#15 – Difficult times in Liberia

Published by Bas on

Without saying too much, the immigration officer stamped my passport and allowed me to cross the border to Liberia. Here, I had to show my passport four times, all different disciplines writing down the same information. They were very keen on where I was going, to which city, which area, which person and how I knew this person. Luckily I found someone on Warmshowers to stay at during the upcoming weekend.

Independence day

One of the first eye catchers of Liberia is their flag. It looks much like the USA flag, and soon I learned that the country was formed by former slaves from the USA, and it is clear that they got inspiration from their flag. The name of the country comes from the Latin word ‘liber’, which means ‘free’. As it turned out, today was one of the most important holidays of the country. 172 years ago, on this day, they became independent from ruling white Americans.

The guesthouse I was staying at was, in Western terms, really bad, and even in African terms I think it’s under average. In the empty room a mattress got placed on the ground. The toilet can’t be flushed and the water contains larves, proving that it hadn’t been flushed in a long while. The water I had to shower myself with was not clear. All this is wearing down on my mental state. The question is, will I bend or brake?

Waterways in Monrovia

Today I cycled to Monrovio, the capital of the country. From the very first minute it rained, and it didn’t stop for until I arrived at my host. And somehow I like to cycle in the rain, especially if I know I’ll arrive at a dry and comfortable place.

Coming closer towards the city, the water caused troubles on the road. Parts of entire streets were flooded. The holes in the road became invisible, and the chaotic driving skills of the drivers, caused some cars to be stuck and almost tilt. As the only cycler on the road, I was even more vulnerable for these dangers, as I need to balance myself with my body.

Somehow I made it without a scratch on both my bike and myself. I went to Tom, a Belgium expat who’s working here for a dam project. He has cycled in various countries himself, with the most impressive one from Turkey to Singapore in one year.

Walk on the beach

On Sunday morning, my host Tom always goes out for a walk on the beach, so he took me with him. Every week he drives up to the point where he ended the previous time, which made him joking that he is going to walk all the way to Ivory Coast.

The ocean slowly eats the land, causing some shoreline buildings to collapse as their foundation gets removed. Combined with the fat dark clouds that ruled the sky, made me feel like I was in some kind of war movie. It looked epic.

During the rest of the day we took it easy. We made a quick dive in the swimming pool, ate some Western food and chilled on the couch. It was exactly what I needed.

Empty hotel

The morning consists out of rain, lots of rain. According to my host, Monrovia is the wettest capital of the world. Only in July, twice as much rain as a whole year in London hits the streets of Monrovia.

When it stops raining, we walked to the highest point of the city, a small mountain with on top a concrete skull of a hotel, stripped to the bottom during the civil war, which tore the country apart and made it become even poorer.

The contrast of the place I stay at is huge. There are quite some expats living and working to make this country a better place. The luxury apartment I stay at is located next to a slump, as you can see on the picture from above.

Sleeping outside

Fully mentally recharged I left my amazing host and stepped back on the pedals. It rained from the moment I woke up at 6 am, and it looked like it wasn’t going to stop for some hours. Stepping outside with dry clothes, knowing they will be soaked, is like slowly entering a cold swimming pool. Once you got in, it doesn’t matter anymore.

The main challenge of the day was to find a dry spot to eat and not to be bothered by dozens of curious locals. Some kind of tunnel of a unfinished apartment complex seemed to be one of the rare spots.

“Ok, let us get the key so you can sleep inside the school”, the president of a small school said to me. “I am okay with sleeping outside, under the roof of the school”, I told her. “Outside?”, she wondered, while looking at the other persons around her, like I am some kind of crazy cycler from Holland. As long as it’s dry, I prefer sleeping outside since there will be more ventilation, I tried to explain. I got permission, and build up my movable house while being closely studied at by a few locals.

Changing roads

Heavy rainfall woke me up while it was just 6:30 am. I put on my wet underpants and socks from yesterday. It’s everything but comfortable, but wasting dry ones and not having the opportunity to dry them properly, will eventually put me in an even more uncomfortable situation. The day begins early out here, and ends soon too. In most cases there is no electricity, so people are bound to the rhythm of daylight. Most people were awake already, and some of them came to my tent, as a spectator.

