Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Livin' la Vida Liberia #1

For those who do not know, I just arrived back in the country on February 4 from my trip to Liberia. I brought home our new, 2-year-old daughter, Georgia. While there, I wrote a journal so my wife could have a feel for what I felt and went through while there. This entry isn't from the journal, but it will give you an idea of what daily life was like. More about my trip and experience will come (including pictures) , and they'll all be labelled "Livin' la Vida Liberia".


Imagine waking up at 5 AM because the rooster outside, who you have lovingly named "Breakfast", is talking long distance to the other roosters in the neighborhood and trying to welcome the sun 2 hours before it will rise. You dose back off, trying to ignore the cock-a-doodle-doo every three minutes, but you are awakened again at 6 AM. The generator has shut off for the day, which means no more cool air and until the sun comes up, complete darkness.

Imagine finally rolling out of bed at 7 AM because you just can't lay there anymore. Your first act of business is the same as anywhere else in the world - a trip to the bathroom. However, with the generator now off, the electric pump that would have flushed your toilet is no longer working. So, once you finish with whatever your business is, you grab the 5-gallon bucket of water next to the toilet and pour some in to get things down the drain.

Imagine eating one of three things for breakfast every day for three weeks. Always eggs...the only surprise will be this: fried in oil or scrambled with onion? And...always bread. It's going to be french toast, pancakes, or sweet bread (which is about the consistency of corn bread, only much sweeter). Lunch will be Liberian: white rice with some kind of "soup". The soup is what you pour over the rice, and it will have either chicken or beef in it. (You've noticed plenty of chickens running around, but you haven't seen a single cow in all your travels through Monrovia, Liberia...where'd the beef come from? Best not to ask.) Your dish will be named by the vegetable in the soup. It's not a lot of veggie, but it's all you get each day. Chicken with hot peppers and potato greens over rice is simply called "potato greens". Beef with hot peppers and cabbage over rice is simply called "cabbage". You get the picture. Dinner will be American-type food...like ordering American food in a Chinese or Mexican restaurant...it will look vaguely American and taste good, but it's not exactly the same. Hamburgers, pizza, chicken, etc.

Imagine taking a walk every day, but before walking, you layer on the SPF 50 sunscreen you brought with the bug spray (99% deet) over it. You walk everywhere, and you probably average about 2.5 miles a day in walking. You can walk along the beach, where people are having their morning bathroom time right out in the open. Their "bathroom" is the grassy area just out of the sand of the beach (Note to self...do not walk there). As you move along the beach, you will face the Atlantic Ocean and enjoy the beauty of the waves crashing or see fishing boats in the distance. If you look down the beach, you will notice trash, trash, and more trash. There are some homes that look nice, but many others seem either burned out by the recent war, incomplete, or shack-like (reminding you more of the clubhouse you and your cousins built in your grandmother's backyard).

Imagine walking through the market. Any street can be turned into a market, as men, women, and children have small tables or stands set up in front of their homes. Some are selling small bags of rice, some peppers, some fruit, and a few sell luxuries like Coke (but you really have to look for them). Many vendors will sell you a casaba cooked over hot coals. These are potato-like root vegetables that are soaked in water before cooking, and they remind you of eating a sweet potato with a crispy exterior. The ones soaked in salt water are best. You can also buy sugar cane on the street. It is peeled for you, and then you bite of the fibrous material inside. You chew and get all the sweet juice out of it...then you spit out the fibers themselves.

Imagine seeing the people in the market. Though they are distinctly Liberian, many have on T-shirts that are very American...advertising The Dells in Wisconsin, 50 Cent (he's a hip hop artist, for those who don't know), and even various universities in the US. Some, however, are dressed in more traditional, Liberian clothes...bright, colorful wrap skirts or suits. You can see many boys, girls, and women carrying things on their head. From a bucket of peanuts to laundry to giant bunches of plantains, anything and everything seems to be transported on the head. When you ask, you will learn that this skill is taught from an early age, so it is quite natural to them.

Imagine being seen as a continual source of financial aid. Not everyone has hit you up, but everyone on the street wants to quickly call you their friend, learn your name, get your cell phone number, and tell you their story. The unfortunate thing is that if you help someone openly, then you will never be left alone again. Men and women will argue with you...telling you how unfair it is to help one but not help everyone. It's a little like getting caught with gum in second grade... "Do you have enough for the whole class?"

Imagine walking past a school and having a pocket full of Tootsie Rolls. Your pockets are full of candy on purpose...you came to give it to the children. The children see you coming, and they begin to swarm around you. You are reminded of the scene in Finding Nemo when the birds kept saying "Mine." "Mine." "Mine." Now, however, precious little faces are looking at you, and empty hands are extended toward you. All you can hear is, "White man...white man...white man...white man." As you give out the candy, they see that it's coming from your pockets, and now you wish you would have tied the draw string on these shorts because it feels like they may "de-pants" you at any moment if it means more candy. You decide that this is the last time you'll bring candy here because you see older children pushing and hitting the younger children to take their Tootsie Roll away.

Imagine never feeling clean. Imagine dust and dirst being on every square inch of your body. You wash your feet twice a day, but there's still dirt you can't get off. You wish you had an SOS pad or something to get the dirt out from around your toe nails. Even after your evening shower (which will run scalding-freezing-scalding-freezing...though you are thankful for the few seconds in between these two extremes), you feel dirty. You have to put on socks immediately or else you will have dirt-covered feet all over again. The other reason you want to wear the socks is because you've got to try and keep sand and dirt out of your bed.

Imagine that each day, one of your greatest moments is when you hear the beep of the wall-mounted air conditioners at 7 PM. The generator has kicked on, and you will have electricity for the rest of the night. Of course, everything's in Chinese...the TV/DVD remotes, the air conditioner remotes, etc. Everything has been shipped in from China, but you don't care. You'll get to stop sweating for a few hours, play cards, watch "Cheaper by the Dozen" for the fourth time, and go to sleep in a soft bed.

Imagine that in the midst of all this, you are getting to know your new daughter...what scares her, what makes her mad, what makes her smile, what makes her laugh, what comforts her, etc. You are attaching to her, and she is attaching to you. You weren't quite sure how you could love another child like you love those you already have, but it happened all the same. You're in love, and one day, she'll realize it. She'll know she's got you wrapped around her finger, but for now, you just enjoy her. When she's scared, she nestles her head between your neck and shoulder. When she smiles, she lights up the room. When she sleeps, you stare in awe and wonder and thank God for every moment you get to be her daddy.