Arriving back to Monrovia after our harrowing trip to Sierra Leone, we had a few hours to pack, sleep and it was off to the airport to catch our flights. Our action-packed-non-stop-adventure through Liberia and Sierra Leone had so quickly come to an end.
Early the next morning I went through all the usual rigmarole involved in getting on a flight; I checked in, went through security, used the only flush toilet I’d seen for 3 weeks and settled into the passenger waiting area. Tumbleweeds rolling by would not have surprised me in the least, but I was secretly glad for the peace and quiet. That all came to a sudden and abrupt end when a security guard approached me with a piece of scrap paper in his hand. “Are you” he asked, pointing to the piece of paper with ‘Carla White’ scribbled on it. I looked around at the ‘crowded’ room of maybe ten other people (six of which I am sure were employees of the snack kiosk) and decided I had to say “Yes I am, why”?
I was quickly whisked away to a backroom and told there was something in my bag they had never seen on a scanner before. I would need to open it for closer inspection. Oh man, I had just paid $5 to have my bag Saran Wrapped I thought to myself as I stepped into the back area where the scanning machine was located. As the staff were trying to carefully unwrap my bag so they could reuse the plastic when they were done the inspection (I think you could easily just give that job the title ‘mission impossible’) I told the security guard the item causing the ruckus was a wooden bird mask I had purchased in Sierra Leone (thinking to myself there was absolutely nothing else in my bag that was unusual). “Nope” he was quick to answer, “this is something I have never seen on the scanner before. Wood shows up differently than THIS object”.
Dressed in filthy Thai hippy pants, an equally filthy Nelson Mandela t-shirt and smelling like well water from my morning ‘shower’ I was pretty sure I was the LEAST guilty looking person they had ever pulled into secondary, but I certainly wasn’t feeling it in that moment. I just stopped trying to guess what weapon-ish looking object I had packed between my postcards, my bird mask and my dirty socks and let them continue to riffle through my bag. Under ALL the filthy clothes, and of course at the bottom of my bag, he came across the item that was causing all the fuss, a solar panel. (I had brought one of the solar lights from my ‘Carla Bikes Africa to End Energy Poverty’ trip to use and show the locals as I travelled around.)
He unwrapped it from the towel that was protecting it from getting scratched by items like, of course, the wooden bird. As the security guard looked up from the solar panel to my face his expression would have been the same had he been holding either; one million pounds of cocaine, Charles Taylor’s personal machete or a panel from the space shuttle disaster. “What is THIS” he was fast to ask? He eagerly nodded when I asked him if he would like to see how it worked. I dug out the battery and the light (which I take apart to fly so events like this don’t happen – sigh). More than eager to see I quickly reassembled it and showed him how bright the light shone, explained how it worked and he was more than impressed. This obviously well-educated, articulate airport employee could not believe sun could make electricity just by using this little panel. I couldn’t believe a well-educated, articulate airport employee living in a country that is desperate for electricity did not even know this option was available.
When the show and tell was finished, he thanked me for the science lesson and asked if he could repack my bag. Not a chance I thought to myself as I took apart the solar light, rewrapped the wooden bird and shoved the rest of the laundry on top. He asked two of the other men working in the luggage security check room to help him try to replace the Saran Wrap that was now lying in a million ripped pieces on the dusty floor. Ten minutes, thirty pieces of tape, a bit of string, a lot of dust and three airport employees later, my bag was rolled off to the waiting British Airways flight. Rest assured I told myself, no one is stealing ANYTHING out of that bag now.
We quickly boarded and took off, once again there were less than 20 fellow travellers flying out of Liberia with me. We were to take the quick 50 minute flight into Freetown to pick up the rest of the passengers. No sooner had we taken off from Liberia, when the pilot announced we were starting our descent into Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Closing in quickly on the beautiful landscape, winding rivers and tiny bodies of water we were jolted back in our seats as the plane suddenly started to ascend again. The captain came on to tell us she had missed her first attempt at the runway as this is a difficult airport to fly into with a combination of dinky runway space, almost always cloud covered and as little technology on the ground as is humanly possible (my words not hers). YES - a female British Airways captain I thought to myself until I was quickly reminded the London to Monrovia return flight likely isn’t high on the request list. We would have to fly out 10 kilometers and would try again from the opposite direction, she informed us. After about 15 minutes of circling in the air she came back on to say ‘Ummmm, yahhhh (insert pilot giggling) so we have just been told by air traffic control that we will not be able to land in the next little while because the President of Benin has just landed and they have officially closed the airport for his arrival ceremony and parade’. WTF!!! She came back on about ten minutes later to say that air traffic had said the parade is still going on. Twenty-five minutes of circling and air traffic control has told her ‘they are just packing up the band and we should be able to land soon, we think’. I swear, only in Africa.
How many times have I said that? After spending over six months of this year on African soil – I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have thought to myself ‘this s$%t only happens in Africa’.
There are some things I have just fallen in love with here. The warm culture, the kids, the non-stop adventure. But then there is the CHAOS. But gotta admit, I do love some of the chaos. The non-stop, 24-hour a day, 7-day a week, 365-day a year CHAOS. Nothing in Africa seems to really work, and if it is in ‘working condition’, it is likely tied, glued, stapled or taped together. And won’t be working for long.
As we continued to circle the skies over Freetown while the drums were being packed up on the tarmac below, I thought about some of the moments that made me go WTF on this trip.
