Hello my strangers. We’re running way behind on blog posts, sorry yeah? (Pro tip: sorry yeah is Liberian English for sorry, not sorry.)
It’s been a crazy year so far, so let’s get you all caught up! Best to start where we left off from our regular posting, sometime around January… ::cue melodious music and fade into a flashback::
In January we’re just getting our first real taste of dry season. Liberia has two seasons- dry season and rainy season. To quote my porch kids, “In dry season, the sun can shine. In rainy season, the rain can fall.” Each lasts about 6 months, pretty straightforward. Unfortunately for us, it is hot and humid all year long; the seasons are more a matter of if you’re sweating in the rain, or sweating in the sun. One perk of dry season, however, that slightly makes up for the sub Saharan sun, is that the roads are, well, dry.
Living in the southeast of Liberia we are cut off from the paved highways that connect the country with its capital. We are surrounded by dirt roads and bush paths that wind through the jungle- our next closest paved highways are realistically 7-14 hours in either direction, depending on the road conditions. How do I describe the roads in this part of the SE? How do I describe this to someone who has never experienced anything like it? Imagine the worst country dirt road you’ve ever been on, and then stop because it doesn’t even come close.
During the rainy season, our dirt roads become mud roads- they flood, they erode, they can become completely impassible. They can develop pits deeper than the height of a car, and can force travelers on treacherous bypasses hastily cut through the bush. During dry season, they are… better. They are bumpy, and deeply rutted from the damages from the large trucks that got stuck in the mud a few months before, but they are dry. We love dry roads.
Dry roads make it at least possible to take a car (the much safer/cheaper mode of transportation). The car will likely still break down at least once, it will likely still get stuck a few times, and you’ll only get to use ½ to ¾ of a seat inside- but hey, Liberia not easy-o.
Nick and I will never forget our beautiful, peaceful, FAST, flight to our site right after training. It took about 45 minutes to get all the way from the capital to our southeast home. It was our only flight in country, and we look back on it fondly. Even in dry season, when the roads are good, that same trip will take us two days by car.
To get to the coal tar (a paved highway), we have to travel a 120 mile dirt road. Our best travel time was a little over 8 hours, a more typical time in a van or car is 12. Think about that. 120 miles, 12 hours. 12 hours sharing a backseat with three other adults, a baby or two, and likely some animals. 12 hours without air conditioning. There are no rest stops, though you frequently are forced out of the car to go through checkpoints, to “check the tires” (aka pee in the bush), to lighten up the weight of the car to get through a particularly bad stretch, or to wait while your driver addresses any mechanical problems the vehicle inevitable encounters.
It can be miserable, and memorable, exhilarating, hilarious, and terrifying. Endlessly frustrating, but humbling and eye opening. Mostly sore, we always arrive sore. We have traveled this road in big vans, 4 runners, small cars, and by motorbike, and each trip has been it’s own… let’s say adventure. As PCVs in the southeast of Liberia, many of our best stories come from the road.
Many times while traveling, most early on in our service, I reminded myself to take a mental snapshot, or literal snapshot, of the moment. A frozen experience I hope to grow from, laugh about, and always hold on to when I reflect about my service in the future.
– The challenge of finding a suitable car and negotiating the price of a seat in a language you don’t natively speak. And the thrill of doing this successfully.
– The way the jungle looks at 5 in the morning (hint – it looks dark). We have to leave this early so we can reach the paved roads by dusk.
– The awe in the packing efficiency of transportation here- cars are loaded high and packed absolutely full of all sorts of things. For example, we once rode in a 15 passenger van stuffed with 27 people, a few infants, and stacked to the sky with the luggage, goods, creatures, produce, and a few people on top to hold it all together.
– The realization that the intermittent noises you’ve been hearing happen every time the goat tied to the roof gets hit with a low hanging branch.
– The “Best of Kenny Rogers” CD you listened to for 12 hours on repeat, because your driver wanted to be considerate and play American music for you.
– The way the ground looks from above, because your van is tipping so far over on an uneven hill you’re looking down at the road out your window. If you don’t want to look at the ground, you can look out the back windows and watch that the men riding on the roof working to counter balance the top heavy vehicle.
– The sweetness of the fresh bananas, cucumbers, coconut slices, sugar cane, and palm wine, you snack on along the way.
– The sound of the mother next to you praying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” through a really a bad part, and watching your husband do his best to comfort her.
– The 35+ different positions you and your friends have pretzled yourselves into trying to get comfortable/collectively stop your legs from falling asleep. You tried a position you named “Russian nesting dolls”, that did not work out at all.
– The moment you approach two flatbed trucks absolutely buried in the road, with a deep hole between barely wide and deep enough for your car to fit. And the moment immediately following when your driver takes an equally deep breath, puts on his seat belt, and guns the car through the narrow opening. No one here wears seatbelts, so if your driver puts his on, that stands out.
– The day you figured out that snails make noise (an otherworldly squeaking sound), and that a bag full of snails basically sitting in your lap makes quite a bit of it.
– The gratitude you feel in hindsight that your trip was delayed a day, because if you had been able to leave as planned you would have been forced to sleep on the road.
– The glimpses into life in big cities and small towns of only five or six houses and you slowly drive past.
– The first time you blow your nose and dust comes out. The laughter of your fellow passengers enjoying how ridiculous you look covered in dirt.
– The absolute relief you feel the moment you cross onto pavement. And then the sinking feeling you get when you realize you have an additional four and half hours to hit the capital…
– The freedom of riding on the back of a motorbike, and then the realization of how incredibly dangerous it can be.
– The gratitude, and peace, that comes from reaching your destination safely. Though sore (always sore).
It’s all part of the adventure. And it is an adventure.
If you’re shocked by any of the moments above, just take a minute to appreciate your luck. Your ability to drive your own vehicle on smooth paved roads, your ability to complain about potholes and construction, and speeding tickets. The memories I shared above (and much worse) are just expected parts of transportation for many Liberians, if they’re ever able to travel around the country at all.
I hate to generalize, but if you’ve read this far in the blog you’ll know that I am constantly amazed by the strength, and perseverance of the Liberian people. Liberians are just amazingly strong, and managing the roads here is just one example of that. I suppose it’s just a normal part of life for them (though that does not mean they aren’t fighting to make it better.) When you’re traveling together in a van full of strangers, you become your own small community for a few hours. The people inside help and support one another. They commiserate on the journey’s inconveniences. They laugh, and listen. The Ma’s teach you how to pee on the side of the road, and share their ginger candy when you get car sick. The children (and sometimes chickens) end up in your lap at some point. The driver will give history lessons, and the other passengers are almost always down to talk about America. Road trips here are a great time to make friendships, and meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds. It’s miserable, and magical. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s mostly miserable- but if you’re on your way to Monrovia for fish tacos, or Harper for beaches, then the journey is well worth it.
So there you have it :0)
Remember, this post a reflection of the road conditions during the best season to travel. We’re heading back into peak of rainy season, where conditions will be much worse. Stay tuned.
-Amy, aka Lucky Girl