I woke up around 7am this morning as the light began to shine into my bedroom window. That’s 3 am Eastern Standard Time and 2 am Central Standard Time. Realizing that I probably needed more rest and that the sun was making my mind play tricks, I put on my sleep mask and forced myself back to bed. By 9:30 my screeching phone alarm had its job cut out. I begrudgingly roused myself from bed and splashed some cold water on my face because I had a date with Monrovia!
Albert, Adisa, and I ventured out into the city to run a myriad of errands. Our first stop was Stop and Shop, a chain grocery store. What a surprise that place turned out to be! On one hand, it has most things that an American grocery store would have. I can buy peanut butter, washing detergents, and corn dogs. Yes, even Hot Pockets. On the other hand, I realized that I’ll be paying out the yin-yang for these items. I had to quickly assess and prioritize my grocery list and ask Albert and Adisa what I should wait to get from the local vendors on the street. There were some things I couldn’t do without – toilet paper and hand soap for example. The toilet paper was 65 cents a roll , and it was $2.75 for hand soap. Not bad, right? However, when it came to most everything else the sticker shock was indescribable. $7.70 for a box of Quaker Oats Strawberries & Cream oatmeal packets. $4.30 for a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce. $4.80 for strawberry jelly. $16.50 for a 32-load size of Tide detergent!
Thankfully, Adisa stopped me before that purchase. I had been thinking Golly, that’s a lot, but I should be thankful for the new washers and dryers we have on the compound. So, I was ready to shell out the absurd amount of money when Adisa showed me some local detergent options. Until I find a scent I like, she suggested I buy the 10-cent individual packets of detergent.
After shopping, we headed to the Royal Hotel. At a restaurant there, WiFi is free. Free, but not fast.
The three of us spent an hour there, checking email and chatting away. I signed up for the Liberia Expat email list, which is the way I found out about this position in the first place. As I looked around, I realized that it was the first place since the airport that I’d seen any white people congregated since I arrived in Liberia. They were all there doing what I was doing, soaking up the free wireless internet and sipping on American colas.
We made our way from the hotel into the CBD (central business district). I wish I could adequately put into words what the streets look like here and all along the path we drove. First, I must explain that there aren’t any traffic lights or signs, so it’s a blessing from up above that anyone makes it anywhere and that they do so without getting injured. Little motorcycles weave in and out of traffic and taxis/busses full of people cause congested intersections. Heck! Without lights, trying to turn left is like playing Frogger!
A note about the taxis… They are shared, meaning that when you get in, you will be squeezed like a sardine into the vehicle. People wait on the side of the road – sometimes for hours—for these taxis and to find one going to the part of the town they wish to get to. In one of these taxi busses, I counted at least 15 grown people. I’m talking about a Honda Odyssey sized van with grown people sitting on top of one another and 4 across!
Second, the streets are lined with shacks, mostly cinder blocks or plastered walls. All of the front doors are open, showing a system of shelves with wares to sell. On the roadside, people litter the streets, trying to sell anything and every thing: knick-knack stuff like fake flowers; sodas and juices; brooms; pens; packets of foreign cookies; clocks; calling cards. Children and women walk around with large buckets on their heads containing doughnuts, peanuts, eggs, bread, or whole dried fish. Some push wheel-barrels full of shoes, clothes, or surge protectors. There is also a slew of beggars.
There are over three million people living in Liberia. One-third of those people live in Monrovia. They ALL want to sell you something! It’s drastically overwhelming. However, the people are not rude.
Adisa explained to me that, because our 6’5” friend Albert was walking with us, we were not being bothered as much as we’d usually be -- because I do not look like a local and neither of us sounds like a local, the street vendors and beggars would normally follow us down the street. Great, I can’t wait for that.
In the CBD I was able to get my iPhone unlocked. For $40, my phone was “jail-breaked” and I got a SIM card from CelCom, one of the local providers here. It was my first experience with haggling. Of course, when the lady at the shop saw me, she wanted to charge more, but I was able to talk her down a few bucks and get the SIM card thrown in for free.
There are loads of street vendors selling “scratch cards,” which are basically calling cards. For $5, I can get about an hour of phone time. I also have the capability of texting. It’s much cheaper for me to call the states than for my friends and family to call me (Before I left the US, AT&T told me it was $3.50/minute to call Liberia).
I also exchanged some US dollars (USD), which is an acceptable currency in Liberia, for Liberian Dollars (LD). The exchange rate is normally about 70:1. Today the exchange rate was 72:1 so, for $20 USD, I pocketed 1,440 LD! It’s necessary to have this stack of LD cash for tips and smaller purchases.
