Published: August 31st 2006August 30th 2006
After having spent three hours going through Guinea customs and immigration we arrived on the Ivory Coast side about an hour later. We past the first check point without a problem, they just glanced at our passport. At the second and main entry point though we were escorted inside the military police base. All the other people in the truck came and went quickly, but they just told us to wait. Finally the truck we came in, which was now waiting for us, unloaded our bags and went on their way.
We were in the far north of Ivory Coast on our way to Odienne where we would be able to find transport to Man, that might be an interesting place to visit, and then on to Abidjan. The north of Ivory Coast is controlled by the 'rebel forces' known as the Force Nouveau, and there are no government officials from the south in the north. It is basically like its own country, its border from the south separated by 16000 UN peacekeeping troops.
So we were at a Force Nouveau military police base. At first everything was pretty casual, a few of the soldiers were glancing through our
passports asking a few questions. They were concernced that we didn't get a visa for Cote d'Ivoire when we were in Guinea, and that we didn't have a Letter of Introduction from the US Embassy proving that we were tourists. Americans do not need to get visas ahead of time to visit Ivory Coast for tourist stays of 90 days, you just get them at the border, or at least that is what the government in the south says. The north has it own set of unwritten rules, and they also hadn't had an American tourist pass this border post since the end of war. The US Embassy also does not issue letters of introduction for "legal reasons". So as where say a Swiss tourist may have a letter 'proving' they are a tourist, we do not have the option of obtaining such a letter. We explained both of these facts to the soldiers, but they seemed skeptical, or rather didn't really know what to do with us. They decided they had better call the chief.
Everything was still very casual though. I was completely covered in dust from the truck ride, and they let me take a shower
in the back, and change my clothes before the chief arrived. It was oppresively hot, and the cold water shower (running water!) was amazingly refreshing. I am a born and bred rule follower, and I was hoping to be cooperative and do whatever was needed to obtain my little entry stamp in the passport. I also find it helps it you don't look like a bum when meeting with authority figures.
Eventually a young guy in military dress arrived on his motorcycle and escorted us into a room with a massive desk. We were on one side, and he on the other, with his three assistants standing on either side of him. And so in the interrogation began. He went through both of our entire passports asking us about practically every stamp... I have a good many but Alex has an ridiculous number. He had a few problems with our passports, one was about my ten year visa to India. He could not comprehend that a country would give a ten year visa to a tourist...unless of course I was really a diplomat or something, which would of course make me a spy. He kept saying that they don't
give ten year visas to India to citizens of Ivory Coast...I tried to explain it was a just a better deal to buy the longer one if you were going to go more than once.
Alex was then forced to recount his trip since leaving the US six months ago at least eight times. Next, he had him put it in writing (in French) using the exact dates from his passport. He had a big hold up with Morocco, making racial comments about its citizens. Alex has been there a few times, and this last time came through Tangiers via ferry. "So you went by boat, you went clandestine and entered illegally!" the soldier claimed. Alex tried to explain it was a legitimate tourist transport with customs officers. Then he asked me if I had been through Morocco, and I told him I had flown through on the way to Senegal but hadn't left the airport or gone through immigration. A few minutes later after scouring my passport some more he said something like "Ah hah, here is a stamp for Morocco...it says Peru right here, and Peru is the capitol of Morocco!" It just kind of went on like
Next, he wanted to question me separately to make sure our stories lined up, but since I don't speak enough French and he didn't speak enough English, he had to send for one of the soldiers that did speak English. When he arrived they took me to a separate room. He turned out to be a lot nicer, and asked me one or two questions and then started talking to someone else. I learned from him that there were no entrance or visa stamps at this checkpoint, or anywhere in the North for that matter. Alex was still in the other room with the 'chief'... who not suprisingly didn't turn out to be the chief, but some fill in while the real chief was on vacation.
Next, they combined the written recount of our trip and rewrote it by hand, painstakingly slowly, at least three times until they were happy with its appearance. Then they read it aloud. Then we had a little signing ceremony. Just when I thought the process was winding down, they decided it was time to search our bags. I am not a fan of having every item in my possession scrutinized, it actually really embarrases me, and I had already gone through the process once a few hours prior. And call me modest, but I don't like male soldiers picking through my dirty underwear. I even had to explain every picture in my digital camera, including the one where Alex was running nude, screaming and waving his hands (like he does) on a beach in Guinea Bissau. It was a funny picture. They threw my birth control pills at me, and demanded to know why I was taking them. Didn't I want children? What was wrong with me? They told me if that if they didn't have children young they would be dead before they could watch them grow. New insight into the privilege of life expectancy. Even so, the whole thing was incredibly anxious for me, and I was beginning to feel very violated.
