Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
June 14, 2010
Crammed in a bus, as usual, we sped towards the city, the most major city we’ve seen since we left Dakar. Abidjan is the former capital and biggest city in Côte d’Ivoire. From what I’d read in the guidebook it seemed like we were rolling towards the western world again….I think it even mentioned a reactionary “gasp” at first sight of the incredible cityscape that was supposed to unfold before our West-African-travel-weary eyes. I’m not going to lie that I was a little excited picturing some metropol-oasis literally glowing in its isolated big-city glory. It’s true. In my last blog I rambled about loving the smaller places, but after a couple months on the road, views only of huts and basic cement homes, the thought of seeing some giant skyscrapers excited me.
So, anyway…we’re on our way…slow going …no not the roads this time (in this part of Cote they are beautifully maintained) …it’s all those damn checkpoints and random stops that make the journey twice as long as it should be(at least there’s always food at your window from the hawkers). I luckily avoid the woman next to puking on me…her baby simply passed along to side passenger while she sat head out of window. The sense of community here is amazing and no one would even bat an eye when asked to hold another’s child…it happens all the day…it’s like a communal raising…disciplining and all. When I swap seats (i.e. jump out of the way) with her I understand her ill state…there’s barely any airflow in the middle and her seat is an “aisle” seat meaning it functions both as a seat and as an aisle. The aisle seats are terrible. I mean…not only do you have to move out of your seat every time someone needs to load or unload, but because the thing is constructed on a hinge to fold and swing to the side, it’s not fully anchored. You sit about 2 inches lower than everyone else, usually sliding to one side, the cushioning is minimal, and the thing mimics every little bump, wobble, and swerve like some sort of torturous hydraulic device. And did I mention the loading and unloading? Ya…you get real friendly with the person next to you. It’s enough to make anyone nauseous, if not particularly annoyed. Now in the aisle seat, I hoped I would not also succumb to car-sickness and where the hell are you Abidjan?!
Yes the highways are widening, sure there’s more people around…but yet…all I see is dusty red smog and a sprawl of road and markets…we can’t be there yet…where’s the wonderful cityscape I’ve read all about? In my first introduction to Abidjan, the only gasp I had was upon being dropped off in the middle of the biggest market place where I was sure would be the place, if any, that we got mugged. Not life-threateningly so…but there were a TON of people packed in a pick-pocketing paradise. Even when we got into the city (ok…buildings are getting a little taller) our driver didn’t seem to know where he was going and dropped us off in a nice, but unknown place where we were so tired that we treated ourselves to an overpriced sandwich in a hotel that was cleaner than we’d been in weeks. Upperclass city life in Cote d’Ivoire, damn. Quickly realizing the stares and that we could not afford even another tempting snack here, we called our Couchsurfing friend and grabbed another taxi to the complete opposite side of town where we’d settle into our home for the next week. Couchsurfing if you haven’t heard of it, is a great network, and once again, I had a great experience. Pavan grew up in India and now lives and works in Abidjan for the time being. He hasn’t been here too long, but the job pays well and he’s enjoying the city. His place dazzles us as we walk in…a kitchen table, full kitchen, a couch, a TV, air-conditioning, extra rooms…wow! Expat life woot. And how generous of him to open his home to us….As it was another couchsurfer from Ireland was already staying there but on his way out though luckily he stuck around long enough to show us an awesome ice cream parlour (huuuge!!) and share a few stories from his trip through west Africa as a freelance journalist. Cool guy.
Ahh, the big city…Abidjan awaits! Restaurants galore! A mall! Wait…what?..a mall…a supermarket?! We better prepare ourselves for this…ok…let’s make a plan, a list, a schedule…and attempt not to get lost or hypnotized by packaging. Our time in Abidjan started out as a recharge mission. In fact, we were completely hypnotized by the vast variety of food available to us (KT…you’ve been in the chip aisle for 10 minutes already…) and found that black flashing box with full cable zombified us with ease. So we had some lazy days, it’s true. But amidst our “rest” we did explore the city and finally met up with two of K’s Peace Corps friends, whom we were hoping to travel with from the start (ahh…plans in Africa…). There were so many stories to share and we spent a lot of the reunion time laughing hysterically.