You have to tip everyone from the parking attendants who “watch” your car when you are in the store to the grocery bagger. Thankfully, the tips are about 20 LD a pop – a mere quarter in US money.
I should note two things regarding money. First, US coinage is not accepted. When you go the grocery store and something rings up as $14.75, you cannot offer three quarters as part of your paymentpayment. Rather, you pay with cash. The cashier will give you as much as he/she can in USD and the “change” will be given in LD. Second, the US dollar is not accepted by street vendors for the full 70:1 ratio. Adisa explained that the US dollar is the most counterfeited currency here, so vendors often only accept it at a 50:1 rate.
Adisa – poor thing – has not received her luggage yet. Because flights from Belgium, where our flight originated, only come in on Sunday and Wednesday she won’t likely get her suitcases for a few more days. So, while shopping, we looked everywhere for women’s underwear for her. This is a great place for me to point out that finding new clothing and shoes in Liberia is like finding a diamond ring in a Cracker Jacks box. No new women’s underwear to be found – only used. Yuck! Needless to say, Adisa opted to buy a pair of men’s briefs brand-new in the Hanes packaging!
The last stop in that area was to Abu Jadi’s (I know I haven’t spelled that correctly), which is another grocery store. Technically, it’s called Harbel, but that’s not what the locals know it as. It has a larger selection but pricier items. There, I bought my cold items: a dozen brown eggs for $3, a block of cheddar cheese for $9, one-liter of milk for$1.80, butter for $3.95. There I made a great discovery – bottled water for cheap! A case of six 1.5L bottles is only $4.00!
Water is something I am going to have to start actively thinking about. By that I mean that I need to pay attention to where it comes from, how much I drink, and how much it costs. I overheard Ed, the new director, discuss buying water for the compound. 4,500 gallons (not sure if the amount was gallons or liters, actually) would cost $40. That’s the water that fills our water tower and flows to our sinks and showers. It is not drinkable water, unless you boil it first. Let’s just say that I think long and hard as I’m brushing me teeth – reminding myself to rinse with the water I’ve poured from the water bottle and NOT from the sink!
We drove back towards the compound, passing a variety of government buildings on the way. I saw the Liberian version of the White House. However, the female president has chosen not to live there. I also saw the Temple of Justice – court system – and the buildings that house the Liberian version of the Congress.
Which leads me to our last stop of the day….a (very) late lunch. Albert had scouted out a local place to eat. When I say local, you should just go ahead and imagine a hovel. We drove up to a place where Albert yelled to a woman who was sitting on top of a jug of oil, stirring in a pot. He asked if she still had food; most local places stop serving after lunch, so it was a shot in the dark. When she said she had cabbage, Albert went ahead and ordered a bowl. We parked and went in; Albert couldn’t even stand in the place!
We ordered a liter of beer and split it between the three of us. Adisa was careful to meticulously wipe her glass with antibacterial wipes and dole out the wipes to us for our hands. She began to explain that I needed to make a list of places to eat. Local places should only be frequented if you’ve been taken there by someone you trust. The locals may not cook with clean water, which is a no-no if you want to avoid nasty stomach problems and typhoid. (It was about this time that I began to feel like a character on Oregon Trail and hoping that I wouldn’t die of dysentery or while fording the river.) Albert, being a local, is someone I can trust to be my restaurant guide.
When the “cabbage” came out, it was served with a large plate of rice with three spoons. I learned to spoon the cabbage and fish mixture into the rice. Spicy and oily, but yummy. It reminded me of my dad’s catfish couvillion. Thank goodness we ordered a second bottle of beer to dial down the heat.
When we finished Albert asked the waitress, “How mow?” That’s like Liberian English for “how much?” (Side note: Liberians speak their own dialect of English. I cannot understand it…yet!) The answer shocked me – this time in a good way. $3.90 for the whole meal! Can you believe that all three of us could pay just over a $1 a piece to eat wonderfully when I had just spent almost $8 on oatmeal at the grocery store? We shelled out about 450 LD, which is roughly $6. I plan on becoming a regular at the place, so I wanted to tip well and gain favor with the cook. In fact, Albert has told me that once I get familiar with the cook, I can begin to make requests for what I want to eat and can bring Tupperware containers to fill up and take home for dinner! This situation would be ideal because the restaurant it across the street and a block away from the school’s compound.
I definitely want to get to know the cook and let her know that I’d like to stick to chicken or fish. I’m told that most times, the meat is “bush meat.” Quite frankly that means that whatever is killed in the bush is what ends up on your plate. I’m not ready to be a connoisseur of rat meat or whatever else might be thriving in those weeds. Maybe, I’d like it. Perhaps my stomach and I will have to forge a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
By the way, Harold has met his maker…and the bottom of my shoe.