Thursday, April 14, 2011

Randy Vick West Africa Winter 2011 - BACK IN THIS TROPICAL PARADOX

Taxiing toward the terminal, all I see are UN aircraft and I'm thinking Africa Sky is probably the only commercial airline using Spriggs-Payne. The sight of those UN aircraft reminds me of all the flights I made out of this airport, as UN Regional Police Commander, when I had to visit my international and Liberian police officers in Zwedru, the capital of  Grand Gedeh, Fishtown, the capital of River Gee, Harper, the capital of Maryland, Bartlesville, the capital of Grand Kru and sometimes Greenville, the capital of Sinoe, although I usually made that trip by road. My headquarters was located in Buchanan, the capital of Grand Bassa, and I always went by road to visit Cestos City, the capital of River Cess. When I needed to fly I would have to drive from Buchanan north, 155 km, to Monrovia to catch a flight south, sometimes on the same type of aircraft I'm flying today, although reconfigured for transporting troops and cargo. Most often though I would fly on Ukrainian helicopters. While not as reliable, the helicopters always flew much lower, affording a better view of the scenery below.
I am in the first seat in economy and there are no business class passengers, so I am the first to disembark on the tarmac and walk to the terminal, where I'm directed to a Customs Officer. He thumbs through my passport and with a look of disdain, tells me to follow him into a back office. There I'm confronted by a very large and very stern looking woman seated at a desk who orders me to sit, and I sit. She thumbs through my passport and then thumbs through it again, finally asking me what we're going to do about the problem of me not having a visa. I am polite, but not friendly as I direct her attention to the three year Liberian visa that takes up one whole page of my passport. She stamps and signs my passport and hands it to me without saying a word or even looking at me. (I learn later from a Lebanese man who has lived in Liberia for 40 years, that I only got away with that because I am an American and because I stood up to her. He told me he always has to slip $20.00 US into his passport to get through customs.)
I always wear my documents pouch around my neck when arriving in Liberia, with a US flag and an old UN Police ID card prominently displayed.  No one ever notices that the ID card is expired. As I claim my luggage, a Customs Officer directs me to place it on the counter and open it for inspection, and I have no problem with that. As I'm unlocking it, a Liberian police officer standing nearby, speaks rather harshly to the Customs Officer, pointing out my "police" ID and the Customs Officer apologizes and immediately sends me on my way.
Making my way out the front door of the terminal I am prepared to repel the onslaught of taxi drivers and find a place in the shade to wait for Bro. Stephen, since my flight arrived so early. As the taxi drivers rush me, I hear Bro. Stephen calling out to me. It is always a joy to see his smiling face when arriving back in Liberia, but especially so today when I assumed I would have a long wait. Turns out he has been waiting for some time as he wanted to be sure he would not be late. He has borrowed a friend's car and has one of his "sons" Joshua with him. I've known Bro. Stephen for several years now, but I had never met his son Joshua. Then I realize, like Bro. Eric and Sr. Pam in Kenya, Bro. Stephen and Sr. Sarah take in young men as their sons, to help guide and mentor them. Bro. Stephen tells me my Liberian son, Milton, is coming from Buchanan to greet me at the airport and he calls him and learns that he is only blocks away. We make arrangments to rendezvous with him on Monrovia's main arterial street, UN Drive, and its another joyous reunion.
The movement of the car, with the windows down, brings a breeze which is a welcome relief from the heat, until we reach the crush of humanity that is Red Light in Paynesville, Monrovia's largest suburb. I realize there may be a market somewhere in the world that is more crowded, although I've never seen it, but I'm willing to bet there are none more chaotic. Its an amazing obstacle course as Bro. Stephen maneuvers through the mass of human foot traffic, as well as motorized and non-motorized vehicles of every size and description, including trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, wheelbarrows, push carts, etc.  He manages and soon we turn on the winding, dirt streets of Kabah Town, a suburb of Paynesville, and finally to Soul Clinic, the community within Kabah Town where Bro. Stephen lives. Arriving at his home, I am greeted warmly by Sis Sarah and two of their children, Ophelia and Garpaulyondeh. Wooden chairs are brought to a shady spot and even though I'm sweating profusely, it's good to sit in the shade in this calm and quiet atmosphere away from all the hustle and bustle.
All too soon its time for Milton to go to his cousin's where he'll stay the night and Bro. Stephen has to take the car back to his friend. We've decided that I'll travel to Buchanan tomorrow with Milton as he has to be back at his UN post at 1 PM. Bro. Stephen will also accompany us and go to his rubber farm in Compound 3 in Grand Bassa County. Most Liberians have a difficult time thinking of, or planning for the future, but not so Bro. Stephen. He has planted a rubber tree farm on his family's property in Gardee Town in east central Grand Bassa County. Rubber farming is a big source of income in Liberia and if his farm does well, when it starts producing in 8 to 10 more years, his children will be provided for, but in the meantime it requires a lot of maintenance. So we'll be traveling together in a taxi, and it will be good to have traveling companions that are friends and not strangers.