One night seeking some big city entertainment we all set out to go across town to the most expensive hotel, practically an entire resort unto itself, complete with a sports center, tennis courts, and apparently a bowling alley. YES. BOWLING! As we pulled up, we noticed the hotel looked dark. Huh. Well, the tennis courts are lit. And there is a building with bowling pins on it…this has got to be it! But as we wandered the grounds and asked around, from what we could gather, the bowling alley had either moved, was shut down or in renovation (ahhh…misleading signs in Africa). Tragic. In an attempt to try and find it ourselves we took an awkward tour through the gym that dead-ended in a room where a bunch of guys tried to convince us to lift weights with them …huh…guess there isn’t a bowling alley here…trickery. Well, looks like we’ll return back to the movie channel! One night we did get out to hear some live music in a nearby reggae club which was a lot of fun. Felt great to have a drink out and be jamming to live tunes !
Another day we headed into the new world, Le Plateau, the downtown area, and walked all around, through the market place, into bookstores, picking up new street foods and sights along the way. One particular eye-catching sight among the skyline is St. Paul’s Cathedral, a stylized modern structure with some pretty amazing stained glass tableaus covering the walls inside. We got an interesting tour of the place and plenty of pictures.
Abidjan, apparently the “Paris of West Africa”, really did start to grow on me and the skyline, something practically unheard of in West Africa, finally unfolded itself before my travel weary eyes. The city sits around Ébrié Lagoon and as we drove across the bridge (guess we entered from the wrong side of town initially), i finally saw the skyscrapers lined perfectly in photo-worthy fashion…and at night, when the dirt became invisible, the skyline never looked so exciting. You never really think about how much work is required to keep buildings, sidewalks, streets etc clean until you see them neglected and caked with the smog of a city. You can also sense the lost era of successful modernization and a thriving city but for now, it seems to be doing alright. But even with a layer of dirt and a little dilapidation, the tall buildings, fancy boutiques and patisseries made us feel like we had entered a new world.
Sassandra, Côte d’Ivoire
June 10, 2010
Now that we had made it to the pleasantly, peaceful South of Côte we were set to explore the coastline which is definitely a highlight of the area (as it should be in any country that has the ocean rolling on one or more sides!) and Sassandra was only a short jaunt east along the coast. When we rolled in I was happy we’d come. Turns out I like the smaller places, more accessible, less overwhelming to a foreigner, but still with its own unique energy and bustle. Not like anything in Africa is particularly fast-paced like the U.S. but the cities with plenty of cars, motos, exhaust flowing and masses of people crowded on the streets it can get as overwhelming as any big city your unfamiliar with…especially when that fact is broadcast by your pale skin.
So Sassandra was a lovely escape, complete with a cute little seaside marketplace. And by marketplace I mean the main area in every city/town/village where little wooden stands and stalls are set-up, blankets laid out and food stacked, spread and colorfully displayed. The scent of unfamiliar peppery spices and dried fish permeates (or more like penetrates) the air (and your nostrils). We stopped at a woman’s stand who’s roasting corn, it’s sides a bit blackened and cooked until a bit chewy in texture…it tastes delicious. The corn aroma I definitely preferred but all the smells mix in with the salty air anyway and the sellers’ calls mix in with the gentle sounds of the swishing waters gently brushing the littered shore. Plastic bags and masses of packaging have made it to Africa and they sadly cover a lot of the ground and contribute to much of the trash piles that are strewn around the towns of Africa, many caught in the open sewers and well, with no trash cans around, where else is one to throw them. Back at our little hotel right on the beach, we sat out drinking beers that K magically extracted from her purse but I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the trash and the yellow/green tint of the water. It seemed so bizarre to sit seemingly in the middle of nowhere and look down the shoreline to see, not a line of seaweed and shells, but instead a line of wrappers, bottles, bags and general man-made debris. I really hoped that the water color was from algae and not pollution. The pier, though broken in half, the green, lush cliff side, the fishing boats bobbing in the tiny harbor and the crashing waves still created a calm, picturesque scene, but let’s say I didn’t exactly want to go for a long walk or jump in the waters for a swim! I may be vaccinated but… Enough about litter! The town was adorable, comforting even and they have fried plantains on the street…best street food ever…mmmmm.
