07 October 2007

"In Jesus's Name, We Shall Make It!"

15 September (relating events of 12-13 September 2007)

I composed an article on my ride from Sierra Leone to Liberia, dubbing it the most difficult so far. But it paled in comparison to the journey from Monrovia to Toulepleu, a small town on the Ivoirien side of the border. The only reason the route is used is that a better one further north has been abandoned since the civil war and division of Cote d'Ivoire.

The bulk of the journey took place between Monrovia and Toe Town (pronounced "Toes Town" by Liberians). The first nine hours were fairly uneventful as the road to Ganta is sealed (i.e. paved), though bumpy in stretches.

After stopping for dinner, we began the unsealed portion of our trip. After a couple of hours we reached a checkpoint where our apprentice/aparanti caused offense. The policemen loudly took exception to being bribed (I fear our apprentice was a bit curt). After an hour or so waiting at the roadside, we were allowed to continue once the driver and apprentice (essentially a conductor) paid an acceptable fine (no doubt larger than the proferred loan). The passengers gave the apprentice a lot of grief for not being more careful with his words.

On the plus side, our cramped minibus (they installed a wooden plank to create an extra row between the front seats and the first row of passenger seats behind) had the best sound system of my whole COS trip, and a decent selection of music to boot. In addition to some nice Ivoirien and Liberian music, the obligatory reggae and some gospel music, there was some 90s dance music, including Jennifer Lopez's first album and the guys that sing "What is love/Baby don't hurt me" and "Where do you go?" And one male passenger knew the words to every song played.

At 3AM we pulled into Tapeta and snoozed until dawn. We set off along the increasingly muddy path and stopped to chat with a driver coming the opposite way, to learn about the route ahead. From his perch in a sturdy SUV, the driver surveyed our battered red minibus and said, "You have no chance of getting there." At this point a woman in the row behind me announced, "In Jesus's name, we shall make it!"

Soon enough we came to our first impasse. At the bottom of the hill, a taxi was bogged down. To its right, a 4x4 was a few feet under, having stupidly tried its luck on an uncharted section of mud. Up the hill a bit, a large truck was also stuck.

In another section, they had succeeded in fashioning two lanes, so that other vehicles could head downhill while we tried to get a goods truck over the hill. This worked until another big truck decided to chance the bypass lane downhill. Instead of careening straight through, the driver went too slowly and when the lorry hit the bump, it smashed its headlights and the truck's nose just sank a meter into the mire.

While this was not the first unsealed road I encountered on my holiday, it was rather worse than others. In Guinea and Sierra Leone, the roads tended to be at least somewhat graded, so most of the rainwater could run off them. Sure there were plenty of furrough and grooves making the ride bumpy and some large puddles (deep enough to wet our feet on the SL-Liberia road), but we made reasonable progress.

The Ganta to Zweru (where our vehicle was continuing after I alighted) road, by contrast, had no such grading. As a result, most of the water was absorbed by the road, turning parts into mud patches.

We removed our shoes, dismounted, and began digging out the vehicles in front of us. Our driver took the lead in this, and the men joined in, and the woman who proclaimed that we'd succeed also helped dig. After the digging, we'd push the vehicles as the drivers attempted to get moving again. This was sometimes an iffy proposition as we occasionally had to jump out of the way of fishtailing cars we were pushing from the sides, and the drivers often reversed unannounced. Proceeding in this manner we got vehicles moving.

The experience fostered a lot of solidarity, and my presence no doubt encouraged a few waverers to pitch in. On the other hand, no such cameraderie was extended to those drivers and passengers who did not help dig. People in SUVs and pick-ups were particularly guilty of this, perhaps reckoning that if the path was cleared for a car ahead of them, they'd probably make it through too. But it was a taxi that ended up getting the most scolding. Having been mired in the mud in front of us a few times, the consensus was that they did not show sufficient gratitude to us, leading to one of our older passengers exclaiming to one young man, "I can beat my son!"

One might expect that a 4WD would be best in such conditions, although that ignores the question of the occupants. The vehicles were more adept, yes, but the drivers and passengers tend not to be so hardy. Indeed, our humble van's passengers were very active, and more numerous - there were routinely 15 of us at work. Of course, no number of passengers could talk sense to our driver who, although a very active digger, could not be dissuaded from speeding through the lanes we righted. It was only the high walls of mud that kept our vehicle from falling on its side during such dashes.

At Toe Town I alighted and got on a motorbike to get to Toulepleu, Cote d'Ivoire. This road was virtually impassable for larger vehicles, with one SUV and passengers on their third day on the 40 km road. We only made it thanks to a strapping man who hauled our bike through the muddiest section. I rewarded him with some biscuits with strawberry cream filling.

1 comment:

Jon said...

And I thought we travelled some bad roads in Guinea. I had no idea...