Twelve Days of Liberia - sunday 2012-06-17 1333 last modified 2012-06-28 0205
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Day 1ish

The Sun Also Rises

My last morning began near the middle of the day. I feel as if I've been awake for days since then, though that clearly doesn't match with reality. I would try to figure out how much time exactly has elapsed between that bright morning and the middle of night now, over the ocean, but I think it might serve to be more frightening than helpful.

Sleep comes in restless fits on planes. There's nowhere comfortable, though business class looked promising. I am not certain there is much point in trying, despite the uncomfortably warm womb of humanity trying to catch some rest in soon to be artificial darkness while we race into the next sunrise together; so I write. I have yet to incorporate writing during a trip in a satisfying way - in consistency, mainly, but constancy leads to a familiarity with a certain level of quality and depth that also gets all too lost. I will try to record each day faithfully, as the concept of day comes slowly back into focus - I hope.

Having not yet reached our destination and achieving the significant, hard fought though merely incipient milestone of locating and sitting next to my travel partner on this interminable passage, perhaps writing of more general thoughts surrounding this moment and this place would be more appropriate. Africa is new to me. These are certainly not the circumstances under which I thought I might come here, but life doesn't often deign to match my plans. I am normally a surveyor in a new circumstance: take everything in now, come back to what is worth the while another time. This trip promises a bit of the opposite, to focus on just a few locales in just one small country out of a whole continent of wonders and learn to love it and its people as best you can. Which sounds more normal, more like something that can apply in examining those new situations: treat them like they'll be there. Most of the world doesn't get the choice. Maybe learning to do like that will be of use.

Day 2ish

Green Hills of Africa

I have been effectively awake all the way through from the last entry until night fell here in West Africa. Even while I wrote, windowed passengers took to furtively raising their shades to take in the rising sun, and land was rapidly approaching. A new day full of promise streamed through the windows.

We first landed in Accra and exchanged the Ghana-bound Americans for Liberia-bound Ghanaians. I've felt being the only Asian in a room of other majority Americans. Being one of only two Asian men on a plane full of Africans, that one is different. It was starting even in Atlanta when I sat down at the gate. China is trying to buy up Africa; I can only imagine how that colors the perception. There was a time where the magic of world cinema introduced us as kung fu warriors. Perhaps now we are seen as new would-be masters in a tricky world still wrought with colonial overtones.

Contrary to stereotypes that make dusty plains and the desert the only features of Africa, West Africa does have a rainy season, and the glimpses of Accra gleaned from those remote windows gave the impression that Hemingway's title was fitting. Personal space is quite a bit smaller here. A large woman sat on my armrest and hung over me, essentially to get out of the aisle, parking there with her ample body restraining my movement for several minutes. Another quick hop to the west and we were in Liberia.

A tiny airport barely up to even the smaller regional airports in the US, hosting but our one plane on the tarmac, serves as the main air hub in country. I'm not sure how many it can handle simultaneously; one 757 seemed like quite enough. Immigration and customs took almost no time relative to re-arriving internationally in the States. A quick look at the books and inside the luggage, we were in, and we set foot out of the door on African soil. Getting the luggage was a madhouse. Every one of the 250 passengers seems to have checked in and tried to crowd around a carousel fit for a tenth of the people while baggage handlers continuously stripped unclaimed bags off the belt and tried to find an open space to cram it in. It's a big plane, but it felt like a clown car - the teeming mass of people never seemed to shrink. Air conditioning - non-existent. I'm not sure why the impression of this entire continent is that it is always inhumanly hot. Perhaps this is true in many places, but on first impressions, I would say I could take that heat, that kind of packed in humanity, the smell of bodies and the press from many directions. I think I could find a home outside the programmed cleanliness of America.

There was a crowd surrounding the service building, Liberians awaiting friends and loved ones out in the surprisingly overcast sky. Apparently it rains a lot in Liberia. On par with, if not more than, Seattle. It is very, very green here. The bride to be and her fiancé claimed us after a bit of searching. So began our drive in from the distant airport towards the capital, along the ocean most of the way, along one of the best roads of the country, along which one truck had tipped over. Driving in Liberia is a danger with lots of horns involved.

