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This a guest post from Brian Ryden. Learn how you can contribute to My Gay Travel Guide here.
I remembered my time in Liberia working in the Rubber Plantations for Firestone. I had just graduated from college, it was two months after my father died and I found myself thousands of miles away from home among a people I never imagined…but ones I grew to love quickly.
I remember times down in the camps on evenings or even Sunday’s sometimes. I would walk past a building that they were using for a meeting house and I would hear these people inside singing their hearts out praising God. This was a few years before I had my own Christian experience so I did not understand it as I should have, but I still knew that something magical was happening inside. But I was on the outside and even a little scared about thinking what was going on. I left Liberia a few months later, before the country descended into decades of hell. How often I think of those people I left back there. Sometimes I wonder if they made it through, but for these questions there are no answers.
When I left I was flying to New York and when we got to Dakar in the Senegal I decided to get off the plane and play the tourist. It was a special time for tourists then and I did not need a visa so I was able to get one at the airport and stay on. I went downtown and checked into a hotel and spent a few days looking around and enjoying the city. I remember one night I ran into this girl, she was a missionary on her way to what was then Upper Volta. She and I rented a taxi for the night and had him take us all over; it was a grand time.
Then I got the crazy idea of going back to Liberia. I heard there was a train that went to Bamako in Mali and I thought if I took that I could catch a bus to the Ivory Coast and then a flight from there to Liberia. I remember running around Dakar looking for the American Embassy. I could not find it for anything. Finally someone told me to ask for the Embassy Etat Unite or something like that. I went back down to the taxi driver and told him and he said a-ha!, he took me to this building and pointed up, it was on the seventh floor and naturally no elevators. But I had found it.
I told them I was looking for the train station. I had done everything trying to explain to the driver where I wanted to go, I did the Choo Choo thing, trying to imitate the sounds of the train. The people at the Embassy said I wanted the station for the blah blah, I can’t remember the word now. And the taxi driver said a-ha!, and knew what I wanted and took me there.
I arrived and thought I would save some money and bought a second class ticket to Bamako. I proceeded to the train and when I got there I looked at the second class cars and said I don’t think so. It was not much better than a cattle car with benches. I went back in and changed my ticket to a first class ticket. I did not realize until it was too late that they sold twice as many tickets in first class as there were seats in the car. It was a mess.
I ended up for two days sitting on the part of the cars that was actually between it and the car in front of it. At night I would sleep under the bar in the ‘entertainment’ car. It was horrible, but you know what, I would love to live that trip over again.
We got into Bamako and I realized one of the great truths of Saharan cities at that time: you could smell them before you could see them. About twenty miles before we got to Bamako I could smell it.
When we arrived I proceeded to check into a hotel for a few days. But guess what, I was broke. I had money back in the States but my pocket money was all gone…I had used it all. I knew I would have to go to the Embassy and find a way to send for money the next day. But something so serendipitous happened that morning at breakfast.
There was only one other ‘white’ couple in the restaurant; translate that as people who spoke English. And of all things they were not only from Pennsylvania, where I was from, they were from Erie where I was from. They were from the part of town near where my parents lived, they even knew the street and to top it off they were good friends with my high school Chemistry teacher. It is indeed a small world.
I took the chance and asked them if they could cash a check for me. I figured forty dollars would get me to the coast where I could catch a plane back to Liberia. It would be a three-day trip by whatever transportation I could find. I went to the area of town where all the buses gathered. I found the area where the buses were leaving for the Ivory Coast and made a deal with the driver to take me for fifteen what were then Central African Francs. I went out to the bus; it was really a converted truck with a big box attached. I looked in and saw all kinds of people, babies, chickens, goats and other critters. I swallowed hard and went back to the driver. I asked him if I paid an extra five CFA’s could I sit up in front with him. The language barriers were enormous but after about twenty minutes of back and forth it was agreed.
I took my seat in the middle, and beside me on one side was the driver and on the other side was a guy with a machine gun—he was the guard I guess. It was funny I didn’t even hesitate; today I would think I was crazy to do such a trip. But then I was young and stupid.
On the first day I was so surprised when the vehicle would stop and everyone would pile out and get out their prayer rugs and do their daily prayers. It was my first real exposure to the Muslim faith. I did not speak French or Mandingo, the Central African dialect, but we managed to communicate.
On the evening of the second night we were traveling along a dirt highway and all of a sudden the vehicle pulled up to this river bank and stopped, It was totally dark and nothing, you could see nothing. It was the first and only time I was apprehensive and had a bit of fear for my safety. The driver honked his horn and flashed his lights and in a few minutes I saw some flashlights across the river. Shortly then a ferry came across, it was pulling itself with a rope that was strung across the river. We proceeded to put the bus on the ferry and pulled ourselves across the river. In many ways I was glad it was dark, if I could see clearly what was probably in the river and the condition of the ferry I would have really had second thoughts.
Well we got across and it was a signal to the town to have a party. At three in the morning everyone came out and made a grand old time. The only food at that time of the day was coffee with bread and butter but I liked it. These little kids would come up to me and rub my arms, I don’t know if they were seeing if they could rub the white off or they had never been exposed much to foreigners. But it was fun. After an hour we gathered everyone up and headed south towards the coast.
I knew there was a plane that would be leaving Abidjan for Monrovia that day at four. It would be the only plane that week. We got into town at five so I knew I would be stuck. I checked into a hotel, but something made me call the airport to double check. It turned out that the plane had problems with a door and was five hours late. By that time I was out of funds again and knew if I could not get some quick from the states I would be there for another week.
I was working for Firestone then; it was in my passport. I went to the Firestone dealer in the city and proceeded to borrow eighty dollars from them to cover a plane ticket and some clothes. My clothes by this time were so dusty and dirty, you would not believe. This money was repaid to them when I returned to the States. I found out after I bought my ticket that I really only had enough for a shirt. So I bought a new shirt and cut my pant legs off as high as I could and still be proper. I got on the plane and took a seat in the absolute rear of the plane. It was a dinner flight and the stewardess handed me my dinner and gave me this look of disgust I still remember. I was such a vagabond.
I arrived at Monrovia and proceeded to find some friends, spent a few weeks and then really went home. But the story is not over yet.
Two years after I returned, I was going through one of the drive up tellers at the bank. I handed him my check to cash and he looked at my name and exclaimed. ‘You are the guy who sent us a check from Africa written on a napkin’! My mouth dropped and I said yes, and asked how he knew. He said that the bank saved that check and they use it at their training sessions to demonstrate all the strange things that can happen at the bank. I knew that as long as I had the right numbers that the check—a napkin—would be honored, and it was. I also knew one of the banks Vice Presidents and gave the name to the people just in case.
So that is my story of my travels through the southern Sahara and then on to the coast. It is amazing that I have such good memories. But you know what is funny? In all those days of travel I don’t remember once using a bathroom. I know the mind is good at erasing bad memories, and maybe that is what is happening now…I’ve used bathrooms in sixteen countries, but I can’t remember any from Central Africa. Go figure.
Brian Nelson Ryden is a writer that lives in Yuma, Arizona. He was lucky enough to start traveling at a very early age with his parents’ blessings & cautions. He hasn’t stopped traveling since then: “I am a risk taker, with the scars to prove it”
Check out Brian’s blog –> Ryden’s Guide to Grace
photo via tonynetone