Friday, August 22, 2008

Our Monrovia Map

So, where are we?

Explore Monrovia with us, using the Google Map I've made with the kids.
If for some reason you can't see it nicely below, follow this link:

The green house symbol is where we live. The blue line shows our drive to school every day (15 to 20 minutes depending on weather and traffic).

View Larger Map

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Streets of Monrovia

So far, this blog’s mostly been about our family, home and nice outings. But what I see most of, every day, are Monrovia’s streets. Why no blog posts about them yet?

Well, I’ve tried to take photos, and every time there’s just so much not captured. So many buildings and people and movements that don’t fit into a single frozen frame. And the same goes with words, it’s daunting to try and describe all that richness of sights and smells and life in the words of the English language.

But I’ll try small-small, in a Liberian English expression.

First, here are some pictures.

From our flat, one drives with Benson Street over the hill and then into town, below:

Benson Street roadside:

So, you can see, not much of high-rises: typically the buildings in central Monrovia are one, two or three storeys high. Dead electric cabling criss-cross above the streets like giant spider webs. There are still a couple of war-damaged buildings to be seen, and there's hardly a structure not looking a bit - or very - worse for wear. It's not terribly clean either.

But colourful, yes. There's all people milling about, the wares for sale, occasional trees, cars and egg-yellow taxis. Shops and homes are painted in bright colours, and were often designed with some elegance in mind. Colourful and, if you soften your focus a bit, beautiful too.

Most of the action happens on the street, and in small street-fronting stores. With sky-high unemployment, almost everyone’s out on the street selling, or else buying, procuring or organising; travelling to another market or district where something in particular can be found; or any combination of the above.

There are enough cars and taxis to make occasional traffic jams, but most people are on foot. Other popular means of transport are motorbikes, many serving as taxis; wheelbarrows for anything you want to sell on the move; and wooden carts for dragging along containers of drinking water, also for sale.

There really are all kinds of shops but the most ubiquitous are provisions stores (usually small but there are a few large supermarkets); clothing shops, selling cheap imports or gorgeous West-African outfits made by rows of dressmakers; computer stores; local restaurants; pharmacies (cheap & no prescription needed); and cow meat shops.

As for pavement stalls, some sections of street are dedicated mostly to fresh fruit and veg; others to cheap imported manufactured goods (from socks to ginger biscuits); and on the corner of Mechlin and Benson streets not far from our home, there’s smoked and salted fish, and fresh fish every afternoon and on Saturdays.

The focus is on retail activity during the daytime, but during the last week I’ve had occasion to be out in the late afternoon and evening, and found myself in the midst of Monrovia’s very happening social scene, which is distributed over the same streets and pavements.

Now instead of the more business-like concerns of the day, people sit on steps or chairs, with family, friends and neighbours, and enjoy the evening together. There are a couple of guys and one girl in athletic gear, running up the hill of Benson street towards the ruined Masonic Grand Lodge. You can buy bits of roasted meat or mealies (corn). As traffic lessens, pedestrians on evening strolls take up more of the road space, and soccer balls get kicked across the street. Children hang out in groups or with their families. One consequence of small, crowded homes without electricity or TV, is evenings spent relaxing with others. A balmy climate helps, too.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday o' da Beach

You may have guessed that one of the best things about living in Monrovia is by the sea.

While our flat has an incredible sea view, there isn't an accessible beach in walking distance. Beaches close to Monrovia's centre are used as living and/or latrine areas with plenty of litter. But with a bit of driving in the trusty Nissan Sunny, one soon reaches Golden Beach near the UN offices (about 10 minutes) and from then onward there are several other beaches where local restaurants keep a section clean for clients.

On all of these beaches there's some pretty hectic surf, at least this time of the year. Everyone also warns of the rip-tides. We stay in the shallows and enjoy rolling or surfinig with the breakers. Unlike SA's cold coastal water, the sea here is luke-warm - delicious.

Here is a picture of Paul, Sam & Tumi on Golden Beach, on our first afternoon here.

Today we went to Thinker's Beach, pronounced 'Tinkers,' well worth the half hour's drive. Most of the people on the beach and in the restaurant were expats, but not exclusively; as on other beaches here, kids from local communities seemed as welcome as anyone else.

Sam and Tumi on Thinker's Beach

Compared to South Africa, where most beaches and adjacent real estate was reserved for the rich (at the time, synonymous with whites), it's refreshing to enjoy a beach without feeling part of some kind of human rights violation. Enjoying the pure pleasure side by side with people of assorted backgrounds and economic classes - in SA I've experienced it at resorts like Warmbaths and Gold Reef City theme park. Beaches and theme parks won't be a total answer to our economic and social issues but I like to think they play their part. A nation that plays together, stays together?

