Slowly meandering above the Sierra Leonean coast, my first views of Africa emerged from the mist. Golden rivers, lit aflame by the sun, twirled and swirled across lush green wetlands. A patch of long grass was flattened- an animal track! But what animal? A crocodile, a pygmy hippo? What an amazing question to be able to ponder! Then a few homes came into view, connected by the artery that is the blood red earth of Africa. I had made it!
There were other memories of the journey too, of course. There was the bizarre London hotel, which was a tokyo sleep pod-cum-university halls. There was the heavy handed secuitry in Brussels that nearly confiscated my London snowglobe, a gift for my host family, and the small child who effecitvely invaded Belgium by running through security before being caught. There was the hilarious hostess on the long flight to Monrovia, her dutch humour and acerbic wit doing much to entertain me when I couldn’t sleep. Sierra Leone wasn’t my destination of course, so it was a bit surprising to learn we would be stoppinbg in Freetown before heading on to Monrovia. We all stole a view out of the open door as passengers got on and off, and my excitement reached fever pitch! The heat, the smells, the sights… Africa was so close, I could nearly touch it.
In the darkness we plunged down onto Monrovia Roberts airfield, and the adventure began. The military efficinccy of Europe was replaced by the human chaos of Monrovia, with all manner of people directing us left and right in the terminal, with visa confusion and people trying to make a quick buck off us combining to make our culture shock more pronounced. Steppinbg out of the terminal, the heat nearly knocked me off my feet, and I seriouslty regretted wearing a light fleece for the flight. We were greeted by the excellent YMCA staff including Emmanuel, who did much to put our nerves at ease. We were bundled into two 4x4s whilst they quelled the gathering crowd, and we were off into the night.
The journey that followed was the most intense of my life. Pitch-black, in entirely unfamiliar territory, we barrelled towards Monrovia. Huge lorries would burst out of the darkness, axles straining under their excessivley overloaded cargo. Parts would be hanging off cars, or perhaps be missing at all, and the driving was creative to say the least. Motorbikes were zooming about in the middle of this action, zipping around the speeding lorries like moths to a flame. Some bikes carried 4 passengers, and many had no headlights at all. Overtaking broken down vehicles and other debris in the middle of the road was a common occurence, and it was absolutely exhilarating and terrifying in the dark. Our drivers were both immensely skilled and courageous, and they did a fantastic job of keeping us safe, however. We stopped for food, experiencing the delights of Liberian cuisine for the first time. Fried plantains, spicy rise and some incredible chicken was a great start to the trip, though I regretted trying a sauce that we were offered. It was like trying to swallow lava, and I’m still not convinced my tongue is okay! My tastebuds were bathed in a world of new flavours and textures, however, and I was very, very happy.
We set off into the darkness once more, headed toward the city centre. It was electric, absolutely buzzing with activity wherever you looked. It is hard to put in to words quite what Liberian roads are like, but believe me, every moment is edge-of-your-seat stuff. We also saw the Liberian police for the first time, sitting in the back of a pick-up, toting kalashnikovs, helmets and flak jackets. This was a stark reminder that we were not in the UK anymore, and I certainly wouldn’t pick a fight with them.
Bumping our way down a dirt track near the city centre, we found our secure compund that was to be our home for the night, Hiking up a few sets of stairs with my bags all but killed me off, but between the YMCA staff and Jordan, my Glaswegian counterpart, we made it. Exhausted from a long day of travel, I set-up my mosquito net and decided to shower in the morning- the sweat could wait. I ducked under the net, and I was dead to the world in seconds.
I awoke early with no prompting, blessing the electric fan as cool air kissed my skin. Finding a chair by the window, I concelaed myself behind the curtain and watched Monrovia come to life. I saw women in beautifully patterend dresses wander by, with babies strapped to their backs with the same beautful mateiral. I watched white 4×4 after white 44 drive by, each with a new orgnisation- the UN, UNDP, USAID and countless others passed by in very little time at all. Yes, this definitely wasn’t England! I saw men toiling away in the cooler air of morning, huge pieces of lumber straining their shoulders. Kids were everywhere, finding fun and amysement in everything they could find, inlcuding a swingball style game consisting of a ball, some string, and a stick. I watched golden yellow birds flit from palm frond to hanging cable whilst peach-coloured doves lazed on warm tin rooves. Kites and Eagles soaring past aded to the incredible energy of a morning in Monrovia. Below me, a shack-like restaurant opened up, emblazoned with the Chelsea FC logo and the words ‘Stamford Bridge’. You just can’t escape. This city was alive!
Breakfast consisted of a hard boiled egg and some bread, before all 7 of us squeezed into a landcruiser, together with YMCA staff. We blended quite nicely into the masses of white NGO 4x4s on the road! The two other men and I ended up in the boot of the Land Cruiser, which was incredibly hot and cosy but gave great views of the Liberian streets, and the chaotic traffic! People waded into traffic, selling chewing gum and crisps through the car window, whilst motorbikes would do their best to avoid them. There was a constant cacophony of cars honking- it seems quite normal to honk it every 5 seconds in Monrovia at least! Sitting in the back, I witnessed the aftermath of an accident, and saw a bike literally break down and fall apart behind us. The glare of daylight removed much of the mystery of the night before, but it was still clear that literally anything could happen on the road. As we saw more of Monrovia, tiny shacks by the side of the road, made of tin, wood and other rustic materials gave way to bigger, more substantial buildings, including some pretty major Chinese development projects that were an incredible mass of concrete and steel. A short, unsuccesful trip to the British embassy and a long wait in a cafe to get our visas sorted was all we had time for in Monrovia, but it was enough to get an enthralling insight into Liberia, and into what lay ahead. We stole a brief glimpse of the Atlantic before it was time to go. Our bags stashed in another car, we squeezed into the boot of the Land Cruiser once more, and prepared to journey onwards.