Monrovia-Harper Round Trip part II
07.10.2016 - 17.10.2016 31 °C
Arriving in Ganta on my way to Harper I had no plans to linger. Border towns are usually characterised by a lot of commerce and a lot of hassle for visitors like me. Ganta is no exception. At the main ‘garage’ (or bus station if you will – though there are no buses) tickets to different destinations are sold in small shacks. For most destinations at least. Not for the south-east where I’m heading. The poor state of the roads in that region means that drivers can charge whatever they feel like for transporting people there. The only car heading out today is a blue Toyota pickup. With a straight face, the driver demands 150 US$. He wasn’t even going all the way to Harper; he was only heading to Kahnwiekehn, 160 km short of Harper.
I did expect this journey to be less than cheap, but 150 dollars and a driver unwilling to negotiate? No way. I’d rather not go. He even claimed that a local woman paid him 300 dollars to have the front seat for herself. This might be true. It might also be a lie. I resorted to questioning how a local woman from rural Liberia had come up with 300 dollars when most families struggle to pay their kids public school fees at 35 dollars per semester. Not particularly smooth, I know. Not getting an answer to this, I continued by questioning the driver’s sanity. To my innate surprise, this didn’t make him more willing to negotiate…
Annoyed, mumbling curses about hustlers and white man prices, I walk away. The only thing to do now is to find a bar, buy a beer to cool down my hot temper and consider my options. I could just leave Liberia behind. I have my Guinea visa, and Ganta is right on the border. But then I would have to leave Liberia behind having only visited Monrovia and a surfer town called Robertsport. That would be a waste of country.
No. I would give Harper a change. Wait around for the next car towards the south-east. Maybe just go to Zwedru, the halfway town. Just like Harper, Zwedru is the home of a former Liberian president, who developed it beyond other upcountry towns. And a few mototaxis had already offered to take me there for 70 US$ - this could surely be negotiated further down.
The bar I’m cooling down also just happens to have rooms on the floor above the bar. Rather bordello-ish, but there’s one upside to this. Once I’ve mentioned that I consider staying the night, these places usually clean the room to spotlessness before they let me have a look at it. It’s a sure way to find a clean and cheap room in West Africa. The only other problem is the noise from the clientele in the neighbouring rooms, but today being Friday I gambled – correctly – the music from the bar would drown every other sound.
However, cheap rides don’t just show up by themselves. I better start spreading the word that I’m looking for a cheap ride south-east. Talking to the bar owner, as well as the guy who had initially shown me the place, they’re promising to speak with the different drivers they know. As the day begins to slip into night, a few of the touts from the garage are also showing up at the bar. Buying them a beer, one tells me that a car from Maryland’s immigration police is going to drive down there tomorrow. I might just be in luck.
Sleeping in Saturday, not getting up before noon, should prove to be a splendid idea. Walking back to the garage for a ‘breakfast sandwich’ (fried egg, mayonnaise and onion in a small baguette), I’m chatting up the ticket shack guy. Next car towards Harper would leave tomorrow. In general, I’m receiving a lot of contradicting information on rides, prices, forms of transport and destinations, which I’ll spare you from here. But the short story is that I’m settling in for another night in Ganta at this point. Especially because the tout who’d talked about the immigration car is nowhere to be found. This being Saturday I’m wasting the day away by watching Premier League and U17 Women’s World Cup (!) football in the bar.
That is until the tout suddenly reappears: “The Immigration Police’s car is leaving for Harper now!” Rather surprised I follow him around the block. 50 dollars for the drive down to Harper is a steal. However, stubborn as I am I want to negotiate. Finally, after much pondering, we settle on 40 US$. But I still need to go pack up. I hurry back to the bar, explain that I’m not going to stay another night, pack and run back to where I left the truck. It’s gone. The tout is still there and eagerly flags down a mototaxi, while mentioning something about me paying him for the help as the mototaxi starts pursuing the immigration police. They’re buying gas a little outside town, and I catch up quickly. The tout also jumped on a bike, and as I catch up to the car, there's a sudden frenzy of touts and mototaxi drivers who all want money.
Enter Alex, the immigration officer in charge for the car. He basically grabs me and shoves me into the car. I barely manage to throw a couple of dollars’ worth of notes out the window. We leave the ensuing brawl in the rear mirror, driving into the night.
Sitting in the darkness, I can’t help smiling. This is the parts of travelling I enjoy the most, the parts most foreign to home. It’s bumpy and unpleasant. Everybody’s tired and cramped in on too little space. But none of my fellow passengers seems to mind. This is rural Liberia and hardship is met with a Stoicism; it’s accepted as a part of daily life.
The smile should soon fade, though. The road is full of bogged down and stuck trucks. Large lorries too heavy to make it through the mud. I stop counting as we pass stuck truck number 32. We are only a few hours into the drive. It is here, stuck on the road, that all those provisions (including the beers for the bar in Harper) have stranded. Most of the drivers stay to guard their loads. Sleeping for weeks or months in their vehicles, surviving on rice bought or donated to them in the nearest village. At a point, more than ten trucks are completely blocking the road. We have no choice to turn around and try out luck on the smaller roads, zig-zagging through the rainforest. This backtracking means that we waste three hours of the night.
At 8 am we finally reach the first town en-route, Tapeta. We’ve been driving for 12 hours and have only made it 101 km out of Ganta (459 km to go). We make a short stop to get gas and breakfast before pushing on. However, we wouldn’t get far. A few kilometres outside Tapeta another truck is stuck in the mud, blocking the road. Luckily for us, this truck isn’t left to its own devices. The driver has already gone back into town to get an excavator – or “big yellow machine” as it’s called in Liberian English – that can pull it out, so we can pass.
It turns out to be a four-hour wait. Most of my fellow passengers decided to walk to the village up the road and wait there. I, instead, use the wait to catch some shut-eye, finally being able to rest as the car has come to a standstill and there’s now sufficient space to lie down.
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