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Liberia is a country that has been in the news for a lot of the wrong reasons over the last few years but these days it is settling down and opening to travelers. It’s not quite the backpacker’s paradise yet as I was to discover but it was still a very interesting country.
Monrovia came into site and the traffic began, we got dropped off in a taxi rank and our driver helped us find a taxi to downtown. We got dropped off at St Teresa’s Convent which was apparently the cheapest safe place to stay (according to Lonely Planet anyway). It was a nice place with clean rooms and was located right downtown, still was 50USD, we had been warned Monrovia was expensive.
The city had a lively feel about it but there were still many reminders of its past, UN Troops still patrolled the streets. There were a few sites to see but most were in disrepair, the statue of the first president’s gates where falling off, the hotel that once was the premier hotel of the city was gutted and damaged and now used as a UN check point. Even one of the bridges that connected downtown to the rest of the city had collapsed. There were the remnants of when the city had money in the past in the shape of simplistic high rises, like Sierra Leone, now they were looking either damaged or in need of renovation.
The people though were warm and friendly though and very chatty. The food was good; they had hotdogs and proper bread even. It was a bit like USA junior, rap music being played everywhere; the food even mimicked the US more. You could see that there was a lot of wealth for a few people as there was some very nice cars in the city; I took a picture of a hummer across the street from a UN truck, a bit of a contrast.
In the morning we got a shared taxi to Zwedru in the North East, this was to be a long trip. The first half was not too bad the road was paved, and it was basically uneventful. They did stop on a bridge to feed the sacred catfish that lived in the river. We fed them cookies; they were huge and plentiful, so the river just became a moving mass. We asked why they were sacred, but no one could tell us because they weren’t from the village. All they could tell us was that no one eats them; even during the conflict when people were starving they would not eat these fish. Apparently, the fish disappeared when the conflict was on and as soon as the conflict was over they returned, smart fish. We got to the half way point after about five hours and this is where the paved road ended.
From this point on it was traveling along a bumpy dirt road that was extremely dusty. Our driver was very keen, so we were moving at quite a good pace and passing everyone, we passed a truck with a Petrol pump in the back that was moving a lot slower. There were a few large bumps along the way and we just prayed the car would make it. There were a lot of checkpoints along the way and we had to stop a lot at have our details entered a book. I will say though that not once through the whole country (or Serra Leone for that matter) was I once asked for some money at the check points, which has not been my experience in the other countries I have visited.
We kept trading places with the truck with the pump; we always wanted to be in front because of the dust. The dust that got kicked up was immense and everyone in the car was turning orange. You could write on your skin by wiping of the dust, it did have the effect on making us look tanned while the Liberians just got an orange hue and they hair looked like it had been bleached, we were just waiting for a showing.
About four hours down this road the sun was setting, we were very orange and uncomfortable since we were in the front and had to share the seat. This is the standard configuration, driver plus two passengers sharing the other seat in the front and four people in the back, in our case there was four plus a small boy. So, as we rocketed along the road whishing for the trip to be over, we went over a bump and heard a mighty crack. Everyone was worried, and the driver slowed to check what had happened.
The worst-case scenario had come true, a rock had punctured the oil pan and the car was slowly bleeding to death. They tried to collect the oil in a bag, but they had nothing to plug the hole. So, we stood there on the side of the road contemplating having to spend the night on the side of the road in the middle of Liberia. Just then our friends in the truck with the pump came around the corner. They stopped and check what had happened and offered to give us a ride. So, we got in their truck (air conditioned I might add) feeling very lucky and guilty about having to leave some of the other passengers being, there was only room for one other person.
We got to Zwedru about an hour later and the guys that had picked us up took us the guest house where they were staying, which was simple and acceptable. They even took us to a spot to have a drink and dinner. We were counting our blessing of having met these guys. They gave us some info about the area, there were here to put in a petrol pump for a large mining operation. We had a drink with them and they retired to bed, but not before a shower of course to become less Oompa-Loompa like.
The guy who ran the guest house found us a car heading south to Fishtown which was half way to the coast and the border with Cote D’Ivoire. There was another border crossing close to us but that put us in part of Cote D’Ivoire where there were travel warnings (we were later to find out we made a good choice not going there). So, we set off in the morning heading south, the road was better, and the driver took it slower, so we reached Fishtown about midday.
The next section was to try and get from Fishtown to Harper, the road on this section was apparently horrible. In Fishtown we couldn’t find any cars heading south and told that they couldn’t go on the road, we were to discover this was true. The only option was to take motorbikes, it took a lot of haggling, but we could only get it down to about 20USD each.
The ride was very interesting, and the road was horrible, there were potholes full of mud and so deep you could stack two cars. Sometimes we had to get off and walk through bad parts while the bike found a way through the bush to the other side. It took three hours and we got rained on a little, but we made it to a town 30km to the North of Harper. Here we jumped in a car and made it to Harper finally.
So here I was in my namesake town of Harper (I have now been to Cameroon and Harper in one year). Harper is hard to describe, in its past it used to be its own republic and a seat of education and wealth, but these days it is just a shell of what it once was. It was like a ghost town. There were a lot of amazing buildings that showed off the wealth the city once had, now they are just empty husks that are full of vegetation and are collapsing. A former president’s mansion is here (now full of squatters), an old Mason’s lodge and some colonial buildings.
The city had a feeling like the people just disappeared, for instance the guesthouse we stayed in at one time must have been a lovely house onetime. In the bathroom for instance there was a bath, but it was a bucket shower. There was the old plumping though, the old tap and even the connection for a showerhead, in the wall there was the connections for a sink, both hot and cold water. It is on a beautiful peninsula and the views from on top of its hill we are stunning. I would love to be able to see what Harper looked like in its heyday.
The next morning, we got a motorbike to the Cote D’Ivoire border. The crossing was simple except for having to haggle to get a fair price to get the ferry across the river that separates them (there is no bridge). There is always a river; you can see how the colonial powers used them as natural borders when carving up an area they had never seen. We got stamped into Cote D’Ivoire without trouble, sat and haggled for a moto into the closest city of Tabou from where we could get Buses deeper into Cote D’Ivoire.
The UN maintains a very visible presence in Liberia and about half the traffic on the road has UN markings, from SUVs to Troop Carriers. There are check points along the major roads with UN Troops in them (with the blue helmets). The battalions where from Bangladesh, China and Pakistan mostly and they had large bases in the big cities.
Because of this the only interaction with white people the locals have are with NGO or UN workers. This means when they come across a backpacker they cannot accept we don’t have large amounts of money to spend, it was the hardest country to haggle in I found, which made it an expensive place to backpack through.
Liberia’s tourist industry is not existent, and you basically need your own vehicle to see most of the spots. This prevent us from seeing a great deal of the country, also because of the limited information available about what to see (Lonely Planet for instance has only done one in country update in 10 years, with limited information, and even this missed out a lot of the places we went). It’s on the same path as Sierra Leone, just a bit further back, the infrastructure needs a lot of work, generators hummed all night in the cities for instance to help take the load of the power grid. It’s again a nice country but a lot of work for not that much gain.