On a busy colorful market I try to find flip flops with size 45. Tents and small shops are squeezed in every square meter that’s left. As soon as I make a picture, people start to gather around me. They wonder were I’m going to, and when I tell them about my plans, they are left flabbergasted. I ask them for directions and they precisely tell me how to cycle.

In that market, the road changed from smooth asphalt into a terrible mud road. The heave rain carved many small channels in the soil, which works as small bumps. My only shock breaker is my fat ass, which made a painful ride. Luckily I arrived at a primary school with some lovely people. I could put up my tent, got a shower and a dinner, and the kids taught me some of their dancing skills and sold me freshly picked ground nuts.

Closed bridge

At the school they served me a bowl of very delicious freshly fried plantain. I offered the president of the school to teach the kids some math or to give him some money, but he refused as it wouldn’t be a long term solution. Instead, he gave me his address and asked to send some English school books as soon as I will be back. He showed me two out dated books about general science and human interaction.

“Turn around”, a man sais, in a warry voice. Behind the man I see a layer of cars, trucks and people, then there is a big fence with a stop sign and further ahead is a bridge. A truck is going backwards and blocks my way. I go around the layer of trucks through a puddle of mud, dirt and probably a lot more. At the fence I look around, but I don’t see an official. “Stop, you can’t go further”, someone yells. “Are you a peace corps?”, he continues, while a bunch of other people start to gather around me. “No, I’m just travelling by bike to Ivory Coast”, I reply while looking confused around me. “What’s your job?”, he then asks. Not knowing why it’s relevant I answer I don’t have a job. After showing me his passport he tells me the bridge isn’t officially open yet. “I want you to do one thing for me, you have to carry your bike on your shoulder”, the officer tells me and clears away the tension. People can only walk over the bridge. The loads of the truck are carried by many men to the other side of the river, and I’m more than happy to do so to, instead of going back.

For the night I aimed for a school I saw on my map. Once arrived I asked a man if it was okay to stay in the school. He insisted to stay inside his house, but I preferred to stay at the school, mainly because he was a little bit pushy. At the school he insisted to protect me, but once again I told him I would be fine without it. I survived more than five months with out it, so I wasn’t afraid of having no protection. “Don’t be afraid”, he kept telling me, which actually made me afraid. When I declined his offer to clean my shoes, he almost outburst. “Don’t be afraid”, he said again. It became annoying and I felt sorry to become a bit harsh to him. I explained to him that his offer was a nice gesture, but the first thing in the morning my shoes will become dirty again, so it’s useless to clean them. He understood and calmed down, he also understood that I was tired and would go to sleep soon, so he walked away and left, not knowing if he would come back.

Beauty and hospitality

Some holes in the clay wall let some light through and wake me up. By now I noticed that all mornings are rainy, so I waited for a bit. I cleaned my bike and installed new brake pads.

Back on the bumpy mud road I wasn’t able to make so much kilometers. When going up hill I often had to walk, and when going down hill I had to ask everything from my brakes. It all costed me a lot of energy, but the reward was worth it. I passed so many pure locals, and the beauty of the rain forest was breathtaking. Small clouds were moving slowly between the large trees. Birds and insects filled in the audio spectrum.

Again I stayed in a school, and again I received a shower and some food. The local hosts learned me about how they farm and grow rice, corn and potatoes. The few chickens that run around are their only certain way of eating meat. Sometimes they catch various small animals in the forest, and when they are lucky, they find an elephant.

President’s palace

I found out that my feet have a fungal infection, so I put on new dry socks in my moist shoes. The people in the village gathered together as soon as they noticed I was about to leave. They handed me a big piece of fruit, which would grant me some good energy for today’s ride.

The road was just like the past two days: difficult, muddy, hilly and beautiful. But half way this all changed. The road become incredibly bad, as it was part of a transport route for heavy rain forest logs. The road was hidden under a thick layer of mud for almost 30 km. My brakes, including the fresh ones I installed yesterday, got worn. And I’m afraid that soon there will be serious damage to my crank and chain wheels too. And it’s still more than 200 km till I’ll be back on the asphalt, till then I’m stuck on this single road in the jungle.

