San Juan Islands

Chalk it up to too much Grey’s Anatomy, but riding the ferry was definitely on the agenda for the greater Seattle area. Luckily, we for once got up early and actually headed out as planned – we made it to Port Angeles over an hour in advance as advised, and as we drove through the gates the toll-takers yelled to each other that they only had 13 spaces left for Friday harbor – phew!

Not surprisingly for Washington, the weather was gray and pretty chilly, which made sitting outside on the ferry a bit challenging for someone like me who hates being cold. We managed to find some semi-sheltered areas where we could still see the beautiful scenery. We headed for the largest of the San Juan islands, San Juan (go figure). Nick was all excited because apparently our port of arrival, Friday Harbor, is a common destination on flight simulator, so he felt like he’d already visited the tiny island! The islands claim to fame are that they were disputed territory between the British and Americans long after they’d settled most of the US/Canada border, and there was very nearly a war after a British solider killed an American pig who got into his garden…I kid you not. They are very fond of this whole story and sadly we missed the re-enactment of the incident. Instead, we happened upon a sign for ‘Barrel tasting with the wine maker’ at the San Juan Vineyards – much more our style! For $10 we got 8 wine tastes each, including two not yet released wines from the barrels, plus a full glass of wine and a bbq with all sorts of gourmet sides – and a whole afternoon of entertainment! It was such a chilled, laid back atmosphere – no one breathing down your necks while you sip and are forced to try to come up with something intelligent to say about the wine, other than ‘yum’. And best part was we only had to drive a tiny distance back to the ferry on a 25 mph road that only went one way…The wines were so very tasty – VERY surprisingly, my favorite was actually the rose – I never like pink wine!

Friday Harbor is a very cute little town – lots of antique shops, jewellery, nice little cafes. After we parked the car in the line for the return ferry, we had some time to roam around and shop. The weather turned gorgeous on the way back, and we were able to see all the little islands and gorgeous boats out sailing around.

We’d only planned to stay a few hours on the island, but had so much fun that we ended up getting into Seattle much later than expected. We had another fun time trying to find a place to stay in Seattle – I think we’ve learned our lesson about getting in too late. We finally managed to find a little hotel in the center of the city for pretty cheap, and went out to enjoy the Saturday night atmosphere…unfortunately, the drive took a lot out of us, so we didn’t make it very far past dinner. But what does it matter – every night is a Saturday as far as we are concerned!

One of my favorite sights from the day – there was an alapaca on San Juan island that must have just recently been sheared. I’m not sure if this is usual or not, but it looked like they had shaved it to look like a giant poodle, with puffs of fur in odd places! Also, randomly, the owner of the vineyards had a camel on his farm. I thought I’d drank too much and was imagining things, but luckily it was confirmed by the vineyard staff…

Washington

The drive from northern Idaho into eastern Washington is pretty uneventful. In fact, I didn’t even see the sign welcoming us into Washington, so I couldn’t do my standard little ‘new state’ dance. All I really remember of most of the drive towards Seattle is that the land is FLAT. Very very flat. And the fab Spanish radio stations – the announcer rattling off the weather report at warp speed and the Nortena music (basically Mexican polka – you know you want to dance!).

One of my fav things about this drive was the large section of road where Washington has mandated crop nameplates. It was great! My extreme lack of any farming knowledge has always made for annoying drives – other than corn, and maybe wheat, I have no clue what is growing along those long stretches of farmland on so many roads in the US. The signs showed us what ‘ALFALFA’ looks like, or how to spot ‘POTATOES’ from a distance. ‘PEPPERMINT” seemed to be another Washington standard. It was also fun to see all the orchards, with the names of some of my favorite apples on them – yum. And tons of cherries.I still have no clue what ‘TIMOTHY’ is – I’m obviously not totally educated, but it livened up an otherwise boring section of road travel.

About midway through the state, mountains spring up seemingly out of nowhere. The sign for the town of Leavenworth should have tipped us off, but it took a few minutes to realized that the entire town was done up like little Germany, or some remote Alpime village. Even the McDonalds, Wells Fargo and gas station signs were crafted in a flowery script with little flowers curling around the letters, the buildings had peaked roofs and were painted colorfully. Very cute.

The next stop on our trip was Everett, WA – a very important place for one reason: the Boeing factory. High on Nick’s list of things to see, this was actually a really cool tour even for non-aviators. I’ll let Nick tell you more about it, but basically we got to see the enormously large hangars where the do the assembly for their ‘widebody’ (2 aisle) jets, including their new 787, which hasn’t yet been released. My favorite part was seeing the ‘DreamLifters’ – 747s that they have cut the top off and enlarged and created a hinged tail section so they can transport parts from their factories all over the world to the hangars here to assemple them together. I call them Frankenstein planes, but they probably look a little more Quaismodo-ish, with their big humps.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

After our adventures in Glacier, we got into Coeur d’Alene, ID later than expected. The sun was getting low over the ‘cuddly’ trees (Nick thinks that the big, full pine trees look cuddly from a distance, but I can only imagine trying to hug one! Ouch, prickly). I had thought it would be fairly easy to find some sort of campsite around the huge Lake Coeur d’Alene, but apparently most of the waterfront areas have luxury homes on them with no space to spare for camping. The sun was about to set, so when we spotted a place that listed camping on its sign, we turned in and pitched our tent.

We found a great restaurant out on the lake and enjoyed the colors of the sunset on the clouds that seemed to be growing by the minute…not great when you’re planning on sleeping under a thin sheet of nylon (or whatever it’s made of). We watched the storm rage off in the distance, with awesome lightening lighting up the sky. It looked like it might just miss us – we crossed our fingers and tightened up the rain fly when we got back to camp.

Unfortunately the place we ended up staying was pretty much a dump. Our site was revmoved from the motel/RV sites a bit, but right next to a main road. The bathroom – disgusting, falling apart, just dirty. I can handle dirt where it is supposed to be – out in the woods, for example. But when you are in a place that you’re paying money for is just trashed and gross, no fun. We did a quick teeth brush in the morning and hightailed it out of there. The town is really cute, though, and there are some really nice neighborhoods for sure. Have to give it it’s credit!

