I had fretted for months before about the trip, having come up with the idea that, after the years of civil war, capped off by the 2014 Ebola pandemic, it was time to see if Liberia was ready to be a travel destination.
“We’ll be tourists!” I had cajoled. “We’ll go to the beach, we’ll go to Kpatawee waterfalls, we’ll go to Sapo National Park. And think of the food!”
The mention of the food had eroded their initial dubiousness. Liberian food is “sweeeeeeet” — Liberian English for “so delicious you want to cry.” We boarded the flight home with thoughts of palm butter, bitterleaf, fufu and proper Liberian jollof rice, in our heads.
The central question, though, was: Could we really spend two weeks in Liberia as tourists? Liberia had long been that fantastically beautiful place that had never seemed able to deliver on its travel destination potential: sandy white empty beaches, but with no roads leading to them; lush tropical rain forests but with no place to go to the bathroom; an open people who love foreigners but few flights to link them.
About a year and a half ago, I had stumbled on a Liberia tourism video on YouTube that started to answer the question.
The video, set to highlife music, was enticing yet real at the same time. “Experience our Children!” a bunch of adorable uniformed schoolchildren said, laughing into the camera, which nonetheless captured the dirt roads these children walked on every day. “Experience our Culture!” was followed by a clip of a pekin (Liberian English for frisky child) with no shoes doing a complicated dance involving wide leg sweeps, accompanied by drummers. “Experience our Natural Beauty!” had a wide gorgeous smile from a Liberian park ranger showing off peaceful rain forest lagoons, tented lodges on the beach and real-life Liberian surfers cresting waves. Whoever put the video together hadn’t shied away from the tattiness of the capital city of Monrovia, which was featured in all of its dilapidated glory.
This trip was Cooper’s first visit to the Third World, and I was eager to see how he would do. In the back seat of the car as we navigated Monrovia’s traffic, Cooper was glued to the window: Market women with baskets of oranges on their heads and babies on their backs battled with young boys selling small plastic bags of ice water. At major intersections, all manner of bushmeat, fish and poultry were available for purchase by car passengers too lazy to pull over and walk to the side of the road. So sellers came to them. One guy thrusted what looked like an aardvark at us.
“Bucket,” Cooper said, quietly to himself, at one point, when we passed a woman balancing a bucket on her head. He seemed particularly fascinated by the size and weight of what the Liberian women carried on their heads, plugging into the image that more than anything else, tells the story of the continent of Africa as a whole. “Look, she’s carrying two things on top of each other!” he exclaimed.
He struggled with the heat at first — on Day 1, at a party a friend of mine had for children who had lost their parents to Ebola, Cooper, fascinated by the traditional Liberian dance and the drummer Emmanuel Lavelah, shuttled back and forth from the band to the porch to stand directly in front of the fan with a glass of ice water, looking pitiful and torn.
But I knew “Experience our Beaches!” would help that. The next day, we headed on an overnight trip to Libassa, an eco-resort outside Monrovia that came with thatched rondavels, multiple terraced swimming pools, a lagoon, and a “lazy river.” All of this was set to the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.
Libassa, run by a French and Lebanese couple on a pristine spot that they leased from local Liberian villagers who now comprise the staff, is serene by morning and frenetic by afternoon. When the sun rises, the place is peaceful, as the lagoon laps at its mangrove forest and barracuda, snapper and grouper enjoy the solitude. Overnight guests emerge from mosquito-netted beds and make their way from the porches of their rondavels to the breakfast area.
The calm remains until around early afternoon, when the secluded oasis turns into a water park, as families show up to play in the lazy river, letting the current jets do the swimming for them. It’s a total scene, amplified by Liberia’s strange breed of cultural quirks: We generally don’t swim well (maybe because the country’s tropical coastal location gives the ocean a fierce undertow), so Libassa’s lazy river was full of young Liberian couples on dates in which guys were supposedly teaching young women how to swim.
When we were there, the floating deck on the lagoon that had been so peaceful in the morning was crammed by afternoon with Lebanese expats smoking hookahs in gender-segregated groups. We even got to see a fight, when a group of Lebanese women started demanding loudly of their men why they were in Liberia for Christmas instead of Rabat or Casablanca. Then the women got up en masse and stomped back up to the resort’s restaurant area.
Still, my quest to experience Liberia as a tourist was going well. What to hit next?
“Experience our wildlife!” O.K., so about that. Listen, this is West Africa, not East Africa. So instead of lions and cheetahs,
we’ve got Monkey Island! Actually, we have six of them. And surely six islands, inhabited solely by chimpanzees (which does not stop Liberians from calling the islands Monkey Island) is something.
