out all of my water on their floor without thinking about it and getting yelled at (I thought there was a bug in my water). We were on a roll that day. Then another police check, then the Yellow Fever health check (even though we were leaving and they didn't check us coming in), then a final immigration check. Wow. At each one we have to wait while they inspect and write down all our passport info so it takes a while with a group.
Across the bridge that is the border and past the Pakistani UN troops to the first Liberian checkpost, then immigration, then another health check, then finally customs. It took only 2 hours total..... The Liberian authorities were surprised to see us but were nice enough and probably the most professional of all the countries in Africa so far. Liberia is supposed to be like a little America (if it fell apart). SL was set up by the UK as a country to send their freed slaves (hence the name Freetown), Liberia was set up by the Americans for the same reason several decades later. Liberia then modelled itself after the US. The flag is like the US one but with one star. The government works on a similar system, Monrovia is named after a US president and all the police uniforms look the same as the highway patrol ones in the US. They also only give good exchange rates for the US dollar which is a bit strange because everyone else seems to be getting away from the dollar these days. They even have more American accents and foul language than we are used to. The nice part was the paved road from the border to Monrovia. It took us 3 hours instead of 2 because we had 6 more police checks where we had to get out and once again record our passport info. No problems except for the very last one. They even looked less professional than the others which is kind of funny and the guy that stopped us mentioned a luggage check so I knew right away what was coming. I represented the group and watched them bringing in money from the locals in other cars. I saw old ladies pleading that they had no more to give them than the little bit offered. And then he turns to me and has the nerve to ask five times more than everyone else for the "registration service". Imagine, the sun is going down, I've been on the road, crammed into little cars, suffocating on gas fumes or exhaust to the point of a really bad headache for the last 11 hours. I'd barely slept the last 3 nights due to a combo of nightclubs and bedbugs. I'd only eaten two little bananas and an egg sandwich with ants running through it for the whole day. So I'm starving and have lost a ton of weight in the last few weeks because the food out here is so spicy that I can't eat more than two bites and living on bananas just doesn't cut it. We'd passed through at least 20 checkposts that day and while money was changing hands, it didn't come from mine and the people were friendly and respectful to me. And I have a problem with authority anyway on top of all that and I'm generally extra grouchy these days. Do you think I stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out a stack of bills like he was expecting and started pleading that it would be enough? Oh no, no no no, not at all. You guys probably will never see me again because I'll be lucky to get out of Africa in one piece, the way I keep telling these people what I think of such "service", but so far they keep letting me go and the money is still in my pocket.
So we got into Monrovia. Great. What are we doing here again? It was beyond Sierra Leone. SL was bad a few years ago and got better then Liberia got really bad in 2003 and now it's "better" and Cote d'Ivoire has the problems. But better is a relative term. What is "better" in a country where sons were shooting their mothers and rebels were using human intestine as fencing only a couple years ago? There may not be groups roaming the streets at night with Kalashnikovs these days but people still have a little of that wary/hungry dog look that makes you think they are sizing you up a little as a meal and the nice people still aren't going very far at night. Yeah, vacation. Right. You were still thinking that we just sit on the beach sipping on whatever it is that people sip on holiday. Nobody in their right minds would come here. It's another country for extreme tourists and I hadn't felt as uncomfortable as when we first arrived in a long time. I suppose if you were one of those people that was wandering the Earth searching for the meaning of life and the essence of humanity then you'd have to come to this little corner of Africa to completely disgust yourslef and lose all respect for the human race. And then you'd sift through the ashes and decay, praying for some kind of miracle to keep you sane.
Here's our miracle: We were initially dropped off in a very dirty and busy market area (several Km from the centre) that was a "station" without really being much of one. We were supposed to be staying with a host somewhere in town but we were unable to get a hold of her on the phone. We'd contemplated heading into the centre and trying again but couldn't find a ride. Then, suddenly, I spotted the missionaries ahead. Our heroes. They told us that we should get out of the area as it was unsafe and started quick-walking us to the nearby chapel. Both of them were black, one from SL, the other local and they were nervous too. Damn. They let us rest at the chapel and we were able to use it as a base to get sorted out and find our contact. It was a new place with security but inside it felt like a little piece of home. We met a bunch of members and were driven all the way across town to our host.
So we made it safely and interestingly enough, the missionaries told us later that they normally get off the bus much later and had just randomly decided to get off early that day and almost instantly ran into us. Wow. Someone is looking out for us.....
Ammon

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