Sierra Leone, AFRICA
Dealing with Uncle Sam
(5 minute read)
...there is is, the perfect ride...
Today's the day.
I'm actually going there...
Baby heart eating, child soldier, crimes against humanity, Liberia.
Nightmares aside, border crossings give me the jibbers, and this one's bound to be a doozy...
I'm shitting cinderblocks.
According to the maps that I’ve got, the only road that looks like it’s going in the direction of the border goes for about a hundred clicks and then stops at a dead end. Road to nowhere.
I ask some locals on the ride out, and they kind of confirm that it should be ok, it should get me to the border.
I try to explain my misgivings using my maps, but this just seems to utterly confound everyone I ask. Don’t ask me why, but this happens all the time; maps always seem to confuse the situation. Like no one's ever seen a map, or even get's the concept... Maybe they don't?
Getting directions here sucks. I can't use maps, and I have to be very, very careful about how I word questions, because if the answer can be binary, it will always, always be in the affirmative. An example: “Is the border this way?” - with pointing - will always get you an answer of “yes”. It doesn’t matter where you’re pointing. So, instead, you have to ask a non-binary question. Asking “which way is it to the border?” can't get you an answer of "yes", and if it does, you should definitely move on... I wish someone had told me this a long time ago; the amount of time spent fucking about on wild goose chases...
I decide to go with the locals on this one. The alternative is to take a fat detour, which I'm not keen on. Plus, why would they build a one hundred kilometer road to nowhere? Right?
I take off. No going back.
The road quickly turns from the good tarmac into loose gravel and rock.
It’s actually brilliant. Tarmac, especially the good stuff, is a bit soulless. It’s easy, sure, but it lacks character. Dirt roads are always changing, never the same, always engaging, always interesting. Fun. You really feel like you’re riding.
This one looks like being a ripper. It's just good enough that I can take my eyes off the track for long enough to enjoy the surrounds without the fear of hitting something I'd wish I hadn't. It's just true enough that I can take your hand off the bars to wave to someone passing by, and not die for it. It's just rough enough that I can't just belt it without not thinking about it.
The perfect ride.
The dense rainforest crowds in on the dirt track and canopies overhead, enveloping my whole world in green, shading my path.
There’s hardly a soul out here. No villages to speak of, really.
"Traffic" is the very occasional Chinese-plastic-piece-of-shit motorbike, usually broken down. I try and lend a hand where I can.
There's also the occasional truck, which are a bit of a nightmare; they throw up a huge volume of the talcum-powder-like dust, completely browning out all vision. To get past them I have to put up with a few minutes of being increasingly dust-blasted till I'm right up behind their wheels, copping it, and, when I dare, squeezing down between the bouncing truck and the trees.
I'm glad there's not many of them.
The morning and some of the afternoon goes.
I'm still miles from the border, as I pull into a tiny village called Zimmi. This is where the road was meant to end... I'll take a break. I turn off the bike and it goes silent, except for... is that... Celine Dion??
I've been hearing Celine Dion a lot, but out here, in the middle of the middle of nowhere, hours from anything, it's Celine. Again.
She's popular here in Africa. Hugely popular. Go figure. It's like going back in time a few decades.
I've no idea why. It's bizzare.
No, it's not bizarre, It's all coming back to me now...
I spot further up the road (which is still going, by the way) a border post.
"Bit early for that, isn't it?"
The actual "geographical" border line must be hours of riding away...
I quaff lunch, and go and check out of the country.
It's no dramas. Easy peasy
About seven hours after leaving Kenema, I land on the geographical border line, in a rough as guts border town named Bo. It's not remote anymore. It's busy.
It’s late in the day. I’m pretty tuckered out. I'm panicking a little. I don't know if I'm happy to attempt a border crossing this late in the day... I get spooked even doing them in the afternoon.
I can feel the pressure of having to get this border crossing perfect.
