Robertsport week 2
So of course we stayed in Robertsport for Christmas. If you had to choose between passing an extra week in paradise or taking a hard dirt road over the border during a school holiday, what would you do? Sampson and Zola didn’t want to leave the waves, Ruby didn’t want to leave Salsa and I didn’t want to leave the shade under the almond trees. The day after I last wrote, I overdid it with a hard morning’s hand washing which knocked me back for three days; then we had to mission for another two to fix Big Reg’s airbrakes; after that it seemed too late to go.
The town mechanic Aman showed the patience of a saint with Sampson, his polar opposite in demeanour. But fortitude is obviously his thing: he worked in 30˚ heat and 85% humidity in full overalls. Aman only emoted about one thing: his passion – like almost everyone else in Robertsport – is to go fishing. Sampson was happy to part pay him for his services in Rapala lures.
Aman was kind enough to come out to Hugo’s place, where we’d broken down. Overnight, an uninvited guest came aboard. Mr Rat woke me gnawing through the rice bag – the noise of plastic flapping was so loud, in my sleep-befuddled state I thought there was a bird trapped in the cab. Mr Rat continued to wake us nightly for the next couple of weeks – I seem to remember Christmas in Calabar was similarly compromised. At least we’re expert at quickly rat-proofing food in the truck now.
After ten days we drove out to empty our sewage, then back into town to stock up at the market and fill up with water at the communal well. The first time we did this, our pump wasn’t working properly – it had seized after being covered in salty corrosion from a leak in the roof box while we were away and couldn’t manage to build pressure to lift the water 2-3m out of the well. Zola had a fever and was lying down so Ruby became the hero of the day. She ended up hauling a 15L container up and out about 100 times to fill our two tanks.
We met some wonderful characters wandering down Robertsport’s main road. Ruby impressed me by chatting in French to twinkly M. Souleyman from Guinea who ran a general store selling everything from pasta to loo rolls and changed dollars into battered Liberties for us. We were accosted on the street by reed-thin Americo-Liberian Mrs X, who was swathed head to toe in a gorgeous purple and green print ensemble in the style of President Ellen. I knew she was an Americo-Liberian because any member of the elite class descended from the founding fathers always tells you, in addition to listing every overseas territory they have visited, within the first 5 minutes of chatting to you. She told us that she had just come from a meeting at the town hall where people did not appreciate how good of her it was to bother to return to this backwater to grace them with her presence and that “only God Almighty” could stop her being the next Mayor. Her unapologetic contempt for democracy was quite breathtaking.
There was a disappointing lack of vegetables in Robertsport market, no cucumbers let alone tomatoes, carrots or cabbage last seen in the capital at a premium price. Most locals seem to live happily on the abundant fish in the lagoon and sea, with a pepper sauce over the staple manioc or rice. The kids gave ‘slimy’ okra and the small round green and yellow bitter aubergines you have to peel the thumbs down, but thank goodness we all love potato greens, which the market ladies cut super-finely and sell in bagfuls for 10 Liberian dollars. (It’s 88 Liberties to 1 US dollar for which in Monrovia you can buy 2 imported tomatoes). Chopped potato greens are like thin ribbons of English spinach and cook up lovely with fried onions in dahl, sweet potato curry or a tinned tomato pasta sauce.
Luckily Mr Smith brought us a huge bag of green bananas, more than 30 for 200LD – I’ve found I can fry some for breakfast if I’m desperate. Morris minor offered to bring us a papaya, and a day later he dropped off a green one. After a couple of days, I asked him whether it would ripen quicker if we left it in the light. He was surprised “Oh, you wanted a ripe one? Not to cook?”
“You cook green papaya?”
“Of course! I show you.”
A passing Cornishman told us his wife used green papaya in pasties instead of swede!
We also discovered maringa, a tree whose tiny leaves are apparently full of vitamins more concentrated than any fruit. In the absence of any other fresh veg, I sprinkled them liberally in the omelettes and dahl I made to eat on Xmas day, only finding out later that afternoon that locals brew a tea from them which acts as a purgative. A little too late to discover their laxative properties!
Other culinary highlights included the day Salsa and the kids went to the rescue of a fishing boat caught in the breakers about to lose its catch and as thanks were given a clutch of mackerel for supper! And prawns sourced for us from Monrovia, by the ever-generous Hugo who sacrificed his own supply. Best of all was the enormous chunk of barracuda steak that the Sampsons brought back from their fishing expedition with Joe… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When the swell dropped in the second week, Sampson started snorkelling for oysters. On the first day, he walked back up from the sea looking half James Bond, half Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks saying, “That was the second best marine experience of my life”. (Some of you may remember his account in the show Feels Funny of his close encounter with a teenage whale who frolicked with him off Noordhoek beach in 2007).
