Weekend in Monrovia

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia. Fun fact: it’s named after our President Monroe. Don’t even get me started on our intertwined history with Liberia. That will have to come in a future blog post after I’ve done more research and can feel confident writing anything about it.

Like any city, Monrovia can be unsafe if you don’t know the areas to avoid and the proper ways of getting around. But the wealth inequality and poverty here can make Monrovia especially dangerous. Since we volunteers need to travel to Monrovia from time to time (the Peace Corps office is here), Peace Corps wanted to give us a guided tour as a part of our training. So, two weekends ago, all 38 of us Peace Corps Trainees were assigned into groups of five or six, and given a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Monrovia to show us around.

We got to Monrovia in the standard Liberian fashion: by taxi. I rode in the back with my fellow group members Nick, Nimu, and Tyler.

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Amelia sat up front with Jefferson (our driver) and Jefferson’s monkey.

The trip to Monrovia from Kakata takes about an hour and a half, and costs $150 LD ($2 USD) one way.

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The scenery on the way there was flat and green, with trees in the distance. My camera had trouble focusing and understanding the lighting, but here was by best shot:

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We passed through a couple really small towns along the way. Living conditions all around looked similar to Kakata. The road was paved pretty much the whole way (aside from holes here and there).

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In general, as you get closer to Monrovia, the roads get better, imported supplies become more available, and schools improve in quality.

When we finally got to Monrovia, the first thing I noticed was the smell. In some parts it reminded me of the butter smell you get from popcorn in movie theaters mixed with old poop.

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After meeting up with our group leader and tour guide, an LR-3 named DB (see our group picture further down this post), we joined a fellow group for some American food at “The Bamboo Bar”. Devin’s face of pure joy as he takes his first bite of pizza captures what many trainees were feeling:

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To be honest, I missed my Ma’s rice at home. And the food was expensive: $12USD for a small pizza and $2USD for a can soda (this place serves mostly ex-pats). And pizza was probably a reheated frozen one. Since I’m saving up for a car battery for a solar charging system that I want to build, I didn’t order anything and just ate people’s leftovers, figuring I could get something cheap from a street vendor later.

The Bamboo Bar is on the fourth story of a building on the corner of Randall and Broad — important streets in Monrovia. Here’s their intersection:

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That building to the right in the picture above deserved a picture on its own:

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And I did my best to get a panorama off the balcony (some ghosting, but all around pretty good):

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After eating, DB started giving us a tour of the city. We first went to some Lebanese grocery stores (Lebanese entrepeneurs are common in Liberia). They sold most grocery items you would find in an American supermarket, for slightly inflated prices.

Electronics were super inflated, as expected. A flash drive I might buy in America for under $10USD was selling for $30USD here:

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After our tour of grocery stores, we went to the riverside market, the main outdoor market in Monrovia.

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This market was many times the size of the main market in Kakata (I’ll do a post on Liberian markets some other time). Special credit here goes to Tyler for having the guts to whip his camera out in such a busy and crowded situation. (In the past volunteers have had their cameras and phones ripped from their grasp in places like this)

From the market, we walked to a nice coffee shop called the Peace Cafe (again, mostly for ex-pats). We stopped there a moment to visit another group and then got a taxi to the Ducor Hotel.

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The Ducor Hotel used to be THE Liberian 5-star hotel in the 70s and 80s. But once the war started, it was looted and fell into extreme disrepair. During the war people it became the home to many refugees.

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Someone told us you can find pictures somewhere online of what this place looked like in the 70s. I haven’t had the chance to find them. But its easy to imagine…

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In the lobby, we found our first flight of stairs:

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Here’s a panorama of the first level above the lobby:

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From there, we found the main flight of stairs and circled our way towards the roof.

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There was maybe six floors or so, each one looking like the scene from a post apoctalyptic movie.

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Tyler caught me taking that picture:

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Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any zombies and made it to the roof.

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From there, we could see the whole city.

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The bridge on the left side of the panorama is important to note. It was a major stragetic point during the war and saw a lot of action.

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Here’s a close-up of some more buildings from the panorama.

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On the other side of the roof, we got a good view of “West Point” — the worst place Monrovia and arguably one of the worst slums in the world.

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Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to go there, for obvious reasons. Breaking this rule results in an instant early termination. If you’re still alive, that is.

On the same side of the building, if you look down you can see the pool from above:

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Here’s our whole group at the top:

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From left to right that’s our leader DB, then Nick, Tyler, Nimu, Amelia, and myself.