We got an introduction to the infrastructure problems facing Liberia as the country rebuilds itself from its devastating civil war. Apparently the beer brewery was the only place that was intentionally left alone by all sides. Power and water are sketchy, with most running off generators and groundwater wells. Health care, where it exists, best run by private enterprise. The country is tiny, and the fight is uphill all the way. There is a large, large foreign presence all about, from UN peacekeeping missions, where UNMIL currently occupies what used to be the center of conflict, a tall building that looked down the major thoroughfares of Monrovia, to the enormous American embassy, which easily rivals any large university campus, before they opened a new embassy campus to rival the new Chinese embassy.

There are clear class divisions everywhere. There are trappings of poverty at every turn; in no way could you go anywhere in the country without it being right up next to you. It's almost impossible to believe: dilapidation, poor construction, patchwork infrastructure, garbage strewn streets. Our hosts are connected to the powerful class, traditionally the Americo-Liberians who are descendants of former slaves sent back to Africa. Many originally traced their roots from more southern parts of the coast of Africa, leading to the catch all label of "Congo." They playfully pick on one another - isn't love grand - for one being tied by blood and the other being part of a new wave of Liberians educated in America and repatriating into positions of power, becoming a new kind of "Americo-Liberian" with the same connotation of class status.

Our wanderings were a bit limited with the impending need to sleep. We ended up at a somewhat fanciful hotel, later to be associated in location as near the UN and both US embassies, for dinner, with basically native Liberian fare: fufu (mashed cassava) and hot pepper soup and fried fish and Club Beer. The hot pepper, along with rice, is in almost everything; it isn't so hot as other cuisines, definitely not approaching Sichuan or Thai, but it has a distinct flavor that I can still vaguely recall and enjoy. And then, at last, to our home for the next couple weeks, to sleep.

Day 3

The Old Man and the Sea

Our hosts have been providing a running commentary on the state of affairs in their repatriate home, which has been immensely enlightening. Everything is broken down in some way, incomplete, in need of such work. You can only focus on a few things at once, and the fabric of society itself is fragile, ready to be subject to the same divisions which split it so violently within living memory. Is it in the daily realities here? Are there those who are just waiting to trade better roads, a seemingly stable economy, a wealth of currently untapped resources - including oil - for the same utter insecurity that another war might bring? Will they return to power one of those who accomplish their means through blood? It doesn't seem Liberia is quite ready to leave their president Ma Ellen, whose fiscal policies earned a reprieve from formerly crushing debts, behind if they're to have a thriving future. The thread connecting now and that bright future is thin indeed.

We went to the warm ocean and got a brief dose of sun and surf, though breakfast was not forthcoming. The cook wasn't in and never did get in while we were there. There isn't much to the service industry here, a running commentary many an expat tends to sound off on. This does seem like it could become an idyllic introduction to Africa for the squeamish American, with the currency and language already set, if there were more to visit. They used to. Before the war, Liberia attracted 40% of all American tourism to Africa. I wonder if modern proclivities might find "upcountry" or "the bush" more eco-tourist friendly.

Which leads to some consideration about whether some of the issues developed countries face can or should be addressed here. The beaches have eroded disastrously over the years. Within the past couple decades, a few hundred feet of coast are gone, whether from theft of sand or failure to steward it. Is now the time to start suggesting 6 lpf toilets aren't helping with keeping clean water? Water and food are net imports despite the general impression that it need not be that way. And can energy be produced domestically without walking down the path of producing damaging levels of waste?

This is rich soil for policy making and the potential additional gains of sustainable development. Given this situation, in all its complexity, are there a couple places to concentrate on where regulation and its enforcement would help set the country on its way?

Our wanderings brought us all around Virginia, Bushrod Island, past Hotel Africa, a ruined world class hotel now just a shell. The burning garbage dumps near the water, the markets with no regulation - there is no black market, there aren't enough regulations to bother - the fences and walls and razor wire and security guards everywhere, in the city and outside its limits. Normalcy seems like it entails a lot of fear for most of the country.

A brief note on finding things here. Directions we were given included going down that road between two coconut trees and next to an unfinished church, or behind the closed down store with the white fence, or down one road past the power substation. It's hard to fathom the dizzying level of infrastructure required to bring us such convenience and unthinking efficiencies in the developed world. Need to get somewhere? You may not even need a map if you've got numbered streets.

