The rain was slashing down when we finally arrived in Monrovia on Thursday 17th July, a week after setting off from San Pédro. The journey was 1111 km but felt twice as long because of the grim section in the middle. When we hit a bottleneck 17km out of town, we were stealing ourselves for another long haul entrance to a west African capital.
But remarkably, the traffic suddenly thinned out and Big Reg swept into the city centre no problem. It was surprisingly attractive: very green, with fiery orange-blossomed trees and clean streets. Liberians love to paint their shops and buildings in bright colours, yellow, red and blue, and Monrovia felt busy but not chaotic.
We headed straight to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization on Broad Street. You may remember back in Ghana, the lovely Ms Browne in the Liberian embassy had been charmed by the children and given us a six month multiple entry visa when we’d only asked for three month single entry. When we crossed the border however, “15 days” was written in our passports. It’s standard practice apparently, so we had to go to Immigration to get an extension approved. Once there, I checked that, were we to leave the country, we could indeed come back in without paying again.
This confirmation unleashed a whirlwind. Just over a week ago, sitting outside the truck in San Pédro, eating lunch in the first bit of sunshine we’d seen in a month, Ruby had casually enquired about our Liberian visas and asked “Does that mean we could fly out and come back in again?” Believe it or not, until that moment, that option had simply not crossed my mind.
When we left South Africa, we had planned to spend a year driving up the west coast of Africa and arrive in Europe just in time to celebrate my Mom and Dad’s 70th birthdays in the last week of July, probably at their house in southern Spain. Ten breakdowns later, and with a more mature acceptance of the ‘just breathe, just be’ principle of truck travel, I had simply abandoned the whole idea. Plus my parents were now in the UK visiting my grandfather who has cancer and had refused treatment.
So when Ruby mentioned the multiple entry visas, I was suddenly seized with a crazy idea.
I’d emailed my brother Spence. “If the kids and I flew out to the UK to surprise Mom and Dad, would you be able to put us up?” He lives in a shared flat in London but he said he could make a plan – when might we arrive? I said we had a hellish road to traverse, and would probably not make it in time for Dad’s birthday on the 20th July, but maybe hopefully for Mom’s on 28th. On the 27th it was going to be both Ruby’s 13th and my grandfather’s 89th birthday (he’s my Dad’s step-father). It would be quite a week of celebrations.
My brother got very excited, but I said “Hold your horses, it’s less than 50% likely to come off. Never mind the road and the rain and the possibility of breakdown, there’s an Ebola epidemic and potential border closures and any number of bureaucratic delays to contend with. I’ve researched flights and we could just afford the cheapest seats now, but there’s no guarantee they’ll still be available once we reach Monrovia and are able to book.”
En route, just before crossing into Liberia, I checked on lastminute.com only to find the £550 cheapest seats had gone up by £300 each, and my hopes had been quashed. I’d also phoned my Dad (Rob) and hidden my dismay when he told me his younger brother (Nick) was hosting a big family party for him on his birthday that Sunday. We’d miss everyone if we turned up a couple of days later as I’d suggested to Spence. At this point we were averaging about 10km/h. Getting there in time seemed practically impossible.
However, sitting on Broad Street in the pouring rain with confirmed valid multiple entry visas in my hand, when I somehow got online, I found the £550 seats were back! It was Thursday, the flights left 6am Saturday, my Dad’s birthday party was Sunday – we could theoretically just make it.
We set off to find the SA Embassy. I wasn’t about to abandon my husband in the middle of the worst outbreak of one of the most infectious diseases in the world without being sure of his exit plan. Sampson had considered coming with us, but didn’t want to leave Big Reg or abandon the Guinness World Record attempt, which forbids us to spend more than 14 days stationary in one place without a Doctor’s note.