Thinkers Village is the local restaurant/accommodation complex. There's delicious sea-food to be had, and the proprietor is getting the accommodation up and running now the restaurant's functioning nicely. He came back every time fighting allowed in the consecutive wartimes, and is now back for keeps.

Feels a bit like Mozambique's locally owned beach restaurants, though a bit more brick and concrete due to erstwhile prosperity. And several empty ruins due to the more recent peace.

Tove, Onur and Paul at Thinker's Village restaurant

Come and visit, we'll take you there for sure.

Besides the sea, Sam and Tumi enjoyed playing with the patches of black sand (ilmonite, a form of titanium, Paul informed us). And Tumi had a special time with the resident baby chimp. Despite all thoughts of the problems of chimps as pets it was difficult not to enjoy a moment of interaction with a young animal so close to a human child.

Tumi with young chimp at Thinkers village

Tumi with black ilmonite sand

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bomi Lake

Dear friends

The last three weeks have not been all easy but some of the big positives have been meeting some very nice people through Paul’s work at IBI, and finding a couple of wonderful places to visit close to and beyond Monrovia.

Last Sunday we set off for Bomi Lake in two 4x4s. That’s Paul & I & the kids; Onur from the IBI office here; David and Mamadou from the office in Virginia, and short term consultants Bob and Jerry with his wife Cindy. Plus two IBI drivers, Adama and David. Quite a party!

Below: Sam on the log; with Tumi & two Liberian boys who joined us; Adama (left) & David; and Onur standing on the platform.

To get to Bomi Lake, one first has to get through Duala Market, a huge and often Very Congested market area on the NW side of Monrovia. Fortunately, being Sunday, it was relatively quiet. Then one follows the ‘highway’ towards the Sierra Leone border. This is apparently the best regional road in Monrovia, and indeed it’s in good condition, though more good tar road than highway.

At Tubmanville there is a fork where one keeps left, and then after not too much dirt road, following signs to Bomi Lake and a nearby Firing Range (?!) one get’s to hilly country and soon to the lake. All in all it’s about 55km and takes 2 hours if Duala doesn’t delay you too much.

Well, Bomi Lake is actually a huge quarry pool from an iron mining operation, but has earned the title of ‘Lake’ for being so beautiful and quite large. The water is incredibly clear, we could see big tilapia swimming around; the appearance of the water is also responsible for the nickname ‘Blue Lake.’

Pakistani UN Peacekeeping forces (Pak Bats for short) have a base near the lake, and have built quaint shade ‘pavilions’ around the picnic area; a diving board – great fun; and a basic toilet. They’ve also planted a pineapple orchard where each individual plant has a hand-painted sign indicating who planted it, their rank, & date of planting. One gets the feeling they may be quite bored.

Anyway, the best part of the day was swimming in the lake; the water a delicious temperature just cool enough to give some relief from the heat. From a deck at the end of a jetty, across a shallow slope into the water, lay a long, straight, slippery wooden pole. Soon Paul had set up a prize of 100 Liberian Dollars (R12) for whoever could walk all the way across. Adama was the only one who ever stood a chance – not that other contestants didn’t try repeatedly and desperately – and he eventually made it. Onur offered a new reward for Sam and Tumi if they can walk from both ends and meet halfway – and they did it!

Sam and Tumi approaching each other on the balancing log; Onur on the platform

Jerry and Cindy on a waterside pavilion

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

First impressions

First impressions

As you come down to land at Roberts International, Monrovia, you can see from above the beautiful wide course of the St Paul River as it snakes down and opens it’s mouth to the ocean. The land is bright green. I have to say that when we got here Liberia, and Monrovia in particular, it felt like some kind of paradise, and often it still does.

Of course, this feeling is easier to have if you are one of the few people in this city who have hot and cold water in the house, an unbroken electricity supplied by your own generator, and an internet connection. And great sea-views from your well-equipped flat.

But even without all these luxuries I should think most Monrovians enjoy the sight of the huge palm and other tropical trees growing among the (mostly dilapidated or damaged) buildings; the sea breeze; the warm humid climate lightened by frequent rain showers; the fresh veggies and fish you can buy on the street, the relaxed and friendly, yet respectful pulblic culture; the life which is very much lived on the streets, pavements and markets. The beauty of Liberian women walking down the road in a gorgeous West African print dresses.

In fact Liberians must enjoy these simple things even more than we realise as things were so different during the war years, only five-six years ago. For us, it’s hard to imagine any violence now, on these friendly streets.

Home from home

We live in a flat on the top floor of a 4-level block; below are two more flats and an office level where Paul works some of the time.

Our new home makes me think of a seashell perched on top of a cliff. It is cool inside, with gleaming cream-coloured floor tiles and light pearly colours on the walls. The huge glass sliding doors open onto the balcony and an incredibly beautiful view of an overgrown quarry below the cliff, and the sea.

