The End of the Ride

I have been back in the “1st World” or “Developed World” for over a month now.  There was much I wanted to write before I left Liberia but, alas, never seemed to have gotten the time.  Okay, I admit that my attention might otherwise have been diverted by the constant celebrating which seemed to have been going on with the US crew (plus a few adopted non-US).  The last couple of weeks there were spent celebrating the 4th of July (which, I believe, took up a week in itself) to celebrating leaving to just celebrating the fact that we had become so good at celebrating.  Pros, total pros.  That all being said (and the liver still not fully recovered) I have found that I have come to appreciate things in the West significantly more than I ever did before I left.  

The things I have come to appreciate are actually all pretty simple and basic things.  For example, I enjoy going to to the sink and seeing not only clear water come out, but, the knowledge that I can drink that water.  Seems simple, yes?  Well, I guess it is but that’s something I have always taken for granted.  Ever stop to think of the process that that water goes through to get to your glass, the people who help get it there and the system which allows it all to work?  Something so simple can be rather complicated.  A quick story of how unused to this I had become.  I flew from Monrovia to Brussels to Atlanta to Columbia.  When I got to Brussels, an Indian woman was brushing her teeth and drinking water out of the faucet in an airport bathroom.  My first thought was, “wow, she’s pretty brave…”  Then I remembered that I was back in a place where I could do that.  

I also appreciate non-generator power.  It is nice to have the ability to turn on the lights at any time and have them work.  Also, to not always need to worry about a surge protector.  In my hotel room in Columbia I went to plug my computer in and had a moment of reconsidering because I didn’t want my laptop to get fried if the power surged…

It’s more silly stuff like that – not having to fill a gas tank to cook, having yogurt with active cultures, being able to drink non-UHT milk (aka, fresh).  As I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered more and more that I am a person who utterly appreciates creature comforts.  There are those people who really enjoy the Peace Corps as well as all of the other NGO/government/volunteer etc jobs which send folks to third world countries.  Me, however, I’m thankful that those people exist and comfortable in my knowledge that I’m not one of them. 

That’s not to say that I look at my experiences in Liberia as all bad.  <sigh>  At some point my brain released that chemical (whatever it’s called) that allows people to forget pain… Actually, I think that it was called “Becks” or maybe “Heineken” or was it “Club” and after the last 3 weeks it killed all of the negative brain cells.  Or, maybe it was the tennis in the middle of the day, under the Liberian sun that boiled those negative thoughts.  Or, most likely, it’s looking back at the people I met and the friendships I made that have helped me forget the cockroach in my pillow… the ants in my trail mix… the flooding in my apartment… Maybe not forget, but, laugh at.  I’ll take those “bad” memories and couple them with Jen’s obsession with pineapple, Adams’ incessant need to take his shirt off, Corrie’s “runs”, Andrew’s weight loss plan, John’s monkeys, Jim’s guns, Dave’s music, Annie’s babies, Al’s players and bench warmers, Mike’s “physio”, Francisco’s connections, Luis’ tennis coaching, Mustafa’s hands… and the list goes on and on. 

Overall, it was a good ride and one that I will always remember.  For all of you who sent me all of those fantastic packages filled with yummy items and girlie things, thank you.  You helped me get through the hardest part of being there and I appreciate you.  I guess this wraps up this string.  You can turn off your RSS feeds and stop the alerts – this forum has come to a close… until the next time I find myself in some ant infested, hot as hades, wawa controlled, 3rd world country…

Tam

A Quick Tale on the Goodness of Man

Yesterday one of our translators (Amadou) who’s normally quite cheery was down.  Earlier that morning he had given someone a ride on his motorcycle.  The guy’s knee kept bumping Amadou’s belt bag.  Eventually it came off.  Our translator didn’t realize it until the end of the day when he came into work and didn’t have it.  The bag had his ID, $10 USD, his cell phone as well as some other items.  He was crushed.  He had his cell phone blocked so that whoever found it wouldn’t be able to use it.  He was going to have to replace everything.  Then, at the end of the day, he ran into a friend who said that someone had called him and wanted him to tell Amadou that he had something of his.  The person had found the bag and bought a SIM chip for the phone so that he could access the phone numbers.  He then went down the list and called people to see if any of them knew how to get ahold of Amadou.  Amadou was able to call him later that evening and meet up to get his bag.  The bag had everything still in it. 

In a place recovering from war, where crime is on the rise, food and fuel prices are a constant worry, and poverty is everywhere, it’s nice to know that there are good people here who, one day, may just turn this country around.  Perhaps it’s not just in the US where one can have the “audacity to hope.”   