Glacier National Park, MT

Went up towards the Canadian border today (making sure not to accidentally cross over – I can’t risk Nick getting deported for illegally entering Canada without a visa…it would be a long drive home by myself!). On route to Glacier National Park, we went around a curve and caught our first sight of Flathead Lake. It’s a giant lake but has insanely clear, blue-green water that looks COLD (and probably is, considering it’s literally glacial).

At the west park entrance they told us that the ‘Going-to-the-sun-road’ was closed halfway up because there was still snow on the pass. We couldn’t do the whole drive, but we could hike/bike if we wanted – um, really? If it’s too snowy to drive you really want me to hike? I didn’t quite prepare for winter weather hikes when I packed for a June/July trip. We drove to a spot for a short day hike through a cedar forest ending up at a gorgeous lake fed by the waterfalls coming over the mountains, melt water from one of the parks’ remaining 27 glaciers that sits up above. What surprised me most was that it was hot down below where we were – I had assumed that it would be a bit colder, but I guess we weren’t at a super high elevation.

While we were there, Nick discovered chipmunks, and was highly entertained by their spastic antics. He says they’re a cross between a field mouse and a squirrel, and more fun than watching squirrels (one of his fav things to do in MN – apparently they are not so common in SA). I am puzzled by the signs up all over the place about bear safety – they say that you can’t leave any water, toiletries, etc. anywhere in your tent, cooler, etc. b/c of the grizzlies…what are you supposed to do if you want to go camping in the park? just not eat/bathe at all? Bathing I could do, but eating seems essential. Another mystery – anyone have any idea what the big, slanted wooden structures are that are scattered around the state on farmlands? I thought they were fences at first, but then realized they didn’t connect to anything so they wouldn’t be very effective keeping anything in. Maybe something to do with the wind?

Sign of the day – ‘Burgerland: Home of the Flathead Mullet’. If you didn’t know mullet was a fish…

Missoula, MT

Wow – I could not have been more surprised if someone told me that eggs benedict was good for my health. We rocked up into Missoula around 8pm, heading for the KOA since the weather had finally cleared and was downright warm. First off, the KOA was so far from my idea of a campsite I was taken aback – it’s more of an RV park in the burbs. It’s located across the street from Costco, behind the TJ Max, and down the road from Target, Walgreens, and a million fast food chains.

I am SUPER glad we ventured into downtown Missoula for dinner, though. It is such a surprisingly cute town! We drove around for a bit and finally settled on sitting outside at a really cute Italian place not far from the river. After enjoying our pasta and wine, we took a walk across the bridge and wandered around town. It was so chilled – must be the college town vibe. There were great concert and movie venues showing something other than the latest Terminator movie, cute boutique shops, little independent coffee places. SO nice! And the area around ‘downtown’ is beautiful – residential with some gorgeous little houses, many with wraparound porches and nice little yards. Everyone seemed to be out running or riding their bikes. And I can’t quite figure this out – the sun was still pretty high when we arrived at 8pm, and the sky was still a bit light even at 10pm…I love that it stayed light so long! All in all a fun evening, and Missoula is on my radar as an exceptionally cool place.

Oh, and pictures. I promise that we will post some soon – we have taken a ton, but haven’t yet gotten around to downloading them, despite our best intentions….

Beartooth Pass

It seems like everyone we ran into advised us (sometimes unsolicted advice) to go on the Beartooth Pass in Northern Wyoming/Southern Montana if it was open. As it is the start of summer, it has just recently been opened, so we thought we’d better heed the advice, even if it was out of our way somewhat.

Leaving our little motel in West Yellowstone the weather was still gross – overcast, drizzly, just generally grey. We still enjoyed the scenery driving out of the camp, despite what turned into heavier rain. I wasn’t sure the Beartooth would be worth it in this weather, but we decided to check it out. And it was well worth it! Though we were travelling in extremely foggy weather (at times there was such a white out you could barely see 5 feet in front of you) the scenery was still breathtaking. We climbed up through steep mountain passes covered in snow, along roads that had only recently been plowed and whose drifts were well above the height of the car, and up to well over 10,000 feet. There were still people snowboarding up in the mountains. I can only imagine what it would have been like on a clearer day – there must be some amazing views! Apparently in July there are massive amounts of wildflowers along certain trails – I seriously can’t begin to picture that, as what we saw today was quite the frozen tundra which seems more suited to snowmobiles than hikers. But the winding switchbacks kept producing more and more stunning scenses from the car windows. I’d definitely do it again!

Snowy Wyoming?

I’m not sure when we first noticed that we were climbing as we left Dubois. Heading West towards Yellowstone, we started to see a few patches of unmelted snow. As we kept on, Nick tried to convince me that the drizzle was turning into big wet snowflakes – really, snow? In June? Soon there wasn’t a doubt – the flakes were coming down, and actually sticking to the ground. Increasingly, the woods were covered with tightly packed snowdrifts. Turns out we were crossing the continental divide, and were up at about 9,560 feet in the Shoshone National Forest. The scenery changed just as quickly as we descended from the mountains.

On my list of things I wanted to see was Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton National Park (for obvious reasons). Turns out there is also a Leigh Lake adjoining it! It was not the best day to be outside, so we headed for the Jenny Lake Lodge for a warm drink by the fire, then did some driving around the park. I was hoping to see Moose, but no luck – I don’t blame them, it was pretty gross outside so I assume they were hiding in the forest somewhere. I wouldn’t go out if I didn’t have to!