View from our balcony to the right (South East)

Sunset view to the right (North West)

The downside to living on a seashell perched on a cliff, is that there is little opportunity for the boys to play outside. Paul plans to fence an empty lot nearby for them to play in and set up the trampoline, when it comes; meanwhile we take a walk down the street, or visit a compound with a swimming pool we have access to, about 15 min walk or 5 minutes’ drive away.

Yes, drive – we have a car! A little red Nissan, rather like Sentra in SA, but called a Sunny. Previous owner a German-speaking gentleman in Switzerland, so she’s in great nick. Driving in Monrovia is a trippy, Through-the-Looking-Glass experience. In the first place, one drives on the right hand side of the road here, so everything inside and outside the car’s on the ‘wrong side’. Then there are many many potholes to dodge, a bit like an arcade game. While also dodging other cars that are navigating around other potholes, and pedestrians, and young guys on motorbikes, and hawkers with wheelbarrows full of produce. Luckily it all moves pretty slowly.

More about our flat:

The main bedroom is also Paul’s study; I also have my own room for working and a bit of private space. This is also the guest room and I’m Very Much looking forward to having as many as possible friends visit with us during the year to come. I will HAPPILY sacrifice my space for you’re your company – please come. Here is the view from the desk.

There is a steady trickle of people and vehicles down our road, and right now also a lot of little boys rolling wheels and tyres down it for fun. The brown building across the road is a little restaurant/food stall where you can get fried fish, vetkoek, and Liberian stew on rice.

The boys share a room but will also have their own play/study room (originally the dining room). The lounge is big enough for couches and the dining room table. There are also four bathrooms – 3 en suite and 1 for guests! and a nicely fitted out kitchen with a gas & electric combo stove and humungous oven.

Goodbyes & Continental Travel

19 July 2008: Johannesburg-Accra
21 July 2008: Accra Monrovia

Leaving our life in South Africa was hard, for lots of reasons. Saying goodbye to friends and family is horrid. But I SO want to thank all of you for all your goodbye messages, your good wishes and support and love expressed through phone calls and emails and visits. They have made us feel strong, and not alone, even if far away. Especially thanks for your last minute airport calls, Mocke, Diane, Dinah & Ma, and sorry I could not speak long but they were very much appreciated. I don’t think we’d even have left without all the help from my mother: entertaining the kids; helping to pack; and taking us to the airport when it really was time to go – Dankie Ma!

Continental Travel

The first three days were Sam & Tumi’s first taste of international travel beyond southern Africa. The whole drill of airports, planes & taxis was both exciting and exhausting. The kids enjoyed aeroplane food and the incredibly silly inflight movie. We landed in Accra at about 11pm West African time (GMT – 2 hours earlier than SA) and could immediately feel we were somewhere totally different – it was hot and humid late at night, and stinky too from all the airplane fumes. Once in the airport, the smell changed to a sweetish smell of things alive in a tropical environment, which is all over here – I love it. Sam & Tumi found it strange.

As promised by Uncle, the proprietor of the hostel we’d booked 2 nights in, a nice big taxi was waiting and took us on a 20 minute drive through dark streets of Accra to the Crystal Hostel. We could see the shape of low buildings lining the streets, and trees among them. I wondered what it would look like in by daylight. Next morning, from the walled roof of the building, we got our first real view of Accra, with the sun rising all golden through clouds and mists, lighting up rooftops and palm trees.

View from Crystal Hostel rooftop, Accra

Tumi looking at view from rooftop

Accra is a huge city, we did not even see the main part of town – instead it happened that we spent most of our time in, and driving between, vast lower/middle class suburbs. Densely occupied, with little or no garden space; the bigger, fancier buildings expanding upwards two or three storeys a bit like in SA townships. What’s really different from SA is all the street markets – pavement stalls selling everything you can think of. Most of the builings along the main street are small shops too, selling provisions or hardware or clothes or plastics or cell phones. Beauty salons are big, too.

We were tickled by the names of shops and mottoes on vehicles: IT IS A LONG STORY on the back of a pick-up truck, and By God’s Grace Auto Electrician.

Sunday morning Paul’s friend Fui took us to a larney buffet breakfast at the Golden Tulip Hotel with some local friends & their children – a very friendly welcome to West Africa. Sam and Tumi loved having bacon AND fruit AND waffles. In the afternoon, we tried to get to a nice beach, but ended up at one that was pretty much a rubbish dump. Later we set off to try out Accra street fare. So we had dinner of roast mealies and spicy pork kebabs on Darkuman Main Road in the twilight, hopping over the dirty gutter and enjoying the warm night air & friendly atmosphere.

Then Monday, it was back to the airport and on the plane to Monrovia. The plane was packed, with a mix of local and international travellers that all looked like very nice peole – encouraging. Everyone had short, neat hair – Liberia is clearly not the kind of place that attracts hippies, I thought.

How and why

to be completed...