Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An old story.

This remained unfinished from a long day of air travel a week or so ago. I finally got around to finishing the narrative today, though I have done no proofreading. It's been a long time since I've told this story, so I apologize for any gaps. I also hope this gets me off the hook with Charlotte for a little while, who recently called me out for never writing about anything personal.


Though I am entering my twelfth hour of airline travel so far today, with no end in sight, I haven't been stressed. In fact, I never get stressed when I travel anymore. Most times, I board the flight and fall asleep in my seat before the plane ever leaves its gate.

When I was younger, I could never sleep on flights. It was too stuffy, too uncomfortable.

But now, I almost look forward to airline travel as an opportunity to rest.

When you cut your teeth on day-long minibus rides across the terrain of West Africa, the uncertainty of flying stand-by isn't exactly that devastating when you're treated to the comforts of modern airports, their $9 prepackaged sandwiches, and their $8 wifi.

I left the United States to do some time at the University of Ghana a week or two before Katrina hit. I had the time of my life there and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel around the region. On one trip I went east to Togo and Benin.

On another I went with a friend of mine to Burkina Faso, which is across Ghana's northern border. The bus ride between Accra, Ghana and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso is generally supposed to take about 24 hours because of road conditions as much as because of distance.

Our trip took closer to 32 hours because of mechanical problems on the bus.

I liked Burkina Faso very much, though the poverty eclipsed anything I'd ever seen before or since. My friend and I spent a day in the capital and then hitched a ride in a truck to the northeast corner of the country, near the border with Niger where we could check out a weekly marketplace showcasing goods and crafts from diverse traders representing the many ethnic groups of the Sahel. That ride took 14 hours due to poor road conditions and constant stops, which were necessary for truckers to remain vigilant against bandits crossing the border from Niger. Bandits shot the driver of a passenger bus the day before we made the trek under cover of night.

After some time there, my friend and I took another layover in Ouagadougou before heading to the southwest corner of the country and to Burkina's second biggest city, Bobo-Dioulasso. This was one of the more beautiful cities I visited in West Africa. The French added their boulevards of course, but what made Bobo-Dioulasso interesting was the historic core, an old city, that preserved precolonial urban streetscapes and lifestyles. I don't know if it was ever vast enough to be called a medina but the stick and mud mosque had stood for over 500 years.

There were very aggressive hawkers in Bobo-Dioulasso and I found myself getting into a lot of very heated arguments with the unsolicited "tour guides" attaching themselves to the hips of my friend and I as we tried to walk around town. I was too fearless in general, at the time. Months of malaria pills had given me vivid dreams and clouded my judgment. I also had earned the spiritual protection of a Ghanaian fetish priest in a lavish ceremony a few weeks prior (another story, don't judge) and was determined to put it to the test.

I had to cut short my trip due to some visa issues back in Ghana and was delighted to see that there was a bus company with direct routes from Bobo-Dioulasso to Accra. This was a godsend because I would have otherwise had to take another 9-10 hour bus ride back to Ouagadougou and then would have been stuck there for another few days waiting for the next regular trip to Accra.

But it was a scam. There would be no bus that day. One sat on cinder blocks nearby but that was all. I was furious and somehow got my French going enough to get my money back. Now I was desperate to get back to Ghana but didn't want to have to schlep all the way back to Oagadougou. There must be local transport, I thought. What about Cote d'Ivoire?


I knew that Cote d'Ivoire was somewhat iffy because of an on and off civil war touched off after the death of longtime President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. But I also knew that there had been a cease fire for at least a few years. My Lonely Planet guide suggested checking with my state department before venturing across the border but the book had much more forceful warnings about places like Lagos, Nigeria, which is at least in a relatively stable country.

My rationale was that because Cote d'Ivoire had the smoothest and most comprehensive road infrastructure in the region, I could get back to Accra, Ghana much faster than going back through Burkina Faso. Getting transport between Abidjan, the big coastal city, and Accra would be easy, I figured, since coastal road systems in Ghana weren't as bad as the ones going North to South.

More than anything, I was angry over getting stiffed by the phantom bus company and was feeling more or less invincible in general terms.

My friend was more or less allowing me to make the decisions at this point, since I was the one able to speak French and also since I was fronting him travel money at this point, since he ran out of the local currency. I had, at this point, about 100 bucks in cash.

I got directions to the bus station from where we could pick up transport to Abidjan. I paid about 40-45 dollars for two spots. When I've referred to bus rides to this point, I've meant proper buses like those we're familiar with here. Now, however, we switched to local transport. We had purchased tickets to ride on what amount to tricked-out Peugeot mini bus. In Ghana, they call them Tro-Tros and they serve as the most common form of mass transit. Basically they tie all the cargo to the roof and cram as many people in as will fit. The typical tro-tro had maybe 4 rows of seats not including the front and held maybe 20ish people. Up front, you could fit three including the driver. There was also another employee riding in the back, a 'mate', that on local routes, would collect fares and stick his neck outside the sliding door and call out the final destination to those waiting at each spot.

They had another word for the tro-tro in Cote d'Ivoire, I'll just call it a minibus. We loaded onto the minibus toward the early evening but it probably took two hours to leave the station. I'd become used to long delays caused by people arguing over where they wanted to sit and where and how they wanted their cargo put up on the roof, but I was especially sensitive to delays because of how we'd been shafted out of a ride earlier. When we finally got rolling, it was getting dark and I was nervous that the border closed at night.

When the driver pulled over just halfway to the border to buy himself a bowl of rice, I could kind of see the writing on the wall.

