I: Arrival

15 hours of flight time.

That’s all the time it took to transport me to a vastly different place, far from my usual surroundings. We had just landed on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city.

I was startled by the sudden touchdown of the Boeing 777. No twinkling of distant city lights would gently remind me that we would be landing soon. With the exception of the runway lights, the landscape was incredibility dark. This was my first visit to the continent.

After walking down the tarmac, a bus was waiting to shuttle all the weary travelers to immigration. It stalled right out of the gate. The tired engine eventually turned over to make the 50-meter journey. A burned out “Arrivals” sign officially welcomed me. Grabbing my carry-ons, I quickly hustled into line (outta my way Grandma) as I figured customs could take some time. I was pleasantly surprised that I was only asked one simple question before hearing that all satisfying “chunk” of the passport stamp. A plain clothes official asked to see my yellow card. Baggage claim was next.

The baggage carousel belt speed was increased substantially to make up for the tiny space it was allocated to work in. Luggage would fly off the carousel sides as people shouted frantically (yet politely) trying to claim their property. A sigh of relief was in order as my luggage made it’s way around. Dripping with sweat, I made my way outside.

Not seeing a familiar face in the crowd, I sat on my suitcase and waited. A kind lady offered her cell phone (English is the official language so communicating wasn’t difficult) to check on my situation. I found out that Jim was stuck in traffic. After turning down one too many generous offers to purchase a phone SIM card, a flash of the high beams in the distance indicated my ride was here. As we made our way back to Monrovia, it quickly came evident to me why it took Jim nearly 2 hours to go 35 miles on a paved road. Road hazards were commonplace. As the roads are quite dark, high beams are used frequently in both directions. It’s hard to see motorbikes or figures silhouetted by darkness while being temporarily blinded by a passing car. We also encountered a number of large trucks with no running or brake lights present.

No wonder why it’s not wise to speed around here.

II: Monrovia

Waking up the next morning, I find that the view is splendid. Palm trees and various plants (plant knowledge is unfortunately not my specialty) dot the landscape. The ocean roars about 100 yards away and produces a wonderful sweet smell. I bet you are familiar with this scene; I should be drinking Strawberry Margaritas and mingling with other guests while Jimmy Buffett plays in the background? This must be paradise.

UN Vehicle in Monrovia

Paradise for some, poverty for most. My imaginary margarita doesn’t go down real smooth as I think about the people living in less than desirable conditions behind me. Electricity and running water remain elusive to most and is considered a luxury. In fact, when you do have these amenities (as I did), it’s easy to forget where you are. Reality snaps back when a UN vehicle roars by (The UN headquarters is located in the same neighborhood) when I step out to the main street. Now I really feel foolish about bickering to myself about the shower water pressure discovered that morning.

While walking the short block to the street (neighborhood was called Sinkor), I notice kids taking turns drawing water from the community well marked with the letters “USAID”.  Like the standard office water cooler, it’s certainly the popular spot to be. Plastic buckets of all sizes and colors surround the well while the community engages in conversation. Clean laundry takes in all the juicy gossip, drying on nearby lines.

Once on the street, life is fast-paced and exciting to watch. Loud diesel engines cough up soot and fill the air with constant noise. HipCo (kinda a mix of Reggaeton and Hip-Hop), blasts through large speakers that are obvious blown. Social interaction is much alive on the street. Security guards are present at most shops and businesses; They look out for mischievous behavior while trying to fight off bouts of boredom.

Private taxis and Kaykays (basically motorcycles fitted with oversized shells) flood the streets with offers of affordable transport. Horns exchange pleasantries as motorbikes and cars alike weave through traffic. Sitting in rush hour traffic feels oddly similar to back home. It’s not an enjoyable experience anywhere in the world.

Everybody seems to be selling something whether it’s fresh fruit, phone cards, or other items that foreigners might ponder the question, “Who wants to buy a rusty door hinge or a single AAA battery?” But hey, people sell what others want to buy right? Bartering is commonplace. A quoted $10 dollar cab ride is quickly reduced to $2. Unfortunately, I lack the talents of a skilled negotiator. I’ll work on that. The following shots were taken while exploring West Point, a local neighborhood. A local guide showed me around.

Exploring West Point, a township in Monrovia
Wheelbarrows are commeonplace
New couches for sale

III: Ducor Hotel

It’s sad to see the current state of the famed Ducor Hotel. Opened in the 1960s, this hotel was Africa’s first 5-star property. All that remains is the magnificent shell. It closed right before the coup led by Charles Taylor in 1989. After paying a nominal entrance fee, one can explore the property. A few friends and I went up to the site as dusk was setting in.