One day we headed out for a pirogue (little wooden canoe) trip on the calm waters of the harbor inlet. Our guide, Diakité, pulled onto the tiny shore and we hopped aboard…actually considering the mini size of the thing…we carefully stepped in and promptly set out butts down. In the heat of the day (oops bad timing…you never want to be in the sun in the hot hours) K and I began to fry but still managed to enjoy the cruising as Diakité did all the paddle work. I glanced between the beautiful, dense bush on the opposite shoreline and the dirty, ramshackled houses dotting the shore we just left. We hugged near the mangroves, passed a fisherman plopped atop a massive boulder, newly lit cigarette in one hand, a single fishing line in the other, and then pulled into an opening among the viney trees where the water wound through the tangles of branches that dropped like tired, thirsty limbs into the brown, murky waters that screamed, ‘crocodile home!’ Being in our tiny boat just inches above the water I was happy to not be caught as trespassers. It was cool winding through the trees and thankfully the eerie calm lasted until we were out and back in the sun again and paddling upstream against some minor chop. As we swiftly glided along I could easily see one reason for our guide’s developed, well-defined muscles that glistened in the sun, while K and I sat blob-like melting under the heat of the day.
That night we joined Diakité and friends for some dinner streetside at a little restaurant like so many in West Africa; Tables set up outside where beer and Coke banners hang and women cooking just inside what must double as a house. Sometimes they’re just cooking right there on the street as was the case that night…and there’s your menu…just walk up, lift the lids, take a look, take a whiff, point and take your pick. The club across the street was blasting music for all to hear but no one seemed to be inside at all. Guess things get going pretty late here…we bobbed our heads through dinner and laughed about the stacked chairs in the “happening” club. Though sometimes you do want to stay out… to dance and party it up; the flirting gets to be too much, so usually we retreat to our hotel…and we did, carefully stepping around rusty brown puddles on the way back, past the pigs scrounging in the trash piles, to crawl into our bed, laugh about events of the day and sleep to the sounds of the ocean…and a few pesky mosquitoes buzzing in our ears…
San Pedro, Côte d’Ivoire
June 7, 2010
So how did we go? I.e. how did it go?…getting out of the rebel territory? Huh…surprisingly…no problems, no standoffs and no gun-caressing bribe requests. After we argued with our bus dude about not sitting in the front seats (he finally understood you don’t want two white beacons in the front of your transport attracting any more attention in this area) and I think we did pretty well in the middle of our Massa bus filled with rows of bench seats, luggage all packed beneath our feet (which really seems somewhat of an improvement compared to the roof towers of Guinea…see this way at least all the weight is lower in the thing…safer right? Although having my knees at my chest cause they’re resting on a sack of potatoes isn’t ideal either). And now we’re revving off on the gravel road… What’s this? We just passed out of the town barricades…could it be?…are we free?! OK OK, don’t get your hopes up… But as I snacked on tasty street food, we now cruised along beautifully paved roads, mostly uninterrupted hooray! The only thing that slowed our journey were stops to drop-off/pick-up people and a few legitimate checkpoints that thankfully involved real police (matching uniforms and all), who checked passports and ID cards of all passengers. With each hassle-free kilometer that passed our hopes grew and smiles cracked. But still…let’s not get our hopes too high…
And at last, hopes leveled out and finally soared once we freely (we’re free!) arrived in the port town/ seaside city of San Pedro. We’d bolted directly south on our bus and were anxious to indulge in the lovely sights of the coast for the remainder of our time in Côte. We wanted to stay as far from the “northern territory” as possible and thus hugged the shoreline with the gratitude of a child returned to her comforting mother. We found our way in the settling night to a hotel that offered a room with a bathroom and a fan for $10 a night…I like this place already and the best part of all…this hotel turned out to be right around the corner from the most delicious restaurant in the country…after all we’d been through…we were pretty sure it was in fact the best. The flashing “PIZZA” sign lured us down an alley to our food sanctuary where pages and pages spoke of garlic, sautéed items, basil and cheese. Kay actually shed a few tears of joy…really, she did…I just shed a few drops of drool. So of course that first night (and maybe all of the nights we were in San Pedro) we set down to order a large (yes, large please) veggie pizza, lobster and garlic pasta special…oh and two large beers thanks. It was a ridiculous amount of food. It was even more ridiculous that we finished it ALL…yes, we persevered…though I’m not sure my stomach agreed it was a win (sooo FULL) and our taste buds confirmed it was so worth it. We stumbled back to our cozy room, protected by our mosi net, to rest peacefully with dreams of garlic, ocean breezes and freedom to roam (and eat copious amounts of food).