Unadjustment is a 7 day process…

I’ll be the first to admit, I was dreading the return to Liberia just a bit.  Afterall, I had been eating and drinking quite comfortably in the 1st world.  From the best dining experience I’ve ever had at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, to the hole in the wall Mexican joint in Vegas (oh yes, and Nobu in Vegas for super good Kobe beef and sushi) and everything in between, I had been fattening up quite nicely during my leave time.  But, as I flew over Liberia and was reminded of the beauty of it, I began to relax a bit.  Then, I actually walked into a terminal complete with immigration booth and a conveyor belt for luggage! I thought, “things are looking up here.”  This alone was leaps and bounds better than my past two experiences of flying into the country.  And to top it all off, Corrie picked me up and told me funny stories of what had gone on while I was gone.  We laughed and joked so much all of the way home that I didn’t notice the people run in front of the car. It wasn’t until we were actually in Monrovia that I started noticing her quick breaking skills as she repeatedly maneuvered around taxis stopping to let people off – never using a blinker or break lights, of course.  These were just things on my mind’s periphery.  That’s when I realized that because I wasn’t really paying attention to them, I was still used to them.  Nothing had changed.  I was, in a word, home. 

Once I got to my house, Jen greeted me with chipper hellos.  I relaxed on that first night home with watching a horror film and drinking a couple of beers.  All in all, I was comfortable.  The house was clean, the electricity stayed on, and with the exception of a few ants here and there (including the 1st of many that I would find on my toothbrush) everything seemed normal.  I even remembered not to brush my teeth with the tap water.  I was doing pretty good.

The only thing vaguely abnormal was how tired I was.  Tired enough that although I had gone to bed at 11PM on Friday, I didn’t wake up until noon on Saturday.  I did have one moment where I woke up when the A/C came back on and thought to myself (because I had only vaguely realized it was off) that “hmm… the power must have come back on early.”  Even that happy little thought filled me with comfort.  (In reality the power was probably off for the full two hours but I just had slept through it.) 

On Saturday I received a call that my office was doing another train trip to Bong Mines and my presence was required.  After confirming that the trip was mandatory, I resigned myself to going.  On Sunday I grabbed a book and headed to the train station.  I drank half of a beer in the morning and a bit of water before reminding myself that I shouldn’t overdo it.  I wouldn’t be able to use a bathroom for 2 1/2 or 3 hours.  I really wasn’t so perky as to actually want to run into the bush to relieve myself.  We finally made it to the mines.  I had done a fairly good job of dehydrating myself, but, alas, a bathroom was required.  Having been there before, I left the train (this trip no drummers, lunch was served by the train.  Again, fantastic Pakistani food – cheered me up to no end) and headed to the Nigerian compound.  After greeting the guards at the gate I started walking towards the bathroom.  I was hailed by another Nigerian who asked me where I was going.  I said to the bathroom and kept walking.  He again got my attention and told me that I needed to walk behind the building.  I said I’d been there before and knew there was a bathroom in the building.  His response was “it’s broke.”  So, off I went around the building.  I think the pictures say it best.  When I first looked at it (and in it) I thought “this can’t be it” and walked around looking for it.  There was a guy outside doing his laundry so I asked him if that was the bathroom.  He confirmed it was.  So now the question was, which one to use?  I walked to the last “stall” but found that when I squatted down (pants on – testing things out) I could see out through quite a wide crack where the two pieces of sheet metal met.  So, I went to the middle stall and hoped that no one suddenly had to answer the call of nature.  Not expecting to be thrown this kind of experience a day and a half after returning was a bit dis-heartening, but, I had planned ahead and brought tissues with me, so, all was not lost.  Except that I hadn’t planned quite far enough ahead to have remembered hand sanitizer. 

Monday was as to be expected.  I walked into work amongst the kissing noises the Liberians make when they want to get your attention, the shouts of “hey, American!” and “American soldier.”  At work I slowly sifted through the hundreds of emails and began to get some work done.  Then, home.  All was going well at home – I had a glass of 1 month old white wine in hand (it had been in the fridge – wasn’t so bad), had been studying German, and had even eaten some tasty Thai noodles that Zeyn and Jer sent to me last month until… the cockroach.  I don’t know if I wrote about my last large cockroach experience.  I found one in our kitchen a few months ago and immediately began spraying it.  I chased him all over the kitchen for what I’m sure was a half can of bug spray.  He never slowed down, he never died, he just kept running.  I stopped when he escaped under the fridge.  I don’t know who inhaled more spray, him or me.  So, when I saw this cockroach resting on a shelf in the living room I thought to myself, “I can chase him down with a can of spray which hasn’t worked in the past, grab a shoe and try to squash him – but I hate the crack of the shell and the guts everywhere, or I can just let him be.  I think he’s happy, I’m happy forgetting about him, it’s a win-win.”  So, I left him alone. 