It was 3pm. Time was of the essence, so of course we immediately ran into the most officious policeman in Monrovia. We know the type by now, a small man with a pigeon chest and an inflated sense of his own importance, so we went straight into charming acquiescence-mode with just a hint of name-dropping. As soon as he heard we had contacts at the embassy, he dropped his demands for paperwork and jumped in, taking charge of the mission to find the place before it shut. Bless him, he got us there, although I cringed every time he barked at some hapless security guard en route as if it was their fault we weren’t there yet. As a matter of pride, he refused to take a tip. Many thanks for your assistance, officer Younis Ben Togbah, and for being such a wonderful representative of the Liberian National Police Traffic Division.
But the welcome at the SA Embassy of Monrovia surpassed all others. We were ushered into the office of Councellor Sean Pike, who not only reassured us about the Ebola situation and volunteered to scout out some potential waste oil donors, but also offered a shower in his apartment and laundry service as well! We didn’t need the shower, but I was so grateful for the latter – the rain had made it impossible to wash anything except underwear as there was no way of getting it dry, and I couldn’t bear the thought of turning up at a family party after all these years in smelly T shirts!
Sean told us internet connection in Monrovia was almost non-existent. Even the embassy didn’t even have a guaranteed connection and were in monthly meetings with MTN trying to sort it out. If I needed to book those flights right now, he recommended driving all the way back to Broad Street right in the centre of the city.
It was after 5pm and we were already exhausted. Pulling up in a berth outside Sean’s apartment building where he said we could sleep, I thought I’d just try getting online. Miraculously I got a connection and booked the tickets immediately, using my brother’s bank details as my UK card had expired. It was like divine intervention. After that 15 minute session, I wasn’t able to get online again for more than a few seconds before we left.
So, Friday morning we collected our clean, dry, fresh-scented and not at all musty clothes (bless you Sean and Formata) and set off for the hour’s drive to the airport. It was tarred and easy and I was able to hold my husband’s hand most of the way. I had hardly slept at all Thursday night: I kept running the potential reunion with my parents in my head. I couldn’t believe we were going to do this. Of all the mad stuff we’ve got up to on this trip, leaving Liberia at just over 24 hours’ notice has been the maddest.
At the airport, we became a tourist attraction. People were so enthusiastic and friendly, but after about 100th person to come in, look round and take photos, we had to shut the door so we could finish packing. We had just one big bag, salvaged from the roof box and emptied of surf and snorkel gear, and two mini rucksacks as hand luggage. We got up at 3am and I don’t know who was more excited, the kids or me. Or indeed Sampson, who had the prospect of three weeks’ absolute peace and tranquility ahead of him, with added surfing at Robertsport, Liberia’s world-renowned left hand point break.
I love flying. I do it so rarely, it’s still magical for me. The kids have never been on a long haul flight together, so it was mind-blowing for them. Putting aside the outrageous squandering of resources resulting from jet travel, I love the perspective it gives you over the tininess and flimsiness of everyday life below. I love the majesty of clouds – piles of mashed potato, silky skeins of vapour, swathes of dark-hooded Dementors – and I love being plucked out of one reality and thrust into another; it shows the ephemeral nature of both. It is good to remember how swiftly and easily the daily grind can be sidestepped for sudden reasons: a birthday surprise, a terrible illness, an imminent death.
Main culture shocks experienced by the kids and I in moving directly from Liberia, the poorest country we have traversed in Africa so far, to Britain a.k.a. the 1st world with nobs on:
1) Airports. We left from Roberts International Airport, Monrovia, where you’re not even allowed in the building unless you’ve got a ticket to fly. There’s one room to check in your baggage, and another for waiting to depart. That’s it. We flew Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca, and went through transit alongside a fabulous array of East meets West, African and Arab, Eurotourists in shorts and spaghetti straps strolling alongside those observing Ramadan in full holy dress. Thence to London Gatwick. I will never forget the kids’ faces as we stepped onto the automatic shuttle that takes you across the airport. Ruby marvelled as the doors swished shut with barely a whisper, and when the space-age looking glass bubble glided forward up the curved rails, Zola turned to me and gaped: “Where’s the driver?!” It seemed so futuristic to them, it was like stepping onto a movie set.