….We turned the corner and there it was, shining in glorious, plasticized, poster format. Pastries, croissants, coffee…ice cream??! I must still be dreaming. Once again lured towards the sign like two hungry, hypnotized backpackers caught in a sugary-buttery-food tractor beam we passed through the air-conditioned barricade and entered a world of big comfy chairs, espresso machines, and rows and rows of delicious French goodies resting behind their shining glass waiting area (waiting for our mouths of course). We settled into our big chairs still gaping in awe when a the most kindly woman came and spoke to us in English (she is originally from Holland) and in the sweetest, smiling voice asked if we were interested in a strawberry tart that “I’ve just finished making myself…I just took it out of the oven…yes?” I saw another happy tear roll down Kay’s face as she gasped gratefully “that is my favorite dessert in the world….yes! yes! Bring them all!” As the fresh, rich, fluffy dessert sat between us I thought I must still be dreaming. Where have we come?! I’m happy again! OK…let’s never leave.
Beginning to wonder what we did in San Pedro besides eat? But hey, don’t’ question the importance of sampling local culinary delights…very important cultural experience…very. Well besides eat and befriend our favorite chef at the pizza place we did as we do in most places; walk and wander all over the place and absorb the general vibe of a place while chatting with people along the way. We also had a much needed laundry day(remember all hand-washing here so it’s really an event unto itself…especially when your clothes are coated with 4 layers of road grit and sunscreen sweat). Our clothes then got a double rinse cycle in a 3 hour downpour (ohhh wet season) and our bodies got a double rest cycle as we laid in bed reading and relaxing…you know…like a real vacation!
Another day we walked to the beach and checked out the vibe there; salty air, sunshine and cold drinks ocean side….perfect. The persistent rains took a rest and we had quite an enjoyable day prancing around the shore, chillin’ out in the sand to watch the rolling, crashing, splashing, frothing ocean waters come in, more persistent than any rains. Peacefully mesmerized, sipping my beer, I dreamed of our next delicious meal. On the road, the lows can be lower than a rebel soldiers rank in our books, but the highs are higher and brighter than the African noonday sun…and we were a glowin’.
Travel Day: N’Zerekore, Guinea to Man, Côte d’Ivoire
June 4, 2010
Warning: It’s long! Take in sections if you must…
And for reasons i’m sure you can understand, i have no photos of this days events…lots in my mind though…
It’s really too bad that the Northern area of Côte d’Ivoire, The Ivory Coast, so full of cultural wonders like child-juggling (yes…child juggling! It’s an initiation ceremony) and stilt-walk dancing, not to mention some of the best natural features, now adds Rebel soldiers to their cultural history. The small taste of life in a war-ridden place is enough to make you hate it even though there is no fighting now as the soldiers themselves explained to us, it’s a war devoid of direct combat, the tension and power-struggle still remains. And i guess that’s what it is now…a war of control and bribery and guarded territory…a gang of guys holding the territory from the rest of the people and hassling them constantly. The North of Côte is definitely on the up-swing though: stores, restaurants, hotels are getting business again and banks are reopening, but still, you can see the soldiers are still around, and progress is slow. In 1979 Côte was the worlds leading cocoa producer and its economy thrived and grew from the 1960s-80s (Lonely Planet). But with a world wide recession in the 80s, political unrest followed and many coups were staged to oust their leader. The war, like all, was horrifying for a time and there were many deaths. In 2002 Northern led rebellion broke out and many people fled to surrounding countries as refugees. We’ve met quite a few people who were born in Côte or Sierra Leone and left their countries during each respective war. Crazy. Some haven’t gone back. Another tumultuous history…but luckily the southern half of Côte d’Ivoire has picked itself up. The North on the other hand…well…up there the word ‘Rebel’ does not in any way conjure romantic visions of leather jacket clad kids…just camouflage-clad, boot-stomping, automatic-rifle wielding soldiers holding “their” territory.
