Continued from 2e Partie
We arrived in Elubo, by the border, and it looked like a war zone; touts and street vendors surrounded the bus selling their services. Everything from snacks and drinks to hair loss medication and libido enhancements were advertised; even massages were available. Beggars too would not be left out….All of a sudden, the Aflao experience flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to go through this again. I clenched my teeth and fists and jumped out of the bus. All die na die.
The ride to Elubo from Takoradi was very bumpy, made worse by a combination of the extreme heat and heavy-set gentleman I shared the front seat with. Every time we stopped to bribe border agents, it was a chance to practice some standing yoga stretches, so I looked forward to these bribes. I looked forward to them until it felt like we stopped every half hour; then I realized that we were barely making any progress.
Hours later, we arrived in Elubo, by the border, and it looked like a war zone; touts and street vendors surrounded the bus selling their services. Everything from snacks and drinks to hair loss medication and libido enhancements were advertised; even massages were available. Beggars too would not be left out. I couldn’t tell who was who. All of a sudden, the Aflao experience flashed before my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to go through this again. I clenched my teeth and fists and jumped out of the bus. All die na die.
Once again, I needed to change money, but this time would be different; I would be damned if anybody stole from me again. As I walked out of the bus park, I was approached by a young guy who tried to get me to stop and listen to his quote; I told him to walk with me. Once bitten, twice shy.
He gave me his exchange rate, but when I whipped out my phone to check against the exchange rates I had pre-populated, he changed his tune and gave me a rate that was more favorable and similar to what I had saved on my phone. I couldn’t help but smile. A small victory.
As I counted and recounted the money I had just exchanged, a few men came up to sell their services; these guys were professional border walkers. They would escort you across the border and make sure you get into a “good” bus to continue on to Abidjan. At first I scoffed at the idea of a chaperone, especially after what Cyril did to me at the Aflao border; but when I remembered that my driver strongly advised a lady passenger to pay for this service, I decided to listen.
As they all shouted out why I should pick them, I said a little prayer to God for guidance. After my prayer, I arbitrarily picked one guy and then convinced myself that God had directed me to pick him. But first I had some conditions: no small talk, I didn’t even want to know his name; he would only talk to me when it was absolutely necessary; and finally, he would only speak to me in French – if he was going to mislead me, others would hear. He laughed out loud, but agreed. So off we went.
Upon sighting the border, I understood why a new traveler would need a guide. This was officially the most complicated and confusing border I had ever seen; it was a maze. I realized my fate depended on my guide, so I decided to keep my mind and body sharp; with clenched fists, I started reciting multiplications of 7. It sounds silly now, but when faced with danger, you do silly things.
We meandered our way through the unnecessarily complex border. The immigration officials may have looked different and spoken a different language, but one thing remained constant: the bribes! Every time I dipped my hands into my pocket to pay exit and entry “fees”, I cursed Africa.
I must admit that my guide was great; he protected me from would-be hustlers, guided me through a fairly confusing border complex, and even accompanied me until I was able to negotiate a bus fare into Abidjan. Most of all, he adhered to my conditions. Upon boarding the bus, I paid him and asked his name. “Moi, c’est Ismael”, he said.
The bus ride to Abidjan was not unlike other bus rides, stopping often to pay custom agents. I managed to get a front seat, but I happened to share it with the conductor/driver’s friend, who also happened to be very fat. I don’t mean to weight shame, but my entire right side was almost paralyzed and my left knee, bruised from the driver changing gears; all because I was forced to share the front with someone who had no business sharing a seat with anyone.
The driver was so hot tempered that we nearly got into at least three fights with other drivers along the way. What I didn’t understand was why I was expected to get down and fight alongside the driver and his deputy every time they got into it with other commuters. Maybe it had something to do with sitting in the front seat. I guess they thought we bonded. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle nobody got hurt.
Anyway, I arrived at my friend’s place in Abidjan eleven hours after I left Cape Coast, Ghana, but was relieved that I got there in one piece. Haile, my classmate at Columbia, looked at me like he didn’t recognize me. I was happy to be safe and all he could think of was how dirty I looked and smelled. He quickly ushered me into the bathroom where I must have spent an hour taking the shower of my life.
