Monday, October 28, 2013


The best stories will always start out with “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  And it did.  The dodgy local African airline cancelled my flight at the last minute.  My rerouting options from Sierra Leone to the neighboring country of Liberia were overnighting in Ghana (bordering none of the aforementioned), transiting through Nairobi (which is the equivalent of flying from Boston to New York by way of Phoenix), or spending 10 hours in a no-booze no-internet airline lounge.  Or I could go overland.  It is less than 300 miles, and more importantly offers me as the World Bank poverty economist for these countries an opportunity to see something other than the nicest hotel in the capital and ministerial conference rooms.

So I contacted the Freetown WB office for a reliable SUV and driver to take me to the Liberian border, where another car would pick me up and bring to Monrovia.  I should have known when the car showed up for me to inspect.  I am kicking the tires and checking to make sure that it has 4 wheel drive, and this guy wants to show me the air-conditioning button and the seat covers.  I should have known when he shows up with the invoice less than 12 hours before we are supposed to leave and the price has increased $100 since my written quote.  I should have known when he was asking me if I knew if the ferries were running or if we would need to drive around the river. If nothing else, I should have at least had a premonition when I saw that his spare time cover was advertising the now-defunct three times weekly British Airways flight from Freetown to Monrovia...

But apparently I didn't.  Because at 5 am on Saturday morning, I got into his Land Cruiser anyway and we headed off.  The first five hours were easy.  The most exciting thing that happened was that we hit “National Cleaning Day” where essentially the government grounds the entire population for two hours at the end of the rainy season to clear the brush with machetes.  The police theoretically enforce the no-movement ban, but you can bribe your way into the President’s bathtub here for a crisp ten dollar bill, so that really wasn't much of a hindrance to progress. 

But we couldn't figure out if the ferries were running.  Everyone had conflicting information.  The river was too high.  The engines weren't working.  The boat sank.  Everything was fine.  So we decided to drive the long way around (by “we” I mean the driver since I really didn't have much to contribute to the discussion).  This meant a three hour detour on a dirt track through the national park.  Which was pretty but longer and harder going than the driver was expecting.  The first time we got stuck, I offer advice. The road was all washed out and soft mud.  You have to drop it into four wheel, get up a bit of speed, and push it to get up the embankment.  After the second time we slid down perpendicular to the road, I decided that it was time to matters into my own hands.  I got out and stood under a tree.  There aren't all that many random white women in remote rural Sierra Leone, so within minutes people had materialized to figure out what was going on.  Eventually a farmer, who judging by the traffic we saw could not possible encounter more than four mechanized vehicles a week, put down his machete and drove the car up for us.  We were on our way again, but I now knew that I was being captained by a dangerously inexperienced moron. 

As we bounced along the road and I passed the time picturing the various calamities that might befall the secretary who earned her kickback by setting me up with this idiot, it was getting later.  Immigration closed at six and if I didn’t make it, it meant a night at the border.  (More realistically a Ben Franklin to the border guards but I certainly would have made the driver pay it.)  Driver started driving faster.  I held on as we banged down the road, hitting the submerged sections way faster than I was comfortable with.  I had to remind myself that swearing at the help was a particular social faux pas in a country founded by former slaves, but somehow my “Careful Sir!” just didn’t get the correct level of urgency across.  Then we hit an unexpectedly deep submerged section.  The driver yelled “SHITE” as we rocked up on two wheels.  Sheer force of will and raw fear brought it back down, landing hard on the front left.  Crisis averted.  Except that hitting the rock bottom on the way back down severed the brake line.  That meant we went the next 20 miles to the closest thing that passed for civilization with the only braking options being downshifting and gravity.  

After a few more close calls that I will gloss over because I know by this point my mother is already furious with me, we arrived at the mechanic.  The staff was staffed by a lead mechanic, who was crippled from polio and could walk only with the aid of a heavy stick, and three henchmen.  I sat in the shade as they got the car up on blocks (tree trunks), got the wheel off, found the severed brake line, dug through the metal scrap heap to find metal tubing to the same width, cut the connectors off the broken piece, attached them to the new tubing, used a nail to widen the edges, then filed the whole thing down again the rusting metal shop table.  All in less than fifteen minutes.  This would have been extremely impressive if they had cut the tubing the correct length the first time.  Or the second time.  Or third.  Or really any of the first six or so.  As it was, the sun was starting to dip amid a scattering of metal tubing and cigarette butts as we set out again to cover the last 27 miles – supposedly the roughest road of the trip. 

After stopping only once to top off the still-leaking brake fluid, we seemed to me making some progress.  The terrain was getting much rougher though and I only had an hour left to make the crossing.  Then about 10 miles from the border, we hit a major snag.  We again came to a sharp incline of soft mud that the driver just would not try the appropriate speed.  After 15 minutes of sliding and fishtailing into walls, half the surrounding county had gathered to tell him what an idiot he was.  And to tell me that there was no way to make it in time.  With 45 minutes until 6 pm, and white smoke coming from under the hood, both I (and apparently the transmission) decided that enough was enough.  Leaving the driver to figure what to do with his car that now no longer either accelerated or braked, I climbed onto the back of a motorbike and off we went to try and cover the last 10 miles. 

The road was rough and at one point we went through a puddle deep enough that it washed over my ankles (three little boys cheerfully waved from the rock in the middle where they were fishing), but I finally had the one thing that I wanted all day – a good driver who knew the local roads like the back of his hand.  And while driving mach 1 down a muddy dirt road on the back of a motorbike with no helmet and holding your computer bag and with your 40 pound suitcase on the handlebars was probably not the most advisable thing that I have ever done, it somehow felt safer than sliding all over creation in that SUV…

And then it all worked out.  I made it to the border with less than five minutes to spare, but made it across.  I crossed into Liberia, climbed into a Toyota Camry, and rode down a perfectly smooth tarmac for the last two hours into Monrovia.  Then, head held high and visions of an ice cold beer dancing before my eyes, I walked into the nicest hotel in the city with feet that would have been considered dirty on a Peace Corps volunteer.

[Special thanks to Mac for filling in the technical details of the car problems – interspersed with some (perhaps justified) points about risk and judgment.]


Unknown said...

Kristen Anne! What were you thinking!

Tammy Barlow said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.