How to Make a Decision without Information
Let's be honest. Alex, Katie, and I had no idea what we were doing when we decided to go to Cote d'Ivoire. I was restive and my decision making capacity was compromised when we discussed going to Cote d'Ivoire. I arrived in Lomé packed to go on a ten day vacation with no real intention of undertaking the trip.The decision to travel to Cote d'Ivoire was made the evening before we left. After careful manipulation exacted upon me from Alex and Katie, I decided that yes, despite the warnings, I did want to go. Deciding any earlier would have afforded enought ime to create a skeletal plan, consequently forfeiting all semblances of spontaneity. The traveler's rule of spontaneity though unrestrained, is reckless. The decision to forgo planning was not premeditated or prudent. It was mildly stimulating, and necessary, damn it.
In 2004 Cote d'Ivoire was in the throes of civil war, and Africa experts were beginning to call the country a "failed state". 2004 is the same year that I took my first trip to Togo. Follow me down memory lane as I reminisce about trips never taken. When people ask why I traveled to Togo in 2004, I usually make up some story about howI was trying to reconnect with my roots. The truth however is that my University of Ghana study abroad program took us to Togo. There was no real reason for them to take us to Togo except that the capital was within a days drive from Accra. We found out later that the real reason we were going to Lomé was because we were supposed to go to Abidjan, the largest city in Cote d'Ivoire - but a little something called a civil war stood in the way of19 Americans enjoying the patisseries and cafes of the "Paris of West Africa". So because of this civil war, the study abroad program decided to take us to a "fragile" state instead of a "fail(ing)ed"one. Thanks! But seriously, thanks.
The point is that once I found out I was supposed to go to Coted'Ivoire and couldn't, I decided that one day (while it was probably safer but still not wise) I would go. The thought process parallels case studies found in an introductory developmental psychology textbook. Don't do that! So you do it. You know? The psychology behind it is straight forward, I guess. So working off of a few hours of sleep and the reminder that I did not need a Visa to enter Cote d'Ivoire as an American citizen, I said, "Whatever, it will probably make for a decent blog entry, Allons-y!" Also, I just really needed avacation.
Togo and Cote d'Ivoire are not the same place
We took it slow by spending a couple of very relaxing days in the Western region of Ghana, at Busua and Butre two fishing villages transformed into bungalow beach towns for young European and American backpackers. On our last morning at Butre, my two travel companions and I had a difficult time rationalizing leaving the comfortable and relaxing mantra of the waves, to go to a place the US State Department said had a risk level or "Extreme danger". I read the travel advisories with the same grain of salt as every other traveler, but"extreme danger"?!?! The 2007 Lonely Planet said that British citizensare only barred from entering two countries, Somalia and Cote d'Ivoire (this we learned after we had already returned). So like three naïvegringos leaving America for the first time on a group packaged tourof the Bahamas, we headed for the border of Cote d'Ivoire.The border crossing was much less chaotic than the Ghana/Togo border, probably because the Togo border hurls you directly into the capital city. The Ghana side of the process was straightforward. After getting the Ghana exit stamp, you walk a quarter of a click over a bridge to the Cote d'Ivoire side. In this no man's land between Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire I thought awkwardly about which language I should use. In the end, I chose silence. Here again, there was not too much action. The border guard that registered our passports nagged us aboutnot having visas for a minute before someone reminded him that Americans don't need visas. Really?!?! How few Americans travel this border crossing that the border guard didn't know that we don't need visas? So it was done, we had our stamps. The border guard told usthat Abidjan was wonderful and that we could find everything there. Coming from Kanté, that was alright with me.
We went to the taxi station to get a car for Abidjan. Immediately upon arrival, we sat down to eat some Ivorian street cuisine. While eating, three people sat down next to Alex, Katie and I and struck up some light banter. It turned out that the older woman of the group had to do some business over the border in Ghana, but after an hour, she would be heading back to Abidjan with her driver in an old 4x4. Of course we could get a ride if we waited for an hour. So we waited and debated –Do we trust these people? It was an old woman, of course we trust her! And I did. They came back like they said they would and we hopped in the back of the car. The older woman told us stories about her travels through America and Europe. We hit the big time. She spoke beautiful French, and when we asked her what the local language in Abidjan was, she said, "French". Ah Bon?
Industry. That was my first remark. There were huge perfectly manicured plantations of palm trees with real sprinkler systems to bring water to the thirsty soil. Then there were the rubber tree plantations equipped with the same sprinkler technology. These farms were definitely maintained with big machines. There was money here. The driver blasted past security check points like it was no big thang. This was easy breezy, which meant that something needed to go wrong. And then came the sound. It was sort of like the jolting sound of lawnmower eating large branches. Every time the driver shifted, the car ate some more branches. Luckily this sound started right outside Aboisso, the first large town after you cross the border. We drove to a mechanic. For the first ten minutes I sat in the car my stubbornness alone could will the mechanics to find a speedy solution. I begrudgingly got out of the car after Jean, a friendly middle aged man invited us to wait in his family compound.