Tuesday morning found me washing the trail of ants off the wall in the bathtub and putting my toothbrush and toothpaste in a cup vice laying them on the mirror ledge.  A girl can really only take so many ants on the toothbrush.  Tuesday night I had one of the more bizarre conversations I’ve had, ever, with Jen.  The scene is set over the stove in our kitchen as she is heating up water (which she got from the tap) to cook up her Top Ramen.  Me: “Um, I don’t know if you noticed, but your water is brown.”  Jen (in wonder): “yeah… it is…”  Me: “Um… there’s bottled water…”  Jen: “Isn’t it weird how brown it is?”  Me: “Um… yeah.  Uh, bottled water is pretty cheap.”  Jen: “yeah… it’s brown.”  Okay, at this point I left.  I later found out that she was just using it to cook her noodles and then she strained them.  I had used tap water as well to boil my noodles but, it was clear and I boiled the water for 7 or 8 minutes before cooking my noodles and then I strained them and washed them with bottled water.  To me, that was living on the edge.  A sign of my new comfort zone.  I don’t think I’ll do that again.

The unravelling of my comfort level came last night when I got home.  My plan was a glass of wine and German studying.  So, I went to my room, grabbed my laptop and opened it up… That’s when I saw them.  20 – 30 ants crawling all in and around the keyboard.  Ugh.  It was on my bed so I quickly put it on my floor and started killing ants.  Once I felt I was successful, I put it back on my bed.  I think I probably killed 50+ by the time all was said and done.  I had even turned it upside down and started hitting the bottom to get the last ones.  Of course, I had managed to smear a few of them on my sheets so those had to get washed.  In my paranoid mind I also pictured some of them finding their way to my brown cover.  So, I washed that too.  As there was no trail, I have no idea where they came from.  Later that night I realized that I had a large duty free bag standing upright on the floor.  Although it had chocolate in it, it was all packaged.  Plus, the bag was pretty solid plastic, what’s the probability… Well, the probability was actually quite high.  I lost one rum filled candy bar but, I believe, salvaged the rest.  At this point I ran back to the kitchen and grabbed the spray.  I found a trail and sprayed and sprayed.  I decided that when I started coughing I had probably sprayed enough.  The ants led to last night’s dreams of bugs crawling here and there and everywhere…

It is funny to me that when I arrived just  one week ago I was comfortable with the ants.  I expected them here and there and wasn’t surprised to see them.  I was also impressed with my calm handling (or non-handling as the case may be) of the cockroach.  Now, however, it’s war.  I am also at war with the small baby spider like insects which have popped up here and there.  I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous to go home today.  One never knows what one is going to find crawling on the floor, in the showers, on the kitchen counters or even in your laptop.  Who knew that it was actually possible to “unadjust” to a place…  

On the Road… Liberia Style

Not to worry, this is not going to be another rant about the traffic, although, it could be.  More like my observations/quips from the road.  Over the past 2 weeks I have been traveling through the country with my colleague, Francisco (from Ecuador).  In our “Powerful 308” (so named by Francisco due to the license plate number – UNMIL 308- ) we have packed on many, many kilometers visiting the different sectors.  During all of the driving, I have had time, lots and lots of time, to make some observations. 

Observation #1

Life is like a game of Frogger, just sometimes you’re the car and sometimes you’re the frog.  This was actually something I noticed before all of the trips.  When driving here, all of your senses must be alert.  People will run out in front of you expecting that you’ll stop.  This is all well and good during daylight hours.  At night, however, it’s a little… trickier.  There aren’t street lights and oncoming vehicles often use their brights.  This combined with dark skinned people wearing dark clothes becomes a recipe for potential disaster.  Then there are the times that you want to cross the road.  I’m reminded of that old Looney Tunes cartoon when Daffy Duck? goes to cross the road, steps into what otherwise seems like a clear road, and suddenly, WHOOSH!!! a car races by and runs his foot over.  Luckily, I’ve avoided that so far.  But there have been times when I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes in the form of a yellow taxi racing by.  I now know the relief that that little frog felt when he got to the lilipads.  And the stress of the drivers in the vehicles. 

Observation #2

18 wheeler trucks don’t turn easily.  If you try to turn them too fast, they’re going to fall over.  On 2 of our 4 road trips we saw 2 big trucks on their side (1 conveniently sprawled across the entire road) and 1 which had been pushed to the side.  On another trip there was saw where a truck had turned and only the shipping container remained.  Driver’s licenses, although required in general, are not really checked here.  Nor is the law to get one really enforced.  I’m quite certain that over half the vehicles on the road do not have licenses.  I’m also fairly certain that there isn’t a school anywhere in the country for learning how to drive a big rig.  Hence, the accidents.  These were only the accidents we saw while we were driving.  Not too long ago an 18 wheeler had hit the side of a bus here in Monrovia.  This all says nothing of the accidents that are happening which we don’t see…

Observation #3

The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.  How do I know this?  Because I have seen many, many chickens run across the road to do what?  Well, get to the other side!  The imagery still cracks me up.  I hadn’t really visualized it before.  I’d heard the joke many times and the wave of possible responses, however, I’d never really stopped to visualize a little chicken, legs moving quickly, head bobbing, run as fast as a chicken can run across the road.  Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think I’ll ever be the same. 

