This is a shoutout to our drivers. Hassan and ... Hassan (We also have a security guy named Hassan.). It seems ripe for some type of ultimate hilarity, but none has blossomed just yet.
Anyhow, driving in Liberia is no easy task. The city is a total sh*tstorm. There are no traffic lights and practically no lanes. It's a hodgepodge of Nissan Sunny yellow taxis, motorbikes and your occasional Japanese/Chinese/American car. It's enough to weave in and out of the traffic - which is accomplished by a simple double beep of the horn - but it's a total other to leave the confines of the city and travel down the much frequented two-lane 'highways'. When we traveled up to Gbarnga last week, a semi (one of the few I've seen) had toppled over. When we traveled back 30 hours later, the truck was still there, stationary on its side - though they were unloading its contents.
Today, we took the trip outside the city to Penson Gold Mine. We didn't know what to expect. We drove our normal route outside the city, where one mile can take 15 minutes in the bustling red light market.
Now, once you leave the city, you encounter potholes the size of half your car. No joke. It provides for a NASCAR like environment, weaving in and out of traffic. Then add cars coming at you in the other direction. Good times.
Passing 15 gate, I knew we were close to the turnoff.
And when we took the left down a jungle like road in Hassan's yellow Honda Odyssey, I hoped we were close.
I asked the owner of the mine, who we'd picked up on our way, how far away we were. 'Oh, close. Very close.' Translation: 'Well, we're a bit farther than you think, but should be there within the hour.'
We didn't go but 50 feet when we encountered your typical Liberian off-road: two totally different tiers of road separated by a ditch. Hassan took the road slowly and below us a huge sound bellowed from the car. It was one of those sounds that you don't expect to hear. Your axel smacking the earth and then scraping for 10 feet. I thought we were done, and we hadn't even gotten 'very close' yet.
It was the first time I questioned our driver. 'Hassan, you sure we can do this?' He got out of the car, peeked underneath, and gave his approval. 'Yes, fine.'
When you're on the road in a foreign country, you have to trust two people: your fixer and driver. Hassan said fine, so I said fine.
For the first time on the trip, I made sure we had our satellite phone somewhere in the back. Last thing I need is for the crew to drive deep into the jungle and our radiator blow, and we're stuck. Not a call I'd like to make to anybody - but at least I'd have the sat phone.
So 25 minutes later - the road did improve - we got to a little village. Every time we emerge from our car in one of these villages - populated by 50 or so people - the eyes of the community always seem to be transfixed on our audio guy, Chip. He's a big guy. He played college football. Maybe 6'4", 265 and built like a fridge. I swear they will be taking about the giant who visited the village for years to come. Always comical to watch the eyes of the children. Two days ago, he scared a pack of kids near Joseph's shack. He wanted to take a picture with the group of kids that had followed us. When he approached them, they scurried like he was the plague. He would later say the shirt with a skull on it probably wasn't the best idea. Funniest thing about Chip is that he's the nicest guy. He brought three soccer balls from the states and handed them out after one of the team's practices to the little kids who congregated around the field. Today, he was friendly as usual as we started our walk from the village.
We still had a journey ahead of us. 'How long?' asked our security guy, Abbas.
'Not far,' said the mine owner.
'Ok guys, let's go,' said Abbas. 'Thirty minutes.'
And it was pretty darn close, along a narrow path, winding trails, walking across single logs of water. I'm glad Indiana Jones was on TV the night before.
Mining is tough. These young men work hard the old school way - with their hands. They sift through pounds of dirt all for about 15 grams of gold per day - maybe $300. And of course, that mostly goes to the owner.
While diamonds were a contributor to West Africa's civil wars, gold also played a role. The mining still goes on today, deep into the jungle.
We spent about 15 minutes there, walked back, and drove to Monrovia. It couldn't have been more than 45 miles on Google Maps, but it was a good six-hour trip.
I'm not complaining, though. Not with Hassan behind the wheel.