When it is just Sis Sarah, the kids and I, she serves a delicious meal of tuna fish sandwiches. I always appreciate whatever is provided as I know it's a sacrifice for them and they always make the extra sacrifice of including meat in the meal. Following dinner I have a rare opportunity to observe a slice of everyday life in the Gardee family, and separated from Sis Sarah and her children by the darkness, it's almost as if I'm not here. In the darkness, Sis Sarah is sitting in the dirt on the ground next to the bench we used for our dinner table. She turns on the tiny flashlight feature of her cell phone, puts on an old pair of glasses with twisted frames and seriously scratched lenses, and begins to grade the papers of her 1st and 2nd grade students from that day's school session. She uses this opportunity to teach her own children who are gathered around her in the darkness. I sit there in silence appreciating the scene before me, so far removed from my own life of leisure and comfort and every modern convenience.
When Bro. Stephen returns I have an opportunity for a cold bucket bath and after all my previous experiences with bucket baths, I am still amazed at how shockingly cold the water can be and how quickly I break a sweat after completing my bath. But this will be the norm for the next three weeks, so I have to get used to it.
Bro. Stephen and I will share a mosquito net tonight and it will be good to have a defense against those little critters who have already scored several hits just since my bath.
We behave like we're at a slumber party as we talk late into the night sharing things of the gospel and of the work in Liberia. Bro. Stephen is such a dedicated man of the gospel it's a pleasure to visit with him about the work. Even after dozing off for awhile and being awakened by the heat, we begin a whole new conversation, and finally it cools down just enough to allow a little sleep before dawn.
We get an early start for Buchanan, and before the heat of the day arrives, the breeze through the open windows of the moving taxi is refreshing. When we get to Smell No Taste Town*, just before Roberts International Airport, we stop at the Liberia National Police depot, where Bro. Stephen's wrecked car is parked. He was hit nearly head  on a few months ago and could very well have been killed, but walked away with cuts and bruises, even though they had to use an axe to chop him out of the car. Sadly, he had new tires on his car at the time of the accident and strangely, parked right in front of the police station, the tires have disappeared. Even after stealing his tires, or allowing them to be stolen, the Substation Commander starts giving him a hard time for not introducing me, as I have walked over to the car and started taking pictures. Bro. Stephen confronts the police officers, five or six of them are sitting there in front of the depot, mentioning his missing tires and they won't even look at him, but stare at the ground. Milton and I continue our inspection and photographing of the car and Bro. Stephen learns the police are worried, thinking I'm an American lawyer who's going to take his case. Sadly, their temporary stress is the only satisfaction Bro. Stephen will get in this case. They already took bribes to find in the other driver's favor, even though the first police officer Bro. Stephen encountered, told him not to worry, that the other guy was at fault and they would have to buy him another car. That was before the owner of the other car bribed the people in the system and Bro. Stephen is not only out a car, but is in the process of paying a large restitution. The owner of the other car fired his driver knowing he was at fault. Milton finally encourages Bro. Stephen to leave the conversation with the police and we are on our way.
We stop at the supermarket in Harbel, on the giant Firestone Rubber Plantation, where you can buy American brand products if you don't mind paying $3.00 US for a can of Pringles, and I don't. A can of Pringles will last me for a week, as I will munch just a little now and then to remind me of home. I also have a small bag of Cheetos, given to me by a friend in America and I'll make them last even longer. I'm able to buy an assortment of little nic-nac toys for the kids at Hope. There are little plastic cars, little carousel noise toys and little saxophones that are whistles, all filled with a very small amount of candy. Something most of our kids wouldn't take a second look at, but I know the children at Hope will be thrilled.
We travel through villages, such as Eye To Eye, that I have been through dozens of times over the years and I still enjoy the sights and scenery and these villages haven't changed a bit. Mud and bamboo huts with thatch roofs and people sitting in their open air kitchens watching the world go by. The best part of this drive is always the fresh fruit vendors along the way. I finally ask the driver to stop in St. John River Town where I buy fresh bananas, 3 for $10.00. The sweetest, best tasting bananas in the world and worth more than $3.00 a piece don't you think? That's $3.00 LD, (Liberian Dollar), which comes to less than 5 cents, US.
The Chinese are doing well, rebuilding the Monrovia to Buchanan highway, although they've not made as much progress in the early days of this year's dry season as I had hoped. The drive is so much easier now than in those early days of 2004. The trip that took us 3 ½ bone jarring hours in a good 4 wheel drive SUV, now takes us about 2 ½ hours in a taxi and when the highway is complete, I'm sure the trip can be made in an 1 ½ hours. That will certainly lead to more development of the tourist business in Buchanan.
As I've always done, I note the three major landmarks along the way, to judge our progress on the drive to Hope. There's the Farmington River, the Mecklin River and the St. John River. Finally, we are approaching Hope Restoration Youth Home and my excitement is building.
*Smell No Taste Town was given its name during World War II, when a U.S. Army Camp was built near the airport. The locals could smell the food being cooked in the camp, but never had the opportunity to eat it.

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