The environment changed once again when I descended from the green mountains of the Kono District heading towards the border to Liberia. Dense tropical jungle surrounded the road on both sides as I cycled along the edge of the recently established Gola National Park. The rain season was about to start, and the big holes on the road were full of water from yesterday’s showers. Cycling on wet dirt roads is tricky as the mud makes the surface very slippery. It’s always a dilemma whether to go straight through the ponds that have formed with murky water (without knowing how deep they might be), or go close to the edge risking a fall because of the slippery gradient. Sometimes, small paths for people on food or with motorbikes have formed around the biggest ponds, which make it easier. One time I came towards a big pond but hesitated about what to do, and at the last moment I tried to avoid it by going up on a small ledge. But my front wheel came in too steep and lost its grip, so I fell and tumbled off the road. Surprised about not getting hurt except for some bruises, I continued. But later, I noticed that my rib cage was aching and I didn’t know at this time that the pain would last for about a month. I probably got a small crack in one of the ribs, because I had previously had an injury on exactly the same place after getting hit by a surfboard.
Sierra Leone was nice and I cycled over 1,000 km’s in this small country. I saw many different things and finally got to meet my sponsor child, which I’m very happy about. But I found the people a bit rough, although it got better in the south. I remember that I took notice on a way of acting and behaving, not as careful, respectful and hospitable as in the previous countries I had visited. I saw quite little love, caring and affection among people. I could often hear phrases like “give me bread”, when someone stopped by a street vendor. No good morning, no please, no thank you. Maybe it’s just the language (pidgin English is very “basic”), or perhaps the recent civil war has left people a bit on the rough side.
During my last night in Sierra Leone, I camped near the border and thought that my tent had just signed its death sentence because I was camping next to a tall termite pillar. But fortunately, my floor was left alone this time. I could hear people singing and dancing and drums echoing throughout the night, and the next day I found out that the neighboring village had been having a ceremony that included female genital mutilation. These operations are still common in these cultures, when it’s time for the girls to become women.
I reached the Liberian border at the small border post near Zimmi. Here, I was asked for a “financial sign of appreciation”, and the officials insisted that this little gift should not be considered a bribe. I told them that I would not pay them any money. Instead I said that I do pay their country a visit, which is a good thing. After they told me how poor the country was, I held a long speech about why I think it’s not moving forward, and that the act of emptying people’s pockets at checkpoints has a negative effect on the development. The police chief came outside and loudly spitted on the ground behind my back several times to show his disappointment. After ignoring me for a little while, he allowed me to pass.
A canoe took me across the river and into Liberia, where the process was repeated (but with a twist). This time they wanted to inspect my luggage. I showed them most of my things with great patience. Finally the police officer got tired and said “You are not like the other white men. They usually give us some money so that they don’t have to unpack everything”. After they told me how much the country needed more tourists, I told them that if I have a good experience in a country I will recommend other people to come and visit, and it had already started out bad. Officials are often like this, they try everything they can in order to get something.
I immediately got good vibes from Liberia though. After only 1 km I was invited to eat cassava leaves with a family who lived along the road. Rice and cassava leaves sauce (pounded/grinded cassava leaves, red palm oil, smoked fish and a dice of Maggi) is the standard dish in these countries, and fortunately I love it, I never seem to get tired of it!
After recommendation from another cyclist, I headed to Sawilo to catch a canoe across the mangrove swamps and enter the lovely little coastal town Robertsport. I immediately felt that I would stay here for some time. Robertsport is famous for surfing (especially after the movie called Sliding Liberia), and this is what I was planning to do here. I cycled as far away along the beach as I could and met a Swiss couple who were just in the beginning of establishing a small lodge/restaurant, currently working on clearing the land and constructing basic facilities. I ended up camping here, on the beach, next to the sea. I felt that I had been longing for a peaceful place like this, where I could simply relax and enjoy the nature.
I started the following morning just like I had ended the previous night, by sitting on the beach looking out over the ocean, trying to spot things on the horizon. I met a German guy who was here to surf, and we tried to catch some waves together. A point break with crystal clear water was just a stone’s through away – ahh! The resting spot was perfectly situated under a “tropical almond tree”, that not only provided shade but also a big supply of tasty nuts.
