Liberia

21st of May 2019 – 19th of July 2019:

The first order from the uniformed officials was to wash our hands with cold water from a container. Without soap of course! Therefore, completely sterile, we had to visit four different offices, to get our entry stamp. The behavior of the responsible personnel, their uniform and the flag of Liberia strongly reminded us of the USA. 

In different shelters, we waited until several strong downpours got weaker. Quickly, we realized that the Liberians are more restrained than the people have been in the last weeks in the neighboring country. A family gave us, a bit hesitated, a room in their simple house as a protection from the strong rainfall. 

The landscape did not change greatly since we crossed the border. The only major variation were the large palm oil plantations. Because of a miscalculation, we were closer to the capital than we thought and therefore did not give notice to our Couchsurfing host Emmanuel. Luckily, he took our message with African calmness and said it was no problem when we arrive earlier. 

Emmanuel and his teacher friend walked to the house with us and both tried to cycle with our loaded bicycles successfully. The niece of Emmanuel cooked immediately for us and in a couple of minutes; we knew all the inhabitants of the house. 

Two Chinese women arrived after us and we met them the next morning. They are already eight months on the road and met randomly during their journey. Equipped with primary school English and nonexistent French knowledge, they managed surprisingly well. 

Despite non-excessive cycling days, we both were extremely tired and slept a lot the next few days until we felt energetic again. Unfortunately, most men in Africa do not have a fixed job, therefore linger around their house all day, and discuss about what would be possible with money or a ticket to Europe. In Europe, many people think that Africans are lazy per se, but after six months, we can deny that statement. Emmanuel for example works for three different schools as a teacher and visits lectures at the university at the same time, to get his master’s diploma. Recently, the government cut the salary without a warning. Emmanuel continues to work as a teacher, since he does not want the children to get a bad education. 

From the beginning, he told us that he usually provides a balanced diet, but now he has not sufficient money for that. Of course, we would buy our own food anyway. In addition, for us it is already normal to eat rice without any meat three times a day. 

After a few days, we said goodbye to Emmanuel and his family and attempted the more than 20 km to the city center. The ride into the largest town of the country was no bed of roses. The yellow painted “kekeh” (three-wheeled taxi famous as “tuk-tuk”) dashed honking passed us and at the same time we had to take care of the potholes and the many people on the road. 

Before Tom finished work, we ate a local rice dish in one of the many street food vendors. Tom, a Belgium engineer who is the only Warmshowers host in the capital and lives directly in front of a grubby, rundown settlement close to the beach. In contrary, his compound is equipped with a swimming pool, security guards and a huge wall. During our stay, we enjoyed the calmness, our bed, the warm shower and the possibility to wash our clothes. With the current humidity of more than 90%, nothing dries perfectly and we must be careful that nothing started to mold. 

The Ducor was one of the most luxurious hotels in Western Africa when it opened in 1976. The former Libyan political leader Gaddafi financed the construction of the hotel. The hotel closed shortly before the outbreak of the civil war and nobody ever used it again since 1989. When we entered the property on a small trail on the highest point of the city, two security guards called us and wanted money for visiting. Amused by the fact that there are security guards for such a rundown building and one even had to pay for it, we could not take them seriously. Later, we heard from some older locals, that the security is responsible that nobody can steal iron form the hotel complex. In addition, the Americans blocked all attempts to renovate or sell the hotel with annual payments to the government, since the American embassy lays directly below the hill and they are afraid that someone could spy on them. 

Finally, we sneaked to the building from behind using a detour and had to be extremely careful to not step on the used diapers and piles of shit everywhere. The locals misuse the hotel surroundings as the toilet of the neighborhood and as a waste collection. Luckily, we could sneak on top of the roof without anyone seeing us. This adrenalin releasing action will be in our memory for a while. 

From the top of the hotel, we had a stunning view of the city and the township West Point, which inhabitants approximately 75’000 people and is therefore completely overpopulated. The largest problem is that all those people use the former beautiful beach as a toilet, since there are only four public toilets for all of them. In addition, people try to survive with the help of prostitution and selling drugs, which adds up to all the other diseases the slum already must tackle.

Sadly, even in the city center one can see people urinating everywhere, since there is no other option available. When there is a heavy rainfall, like there are many during the rainy season, complete quarters are flooded, since the rubbish laying around clogs all the runoffs. When we had a reunion with Nico, who fortunately recovered from malaria, we were stuck in a restaurant for some hours because of heavy rain and flooded streets. 