Yellowstone is just North of the Grand Teton park, so we headed that direction. Nick and I had both imagined that we would see Yellowstone on a hot, sunny day, but our plans of hiking and camping here were altered by the weather. The tourist traffic picked up as we approached the park – tour buses, RVs, tons of people despite the weather. Apparently Tuesday is the busiest day in the park, who knew? The geysers create a pretty surreal environment, ringing the crater lake and steaming on the side of the road. Old Faithful was pretty impressive, as well as the smaller smelly sulfurous pools around the geyser. The clear, steaming water in a few of them looked pretty inviting, and was tempted to jump in like a hot tub. I was amazed at how many people completely ignored all the signs to stay off the ‘thermal area’ or not to throw things into the pools…why do peoeple think the rules don’t apply to them? Grrr.

We called it an early evening, got some Chinese takeaway and watched a movie…best thing to do on a rainy night.

Rainy day in Wyoming

We headed out early this morning, thanks in part to my watch which I had forgotten to set back and the joys of camping. It’s hard to sleep in when the sun and birds are out, and you’re freezing cold! We drove through more of the Badlands. What a crazy area. Can you imagine bumping along in your wagon and suddenly coming across that

We also stopped at our first major tourist trap (Reptile World and Prairie Dog Town don’t count since we never left the road). In testament to the power of advertising, we were lured into the town of Wall to see the (self proclaimed) famous Wall Drug. It was basically a gaudy street full of shops selling cowboy hats, enticing you to turn your penny into a souvenir penny, and loads of other things you’ll look back on in a few years (or days) and wonder what in the world you could have been thinking. Entertaining nonetheless.

Next stop: Mt. Rushmore. The first glimpse comes out of nowhere – there is all this hype, then they are just there, 4 heads looking down on you. My first thought was that they were a lot smaller than I’d imagined, then I realized how far I was still from them! We spent a bit of time there, wandering through the museum. Nick got a bit of a crash course in American history while we were there! I was amazed at how they could carve the heads with dynamite – I never thought of TNT as much of a precision tool. Can you imagine if someone used a bit too much by accident? ‘Oops, dory about George’s nose…we can re-attach it, can’t we?’ We also made a stop at Crazy Horse. While I admire the reasons for not taking government funds for the ambitious project (Crazy Horse was killed by a US Government soldier, after all), it’s a pity that it won’t be completed in my lifetime – after 50 years only the head is carved!

After a few fights with Ted (the GPS) who kept trying to route us through people’s private farmlands, we were off to Wyoming. In one of the first towns we crossed into across the border, Lusk, we saw our first tumbleweed. Like a total cliché, it rolled across the intersection of the nearly deserted country road, welcoming us West.

Unfortunately, we soon saw an ominous black cloud on the horizon, and Ted confirmed that we were planning to head right into it. It was a crazy storm – hail, lightening strikes all around us – and I was glad I was in a car, unlike a few of the bikers we saw.

Not so many signs today – we would have struggled if we’d been playing the alphabet game for sure. But I did see some animals I thought were cows. Until I got close, and realized the white animals with black splotches weren’t Holsteins but cow-looking horses. The prairie dogs were also a big hit – we stopped to watch their antics in the Badlands for a long time. The best part was when they would jump up and down on their hind legs with their little arms in the air yelling. Very funny.

frisbee golf?

Not much of a golfer, I’ve never taken an interest in Frisbee golf. But we saw a full on Frisbee golf course yesterday – I had always assumed that the game was played with made up ‘holes’ that you had to get near, but this was actually an 18-hole course! People were walking around with their bags, looking like real golfers, and tossing the disc into metal goals. Who knew? Or maybe this is normal and I am just out of it.

South Dakota…

Our first day on the road! We headed south from Minneapolis into the southern part of South Dakota. Not the most exciting place for sure, but we had fun.

I always love driving in MN. It is incredibly lush and green, even the major arteries are flanked by forests, rivers and parks. I was sad to leave The Current’s airspace – seriously the BEST radio station in the country, by far! From Mankato on it was top 40, country and golden oldies – some good sing-alongs, but I’m afraid we’ve exhausted even those meager stations and will be on our own tomorrow with tunes. From the time we turned westward, the land flattened out. Crossing into South Dakota was nearly imperceptible – if it hadn’t been for the giant sign on the side of the road I wouldn’t have noticed any difference in the grassy landscape. It was a bit like a giant golf course in most parts, or a green Karoo – slightly undulating brightly green grasslands. The most beautiful part was crossing the Missouri river – all of the sudden we came upon this bridge and were over the water, with two picturesque railway bridges spanning it on either side. We were headed into a storm so the light was fabulous (we got pelted for awhile, but luckily missed the severe storm with hail and instead just cleaned our windshield of all the kamikaze bugs!). For most of our drive through SD it was like a scene out of some post-apocalypse movie – we seemed to be the only ones on the road for miles. Kind of eerie!

We had gotten a late start out of MN (ALL my fault!) and so were a bit late getting to our campsite in the Badlands. At least we got an extra hour out of the deal – we didn’t realize that halfway through SD is the change to Mountain time! Our GPS (Ted) was perplexing me – I simply couldn’t figure out how we still had 120 miles to go and we were going to arrive in 5 minutes! Ted knows everything (and HATES it when we pull off the road at a rest stop). As we were arriving, the light was just glancing off the top of the rocks, turning everything rosy and warm. We luckily pulled into the site just as the light was failing – we had enough time to set up our tent (luckily for the dry run!) and make some sandwiches for dinner. I’m sitting here now by the fire, typing away, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees, sipping on a beer. Who could ask for more!

Signs of the day –
’24-hour toe service’ (on several billboards…). Where are we?!!?
‘Aw shucks, just stop’ – billboard for the Corn Palace (needless to say my dilly-dallying this morning prevented us from exploring such a cultural landmark!)

Roughing it

We did a trial run of our tent today in my mom’s living room – went off without a hitch. Well, unless you count the fact that we couldn’t figure out for quite some time how to position the rain flap, and that folding it up was even harder…But we managed. I considered camping out for the last few nights we were home, but didn’t think that would go down well. I don’t think my mom and Tom would have objected to us taking our happy hour drinks into the tent, but I can only imagine them trying to watch the evening news with the half-dome blocking their vie.! Not to mention I don’t think the condo folks would appreciate our campfire lit on the living room rug. Oh well, we’ll have to wait to try out our cute little tent in the wild. Key word: little. It’ll be cozy, for sure!