During the first days I also got to know a lovely woman, Gina, who had come here from the US to work in the local hospital. We had so many things in common, and so much fun together, that I barely wanted to leave her. We spent a couple of days camping on the beach, drinking wine, enjoying the sunsets and trying the surf.
We met some of the local surfers and started to practice the Liberian greeting:
– “How d body?” (How’s the body?)
– “Body fi” (Body’s fine)
This is our friend Morris posing with his wooden boogie board:
One day, while walking back to our little beach camp, we spotted someone next to the tent that is looking through our things, damn! I instinctively started to run and ended up chasing the person. Half-naked tourist with bare feet vs. Local hunter with boots and machete, 0 – 1 (he got away, not that I know what would have happened if he would have stopped and faced me). But fortunately, it didn’t seem like he had stolen anything, so I think we got back just in time. An effective wakeup call, this is the closest I’ve been to any kind of theft so far on the trip.
Robertsport reminded me a little bit about the Caribbean. A laidback fishing community with seafood, beautiful beaches and colorful wooden houses. Traces of that it had once been a fancy holiday destination could be seen in the wide concrete avenues and burned out hotels. On the top of a hill, a huge building with the sign saying “The Tubman Center of African Culture” could be seen lying in ruins, but it made for interesting sightseeing to walk through the empty ghost-like exhibition halls. Just like in Sierra Leone, Liberia recently ended a brutal civil war, with Charles Taylor being the central figure. I met a group of Swedes who used to live in Liberia during their childhood when their parents worked for the iron mining industry here, and they told me that now, 50 years later, the country was back at square one.
More examples of this could be seen in the capital of Monrovia, where no electricity network existed but all compounds had their own diesel generators running day and night. Here I had the privilege to get in contact with the friendly cycling enthusiasts Kristina and Per, a couple working for the Swedish embassy. They invited me to stay in their nice apartment, an offer hard to turn down. I barely had time to take a shower before a Swedish Easter lunch was prepared, where I had the opportunity to meet some of the other embassy staff. Pickled herring, meatballs, salmon, potatoes, smoked lamb, crispbred… I was so happy that I almost cried. Not to mention now having access to AC, WIFI and a laundry machine – what a luxury!
During my days in Monrovia, I fixed the visas to Ivory Coast and Ghana (easy) and did some repairs and bike maintenance. One night I joined a birthday party with my newly found friends at the embassy. It was interesting to get a glimpse into the expat lives of people working for different organizations like UN, UNICEF, US AID, trade unions and refugee camps. Henrik, a really nice guy working for the embassy explained to me some of the problems with growth here:
• Corruption (obviously)
• People live for the day without planning
• Lack of incentive to produce more than they need
• Lack of good quality seeds and knowledge about farming
• Requirements of traceability from importers of goods, and no such established system
• No middle class that can generate taxes
• Lack of infrastructure and transports
• High-level education nonexistent
I also did some sightseeing in town, where the most impressive sight was the Ducor Palace Hotel, once upon a time the best hotel in the whole country that was now completely destroyed by the war, with all interior items long since scavenged or burned. The blue swimming pool with trampoline outside made for good pictures:
Liberia was in the early 1800’s regarded by the Americans as the perfect place to resettle freed slaves, and the descendants of the slaves that came to settle here are called “Americo-Liberians” and have a distinctive American accent, especially in Monrovia. Some of them like to use slang like “What’s up?” or simply “Zup?”. One day a guy shouted “What’s up my nigga?!”. I didn’t know what to reply.
I stayed in Monrovia for several days living comfortable expat-life, a big contrast not only to the way the locals live, but also to my own daily cycling/camping routine. Kristina cooked delicious dinners that we sometimes rounded off by watching a Swedish movie and eating crisps and candy – I felt like home. Kristina and Per, thank you so much for your hospitality!
I continued a little bit south to an eco-lodge called Libassa Lodge, where Gina had decided to spend some days before returning home. It was nice to see her again, but hard to say goodbye a second time. I felt quite eager to advance east though since the rainy season had started. I had been trying to combine maps and using Google Earth to spot roads along the less inhabited coastline, instead of returning inland on the otherwise only accessible road that traverses the country heading east. On my map, there were a few gaps without roads, and it looked like gaps from what I could see using satellite imagery too, but I thought what the heck, there must be something!