We've spent some time with expatriates, many of whom are here working with NGO's. I think I would like most of the people who choose to be here, for whatever their reason. It takes a degree of passion for an issue that carries you so far away from home and comfort, and you must have some familiarity with the world outside of normal America (or Europe, or wherever). It also seems like the expatriate community really needs itself to help relieve some of the intense pressures of being a foreigner in a difficult land. It's odd to watch it from the outside. Does sharing the status of being an obvious outsider create that deep a bond? I'd like to think I would try to integrate locally more than spend time with those who will always make themselves set apart - but that's not my reality to make that call.

Day 4

A Moveable Feast

We went to church yesterday. It was a bit much like church in the US, possibly explained by it being founded by American missionaries: the same songs, the same instruments and cadence, the same layout and high-ceiling architecture. Though the pastor did take some time to accomplish a piece of public health education - don't try to go on a 40 day fast devoid of water, you will die without question. This is the sort of thing people miss in their education when the country is ripped apart for over a decade.

I'm getting sick with something... intestinal.

Day 5

A Farewell to Arms

Well, I've been waylaid for about 36 hours with whatever the colloquial version of Montezuma's Revenge is called. I had it on my list to buy some Immodium before coming here. There's one thing I seriously regret not getting done.

I've been reading President Johnson Sirleaf's autobiography, clearly not ghost written, and it's been revelatory about how little this country is and how the concerns of a society don't lessen even if you basically seem to know everybody. There are few unknowns in terms of who has power. It's a constant conversation at least with our hosts. How well do the two million people outside of Monrovia know their history? Does the distance from ruling families and seats of power stand as an obstacle to trying to discuss a way forward? Or is the price of rice still the trigger for riots? How will the well-intentioned but inevitable biases of the present ruling class set the course for the future?

It turns out we're flying out of here the day Charles Taylor's verdict for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone is to be announced at The Hague. Either way could be problematic, though one hopes justice is worth any problems it triggers. Still, the day before might have been a better choice.

Day 6

Islands in the Stream

There's not much to write about when you're sick. Lots of interesting conversation completely apart from first hand experience though. This whole concept of people talking about the issues their country faces, of being engaged citizens, sounds so nice. Imagine if the US reversed its trend of over specialization and the making of professional politicians and instead encouraged broader engagement across the spectrum in its populace.

Day 7

To Have and Have Not

It's a little disappointing shooting in urban settings constantly. Maybe I can find an interesting visual angle, but I don't think I'm going to fill up even one card out here. Cities aren't my thing, and there's a whole sense of exploitation in photographing in Africa. To personally benefit in any way from the suffering of others is not an easy ethical road to travel, and I'm too frozen to go down it while here, facing it. I've ended up shooting from a car quite a bit, which is about my least favorite way to do it, so rushed and often blurred.

Day 9

For Whom the Bell Tolls

There are four days left before the plane takes off, but I'm antsy for home. I'll have three days of laid back catching up and crafting with my tools.

After a few days of high level nation rebuilding exercises, now it's time to look at what brought us here. Our friends spent a significant amount of time in the US during their formative years, thus this wedding is in the mode of what you would generally expect in the US. It is distinctively true to home, with Liberian flora and ornamentation and food, but the schedule and events lie within a familiar framework. And, of course, the plans will go astray. It's been shocking how much can go wrong and did go wrong. Some significant portion of our time here is spent unearthing and then sorting out those details, partly because the bride to be just started a new job and could only get a couple days ahead of the wedding off.

For the sake of those involved I'll avoid details on everything that didn't go according to plan, but it touched on just about everybody. To top it all off, the groom showed signs of malaria two days ahead of the wedding.

The thing is, it will probably look perfectly normal the day of.

Day 12

True at First Light

And now they're married. I'll hold on to this day for myself, if you don't mind.

Day 13

The Torrents of Spring

How to Get a Nigerian Transit Visa in Three Long Hours

Day 15 amendment: read the following knowing the point of a Nigerian transit visa is so you can leave the airport during your layover. It is the only reason you would ever bother obtaining one.

Do you know what a transit visa is? I never heard of such a thing until 48 hours before I needed one. It's a fascinating tale that brings in every thing I learned about surviving in Liberia into one anxiety-packed day.