The Ride

Nick made it in safe and sound last night, tired from his long flight from J’oburg (poor baby – he only got bumped up to first class for half of the flight!). No, to be fair he did have a long layover in DC and a delay in Atlanta. But, still! (can you tell I am jealous?)

First thing we did today was head off to the car rental place to pick up our new car. They had a few options for us – we got to sit in them all, checking the relative leg room or number of cupholders and outlets, trunk space, etc. The choice was between a Ford Focus and Kia Spectra – in the end it came down to cruise control, and the Kia won.

We still don’t have a name for it yet – we will get back to you on that one. It’s not the punchiest car – kinda bland looking and a little slow on the uptake, but it’s comfy and will fit all our crap (I hope!)

Best sign of the day – in the trunk of the Focus there is a release handle that you supposedly would use in case the mob or someone locks you in…apparently this is a common occurrence, as all the cars we looked at have them! But the Focus had a particularly good sign – it showed a car, trunk open, with dotted lines arcing out of the back and a stick person running away.

getting ready for our road trip!

I’m trying hard to balance my need to plan with the desire for a bit more spontaneity – so far so good, but we haven’t started the trip yet!

Nick and I left our jobs in April – we’re probably the only people in the US at the moment who are happy to be unemployed! We decided to take a good long vacation – when else will we have as much time as we want, money in the bank, no responsibilities to speak of?! And the US seemed like a good place to go – even though our ‘places to visit’ in the world is incredibly long and growing all the time, we both thought that a roadtrip was the best way to explore the States, and since we had this big chunk of time it was perfect!

Nick’s still in SA, so I’ve been getting us ready – renting the car, buying the tent, cooler, other stuff, getting the maps, etc. My ‘planner’ instinct has goaded me to read every website ever made about roadtripping in the US, reading guide books, etc. But there is so much…there is NO way that I can digest even a quarter of it, so I’ve pretty much given up. Spontaneous travel, here we come!

We’ll be trying to write a bit about each of our stops along the way so you’ll know what we’re up to….so stay tuned. Also, I’ve posted a map here on my blog – nothing exciting on it yet, but we will update it to show you all where in the US we are.

leaving Liberia…

Not sure where to start, but after a year and a half I am leaving Liberia! It’s been pretty crazy for sure – it feels like my last month here has gone by in a flash. I have had so many things that I wanted to get done at work before I left – I am feeling really terrible for leaving my great staff. I wanted to stay for at least 2 years, since the program and the staff suffer each time there is a turnover in senior management (which happens all too frequently). I won’t go into the details, suffice it to say that it is time. Liberia isn’t the easiest place to live and work for sure, but I am surprisingly sad to be leaving…Nick and I have made this our home, met awesome people, and finally in our last few months here have really established an amazing group of friends (why does it always happen that way?).

But I am ecstatically happy at the same time! I’m not exactly sure what’s next – but it looks like it will be a good few months off, visiting our families in SA in MN, going on an extended road trip, who knows.

Our last day in Liberia was great. Some colleagues felt that they should give me a going away party over lunch, whcih was actually incredibly awkward – everyone felt like they had to stand up and say a few words, including my boss (with whom it is no secret there is no love lost between us), but the thought was nice. But it was a great chance to say goodbye to the many staff I will truly miss. After dealing with a few last minute issues (surprise, surprise), I left early to go have a mimosa at home and kill one last bottle of champagne we had in the fridge.

A group of us then shuttled out to Marlin’s Corner, one of my favorite places in Liberia. It’s about a 45 minute drive with all the traffic, but it is well worth it. It’s probably the most relaxing place in the city, right on the water, a great place to watch the sunset. With Club beer (the local Liberian brew) on tap and 75 cent beers during happy hour and the BEST fish ever, it was the perfect place to say farewell to Monrovia. After dinner we headed to the Red Lion for a few more beers and a rousing game of darts. It was a great night!

Now we are on our way. The house is packed up, the bags and Squeekers are (almost) all checked in, and we are off to SA. I didn’t know that I would be this sad to be leaving – as I said, the last few months have been hard, but there are a lot of good memories here! Who knows, maybe I’ll be back someday!

30th Birthday!

Today I officially turn 30 years old! Let the jokes begin…

I wasn’t sure what to do to celebrate the big milestone. The Monrovia party scene is an odd one – you either have a small gathering of people, or you have a big party that nearly everyone in Monrovia feels entitled to show up to, whether you know them or not. I didn’t really want to supply booze to the entire expat community (nor did I really have the time to plan it), so I decided to ring in my 30th with a much more low-key event.

My bday falls on a Monday, so I decided to celebrate the weekend before. As has happened the last few years, there have been a few kinks in my plans. A few weeks ago Nick found out that he might have to be in Abidjan over the weekend…he did everything he could to make sure that he could be here for the party. And it was integral to my plan to have him here – I wanted to have a brunch (my favorite meal – breakfast food that you don’t have to get up early for!), and he makes an amazing quiche! 🙂 Actually, birthdays always mean a lot to me, and since this was a big one it was great that he was able to finagle a way to be around.

A bunch of friends came over around 11am, and we moseyed over to the pool. Despite a huge night out the night before (and the wicked hangovers that came with it), Nick was up SUPER early to start cooking (I helped of course!). We had an awesome spread of home– banana bread, tzatziki and pita, fruit salad, chocolate brownies, ham and mushroom quiche, and best of all, Nick managed to make me a special treat…BAGELS! He figured out how to make sesame bagels (not at all easy), one of the things I missed from home. My mom also figured out with Nick how they could get a cake made for me in Liberia – who knew? With the amazing spread, friends, and tons of mimosas, we had an awesome brunch. We hung out around the pool all day, soaking up the sun and having a great time.

My actual birthday has been much quieter – Nick couldn’t manage to stay today and is off in Abidjan. I had dinner with a friend, enjoying some sushi and margaritas. Overall 30 has gotten off to a good start!