I was out with Alf (the coffee expert from Norway) and our Liberian driver a few nights ago. Alf wanted to pick up some crabs from the beach for dinner that evening. We set out in the car and within 15 minutes, stuck in traffic, we ran out of gas. Our driver looked at me in the rearview mirror shrugged his shoulders, opened the door and bolted from the car. Honks coming from all directions, Alf and I slink down in our seats. What seemed like 90 minutes, but was more than likely 3.5, our driver can be seen running back to the car with a jar (about the size of a Miracle Whip jar) filled with gas and a (clearly) homemade funnel.
(The above picture is from a completely separate ‘gas’ incident. I did NOT get out of the car to take a picture during the stuck in traffic/ran out of gas incident.)
Contents of jar dumped into the tank, we continue on our adventure to the beach. Maybe 45 minutes later, still stuck in traffic, we run out of gas, again. (I have to admit something here – I don’t have a car and really have ABSOLUTELY no understanding of how much gas goes into a car. What a gallon of gas looks like, how big/small an average gas tank is, why a Miracle Whip jar’s worth does not fill a tank are completely foreign concepts to me. (Don’t tell my Dad, he would just die that I didn’t know that.)
Our driver once again shrugs his shoulders, and goes to grab for the door handle when I ask him “How much gas did you buy last time”? “One gallon” he proudly announces. So “maybe this time you’ll buy two, or ten” Alf and I suggest. I’ve never seen anyone’s head spin so quickly as he is now facing me sitting in the backseat “Two, why do I buy two” he confusingly asks and looking at me like I had just suggested the DUMBEST idea he had EVER heard.
And after a conversation about distance, the fact we are still driving further from the house AND we have to come back, a short math lesson and a why, why, why the $%@$^$%$#@ wouldn’t you buy more than one comment, he again bolts from the car only to return with the same sized Miracle Whip jar and dumps it into the tank. I won’t bore you with the details but you know there was more bolting from the car, honking from fellow drivers as we blocked traffic and Miracle Whip jars in our future before we returned home from the beach (do I even mention sans crabs).
As we drove around that evening, I tried to process the one-gallon at a time reasoning. Why did our thought process differ so greatly from our Liberian driver’s? People in Liberia buy for and live in the moment, that moment. (Is my guess.) They will buy enough food for that meal, that day. We needed one gallon of gas to continue to move forward. And I couldn’t argue with that thinking. We (Westerners)shop at places like Costco and Wal-Mart and buy more (in bulk) because it’s cheaper. Why buy the 500g box of Cheerios, when for 23 cents more, your family of three can easily fit the 63454g box of Cheerios in the trunk of your Suburban (Dad – I know Suburbans don’t have trunks)? As frustrated as I was that night, I do giggle now that we ran out of gas multiple times. The whole event was a huge lesson in want vs. need.
Still circling above the Freetown Airport, I was also reminded of another story that made me giggle. As many of you who follow my blog know all too well, I have fallen in love with the African donut.
They are really just little balls of dough, deep-fried over an open fire. They are always sold out of giant plastic buckets carried around on people’s heads. When I was walking down the street in Monrovia I got really excited when I saw a woman walking toward me with a bucket. As she neared, her product looked different. She was selling corn bread. As excited as I was about the corn bread, I was immediately confused. And I turned to ask my friend Charlotte how the women made the corn bread with no oven. I had definitely never seen an oven in Liberia and I was 100% sure this woman was not one of the 5% that had access to electricity. My friend Charlotte turned to me and answered “She bakes them in her fridge”. Now just so you know, they speak English in Liberia. So I was pretty sure this was not a lost in translation moment. ”Her fridge” I asked with eyebrows furrowed almost to my knees. ”Yup”. ”OK, Charlotte, what the heck do you mean she bakes them in the FRIDGE”? Charlotte continued to tell me that before the war, lots of people had fridges – so there are heaps kicking around. Women take an old fridge and build a fire pit under it and ‘apparently’ open the door (of the fridge) and stick in the corn bread to bake. I’ve joked that Liberia is a bit like Gilligan’s Island, but it’s not far from the truth. They have nothing, and everything they do have is used for something. I enjoyed my corn bread and tried not to think about things like freon, too much.
Speaking of haves, I’m finishing this blog post in the minutes before I land at Heathrow. (I think I may have forgotten to mention, the parade ended, we eventually landed in Freetown, picked up the passengers and took off again for London.) The sun is just setting, we are flying just above the clouds and the view from 23J is stunning. Within minutes my passport will easily get me into another country, I’ll be picked up by my sister (and she’ll know I am in flip-flops so will bring me warm socks). When we get back to her house there will be snacks, electricity, water (that I won’t have to get from a well), speedy Internet and if there is ANYTHING else this princess needs – I am sure either my sister or Chris can get into their car and get it for me. I will want for nothing.
In my lifetime, I have run out of gas once – TOTALLY my own stupidity. (I don’t think Ted Battiston has let me forget about it to this day.) I have a fridge, I have never cooked corn bread in it. I have an oven, I have never cooked anything in it. I do need to learn what a gallon of gas looks like, no great need to do that anytime soon. Electricity, water, heat and Internet are all in my house, I have no idea how that happens. I called someone, I gave them some money, they all got turned on, to me it’s magic.
I’ve never thought about developing a ‘system’ in which sun is captured by a panel and turned into electricity so that I could read a book at night, someone had already done that for me. I’ve also never thought about how I would survive if Calgary were attacked by rebels, what decision I would make given the choice of short sleeves v.s., long sleeves (see my last blog post) or how to make a fridge into an oven.
As with any adventure, I have learned so much. And have constantly been reminded by the locals, how much I STILL have to learn about the world.
To my new friends in Liberia and Sierra Leone, thank you.
You have no idea how much you’ve taught me, and how I’ll return to Calgary and think about how I live, the decisions I make, the products I buy and how they all affect you and your place on this planet we all share.