It was dark when we got to the northern border of Cote D'Ivoire, where a small city had sprung up to service convoys planning to spend the night. Some of the other people on our minibus brought blankets to sleep on the ground, others just tried to sleep sitting up straight, packed like sardines into the van. I was pretty frustrated by this turn of events but you develop a thick skin against to transport delays when you travel in West Africa. I splurged on several big beers and pasta so that my friend and I could pass out in the sand or sitting up if we had to. This drew our collective cash on hand down to about 40-45 bucks.

The next morning we crossed the border. I got my passport stamped after exiting Burkina Faso but received no entry stamp when entering Cote d'Ivoire because the northern half of the country had been partitioned to rebel groups. There wasn't any official-looking crossing, but it was pretty apparent when we'd made it when we started to see some pretty heavily armed young men.

I was right about the road quality, the asphalt was smooth. The travel pace, however, was not.

Every several miles was a roadblock, a military checkpoint maintained by rebels. Generally, there would be a bunch of oil barrels with portraits of Che Guevara stenciled on the side blocking the road while three or four guys with Kalashnikov rifles manned the passageway while several more soldiers lazed under nearby trees or in shacks.

In most instances, to get through the road block, the 'mate' who was now riding on top of the minibus, would hop off, pay a bribe, and hop back on.

Some checkpoints were more elaborate. We'd all be ordered out of the minibus and they'd inspect it thoroughly for arms before exacting a bribe from the driver and permitting us to continue.

Other times, we'd unloaded and ordered to each pay a bribe individually, something like two bucks each.

Once, between checkpoints, we were overtaken on the road by a speeding pick up truck with a manned machine gun fixed in the bed. At one barricade, I saw a teenager toying around with a grenade launcher. At another, the driver approached too quickly, causing the rebel soldiers to ready fire. This elicited cries throughout the minibus. I was told about this later by my friend after I had apparently slept through it.

Toward the middle of the afternoon, we stopped in a town and were transferred onto another minibus with a fresh crew. My friend and I were charged for new tickets, which made me furious since I thought I'd paid for a ride all the way to Abidjan. So I had to drop another twenty dollars for my friend and I.

After making it through another few checkpoints, it was clear that my money was dwindling. I had maybe twenty or thirty dollars left. It was getting dark again and we hadn't made it very far, from what I could tell. We still hadn't made it to the capital, Yamoussoukro, still many miles from Abidjan.

I hadn't realized how many hours we'd lost to military roadblocks. But I had some idea when we pulled over to the side of the road after it got dark and the other passengers set up blankets in the sand. I'd had nothing to eat since the night before in Burkina Faso since I was now concerned I'd have to start bartering my way through checkpoints. When we stopped for the night, I finally snapped.

In a fit of rage I explained how I'd paid x amount for a ride to Abidjan and if they refused to take me, I wanted my stuff off of the roof of the minibus so I could walk the rest of the way. I went on and on like this for a good five minutes in my awful French until the driver, mate, and entire group of passengers just started cracking up in laughter. Stupid white man, I know.

Humbled, I sulked over to a nearby food stand and treated my friend and I to an $0.80 rice dinner.

I hadn't realized it, but the reason we were forced to stop was the closure of the UN partition which separated the rebel North from the government controlled South. We didn't have to travel too long the next morning to reach the blue helmets. This was a sight for sore eyes at the time, I high-fived a couple of Moroccan peacekeepers while my friend was searched for drugs.

Later, investigators uncovered that peacekeepers had been victimizing local women.

The pace of travel picked up from this point forward, as the government-controlled part of the country didn't have military barricades erected every ten miles. We changed minibuses once more in Yamoussoukro but I was able to negotiate our way out of getting charged for new tickets. We arrived in Abidjan sometime around noon.

Abidjan was an incredible sight. It was once one of Africa's crown jewels and you could see a lot of the remnants of the prosperous days of the 70s and 80s - high rise buildings, a modern road system, etc. But now views were also characterized by overgrown jungle vegetation. I thought it was beautiful. It was teeming with people. The minibus dropped us off at a market, where a friend I'd made on the bus agreed to help us find a way to the Ghanaian border.

After paying for these tickets, and probably one more set near the border, I made it back into Ghana with about 5 dollars left in local currency. Two more bribes and my friend and I would have been cleaned out entirely.

We crossed the border into Ghana at around 3 PM and finally made it back to Accra at around midnight. It was nice to speak English again and to be free of the responsibility of translating for my friend. At one checkpoint put up by the Ghanaian military on their side of the border, a woman official tried to exact a bribe from me and I just gave her the iciest stare I'd ever given anybody. She looked me over once more and just said, "you are covered in dirt" before waving me through.

I estimated that the 'shortcut' through Cote d'Ivoire would take us maybe 24-28 hours.

Instead, it took us close to 60 hours. Over the course of that time, I had two meals, went to the bathroom zero times, and exhausted whatever masculine impulse I might have once had to be in the presence of modern weaponry.

I still hadn't fully grasped how dangerous our jaunt had been until the next day when I was joking around with some Ghanaian friends about it. I kidded them that when I ran out of bribe money, the rebels had shot off my toe. These guys were no strangers to sarcasm but when I said this, they looked down at my feet to see.

The state dept. apparently had issued a travel warning to Americans just a few weeks before I unknowingly disobeyed it.

I haven't had an ounce of trouble falling asleep on any mode of transportation or in any waiting room since.


oyster said...

Totally fascinating and engrossing. This may be an "old" story, but it's a goodie. Thanks, very much, for sharing it.

And thanks to Charlotte for prompting you to share it!

charlotte said...

I loved this story - thanks for sharing.