First I came to the old rubber tree plantations owned by Firestone. Vast areas of rubber trees were standing there silently donating their white blood for later use in tires and other rubber products. Then I headed to Buchanan, where I met a German who was working for a logging company in the area. He assured me that there was indeed a road all the way along the coast (or slightly inland). It was fairly new and in a surprisingly good condition. But the counties of Sinoe and Grand Kru where extremely hilly, and in combination with heat and humidity, the cycling turned out to be quite tough. When there is dense jungle on both sides of the road, and it’s raining a little bit every day, the humidity rises to nearly 100%. I thought that this made me sweat more, but I think it’s rather my sweat that didn’t evaporate so the clothes never dried but were constantly soaked.
Sometimes I passed by small villages where I could see young women covered with a white paint/mud on their bare breasts and faces. When I asked others about what this all about, they told me that it was some kind of ceremony for people participating in secret societies.
Despite being a bit tough, I still enjoyed the cycling in this remote part of the country. I met plenty of curious people in the villages along the road. One time I faced a situation where the villagers kind of started to worship me, for being so strong to come all this way on a bicycle and so different from other white people. They started to ask me for “advice” on how they should live their lives etc., but I had to explain that I was neither a priest nor a believer. They gave me a fruit I had never seen before, a green spiky thing with white flesh tasting like a mix between passion fruit and pear – delicious! It’s called “saosao” in the local language, and I think it’s called custard apple in English.
The Ebola epidemic had long since spread into Liberia, and in some places flyers had been put up to inform the people:
Although one of the first things to avoid is bush meat, it was the only source of protein in many restaurants. One day I had a lovely stew made from eggplant and water chevrotain, a small bush deer that can stay under water for several minutes. Amazing meat! People generally eat a lot of bush meat here, and in one place they showed me a gigantic tooth from a hippo that they had killed during the war.
The conversation with police and military at roadside checkpoints tend to follow the same structure, and often goes something like this:
– Your name?
– From where?
– EH! Are you telling me that you came all the way from Sudan, on this bicycle?????
– From Sweden, yes
(The police officer hereby often bends down to see if the bicycle has an engine)
– Does it have an engine?
– No. This is the engine (slapping my leg)
(Always followed by laughter and either a high-five or a “gangsta fist”)
(Now follows often a short break to think and get serious)
– So, what exactly is your mission in Liberia? Are you a spy?
– No, I’m a tourist (sometimes I reply “yes” just to see the reaction, but they don’t seem to care)
– Okay. And where are you going now?
– To South Africa
– Okay. Do you know the way?
– Your name again?
– “Curry”/“Cow” (him trying to repeat my name)… I’m James. Safe journey!
In Senegal I introduced you to the baobab tree. Let me introduce to you another impressive tree: the cotton tree. Also known as silk-cotton tree, these trees can grow very tall and they remind me of “home tree” in the movie Avatar. These trees are often used for making canoes since their trunks are huge. Every village usually has a big one that marks the center and has been spared from the logging activities that have removed all other trees.
The night before I arrived to Harper in the southeastern corner of the country, my tent got flooded during a heavy rain storm. For some reason I had put my tent on a so called “oven”, a big flat surface of concrete where rice and cocoa is dried. The rain was falling so heavily that a pool started to form on the concrete, and with all the termite holes in my floor, the water entered. When I woke up, I had about 3 cm of water inside the tent.
Harper is a special town with strong contrasts and a surrealistic touch to it. Natural beauty is mixed with the decay of the war and on top of that humble people. There’s plenty of destroyed and battered buildings and loads of churches.
Part of the UN mission UNMIL is also deployed here. One day I met two crazy ex-Yugoslavians working as military observers, Darko and Mladen, with whom I spent the following days with. We drove to a remote beach on the border to the Ivory Coast where we listened to Serbian music and drank beer. We later returned and went to the UN base for a BBQ.
We had a great time together, thanks guys! The following morning, I woke up with a light hangover hearing music entering the room. It was the Sunday mass singing gospel in a church nearby. I almost felt like going there to listen, but the music was so beautiful that I closed my eyes and fell asleep again.