Plus, I had not eaten for nine hours, had slept about two hours the previous night on a cold cement slab, and seemed to be in a never-ending interrogation process. Finally, shaking from hunger, I began pleading with the chief to let us be done, to let me please get something to eat. I have trouble thinking straigh when I'm hungry. What else did we need to do? I would do it, just please let me go. Tears began rolling down my cheeks. In case you're not aware, women do not cry in Africa like we cry in America. African women cry when their father or child dies. Nothing else really qualifies. So for me to start shedding tears was this huge deal. Every thing turned into commotion, the soldiers were visibly uncomfortable and tense. One soldier was frantically yelling at Alex, "What is going on? Why is she doing that?? What happened?" Our interrogator was yelling at me, insisting that if I was crying it must mean I was hiding something. What was I hiding!! What!!! I tried to tell him that I was fine, that I was just stressed out. He kept pressing. At that point I sort of lost it. I stood up and started going off in English at the chief about how I had never been treated so poorly, and so disrespectfully, anywhere in the world. "I am a good person! I am a nurse! Why are you being so mean? Why are you depriving us of food? I want this to be finished. Finish what you have to do, finish it and let us go!!" Alex sat calmly in the chair next to me, I could see he was half smiling, but was interpreting everything I said into French.
In the end, they weren't really sure what we needed, , but were sure we needed some sort of official document. However, since none of them were authorized to give us that paperwork, and we would have to meet with the military chief in Odienne. But they weren't sure when that would be. Eventually, since there wasn't really anything left to do, they dismissed the ridiculous session and sent a soldier to escort us to the market to get some food. The interrogation process made us miss all onward transport for Odienne for that day. They weren't about to let us leave either.
By that time they were pretty well convinced we were actually tourists and not mercenaries or spies, and they were a lot nicer...So it turned out to not be that bad, except that we were not free to go. They got us chairs and we sat out in the yard of the police station where some of the nice soldiers made us tea and brought us snacks. There was this amazing baguette with mashed avacado and palm oil. I could have eaten twenty of them. We stayed the night there on the floor of the interrogation room, they moved the big desk to the side, and one of the soliders kindly provided us with a fan.
The next morning we got up early to wait for the transport truck to Odienne, which was slow arriving. After several hours two of the soldiers ended up driving us on the back of their motorcycles the 70km or so to Odienne. It was a pretty fun ride on a decent dirt road, a little bumpy at times, but thick jungle with interesting birds. One of the motorcycles got a flat so we waited in a village while they fixed it, eating freshly roasted peanuts and drinking tea. When we got to Odienne first we to one of the soldiers houses, as he hadn't been home in a month. Apparently he doesn't get to come to Odienne unless there is a "mission", and transporting us consituted a mission. He had a pretty nice house by African standards, two rooms, one with cushioned chairs in the living room and TV with satellite connection. He had a four month old son who was pretty cute as well. He showed Alex his photo album from the war, apparently his specialty had been blowing up trucks. We cleaned up a bit there and then went on to another military police station. We ended up going to three different stations, meeting dozens of people and soldiers. Finally we worked our way through the hierarchal system and were given audience with the comandante of the northwest region of the rebel territory. His office smelled like a library and he was very devout and scholarly with a embossed copy of the Koran on his desk. He didn't say much to us, but kind of nodded while someone else explained us. I don't know what his name was, but we were told later that he was known as 'Bin Laden' because "he is always praying and is always at the mosque." We saw his car later which was painted with the words Bin Laden and had big pictures of a prayer rug. Then we waited in another room until we were finally presented with a computer printout document that served as a permit for free circulation in the rebel territory for 72 hours. Finally 36 hours later we were free from soldier escortment.
We got to Man that evening. It was supposed to have a lot of things, according to the old guidebook, none of which really panned.... Basically the entire Ivory Coast guidebook is completely worthless at this point. There used to be some nice villages to visit, each of which had sort of a tourist attraction, like one was supposed to have child juggling (juggling of the actual children), but the villagers all fled south during the war. The only accurate tourist attraction was the waterfall, which was very pretty. The area surrounding Man was also really beautiful, but the town had really been ravaged. It had been a huge area of fighting, and one that the rebels had managed to win though it dips south into the government controlled area. There was supposed to be an ATM there, but of course the banks were blown to smitherings with huge piles of broken furniture and razor wire in its stead. Since we were almost out of money, and hadn't seen an ATM since Senegal a month previous, we had to hire a car, for an good bit of money, with promise of payment once we got to an ATM on the government controlled side. It took about six hours, with probably six rebel checkpoints, two UN peacekeeping checkpoints, and six government checkpoints. My ATM card worked, but Alex's didn't, so it was a pretty expensive, time consuming, less than fruitful trip. We tried calling the bank to have them raise the limit I could withdrawal in a day, but after twenty dollars worth of phone calls, they said they couldn't do it. It was somewhat frustrating, though there was a western style grocery store in the town with a freezer and I was able to buy a little cup of third world ice cream...and this was pretty exciting. Then we went back to Man through all the checkpoints, because at this point we still hadn't realized there wasn't anything to do for tourists there anymore. The town used to be set up for tourism, and was one of its major industries. The people that used work in tourism are now super aggressive and desperate to anyone that comes by, and it is pretty much not a fun place to be. There was supposed to be some stilt dancing with masks, those villagers had stayed around, but it was extremely expensive. We had actually agreed on a price and were in the car on the way there, but then the guy doubled the price after about two blocks and we got out and left. That morning we decided we would go on to Abidjan.