2) Public transport. I know British people bewail the destruction of the national integrated rail service but I was gobsmacked by the sheer volume and efficiency of overground and underground trains. We were at Ruby’s godmother’s house eating tapas by 10pm. Joy! And it was super cheap to get three of us on a coach the next day up to Gloucester where the party was taking place.
3) Food. On day one, I bought apples in a sandwich bar by the coach stop, which was enough to knock my kids out with delight, but wow, when we hit the supermarket… The sheer range of fruit and veg, even in local corner shops, is staggering, and the expansion in the enticing array of packaged goods is quite overwhelming. I’m delighted and horrified in perhaps equal measure. The amount of waste paper and plastic is appalling, but even the Co-op has gluten-free Jaffa cakes!
For the last ten years, I have told my kids they’d hate to live in England because of the weather. “It’s soooooo cold,” I’d say, “So grey. And wet! Continuous drizzle. And the winter goes on for 9 months of the year. No, you don’t wanna go there.”
Ever since we got off the plane it’s been sunny and hot, between 25-30˚C. Seriously, idyllic. If England was auditioning for “place most likely to win my daughter’s heart” it couldn’t have done better. Who organised all the postcard-perfect flower baskets crammed with red, purple and white blossoms hanging from the lampposts throughout London? And the droves of elegant women in frocks and men in Panama hats heading to the cricket at Lords? And the horses grazing lazily in green and pleasant fields? We sat open-mouthed on the coach from Victoria through middle England, awestruck by the pristine condition of the roads and the cars, dropping from lack of sleep but still too excited to drop off…
We took a cab to my uncle’s house, and got out blinking in the sunlight, as my brother came out and hugged us. It was all quite surreal, as if we’d just popped round for afternoon tea. Suddenly Uncle Nick appeared round the garden wall gesturing frantically to the window next to us: “Get down – Robbie’s in the loo!”
At this point, I need to flashback to 1995.
In those days, at the most severe stage of my M.E., I was so tired, I did not have enough energy to talk. People who know me as a motormouth will be shocked, but honestly I didn’t speak at all for most of the day. For first hour or two on waking, I would be battling so much pain and nausea, it would take me a good while to come round enough to eat or speak. My Mom used to use Dolly to cheer me up. She’d found Dolly in a sweetshop, and when I first became bedridden, began a silent game of hide and seek with her. You never trumpeted the fact that you’d found Dolly, that she’d turned up in a trinket box or your dressing-gown pocket or stuffed in a cup. You just sniggered and hid her again, in a saucepan or a sock-drawer or a handbag. It may sound a bit pathetic, but during the worst six months of being bed-ridden, Dolly provided us with the only laughs we had.
When I recovered, Dolly continued to turn up unexpectedly. She is very well travelled, if a bit grubby these days, having been sent between Spain and South Africa several times inside birthday presents. When we left Cape Town last year, I left her behind in my folks’ Fish Hoek flat to greet them when they returned from Malaga, and when Mom arrived in Ghana, Dolly inevitably came too.
The day I took my first combination of malaria and typhoid injections, I opened the toiletries cupboard above my bed and Dolly jumped out into my open arms. I laughed out loud; it seemed like a sign.
I knew my Mom and Dad couldn’t believe that I was well after all those heavy treatments, that I was fit and strong enough to continue travelling Africa Clockwise; and that, more than anything else, was the reason to go. More than the birthdays, or my grandfather being ill, or the background worry about Ebola – I wanted to go just so they could see for themselves that the kids and I are fine. Life is short; sometimes you have to seize an opportunity to kick back and celebrate still being alive together.
So, having driven more than 1000kms down United Nations Drive between Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, then taken two planes, two trains, two cabs and a coach to get here in time, it was Dolly who first appeared round the corner of the garden wall as my parents sat unwittingly at the tea-table with my uncles and aunts in the summer sunshine of an innocent English afternoon.
As we followed behind Dolly singing “Happy Birthday to You” my Mom sat stock still, not able to believe her eyes; but my Dad’s face lit up immediately and he jumped out of his seat as the kids ran towards him. His bear hug made every step of the journey worthwhile.
Drafted late July.