Before I came to Liberia, it seemed like every volunteer I talked to had some kind of crazy travel experience to share. Cars breaking down at inopportune times, bathroom problems, roads washing out, goats / chickens / children peeing / pooping all over, having stuff stolen, you name it.
Well, I finally have my own crazy experience to add to the list.
Although it happened on my way back from visiting a friend at her site, to properly tell this story I first need to tell you about my experience traveling to her site. This first part will serve the dual function of properly setting the scene for the crazy part, while giving you a frame of reference to understand the “typical” travel experience in Liberia for a Peace Corps volunteer.
Part One: The “Typical” Part
My journey started when I went to visit my friend Maureen for her birthday and to do a few other errands at her site. She herself had just (that day) returned from a nightmare of a trip: Her taxi broke down three times and then got stuck upcountry where there was no cell reception… and so she ended up spending the night with an amazing Liberian woman she randomly encountered at a police checkpoint. It’s quite a story, and I’ll link to her blog as soon as she finishes writing it.
Anyway, we had this great idea of making fish tacos that night, with fresh fish from my site. So, that afternoon, I went to the beach, got some fish from the canoes that had just come in, registered a taxi, and then came home to wait.
And wait and wait. The driver said they were “loading just now”, which I had interpreted to mean that they would be leaving in the next hour, but I ended up waiting over three hours before I was picked up. Between that and other transportation delays, what could have been a three hour trip was turned into an eight hour one.
So I finally arrived at Maureen’s place, exhausted and hungry, ready to eat some tacos. But the fish didn’t seem quite right. Some were better than others, but in general they were slimy and smelled bad. But no matter, we selected the best-looking ones and started cooking them up. The bad-looking ones went to Maureen’s neighbors, who thought they would be alright to eat if they fried them.
We wrapped the fish in foil and put them on coals. By this time we were fading fast. I was exhausted from my day’s travel, and Maureen was still recovering from her traumatic experience. We were having trouble deciding if the fish were done because it was so dark and the fish were cooking weird. They smelled alright… mostly… but I tried eating some, and after four bites decided it didn’t taste quite right. Actually, it tasted pretty bad. We ended up throwing it out and eating a bean soup Maureen had made earlier.
Later that night, I was disappointed to find myself emptying my stomach into Maureen’s toilet. I had been fighting the urge for an hour or so, but finally had given up. After all of the rotting food I had eaten over the past couple months in service of my fermentation experiments, I thought I was invincible. But apparently not. The four bites of fish got me.
I spent the better part of that next day as a pathetic blob, weak and recovering, thinking about my choices in life. Maureen has a life rule where she abandons a venture if at least three things in a row go wrong. I liked that idea. It might have saved my stomach had I considered that 1) the fish were out way too long 2) they were slimy and squishy 3) they smelled and tasted bad. But no, I went and kept eating, hoping that by sheer determination they would somehow start tasting good.
I resolved that I would obey this “rule of three” the next time I went traveling. I didn’t think much of the decision then, but as fate would have it, I had to invoke the rule on my trip back from Maureen’s site. And it’s possible that my adherence to it saved my life, as you will soon see.
But really, from the perspective of a Peace Corps Liberia Volunteer, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about this first leg of my journey. It was textbook “typical”: it took over twice as long as I expected, it was hot, dusty, and miserable, and somehow I got sick in the end.
With this in mind, I think you can properly appreciate my ride back from Maureen’s site, which I consider to be my first “exceptional” travel experience here in Liberia. It starts as a “typically miserable” travel experience, and then takes a turn for the surreal.
Part Two: The Crazy Part
When I left Maureen’s place, I was feeling much better but still unsteady on my feet. Moving took considerable amount of effort, and all I wanted to do was lie down and close my eyes. But I needed to get back in town for some business I had to attend to, so I kicked myself out of Maureen’s house that afternoon and made the trek down to the “parking” at her site. (The “parking” in a city is where all the taxis hang out.)
There weren’t any taxis there, but there were a few vans. So I selected one that was filling quickly and hopped in, glad to finally be sitting again. Between the heat and the energy I burned on my walk there I was not feeling too good, so I focused on breathing and not throwing up.
Finally, the van was packed and we were off. I relaxed, thinking that the worst was over. Sure, the van had an exhaust problem that blew smoke into the cabin, burning everyone’s eyes and making breathing a little difficult. Sure, we were jam packed tight into a hot van and traveling over a road full of pockmarks and ditches. But compared to other parts of Liberia, we had it easy… I mean, the road was paved, and we had no livestock, just children. And besides, it was nothing I couldn’t endure for a couple hours, even if I was still recovering from my bad fish.
Nothing about this situation seemed out of the ordinary. In fact, I felt lucky I found a van so fast. Ask any other volunteer about their experiences traveling sick and they’ll tell you their situation was much worse. That’s why I consider everything up to this point a “typically miserable” travel experience.
The first sign that something was amiss was when some women in the back called out for the driver to stop. A child had to use the bathroom. But the driver kept going. He didn’t even acknowledge the request. It struck me as odd, since drivers usually stop for children when they need to go. Someone in the front shouted “find a bottle!” I was actually a little happy the driver wasn’t stopping, since I just wanted to get to town as fast as possible. The women in back figured something out, but continued grumbling.
Then, I started to become aware that the driver was hitting bumps in the road rather harshly sometimes. Even though we were on one of the best roads in Liberia, it’s still littered with pockmarks and gaps in the asphalt. Where other drivers might have slowed down, this guy was just plowing ahead and smashing through those obstacles. Other people were noticing this too, and telling him to cool down, but he paid them no heed. I thought the driver was just trying to make good time, and in my state of health, I sort of appreciated that he would sacrifice his van to do so.