Liberian English

Liberia is officially an English speaking country. When I first got here back in 2004, though, I realized quickly that ‘English’ is subjective. Liberian English is almost a completely different language. t has its roots in English, of course, but the pronunciation (or lack thereof) is sometimes completely foreign, and speech is peppered with some very colorful phrases. My favorites include ‘For true?’ (are you serious?), “how da body?’ (how are you?), ‘whywoma‘ (white woman – called out by all children, and even adults, every time I walk down the road), ‘are you getting me?’ (do you understand?), and one of my most commonly used, ‘it’s not easy-o!’.

Most of the time I feel like I am doing pretty well with the Liberian English – I can follow a long conversation with local villagers, and they can even understand me most of the time. But then I’ll say something and be greeted only with blank stares, and I’ll look to my Liberian colleagues to translate for me. While most of the staff that I work with and people I come in contact are fluent in both American English and Liberian, they can also make sure that I don’t understand a word if they want! It’s amazing that even after a year here that I can be so lost sometimes…

Election night, Liberian style

The US election fever has taken hold of everyone here in Liberia, as it has all over the world. With Liberia’s strong (albeit dubious at times) connections with the US, with so many Liberians with friends and family in the states, and with the large number of Americans living and working here and with so many Liberians living in the States, everyone feels very invested. I was definitely a bit bummed about not being at home for all the craziness – all my friends in DC and on campaigns were having big parties, planning on going to the balls if Obama won, etc.

There were election night parties set up all over town – the US Embassy (stuff diplomats), different Ministries, and more. I was amazed by the number of parties planned, given that Liberia is 5 hours ahead of EST, and 8 hours ahead of the West coast…Some friends from the Carter Center organized an election night party that we decided to go to – they had two big screens set up with CNN projected, drinks, and a full breakfast buffet they had catered. I hadn’t watched CNN in a long time (no TV for Jenny in Liberia), and it took me awhile to get used to how cheesy and self important the ‘reporters’ are, but once we got into it it was fun. The crowd was a mix of expats from all over the world and Liberians – really cool to see how excited the non-Americans were. I had never realized how difficult the whole Electoral College thing is to explain until I sat there with Nick trying to make it sound logical to a South African, along with all of our other quirky rules! There was actually a lot of tension and nervousness running around – in retrospect looking at the margin by which Obama won it was needless, but given our experiences over the last two elections (mostly 2000) it was scary to think that Americans might make such a bad choice again! It was a really great atmosphere to watch the returns in – most development workers tend to be more left-leaning than the average American (well, except the military/defense contractors…but they weren’t at this party!) so nearly everyone was rooting for Obama. We stayed until the bitter end – cheering when they called the race for Obama, making a champagne toast when he gave his speech. It was 3am when I got home, and after a couple of hours of sleep…SO tired the next day, but so worth it!

Obama – ‘Tryin’ Small’

One of my fav Liberian phrases is ‘tryin small’. When you ask people how they are doing, that is the stock answer – often coupled with ‘it ain’t easy-o, it ain’t easy’ if you probe a bit further. (I’ve never heard anyone try big…) During election fever here (as everywhere else), the best t-shirt I saw was the image of Obama that was everywhere with a caption underneath – ‘tryin small’. LOVE it. Wish I had a pic – a guy I know Jon designed it but they sold out right away!

rains coming to an end

The rainy season is finally ending here. One of the signs for me is the colorfully draped clotheslines that hang from nearly every possible surface to catch the sun. Lines are stung between trees, signposts, on power lines (not working, of course). Hedges creatively are transformed into makeshift drying racks. Lawns are strewn with drying laundry – it’s debatable whether this defeats the purpose of laundering them in the first place! Sometimes I feel like I should look away – it feels a bit voyeuristic to glimpse a row of boys’ white underpants, or men’s work shirts inflated by the wind. I once saw an entire line filled with stuffed animals – bunnies hanging by their ears, bears by their paws – I so wish I had my camera! My favorites are the carnival-like lines draped with colorful lapa cloths, the brightly dyed fabrics that women wear tied around their waists and heads. It’s just a daily necessity, all this washing, but it transforms the roadsides into colorful canvases.

Robertsport

I heard a lot about Robertsport before I ever visited. I was never sure if I should believe the hype, or whether the glowing reports were the product of over-worked, stressed out development workers who had been in Liberia a bit too long.

Robertsport, a city only 3 hours outside of Monrovia, turned out to be a welcome break from dirty, gritty Monrovia. The first time we went, we used our contacts at the Red Cross (where Nick worked) to get tents to camp on the beach. Shortly thereafter a South African diamond prospector developed some land, building a number of posh elevated tents, a bar and a toilet/shower block. This made it much simpler to just pack up on a Saturday and head out for the night.

The trip shouldn’t take as long as it does, but once the well-paved road gives way to the dirt track, the going is slow. The potholes are intense, and in the rainy season there is the danger of getting stuck in the mud. But mostly it is an uneventful drive.

When you reach Robertsport town, the destruction from the war is all around you. There are amazing old buildings that are abandoned and overgrown with weeds, churches and homes with windows that have long been broken. As you make the turn off to start the descent back towards the sea, the glittering Atlantic spreads out in front of you. The surfers of the group peer closely to see what the waves are like, we all look at the long horizon to get a sense of what the weather has in store for us, and we start heading down to the beach.

Before the camp was built, you were met by a group of local men who would offer to help – catch you fish for dinner, build you a fire, organize the tents, and keep watch during the night. There’s less to think about at the camp – Joe’s staff tell you which tent you’re in, you haul your bag and cooler up to your room, do a quick change into your swimsuit and run off the beach for a first swim.

The water is amazing – I prefer the days without much wave, when the warm, clear water is like a bathtub that you can just splash around in. At other times, the surf is intense, and you prepare for a battle every time you head for the water, knowing that you have to swim constantly against the current just to end up in about the same place you got in.

