…and back to Monrovia. My first blog posts (#1 and #2) were born in this country on the West Coast of Africa, over a dozen years ago. This time, in 2023, I was not looking forward to traveling to Monrovia. I’d just reunited with Ramon and I was not all that eager to put several thousand miles between us again. But once I was almost there, the sunset over the sea just about had me, and the beautifully dressed tarmac clipboard-bearer sealed it.

Rough riding

But my excitement upon arrival didn’t last. I was surprised and disheartened to find everywhere I looked seeming rougher around the edges than last time. And this was a new airport! I didn’t make a scientific comparison, mind you. This was just my haphazard exposure to slivers of Liberian life, once in 2011 and then again last month. I just… expected to see something better or stronger or eased or improved, and I sure can’t say I saw that, not anywhere.

It started on the ride to the hotel from the airport. It’s literally 56 km, or 35 miles, that take nearly two white-knuckled hours to navigate. Oh no, I was not driving – I was the one pressing my foot uselessly into the wheel well when we would suddenly come upon a completely unmarked, unlit, poorly loaded, extremely dangerous truck or another. I arrived at night, which exacerbated the deterioration of the road. But even in daytime, that this is the “highway” to the international airport was quite a blow:

The pic on the left shows a fellow riding atop a public transport minivan on a relatively good stretch. On the right, the same man is holding on for dear life on what the bulk of the airport road looks like. The roads expert on our team said the government started working on basically all lengths of the airport road at once, and then… just stopped. We did see one or two short pieces where someone was working on the road, but the expert joked that even that insufficient effort will stop as soon as the election is over.

The other roads I encountered were also chaotic, pitted, full of traffic. Even worse were the roads we didn’t turn down, washed out and gaping. In 2011, we drove down a windy, well-paved highway through rubber plantations and then beyond, onto washboarded and gutted roads to the schools we visited. My impression was that commerce won out – not surprising, of course – and that poor people sending their kids to school were low on the road maintenance priority list.

Though I didn’t go on the same routes this time, I noted that, now, even big commercial area roads were a mess. It just so happens that in my last big project before COVID, I evaluated a project in East Africa that (among other things) regulated road usage, axle loads, goods standards, and trade in general. So the importance of roads was, if not “fresh” in my mind, was at least one of my last big learning curves before we got locked down. Seeing the careening, unmarked and unbalanced loads on the “highway” to the international airport… well, it was a shock.

Is my judgement trustworthy?

It’s important to admit, though, a couple of things that could cloud my judgement (among probably a much longer list). One, I was, and am, still tied up in grief. My mind and heart jump back to Dad’s parting fairly often – and all the more so the more alone I am. So, having just reunited with Ramon and then left him again, I was probably ripe to see things through dung-colored glasses.

The other thing that’s pretty embarrassing to admit – considering my career choices – is that I’ve been spoiled and I’m not as good at rolling with the punches as I once was. That could be age, could be the projects I’ve worked on, could be the effects of locking down and changing my work travel habits so drastically. Could also be grief: I wouldn’t put it past grief to make my breakfast cereal taste bad. It’s probably a bit of all of these things, mixed up in human soup.

Lessons learned

When I went back to those earlier posts, I sure remembered that hotel room. I had resolved to be more proactive, to stick up for myself more. So when my hotel room had some problem or other (I don’t remember what), I screwed up my courage and asked to change. Mistake! The second room had some secret canal that let in mosquitos all night, a useless A/C, and a work tabletop that was completely detached from its base – just sitting on top of a post. I wrote in the blog: don’t change your hotel room unless it’s really bad.

So this time, in a completely different (and much nicer) hotel in a different city, I spent the first five days questioning my decision to stay in my assigned room. Don’t do it! Learn from your past mistakes! one side of me said.

But the other side insisted too: Ugh! Bars on the window! The flights of stairs to climb each time you (inevitably) leave something in the room! The teetering vanity that looks ready to crush your feet the next time you spit in the sink! The chest-high “desk” and the egregious squeaking chair that started out hilarious but is getting old after five days!

Meh. It was all okay. The bed was fine, the bathroom, the a/c – all the rest is negotiable. I could have gone to the front desk and asked for another room. I’m not quite as timid as I was back then. Kind of strikingly better, actually. But I didn’t need to, and I averaged something like 18 flights of stairs per day, which ain’t too shabby.

Can’t argue with the view

The other benefit of my top floor room was a shared balcony with chairs and tables that didn’t squeak and were of a height that made it easier to work (respectively). That was a nice place to work and we saw some beautiful storms from up here, too.

The rain was so much more insistent and all-encompassing than this video shows. We were in the second rainy season and there was plenty of wind and rain many days. However, do not be fooled: it was still hot and muggy even in the rainiest moments.

I loved the motorcycle set-up that allows drivers and passengers to scoot along in better conditions (whether less sun, or less rain). We saw several who were trying to take advantage of that – with two, three even four passengers. But when I saw a motorbike standing still somewhere, the seat looked really long. So it’s not so weird they’d put so many people on it. The umbrellas are (clearly) elongated – why shouldn’t the seats be?

Had to have some felines

It wouldn’t be a proper post if I didn’t include some cats, would it? We went to do one interview at a different hotel, under a wide patio awning with trees all around. Who came to greet us but this one, who lost her shyness once my colleague’s fish lunch plate arrived. But she never lost her decorum.

I also lucked upon a momma and her kittens, and another momma and her kittens! The kittens must have been born about a week apart and the bigger ones were open-eyed. All appeared to be welcome at either milk bar. Funny thing is, I was just watching a similar two-litter story on Facebook. Anyway, that’s a lotta tabby, eh?

Back on the road

That’s it for now, with this last shot of me in the car, heading to an interview. Back in the saddle, it seems!