Seeing dusk fall over Monrovia wasn’t the only reason why we climbed rusty ladders and “don’t look down” ledge crossings. We also came to observe the half million or so bats escape their daytime hiding places to complete their evening commute. The eerie silence displayed as bats crossed the horizon was an incredible scene to witness. Thankfully, George remembered to bring a flashlight to navigate our back down the several flights of stairs as night set in.

IV: Nightlife

It’s humid in Liberia. Just because the sun goes down doesn’t mean that the humidity goes with it. It lingers and overstays its welcome. Luckily, Liberia does have a solution for this; Club Beer. Brewed in Monrovia, it’s a local favorite. After a few of these, the humidity doesn’t seem to bother me anymore. Hookah/Shisha (flavored tobacco) is commonplace and adds a nice visual presence to the nightlife scene.

Nightlife is alive and well here. I found myself borrowing clothes regularly from Jim as I had brought a rather sloppy collection of tee shirts and shorts. Long pants and short sleeve dress shirts own the night, so I needed to up my game. Depending on your mood (and budget), nightlife options include everything from beachfront bars to classy hotel rooftops.  A friend and I  even stumbled upon a local talent show, where the host insisted on bringing out a worn leather loveseat for us to sit on. So much for blending in.

Karaoke is also incredibly popular here and it’s not what I thought to expect. No drunken group of friends trying to belt out “Friends in low places” here. Like a syndicated talent show, the singers delight the crowd. Seeing the high caliber of talent made me forget about the $10 dollar entrance fee.

V: Robertsport

One weekend was spent in the town of Robertsport. It’s a small community known for surfing. It’s only about 40 miles away but since 27 miles is on a long bumpy dirt road, it takes some time get there. As we made our way, an unfamiliar clunking sound was becoming noticeably more apparent. We pulled over to further investigate. It appeared that the entire exhaust had basically detached itself and was hanging by a strand of wire. Salt water is not a friend of metal car part it seems. Car rides seem long when trying not to breathe in exhaust fumes, but we made it shortly after without issue.

While getting accustomed to my settings, I set out to do a little exploring and I brought my camera with me. I found some locals who were willing to have their picture taken. Not everybody is keen on the idea, but simply asking goes a long way. And the beauty of it all? Along with capturing a photograph, I get to learn a little more about a person, a place or a country.

After chatting with some local surfers, I met another and another. I quickly learned that this merry band of surfers had created a local surfing club and wanted to get some promotional shots for their website that they had in the works. How could I pass up an opportunity to promote a local business? I got a Facebook name written on a scrap of paper so I could send the photos as promised. Oh, if you ever visit Robertsport and want to learn how to surf, just message me. I know a guy.

Nightfall quickly came and soon it was dark. A bonfire provided some slight illumination while conversations drifted into the night. Hooka and group conversation would be the final chapter to the evening.We were to head back to Monrovia late the next afternoon, so I intended to make the most of my morning. I had heard of a large shipwreck about an hour’s hike away that was supposedly worth the trek.

Being the laggard of the group, I grumbled over large slippery rocks wearing inappropriate footwear before setting my sights on the mighty fallen oil tanker Tamaya. Washing up mysteriously on the Liberian shores in April of the prior year without crew nor record of distress, the only thing that was certain were all the outstanding questions. Evidence of an onboard fire prior was documented in the findings by the authorities.

Even from afar, it was an impressive sight. Mother Nature was clearly winning this battle against the floating oil fortress. Salt water does not play favorites whether it be grounded oil freighters or car exhaust parts. Rust was slowly destroying this ship, aided by the sands of time. Time to board.

Straight out of the official “Ghost Ship” playbook, the only sounds I could hear were the waves smashing against the damaged hull and the mysterious groans of twisted metal being eaten alive by the sea. It was very eerie to explore.  What could go wrong with rusty stairs, slippery crooked decks, and overall crumbling infrastructure? My updated tetanus shot would be the least of my problems as I gaze at the unfriendly currents below. Shelving these negative thoughts, I continued to explore. The beautiful colors displayed by the remaining wreckage were wonderful and vivid.

I could have spent hours exploring the wreck but it was time to go and start making our way back to Monrovia. On the way out of town, I snapped a few more photographs.  Robertsport was yet another example that offer clues to Liberia’s past before the storm clouds of civil war descended upon this country. The remains of sidewalks, underground sewer systems, and art deco buildings offer glimpses can be seen around town.

Observing the magnificent remnants of a former cultural center and hotel makes one question the stability of any country or environment. Reeling from recent civil wars and Ebola outbreaks, would certainly decimate the will of a country right? Not in my opinion. If there is one word that I would use to describe Liberia it is “hope”.

Hope was demonstrated to me in many forms, but none more evident than observing schools and the surrounding communities at work. Working in conjunction with Rising Academies (an organization involved in the partnership schools for Liberia initiative), I was able to accompany school administrators to several of their schools and capture what I saw. To be continued!

Part II is continued here.