All signs indicated an amazing African experience, if half the fun was getting there. I was well cared for, and slightly worried over, as this adventure to River Gee County started. Two of my Liberian artists, Patrick and Koko, took turns watching over me as I waited at the Zwedru parking station. I truly believe that “parking station” is such a better term than “bus station”. First of all, there were no buses and second of all, I parked myself there for four hours waiting for a ride out of town. There were no schedules. Vehicles left when they were full. So, while I waited for my ride, my friends took turns babysitting me to see that I got off safely without being ripped off in any way. I wasn’t worried in the slightest. My guardians were very protective.
Transportation, fortunately, changed since my Peace Corps days. Back then, the main way to get around were money buses. They were not buses. They were pick-up trucks with three long wooden benches inside a wooden frame. Once you crawled in and took your seat, there was no moving around because the buses never left until there was no room to move around. And, there were occasional chickens and goats as well. The “room” in the back of the money bus was too short for me to sit up straight. I had to slouch over and my head hit the rooftop on way too many bumps. But, it appeared that money buses were a thing of the past.
Now days, the parking stations were filled with old station wagons and occasional vans. In the front seat of my wagon, two passengers were to fit on one bucket seat while four people crammed into the back seat. I decided not to suffer. I splurged because I could. I bought the two seats that were actually one bucket seat. I honestly could barely fit into the spot. I held my very overweight backpack the entire trip. I had to position my arm over the backpack so I didn’t keep bumping the driver as he shifted gears. I don’t know how it would have been possible to fit another person in that space. But, if I hadn't purchased the second seat, it somehow would have happened.
Of course, none of this “luxury” reduced the enormous guilt I felt when four adults and an infant squeezed into the back. I just couldn’t make any eye contact as the trip began. Yes, I paid for the space I had, but I really felt like a rich American.
Eventually, we hit our first of several police checkpoints. Now, as the token white man, I was usually the focus of attention, but at the first stop, one of the Liberians reached his frustration point. I heard him say, “I’m a Liberian and I have the right to speak!” Of course, he spoke the truth. But, whenever you demand your rights in situation like this with police at checkpoints, there are going to be delays. This time was no exception.
But as I said, having a token white man aboard usually slowed everything down for the others. I had to see the immigration officer at each checkpoint. I had to explain my “mission” and show my passport as the driver paid a bribe to another officer. I double checked this suspicion with another passenger. Yes, there was money involved, but the amount was different at every station. The driver and the officers had to negotiate “the appreciation”.
I assured the guy there was no “appreciation” involved in the transaction.
And, my driver confirmed the whole thing. He said that the bribe could range anywhere from $75 to $100 or even $200. Before you have a complete heart attack, you divide Liberian dollars by about 100. Still, it’s theft and extortion.
It wasn’t yet rainy season, but there had been some rain. My driver knew what he was doing. He negotiated two spots where the sink holes were so treacherous that I couldn’t believe it was possible that we didn’t get stuck. I had to congratulate him. In another spot, all passengers had to get out of the vehicle so a lighter load would hopefully pass through the mud hole. That worked. But finally, we hit the mud hole that put the “gee” in River Gee County.
It was truly amazing.
The mother of all Liberian mud holes is on the other side of Zwedru. I’m told, and I fully believe, that some Liberians intentionally dig the holes deeper so trucks must get stuck. Then, the drivers have to pay these same Liberian entrepreneurs to help dig the trucks out of the muck. There is actually a small village that has sprung up around the site where truck after truck gets stuck and it can take weeks or months to clear things up. In the meantime, those villagers have learned to gouge the living daylights out of anyone trapped along their path, or so I’ve heard.
This mud hole in River Gee wasn’t that bad, but there were two distinct paths to choose from. There really was no choosing, though. One van was already stuck in the first path. It looked like it could tip over at any moment. We unloaded from our station wagon and our driver sped through the second path. Well, that was the plan anyway. He, too, was stuck. I fully expected that I’d have to join the others to push us out of the muck. I don’t like to do things like that on any occasion. But, I was wearing flip-flop sandals and knew I’d be even more useless than usual. This could take hours of delay and possibly a night on the roadside. However, a few four-wheel drives showed up on the opposite side of the mud hole and my driver reached for his ropes to get us pulled out. I was so impressed with his preparation.
Now, I have to admit that a white man standing along the side of the road during an event like this is a little unusual. Most white men travel in air-conditioned land rovers owned by the UN, UNESCO, some ministry, US AID, an embassy, the Red Cross or some other NGO. They don’t cross Liberia like Peace Corps volunteers in public transportation vehicles. As one four wheel drive vehicle passed by me, it came to a stop. A young Liberian man opened the back door and called out, “White man!”
I trotted over to the guy and said that I was just fine in the vehicle I was in. And, I thanked them for their thoughtfulness. However, I had a really good driver – and sufficient legroom - so I wasn’t about to give him up.
Plans were to get to the home of my friend Daniel in one day. Plans changed. It was about ten in the evening when I arrived in Fish Town. Daniel lived an hour and a half somewhere off the main road in a little village. I wasn’t going to try that at night. Nope, I went to the first guesthouse I could find in Fish Town. And, my hostess, Sarah, knew just what to do. She asked if I wanted a bath. And, would I like hot water?
It was a bucket bath, but it was my first hot water in over two weeks. Heaven.
In the back of my mind I thought about taking a motorcycle back to Zwedru. They could get past mud holes that catch cars for sport. However, the hour and a half ride from Fish Town to Tugbaken changed all that thinking. It was just too long to sit without moving and I couldn’t imagine that pain for five or six hours. I’d take my chances on four wheels.
In spite of the pain, and I’m not kidding about that, the trip to Tugbaken was beautiful. River Gee was as lush as I remembered Liberia and the majority of homes were adobe block with thatch roofs. It was like a motorcycle ride in a National Geographic magazine. But, all that pain was forgotten as soon as I hobbled off the motorcycle and was greeted by my friend Daniel.