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Nowhere but Everywhere: Experiencing Côte d’Ivoire

November 24, 2018

Ebrie women in their traditional Akan Coastal dress. Source: christinenesbitt

I lay back lazily on bed with my dog-earred, yellowing copy of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ held firmly in my sweating palms. I’m reading absent-mindedly with my thoughts wondering to my dear husband who is hundreds of miles away on a long business at Ivory Coast. My eyes skim along the lines till they seem to focus on a particular line; it reads: “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars”.

I catch my breath mid-sentence, my heart beats faster and I ponder silently on the words. Where have my wanderlust gone? I always believe that the best thing is to travel and lose oneself in a foreign country and immerse oneself in the culture and beauty of the land and the people who live on it. I believe I can find beauty where people can’t seem to notice it even in a God-forsaken land. Yet I startle myself with the realization that I have become miserable, consumed by endless work struggles and disputes, when there’s a golden opportunity waiting just by the corner.

‘I need a break’ I mutter loudly to myself, springing out of bed suddenly with invigorating enthusiasm. I grab my cell phone and make a long-distance call to my husband announcing our imminent arrival. He can’t believe his ears, he’s happy but suspicious, he questions me whether I completely understand what we’ll be up against and I laugh merrily and say: “Yes, let the adventure begin!”

Two weeks later, I was lugging my suitcase with my other hand clasped into my 4 years old daughter’s hand. We walked with our heads held high as well as our spirits towards a trip to the unknown referred to on the world map as ‘Coast of Ivory’. A long trip awaited us with the plane stopping briefly at Cameroon where some passengers were supposed to get off while others got on board of the plane in a fashion reminiscent of a bus rather than an aircraft.

10 hours later, we arrived wearily at the airport in Abidjan, our eyes scanned the faces of the people in the arrival hall for the familiar, smiling face of my husband. Before we locked gazes, we had seen all sorts of people.

My girl was fascinated by the hues of their skin, the braids of their hair, the colorful exuberant outfits and the ‘funny noise’ they make. ‘That’s French, dear’ I explained, but she exclaimed that it was nothing similar to the French she learned at her nursery in Cairo. I couldn’t disagree; the accent was super thick, sounding aggressive rather than melodious as French usually did.

My husband escorted us out of the airport, and we were struck by a deep smell of roasted cocoa that awakened one’s senses. My daughter took a deep breath and said: ‘I like this city. It smells like chocolate!’ I looked around, and the roads were dusty and desolate.

Dusty, ugly buildings littered the sides of the road. I frowned. I had read that it was referred to as ‘Paris of West Africa’ … which part of Paris they exactly meant, I wondered! It was miserable! I tried to glimpse any signs of civilization, but not much met my eyes. I contented myself that the best was yet to come.

Photo courtesy of the author

Abidjan at first looked like a gloomy, dull place. The weather was humid and tropical, it took a while to adapt, but the evening weather was lovely.

The Ivorians are quite distinct. They dress in the most colorful and bold, patterned fabrics imaginable. They opt for a uniform look where the top, bottom and head-piece all come from the same fabric. Most of the Ivorian ladies sacrificed their afro hair braids for synthetic hair, extensions and wigs of all possible textures, colours and lengths!

Ebrie women in their traditional Akan Coastal dress. Source: christinenesbitt

Bit by bit, Abidjan grows on you.

As the days passed, I liked it more and more. It’s filled with ‘maquis’ which is basically a small, open-air restaurant. The Ivorian cuisine is a peculiar one but nevertheless has delicious options! I sampled and loved braised chicken or fish (referred to as poulet or poisson braisé) which are served with mouth-watering tomatoes and onions on the side.

They have an array of unconventional side-dishes, too. ‘Attiéké’ has a similar texture to couscous but it’s made of grated cassava and tastes more bland so needs a flavorful accompaniment. ‘Alloco’ is ripe plantain banana fried in palm oil, I didn’t fancy that because it was too greasy. My daughter’s favorite side-dish was ‘frites d’igname’ which reminded her of french fries. I ate loads of ‘Kedjenou’; a spicy stew consisting of tender chicken and spicy vegetables. They have even crocodile or snail Kedjenou but not for the faint of heart! I reckon I drank gallons of passionfruit juice which is one of the most abundant fruit they have.

Photo courtesy of the author

During the weekdays, our time was spent on Cocody; a beautiful suburb of mansions and houses built on green hills. The landscape is breathtaking and the climate very reasonable. We went for swimming in Ivoire golf club or spent a day by the pool in one of the hotels. Since the urban life tended to be boring, we plunged more in the local scene. Our favorite spent-time was Centre Artisanal de la Ville a.k.a. CAVA which is a collection of traditional handicraft merchants where you can find the most beautiful souvenirs and gifts.

Merchandise include beautifully-carved wooden masterpieces; masks, statues, furniture; hand-woven clothes with beautiful patterns and intricate copper and brass sculptures. These souvenirs had the power to transport you both in time and place. Banco National Park is a rainforest reserve so close to the heart of Abidjan.

Credit: https://afrotourism.com

We wondered among the half-trodden paths in awe of the exquisite balance of insects, flora, fauna and wildlife indigenous to the region. We looked for chimpanzees but only came across their tracks. Botanical garden of Bingerville was yet another oasis of natural beauty to the lonely soul, so serene and peaceful with an amazing bamboo alley.

In the weekend, we traveled to Assinie and Bassam where the best beaches were found. The ocean was amazing, with beautiful sand and coconut palm trees. Heaven on earth.

Once we traveled to Yamoussoukro which locals referred to as Yakro. It is officially the capital and birthplace of late president Félix-Houphouët-Boigny. We visited his palace surrounded by the crocodile-filled lagoon, and the Our Lady of Peace Basilica which is modeled after St. Peter’s in Vatican city and is actually the largest Christian church in the world! With the largest amount of stained glass! It is fronted by a large plaza encircled by colonnades with its gigantic dome rising to a height of 149 meters!

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace | by Prayitno on Flickr

Five weeks later, when it was time to go home, I felt I was leaving behind a part of my heart in that land. I yearn back to it … indeed there is nowhere to go but everywhere under the stars. Wander like a kite lost in flight and … let go.

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