A transit visa is a civil weapon used by countries against one another in a retributive battle waged mostly against the draconian security measures of the United States, who have decreed that just about any foreign citizen passing through our sovereign soil must be approved by the embassy of their origin for transit. It gets taken out on the unsuspecting population of each country. We normally call these things layovers in our country, being booked from one flight to another through various hubs to reach our ultimate destination. When international travelers do so, they need transit visas. By the by, your airline will not tell you about this. Because the US extends this bureaucratic nightmare to so many comers, many do it right back to us. Case in point, Nigeria: US citizens are the only ones who must acquire a transit visa to pass through Nigeria.

If you do not have a transit visa, you will either not be allowed on the flight that takes you to Nigeria, or you'll be forced to pay for a plane ticket back to your point of origin - which, if you no longer have a valid entry visa, like me, will cast you into an unknown limbo. You aren't allowed back, you can't go forward. In all likelihood, you will live out The Terminal until you find a way out, or you might go to jail. In the case of Liberia, that would be a nightmare either way, not least because you may not even be able to buy your way out: not for another two months will there be a direct flight stateside. To get out likely requires getting a seat on the lone Delta flight that doesn't require a plane change when going through Accra, Ghana. But to get such a seat probably means abandoning the original itinerary and not trying to leave at all until the itinerary is fixed. Liberia has a generous three month allowance on its shortest visa; how awful would facing an imminent deadline on leaving the country be?

I found fragments of this using Google while baking in the shade of an ocean resort hotel, having been warned by a fellow traveler that such a document existed and was absolutely required to transit from Liberia through Lagos. This was a terrifying moment. When you think you have all of your ducks lined up for international travel - vaccines, tourist visa, a vague familiarity with currency, language, and phones - and you suddenly find out that you absolutely need a document that normally takes at least three days to process in two days, it's like getting the rug pulled out from under you. All of that effort to get here, foiled on the way out to the one place you now want to be: home. It's unnerving to have a basic expectation completely undermined, especially one about homecoming, with all that home means to us.

Everything in Liberia closes at 4pm. I hate that. Things don't necessarily open at 9am, either. We had one business day to figure out how to leave, and it was too late to call around by the time I gathered what I needed to. I tried out some numbers I found. Some were incomplete, others disconnected, yet others repurposed if ever they fit, and still others fax instead of voice. Slightly desperate calls stateside, where businesses were open, to the tune of 5 cents a minute for calling, met with phone trees, which not only wasted time but revealed a major inadequacy in the Chinese hardware of cell phones here: they don't appear to send touch tones, or if they do, they're inconsistent with the US system. Everything in the US was a phone tree; no amount of key pushing could bring me to a person. As the sun set, I had to give up on any more searching. There was nothing more to be found until I could talk to a person.

An aside about driving in Liberia. There is no public transport infrastructure. The only way for those unwilling to drive here - any sane foreigner would be unwilling to drive here - to get about is by taxi or by extremely dangerous motorcycle operators. Cabs can be nightmares. At the worst, they might hold you captive and all that that implies. At best, you must be familiar with a set of hand signals that will get you a taxi going in your direction. They ride with windows open and as many passengers as is possible. So far, we ended up relying on our hosts or their drivers, with various chartered taxis or major hotel affiliated drivers mixed in, and one very kind site manager at our last resort who consented to driving us to the wedding site a couple of times. Today, none of that was available except a chartered cab. As with just about everything in Africa, our list of chores took much longer than hoped and involved more steps than expected. Fortunately, our chartered driver was incredibly patient and helpful at every turn, thanks in no small part to my travel partner's social skills.

We needed to come in to the city and run unrelated errands before going to the Nigerian Embassy to Liberia where God only knew what awaited us. I happened to have noticed it on our earlier drives up and down the main road; he knew where it was, but it was good to have the bare knowledge that it was easily accessible from our location, as opposed to, say, being in LA and needing to visit an embassy in DC. As our driver brought us up to the gate, the security guards, normally responsible for opening up to let drivers in, told us to get out of the car and walk in. The driver would have to wait out of sight for us. We were told it would only take fifteen minutes. It should be clear that isn't how it went down.

