By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
Sarah Saunders of Isle of Palms and her friend Gabe were five months into their hitchhiking adventure through Africa when the pandemic flared up. Until then, people had greeted them with curiosity and generosity. But the vibe was changing.
“People were mean-mugging us. …” No one would sit with them on buses. Whispers accused the white people of bringing the virus to Africa. When they arrived late one night in Monrovia, Liberia, it all became apparent. Unable to reach their Couchsurfing host, they hailed a taxi to go to the meet-up point. The driver was cautious.
“When we arrived on Benson Street, with its completely dark streets packed with people and littered with garbage, I understood his concern,” Sarah wrote on her blog (the-nomaddicts.com/). They settled in to wait under a streetlight.
“Usually, the attention you receive is innocent curiosity or a desire to sell you something. …” But in this sketchy part of town, with all of their belongings in tow, they were concerned about drawing the wrong kind of attention.
“It wasn’t long before we were spotted by a stocky and staggering man with a glass eye and a stutter. … I thought he was drunk, but he presented us with a tattered and faded ID card that read DEA agent.”
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“We are waiting on a friend,” they responded.
A crowd formed. One man shouted to defend them.
“You want to hit me?” the DEA agent spat.
The crowd got more vocal.
Had Sarah and Gabe been tested? Quarantined? Where had they come from? Finally, their host sped up in a car. “… we grabbed our things and ran toward the car, shoving ourselves in as quickly as possible. The DEA man grabbed the door and began to force his way into the car. All of a sudden, we saw a wave of hands grab the man. … and pull him off the car. We slammed the door and drove down a side street to escape. Welcome to Monrovia.”
The border began to close.
They hoped to go to Ghana, where they had a Couchsurfing host and potential job waiting.
But they had to cross through Cote d’Ivoire.
“The borders close tomorrow,” they were told as they entered Cote d’Ivoire. “Ghana will be closed at 6 p.m.”
They had 24 hours to make it. It was 13 hours away, so, if they traveled all night, they had a chance. When a delivery van offered a lift, a motorcycle cop pulled up.
“I wouldn’t take them all the way. They could have the virus,” he warned.
Ignoring him, the friendly driver turned up his French rock tunes and took them to Abidjan anyway. He even bought them chika, a local specialty of dish of fish and couscous. They checked into The Elephant’s Nest hostel and hoped for a grace period at the Ghanaian border the next day.
Sarah had been traveling and working her way through Asia when she met Gabe Foulkes, from Canada, in Cambodia in 2018. She said that they “bonded over adventure, politics, beer and sunshine.” Gabe had been traveling, mostly barefooted, for over seven years.
They continued together through Southeast Asia, Vancouver, Alaska and New York, stopping to visit parents Margaret and Brandt on the Isle of Palms before heading to Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and Liberia. In her blog Sarah wrote, “We recognized that we had the opportunity to use our privilege to … alleviate the fears people have about traveling … in places often unfairly stigmatized as unsafe to visit.”
The next morning, they began the five-hour journey to the Ghana border. People in cars that sped by shot them wary looks. It seemed hopeless until a trucker picked them up. He even insisted on hosting them for lunch. Four rides and a rainstorm later, they arrived at the border, soaking wet but optimistic, only to be told, “Nope, get out. Leave now. The border is closed.”
So since late March, they’ve been at the Elephant’s Nest in Cote d’Ivoire. Although the interruption to their adventure has been a huge blow, Sarah described the downtime as “liberating – a time of exploration.” She’s learning new skills like gardening, resourceful cooking, motorcycle repair and meditation. They’ve become certified in teaching English as a second language. The airport is still closed, so their next destination is uncertain, perhaps inexpensive Cambodia to teach English. Their wanderlust is unquenched and she doesn’t miss much – just her parents. And the Southern pork barbecue, since they’re in a mostly Muslim country. And “If we could just find some grits, we’d be in good shape.”