We found a van that told us they were going to Abidjan and said we could have the front seat. The seventeen hour journey that ensued was one of the stranger ones I have experience. It turns out the van was not actually going to Abidjan, but we had paid the fee to get there. It wasn't that they had straight up scammed us, it was that we would have to change cars about nine or ten times. We kept pulling into parking lots and then there would be this big passenger switch and negotiating. Somehow it was coordinated that we wouldn't have to pay again, we just had to wait a while everytime a car change would happen. Then we would drive a bit farther and they would do it again. All the while we were going through military checkpoints. The rebel side respected our permit and we didn't have too much trouble, though they were constantly asking for money, of which we gave them none. I guess they don't actually get paid in the north, they just live off what they can take. At last check point they tried to take our bags saying we "didn't have a permit for the bags" but they left us alone after we showed them the permit and Alex asked if they wanted us to call the comandante. About eight hours into this van switching madness, they pawned us off on a horrible bus. I suppose it wasn't so bad by African standards, probably one of the nice ones, but it had cramped uncomfortable seats. It was about as wide as a greyhound bus, except that there were eight people in our row. There were also way too many screaming children. Children don't get there own seats. They are counted as luggage and go where they fit, mostly on peoples laps and in the aisles. It wouldn't have been so bad except I can not even describe how painstaking it is to go through a military checkpoint with so many people. The checkpoints come about every twenty to forty minutes. At each stop everyone has to unload, then each meet with the soldiers, then the soldiers search the bus, then all several hundred load back up again after about an hour, and we do it again twenty minutes later. It makes what would be a five hour ride turn into about a twenty four hour plus ride. I put up with it for about three or four checkpoints, and then when realizing the magnitude of the situation, insisted we get off. Luckily there was a minivan going to the lovely town of San Pedro down on the beach. It was supposed to take three hours tops from where we were...but of course it took more like six or seven hours, and we arrived at around 3 AM. At one point we hit some animal with the car, I think it was kind of cat like and screaming after we hit it. I was really disturbed, plugging my ears, while the Africans were really excited. They backed over it again and then finished it with a machete. Alex asked what it was as they dragged it into the car with us. "That's good meat!!" They were really excited by their good fortune.
San Pedro was great though. We stayed most of our time at a Tunisian run hotel that had hot water and TV. I had only had one hot shower since I left the states, so this was definitely a bonus. The town has a huge population of Lebanese expats, and they ran a lot of tasty restaurants. We sat in outdoor cafes munching on shawarma, sipping cold drinks and smoking sheesha from a big hookah. We also spent a few days at the beach. There are a few hotels down on the beach, but the one we liked was full, so we slept in town and took taxis to the beach. There is a self appointed four star resort that has a day use option if you eat at their fancy french restaurant. So we spent one day lounging on the beach chairs with thick cushions, reading and sipping mint water on the private resort beach. And our lunch was one of the best I have had in longtime. It was definitely a luxurious day.
We are now in Abidjan. The ride from San Pedro wasn't so bad since we had a smaller van and the checkpoints are a little less intense further from the border. The first night we were here we stayed out in a very African suberb, Alex liked it, and I didn't think it was bad, but basically the only thing on all the menus out there was kidney, liver or these massive grilled rats. We previously tried some bush meat that came with a clawed hand attached, and it tasted like vomit. I don't eat organ meat and I definitely don't eat nasty sewer rats (bush meat is one thing), so much to my relief we moved into the city, for the same price hotel. Our main purpose here has been to get a visa for Ghana, which we obtained this afternoon. Abidjan is an interesting city, the most European style that I have been to in Africa. Alex says there are a lot of parallels with Paris, like even their bus cards and street signs. Again we have been frequenting the Lebanese establishments and we went to the most amazing Lebanese bakery yesterday after our Lebanese lunch. I'm going back again as soon as I leave the internet. I love Lebanese food. They also have French style bakeries at all the western style grocery stores and two mornings in a row I have gone to get the hot out of the oven amazing croissants with the melted chocolate inside. So good. But Alex is ready to "get back to Africa" and we will be leaving for Ghana in the morning.