Observation #4

No matter how good your Ecuadorian cohort’s English is, jokes do not always translate well… if at all.  So, there I was…  “Que mas?” asks Franscisco after a particularly long bout of driving without any talking.  “Nada” I reply. (And no, my Espanol is not getting any better)  But, Francisco is a talker.  I can see that he’s bored (the scenery, although beautiful, doesn’t change) so I say, “Okay, I’ve got jokes!”  Now for those of you who have had the pleasure of hearing my jokes, you know that they’re pretty funny. (Thanks Jer for providing me with half of them!) So, I search my brain to come up with something not too hard.  So, I start off with what I think will be an easy one – Why do elephants paint their toenails red?  He asks why… I say, “To hide in cherry trees!” he smiles and I tell him that the joke isn’t over.  I ask, “Does it work?” and he gives me a quizzical look and says “no” and I say, “well have you ever seen an elephant in a cherry tree?”  I start laughing because it’s funny to me.  He then replies that it doesn’t work because elephants can’t get into a cherry tree so maybe it should be a different animal.  We go back and forth for awhile before I give up.  So, I try another one. (Warning: Joke may not be suitable for all – disclaimer)  “Why do leprauchans laugh when they run?” <insert another blank stare>  “Because the grass tickles their nuts!”  Of course, I’m bowled over laughing.  He asks, “what’s a leprauchan?”  So I explain.  Ohh, he says (still not laughing).  “Get it? Tickles his nuts?”  And then I translate nuts into Spanish.  “Yeah, Yeah, I get it” as he gives me a courteous smile.  I tell him that I give up.  But, I can never really give up so I try it again with a knock, knock joke.  Dont’ even bother, doesn’t work.  And one last shot with “How’d the crazy guy find his way through the forest?”  “By taking the psycho path!”  Well, again, he was unamused (I had to explain that psycho path could be 1 word or 2 words.”  Once you have to explain all of the parts of a joke, it really loses something.  I’m guessing my jokes aren’t going to make it back to Ecuador…

Another Perspective – MILOB Guest Blogger

I got this email from Adams.  He originally sent it out to his family and friends not in the mission.  He told me about it and I said I’d be interested in reading it.  It made me chuckle so, I thought I would share it here.  A little background on Adams.  First off, I should probably clear up that his name is not actually “Adams” but Adam.  When we drove up to Gbaranga for the Bangladeshi medal parade (this was the 1st weekend we were here) Asif (the guy I replaced) was trying out different nmemonics to remember everyone’s names.  For example, he used “Tom and Jerry” to come up with “Tam”.  Don’t ask me, it was his memory game.  So, for Adam he thought of “Bryan Adams.”  The story doesn’t stop there like you may think it would.  Thereafter, he became “Bryan” because Asif had forgotten which name to remember.  A couple of weeks later (and tons of giggling and sometimes outright laughing) Asif caught on that something was amiss.  Upon his inquiry we explained that Bryan was actually Adam.  Well, Asif laughed and apologized profusely for remembering the wrong name.  And then, in order to remember the correct name, repeated to himself, “Adams, Adams, Adams…”  And thence the name was born.  What makes it even more entertaining is that other people refer to him as “Adams.”  I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that I introduce him as “Adams.”  Now that that history is finished.  Adams is a MILOB (Military Observer) working in Buchanan.  The MILOBS work at remote sites, talk to the local villagers, and monitor the situation in their areas.  Unlike the staff officers here in Monrovia, they “rough” it.  Although living conditions vary from site to site, normally they share a room, they use their mosquito netting, and they eat what they can when they can.  (Unless they’re in Voinjama in which case they eat really well).  A little more background on Adams, for those of you who don’t know, Zeyn and Adams were college roommates their senior year.  Small, small world.  So, without further ado, here is life here from another perspective…