The Monkey Island story is typically Liberian — foreign exploitation, war, disease, redemption, all rolled into one. For 30 years, the New York Blood Center used a colony of chimpanzees in Liberia for medical research. That finally ended in 2005, and the chimps and their children were given free rein on the islands, on the Farmington River just outside Monrovia. In 2015 the blood center said they wouldn’t pay to feed and care for the chimps anymore. A public furor ensued, and eventually the Humane Society and other donors stepped in to continue the feeding and care program.
The chimpanzees now live on the six islands on the river. There are around 50 of them altogether. One morning we paid some local fishermen $25 to paddle us an hour each way through mangrove forests to the islands. We saw the chimpanzees’ caretaker toss them bananas from his canoe. (Because people don’t set foot on Monkey Island, it’s solely for the chimps.) The most famous one, Bullet, was shot in the arm during the civil war so only has the use of three appendages, but he, like his Liberian compatriots, has proved himself pretty resilient and is one of the dominant chimps. There are no organized tours, but going with the local oarsmen is a great way to help the local economy.
For Experience our Natural Beauty! day, we headed to Robertsport, in my opinion the coolest of all of Liberia’s, um, resort towns. Robertsport is where the ship the Harriett landed, carrying my great-great-great-great grandfather Randolph Cooper and his four brothers, all freed American blacks who boarded in Norfolk, Virginia, back in 1829. They and other black people were sent to settlements in West Africa that became Liberia as part of an effort by the American Colonization Society to rid the United States of black freemen. A lot of Liberia’s recent political turmoil, including the civil war, can be traced back to its tortured history that is rooted in American slavery.
The city of Robertsport still has some of the historic zinc settler houses from the 1800s, some of them still occupied by generations of the same families. The town — nestled between the lush, green Grand Cape Mount and the mouth of the 40-square-mile, drop-dead gorgeous Lake Piso — oozes with this tatty yet genteel civility, inhabited by people and ruins. The remnants of Bethany Hall at St. John’s Episcopal High School tower sit at the edge of a hill overlooking the sea, slowly being reclaimed by nature.
The ruin has a stunning view of the cove where the freed blacks who arrived on the Harriett carved their names onto a cottonwood tree on the beach.
That tree sits on one of the best beaches in the country. Unlike the beaches closer to Monrovia, the beach at Nana’s Lodge, a surf retreat in Robertsport with Robinson Crusoe-like lodges on stilts for overnight guests, doesn’t have killer — I mean this literally — waves and fierce undertow that beat you black and blue before dragging you out to sea. Instead, the angle of the coastline creates ocean swells from the south that make waves as high as 20 feet peel along the coast rather than just dumping straight on. If you surf, these are waves you can ride forever. They are so long and gentle that even I kind of learned how to surf there, even though I was never quite able to stand up.
Nana’s Lodge, owned by a Liberian named Musa Shannon, offers a simple lunch in a beachside shack. On New Year’s Day, we had fresh grilled grouper, rice and kidney beans with Liberian style pepper sauce, and pineapple for dessert.
Cooper had stayed in the water all day, coming out only to eat and to take his obligatory picture by the cottonwood tree signed by his ancestor.
In the days to come, we would Experience our Hotels!, trying cane-juice caipirinhas on the sexy and stylish roof bar at the Royal Grand Hotel in Monrovia, where the Lebanese expat Omar Eid has carved out a Miami-Beach-meets-West-Africa vibe. My mom and sisters — shopping maniacs — would Experience our Artwork! in full, filling up their suitcases with fanti clothing, wooden canes, black mahogany masks and intricate mini statues made out of spent bullet shells from the civil war.
Cooper would certainly Experience our Culture!, pursuing every redheaded lizard he came across, chasing after a ball on the beach with local children, learning Liberian English via the “Tell Your Ma Say I Here” song that was popular on the radio stations. This all culminated that last night, when his new friends at Mamba Point Hotel presented him with a gorgeous wooden locket and armband with his name engraved.
By that last night, we all thought we had answered the question of whether we could be tourists in our homeland with a resounding yes.
But as I watched the waves lapping at Nana’s Lodge beach in Robertsport while my nephew played in the water, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had cheated a little. A D.J. was playing an upbeat Barry White. Pretty 20-somethings were playing “Corn Hole,” the American college game. At a plastic table next to us, a group of Liberians and Lebanese were drinking Club Beer while a stray dog padded around the table looking for scraps.
Barry White was singing “I know…there’s only…only one like you; There’s no way…they could have made two,” and everyone around me was just, well, chill. There’s no other word for it. And I realized there was nowhere I would rather be, than with my family on this beach, standing a few feet from the tree that had greeted my great-great-great-great-great granddaddy when he first landed from America.
Can Liberia be a travel destination? Maybe.
Can Liberia be a travel destination for me?