In an effort to familiarize us given the inevitable day that we need to seek medical treatment or visit Peace Corps Headquarters for administrative purposes, we visited Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and largest city, two weekends ago. All 56 of us were loaded into cars in groups of 5, and we made the 90 minute trek to Monrovia. This was, on its own, quite the adventure. Because Monrovia is nestled against the coast of the Atlantic, it can only be approached from the East. There is only one paved road that enters the city, and it travels through a district on the outskirts of the city known as Red Light. Red Light primarily functions as a hub for travelers to transfer vehicles. If one is coming to Monrovia, the taxi will not carry them into the city. It will take them only as far as Red Light, whereupon that person will have to get into another car that will take them all the way into town. Because the area is very heavily travelled 7 days a week, there is an enormous market that has sprung up around it, in addition to the hundreds of merchants who walk up to and between the vehicles stuck in traffic. They carry their wares in their hands, on their heads, or in wheelbarrows. It is possible for a traveler to purchase nearly anything without getting out of their car, they need only roll down the window. Ground peas (peanuts), monkey apples (a small and delicious fruit with a rather alarming outer layer), leather belts, tennis shoes, sandals, cigarettes, bags of purified water, backpacks, used clothes, new clothes, phone cards, and individual sticks of gum are just a few of the items being sold by people up and down the street.
You’re probably getting the picture, but this place is crowded. Really, really crowded. For my Columbus people, we’re talking ‘the Buckeyes have just won a football game, and you’re trying to get past the Northernmost gate of Ohio Stadium to get out to Woody Hayes Drive’ crowded. We were told not to have money or phones out in plain view, have pockets empty if possible, and to wear backpacks in the front, as items can be stolen out of those as well.
This place was insane. Thankfully, the Peace Corps had cars already waiting once we arrived, so we really only had to see a couple of areas so that we (in theory) would be able to navigate this area later. This proved to be good, as we would be tasked with arranging our own rides back two days later.
We rode into town as the shock of Red Light wore off. We were dropped off at Peace Corps Liberia’s main office for a few hours of training. We were very pleased when we reached the 4th floor training room to discover that 3 of the 4 walls were floor-to-ceiling windows, and the Ocean was visible out the left side of the room. At times it was difficult to focus on the session rather than watching the waves roll in and crash against the beach just a few hundred yards away.
Once we were finished learning, we were released to check into our hotel, and go in groups to get dinner. After checking in, we went in a group of 10 to a restaurant called Lila Brown’s. We’d been told that there was American food in the city, and Lila Brown didn’t disappoint. We were able to order a pepperoni pizza and a bacon cheeseburger, respectively, with cold beer to drink. It was much like being back in the United States.
After we finished eating, we were tasked with hailing a taxi, and taking it to another intersection further into town. Hailing a taxi is different in Monrovia than it is in America. Many of the taxis run on a continuous loop along the main road, heading into town one way and out of town the other. This sounds simple, but complicating matters was the sign language used by the people hoping to secure a ride to communicate to the drivers where they needed to go. We had recently been briefed on this, but it was still nerve-wracking. Holding out five fingers with one hand indicates that the person is looking to go towards the center of town. Waving a hand on as if telling the driver to keep going means the rider is looking to reach the airfield (eh-FEE). Pointing straight at the ground means the rider is only going a few blocks, so the driver’s route most likely will not matter. In any case, using this means of transport by ourselves was an intimidating prospect. However, we made the 10 minute trip in the cramped car (they generally carry 4 people in the back seat), and were able to meet up with the rest of the group. From there, we began walking up what we discovered was a very long and steep hill, reminiscent of that one everyone knows in San Francisco. We continued scaling the hill, and eventually the businesses along the road gave way to trees, grass, and benches. The higher we climbed, the more the ocean came into view. Even though we were sweating and tired, the view was wonderful. After what felt like an hour, we arrived at the Ducor.
The Ducor had been a very swanky hotel (Africa’s first 5 star hotel, in fact) perched on top of this massive hill, but like so many buildings in Liberia, it was destroyed during the Civil war that took place during the 1990s. All that remained was the concrete structure. The windows were gone, just holes in the sides of the buildings remained. Derelict elevator shafts with the doors long gone were gaping holes in the walls. Only some old marble flooring in parts broke the endless stretch of concrete that was the floor. No railings were left on any of the grand staircases, which was a bit unnerving as some of them were spiral style, and open in the middle.
