23 March 2008

Multicultural crash-test dummies

There are eighteen bridges on the road to Robertsport. The twelfth has become a close friend.

Robertsport—or Rawspoh, as it's pronounced by most Liberians we met—is a once-beautiful town, on a still-beautiful beach, about ten miles south of the border with Sierra Leone, and a three-and-a-half-hour, hundred-mile drive north of Monrovia. Three and a half hours, that is, if it's pulled off without complication. This being Liberia, however, little occurs without complication.

That thought, though, was far from our minds as we piled into five Liberian cabs, with seventeen other Mercy Shippers, on Friday morning, for what promised to be a relaxing overnight camp-on-the-beach affair. I've mentioned it before: the only resemblance between cabs in Liberia and cabs in, say, New York City, is their color. And possibly the mental state, and addiction to speed, of those who drive them. That thought, too, was absent.

Most Liberian cabs are emblazoned with lightning-bolt decals, branded with particularly pithy sayings—God's Time Is Best Time, or Thank God Garbala, for example—and graced by pictures of Madonna (and not the one that precedes "and child", either). We avoided The Blonde One, picked My Love For You Count No Wrong, shook hands with Suri, her owner, and clambered aboard.

My Love For You Count No Wrong
On the way to Robertsport
The first two-thirds of the road to Robertsport is actually paved, and littered with UN checkpoints, stray chickens, and shops named after theologic apothegms of more depth than many of today's churches. God Knows Why Cellphone Repair. The Lord's Chosen Cement Factory. God's First Money Exchange (is that a possessive or a contraction?). We breezed past them all, and, immediately after the invitingly dirty (and jarringly plural) Mother and Child Guests House, we made an abrupt left onto a dirt road.

The road to Robertsport
That's where the bridges began. Suri maneuvered Count No Wrong with agility belying his misfortune of having a celebrity kid named after him. Count No Wrong responded to his suggestions without complaint. Her love for us was living up to her name. When the tire on another cab (aptly named Why Me?) blew, Count No Wrong sailed on by without a hitch. (The spare was provided by The Lord Is On My Side. All cabs carry a spare tire—heaven forbid, though, the tire actually fit the cab that carries it).

Emboldened by his success at avoiding the first major hitch, and with no small amount of encouragement from us, Suri sped Count No Wrong to the head of the pack. This had the added benefit of placing us clear out of the plumes of red dust that trailed each cab. We were going to arrive in Robertsport clean, wind-swept, and hitch-free.

Bridge 12 had other plans for us. Each of the eighteen Pakistani-built bridges on the road to Robertsport is of rickety wooden construction, wide enough for one car to pass, and that only slowly. Appropriately, Suri slowed down for Bridge 12.

The accident on the way to Robertsport
It is unfortunate that the plume of red dust that trailed us, and the cars it enveloped, didn't.

The sound is hard to describe. It's loud, brusque, and jolting, an explosive, black, metallic clap. Our bodies pivoted on our necks, backwards, then immediately forward, like so many wide-eyed, multicultural crash-test dummies. And then our car lurched forward. And to the left. And time became elastic. And the bridge's wooden barricade filled our windscreen. And then it didn't, pushed under the wheels of the car.

And then we fell off the edge.

Down into the gully, flattening tall grasses, shrubs, and nascent trees. I could hear someone's voice saying, "Jesus keep us safe." I could hear the voice in my head saying, "Wow. This might actually be how we die." Nobody turned. No one screamed. Another voice in another person's head said, "I don't care what happens. Just please don't let it hurt."

And then we stopped. Landed. Halted by one final tree.

The accident on the way to Robertsport
The accident on the way to Robertsport
The accident on the way to Robertsport
And there was silence. Nobody spoke. Nobody breathed. Finally, a voice from outside the car, from above us, "Is everyone OK?"

Time snapped back with a huff, regimentedly shuffling away from us with nary a look over his shoulder. Slowly, we started asking each other the same question. Was everyone OK?

Everyone was. Necks were sore (though not nearly as sore as they were about to get over the next forty-eight hours). One of us had sustained a blow to the back of the head from an errant guitar case. But, barring the scrapes, bruises, and bewilderment, we were unscathed.

And here is where the life of the NGO worker gets surreal. Not five hundred yards down the road was a detachment of the self-same Pakistani battalion that had built the bridge which nearly destroyed us. It takes a certain person, it seems, to work for an NGO, and Pakistani UN soldiers are no different. Normal human beings with a streak of the insane.

The first thing they did was to make sure we were OK. The next was to whip out their cell phones and start taking pictures.

The accident on the way to Robertsport
They spoke little English, but one of our travelling companions (who was raised in Fiji but lives in Canada), spoke Hindi (naturally). And because—red-faced politicking notwithstanding—Hindi and Urdu are simply dialects of the same langauge, when he began speaking to them in Hindi, they congratulated him on his Urdu. Between them, they determined that the car would stay there until the police found it. The now-carless would pile onto the back of the UN truck.

The accident on the way to Robertsport
The accident on the way to Robertsport
This is how we found ourselves sitting atop large bamboo rods, packed hip-to-shoulder with six men and their automatic weapons, listening to one sing a song, softly, into the wind and dust, driven through the African bush to the air-conditioned compound of the Pakistani UN battalion (Motto: Twenty-six, Brave and Brisk. I'm not making that up).

What happened during the remainder of the trip—the offer, by the UN commanding officer, of one of his own vehicles to take us the rest of the way to Robertsport, the pristine beach, the waves that taught me what drowning actually feels like, the torrential downpour that bested our tent, the campfire, the boiled cassava, the sunset, the crabs, and the flat tire on the way back (this time, there was no spare; don't ask)—pales in comparison.


The remaining pictures are here.


Anonymous said...

i am so in love with this entry.

so in love, in fact, that i count no wrongs.


Lydia said...

Can I just say "wow", with any emotion you choose since I am feeling all of them. The pictures are amazing but you writing is powerful! I'm so glad you're all ok! Ah, life in a foreign culture... gotta love it. :)

Ryley Olivier said...

This is fabulously hilarious. You both write really well. Please continue to entertain me in the potential mediocrity of normal life.

proonner paraphrases said...

what the heck. He certainly has a sense of humor. or at least cares to keep you on your toes. or just has an insane sense of humor.