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It’s about 4:30 in the morning on a Sunday.  I’ve learned that it is never appropriate to fully trust an electrical generator that is run by unskilled, underpaid people who have never had electricity themselves.  My bedroom turns instantly into a sauna when the fan is not on, and I immediately start losing weight… I can’t stay there.  So I go out to the car to head to the office where there is at least more reliable electricity and see things I’ll never understand.  First, one of the house-boys that works at my place of residence comes out to open the gate dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt… it’s Africa, and although it’s 4 in the morning, it’s still hot as hell, by my standards.  I go through one manned gate between the house and the office where the guard is wearing pants, a jacket (looks like wool), with the hood of a sweatshirt (under the jacket) pulled up under a wool hat.  The gate-guards in Groton wear less gear in January.  I am appalled.  I get to my office and all of the guards here are wearing long sleeves and jackets… I just don’t get it.  My big debate before leaving the house was whether to put on a t-shirt or not.  I finally did because I don’t like to put a backpack on bare shoulders.  In case we haven’t met, I’m a cold weather kind of person; I haven’t complained about winter since 1986 so I’m allowed to whine about hot weather.

Now that I’m finished with my early-morning rant I can say that everything else here is going well.  Despite the oppressive heat, it is actually cooling off a little as the rainy season approaches.  That should start in May, but we’ve had a few storms already.  I like them because they tend to cool things off and don’t last very long.  I invite you to throw that back in my face when the rainy season truly begins.

I believe I’ve mentioned the fact that I eat most of my meals at the Ghanaian Battalion (Ghan Batt, to its friends).  It was a rocky beginning for their chow hall as they struggled to even open their doors, but now that they’ve been steadily operating for a couple of months, it still seems to be a significant struggle for them.  For instance, the night before I left for Ghana (yup, out of the frying pan into the fire) dinner was not the usual “2 crock-pot feast,” but a single crock-pot with white rice…yup, that was it.  I watched a couple of people put ketchup on their rice, another use BBQ sauce, and I just turned around and left.  For those of you with weaker geography, Ghana is in Africa which is not Asia, and they seem to have never heard of soy sauce.  Anyway, yesterday the Ghan Batt had a distinguished visitor from Ghana and they went all out on the lunch spread… I’m not even being sarcastic here, it was quite well done, for what they have to work with.  They prepared an even more authentic Ghanaian meal than usual, I was told.  It was reiterated to me that “fufu” is a staple of traditional Ghanaian cuisine, but I did not realize how many variations that exist.  First, fufu, the way they make it, is a little hard to describe: it looks like a ball of dough with a shinier coating on the outside.  The consistency is like wet, sticky bread dough and they serve it in balls about 5-6 inches in diameter; pretty large by my measure.  It must weigh 2 lbs.  If it is allowed to sit for a while it will flatten out slowly, and it is traditionally eaten with no utensils.  I tried it once before, when they randomly made it for lunch because I love to try new food.  I also, as many of you know, have a big problem with not finishing what I’ve taken to eat, especially in Africa, but I’m man enough to say that I was beaten by fufu.  My first attempt, last month, was in eating a ball of “rice and cassava fufu.”  It was white and quite slimy.  They serve it with a type of soup that usually has some sort of protein in it (fish, chicken, or “bush meat”), and you’re supposed to tear off a piece of this sticky starch, dip it in the soup, and shove it in your face.  Reference here your kindergarten memories of eating paste with your hands.  The first thing that struck me was the texture: not quite solid, but not able to just be swallowed, and slimy enough to run away from my teeth as I try to chew.  I made a good go of the first half of this ball, slowed down significantly for the next 25%, and hit a wall at 75%.  Very few times have I seriously thought about running to vomit in the middle of a meal; this was one of those times.  The odd seasoning in the fufu, the extreme spice of the soup, the slimy, doughy texture, and the sheer volume of it all formed together like a Voltron of dyspepsia to put me down.  My Malaysian team leader, sitting across from me, laughing, commented that I did not look like I was enjoying my fufu and that this is why he sticks with rice.  I realized at this point that the fufu had also robbed me of the ability to speak, and just shook my head.  The fufu had won. Yesterday, however, lunch was served late, I was exceptionally hungry, and I’m not generally one to learn my lesson the first time, especially when it comes to food.  So I dive into the fufu again.  This time it’s more yellow in appearance and a little less slimy looking.  The accompanying soup looks quite good and has beef in one version and chicken in the other; both turned out to be good.  I did apply one previous lesson learned and I decried, up front, that I was only going to eat half of the ball. One of my Ghanaian team mates said he would eat what I don’t finish and we shared a moment of disbelief: he of me for not wanting to eat as much fufu as was put in front of me, and I of him for thinking he could fit all of his and half of mine into his gut.  I got right to work.  This fufu was much better than the other.  It was made of cassava and plantain and was, in fact, a little less slimy, and did not have the same seasoning as the rice fufu. I even had a moment where I thought I might eat it all… I was wrong.  I probably ate 60% before my gag reflex started warming up and, applying another lesson learned, I stopped eating.  My dumbfounded team mate had already housed his entire ball and was eyeing mine.  I slid him what I had left with eagerness, confusion, and some degree of revolted respect.  It was a good lunch.