While looking round the rocks with Zola, he saw a turtle cruising about a few metres below him. He dived down to look at it, equalised and thought, “If not now, when?” So he took hold of each side of its shell, which was about steering wheel-sized.
Sampson didn’t expect it to take off like it did: “It looked like a tortoise, but it sure didn’t act like one – more like turbo-turtle…” Definitely not happy to be grabbed. He managed to get it up to the surface just to show Zola, but didn’t want to distress the poor creature further, so let it go after a minute.
Sampson came up the beach with his eyes sparkling, so hyped to have had such an intimate brush with nature. He described it all to me in technicolour detail, with full cartoon gesture re-enactment, as we shared a few creamy oysters that he’d just lifted off the rocks in front of us. Their fresh sea-saltiness made our accompanying chilled green coconut cocktails taste even sweeter. It’s at times like this I remember why I love him.
This was the first day we started thinking that this might be our favourite place on the trip so far.
As the days start running into one another, we fell into such a lovely natural rhythm, where the simple needs of each family member were easily accommodated, and full truckulence was established. It helped that the climate was a little gentler here: cooler at night for the first time, and hardly any mosquitoes. As we weren’t going anywhere fast, we decided that if we were going to be taking advantage of Joe’s hospitality at Christmas, we better start working on our contribution to the party.
For my daughter and I this could only mean one thing: the Return of Parafina! The presence of Salsa certainly helped motivate Ruby, who enthusiastically taught her to swing firechains a.k.a. poi. Super-athlete Salsa was wielding them like a pro after only two rehearsals. For me, the physical challenge was well worth taking on for the wonderful opportunity it provided for us three to bond. Capetonian Parafina members might be interested to know we worked out a brand new routine to a sharp Sampson edit of Beyoncé’s Run the World and Jesse J’s Burning Up. It’s smoking hot!
Luca bumped into us on the beach during our first rehearsal. Born in Liberia, Italian Luca spent his first 9 years here. His father was the Doctor, he went to the local school and continued to speak Liberian English with his siblings on their unwilling return to Europe. He feels part of him is Liberian and is hurt that, according to the constitution, being ‘of negro descent’ is a prerequisite for Liberian citizenship. He has recently returned to Robertsport and is searching for a way to remain here more permanently.
Luca is a graphic designer doing some consultancy work for the EU, but has an amazing personal project underway: he showed me his draft layout for a book of Liberian myths and legends. It was as exquisite as the watercolour postcards he dashed off in 10 minutes one morning. The iconic cotton tree, the soft black rocks and warm umber sand he remembers from his childhood were all there. Luca’s passion for his birthplace is undeniable; we hope he may be enabled to contribute to its preservation and upliftment in the way he dreams.
On our second shopping expedition, despite the lack of variation in veg, we managed to stock up with enough Xmas goodies to keep the kids happy. Returning fully loaded with water and food, Ruby said “It’s better having Christmas here, because it makes you appreciate things more”. Sampson and I were touched; we had been worrying how the kids would compare this Christmas to last year’s Cornish smorgasbord of treats. In rural Liberia, just finding biscuits is a triumph, and the butter‘n’cream boiled sweets seem like Ferrero Rocher.
I was finally feeling fully recouped after the antibiotic fall-out, and strong enough to cut my hair again, even shorter this time. Ruby had her hair plaited in cornrows by Morris minor’s deft sister Gifty – in preparation for our fire display.
On Xmas Eve, we performed at Kwepunha Surf Resort at Salsa’s request for all her friends and neighbours. WHAT a show. Sampson and the kids opened with some juggling and magic, then Parafina did their thang. You would never know that this was only Salsa’s third session swinging chains, and her second ever with fire. But most mind-blowing was the revelation of Ruby’s solo finale to Major Lazer’s Sweat (thanks Maru). Where did this sexy woman improvising spectacular moves inspired by adrenalin suddenly spring from? OUR LOINS that’s where! To say we were proud would be a massive understatement.
MISSING: video footage
Being chauffeur driven with our sound system down to the village by Varney in Joe’s BobCat jeep was almost as exciting as the show; it was a shame it broke down later. But we four walked home along the beach under the full moon with a buzz so tangible we felt lit up like Christmas trees. Even Ruby’s teenage tantrum on return to the truck when her tiredness and come-down kicked in didn’t diminish it.