My favorite part is sitting on the veranda of the tents, either watching the sunset with a beer in the evenings or relaxing with a book the next morning, listening to tunes on my portable speakers. Walking along the stunning beaches it is very hard to remember that you are in Liberia – it really is the clichéd ‘different world’ from Monrovia or up-country. It’s such a great place to forget for awhile about all that work waiting for you when you return to the office on Monday. Robertsport also made me think just how lucky we are – though living in Liberia can be pretty difficult at times, here we are just a short drive away from pristine beaches that sometimes feel private, made just for us. I remind myself how much people would pay to go on an amazing vacation to a spot like this anywhere else in the world!


Our new house – the Pink Palace

While I was away in Bangkok in early June for a work conference, my boss and colleague decided that my apartment was too expensive. I totally agreed – the real estate scene in Monrovia is absolutely ridiculous, and landlords charge exorbitant fees ($30k+ per year is the norm for a two bedroom!) for places that are not very well maintained at all. But it was a bit of a shock to come back to Monrovia only to find out that I had to find a new apartment and move in the next week…especially since Nick was out of town.


Luckily a friend knew of a reasonably priced place coming available in her compound. The area is called South Beach – sounds chic, doesn’t it? It is a small group of only 6 apartments, attached two-story places. The address (Gurley Street) is actually a pretty dodgy area – but it is built adjoining another, posh-er group of apartments called Mega Compound. At the end of our street is the beach – but there is also an informal settlement, which are basically just shacks that house most of Liberia’s population.


The house is a loft-style place, and it is one of the most unique places I’ve seen in Monrovia. Most of the apartments we’d seen, including our own, have monstrous rooms with marble or tile floors, intense over-sized furniture, ostentatious decorations, etc. In most places you couldn’t imagine having enough furniture to ever fill the place or make it cozy.


While I was away in Bangkok in early June for a work conference, my boss and colleague decided that my apartment was too expensive. I totally agreed – the real estate scene in Monrovia is absolutely ridiculous, and landlords charge exorbitant fees ($30k+ per year is the norm for a two bedroom!) for places that are not very well maintained at all. But it was a bit of a shock to come back to Monrovia only to find out that I had to find a new apartment and move in the next week…especially since Nick was out of town.


The ‘Pink Palace’, as one of our friend named our compound (it’s kind of pink-ish red…) is the opposite of all of this. The downstairs is one room, which has a tiny kitchen area and living room, high ceilings with wooden beams, and dim-sih lighting. The open stairs curve around to the upstairs, where we have a big open bedroom with built-in wooden closets, a big table we use as a desk, a huge wicker chair with overstuffed pillows and a small bathroom. One of our friends said the place reminds them of a ‘chalet’ – I’m not sure if it’s exactly that, but it is definitely cozy.


Like almost all places in Liberia, our apartment is powered by generator. Unlike our last place, we no longer have power 24 hours a day. We have about 18 hours a day – from 5pm – 8:30am and from 12-2pm. It doesn’t bother me much during the week, since I am at work most of the time. But poor Nick – he is often home during the day, and has to plan ahead to make sure he has everything he needs (laptop battery charged, ipod if he wants to go for a run, email downloaded, etc) before the power goes out. On the weekend it is a challenge – we want to make toast and the power goes off, so it’s back to toasting bread over the gas stove. Or we feel like we should not ‘waste’ the power and hang out at home when it is on, heading for the grocery stores or the pool when it’s off. We try not to open the fridge much, and it gets pretty hot very quickly without the AC. Makes sleeping in kind of a pain!


The parking situation is a bit dire – there is only a very small parking space, enough for each of the houses to have one car parked there IF and only if everyone parks well. Of course that never happens. I routinely get frustrated when I come home that some idiot has parked their giant SUV crooked, taking up two spots, or has parked me in in the morning. I’m getting better at backing out of tough parking spots.


The best part about our place is that the compound next door has a pool that we can use. It’s just a minute away, and almost makes up for having no porch or view whatsoever (our windows look onto the parking lot). But we plan to take full advantage of the outdoor space we have! I have been swimming laps, and it’s great to be back in the water, even if I get dizzy from the million flip turns I have to do (it’s not a very big pool). It’s not heated, but it doesn’t need to be – in the dry season the sun practically boils it so it feels a bit like a bathtub.


I’ve attached a few pics so you get an idea what the place looks like. The strange looking animal is a duiker – it has a gimpy back leg and lives in the compound. It’s pretty tame, as you can see!

Squeekers and the Pink Palace

Squeekers has managed to make the move to full-time housecat happily, and continues to be our major source of entertainment (no comments about us being easily amused, she is damn funny!)

We decided to cat-nap her when we moved to our new place in August. After the 4th of July, she took to living in our house, adopting one of our pot plants as her litter box (stinky) and generally making herself at home. She’d head out every once and awhile – I’m sure to go and get her second dinner – what a piggy. When we moved, it turned out our neighbors had left on a 3 month vacation without making any arrangements! Nick and I had been wanting a kitten so…we cat-napped her.

There are a ton of strays around our new place (which one of our friends named the Pink Palace, though Nick is convinced it’s more red than pink….). So we decided we would keep her inside – the last thing we needed were mini-Squeekys running around. She LOVES to climb – we have a rolled up area rug we can’t bear to put down because it’s become her favorite climbing post. She also climbs the bars on the windows and generally sits anywhere where she can survey the room. She seems quite happy, sitting next to the stove watching us make dinner, looking excited when the DVD player makes its turning on sounds, meowing furiously from the window when she sees our car pull up.

Ok, enough about Squeekers – I don’t want to be one of those crazy cat ladies talking incessantly about their cat, but we really do love her! It’s nice to have he to entertain us – it can get a bit boring around here…

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Squeekers’ ‘dependence’ day

4th of July is officially Squeeker’s ‘dependence’ day. The neighbor cat (who we alternately called Mommy cat or Trouble) had had kittens a few months before – they’d come over to visit the house once or twice. On the 4th of July, I talked Nick into (reluctantly) BBQing hotdogs and hamburgers out on our porch – apparently it’s sacrilege for a real South African to ‘BBQ’ anything (they ‘braii’), especially hamburgers…but I digress.

