Step 1 of the Journey to America: Complete. Here I am in Monrovia – showered (albeit in a cold shower, but a shower nonetheless – my first since August) and enjoying the noiseless, generator-less electricity. There is even a fan in my hotel room, and a sweet Incredible Hulk bedsheet. Luxury indeed.
As it turns out, I was wrong about several aspects of the ride in the NGO car. While it was indeed a functioning vehicle, it was stuffed to the brim with people. There was quite a bit of luggage and livestock (one sad-looking goat), although these were tied to the top of the vehicle and not in it with us. I lucked out and got the front seat, which was spacious and uncrowded and as comfortable as a seat in a Land Cruiser can be. (. . . Actually, “lucked out” is not entirely correct, as I'm relatively sure that I was the only person in that car who was actually authorized to be getting a ride. But who can blame the driver for picking up extra people along the way? It would be a waste to travel all that long distance at less than full capacity).
The trip took about 11 hours in all, but would have been much shorter if the other car with which we were traveling had not blown four tires (not all at once), requiring us to stop several times to assist their driver. Still, I have to say – for the most part, I actually enjoyed the journey. For one thing, it allowed me to see a part of Liberia I haven't really seen before, or saw but didn't really appreciate (I traveled this same road once before, in August, on the way from Monrovia to my site). The roadside billboards I found especially interesting; I felt as though they gave an interesting insight into the problems that are at the forefront in Liberia. There were many signs encouraging parents to send children to school instead of keeping them at home to work, and many about preventing corruption in the schools. Just as common were the billboards promoting the prevention of diarrhea through hand-washing “after pupu” (graphic illustrations included). There were quite a few about rape (“Rape is a crime”) and domestic violence. Then there were the anti-HIV/AIDS billboards, encouraging sexual fidelity, condom use, and awareness of HIV status. And just outside of Monrovia, my personal favorite appeared – a large billboard that proclaimed “DON'T SLEEP IN THE SAME ROOM as chickens.”
It was also interesting for me to compare the experience of traveling in Liberia to that of traveling in Kenya. Maybe I'm looking back through rose-colored glasses, but I quite liked traveling in Kenya (despite the horrendous roads) – I loved the vendors selling snacks (pineapple slices, sesame seed candy, peanuts, biscuits, roasted corn, and so on) through the windows of the vehicles, the sense of terrified exhilaration that resulted from traveling way, way too fast for the conditions of the roads and the vehicles, and the unpredictability of every journey. The terror and exhilaration were definitely still present here (nothing gets your adrenaline pumping like dodging herds of goats at 80 kilometers per hour). The vendors were present too, though not in great numbers, and not with the variety of wares that were sold on the streets in Kenya.
The biggest difference, really, between travel in Kenya and travel here is that, as with just about everything else, public transport in Kenya is simply much more organized. If you want to travel across Kenya, you have several options – you can take a bus (which you can even make reservations for in advance), or choose from among several different levels of matatu (the standard 14-seater van or the luxury 8- or 6-seater vehicle), or take the train (which only breaks down two out of three trips). Even the seemingly chaotic transport hubs in most cities are actually relatively well-organized. So even though one still might sit for three or four hours waiting for a car to fill, or take a car halfway to one's destination only to find that the driver of said car has decided not to go any further -- in general, the system works, particularly for travel between major cities.
Here, there is not really a good system for travel at all. The public vehicles – mostly old Toyota station wagons -- simply are not designed to travel long distances over rough roads, and break-downs are extremely common. For this reason, I would suspect that part of the problem with the system is that the profit margin is very slim. The types of vehicles that are affordable to a local business owner, and can be easily repaired using locally available materials, are prone to costly damages when driven over long distances. And even though transportation is a necessary service, people are on such tight budgets that it is not possible to raise the prices significantly. So while an increased organization of car owners and drivers could help to alleviate the transport situation, it really cannot be fixed until the roads are improved. (Fortunately, this process is under way; Bangladesh and China, in particular, have sunken a lot of money into improving Liberian infrastructure, and small sections of road are beautifully paved).
Anyway. I'm happy to have made it this far. I probably won't write again until I go home, and then I suspect that I won't write very much when I'm in the US. After all, this blog is supposed to be about life in Africa – “The Whitest Girl Visiting Friends And Family In The US And Also Attending Some Medical School Interviews” just doesn't have the same appeal.
EDIT, 5 January 2010, 10:13 AM:
Just took a cab in Monrovia. Public transport within the city is incredibly disorganized, compared to transport in Nairobi. While Nairobi was a far step below the system in America (no timetables, no posted routes), there were at least set routes within the city that different vehicles traveled regularly. Here, yellow cabs patrol the city, picking up anybody who needs to go anywhere. Definitely not an efficient system.
Also, I saw another billboard in Monrovia, rising above the trash that is piled along the streets. It read “Don’t Throw Dirt In The Street.”