We entered, and began to go up the flights of stairs. At each floor we’d look out over the water, and at each floor the view became more magnificent. After 8 floors, we were able to access the roof.
It was then that I understood why we had come all this way to visit the Ducor. It was breathtaking to see. On one side of the building was the best view yet of the open ocean, with a cargo ship or two just visible in the distance. On the other side, a vast stretch of the city sat below us at the base of the hill, with still more ocean behind it.
After an hour or so of admiring the view while trying not to get too close to the ledge, it was time to leave.
The hike down the hill was much easier, thankfully. The next order of business was to find a place to get a drink. Twenty or so of us walked over to an establishment called Miami Beach. We paid the 100 dollar cover charge (roughly 83 cents US) and walked through the front door. I’m not sure what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. I had been on the fence about whether or not go, but am so glad I did. As I passed through the door, I was surprised to find not concrete or wood under my feet, but sand. I looked up, and discovered that this was not an indoor establishment, but an actual beach. Looking ahead, there were several dozen sets of patio chairs around plastic tables, a tiki bar to my left, and to my right – only 50 yards away – were waves of the Atlantic rolling into the sand. We stayed a couple of hours, enjoying Club Beer (a Liberian made beer that tastes very much like Heineken) and listening to the waves as well as the local music. It was late afternoon when we arrived, so many of us made our way over to the shore to put our feet in the water and watch the sunset.
Shortly after it got dark, we decided to charter a car (this costs 5 US dollars for the whole car, meaning $1 per person) back to the hotel. Many of our cohorts had designs on going back out for the night, but the combination of Pre Service Training being quite rigorous, the food we’d had that day, and the air conditioned hotel room led the two of us to go to sleep by 8:30pm. I would like to make it clear that we had no regrets about this.
The next morning, it was time for more sessions at the main office, then we had the afternoon free. We went to get lunch (pizza again, obviously) with several other volunteers. After we finished eating, we headed to the supermarket. We were very curious to see this place, because we have been hearing since we got here that the supermarkets in Monrovia have American products that you will not find anywhere else in Liberia. Again, we were not disappointed. The shelves we stocked with brand name toilet paper, gilette razors, downy fabric softener, wonder bread, M&Ms, Heinz ketchup, Raid bug spray, and Coca Cola products. We loaded up our basket and walked the four blocks back to the hotel to drop off our haul. Then, because we had only a short window of time before they closed, we made our way to the Bosh-Bosh store.
Bosh-Bosh began as a small girls club organized by a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Liberia in 2011. It has since grown to a non-profit organization whose primary mission is getting girls access to education. They make a variety of purses, hand bags, lap-top bags, clutches, wallets, wristlet, neckties, and a plethora of other accessories, all made with lappa fabric. Every product is handmade, and they are stunning. If you’ll excuse my shameless plug, please check out their website: http://www.boshbosh.org. Anyway, we left with two shoulder bags and a wallet, and made our way back to the hotel. That night consisted of sitting on the 2nd story balcony of the hotel with around 15 or 20 other trainees and volunteers, and talking about everything from our experience so far to what our lives were like back home.
The next morning, we had still more training sessions, and were released around noon with instructions to be home before dark. We found 3 other volunteers to travel with so that we could all split the car, and made our way back to Red Light. I had imagined this might be something of a disaster, but it went much more smoothly than I could have hoped. No sooner had we gotten out of the car and begun to look around, that a man shouted to us “Peace Corps?” We told him yes and that we were going back to training, and he signaled for us to wait small (meaning for a moment). I should point out that he likely knew who we were and where we were going because we weren’t the first group of 5 white people to tumble out of a taxi looking for a ride that afternoon. About a minute later, a car pulled up right in front of us, and we piled in. After sitting in traffic for 30 minutes and only going maybe 100 yards, we finally were able to get up to speed. The drive went quickly, and as we were being dropped off near home, I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked around. The city that at first had seemed so busy, so crowded, and so intimidating and overwhelming, felt more like home.