Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Welcome to Liberia

Customs Agent: Is this your first time in Liberia?
Me: Yes, it is
Customs Agent: Ah! You are welcome!

I know now, that this is simply a common greeting in Liberia. After the introduction people say “You are welcome!”, whether it is at a restaurant or a government office. It’s quite a nice way to start an interaction.
I was picked up from the airport and driven into Monrovia, and fields slowly turned into small buildings, which turned into slightly larger buildings and the streets got busier. We passed the CDC, the opposition party headquarters where election violence had occurred days earlier. We passed Charles Taylor’s house, then his wife’s house.  It seemed like almost all the billboards we passed were placed by the government, reminding residents to pay their taxes, to share their opinion with the ballot box and not with guns, showing them the changes that had occurred since the last election, with bridges built and roads paved, promoting women and girls’ participation in decision-making. We pulled into a parking lot of a two storey building,  and two men who had been waiting to show me into my guesthouse took my bags. First on unlocked the large padlock, attached to a chain locking a gate at the bottom of the stairs. He explained that I was always to lock it whenever I was entering or leaving. He then used the light on his cellphone (who needs an iPhone when you have a Nokia with a built-in flashlight!) to show me up the stairs, leading to a door with a small balcony in front of it. He then unlocked another padlock, as well as a deadbolt. He showed me inside the apartment, but there was no power. With his flashlight he showed me how to lock the deadbolt on the handle of the door, followed by the sliding deadbolts at the bottom and top of the door. [A post about security is on its way to explain all the locks] He then gave me a tour of the apartment b the light of his phone: the kitchen, leading into a bathroom, the living room, a random room with an ironing board and a stack of mattress, and a large bedroom, with another bathroom attached. It looked lovely through the beam of the light. Before I arrived I was told I’d be staying in a guesthouse, and that if it wasn’t up to my standards I could move to a hotel. After over 24 hours of travel, the one bedroom apartment was more than I could have hoped for.
The next morning things weren’t quite so bright, and after a visit to the Stop & Shop (!) down the street I spent the better part of the day sweeping and scrubbing and mopping. But I’m happy here, with a small kitchen to cook in, a grocery store nearby, a bustling street below, and air conditioners for when the temperature soars. There’s even a cafĂ© across the street with wi-fi if I get the urge to check my email or chat with all of you.
Any of you who have been following my blog for several years know that while I have had several experiences working in Africa before, I have never felt welcomed in this way before. Once I was taking a picture on one of my first days, and didn’t realize it was a sight owned by the government. A military truck rolled up and a man yelled at me, threatened to arrest me, told me to go back to where I came from. After I convinced him not to throw my entire camera into a field of rubbish, he proceeded to throw only the memory card. On another trip I was told to lie about where I was from because people didn’t take kindly to Americans, and was sat in the middle of the back of UN vehicles whenever possible, so it was harder for people to tell there was a white person in the car. I had good times on those and other trips as well, but it always felt like a struggle. I fall in love with most of the places I travel to, and always wondered why I had yet to fall in love with Africa like I had Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific. I get it now. It’s amazing what a difference people being nice to you can make. It almost makes you want to be nice to all the tourists in Times Square. Almost.
I regret that the only thing I forgot at home is the cable to transfer pictures form my computer. (Okay not the only thing, but brushing my hair is overrated anyway). But I promise to show you everything when I get back.

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