The road back is a study in adjusted expectations. After single-track footpaths on a motorbike, the Ziah-Zwedru highway looks like a major thoroughfare. At one point we sink almost up to the car’s window sill, but Alpha gets us through on the second try. When we arrive at nightfall, Zwedru feels like a real town, with nightlife. At the guest house, an actual flush toilet feels like luxury.
Next morning is early again – 14 more hours on the road to try and make it back to Monrovia in time for one of last week’s meetings, rescheduled for this evening at 8. Again, Alpha is the Man of Steel.
This time, Laurie is riding shotgun, and I’ve got the back seat to myself. In Zwedru, Laurie works with Last Mile’s HIV patients. She was born in Monrovia, but her “mother village” is up in Nimba, near Seclepia. Her two sons are in Monrovia, both in college, but she hasn’t seen them since they came to visit her in Zwedru last Christmas. It’s time-consuming and expensive to make the trip – $40 each way – so she’s taking the opportunity to hitch on with our ridiculously empty Land Rover for a few days back in the big city.
Our conversation tails off and I excuse myself to try napping amid the swerves and unavoidable roadside craters that continually launch us against our respective seatbelts. I dream indistinctly and wake at yet another roadside checkpoint. They want my passport – I show them an uninformative business card and explain that I’m a scientist visiting Tiyatien Health, feigning polite indignation. No idea why I didn’t just show them my passport, but the Obi Wan Kenobi routine works – they’re satisfied and happy to send us on our way.
Ganta again for lunch, and a dose of internet at Jackie’s Roadside. We blow out a tire at our now-customary spot just past Gbarnga, but unlike the other car hire company, Alpha’s has actually equipped us with an appropriate jack and tools. Ten minutes later, we wash the newly-acquired red dirt off our hands and hit the road again.
Another couple of checkpoints – at one, the gatekeeper wants to take my passport to his office “for inspection”. This time I really am indignant and don’t try to keep the edge out of my voice. His colleagues get him to back off and we continue on our way, Alpha continuing to bob and weave, dodging potholes and motorbikes as if tuned into The Force. A goat darts into the road – there are so many more domestic animals here than last time – and Alpha dodges it expertly.
“Ah man, that goat is asking for his change, eh?”
Asking for his change – I love it.
The sun sets as we cross into Margibi County, still two hours out from Monrovia. If Liberian highways are stressful during the day, they’re frankly terrifying at night – you never know whether that beacon coming at you is a wayward scooter or an overloaded logging truck with a missing headlight. I try to tune out, but I realize that the trip is starting to take a toll on me. I’ve spent fully half of my time in Liberia on broken, rutted highways. I’m tired of random checkpoints. I’m tired of breathing diesel exhaust. I’m tired of washing my socks and underwear in the sink every night and wearing them, damp, the next day. I want my luggage. I want a good night’s sleep. I want to shave and stand under a shower that involves hot water, and no bucket.
In the darkness of the back seat, I fish for my headphones. I really need to plug into some Alanis, but all my music is on the iPod, somewhere far away, with the rest of my luggage. I poke around on my phone and find a couple of soothing Barbara Kessler songs – they’ll do. I curl up into a little ball and rock myself back and forth in the darkness of the backseat. It’ll be alright, it’ll be alright. This happens every once in a while when I’m on the road. I just need to get to Monrovia. I’m meeting Jennah from the Secretariat at some fancy hotel there. We’ll have dinner and talk about the collaboration we’ve been funding, then I’ll get back to Moko’s. There are rumors that my bags have been found by Air France, retrieved and delivered there. I’ll take a shower. I’ll shave. I’ll sleep and wake up refreshed and happy in this glorious crazy beautiful country that I love.
Fifteen minutes later, the Land Rover’s clutch gives up its tortured ghost and we lurch to an abrupt stop, dead in the water at a Montserrado County police checkpoint.