That story was longer than I expected; probably longer than you expected too. It appears that the internet has been turned back on—I believe there is a master switch off the coast of Greenland; I believe a lot of things.

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Stay tuned for my next blog on “How driving in Liberia is like a playing a game of Frogger…”

Public Transportation – Oh How I Long For Thee

Unlike Zeyn, I’m normally pretty good with traffic.  Whereas he curses, gets angry, and swears that he will never again drive anywhere (he has a DB card and a city train pass to prove it), I usually laugh.  If the music is good and I’m not in a hurry, traffic is traffic.  Getting angry and honking the horn won’t move it faster.  Those horn waves won’t blow a path in front of you no matter how loudly one honks or how many times.  It’s just how it is. 

Now, let me tell you other things which won’t help traffic.  Imagine, if you will, a 4 lane road, 2 lanes going North and 2 lanes going South.  Now, go ahead and mix in some road construction on the Northbound lanes and what do you have?  A grandiose stau (that’s German for traffic jam).  Okay, now to make things really interesting, go ahead and turn those two Northbound lanes into 4 lanes and then, just for the heck of it, encroach into the oncoming traffic so that there are now 6 lanes of traffic trying to go one direction and one 1/2 lane trying to come from the opposite direction.  Don’t forget that those 6 lanes are all going to need to merge together again at some point…

Not enough visuals for you? Okay, how about this? You’ve made it to your destination, done what you needed to do (which took all of 2 minutes) and now need to get back out into the traffic, this time into the one 1/2 lane.  So, you set off only to be directed to a detour.  This detour consists of a 2 lane road, one lane going each way.  After sitting in one of these lanes you notice the other lane remains empty for long stretches at a time.  Although you’re curious about why this is, you know that you can’t go into this lane because it’s for oncoming traffic.  So, you sit.  And then you notice that there are those people behind you who decide that it’s okay for them to use the other lane.  So, they do.  You are then relieved to see them stop (as you move in your lane up to where they are) due to a large truck wanting to use that lane.  So, one by one each car must reverse and get off the road to let the truck pass.  Terrible is the jam created behind the truck.  However, you cannot help but smile at the poetic justice of those cars getting pulled aside and no one, really, no one letting them merge again.  It does a heart good.

I will tell you what all of this has taught me.  One, I am not as immune to the absolute annoyances of traffic as I thought.  My 18km (11mi) (round trip) adventure which took me a mere 3 hours (sorry, I exaggerate, it was closer to 2 hours and 45 minutes) really wore me down.  Now, granted, I had no good music on the radio to listen to, that might have been a contributing factor.  All I had was the texts I was sending to the Jackass (aka Adams) relaxing on my couch and telling me how nice and comfy he was.  Second, I learned something about horn blowing.  There is a bit of aggression that you can release in honking that horn.  All of that built up anger gets a little bit released when you honk it to let the taxi cab driver (who is getting closer and closer to your vehicle because he’s not watching) know that “hey you @#$%@ I’m right here and don’t you dare hit me with that %#$#$ piece of trash that you call an auto because I will plow that @#$# @#$# wreck of yours to the ground…”  Uh, or something like that…

I know that traffic exists like this everywhere in the world.  Well, I’m not sure about the randomly turning sidewalks and parking lots into lanes part, but, whatever.  My final lesson, or, epiphany, was that I really couldn’t do this everyday.  I would go postal.  I may, when I get back to Germany, only ride my bike into work. Or better yet, buy a yearly train pass, pray that the railworker strikes are at a minimum, and learn the bus and train schedule.  I think it would save my sanity, which by the time I returned to the office after my driving adventure, was nearly gone.  Thankfully, Adams was able to get up from the couch long enough to chill some wine (thus the reference to his “actual” name vice “Jackass) which I happily imbibed upon returning home.   I don’t know how people do this all of the time.  There’s some kind of fortitude/patience required that I don’t seem to possess.  So, in reference to my hubby, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.  I can see it already, we’ll have matching train passes and sit side by side as we read our IHT on our iPhones on the ride to work.  It will be, can you picture it? Precious…

The Visit That Almost Wasn’t…

So, he left me a week ago today… And at the end begins the story that almost wasn’t…

