13 November 2007

Cote d'Ivoire (more than just churches)

The last time I visited Cote d'Ivoire it was for a long weekend from Ghana in late 1998. The trip was done with my Council exchange group chaperoned by the inimitable Doc.

Then, Abidjan seemed from another planet - a cosmopolitan metropolis of skyscrapers, large streets and grand hotels, quite a contrast with the squat organic chaos of Accra. It was full of patisseries and nice restaurants, an impressive cathedral, immaculately dressed Ivoiriens (please bear in mind that all West Africans do their best to keep up appearances), and the Hotel Ivoire, a monstrous complex that seemed not of this time and region.

As for this visit, I took a decidedly less-travelled route than the coastal highway (see my Liberian travels for more). I spent the night in Tolepleu, then headed for Yamoussoukro. This day's travel was probably the worst of my trip. The fatigue from the Monrovia-Tolepleu journey caught up with me, leaving me ill-humoured and mentally not at my best. Ivoirien transport practices confused me, as a couple of times I was dropped and put in a new vehicle to complete the leg -- the first time I thought I'd already reached Guiglo and was being led to a vehicle for my next destination. My confusion over the route also had me get off a van heading for a town I would pass through anyway -- only several hours later now.

In my final vehicle, one of my fellow passengers, Francis, offered to put me up for the night. He did mention that it was a religious school, and asked me if I was a Christian but, approaching midnight and an unfamiliar city, you can't be picky about free accommodation.

The next day I followed one of my usual city itineraries, walking close to 10kms and getting the lay of the land. Constructed on the whim of first President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (who grew up nearby), it features large, mainly empty highways in all directions, an impressive hotel, a large presidential compound (the perimeter wall is 5kms long), and a massive campus of technical institute south of town. All this is in the middle of what was essentially bush thirty years ago.

The most amazing structure, though, is the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix. This church is the largest in the world, a fact none-too-subtly pointed out in diagrams showing Notre Dame in Paris and St. Peter's in the Vatican fitting inside it. An elevator we rode to a pavilion 34 metres up (about 10 storeys) is only 2/3 of the way to the top. Stained glass windows feature the apostles and biblical scenes, including Houphouet-Boigny in the Jerusalem crowd on Palm Sunday. The basilica is truly magnificent, although the main thoughts it stoked in me were wonder at how H-B (whose name always reminds me of Humphrey Bogart) could get away with this, and the better causes the $300 million could have gone towards.

The remainder of my stay with Francis and the Church of Christ was pleasant. My inadequate French kept me from being invited to join the religious seminars (among the boarders were students from Mali and even Cameroun), but I too was expected to turn in around 8PM to study (in my case, West African novels). Still my hosts took very good care of me, and Francis's English was sufficiently superior to my French to allow for some passable conversations.

From Yamoussoukro I headed via Abidjan to Grand Bassam, an old colonial capital. It was similarly run down like Janjanbureh (in Gambia) and Bonthe, but some of the former administrative buildings have been nicely restored. Tourist hangers-on and vendors were a bit annoying, but there was a nice costume museum (in one old photograph a French colonial officer can be seen in the background inspecting a local girl's breasts) with Wolof woodcarvers hawking masks (which Cote d'Ivoire is known for). The tranquility was interrupted one day, when a couple of busloads of Ivoiriens arrived for a "spectacle" of live music and an overlong dance contest. The whole thing reminded me of a warped facsimile of Spring Breaks as portrayed on American tv. Once the outcome was resolved (the proceedings took place in front of my room's window), I went for a walk along the beach. Unfortunately, Grand Bassam's status as a holiday spot near Abidjan meant the beach was full of trash (flotsam dumped in the water and returned by the tide), plus the site of the always embarrassing meeting with someone taking advantage of the ocean's natural flushing action...

In my return to Abidjan I lodged at a rather decent hotel in Treichville. Across the lagoon from the ritzier Plateau, it's regarded as unsafe by Lonely Planet, particularly at night. I was pleasantly surprised to find Treichville perfectly safe, albeit a bit rundown. It's an overgrown residential area teeming with migrants, and there's lot of activity at night (street food, drinking spots, etc.) so it was nice.

The next couple of days were spent riding bateau-buses across the lagoon, taking in the architecture, and bargaining for Cote d'Ivoire jerseys and Coupe de Calle CDs. I visited St. Paul's cathedral (impressive but a better fit for the surrounding's Ya'kro's church) and the Musee Municipal d'Art Contemporain, where some art school students had an exhibition hopefully titled "Reconciliation." The themes were a bit derivative (showing dances and ethnic group scenes you may meet at a tourist stall) but some of the paintings, using bark as canvas and incorporating found objects, were quite good. Benjamin gave a talkative tour which was mostly lost on me, but the unifying theme helped me follow most paintings. I had two of my trip's most delicious meals in Abidjan -- a rice and sauce dish from a vendor inside the cathedral grounds (where I somehow managed to prompt a discussion of the merits of waist beads), and a Paysanne pizza (with mushrooms and onions).

1 comment:

Henry said...

Greetings Chris! I'm reading your blog today.
Happy Thanksgiving!
Henry Yu