We had a huge party, lots of food, people in and out and the doors wide open all night. We were zonked and decided to leave the remnants of the party out in the dining room for the night and clean up in the morning. We made sure Trouble and other furballs were out of the house, closed up the sliding doors, and went to bed.

In the morning, we came out to find one full kitten crawling out from under the couch! She had managed to hide away while we were closing up, and must have gorged herself on leftover hotdogs, the dregs of potato salad and hamburger buns to her heart’s content.

From that day on (not surprisingly) Squeekers was a regular at our house. We didn’t want to give her a real name, since she was the neighbor’s cat, so just made a comment on her chatty nature.

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A little slice of (almost) heaven

I wasted a lot of thought over which of the two oversized, overly posh houses we would choose to live in – the one had fancy furniture you couldn’t find anywhere else in Liberia and a huge jacuzzi tub but was (too) close to the office (my colleagues would live upstairs) and had a ridiculously loud generator at the back. The other was right in town and a drive from the office, a ‘slight’ bug problem, huge white rooms that I couldn’t imagine ever being able to fill up and that echoed when you walked around, a tiny kitchen, but a fabulous porch…

We chose the porch. The previous tenant had built wooden benches along two of the railings, had cushions made to cover them and big overstuffed pillows in orange, blue and white to throw against the railings. He had also had billowy white curtains put up along the railings to offer some privacy from the guards as they made their frequent rounds (more to stave off boredom, I am sure), the bright midday sun and the glare of the security lights at night. After work we tossed out the pillows, poured the wine, put on music and just hung out. Sunday afternoons were spent lazily reading on the porch, napping in the sun and wishing the rusty ceiling fan actually worked. I brought back colorful lights from a trip to Chatuchak in Bangkok to light the place up. Friends ate burgers and hotdogs grilled by a rowdy bunch of South Africans on the 4th of July.

Only a few things marred the relaxation of the porch. As many places along the coast in central Monrovia, the beach near our house was used mostly as a latrine, so sometimes when the wind blew the wrong way….well, you get the idea (we called it ‘poo-poo beach’ for a reason!). There was also a finicky water pump at the house next door that wouldn’t stop running – Nick tried everything to insulate it, but for quite awhile it just ran and ran LOUDLY…eventually it got replaced, which meant we were submersed in quiet again. So nice! A mean tom cat took a dislike to the porch at one point (not sure what it ever did to him) and decided to spray…ew. But we got all that sorted out, and that porch was really the best part of the house.

We never did manage to paint walls or hang nice curtains, or even come close to filling up the space. The bugs were exterminated, for the most part – you can never fully get rid of roaches when you live a few blocks from the sea. But none of it really mattered because we hadn’t chosen the house, but the porch. Now that we’re moving out, what makes me the saddest is leaving our little slice of (almost) heaven.

Wall of POWER!

OK, this rocks. Our landlord asked us the other day if we wanted 24-hour power in our place. With the price my organization is already paying for the place (exorbitant, to say the least – upwards of $30k a year) we had to say no to any additional costs.

BUT – it looks like the neighbors decided to go for it. And the best part is that the main wall in our living room adjoins their apartment – and somehow we are on their grid. That means that we have at least one wall of the apartment (luckily the one that the DVD player and TV are attached to!) where we get power all day long. BONUS! It doesn’t sound like much, but if you’ve lived on limited power you’ll know just how exciting that really is.

Bushwhacked!

You may have heard that Bush has just completed his ‘victory’ tour of Africa. His las lap was here in Liberia today – George, Laura and Condy spent 7 hours total here visiting the US-funded armed forces and police training, talking to beneficiaries of the USAID funded education programs, and generally being treated like a ‘white hero’ (as I heard one man proclaim on the street this afternoon).

His visit wreaked havoc on this small city. The entire town was closed down today – I had to work from home because the one major road, which connects my house to the office, was closed from 6am to 4pm. All of the Ministries were shut down, and most businesses closed. But my favorite – the US told all fixed-winged aircraft that they had to vacate Roberts International Airport. As there are really no other safe places to park an airplane overnight, the Red Cross, the UN and the World Food Program (the only ones who have fixed wing aircraft in the country) were effectively kicked out of the country for two days! Can you imagine Bush traveling to London and telling all aircraft they have to vacate Heathrow? And come on, they’re humanitarian services!

I decided to take a walk this afternoon and see what was going on. I stopped and listened with a bunch of guys to a radio broadcast of Bush’s speech from the Army barracks. The Liberian people are so hopeful that this visit, the first American head of state for 30 years to come to the country, will bring all sorts of unimaginable benefits. I also walked down to the barracks, just a few minutes from my house, to check out the crowds. I happened to arrive just as Bush was leaving, and saw the ridiculous motorcade they had – I lost count at about 25 giant black armored SUVs, and even a limo, all imported from the states, along with a ton of other stuff. Ah, US taxpayer dollars at work.

But to be honest, I thoroughly appreciate President Bush’s visit to Monrovia. For one, his route from the airport to the capitol is also my route to work…the Liberian government spent the last few weeks frantically finishing up the road resurfacing for his motorcade, so I now have a relatively pothole-free ride to work! And considering what the ride used to be like – well, let’s just say there is a little less road rage in the mornings 🙂

Nimba

I’m up in Nimba County this weekend – I’m staying in Ganta, where IRC has its main office, but drove around the county a ton to see a number of our projects.

Nimba is beautiful – different than the hilly Voinjama, but also higher altitude than Monrovia and so less humid and stuffy (though still HOT). It borders with Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, and is the area where the fighting has begun in the recent wars. It’s also where many of the returnees came back into after the war. It’s got tons of rubber plantations, which I think are some of the most beautiful forests ever – they’re these seemingly endless, neat rows of white trees with leafy green canopies, and you can see the small rubber tapping cups attached to most of the trunks. I don’t know enough about rubber tapping yet, but when I do I’ll share – come on, you know you’re dying to know more!