Now…enter two white girls, dirty, scruffy and road travel weary to any outsider, rich, privileged, and ripe for bribery to the soldiers. Yes of course we’d heard that Côte wasn’t the best place to travel, sure the U.S. has issued travel warnings about traveling there, especially outside of the capitol… But we’d also heard of massive improvements and people who’d been and loved it. We’d read much about the northern conflict in our 4-yr-old guidebook and hoped much of the rebel-held business/warnings were outdated…and if the North is in fact still a little sketchy, hey, look on this map! Man is in the middle right?! and I mean, we had also talked to someone at the American embassy in Côte who told us, “all was well and no need to worry about traveling overland” (or something reassuring like that (!!)), but as it turned out, Man is in the “rebel-held north” and this long day of rope-crossings and passport handling proved intensely annoying if not a bit frightening.
We changed our original plans and decided to enter Côte by way of Guinea instead of going along the coast and through Liberia and mostly unaware, crossed into the realm of mismatched uniformed soldiers, guns casually slung over soldiers, gang-mentality and foreign traveler hell…especially when your skin color doesn’t match the majority. I suggested that K pretend to poorly understand French or not at all depending on what went down. Now I don’t want to paint a picture of shaking terror, screaming demands, or grabbing hands cause it wasn’t like that…I never felt like my life was threatened at all…but the intimidation factor of being hassled, constantly asked for bribes and eerily smiled at worked to make for a very uncomfortable day. K took the brunt of it…at least I couldn’t understand what was going on and could easily plead ignorance.
Our first crossing into Côte passed by way of a youngish bunch of lazing soldiers, snacking on biscuits and playing cards…upon sight of two white faces they immediately hopped up to assist us with their “immigration policies”, which as far as I could tell, involved keeping track of all the bribes they take. They offered us cookies, we accepted. They asked for our numbers…I thought they wanted me to sign something…K thought I was being cleverly brilliant…I really had no idea what they were saying but just kept trying to act relatively clueless until they got tired of us. They asked for a bribe…we offered their cookies back to them as payment. They all were laughing and making sexual references about going to their room…I still had no idea what they were saying and we both kept giggling and acting dumb…”what? I need to pay? But I already did pay!…see here is my visa! You need me to sign somewhere? Ok…sure! Here…have a cookie!” They really weren’t asking for much but we refused to be a victim of their little bribe/war scheme…they eventually tired of us and one of the soldiers, in his stand-out flashy blue camo, led us back to our car. Was that it? Could it be? Huh…let me check our passports…no stamps…shit! That’ll never fly…that can’t be the end of it…lets hope though. Annnnnd…of course not! So much more rebel fun to be had!