Directly after the arrival at Emmanuel’s place, Fabian got fever again and the malaria quick test showed another infection. Already after 24 hours, he felt much better. However, another test a few days later showed that the infection was not completely gone yet and an additional treatment including multivitamin tablets was necessary. Since we drink the not always clean African «tap water», we decided to buy an anthelmintic drug, to kill all potential nematodes and tapeworms in our bodies. 

 

Luckily, without any rain, we left Monrovia and therefore our luxury accommodation. Soon, we reached the only (and tiny) international airport of the country. Shortly after, we cycled through the Firestone plantation. Firestone founded this plantation in the year 1926 and it was the largest rubber plantation of the World at that time. Firestone, an American company, is famous for its tire production and bought 4047 million m2 land for a ridiculous price of 0.000015 USD per m2. This created jobs for 20’000 Liberians (10% of the workers of the whole country at that time). Firestone republic was the unofficial name of Liberia back then. Unfortunately, the production stopped due to the war and is therefore on a lower level nowadays. 

It was impressive to cycle through the seemingly infinite rubber forests. A real shame that they had to cut down a huge part of the former forest for the existence of the plantation. A few hard-working people showed us how they mixed the newly obtained rubber with diluted sulfuric acid to solidify the white liquid for the transportation. 

In the evening before, a village warmly received us. The village chief organized an accommodation quickly and half of the inhabitants starred at us while installing our night camp. 

Two women prepared our breakfast, which includes making a fire, organizing all ingredients and finally cooking the meal. Yesterday, we watched women while threshing the rice. For that, two or three women smash on the rice in a big mortar with large wooden sticks. Afterwards, the strong women separate the shell of the rice corn with a finely woven plate-like sieve. 

Traditionally, the Liberians only ate when the meal contained rice. Many people in the countryside eat only one meal in the afternoon as a break from the hard field works. The reason for this is the habit and the lack of financial possibilities for three meals. 

The road built by the Chinese a few years ago led us through hilly and even less populated regions. At some places, we met teenagers who never saw a white person in their entire life. 

At a junction, we stopped to eat something and as all too often men attacked us with questions from everywhere. Of course, we find it very interesting to tell our story and are grateful for the active interest in Liberia. Sometimes, we just wanted to eat in peace and recover from cycling. The interest in Liberia is in such an extent, because of extremely small number of tourists and the dream to immigrate to America. 

The headache Adrian had since this morning got worse and limb pain started to occur. Afterwards, we cycled another hour and could sleep in the office of a nice traffic police officer. The bicycles were deposited directly next to the cell where the only prisoner was captured. 

Since Adrian did not feel better in the morning, we visited a pharmacy and made a malaria quick test. This test showed clearly a positive result and for totally four USD, we could pay for the test and all necessary drugs. For three days, one swallows the pills at regular intervals and then one must hope that all is over. On the other hand, the Liberians would tell you: It is up to God’s grace! 

So far, Liberia is the first country on the African continent with a majority of Christians. We have seen dozens of different churches and sects in the country. Therefore, we noticed for the first time when it was Sunday, since the village atmosphere was calmer and different. In addition, we hardly found food, since the owners closed their cook shops. 

For our daily bucket shower in an old, abandoned and completely overgrown building without a roof, we always got water from a close by well. When we filled our buckets, we observed how four overweight, loud laughing middle-aged women produced soap. The white mixture, from which they formed the soap balls, contain cooked palm oil and a strong base. After they are dried and cooled down, the soap balls are rock solid and are ready to use for cleaning. While the friendly women explained us the process, many children gathered around us. Some of the boys even wore make-up, just for fun, so we used the opportunity to get some shots. 

In the three days in Palala City, we visited all restaurants with various styles of rusty corrugated sheets, if they had a roof at all. Many villagers knew us already and it felt pleasant. A nice, friendly cook, we visited several times. She was astonished that we would not eat her pig knees and preferred only the rice with the meat sauce. 

After three days, partly with strong fever, Adrian felt fit enough to continue cycling. We gave the forthcoming traffic police officer his office back. He was the only police officer with a uniform we saw during our whole stay. He never entered his office during our stay, probably out of respect. Chances that he would find anything in the huge chaos of DVDs, car parts, pieces of clothes, vegetable oil and a few notes was anyway small. We said thank you for the excellent hospitality and finally continued cycling.

In Ganta, the tarmac road finished and our Liberian gravel road adventure started, even though the police told us that we had 100 km more of paved roads in front of us. Anyway, we fought ourselves through the washed out and muddy roads. Soon enough, the bicycle made sounds louder than a honking motorcycle and brown-orange mud covered us from head to toe. Especially Fabian, since a passing car splashed him hard. 