No, I have no idea what that means, but, it sounded appropriately dramatic.  Okay, onto the real entry devoted entirely to Zeyn’s visit.  Last Wednesday (19 March) Zeyn flew Brussels airlines down to Monrovia out of Brussels.  He was supposed to get in at 1850 but was delayed by at least an hour.  Now, let me tell you what it means for the person waiting to have first the airline delayed and then the passenger.  When I arrived at the airport (30 minutes early if any of you can believe that and my penchant for not being on time) I muscled my way into the parking lot right by the terminal.  Okay, “muscled” might be a bit of an exaggeration… They wouldn’t let me in the first time so I circled and by the time I came back I was able to follow another car into the parking lot.  <sarcasm> a nice young man showed me to a spot. <end sarcasm>  What that really means is some guy pointed to a spot and was then going to charge me at the end of my stay for “showing me the spot and watching my vehicle.”  Before heading out, I decided that rather then get into civilian clothes, I would wear my uniform complete with blue beret so that Zeyn could see me in it (I wasn’t planning on putting it on again while he was here) and because I thought it would give me more of an air of officialdom. (Maybe that helped in my quest for a parking spot)  Not to mention, there are tons of scams where locals will hit a UN vehicle and then try to blame the UN vehicle driver.  My uniform, in my head, provided me a sense of security, however false it may have been. 

Once in the parking lot I had a decision to make.  I could stay in the car and wait (it would be at least an hour between the plane landing and him going through immigration) or brave the world outside the vehicle.  I should throw in here as well that there isn’t a way to check online if the plane is coming on-time, or, even at all.  You just go to the airport and wait.  I decided to wait outside vice sitting in the car.  And, as I knew I would be, I was immediately approached by a guy selling fairly ugly woodcarvings.  “No thanks, really, not interested.”  “But this is just a sample, I can make you anything, you want souvenir?” etc etc… He followed me to the back of the vehicle (where I considered waiting) to continue his spiel. He had just turned away when another guy, selling the exact same crap, came up to me.  Well, seller #1 started in on him (no idea what he was saying, I’m sure it was something like “excuse me sir, this woman has already declined my offerings, I do not think it appropriate for you to bother her”) just louder, with more arm waving, and incomprehensible to the normal ear.  I took that opportunity to bring out my phone to make a “very important call.”  I was in uniform, how could it not be important?  Well, I finally got ahold of someone, smiled at the two guys still discussing whose customer I was, and proceeded to scan the parking lot for a safe haven.  And then I saw it.  There, off in the distance was a place where people were waiting and not being harassed.  So, I trotted off to it, saw I was safe, ditched the phone call and proceeded to wait for my darling boy to arrive.

And wait I did… the plane was about 45 mins to an hour delayed.  Not a big deal, I was still bright eyed and bushy tailed that after 2 months, the love of my life was arriving.  And I knew that he’d walk out of that door at any minute… so I continued to wait expectantly… wait… wait… look… wait… And, finally 45 minutes later, he walked out of the door looking around.  I expected him to spot me immediately (everyone else was pretty much gone) and have that movie wave, eyes locking, slow motion recognition… Well, all that kind of happened after he came out looking a little lost (but cute nonetheless), then scanning looking everywhere but at me until I raised my arm, (ah, recognition), and quick greeting as I ushered him to the vehicle sans hugs or kisses. (I was in uniform and we were going back to the harassment zone) I quickly paid the “nice gentleman” who looked after the car and then got us outta there.

In the car I explained that we’d have a proper greeting at home.  The goal was to get out of the area quickly and to begin the drive home soonest.  It was already dusk and would be dark in the first 10 minutes of our hour drive back to the apartment.  The problem with driving in the dark here (well, the problem for me) is that there are not street lights, anywhere.  What there are, are people walking… where? I don’t know… but along the sides of the road, running across the road, and taxi drivers who randomly pull over without telling you they’re going to.  To me driving requires my complete concentration.  So, after a quick kiss we were off on our adventure home.  Although the drive itself was fairly uneventful it was entertaining to say to Zeyn, “hey, you should check out the rape sign!” “The what? Oh my god are you kidding me?” This said as we passed by one of the numerous graphic images of a sign that says “Stop Rape” with pictures that show a woman laying on the ground, her skirt up, with a man on top of her with his fist up, and a big “X” over it to show that it’s wrong.  Hi honey, welcome to my host country…

It was during that time that Zeyn told me why he was so late coming out of the terminal.  Upon arriving, he had his passport and visa stamped by one guy but the next guy stopped him to have a closer look at his visa.  He called over some other immigration officers who then asked him where he got his visa.  “Germany” was his response.  “Well, your visa says it was issued in Berlin.  We don’t have an embassy in Berlin.  Our embassy is in Bonn.  Bonn. Bonn. Bonn.  All visas are issued in Bonn.”  Zeyn explained that he had hired a visa service through his travel agent who got the visa for him.  After some discussion, his passport was confiscated but he was given a “Good Note” which allowed him in the country for a specific amount of time while his visa issue was sorted out. (This was a good thing as the guy ahead of him was put back on the plane to Abidjan.)  He was told to report to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) the next day around 11.  Really, I don’t think there could have been a better introduction to Liberia…