It is my understanding that embassies are considered the soil of their representative nations. We were stepping into Nigeria, and we had no idea what to expect or hope for. After a couple brief descriptions of what we were there to accomplish, we were ushered into a small room and commanded to sit in front of a nearly unintelligible and incredibly grumpy and unhelpful man who plays a decidedly complex role in our story. As we explained what we needed and arrived at the same page about his understanding of what we wanted, he told us both that we would never be allowed on the plane without a visa if we tried to pursue our present itinerary and that there was absolutely no way for us to get the transit visa - by now a certainty in its necessity - before we were meant to leave the next day. We had to, in his eyes, adjust our current itinerary to leave a day later at the earliest or at the beginning of next week to be safe. There were no other options he gave us, no rush processing, nothing at all to work with. It was his way or no way.

We occupied their lobby to begin working through our options. There remained in my mind the ultimate option of visiting the Delta office down the street - just one main street, so it's all somewhere along it - and attempting to buy two seats on the next available flight through Accra and not through Lagos. As my friend called around (and got run around - thanks for nothing, Vayama, your international travel specialists are useless and didn't even give us the right phone numbers), the contrary fellow called me into his office and asked to see my passport. While we were working on complying with his demands, to adjust our itinerary to fit his bureaucratic obstacles, he looked at my existing visas and was seemingly shocked to find that we had not transited through Nigeria on our way in, neither did we have residency status in Liberia. The three day wait just turned into outright refusal. For some arcane reason, we were now never going to be given transit visas, not at any time. Our goalposts shifted to finding a way out of Liberia that didn't cross through Nigerian territory at all. This proved to be a new bureaucratic obstacle course itself, not helped by our limited phone minutes being eaten up by calls to the US.

At some point during this debacle, our man left his office and locked up and wandered out. I say this man is complex, because in the middle of our travails of attempting to get Virgin Nigeria to release our itinerary for rerouting a path not related to Nigeria - why ever should that be on our end, Vayama? Is the job of a booking agent not to book stuff? - he went and explained to somebody what on earth a white girl and a Chinese American were doing making calls from their lobby, and that someone came to find us and rescue us from our turmoil.

I wish I'd caught his name. He came to us as we sat there - "Boss." "Yes, sir." I thought he might be kicking us out. But in that musical Nigerian-British lilt, he explained that our situation had been communicated to him: "We'll give you the visas."

Thank God for kind men with power.

He took our passports and directed us to the nearest passport photo store, which our driver hocked us along on, though he was almost ready to leave. He waited again while we acquired our photos - 10LD cheaper since we didn't have the currency for it ready at hand (neat bargaining trick that one, I don't have any more), had a Liberian photographer glamor shoot our sweaty, stressed selves, gathered it all up to get back to the embassy. Patrick the driver dropped us and waited for fifteen before we found out it would take an hour to process our paperwork, so we let him go, stranding ourselves at the embassy for the moment while we sat in the lobby and waited.

Our man took our itinerary and our money. We sat. We looked around the lobby, peered into the locked but nominally open library, chatted. And forty-five minutes later, we had receipts in hand and new transit visas from Nigeria in our passports.

We could leave the country now. Contrary man was wrong about everything. We didn't need three days. We didn't need a costly new itinerary. We didn't need to have come in through Nigeria nor residency in Liberia. He didn't need two copies of the same itinerary and gave the original back. And we got visas. Because of and in spite of him.

We were empowered. The famed relaxed nature of doing business and getting stuff done in Africa on "Africa time" somehow gave way for us. With freedom again an open road before us, we embarked on the ultimate experience: catching a taxi with the right hand signals. We crammed into a sedan packed with seven people, crossed the street for the last time, I hope, and came back to our Liberian home base, a small taste of the homecoming we now get to do tomorrow.

Day 14

Death in the Afternoon

A fitful night of barely claimed rest. The US Marine Corps, various UN agencies, all on lockdown for this morning with the imminent announcement of Charles Taylor's verdict in his case at The Hague. Years in the making and execution, the lifetime achievements of Taylor pertaining to the brutal civil war of Sierra Leone - a formerly stable neighbor brought even lower than Liberia in inhumanity - were about to be judged. The fabric of society here seems so thin, so susceptible to tearing around what patches currently keep it together. The people of Liberia just want peace; the threat level for problems with the Taylor verdict announcement may be low from any angle, but Taylor left behind a volatile following, and who knows how they'll react to what judgement comes down. If he's cleared, what next? Will they pave the way for the God willing return? If not, will they riot in protest?