Before we came back down, I got a great view down the elevator shaft:

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That night all the groups stayed at St. Theresa’s — a convent and hostel. Room rates are $25USD per night, but it was covered by Peace Corps, of course. Here’s the view off a balcony of the convent. (The whole convent was protected by a tall fence, like Doe Palace)

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The next day, our only scheduled event was to go to “Red Light” — a transit hub right outside of Monrovia. It was on the way there that I found NASA.

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After I posted this picture last week, my friend Doug managed to find their facebook page. Good work Doug! They’re an autoparts store, apparently.

We were running early so we killed time with some other groups at the Royal Hotel — the premiere hotel in Monrovia right now.

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It was such a weird feeling to move between such extremes of rich and poor in Monrovia. DB told us that it’s something you never really get used to. As a Peace Corps volunteer you’re a weird blend of both worlds… you’re living like someone from poor community but then can go spend the weekend with some of the richest in the country. You never really belong to either world.

From there we hopped in a taxi to Red Light. Here’s a panorama of the taxi station at Red Light:

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As I mentioned before, it is the main transport hub outside Monrovia. Whenever we leave from Monrovia to our sites, this is where we must catch a local taxi here and then transfer.

Our safety and security coordinator Prince was there giving every group a tour around Red Light. Prince is an amazing safety and security coordinator, and even worked with Peace Corps before the war.

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He’s got connections in all the police departments around Liberia. Who knows what other sort of connections he has. He’s very cheerful and charming, but you can tell from the way other Liberians interact with him that he is someone you don’t mess with. With Prince always a phone call away, I feel as safe as I could possibly be in Liberia.

I took advantage of Prince’s presence and took some more photos:

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Prince walked us around and showed us where we could catch rides to just about anywhere in the country.

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After our quick tour, it was time to head back to Kakata. Our driver this time was sporting a stuffed bear head on his gearshift that would contort every time he shifted.

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I really should start a photo collection of all the “flair” taxi drivers incorporate into their work. Maybe I could convince other volunteers to contribute…

But really, what a weekend! While the city was exciting and fun to visit, I really do prefer my simpler life with my host family here in Kakata. All the energy I spent on situational awareness traveling through all those new environments was very draining. It’s good to be back home!

(special thanks to Tyler for all his photos! We pooled our photos at the end of the trip. Images 7-9, 15-17, 23, 25, 27, 30-36, and 42 are his!)

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9 Responses to Weekend in Monrovia

  1. douglas orr says:

    Very cool photos, Kyle. It really captures something.

    Here’s a very cool website that has pre-war photos of Liberia (and links to a page with the hotel you were exploring):

    http://liberia77.com/explore/ducor-palace-hotel-in-monrovia-before-compleetion/

  2. douglas orr says:

    p.s. thanks for the shout out 🙂

  3. Evie says:

    Great pictures, Kyle! Really enjoyed your commentary as well. Thanking God for Prince, too. Can’t wait to hear some teaching stories!

  4. Carole says:

    Thank you Kyle what an incredible journey … Monrovia looks scarey,old poor, absurdly rich ,uncomfortable ,overcrowded … There’s no place like home glad you made it safely back to your little family… I sure miss you
    Carole

  5. Ray Goodrich says:

    In 1960 I went to Tijuana, Mexico and visited the poor district. People were living in tin and plywood shacks that washed away in the rainy season. That night I had nightmares. The districts were probably similar but I think Monrovia is maybe even worse. The devastation is more pervasive. At least in the Tijuana business district I felt safe and there was no signs of a war.

  6. Very interesting Kyle! When I traveled to India, I had a similar experience. We lived like the wealthy in our hotel at night but during the day we worked & ate with the poorest outcasts of society. Many slums are literally made out of trash and garbage bags. It’s quite sad…

  7. Carol Brooks says:

    Thanks for posting these great updates. It is so amazing to be able to share in this experience with you. Great photos and narration.

  8. Leo says:

    So, did you stop by the Maritime Institute and pick up your third mates papers? With the largest merchant marine in the world, you’ll be able to find work on a Liberian vessel anywhere!

  9. Risha says:

    Your comment about the contrast between rich and poor makes me remember my first encounter with this in Nicaragua. I had been working in rural areas, followed by the slums of Managua (some say these are the worst in the Western hemisphere, though honestly slums worldwide have startling resemblance and dangers … inner city poverty has an uncanny way of manifesting itself similarly, despite huge cultural and geographic differences!). When one day I entered a bank to cash a travelers check I was hit with fresh air conditioning and marble floors. I started to get teary because I was overwhelmed with feeling such relief and pleasure yet such sadness. I saw your picture of the hotel lobby and instantly had a flash-back. You will never forget these first impressions and experiences, they change you forever and always for the better. My prayers are with you. So happy to be able to hear of your experiences from afar. Can’t wait for the next post!!

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