Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just another manic Monday

I realize it’s no longer Monday, but I figure I get a couple of days of wiggle room with the time difference and the holiday and whatnot... right?  Also this is a long one just giving a recap of my day, the short version is that while I’m having a good time I wish I was home spending Thanksgiving with friends and family. I was in Thailand for Thanksgiving last year, and at least this year I’ve got other Americans around to celebrate with, definitely something to be thankful for.
After a good weekend full of work and sunshine and even a little BBQ by the pool I was ready for my second week in Monrovia to begin. I set my alarm, hopped into bed, did a little light reading and called it a night.
I was shocked awake by my phone. It was someone from work, where was I? It was 9:30 and I had overslept by 2.5 hours after getting little sleep during the night itself! While I hate being late in general, I particularly try to avoid it in places where the general trend is to be late. In my mind if I consistently show up to things like meetings on time, maybe everyone else will start to also? It could happen.
I went into the bathroom, only to find that the lightbulb turned on and promptly went out. Fabulous. Dark cold shower. I headed to work soon after, speed walking my way through crowds of people on Tubman Blvd trying to hail taxis. If I could describe the taxis here to you, I’d say to imagine what you’ve heard about Japanese elevators; that there are “elevator packers” who push more and more people in to be sure the elevator is at capacity. All taxis here are shared, and there is no limit to the number of people you can fit inside. If you find a taxi going your direction (you flag them down with different hand signals depending on which of the major roads you want to go down), it will slow down and you open the back or front door, looking in to see who can squeeze over. It is common place for there to be 4 or 5 people in the back seat and 2 in the front seat. Needless to say the competition for taxis is tough.
I arrived at work at about 10, only to find that there was no car to take a colleague and me to a meeting. I suggested we head back out to the main road to find ourselves a taxi, but after a few minutes of watching packed taxis crawl through traffic in the 90+ degree heat, we decided to walk instead. It wasn’t less hot walking, but at least there was a little breeze. We arrived at the government office dripping and a little out of breath, but right on time after a 30 minute walk.
After the meeting we went on to walk to our next meeting. I’m here helping an umbrella body for public health research organize for it’s next project, and the task begins with a meeting with every member of the steering committee. Walking into downtown Monrovia, we found our next meeting which was at the top of a very rickety, very tall, and very steep set of stairs. After our meeting our colleague led us out to the front door, commenting that they were thinking of moving because it was difficult for the disabled children they worked with to make it up the stairs. My eyes opened wide imaging young people on crutches or missing parts of legs (the most common and visibly evident disabilities I’ve seen) trying to make it up 2-3 flights of uneven tiled stairs. Yes, a move seems in order.
My colleague then suggested we go to his house for lunch since it was nearby, and previous people working with this project from my job had also joined him at his house for a meal. On we went, walking through small alleys and across big streets until we reached what looked like a gated driveway.  But as in sloped downwards I saw that, like much of the city, it was actually an interconnected network of paths, unnamed, that you essentially can only get around if you know the area. Children ran up as we approached the house, they had been playing outside and helping to wash dishes. The power in the house was out, but regardless eating at the kitchen table in the pitch black was presented as the only option. My colleague held his cell phone, which has a small flashlight at the end of it with one hand, gesturing for me to serve myself. I took what I consider a good portion of rice, definitely more than a cup, and he acted surprised “That’s it?! That’s all?! Well I am African and I am going to EAT!” and he proceeded to fill his bowl until it was brimming with white rice. We topped this with a spicy mix of dried fish and cassava greens and palm oil. I told him it was the most delicious food I’d had since arriving, and also my first Liberian food, and I meant it.
We walked back out to the main street to wait for someone from our organization to pick us up and drive us back to the office. Enrique Iglesias was blaring from a CD shop and as I started to hum along I saw that every fourth or fifth Liberian was also singing along, some even out loud. I got and gave smiles as we sang along together.
After a long wait a driver pulled up, complaining of the traffic he’d encountered on his way to fetch us. We found out why about a half mile later. Coming from the other direction was the CDC protest that was slated for that day. CDC is a political party that lost the most recent presidential election; there have been protests and right before I came a member of the CDC was killed in one of the protests. Monday was to be his burial. We crawled along through traffic as the crowd of CDC members, mostly young, many wearing leaves and branches in their hair with faces painted, chanted and sang. Then came a truck carrying the coffin of the man who had been killed; they were parading it throughout the city. It was a group of a couple hundred people, many less than I would have expected. Then we continued on, passing the President’s office and UN buildings. Outside were international and national armed forced and police in full riot gear every few yards. Fences were reinforced with sandbags and policemen were directing traffic (a true rarity).
We spent the rest of the day at the office trying to schedule more meetings and working to plan and organize a workshop, which took place today.  Every day I get driven home at 5:30 pm, and today when I got home I realized I needed to go to the grocery store, which is thankfully only a few blocks away. After dropping off my computer I walked over, darting through traffic into the store. Big bottles of water for drinking, two lightbulbs to replace the ones that had burnt out in the apartment where I’m staying, and I tried to buy freshmade hummus but “Is finish, come again”. (Many stores here have Lebanese owners, and I’ve never had such fresh and delicious Lebanese food as in Monrovia!)
As I left the store I was stunned by a huge crowd. The CDC march was still going and the number of participants had increased incredibly, as had the number of people gathered along the street to watch. Rush hour traffic was trying to crawl through, relatively unsuccessfully as people walking, on the backs of trucks and motorbikes passed by, always chanting or singing. I carefully followed a car across the road to ensure I wasn’t the one cutting in front of the protestors. I then went inside my apartment, and pulled up a seat on my balcony, and sat watching them pass by. They passed in clusters, but there were several thousand people participating without a doubt. From my perch on the second floor I got a couple great pictures as well which will have to be shared later.
I then went to install my lightbulbs, the first one didn’t work, the entire socket was burnt out rather than just the bulb. I then went into my bathroom to install the second, the bulb was in a regular box but was red. I sort of threw up my hands and decided to go with it, showering under red light would be new and exciting. It lit at first, off and on, as I wiggled it around in the socket, before glowing and going out, leaving me once again in the dark in the bathroom.
I then went across the street to a restaurant with wifi to eat dinner and get some work done, and the marchers were continuing by, slower now, less of them, but still going. I sat down and started working, then ordered. But the internet soon went down and as every person behind a computer in the place frantically called the waitress, I gave up, enjoyed my dinner and headed home to work on the implementation plan for the research.
Certainly not your average day, but definitely one of the most memorable ones I’ve had so far between protests and riot gear and home visits. If nothing else Monrovia keeps me on my toes.

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