The guesthouse of a rubber plantation was the most luxury of all accommodations we found so far in a village. In the evening, we even had electricity; we had a sight-protected room to wash ourselves and the wife of the security guard cooked delicious food for us. 

The road condition got worse and worse and the rain did not even stop for a certain point of time. The eventful day started with a tore gear changing cable on Fabian’s bicycle, which he replaced directly on the muddy road. Slowly, we realized that we entered the backcountry of Liberia. Especially, when we did not find any food stalls in a larger town and had to get full eating grilled corncobs or cucumbers. During the following downhill, Adrian’s front wheel slide and he landed in the dirt in a sideways position. The whole village laughed and screamed in our direction. After a few minutes, we saw that there was an alternative way, unfortunately too late! 

The rain softened the road in a way that it felt like we cycled on ice. Without any further falls, we managed the many deep-water pools as well. Many trucks were not so lucky and ended up staying longer than anticipated. 

For breakfast, we found the same dish as we had already for dinner the night before. The only small difference was that this time there was meat from an unidentifiable animal from the bush. After we asked a couple of times, we found out that it was probably a yellowback duiker. In any case, it gave the meal a sweet taste. 

With small motivation we put on the soaking wet and mud-covered shoes and entered Liberia’s adventure roads again. We thought that after yesterday we experienced the worst, but Africa showed us quickly that this was not true. We did not come far until we saw another truck that was stuck in the middle of a hill and strong, half-naked guys with sweaty bodies tried to dig out the vehicle with shovels and pickaxes. Many villagers watched the spectacle and tried to maneuver the other vehicles around the part containing sections with knee-deep mud. We pushed our bicycles down the hill and had to remove part of the dirt, before it was possible to continue. 

Many cars, trucks and busses, we overtook along the way, we never saw again. The people who wanted to travel to the remote areas in the rainy season needed to have a lot of patience. Certain waterholes were so deep that the water reached our shins when cycling through. 

From a couple of villagers, we heard about the time during the civil war. The government burned down all their houses and many people fled to the neighboring countries or into the bush. In the bush, the people had to live of roots or wild fruits to survive. 

Luckily, the Chinese levelled parts of the road last year and therefore, we made at least some progress. One of the main traffic arteries was unpassable for two weeks last year and therefore shortness of supplies started to be a problem. 

After we crossed a large river, we cycled passed some muddy sections and suddenly saw a huge line of trucks in front of us. We immediately knew that the road had to be in an impassable condition. All the trucks waited in this village, since two trucks on each side of the road were stuck. They already sank more than a meter deep into the mud. To dig those trucks out was for our eye just impossible, for Africans it’s a little bit difficult and a question of time. One of the trucks was already here for a week and minimum two meters deep in the mud. For all other vehicles, there were several alternative routes through the village, where the locals built barriers to collect a toll fee. 

About a week ago, Adrian got Malaria and the health stuff recommended doing another test, to check if there are still traces of the infection in the blood. In a larger town, we even found a clinic, registered, had a conversation with a doctor, made a blood test and got the medication after another talk with the doctor. This procedure took around two hours. The same test took around five minutes in the pharmacy. At least, the consultation including the medication was free, since all services in the clinic were free. Eventually, the result of the test showed that there was still Malaria pathogens in the blood and another treatment was necessary. 

The newly dusty, instead of muddy road, crowded with potholes led us through unpopulated forest and the region was thinly populated. Every few kilometers, there was a larger village. Sometimes, we were almost horrified, when we saw the large towns, since we did not expect anything like that. 

Zwedru was one of the last bigger cities in Liberia. A woman offered us to sleep in a room in her house, after we were asking around for a while. We expected that her house was closer to the city center, but this did not make the offer less heartwarming. The heavyset corncob seller proudly showed us the simple room and we enjoyed the infinite hospitality another time. 

Before we continued cycling, the cute family cooked for us and we left the house together. The daughter had her school year graduation and cried when we said goodbye. 

The wet dirt road was good enough to travel on, but we still got jarred a lot and our bicycles suffered big time. The road led us through dense jungle and got hillier and hillier, which demanded everything our tired legs had left. Finally, we pedaled into a storm and reached a village already soaking wet. Since the rain did not stop, we decided to spend the night in this village. The present men were already celebrating the end of the workday and drank ultra-strong, homemade sugar cane liquor. 

The tiny village chief and his middle-sized family showed us their rice fields in the middle of the forest and before we said goodbye, the family invited us to a traditional rice meal. We were both heavy legged from the hardships of the last days and therefore decided to sleep in a larger village. Adrian felt additionally weak because he never fully recovered from his malaria infection and was therefore extra weak. 

