Ivory Roast

Last week, I listened to harrowing tales of bygone diamond conflicts and civil wars as I resumed my muddy trudge along the Atlantic Coast. This week, I continue my education as I sit in despots’ cars and tyrants swimming pools before rounding the bulge of West Africa and venture eastwards.

Day 22 – Monrovia, Liberia

Today, I find myself in the oft-maligned, and extremely misrepresented, nation of Liberia. Having been offered a lift to the centre of its capital Monrovia (named interestingly after the fourth president of the United States, James Monroe), I had no idea of the difficulties it would pose my courteous driver. Just the very appearance of a pallid Welshman in the passenger’s seat was enough to elicit all sorts of bribes from the local traffic bobbies. I should have hidden in the boot.

I was dropped by the National Museum which, as normal, appears to be the only museum in the country. This one was certainly better stocked than Guineas and far more organised than Sierra Leones (I’ve turned into an appalling National Museum snob). In all seriousness, sitting in former warlord Charles Taylor’s bulletproof jeep was an experience one will not forget in a hurry (he is currently serving fifty years in prison for the most unspeakable of war crimes during Liberia’s civil war). Artefacts aside, the curator told me of on even more authentic piece of history which lay just at the end of the street – I duly followed.

I was taken to Ducor Hotel, a former 5-star resort which (since the civil war) has fallen into terrible disrepair. Whilst I was told many tales of its grand history, the one about Idi Amin swimming naked in the pool with pistol in hand was the most arresting. We ascended the crumbling staircase to the very peak of the 12-story metropolis, stopping in rooms that once housed royalty before I was treated to the grandest of all Monrovian views (or so the security said). I must say that the bribe I paid, for the guard to let me in and show me around, was the most worthwhile backhander I have ever given.

Day 23 – Monrovia, Liberia to Danané, Cote d’Ivoire

There have always been two legs of my voyage around West Africa that have occupied me with the smallest hint of apprehension. One, a long way off, is from Niger to Burkina Faso (due to insurgents), the other is today’s leg from Liberia to Cote d’Ivoire (due to mud). And not just your everyday sludge, I genuinely wasn’t sure if the road was passable (or even existed) – Google Maps just sort of gives up in this area.

Well another day, another spot of luck in ye olde sept-place (shared seven-seater estate to you or I). This time I was sat next to a Nigerian man named John, far more jovial a man than his photo below would lead you to believe, who was on a mission to reach Cote d’Ivoire in one day! As stated, I wasn’t sure it was possible in ninety-nine days, let alone one. Therefore, I had absolutely no problem with spending four and a half hours on a motorbike sliding across the Liberian countryside waiting to fall off and decapitate myself. And, true to his word, we were stamped and in the Ivory Coast before sundown. Give us a smile John!

Day 24 – Danané, Cote d’Ivoire to Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire

The fortuitous nature of yesterday’s transport escapades came to a literal grinding halt this morn. It began with what seemed like the entire bedsit I was staying at crooning canticles at four in the morning – I thought I was having some sort of religious epiphany – I was extremely disappointed to find out that I was not. And so began the theme of the day.

It was my own imbecilic fault for believing that the comfortable and robust coach that was due to take John and I to the Ivorian capital signified a comfortable and robust road. Little did we know that the same narrow muddy path we had biked and had brought us to Danané not twelve hours prior would continue on for the next three hundred kilometres.

Never did I think I would long to be wedged on the arse-end of a 50cc dirt bike with two mud-spattered individuals in front and a Moroccan-bazaar-worth of luggage digging into my coccyx behind. I lost count of how many times our ridiculously unsuitable coach ground to a halt in one of the countless russet-tinted pools. Indeed, it took us until the very early hours of the following day to make our arrival in Yamoussoukro – where I hailed the first cab, told them to take me to the first hotel, and crashed on the first bed I saw (after they had removed the cat).

Day 25 – Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire

I arose partly refreshed and headed straight out onto the streets of what I believed was the capital of Cote d’Ivoire (indeed, that’s what I was told). Well, they were wide. They were freshly tarmacked. But they were completely empty. C’est très bizarre. I finally found a taxi to take me to the local bank and was given the complete run-down on this capital’s rather peculiar history.