When I rejoined Haile for dinner, he hugged me and said, “now I recognize you”. I guess travel changes people.
The following day, whilst Haile disappeared into his office, I set out to discover the city. Unfortunately, it rained heavily and I was forced to return home early. On my way home however, I remembered that my mum often spoke about the largest church in the world. This catholic church, which was finished in 1989 and can hold up to a total of 300,000 worshippers (18,000 indoors), is in Yamoussoukro, a couple of hours outside Abidjan. Excitement filled my veins; I would actually visit The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. “I will do this for mum”, I told myself.
In a couple of days I would set out for Yamoussoukro, but first, I had to enjoy Abidjan. And Haile was the perfect host. We went to restaurants, bars, lounges, and clubs. It was nice to see the social life scene; it made sense that this was my mother’s favorite city in West Africa.
I got up early and made my way to the bus park where I would catch a bus to Yakro, as the locals called it. Catching a bus to Yakro was not as easy as advertised, but at this point in my travels, nothing really surprised me anymore. What was disconcerting, however, was the fact that I had arrived about 40 minutes before the next departing bus and was behind about 10 people on the queue to the sales window, but somehow, with less than five minutes before departure, I was yet to buy my ticket. The lady at the window seemed less than interested in doing her job, and when she ran out of change, she seemed to take that as a reason not to work.
After some serious protests from me and other passengers, her manager got her change and also a colleague to sell tickets at the other window. I bought my ticket and ran like a bat out of hell to an already departing bus. My fellow passengers were not very pleased that I stopped the bus, but I could hardly care; I found an empty seat, opened my bottle of water, and drank it for Africa!
I was under the impression that once I arrived in Yakro, I would easily find the church; once again, things didn’t play out as advertised. I asked one of the porters how I could get to the church, but he just stared at me. I figured he didn’t speak French, so I continued on to a woman who was more concerned about spanking her son than speaking with a stranger. She really didn’t have my time.
In the taxi on the way to the basilica, I was told by another passenger that my accent was a bit difficult to understand, “tu ne parles pas comme un Africain, quoi”. Little wonder I had no joy asking people for directions.
I found Yamoussoukro to be quite underwhelming. This was the administrative capital of the country and yet, it still looked like the agricultural village it was before Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Cote d’Ivoire’s first president, decreed that it would become the capital in 1983. Did I mention that he was born here? He essentially made his birthplace the capital of the country.
The church itself was paid for by Houphouët-Boigny* and officially opened/dedicated by Pope John Paul II. What struck me was that the Vatican was initially not too pleased that this basilica would surpass its own baby, St. Peter’s Basilica. I was also struck by the audacity of this project. In a country where unemployment was high and development low, it just seemed out of place in Yakro. While I do not appreciate some foreigner dubbing it “the basilica in the bush”, it is hard to argue otherwise.
Whilst I was wondering about poverty, the sight of the most beautiful building I had ever seen interrupted me. I literally became speechless. This vanity project by Cote d’Ivoire’s first president was a spectacle to behold.
It was a feeling not unlike what I felt in the Inca temple in Peru. It felt like all was right with the world. It was so deep a sense of peace, that it would be disrespectful to try to explain. The architecture was truly astonishing.
As I made my way back to the bus park, en route to Abidjan, I was so proud of what I had just seen. It felt like a big accomplishment on my part. I couldn’t wait to tell my mum. For the first time since I started backpacking, I wanted to share my experience with my mum.
My stay in Cote d’Ivoire was badly needed; I was hosted by a very good friend who did everything he could to make my stay a memorable one, I was able to catch up with some old friends, and lastly, I was able to, recharge. My rediscovered energy and good vibes were needed for what was to come…
…my resolve was going to be severely tested once again. Eight women, a sleepy driver, and a goat would play a critical role in my life.
Continued in 4e partie.
Song of the day: In Cote d’Ivoire, who else but the legendary Meiway? I have been a fan of his since the 90’s, so there is no better and more appropriate choice than this oldie but goodie, Miss Lolo by Meiway. Cameo by the cast of Les Guignols d’Abidjan.
*Houphouët-Boigny never disclosed the cost of building this church, but independent reports have estimated it cost between $250million to $400million.