Things that aren’t there

roadside bar in the nightThere are three things I remember about Liberia: the searing, overwhelming heat that hits you in a wave when you step out of the plane. The deep red rust-colored dirt that’s everywhere and gets into everything. And the scent on the air. It’s something like the smell of ash from a campfire the morning after, wet with dew and steeped in flavors you don’t have names for.

But the heat isn’t there this evening. There’s the familiar, now nostalgic smell, and the red dirt at roadside. But no heat. Oh yeah, no bags, either. Maybe they’re still in London. Maybe they made it as far as Paris, but they’re definitely not in Monrovia. Looks like I get to wear my Sunday-through-Tuesday shirt on Wednesday, too. Maybe longer.

Francis helps me with the lost luggage forms – even when I’m not woefully overtired, it usually takes me a couple of days to pick up rhythm and inflection of Liberian English. I keep misunderstanding the girl’s question, and Francis translates – I’m damned glad I emailed ahead and asked him to meet me at the airport. Damned glad.

The girl behind the counter tells me that, if my luggage didn’t come on this flight, it would be sent on the next Air France flight. Probably on Saturday. Her eager and helpful colleague hands me a clear plastic bag containing an airline toothpaste/shaving kit and a plain white t-shirt and asks me to sign for it. I’m punchy, but they look ever so slightly offended when I giggle. “Why are you laughing at the gift?” I apologize credibly and thank them again for their efforts. They hand me a form with some claim numbers on it and we walk together out of the now-empty concrete terminal. As we pass the abandoned customs desk, my joke about not having anything to declare goes unheeded and they disappear into the night.

On the way into town, along dark two-lane highway that leads into town, Francis asks what my plan is. Good question: I’m supposed to be leaving Monrovia at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning for Zwedru, and then Konobo. There’s no way I’m seeing any of my packed gear until we get back on Saturday. I’ve gotten ahold of Raj by phone and he offered that we could delay for a day and make a dash for it, but no, I think that’ll just add to the stress. Rumor is that the road to Zwedru is washed out by the rain, and we may need all the travel time we can get. I’ll wash yesterday’s t-shirt and underwear in the sink tonight, and there are a few towns along the way we can stop in tomorrow to pick up the two things I really need from my bags: a hat and some less inappropriate shoes. Oh right: and malaria meds. But that’s another advantage of traveling with rural health docs: they’ve got that kind of thing by the bucket.

Ahead, the black ribbon of road is streaked with red dust. The rains come and go a couple of times during the 45 minute drive, but we keep the windows down, listening to a roar of crickets, audible even over the rattle of the car’s loose muffler. Every few minutes the chorus is broken by a blare of pop music or over-amplified soccer. These cinderblock roadside bars seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but they’re packed with raucous young men, televising a game in India or Brazil on an open air large-screen TV. The TV flashes out, a glowing green beacon in the night, incongruously sleek and futuristic. And then it’s gone again, and there is only the winding dark road, the clanking muffler and the roar of crickets.

Anyhow. I’ve made it to Monrovia, and that’ll have to do for now. Just let it be said that I am totally rocking that Positive Mental Attitude. Let’s see how tomorrow plays out.

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