Yamoussoukro was a ‘planned city’ (akin to Brasilia, Singapore City or Milton Keynes) and in 1983 was declared the capital for no other reason than it being the birthplace of incumbent president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Whilst Abidjan in the south remains the largest city (at least ten times bigger), the president wanted to start a new metropolis from scratch – building broad boulevards, grand hotels, a titanic town hall and one building so brilliantly flabbergasting, that it almost made me drop my bag of plantains upon first sight.

The exquisitely named Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (or ‘Basilica in the Bush’ as my driver called it) is unlike anything I have seen in West Africa. Based on St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (yellow and white flags all over the place), the largest church in the world just so happens to sit in the most unusual of locations. Being almost the only guest made this visit even odder. I was alone in a cathedral the size of a small nation, eating dry fish out of a bag and weighing up the benefits of biking south tomorrow. Surely it won’t be necessary…

Day 26 – Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire

It wasn’t. Another coach, this time on suitable roads, whipped me back to the Atlantic Coast for the first time since Monrovia. I could feel the sea breeze on my bald head as I stepped off the bus and into the chaos of the country’s largest city. I then had a short trip across the former capital to my accommodation, a quite fascinating gated community in the suburbs, and met my latest host: a Kenyan woman named Loice.

Gated communities are strange places, I’m not quite sure where they sit with me yet. On the one hand, kids are able to frolic on lush green lawns, play tag on roads without holes in them or go on slides at perfectly maintained parks. Dogs are also free to run around and crap wherever they like (instantly cleaned up of course) and the atmosphere is extremely jovial and pleasant. On the other hand, a four-metre-high electric fence guarded this particular neighbourhood, as well as security patrolling the perimeter. All were made to look discreet, of course, but I’m not yet sure how these kinds of places impact the wider community (which obviously is much less monied). Hopefully, I will find out…

Day 27 – Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire

Abidjan. One of the most modern and fast-developing cities in Western Africa. Skyscrapers and a cathedral named St. Paul’s (all very confusing) dominate the skyline whilst jazz bars and classy cafes are scattered all along the streets of its centre. Not being much of a coffee drinker I went in search of the Cathédrale (which my taxi driver mistook for Café Dral and ended up in a snack bar as opposed to a religious site).

Pope John Paul II must have loved visiting Cote d’Ivoire in the ’80s. Not surprising since they kept on building churches/cathedrals/basilicas in his name. This one, apparently shaped like an anthropomorphist giant, also served as a refuge for some 1,800 Ivorians when fleeing violence during the civil war ten years ago (a far greater purpose than its daily use in my opinion). Although, their religious structures are certainly keeping the stained-glass-window makers of the country in business.

After a brief visit to Plateau Mosque (which wasn’t as welcoming to tourists as I believed it would), I headed back to my commune to once again be greeted by cheerful children and delightful dogs. I brought a few Ivoires (the local lager) back with me and preceded to help my host with her English whilst watching BBC’s Merlin on iPlayer (she was a big fan). A rather strange evening all told.

Day 28 – Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to Accra, Ghana

With coach tickets purchased in advance, another short and comfortable bus ride alongside the Gulf of Guinea lay ahead. The next leg of my trip (from Abidjan to Lagos in Nigeria) is by far the easiest on my route, with hostels an option once more and major cities connected by decent public transport links. Even the borders are far less bribey and more officially i.e. I didn’t feel as though a guard would take me into a back room and scrutinize my particulars.

My arrival in Accra is quite a considerable milestone, as far as this trip goes anyway. I have been on edge for almost the entirety of the last four weeks, as the pressure of having to get to the Ghanaian capital in time for the marathon weighed heavy on my shoulders. In hindsight, it was an unreasonable plan to begin with, leaving me little time to savour some of the nations I thought were truly special (Sierra Leone, I will return). However, now that I am here, I can forget about mud-spattered motorbikes, and fractious ambassadors, and exchanging cocaine on the black market (sorry, currency) and concentrate on my reason for racing across Western Africa in the first place: The Accra Marathon.

J

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