These are not the types of questions someone from a stable country ever asks. They are unsettling. They make for bad sleep. We have a baseline of justice that sometimes we dip below. It is perhaps the opposite here, a baseline of injustice that sometimes sees the light break through but usually doesn't. Does hope grow stronger in the face of such daily injustice, or does its connection to reality grow tenuous, ready to snap as the undeserved burdens pile on? The perception of stability is so vital.

In true fashion, The Hague handed down a mixed set of judgements. Out of the full set of charges, some were tossed entirely. Of those remaining, only the most low key stuck, aiding and abetting RUF forces, providing them arms, illegally profiting from and trafficking resources out of Sierra Leone. The ones that went to the heart of atrocity, the establishment of direct responsibility for ordering troops to commit rape and amputation and murder, were found to be unproven by the prosecution. Taylor's crimes are centered on Liberia. There should yet be opportunity to find him liable for years of wild instability here. This ruling is a bit disappointing. He'll be imprisoned the rest of his life in London, sure, but so much responsibility that falls on his shoulders has not been seen to be firmly set there.

The country never seemed to be inflamed. Just about everybody we met and interacted with was nothing but kind and generously helpful without gain in sight. We got stares aplenty, Liberia just isn't a place where being a foreigner earns you any token, fundamental antagonism. Just the opposite. The administrative necessity to keep people safe in the slightest chance of a conflagration makes everything seem so much more dire than it ended up being. The sun rose, the vendors were out on the street, people went about life like any other day. Charles Taylor has certainly lost power.

And so we leave and journey on to find out how effective our visa fleecing will be on getting us through. We have passed the first few obstacles, departing a country still at peace, departing just forty-five minutes late after gaining our tickets. Up next after what should be a matter of staying on the plane in Accra: Nigeria. Where three people were just murdered by a bomb in a newspaper office while anti-westerner sentiment rises. Let us just pass through. Then, home free.

Day 15

Across the River and into the Trees

Lagos is the worst airport in the world, but that's not the only reason I would be happy to never set foot on Nigerian soil for the rest of my life. Yes, the Nigerian embassy to Liberia, the employees who are ambassadors for their country and represent its sovereign reputation, are scammers.


Holy travel fun batman!

Did you make it back safely? I imagine the scamming involved you having troubles galore in the Nigerian airport? I've just had my own set of good times fun while traveling in Laos. Oh man, I can honestly say I do not envy your time running around in Liberia working on getting that transit visa, the crushing impossibility, the uplifting success, the realizations garnered in the aftermath.

Ryan Anthony on July 01, 2012 09:02 AM

I guess it needs...

I guess it needs an epilogue, doesn't it. Maybe the cliffhanger is more dramatic. Indeed, I have returned safely. The visa being extra credit, essentially, gave us a couple seconds delay in immigration while they decided how it would expedite our passage (ironic). It appears to have saved us something, but what is not clear, and they readily explained how a transit visa wasn't required - we could even have saved them for next time.

There were definitely people in Lagos who marked our out of place skin tone, one of whom tried to convince us he could get us into the elite ticketing line, implicitly in exchange for a little something. As if. Also, Lagos is too crappy an airport for an elite line to matter. It's the definition of hot mess: no A/C, meaningless lines, people shoving and shouting their way through any choke point. I learned quick how to make it out of a "line": with your elbows and a bad attitude towards your fellow man. We ran into Rudy Giuliani on the way through (seriously - Candidate 9/11 sweating his squat, ugly, Yankee-loving face off, a disgusting politician for a disgusting airport). We had four hours to get from our flight to the next one. We needed every second.

I try not to hate. Lagos deserves it.

When we got back to Atlanta, all of ICE's computers were down. I had hours to make my flight but with thousands of people backed up waiting, I started to expect to miss my connection home. They basically started letting everybody through without question. Somehow I made my flight, and even more amazing, so did my luggage.

America seemed very weird for a couple weeks. That's for another time. Are you back?

Ryan Lee on July 07, 2012 01:33 AM

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