Upon closer inspection I realize that Monrovia isn’t dirty. At least not in the way I had it etched in my mind. There is dirt. The rainy season is ending and dirt – the dried remnants of rivers of mud – lines the street and abuts curbs. But this morning, I noticed that people had swept, were sweeping, the previous days trash into little piles. The garbage was – well – tidy. Little mountains of plastic bags and orange shavings ushered neatly together; joined by other small piles.

The end result…streets that whisper order into the face of chaos. And Monrovia does have its share of chaos.

Taxis vie with UN and INGO trucks for space on the road, swerving to miss potholes and each other. People wander into the street in a game of crosswalk chicken. Pedestrians dare cars to hit them as they scurry- or amble depending on ability and inclination- across a four lane street that is transformed into 5 or 6 lanes as old and rusting vehicles bob and weave for space and distance.

On the sidewalks- between men holding up any number of once living objects: chickens, bush rat, shrimp the length of a bar of soap- people signal with their hands where they want to go…finger in the air or hand outstretched in a kind of chopping gesture. As taxis slow to let someone out, a crowd gathers at the door gently pushing for space. Four people shove into the back and the taxi winds its way toward town. Silly me, I thought it would take us where we requested; instead it dropped us in the general vicinity, more bus than taxi. No bother, the ocean is a great landmark.

Monrovia isn’t that different from other cities I’ve been in. it could be Kandy (Sri Lanka) only there are more blighted buildings and fewer green handrails here. It could be Maputo or Nairobi. But it isn’t.

And when the sun set and the stores closed for the night the city took on a completely different flavor. There are only a few street lights to cast yellowish-orange rings of focused light on patches of sidewalk that spill – barely- into the street. Where shops had shuttered and bolted their doors, market women, their wares balanced in big bags or colorful buckets on their heads, laid out piles of used underwear and shirts for sale. Popcorn, fish, and coconut vendors sat placidly waiting for hunger to strike. Street kids darted between cars.

Despite being various shades of brown, BushDiva and I stood out as foreign – me with my light skin and fast walk; her with her dreadlocks and socked feet in Tevas. We looked like an easy mark but posed more of a challenge as we changed course frequently, left side right side, road sidewalk.

Back toward the convent, the bustle of city nightlife mostly behind us, the darkness reached for us. Shadows from the brick wall enclosing the compound threw shadows carelessly across our path making the last block seem like the longest.  Finally we reached the gate where we greeted the guards posted just inside and made our way to our room thankful for a different perspective on the city and for the sanctuary of leaving it behind.

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