As I leave for Monrovia, I am filled with a lot of mixed feelings. I am excited about going to Africa for the first time but I am also sad about not being able to see my wife for so long. The mind is filled with foreboding thoughts as I prepare for the departure. The strain of the impending departure is evident as me and my wife quarrel continuously over minor matters. The skirmishes continue till the final moment when it is time to say the goodbyes. Ah, the many faces of love.
Finally, I get seated in the plane. A very average looking african american takes the seat next to me. He is wearing a black t-shirt, has a potbelly slightly bigger than mine and there are some white hairs poking out from his somewhat untidy beard. I am still filled with sadness and don’t pay too much attention to him. As the flight takes off, I take one last look at the land I am leaving behind and close my eyes as a multitude of feelings overwhelm me.
At long last, me and my seatmate start talking. He turns out to be a very funny guy. He has such a disarming smile. He says even serious things with laughter and a twinkle in his eyes which convey his amusement at the sorry state of affairs. He is Elton, a Liberian who has served in the US marine corps. Elton has seen more of the world than I have and now splits his time between US and Liberia. As soon as Elton finds out that this is my first trip to Monrovia, he takes me under his wings. He tells me about the local conditions in Monrovia and promises to help me out.
As the plane descends to Accra, Ghana, I notice that almost all the roads are dirt roads. These dirt roads are very well marked, so my guess is that a lot of 4 wheelers must be using them but still there is no paving. Accra, it seems is a city of dirt roads. In Accra, a security officer comes on board to conduct a check. He goes about removing the seat cover of every seat and searches for anything hidden under or inside the seat. This comes as a surprise to me as I would have thought the security would be higher when going towards US not away from US. Apparently, it is not so.
Finally, 20 hours after the plane had left Tampa, I land at Monrovia airport. Elton and I trudge into the now overflowing immigration center. Elton wants to expedite the process. So, he gives his passport to one of the guards to go and get the stamping done. As he wants us to stay together, he asks me also to give my passport to the guard. As he puts it, ‘We are in Africa now, things work a little differently here’. I am filled with trepidation but I trust Elton and give the passport to the guard. The guard takes us to a side office and leaves to get the stamping done. I nervously wait there, hoping that I had not made a mistake. There is caucasian woman with a newborn child waiting in the room. A few minutes later, an immigration officer comes in with another caucasian woman and starts questioning her. Apparently, the woman had forgotten her re-entry permit. He gives her a hard time for a few minutes and then finally relents. It was interesting to see a black officer giving a caucasian woman a grilling. A sort of reversal of power dynamic, if I may say so. Soon the guard comes back with the passports and Elton gives him 5 dollars. I heave a sigh of relief and we head to baggage claim and then customs. At customs too, Elton talks to the customs officer for me.
As we emerge outside, the scene resembles what one would see outside a railway station in a small town in India, say Dhanbad or Asansol. Even though it is broad daylight, things seem somewhat dark due to the dust and grime. The white paint has become black at places due to the battering it has taken from the weather over the years. A short, aging canopy leads to the road and the small road is paved with stones. There are a lot of aging yellow taxis around with their drivers jostling to get customers.
I can not find my driver. Elton asks the local policeman to announce my name on the megaphone. As my driver steps forth from the crowd, Elton shakes his hands and tells him,’This is my personal friend from Boston. Take good care of him. I will come back on wednesday to see how he is doing’. And, I didn’t doubt even for one second that Elton will actually be back in a few days.
This is how I got introduced to the people of Liberia – a group of very warm, gregarious and friendly people who go out of their way to help someone who they know nothing about.