Compared to Lofa County, Nimba has a fabulous road network – still painful by Western standards, but most of the dirt roads are graded so they are just bumpy, not nausea inducing , stop-and-go roller coaster rides. There is even a paved road coming in from Monrovia – though I think I prefer the dirt ones. The pavement is so poorly maintained, it’s worse than Minnesota in summer in terms of potholes! The drivers end up driving on the shoulder/dirt most of the time to avoid them. And of course, they are still drivable during the rains, so they’re not at all top priority to fix…Though the roads were pretty good, it was still a LONG day on Saturday, mainly because our driver, Morris, played his Lionel Ritchie greatest hits tape over and over…and over and over. I had never realized how sappy that guy is! We finally got a reprieve when he switched to Westlife. I think I would have preferred to hear ‘Ballerina Girl’ one more time.

I’m staying in the IRC residence with the Field Coordinator and our Blood Safety volunteer, and blissfully have internet. There is also a goat and two cool cats who live here (Rescue and Bossman). I was told that the compound is where Charles Taylor used to stay when he was here – very very creepy.

No pics from Ganta this time, but will take more next time I’m up here and post!

Catching the Train to Bong Mines


I’ve gone once or twice to the Monrovia Hash recently – no, not some seedy drug den! Anyone who’s been an expat in a British influenced place probably knows the hash – the running club with a drinking problem. This past weekend the group organized a trip on the train towards Bong Mines – we rented the whole two cars, and had one ‘open’ car with a bunch of plastic chairs (a lawsuit waiting to happen in the US) and the ‘indoor’ car which has the run-down, dilapidated (and as I found out, roach infested) seats. We traveled for about an hour, got down in a small village and did our run, then set up a huge BBQ. They ran out of water, so I just drank beer! Tired and sweaty, we piled back on the train and went home – I was COVERED in soot by the time we got back!

I loved the sign on the window of the train – it lists out the prices for passengers and their cargo, but goes so far as to distinguish between the price of cats/kittens, ducks/ducklings, goats/nannys, etc. Good to be precise!

It was a neat little trip – the railroads in Liberia at one time spanned most of hte country, but were largely destroyed during the war as they were used to ship government troops to the fighting areas, and the towns around them were pretty much destroyed. There is talk of rebuilding them, which would be huge for private investment and farming, as it would allow the iron ore, food, rubber and other goods to by-pass the TERRIBLE roads and get their products to market much more efficiently.

Lofa

I finally made it out to the field here in Liberia! All my previous trips have been limited to Monrovia and the surrounding areas – like any capital city, it can’t begin to represent all the diversity of the outlying areas. It’s so nice to to get out and see the country a bit!


Historically, the area on the coast around Monrovia was the center of all the development in the country. The settlers from America set up home here, and because of the difficulty of traveling and communicating with the ‘interior’ of the country, didn’t move much beyond the coast. Lofa, which is one of the largest counties along the Sierra Leonean and Guinean borders in the northwest of the country, was also probably the most devastated by the war. Some estimates say that as much as 95% of the population were displaced – forced to flee from their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries. Many more people here speak French from the time they spent in Guinea.


I’m staying in Voinjama, the county headquarters and the biggest town in Lofa. It’s a bit like the wild west here, as one of my colleagues said. The main street is full of colorfully painted wooden shops selling the usual phone scratch cards, gasoline (of a dubious quality) out of glass bottles, bread, some canned food and other basic provisions. The terrain is really rocky, and the dirt roads are rutted and hilly. Most of the government buildings are still in complete disrepair – no windows or doors, just shells really. We drove past one fenced compound where you could imagine a tumbleweed was going to blow by at any minute!


I’m staying at a small guesthouse called the Lofa Lodge. It’s quite nice, really – just a small house with a porch where you can sit outside and have a cup of tea, a little bar which pumps music on the weekends but doesn’t attract much of a crowd, beds with decent mattresses. Electricity almost all night. No running water, but at least they bring you warm water in the mornings for bucket showers! Our office isn’t far from here, and is really nice – painted bright yellow, with colorful flowers and landscaping. It’s all just so much more quiet and relaxed than Monrovia.


I’m here to work on a proposal with some of the staff, so I haven’t had too much time to see the surrounding area. There isn’t much of a nightlife it seems, but the people seem fun. The only place to eat in town is PakBat – the Pakistani UN Peacekeeper’s battalion. They charge a small amount for really great food.


Just a little glimpse into Lofa. I’m hoping I get a chance to come up here more often – it’s such a great break after Monrovia. It feels so much more relaxing…

Up, up and away!


I headed up to Voinjama in
Lofa County today.
I’ve flown in any number of small planes, but it was my first trip in a helicopter!

You can get up to Voinjama by car, but helicopter is SO much easier. Our cars do make the trip up from Monrovia in the rainy season, but I’ve heard so many stories of huge trucks and cars getting stuck in the mud and blocking the road for hours. Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. It’s easier in the dry season, but the dirt roads are terribly bumpy, and the trip can take anywhere between 10 and 15 hours! There has never been a paved road in all of Lofa. It’s been pretty neglected in terms of infrastructure.

The helicopter was pretty cool. It’s an old Russian MI-5 – you feel like you’re in some old war movie, and going to have to parachute out any minute. There were only 5 of us on the flight, so we had plenty of room to spread out on the bench seats that line the walls. The windows were open during the flight, which was nice and breezy but a bit rough when I couldn’t close them in time to block out the dist when we landed!

The landscape in this part of the country is amazing. It’s hard to believe anyone actually lives here – from the air it is just forests as far as the eye can see. The weather was overcast and a bit foggy, which lent a kind of ethereal air to the acacias poking out above the tops of the other trees. The rainy season here is just ending, so things are still lush and green. We’re in the northern hemisphere, just above the equator, so we are going into the drier, hotter winter months. I was surprised to see that a few of the trees had turned bright reds and oranges, and even a few that looked almost hot pink! Reminded me a bit of home.