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Published: November 2nd 2006
Grand BassamOctober 27
View of the lagoon from our lunch spot.
: Headed to the chaotic Kaneshie station to find transportation to the west of Ghana en route to our ultimate destination: Cote d'Ivoire. Stopped for a quick lunch in the dirty port town of Takoradi before heading for the Ivorian border at Elubo. Like most border towns, Elubo is not a terribly pleasant place to linger: money changers hissed and yelled as we passed, waving handfulls of CFA Francs in the air; the dispossessed huddled under the corrogated tin roofs of delapidated buildings; and hustlers, pushers, and muggers patrolled the rough, unsurfaced roads. With the sunlight fleeting in late afternoon, we were forced to locate accommodation on the border: a place described as being "clean, comfortable and very affordable" by our guidebook.
It was a dump.
The receptionist, a boy probably no older than 12, greeted us with the few words of English he understood, and showed us to the small, dingy room where we were to spend the night. I tried to lighten the moods of my travel companions by joking that we at least had the company of a pet, pointing to a scampering cockroach, but our complacency was curtailed by the peeling walls and musty
On the border between Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire
smells of our surroundings. We decided to spend as little time as possible in the room, electing instead to find a restaurant (which ended up being the only "restaurant" in town - a little place blasting awful rap music where images of a nude waitress and Mickey Mouse were crudely painted on to the wall next to a framed portrait of Jesus). I worked off the greasy dinner with a walk along the rutted roads and tall grasses of town, accompanied by an uneasy feeling. The rest of the night was spent mocking Nigerian soap operas on the one fuzzy channel picked up by the hotel. In my mind, a countdown to 8 am (when the border opened) was fast approaching. October 28
: Left Elubo and its problems behind for an entirely new place of troubles: the Ivorian border. We passed through Ghanaian customs quickly (as always) and proceeded across the 500m or so track of road in "no-man's land," between Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. Arriving on the Ivorian side, it initially appeared as though we would have to endure no real hassle. The customs officer accepted our passports, casually flipped through their contents, and pressed in that ever-so-satisfying
stamp of entry. On the way out, however, we caught the eye of some obviously bored military personnel, who asked to view our papers and questioned us when they failed to find an "Ivorian visa" in our passports. We lied that we had contacted the Ivorian Embassy before our arrival and that they had told us no visa was requied for American citizens, and I pointed out that my travel book confirmed our assertion. We seemed to call their bluff. To save face, the three soldiers told us they would have to wait for orders from their boss. In the meantime, we were shuffled from place to place, asked questions, asked for our papers, and made to wait for several hours. I don't believe the boss ever arrived, but we eventually outlasted the soldier's attempts to extort a "cadeau," or bribe. So, hours later, they released us into the insecurity of the Ivorian nation. Finding that no mass transport was available to shuttle us to Grand Bassam, we opted to hitch with a man who was hauling pineapples in his old pickup truck. We jetted down the road, rolling past denuded swaths of countryside and brown rivers as we sped
Crumbling colonial buildings in Grand Bassam
A roadblock spoiled our confidence about 20 km into our journey, and we were asked to alight by three men sporting aged Kalashnikov machine guns over their shoulders. We were ushered to a nearby hut, where a seated captain received our papers and searched the contents of our bags. With a look of confusion on his face, he shot a glare at me from behind his thick glasses. What on earth would three idiot American tourists be doing on a "vacation" in a war torn nation? Perplexed, he asked to see our "tourist cards," which we explained were not issued by the US government. The captain sighed, saying that we could not continue if we did not have tourist cards. Lucky for us, he was willing to write us one if we were willing to spot him two thousand CFA (four dollars) each. Knowing we would otherwise encounter this problem at the next roadblock, we reluctantly agreed. He scribbled out a note (which I could not read, as it was in French), and jotted his name and title at the bottom. Before we could take out his payment, a busload of Ivorians entered the hut. He waved us
A ghost town-like atmosphere in Cote d'Ivoire's former capital.
away, unwilling to have the nature of his business revealed to the new arrivals. We escaped back into the man's truck and continued away, two thousand CFA and a "tourist card" in my hand.
The note turned out to be a lifesaver, and we encountered no other problems at the remaining seven roadblocks we were stopped at. We arrived in Grand Bassam around 2 pm, and immediately dropped our bags at a beachfront hotel and went in search of a "maquis" (open air restaurant usually serving great French and Ivorian cuisine). Grand Bassam is, in actuality, a conglomeration of smaller townships built in close proximity, with each town sharing the name "Bassam". We chose to stay in Ancien Bassam, which is situated on a long, narrow jut of land that separates the Atlantic ocean from Ebrie lagoon, and Ancien Bassam from Novou Bassam. In the time that Grand Bassam was the capital of Cote d'Ivoire, the French colonials used this isolating feature to segregate themselves from the native people, constructing beautiful buildings with large, ornate balconies and pastel colored facades along the sands of their exclusive community. On our way to the maquis, we were able to see what
was left of these magnificent structures. To me, the slow dilapidated conditions of the mansions, offices, and courthouse - only a faded memory of something once grand and inviting - aptly represented the state of the country in which they existed. The town was incredibly tranquil, I mast admit, and walking the pretty cobblestone walkways along the tidy roads and historic buildings was quite pleasant. We chose a place for a late lunch, and selected a spot to rest overlooking the quiet and picturesque lagoon. Among the long grasses and ever-present palm trees, fishermen paddled through the dark waters of the lagoon, periodically stopping to place a fishtrap or untangle a net. While we waited for our food, I wandered into town, in search of a craftshop I had read about in my Lonely Planet guidebook. I found it, and it turned out to be a treasuretrove of old masks and antique woodcarvings. The owner was incredibly friendly, and we were able to communicate rather well considering he did not speak a lick of English. I returned to the restaurant some time later, washed my hands, and sat down to a great lunch of grilled chicken prepared with a tomato
and onion sauce. We spent the remainder of the day wandering Bassam's charming backstreets and admiring the aging buildings overtaken by forest and plant life. The Ivorians were generally friendly if a bit reserved, and we enjoyed the company of several young boys who were racing sardine can stockcars along the dirt paths.
Hard to imagine this idyllic place like this ever being close to a war zone.
After an evening spent wandering along palm-fringed beaches, we took in some...interesting...tunes at a local bar, where a small crowd of inebriated Ivorians danced and sang along. Finding little else to do in the town, we retired for the evening.
I woke with the sun the next morning and sat reading my travel book on the deserted beach as the sand slowely warmed beneath me and the world, rather suddenly, began stirring around me. Women clad in bright batik dresses combed the beaches vending their wares and fare, and the giggles of young boys seemed nearer and nearer. I retreated to my room and began packing.
We wandered through Bassam one last time, found transport to the border with the help of several genuinely wonderful and helpful Ivorians
and munched on baguettes and pastries the remainder of our time in country. No tales of bribery, treachery, violence, or other misfortune in this entry. Just a pleasant surprise. Cote d'Ivoire is a country of warm, welcoming, and resilient people. It's a shame about the war, but I sense a burning desire for peace in each individual...well, most of them at least...and a yearning to welcome back the thousands of visitors they all-too-quickly had to send off.
What an interesting place.
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