After a longer search for the town chief, he assigned a room to us, three hours after our arrival. The 59 years old men had nine children and said openly that he was only a farmer and could neither read nor write. Up to this point, he was surely the most conservative and uneducated village leader. However, he celebrated the tradition to share kola nuts with his guests, before they are officially welcomed in the village. So far, we only heard about this ritual. 

When we only walked around the village to eat, we had many conversations with interested Liberians. First, they always wanted to know where we came from and where we plan to go. Many times, these conversations were rather tedious, despite the English language, since the logic and the way of talking was very different. Because of that, we withdrew ourselves sometimes to recover from the various exertions and to avoid the repetitive conversations. 

Often, a conversation ends up in politics and the locals know surprisingly a lot. Liberia has an interesting and rather sad historical origin. When the USA abolished slavery, the Americans thought it would be a good idea to ship those former slaves to Liberia. Surprising to us was that those former slaves enslaved the natives of the newly founded nation of Liberia and therefore unofficially founded a colony of the USA. Despite that Liberia often counts as one of the only countries that was never colony in Africa, the truth is obviously different when looking at the facts. 

Likewise, a dark chapter in the history of this small country is the civil war, which lasted for 14 years and only ended officially a bit more than ten years ago. Many child soldiers fought the war under the influence of drugs. Every tenth minor fighting in the war was 15 years old or even younger. 

In the year of 2006, Liberians elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female president in the history of modern Africa and she was able to achieve many improvements in her term. Already when we crossed the border into Liberia, we noticed the many female police officers and officials, which Mrs. Sirleaf probably initiated during her term. 

We left the small village again, despite Adrian still complaining about heavy legs. At least the terrain through the dense, humid forest got rather flat and we could cover more kilometers as during the last days. 

Shortly after Fishtown, there was truly a paved road. We had heard about this road since a long time and wondered if it really existed. We enjoyed the smoother way of cycling in comparison to the recent bumpy gravel roads. In the evening, an extended family warmly welcomed us and we ate together. After dinner, someone had the idea that we had to taste an African chicken and palm wine. Therefore, some boys slaughtered a chicken right away and palm wine was organized. Accompanied by a firefly-disco, we had interesting discussions until the previously still cackling chicken was ready to eat. 

Equipped with five coconuts and another enriching encounter, we left the attentive family. We hardly got used to the paved road again, when we entered a part of the road where the Chinese road construction company was still busy and we were jarred neatly. The scene was always the same: A Chinese person with a building-site helmet stood somewhere elevated and observed the African workers. 

Everywhere, there were women walking along the road, loaded with 20 liters of water or huge bundles of wood on their heads. A teenager carrying a machete walked past us as well and we wanted to ask him if he could open some coconuts for us. Unfortunately, he was so scared of us that he run away as fast as he could. 

In a larger village, we wanted to eat something and asked around if there is a woman who cooked for the community. Surprisingly, there was no more food left. Luckily, there was a woman who helped us and we even got two meals. She did not even accept our money for it. The second meal we ate in a typical African manner with six strangers out of the same huge pot. 

The day before, we discovered a larger Problem at Adrians bicycle and he had difficulties to continue cycling at all. The chain span cogs were worn out in such a way that the chain was not smoothly led through the rear derailleur anymore and this made changing the gears almost impossible. In addition, the chain did not catch the cogs of the front crankset anymore and therefore steep ascents were impossible. Finally, we could bypass the problem by mounting a less used old chain. The next problem appeared not long after and was the shifting system. Presumably, all the mud exposure of the last few days affected all the components of the shifting system in such a way that we cannot fix it with our amateur knowledge of bicycles. The last solution was to fix one gear and hope that we can reach the large city of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, which is more than 500 km away, to find a bicycle mechanic. 

In the pharmacy, we found the reason for our weakness of the previous days. The malaria test showed clear signs of an infection for Adrian and still a weak positive mark for Fabian. With a new active agent, we tried to get rid of the parasites in the next week after all. 

Strengthened with plantains and mashed manioc with lots of onions and chili, we cycled towards the border with constant velocity. In Liberia, we saw funny village names many times and today we added “Old Lady Town” to the list of our favorites. 

At the Liberian border, the immigration officers were friendly, had a good mood, and even bought our SIM-card. Therefore, we left an intense and interesting country with extremely open and hospital people behind. The many lovely acquaintances, especially in the Southeast of the country, will be in our mind for a long time. 

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