So, on Thursday morning we headed to the BIN.  “Why did you come to Liberia without a visa” Zeyn was asked innumerable times. “I have a visa, there’s just some discussion regarding its place of issuance.”  “Ah…” Well, after being there for a few minutes they told us to “check back” at 2:30.  I took Zeyn first to the Heineken store to which his response to the prices (if you’ll recall, this is the most expensive store ever) was “can I take a picture?” I mean, doesn’t Tide cost 38 USD everywhere for a big bottle and isn’t cereal always $8-10 a box?  He actually did ask me what currency the prices were in.  Ah yes, to experience sticker shock again.  After our shopping adventure we went to a Lebanese restaurant in town called Diana’s and then went to the shopping area outside of the Embassy where we were able to get a few souvenirs.  I was actually a little trepidatious about going because the last time I had been there (granted with a big group) sellers came out of everywhere trying to get us into their shops.  This time though, all was quiet…mostly.  We still had more time to kill so I took him on a driving tour of Monrovia.  We went up and by poopoo beach so Zeyn could get the full sights of the area (and the smells).  He missed the human poopoo on a little edge because he was distracted by the open sewage somewhere else… We left poopoo beach and headed back to the BIN. 

On this trip they told us they had the passport but they needed to confirm where the embassy was in Germany, who the person was who signed the visa, and then the minister needed to clear it.  All of this would take a few days so he wouldn’t be able to get it back until, at the earliest, Monday.  Whoa… not possible.  The next day (Friday) was a holiday, they don’t work weekends, and Zeyn was leaving on Monday.  His passport was going to need some expediting.  I asked if we should go to our embassy to help things along.  The response was, “no, we don’t need to get diplomats involved…”  So, we were told to return in another 1 1/2 hours.  Okay.  So, we went back to the apartment.

Now, there is nothing quite like walking into your apartment to see your maid, on the floor working, topless.  Zeyn, bless his heart, just thought, “so that’s how they do it here.”  I’m beginning to think so as this was the second time that I’ve heard this type of thing happening.  A little awkward for all involved I believe.  As she was in the hallway by my room we ended up hanging out in the living room.  As we sat down we noticed her bra on one of the chairs in the living room, odd because the rest of her clothes were on a chair in the kitchen… I’ve long since stopped asking questions about what happens here.  After another hour at home we made our 3rd and final venture to the BIN.

When we arrived, we were told that the Chief was working on the case and shown to a room to wait.  After about 30 minutes the Chief returned and…. and Zeyn’s passport was returned to him.  Apparently the Liberian embassy in Germany moved from Bonn to Berlin and nobody told the BIN in Liberia… I mean, why would they?  What we were most impressed by is the number of people at the airport who caught that the visa was issued in Berlin and knew that that was incorrect. 

On Friday we headed to Bomi lake with Adams.  Friday night we did the obligatory Sajj House (another Lebanese restaurant with great chicken bread) followed by Garden Club with the live music and “Coca Cola Girls” (because they’re shaped like a Coca Cola bottle…).  On Saturday we spent the day relaxing before heading out to a Chinese dinner and New Jacks.  The music at New Jacks was random, as always, but it was great when they played your favorite and mine, “Eye of the Tiger.”  Ayup, had to get Z out on the dance floor for that one.  Sunday we went to the Pakistani Force Quick Reaction Force (FQRF) for brunch.  Of course it was wonderful.  We left there for a relaxing day out on Cece beach.  He loved it.  Well, really, how could you not?  White sandy beaches, tables with palm umbrellas, and beer.  Really, it’s a little paradise here and my Sunday home away from home.  On Monday we relaxed and prepared for Zeyn to abandon me.

We had an amazing time.  Although I got a lot of raised eyebrows that my husband was coming to Monrovia, I think many people were actually impressed.  It was, of course, wonderful to have him here.  The only down side I think is seeing Monrovia through his eyes… again.  I’ve had two months to become accustomed to all of the sights and smells that are Monrovia and Liberia.  I have learned how to ignore the beggars, to not notice the smell of the sewer when at New Jacks, and not see the trash heaps everywhere but in the trash bins.  Things which were new and bizarre and crazy for me have since, over the past couple of months become the norm.  Seeing those things woke my dulled senses up again.  However, on the flip side, I was able to laugh anew at the educational signs promoting good health (like the diarrhea one that is actually a cartoon drawing of a guy with diarrhea squatting over a toilet), at the taxis with their motivational messages, and to appreciate again how much natural beauty there is here.  I think the best part was that he can now truly picture me in these environs and have more reason to spoil me when I return home in May. 🙂