A little while later we crested a hill and the driver shifted into a lower gear to slow himself down. Again, I didn’t think much of it until a man in the back suddenly cried out, “THAT’S WHAT’S GOING ON… THIS VAN DOESN’T HAVE BRAKES! THE DRIVER CAN ONLY SLOW DOWN BY SHIFTING INTO A LOWER GEAR!!!”
Right on cue, the van erupted in argument and outrage. The women in back were screaming about how there were children in the car while the people immediately surrounding me were demanding their money back. Other people were protesting the validity of the claim. The older woman behind me was demanding to be dropped off at the next town.
Amidst the chaos I silently reflected on my observations of the van’s driving in the past thirty minutes. It’s true, I realized — I had never seen the driver use the brakes once during that time. And it now made sense why he refused to stop earlier for the peeing children… it wasn’t as much that he was refusing to stop, but he physically couldn’t stop.
The general noise in the van gave way to a belligerent man near the front verbally abusing the whistle-blower in the back in defense of the driver. “How do you know so much about driving?? How long have you been a driver?? Drivers have to make money to eat too!”, he kept saying, as if any of those pieces of information were relevant to the question of whether the van had brakes or not. He went on to question the masculinity and sanity of the whistle-blower in back, methodically poking and prodding his target’s psyche until the whistle-blower was reduced into an incoherent screaming and seething mess requiring physical restraint. Once satisfied that his job was complete, the man up front calmly turned to his phone and started texting, simply ignoring the situation he created in back. This, of course only served to infuriate the whistle-blower further, and allowed the man up front to take on a “more reasonable than thou” aura. This was trolling at a level of skill I had never before seen in real life.
All during this time, the driver never had to say a word. The only time I heard him speak in defense of himself was later in the trip, when he randomly launched into some tirade about how he was “working hard to get us to town”, or something like that, but it was hard to hear him over the din of the van’s smoking engine. In hindsight, it really makes me wonder if he and the troll were working together. The whole argument really did well to shut down the complaint of the other passengers and distract everyone from the fact that we had no brakes.
Perhaps as a subtle jab or comment on the tactics of intimidation the troll was using, the older woman behind me started joking with the women next to me that she no longer wanted to be dropped off. She told them that she had prayed, and God told her the van was blessed and so she had no reason to worry. The women next to me were laughing so hard they were crying. (“The woman says the van is blessed! Ahahahaha!”). It definitely seemed that the laughing and crying were augmented by the amount of exhaust fumes they were inhaling and all the smoke going in their eyes. I felt a little sorry for them; they were sitting in an especially bad spot.
I did my best to evaluate my options even though the exhaust was making me a little bit giggly as well. The driver seemed to be very skilled at driving without brakes (I don’t think it was his first time), and I didn’t want to cause another commotion by asking the van to put me down. Mostly, I was just feeling sick and exhausted and just wanted to hurry up and get to town. I decided to wait and see what would happen, and pray along with the old woman behind me.
We crossed through a police checkpoint, and I was very impressed by the driver’s use of coasting and carefully judging speeds to avoid rear-ending any other cars. I wondered if a police officer would notice that there was something wrong with the van. And I briefly considered calling out to one, but I thought we would at least make it to town, one way or another. The officer just waved us through.
We hadn’t gone 25 yards past the checkpoint when I heard a “THUMP thump thump” at the back of our car. Apparently the back door had opened and a piece of luggage had tumbled out, initiating another passenger riot. The driver didn’t want to stop, but with the riot raging in back he finally inched to the side of the road and used the dirt and positive incline of the road there to come to a rest.
Apparently, a passenger had wanted to avoid paying to tie his luggage to the roof of the car, and so he smuggled it in and stashed it under his seat. A faulty latch on the back door allowed it to tumble out onto the road when we crossed the checkpoint. (Or maybe the whistle-blower guy let it out on purpose in hopes the police would stop the van?).
We all piled out of the van, and the driver and a few other passengers walked back towards the checkpoint. The police had collected the piece of luggage, and wouldn’t let it go until the driver paid a fine. The driver, of course, was refusing any responsibility. I stayed by the van, so was too far away to hear their conversation, but I imagine the luggage’s owner was refusing too, blaming the incident on the driver’s van’s bad latch.
At this point, I had to make a critical inventory of my situation. I had hit a “rule of three”: 1) My van had no brakes 2) There were two men with a giant grudge against each other wanting to start a fight in my van 3) luggage in my van was randomly falling out the back. Add this to the fact that I knew we were going to enter traffic when we got in town. I didn’t care how skilled my driver was without brakes, that was going to be a bad situation.
So, I flagged down the next available taxi and took it the rest of the way to town. It was quite a relief when one finally pulled over. By then the driver and police had reached some agreement and were walking back, but I was done with that van, and out of that situation.
When I reported the incident to Prince, our Peace Corps Safety and Security Coordinator, he affirmed my decision. I gave him the license number of the van, and he promised to report the incident to the taxi union.
In all, it was quite an entertaining experience (aside from feeling sick the whole time). Even though the two guys almost started a fight in the van, I never felt like my personal safety was threatened (aside from the fact that the van didn’t have brakes). But my enjoyment of the experience aside, I now happy to have my own crazy travel story to tell new volunteers. But my service is far from over… I’m sure I will collect some more!