Basically anytime a camou-clad soldier strutting around, motoring around, sitting around etc came across our path (or we came across theirs…which cant at all be avoided on a rope-crossing filled road) they wanted to have a little chat and a little passport fondle (give the rifle a rest for a few minutes). The real fun began when we were simply trying to organize our bus ride to Man when we were stopped, passports inspected…no stamp?!…you must follow me to the Gendarmerie (military house)…greeeeeat. We knew it couldn’t be as easy as a giggling cookie exchange. We leave our bags at the bus hoping they’ll wait and trudge over to a scene that looked out of a movie. Once again soldiers wearing all varieties of camouflage (most likely leftovers from the U.S. army)lounging about and this time all of them surrounded the apparent leader, chubby, reclined, petting his gun with one hand, throwing peanuts into his mouth with the other. I really wish the scene also included one of the minion soldiers down on his knees shining his boots but I think I just made that embellishment in my mind. I knew the fun was all intimidation especially as he made sure to pick it up and handle it as we were led to another room to chat with the “boss-man” (yes…his “English” speaking translator referred to him as boss-man…we stifled laughter). Again, I never felt in danger, they were all about explaining the war, even pointing out the regions on the map, that we had entered the war zone…”no don’t worry, there is no violence anymore” they reassured us, and now we needed to pay the fee to enter. K mostly dealt with them and I kept reiterating that an embassy, even one in Senegal, is considered the actual territory of their country. They rebutted that they were not connected with their country’s government and thus demanded a separate fee…we were, after all, asking to enter their territory. Yes but we already bought a visa see! And so it went for an hour…round and round….until we informed them…well…we don’t even have any money to give you…only enough to take the bus…and we just want to get to Abidjan….look at our sweet innocent faces!! I tried to look as desperate and confused as possible….I just want to be a tourist…but, no, I have no money. So in the end what happened with bossman…how on earth did we get through with no bribe payment? The bossman sat up, a bit disgruntled and said he would let us go but “this is not a gift” and then “ok…and give me your phone numbers too” (all in French remember). This is how they win…as long as they get something; “Sooo, how much you get from those girls?!” “Well, they didn’t have any money but I did get their phone number!” Guys really are the same everywhere… our phone numbers must be the most circulated amongst the immigration officers circle. K and I also can’t wait to be in line at a Starbucks and “oh…sorry…hold on…gotta take this call…rebel soldier on the line”. Hahahahaha.
And so it went…everywhere we got out…for a toilet or a rest stop, for a prayer break…soldiers appeared and annoyed. Never a real threat…just a power trip. The Ivorians hate them too and have to deal with them on a daily basis I’m sure, but on this ride, we stood out and got the brunt of the rebel action. Locals stroll the streets with machetes used for farm work, many people wear colorfully pattered clothing and from afar they all looked like camouflage soldiers wielding weapons. I tried to stay calm inside, feel in control, but as we bounced along in our “Massa”(truck/bus/van thing)…K and I ill-placed in the front seat, every dot on the horizon seemed to be in uniform….they weren’t thank god, but it was an unnerving ride nonetheless. I couldn’t help thinking how sad it is that so much of their country, so beautiful, the locals so friendly, has been compromised by an overbearing network of fear and bribery. As the darkness encroached I found myself following the only mad-made structure around, the telephone wires, in hopes they would more quickly lead me to our destination. I wanted so badly to see those city lights come flickering in the dead black darkness. Finally they did, and somehow (sleeping guards?) we made it through the city guard gates unscathed and into Man where it felt like we had entered the compound of rebel protection…a sort of twisted gated community. For once I was happy to arrive after dark, hopefully less noticed. All we wanted to do was get to our hotel and in our own safe place where we both attempted to scrub off the filth, the fear, the corruption of the day and finally collapse in bed without a proper meal. We hugged each other and tried to summon some laughter of the ridiculousness. Oy veh what a story it will be! K passed out immediately while I decided to try and drown out the day with the 1 channel on the TV…yes, just a little distraction to lull my brain to a happier place before sleep…but what is flickering on this tiny box in French you ask? COPS. That’s right…COPS. I still watched part of it before I nodded off into anxious, symbolic dreams of control and escape.
The next day I awoke with a surprisingly refreshed sense of place. The sun was shining, the surrounding scenery of Man is beautiful, the streets lively, the people extremely friendly (the brother/sisterhood community formed here because of the soldiers) and our breakfast cheap and delicious! But we had our tickets to leave and I could sense that K was still in lets-get-the-fuck-outta-here, defense mode (I guess part of me was too and understandably so). Locals lured us to stay, telling stories of the beautiful sights, waterfalls, caves, rivers, mountains to climb, and more! that are a part of Man…not to mention all of the fascinating villages (child-juggling!) but the Rebels, “yes we have to deal with them to!” they comforted, but they are still here and they will annoy us relentlessly…lets not forget yesterday ugggh. Damn…I guess we should go…. it was bittersweet and we vowed to return to Man when it will hopefully be reclaimed, this spectacular spot again peaceful, and the people able to thrive and invite others to join them in doing so. For theirs and our sake, I really hope that hope grows into reality.