We had been in Cote d'Ivoire for only three hours when we were first confronted with the reality of the war. Jean invited us into his compound told us his story of how he came to live in the town ofAboisso. After learning English with the help of a Peace Corps volunteer that lived in his family compound for four years, Jean became an English teacher in northern Cote d'Ivoire. Militants invaded the town where he was teaching and entered his family's compound. Without hesitation the militants shot and killed his brother and his brother's wife in front of their children. The bullets, shot at close range ricocheted off of the ground and changeddirection, barreling indiscriminately towards any object in their paths. One child in the compound we met had shrapnel fly into her face and a piece of a bullet still lodged in her head. After surviving the attack, Jean was duty-bound to take in the children of his murdered family members. His compound in Aboisso was overflowing with children. Jean took us on a walking through the town which sat at the edge of alarge river. He told us how the war had very little to do withethnicity and a lot more to do with politics. He explained that for many generations Ivorians from the north had lived in the south andconversely, many southerners lived in the north. As he explained thiswe passed a wedding celebration at the edge of the river. The wedding was for a couple from northern Cote d'Ivoire.
The sun made its daily descent towards California. The car was still not fixed. Alex, Katie and I knew we were unlikely to make it toAbidjan before dark. This seemed a little too spontaneous. Jean offered us a place to stay in his house. The offer was tempting. Thedriver who took us from the border offered to put the three of us upin his house in Abidjan. Because it was getting late, and we had no idea what to do in Abidjan, he said it would be smarter to stay with him and at least know someone in Abidjan just in case somethinghappened. This offer was a little more enticing, so we jumped at the chance to stay at someone's personal house in Abidjan. He promised usa calm, neat house within a few meters of the Atlantic Ocean. A beach villa.
We piled into a bush taxi from Aboisso to Abidjan. Night and all ofher dirty hidden tricks was definitely upon us. The road was wide andsmooth and I was beaming with excitement about the villa where we were going to unwind that evening. The taxi passed the airport under a congregation of street lights. The artificial orange light splayed was obscured only by the smoke wafting from the countless street vendors grilling up all kinds of meat on make shift oil drum grills. BobbyFlay should do an Abidjan grill challenge. A few moments later, the taxi stopped. Our old driver friend that we would be crashing with told us we had arrived. But this didn't look like Abidjan, or at least not the metropolis I had heard so much about. We must still have a little bit further to go. Not so, we had arrived. The driver friend had not lied to us, we were within the city limits of Abidjan just barely. We unloaded our bags from the back of the old Peugeot station wagon and made a mad dash across four lanes of highway. Once we crossed the highway we proceeded through a small alley and then thepavement stopped. We were stepping on sand. We had officially entered a shanty town.
Our driver friend graciously offered us his small home in the heart of the shanty town. We dropped our bags and stared at each other with theunspoken knowledge that this was to be one of the most uncomfortable moments we had all experienced thus far in life. We found ourselves sitting on some foam sofas slowly taking it all in. Our host was excited, hospitable, and conversed openly. After five minutes he satdown and explained his political beliefs. Living in Togo, a country where very few people talk about politics, and as foreigners, we stay as far away from those conversations as humanly possible, I was not accustomed to this conversation. He explained how the current president used to be his friend, and presented us with a picture of himself with the president. But then something happened and now this man is part of the rebel movement. Great. Seven hours into our Coted'Ivoire and we found ourselves in a shanty town sitting with a rebel leader. A mixture of fear and hilarity ensued. We had to eat and we had to make a plan, however skeletal or unrealistic the plan might be. We couldn't just leave outright, that would have been disrespectfuland also we had no idea where we were. So we ate. The meal was probably delicious but I can't even remember the tastes. The stares of the people did not seem to be curious but disgruntled. Jim Morrison said it best, "People are strange when you're a stranger (in the economic capital of a country that has just emerged from 7 years ofwar)".
We decided we would struggle through the night and leave first thing in the morning. The man just kept pressing on about his political agenda. We purchased a cell phone card for Cote d'Ivoire so we could at least make an outgoing call if we needed to. A strange urge overcame me and it felt like a mix between laughter and the urgent need to call the American Embassy. After dinner I tried unsuccessfully to befriend a man in the shanty compound as a way to ensure that no one would be attacked in the night. If someone in thecompound liked us, they couldn't let bad men with guns hurt us, right? That didn't work. We went to sleep. My dad called and I tried to subtly explain our exact location without disclosing that we were staying in a shanty town with an opposition leader.
We survived the night, and awoke to an overcast morning with the familiar sound of waves crashing just beyond the wall where we slept.We went exploring to find the beach. Again, stares, but not the kinds of stares I am used to in Togo. These people were used to foreigners,but not recently, and especially not in their homes. A woman followed us everywhere we walked, snickering in French, her local language. We snapped a few uncomfortable pictures* and gathered our belongings. Even in the safety of early morning light, it was time to get out of there. We got in a taxi and headed towards a hotel we heard was in a good part of town. With each kilometer of road that brought us further away from the shanty town, another one of my senses returned to my body. One day we will laugh about this we said, just not today.
I am in Casablanca waiting to go to the American consulate tomorrow morning in hopes of obtaining a new American Passport. *There are no pictures of Cote d'Ivoire because my laptop was stolen out from under my nose (literally as I slept).
Posts to appear Soon! :
- Farewell Transmission: or Leaving Togo (again)
- Passport: A Beginner's Guide to 'how to lose/get stolen and then obtain a new one from the Consulate in Casablanca'
- Almost In the footsteps of Welles and Hendrix: How I almost went to Essouira but didn't because of my stolen passport
- Some photos that were taken post-computer getting stolen