Posted by: sean | April 12, 2008

The Road to Harper

Maybe I was wrong about Liberia Time.  I awoke at six in the morning to a soft rapping at my door.  The security guard informed me that Vincent, the driver to Harper, was waiting.  But 8am!!! Agreed start time!!!!  These promises meant nothing to Vincent.  I hurriedly splashed water on my face, grabbed some things, and went out to the truck.  If I could muster one emotion at that early hour, it was satisfaction that my organizational turn around time from ‘happy slumbering’ to ‘epic journey mode’ was under the five minute mark.  If the Rapture comes, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to catch it, regardless. 


In the car, Vincent put on heavy-duty gloves. 


Say, V, what are those gloves for? 


For the road.


You know that you’re in for a special kind of road trip when the driver, sitting inside a spacious Toyota Hilux puts on gloves usually reserved for juggling machetes. 


“Oh”, I said as I tried to nonchalantly fasten my seat belt in a manner that didn’t suggest I was secretly thanking the lord that he created Ralph Nader.  An hour later we were bouncing around on the moon when Vincent got a call on his cellphone.  Bindu, also returning to Harper, answered the call, since Vincent was slaloming to avoid ditches in the road.  “Vincent can’t talk now, we’re on the highway”  The what-way?!  Surely she was making a metaphor.


Say, B, this is the highway?


Yes, this road is nice, just you wait.


Wait we did, while Vincent had to pull over a few minutes later to change a flat tire.  The ‘highway’ had destroyed a tire as thick as I am tall.  While we waited, I gave in to the children selling plantains and used my mathematical prowess to take note of the remaining number of spare tires: zero.  I also ran some interesting numbers…  (fig. 1) We had been on the road for an hour and had lost one tire.  We had eighteen hours of driving ahead of us on worse roads.  By that logic….  I grew dizzy and bought more plantains.


 fig 1.


By some miracle – I like to think it was my pile of lucky plantains (like leprechauns, those plantains) – we made it a few more hours to the town of Ganta, were we had the flat tire repaired and hit up a restaurant.  The restaurant had a cute sign on the door saying “Food is Ready”, which I thought was a gimmick but I’ve since noticed it on the door of most restaurants. 


Food means food.


Do you have a menu?


No, we have food.


What kind of food?


Food. Food food. 


I see. And your other options?




Hmmmm…. I think I’ll go for the ‘food’


Back on the road, conditions worsened.  I longed for Bindu’s highway.  Whereas Vincent had previously taken great care to swerve and avoid big holes in the road, after five hours of driving he started to get liberal with his defensive driving techniques.  We ran down craters, popped up ridges, caught some serious air.  There was a direct correlation between how far into the interior we drove and the number of people who rushed out of the jungle to wave at us as we passed.  After a time, we came to a UN checkpoint, we had arrived in Zwedru, our stopping point for the night.  The UN guard raised the gate and we drove into Zwedru.  The town felt like the wild west, but instead of horses, everyone was on motorcycles. 


Our first and only stop in Zwedru was Florida, a newly renovated bar in town.  Over a couple of Club beers, the drink of choice for the discerning Liberian, Vincent eyed the sky and adopted the persona of an old sea-hand.  Rain will come tonight. Tomorrow, there will be mud.  Tomorrow, we have the tough road ahead of us.  Tough road?!!  I could see in retrospect that Bindu’s highway had been a good road, but calling the road ahead tomorrow ‘tough’ seemed to belittle the final stretch of road we had just been on.  Surely, the road could not get worse.  An assortment of characters in the bar assured me that it would.  Later, I crawled under my mosquito net, took my antimalarial, sprayed the room with insect repellant and settled down for some solid sleep.  The next morning, I had one mosquito bite and felt an odd sense of respect for the mosquito who had run my gamut of defenses.  He deserved it. 


Sean, this is our road.


Vincent had slowed to a stop.  It was late morning, the following day, and we had just begun the final ‘tough’ section of the road from Fishtown (number of lakes, rivers, oceans near Fishtown: zero, Fish: none) to Harper.  Before us lay a section of road for which there was no obvious method of traversing.  Vincent squinted, making a mental note of the route he would take through the puddles (lakes?), gorges, and chasms ahead.  He put on some Bob Marley (“I need this music for this road”), nodded, we rolled forward, and I started to laugh.  Really?  There is no way we can get through this. Really?  The front-right tire lurched into a crevice and we proceeded at an improbable horizontal tilt.  We plunged into water that went up to my window.  Somehow the Hilux got through.  After another twenty minutes of driving on a section that was bearable (read: we didn’t have to use the wench), we came to another mystifying juncture.  This time, a muddy side road had been cut around the impassable main road.  The side road eventually became impassable, and had its OWN side road.   All this within a distance of about 100 yards.  


The world became a bumpy haze. 


Up ahead we came across an accident.  A jeep coming in the opposite direction had veered off the road, down into the jungle and had come to rest in some standing water.  A mass of Liberians were retrieving bags and standing by the roadside.  Thankfully only one person was hurt, with a gash on his leg that I did my best to dress.  We discovered that all of the Liberians gathered alongside the wreck had been in the jeep – I counted twenty-five people…in one jeep.  Vincent pointed at the jeep’s tire, bald.  Apparently, the driver, a Lebanese man, had gone with a motorcyclist ahead to the UN checkpoint for help.  An ex-combatant came by and told everyone that he was going to go find the driver and kill him.  Everyone laughed.  I exchanged looks with Bindu and Vincent, we radioed the police about the accident, and continued on our way since we couldn’t afford to stay on the road once it got dark.


Shortly before nightfall on the second day we arrived in Harper.  We hit a large bump in the road, and after that all was paved.


  1. I’m noticing a car theme. Interesting. Glad you obeyed my strict orders. Do it do it do it again.

  2. No hippo’s in the puddles? No 20 foot croc’s lying in wait for Toyota dinners along the ‘crevices’? One lousy mosquito? Are you sure you are in Africa?

  3. Great writing and very entertaining…although I’m glad I wasn’t there. It sounds at least as if you are enjoying the food. Be careful!

  4. Are you licensed to practice first aid?

  5. I am so enjoying your stories.

    When I get back I will look you up so we can swap.

    The first time I drove cross country it was in 2000 – just me and the driver and assorted passengers we would give rides to along the “way.” I had never seen such pot holes – more like swimming pools. I got in the habit of getting out of the jeep and trying to find my own way around – it scared the foreigner off me!

    Better yet were the creeks we had to pass at times – jeeze – I think I got high blood pressure from a few of those.

    Throughout the “drive,” the driver was so cheery and we actually were able to laugh a lot – the is the mark of a great driver. I was a mess. He had more to deal with trying to get me to stay in the car then the “mud” he had to tackle!

    Oh Liberia – you sweet oh!

  6. Dude, you are hysterical. Here, I think that my life is starting to get fairly remarkable (I bought a house yesterday) and then I find this blog.

    Once again, you win. : ) Glad to hear you’re having fun. Try using two cushions on these car rides, one for your tushy and one for your head. ; ]

  7. You are kind for dressing that man’s wounds.

    I like to think that the poor state of the road led to involuntary dancing to Bob Marley for two days. Bounce bounce bounce bounce.

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