Think of the countries that you probably wouldn’t want to visit in general. Now think of the countries that you would definitely not travel overland between. If you’re like most people, Sierra Leone and Liberia probably rank right up there at the top of both of those lists and that is exactly what I did. For 16 straight hours of utter torture on the worst roads (or not) imagineable. 16 hours of bribes, shakedowns, being locked in a customs office, sweating profusely to intense heat and humidity, dealing with a driver who was out of his mind in his 1986 Nissan Maxima, godawful border toilets (or not), terrified village children who had never seen a white person before, hand pulled ferries (or not) and utterly incomprehensible stops while riding through the jungle in the middle of nowhere-and it was all pretty fun!
I left the hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone and met the driver, Abolodo (or something like that) at a little before 6am and after haggling over the price to drive to the Bo Waterside border with Liberia where he would help me arrange onward transport to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, we sort of agreed on a price and we were off.
The road to Bo, which is Sierra Leone’s second city was reasonably paved with only patches of dirt road for most of the 4 hours it took to get there where we stopped for gas and to randomly pick up some guy who jumped in the back seat for god knows what reason. However, asking questions is just a waste of time because this is Africa and those things that just seem simple, simply cannot be explained.
The next 11 hours were spent in his little car bumping, bouncing, grinding our way through the worst roads imagineable. It’s hard to explain what it’s like on these roads if you’ve never traveled through the third world but it’s basically like massive dirt drifts and huge ravines without any water in them-over and over. You think to yourself there is no way we can make it through this and somehow they do-it’s amazing. After a while you either become sick and nauseous or simply immune to the constant ups and downs. During the rainy season, these roads are completely impassable as they are hardly passable now.
These roads are seemingly going to nowhere as you are driving on a skinny little opening through the jungle where every now and then you come to a clearing for a small village where all the children run after the car and yell in their dialect, white man! white man! and wave and smile at you, it’s really heartwarming and very cute. Unfortunately along the way, there are also innumerable checkpoints.
These checkpoints are basically a string, usually with plastic bags hanging from them that goes across the road where there is some joker in a cop uniform (or not) who begrudgingly gets out of his chair to come over the the car. He acts for a second like he or she is interested in some information about the car when in fact all they want is a bribe. Part of my deal with the driver was that I don’t pay bribes and he would have to grease the corrupt palms of these jokers and put up with their crap.
Some of them would come up to the car and say good afternon sir and ask me to come inside their office (or not) to examine my documents. They will look through it, keep in mind my passport is an inch thick so it takes a while, and ask you the dumbest questions about some stamps when they’ve clearly never even heard of the place and basically say thank you for coming to our country, can I have some money for a soft drink. I don’t know why they always said to buy a soft drink but I would always play dumb and just defer to the driver to take care of that because I don’t believe in bribes to these people unless I have no other option.
Sometimes the driver will argue with them, sometimes he pays them a little money and sometimes he gives them fruit or bread that we had gotten from a kid on the road earlier that day. Basically, anyone can put up a road stop in their village with a stick going across the street and in order for them to pull up the stick you have to pay them. It’s a brilliant business plan, do something stupid and sit there and people give you money for nothing. Imagine that happening back home! I love Africa!
At one point there was a small river where it was about 50 meters to get across and there was what they called a ferry to take the car across. It was no ferry (above). It was basically a wooden barge sort of thing that had four men using chiselled wooden tools they had made to pull the ferry across the river with a piece or rope that spanned the river (when I get back to the States I will post a picture). The barge was big enough for two little cars and a motorbike or two and took about ten minutes for them to pull it all the way across.
While waiting for the ferry to come back, there was a small village at the river and the natives had a small boy who was probably about a year old, give or take. Anyway, the mother tried to give the baby to hold and the baby went ballistic. I have never seen a child so utterly terrified in all my life. He was screaming in sheer terror as he thought white people were ghosts apparently. Everybody was laughing hysterically and it was really funny-one of those you had to be there things as my writing cannot explain it very well.
Fast forward to we finally make it to Bo Waterside which is the border town for Liberia. First you have to go through innumerable offices to have your yellow fever health card checked, passport checked, customs check (or not) your bag and ask for money, then you think you are in Liberia but apparently not so. Then you must do it again on the other side of the border while smiling and answering the same damn questions over and over in the hopes that they move quickly-but that doesn’t happen in Africa, nobody moves quickly if they even move at all.
After the driver fulfilled his end of the bargain and arranged onward travel to Monrovia in a car with a massive bullethole in the windshied that was ductaped together-the checkpoints began again. In Liberia, for the 100 kilometers of good road between the border and Monrovia there must’ve been 6 checkpoints. You usually have to get out of the car and some new schmuck asks to see your passport, thumbs through it and asks for money. See the pattern here, it can get very frustrating. Meanwhile, I am exhausted at this point and simply want to go to sleep so being polite is getting much harder but after another 3 hours, the car arrives at the Mamba Point Hotel in Monrovia and the longest day is finally over.
This day is a classic African experience in many ways. You deal with all the highs and lows that made this trip a microcosm of modern day Africa. Corruption and poverty are obviously the two largest problems. Along the way you see nothing but sign after sign telling the villagers to get tested for HIV and AIDS which is obviously another huge problem. You deal with searing heat, awful road conditions, you see the worst conditions possible to live in and some of the most beautiful scenery you can see. You feel frustration, awe, sadness, joy, you are touched, heartbroken, maddened and in the end you are humbled because this is Africa in all its truest forms and it’s just the way things are here. They may never change.