Xmas day was superb in its spontaneity. It started with a replay of the Cabin Pressure Christmas Special where we all joined in with Arthur’s “Get DRESSED ye merry gentlemen, it’s Christmas Christmas Day… it is Christmas, it’s Chri-i-is-mus Day” etc. Salsa turned up in time for present opening and got the ‘Fun To Share’ bundle. There were even fewer pressies than at our Nigerian Christmas but no one seemed to mind. There was too much to look forward to.
The Sampsons and Salsa went off to surf at Loco and I hiked round with a picnic after an hour or so. There were only my family’s footprints on the beach ahead of me – wow, how exclusive a Christmas holiday is that? In 10 or 20 years’ time, Robertsport could be the new Jeffreys Bay. Zig Zag surf magazine was here visiting just before us, so it’s only a matter of time. But for now, it was just us and Luca in the sea, so warm I could float around in it chatting all day.
Zola was very indignant that the ‘bargain’ crisps they had bought for Xmas turned out to be a complete rip-off. The packet promised something similar to his favourite Doritos, but inside the chips were pink puffs that looked and tasted like polystyrene. No wonder they were cheap!
Thank goodness for another South African friend Ryan McSkimming, whom we first met at Kendeja, who generously brought a pack of Pringles for each Sampson from Monrovia and a bag of Mars chocolate miniatures which have kept the sweet-tooths going ever since.
It was indeed the season of giving. Joe’s lovely daughters had arrived from Pretoria like the three kings bearing gifts of new clothes, which they distributed to around 200 local kids at a Christmas Eve party. Joe himself seemed to be catering for a huge and motley crew of ex-pats: Russians, French, South Africans … His Sierra Leonean chef Sherif had been basting not one but TWO pigs for the party since the morning. Distressingly I don’t seem to have a picture of Joe, possibly because whenever I saw him he was blasting us with a giant water pistol from the giant paddling pool and I was too afraid to get my Tudortech Olympus wet!
Meanwhile Sampson was hard at work on his mission to provide both starter and dessert for Joe’s Christmas dinner. When Sampson found out that Hugo had a chest freezer, he’d volunteered to make his signature crème brulée ice cream (3 versions, one with condensed milk, one with Hugo’s addition of kirsch and one without either for me). He’d been nipping up to Hugo’s every few hours for 2 days to stir. But the pièce de résistance was the hors d’oeuvre – the biggest oysters you’ve ever seen, caught fresh that afternoon.
Ruby and he pulled up so many, we were not sure we could carry them all as well as the surfboards. Sampson was relieved when Ryan appeared round the corner in a canoe to rescue us!
The final challenge was paraffin for our fire show. We’d been scouring Robertsport for three days but it could not be got for love nor money, even through Joe’s or the Total garage contacts in Monrovia. At the last minute (as ever) Sampson ended up improvising a mixture of diesel and recycled cooking oil – it burned rather smoky and a bit fast and hot, but we managed with constant re-dipping.
I know this picture makes me look frighteningly like Clint Eastwood in his later years, but it captures the high we three felt at pulling it off against the odds. Ruby is definitely her father’s daughter when it comes to post-show euphoria. And Salsa is not the first person to express to me what an amazing vibe performing with fire and surviving gives you, a total stress-reliever, né Eva?
Joe and his family were gratifyingly impressed by the fireworks and the crème brulée icecream so we felt we’d returned a little of his abundant hospitality. Robertsport generally felt equally hospitable. The genuine care and concern of Morris major, who would check in on us every morning on his way to work at Hugo’s, and call in every night on his way home in case we wanted some bread rolls or potato greens picked up from the market in the morning, felt like true neighbourliness. We were never hassled by groups of staring kids. Passing people were friendly and interested but not overly in your face. Salsa, who was greeted by lines of fishermen on her way over to us every morning, felt completely relaxed walking home alone along the beach after dark. Robertsport was so mellow, it felt like the most peaceful place we have stayed in so far. We are not surprised that Joe, Hugo and Luca have chosen to make their lives here, despite the manifold challenges of bureaucracy and corruption.
Was the wonderful Christmas atmosphere created by the place or the people? Sampson certainly fell in love with the setting. If there wasn’t a wave, he wouldn’t be dreaming about coming back to live here alongside Hugo’s eco-lodge, perhaps opening a fresh oyster restaurant… But it’s more what the place does to people, how it inspires love in peace-seeking souls like Hugo and Luca.
But ultimately it was the unique bond we formed with generous-spirited open-hearted warrior-woman-for-freedom Salsa who made our stay so special. We all became so close so quickly, it was like she was a missing limb of our family. It didn’t seem right to move on without her. Hamba kahle daughter-sister. We will see you again, in Cape Verde or Switzerland, or in Robertsport one October in the near future for the best of the waves…