There’s another Sierra Leone border post here at Bo, and they want to go through the motions again.
I manage to fob them off; I've done it all already, I'm not doing it again. I talk my way out of it.
Getting to the bike, the usual crowd has milled around to have a gawk.
While I'm whacking on my helmet, a military guy with a big gun and a hard face that reveals an utter lack of a sense of humour, walks up to me and points at my saddle bags, “What is in here!?" he shouts "I want to see everything. You show me. Now!”
I hate it when this happens.
It’s rare that these guys understand how much they can make this puppet dance: a lot.
Pain in the arse more than anything...
I deflect. Shake his hand with big smiles, ask him what his name is? Had a good day? Does he like the bike? Does he have a bike? He does!! That's great. Aren't motorbikes great? I'm really glad you like the bike! That's an awesome gun! Really cool! How far is it to the next village? Is it ok there? Not Dangerous? Are you sure? Great! Hey, Sierra Leone's been great. Such nice people here. Hey, where’s a good place to get food? It’s been a long day, I’ve come from Kenema. Where do you live? Hey, that's great. Anyway, really nice meeting you. Have a nice day!!
Waves all round.
I’m actually getting pretty good at this.
I cross a bridge and I’m onto the Liberian post. Here we go.
The usual swarm of people come rushing up to offer their services as soon as I’ve turned the key. Like flies to shit. I have to wade through that to get to the post.
The border post building itself is actually pretty decent, a nice brick building.
Immigration are behind a very professional looking sheet of Perspex, which is usually a good sign that they’ve got their shit together.
Thwack. Passport stamped.
I’m in. Too easy.
They point me to where customs are but that’s not too helpful. For some reason there are two lots of customs and I go to the wrong one, bark up the wrong tree, and then get sent off somewhere else.
In the end, customs turns out to be three guys in plain clothes chilling out on a veranda behind a desk.
At least I'm not interrupting their lunch...
I introduce myself around and hand them the bike’s papers and ask for a Temporary Import Permit (Liberians speak English, so it’s TIP’s and not LP’s here).
They won't give me one. No TIP.
The bloke who introduced himself as “Uncle Sam” tells me my rego papers will be fine. His reasoning: “You're already in Liberia, so you don’t need it. You’re in Liberia, the motorbike is in Liberia, you don't need to import it. No embarrassment.”
If it were true then that would be awesome - no paying for annoying TIP’s - but I know that it's not, I know that I need one, that if I’m caught without one there’ll be trouble.
I know that it'll come back to bite me in the arse.
I tell "Uncle Sam" as much, but he’s not budging. He just keeps saying “no embarrassment”.
I beg him. I don’t care if I don’t need it, I’d like one anyway, please.
You don't need one. No embarrassment.
I can't reason with him. I can't pay him. "No embarrassment, I promise you, no embarrassment."
I try to find someone else who might help me out. In the process I get asked questions about all sorts of other shit I’d rather not be talking about; One guy thoroughly checks out my immunisation card and say's it doesn't have yellow fever... Shit! I explain to him that the one marked “typhoid” is a special injection - multiple, big injection! - that covers everything. What a load of shit. He gives me a sort of look, and then just waves me off. I can’t believe I’m still getting away with this... I resolve to forge a yellow yever vaccination in that book the next chance I have.
In the end there’s no big boss that I can talk to. I try Uncle Sam out one last time, but he just says “No embarrassment. You tell them to talk to Uncle Sam if you have a problem, ok?”.
It’s too late to try anything else; the light is fading in a country that I’m a stranger to. Gotta go.
I initially wanted to make it to the capital, Monrovia, but the folks at Immigration told me I wouldn’t make it there by sunset. They also advised me that "riding around Monrovia in the dark is a very bad idea..." So I settle on a seaside village named Robertsport, which is just a fraction closer.
I want to get Liberia done like a band-aid, just rip the bloody thing off and have it over with...