Pen Pen driver with taxis in background.
Village parking station
Varney and his currency exchange
Rubber being tapped from a tree
Road to Buchanan
Fueling the vehicle and the driver.
Village market place
Market in Buchanan
St. John river
Pen Pen drivers and bush taxis navigating ‘bad road’
A pen Pen driver transporting goods.
It was February of 2012. The rains had ended 2 months earlier and the dirt roads had dried out by now. Travel was now possible and I decided to take advantage of the situation to go and check out the port in Buchanan. (Buchanan is Liberia’s 3rd largest city and lies nearly 80 miles (125 km) south-east of Monrovia.)
Come Saturday morning, I called our office driver, Jeff, to take me to the taxi stand from where the ‘bush taxis’ leave for Buchanan. As I got ready, I realized that I had only 950 Liberian Dollars (LD) in my pocket (the equivalent of 13 USD. 1 USD was roughly 75 LD). ‘It would have to be the bank first’, I thought as I waited for Jeff to arrive. Jeff dutifully took me to the bank but when we got there, we found out that it was the Armed Forces day, a national holiday, and all the banks were closed.
Jeff is a tall, middle-aged guy with a pot belly. He can be a bit gruff at times, not very communicative and somewhat lost in his world. He turned to me and said, ‘Kapil, looks like, you have not planned your trip well.’ ‘What’s there to plan?’, I replied, ‘I take the taxi, get to Buchanan, take the taxi and get back’. ‘So, you want to go?’ ‘Yes, It takes 400 LD to get to Buchanan and 400 to get back. I have 150LD spare. I got plenty money’. ‘As you wish’, said Jeff with a short laugh. He dropped me at the taxi stand and left.
ELWA junction (named after ‘Eternal Love Winning Africa’ ministry) is not really a taxi stand. It is a busy junction between Monrovia and Paynesville cities where ‘bush taxis’ wait for their passengers by the side of the double lane road. The taxis, their aggressive drivers and handlers and the passengers jostle for space with roasted cow meat sellers, bread stalls, currency exchange traders with their small blue kiosks and sundry other roadside vendors. The road is flanked on both sides by hardware and building material shops and small, make shift restaurants. The ‘bush taxis’ themselves are yellow colored Toyota and Nissan hatchback models that have been used, beaten down and discarded by the rest of the world.
As I neared the taxis, multiple handlers accosted me, ‘Boss-man, My car goo, goo one.’ The fare turned out to be 450 LD, more than what I had expected. I picked the taxi which was almost full and ready to go. Immediately after we started, the taxi pulled into a local ‘gas station’. The gas station had an array of jars filled with gasoline, displayed on a wooden plank, ready for dispensing. As the driver and ‘gas station’ owner haggled over price, the gas station attendant put a funnel into the fuel tank and poured the gasoline into the tank.
With fuel in the tank, the taxi set off. There were 6 of us in the taxi besides the driver – 2 guys on the passenger seat in the front, 2 women, myself and another guy crunched together on the back seat. The woman next to me had a baby on her lap. The trunk was full of goods and barely able to close. As we gradually moved out of the city, the houses thinned and the greenery began to take over. We passed the army barracks, then the airport and through the Firestone rubber plantation.
The guy next to me was Mohammed and he was the owner of a small packaged water business, ‘Prosperity Water’. Monrovia does not have drinking water supply and packaged water is big business. Mohammed, like many other packaged water businesses, sold water in 500 ml pouches which were being drank by practically everyone on the streets of Monrovia. Every pouch sells for 5 LD and Mohammed told me that it is a very profitable business with almost 100% margin. A short while later, the baby on my left got hungry and started to cry. Her mother very nonchalantly lifted her blouse and started breast-feeding the baby, all in full view. Soon, we reached a police checkpoint and were asked to stop next to the ‘Liberia-Bangladesh Friendship Shed’ erected by UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh. A policeman in a deep blue uniform and beret approached the driver. They shook hands, money exchanged hands during the handshake and we got waved past the checkpoint.
The road from Monrovia to Buchanan was being laid by a Chinese company and the portion after the checkpoint was still being graded. As soon as the taxi reached the un-metaled road, it started going sideways and sputtered to a stop. The passengers burst forth in fury at the driver. ‘I knew he does not know how to drive by the way he was pressing the clutch and the brake’, opined the man in front.
Now, I was in a fix. We were half way to Buchanan and I had practically no money to spare. A wiser guy than me would have turned back but not me. The driver started flagging down passing taxis to off-load his passengers. The woman with the baby found a seat in a passing taxi and left. One guy decided to turn back and hailed a passing motorbike. Finally, the driver handed us over to a passing pickup truck. The back of the pickup truck had multiple tyres and other stuff strewn in it. I perched myself on a tire and held on for dear life to the two sides of the truck as the truck sped on the dirt road. It must have been an amusing sight as a passing villager shouted, “OOO, white man in the back-ohh”.
I finally made it to Buchanan around 2 pm. The last taxi back to Monrovia left around 4:30 pm. Time was short. I asked my way around and hastened towards the port. I walked and walked along the winding dirt road by the side of Arcelor Mittal area but even after 1 hour of walking, the port was nowhere in sight. At 3:30 pm, I decided to turn back. By this time, I was feeling hungry too. A passing taxi had a bumper slogan – ‘No Money, No Respect’. ‘No Money, No Food’, thought I. I came across a coconut seller and found to my pleasant surprise that coconut in Buchanan was cheaper than Monrovia, only 10LD apiece. I promptly ate 2. Now, I was at risk of missing the last taxi back. ‘Should I make a run for it or Can I afford a motorbike’? I eventually hailed a pen-pen driver and made it to the taxi stand just in time with 455 LD still in my pocket. The return fare turned out to be 425 LD, leaving me a princely 30LD still in my pocket.
On the way back, as we crossed the St. John river, we came up a small roadside market where children and market women were selling bananas, plantains, sweet potatos and other food stuff. I splurged 20LD on roasted corn, which tasted heavenly. Later, as we passed a village, a villager hailed the taxi. ‘Ma mein, you got space?’, he asked. ‘Yes, my VIP is empty’, replied the driver. The villager promptly went to the back of the taxi, opened the hatch and made himself comfortable in the trunk. Surprises never cease !!
As Ab, our driver, picked me up from the taxi stand in Monrovia, he laughed, ‘Kapil, I heard you went to Buchanan with no money.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I wanted to experience how it is to travel like a Liberian.’