Suddenly some fancy houses appeared beside the road. I stopped at a wide building, which had traces of a school. A man was sitting outside and I approached him to ask my daily question for a sleeping place. “This is the presidential palace of the city”, he told me. I thought there was no chance to spend the night in such a place, but he offered me a shower and then guided me to a bedroom. This part of the building is for officers and politicians, when there is a meeting with president George Weah, a former football player who even has been the best of the world in 1995.

Hitchhiking out of the jungle

An old friend of me woke me up this morning. He hasn’t shown itself properly for about three weeks, and now his warm rays were coming through the small window opening, into my tent, onto my face. I packed my stuff, put on my flip flops and said “natro” to my hosts, which means thank you in Kru.

Cycling with flip flops was my new tactic, and with the presence of the sun, it was a good attempt to solve the fungus infection on my foot. However, the puddles still appeared, my brakes got worn and the hills were frequently present. Knowing that I still had to cover more than 200 km, which would take me four or five days, I realized that it might be better to hitch hike. I certainly don’t like the idea of using a car as transport, as I try to cycle around the world with my own muscles all the time. But I also want to enjoy the time on the bike, and the border of joy is pain. Beside, I don’t think it was wise to ride on hills monopolized by holes, without having brake force. I simply underestimated the road and the next time I should be prepared better.

I cycled for about 10 km till I reached a police check. They told me I could wait for a car here, and so I did, for three hours till the next car came by. And to be honest, the car ride was even a fun experience, and I can’t argue that it is less exhausting as cycling the track. For seven hours we focused on the bad road in front of us, to estimate the movements of the shaky car, so we could hold on when necessary. And sometimes the car got stuck in the mud, so two of the passengers had to dig away some soil. We arrived at the final destination in the dark, and the car driver even dropped me in front of a guest house.

Chinese roads

With fresh energy I started the day. I was optimistic about today’s ride. My feet were getting less painful and the sun was shining.

And soon I entered the asphalt. The giant road has been made by Chinese workers. The idea of their support is to help connecting the country both internal and external. Infrastructure is the key for economic development, but in this case it also results in a debt. And the debt is paid by allowing the Chinese mine valuable minerals. I’m not sure of it is a win-win situation, especially on the long term, but at the moment it was a win situation for at least me.

Some parts were still under construction and the mud was prepared so smoothly, that it became slippery. I was able to cycle a 100 km in the end, till I found a guest house to stay at. Three mouses in my room held me awake for some time. They kept on coming in and out by a wide gap under the entrance door. I used one of the curtains to close the gap and to secure myself an unperturbed night.

Entering Ivory Coast

“Where are you going to?”, an official at the Liberian immigration office at the border asks. “To Abidjan in Ivory Coast”, I respond. “You’re going to Abidjan with your bike?”, he asks with disbelief. When I confirm, he asks the same question again. “It’s just a short distance”, I add. “No sir, it’s not a short distance, are you sure you go there with this?”, he responded. Given the fact that I come from The Netherlands and cycled almost 10.000 km, the 500 km to Abidjan is a relatively short distance, I explain. His eyes almost fell out his head. It’s a reaction I get more and more, the longer I travel.

The border consists out of a river and had to be crossed by a small ferry. A guy with a football shirt from The Netherlands is the captain and we are both happy to see each other. The orange color of the shirt is the same as the color of the Ivorian Coast’s shirt. I entered the new country with great enthusiasm. The first one or two days in a new country are full with scanning life and habits. The country in total seems richer. The roads are good and all small villages have electricity. However, the people seem less friendly and don’t even greet me all the time. The villages look dirtier and the people seem somewhat poorer than Liberia.

I didn’t find so much public places next to the road, such as schools and churches. So I stopped at a guest house. I hoped that the quality and diversity of the food would be better than the past few countries I visited. Food is one of those things I appreciate very much, and it influences my experience in a country very much too. A sandwich with spaghetti, beans and an egg was the only vegetable food I could find. I do eat meat and fish, but I prefer to not have it from a street shop.

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