The people living north and south of the border are clearly the same, the landscape is the same, but it's definitely a different country. First off, I can't help but notice that the road is cratered like it hasn't been maintained for years. As a matter of fact, it probably hasn't been while the war was raging and the border was all but closed. I then arrived at the first city, Ferkessédougou, which is a little run-down and not much going on except the local market and a few stands selling SIMs and top-up cards, which is what I need. Looking for a cheap place to crash I unexpectedly ran into a few hotels asking for quite a bit of money. Some of those CFA is still flowing here. It takes much haggling at 2-3 places to finally find a room - sometime, you just don't feel like camping, you'd prefer to be in town and meet people. Today I meet one French guy at the hotel who got interested at my bike. He's restarting the business at a national park up in the north-east that's been pretty much abandoned for years. The rest of the town is unfortunately not very interesting.
(sorry, there aren't many pictures from northern Côte d'Ivoire; sometimes I just don't care about carrying a camera around)
I figured a better way to meet people would be through CouchSurfing. I haven't used it since Lubumbashi, and I had a great time there. Now I've received invitations by people in Bouaké (my next stop) and Abidjan. Bouaké used to be the capital of the Forces Nouvelles
, the rebels who've been fighting the government troops since 2002. As such it's seen a lot of fighting, as recently as the beginning of 2011 when the crisis unfolded, some of which apparent in the destroyed buildings. I meet Vamouyan my host, and he leads me to his home, a small flat with one bedroom which he absolutely wants me to take, him taking the sofa. This has often been the case in Africa and I've given up arguing for the sofa. There's an inner courtyard to park the bike out of sight, and running water for a shower. We go out for beers and chicken, and he shows me a bit around town: the burnt-up Gendarmerie post, the abandoned government bank, etc.. he introduces me to some friends who brag about having fought for the rebels, which seems to give them much pride.
There's big hope that now that their man (Ouattara) is in charge as President, he will the turn the tables and they will make good. But right now everybody seem to struggle to make a living. My man is doing some business with construction material. But he's got his eyes on moving to another country. I thought he would ask how to get to France, like many Ivorians, but he's actually more interested in the USA. He tells me he's already spent more than 1000$ on procedures and intermediates to secure an American visa, but he's been rejected. He's that desperate!
It's nice chatting with him and everything but it doesn't really click - couchsurfing is a lottery, you never know how it'll turn. So I move on. I would get a message later from him requesting assistance to get a French visa. Unfortunately there's nothing I can do to help him in this department, me being an alien already and without much resources.
The main road is now improving noticeably as I reach the capital, Yamoussoukro. The capital is one of those artificial capitals built out of the blue for political reasons - think Islamabad, Brasilia, etc.. It always ends up being a bland, cold city without a soul, and incredibly boring. Here late president Houphouët-Boigny just picked is home village, of all places. And he hasn't stopped there, he's also built the largest cathedral in Africa (and one of the largest I've seen)!
The total construction price is estimated at between 100 and 200 million €, "at the President's own expenses" as the guide stresses out - which doesn't mean much when a dictator's private bank account and the country's budget are one and the same. It's a knock off of St-Pierre in Rome, actually the dome is slightly larger but as it lacks the transept and the nave, it's nowhere near as impressive. In any case it looks very much out of place here.
It's massive hall can sit 7000 people under the dome and is entirely air-conditioned, a nice touch for the region, although it's not fired up anymore as it's prohibitively expensive to run and on only 1 or 2 occasions during the year does the basilica fills up. It sounds totally out of proportion for a developing country, but as Houphouët used to point out, the European countries of the middle-ages weren't doing much better than today's Africa and they built quite a few impressive cathedrals as well. Still, we can't help but think that the world has evolved since then and we should be wiser. But where religion (and one persiden't ego) comes into play, rationality takes a back seat.
Admire the stained glass window depicting Houphouët himself together with Jesus.
There's absolutely nothing else to do in this city except the visit of the basilica, so I jump on the bike and head south to Abidjan. There's a detour because of the roadwork, so at least there's some improvement going on. Arriving in Abidjan the tarmac is good and the traffic increases considerably, but fails just short of the usual chaotic mess. I call my new couchsurfing host Yves, who turns out to be a teenager who's living with his brother mostly on their own in a slum near a football pitch. He's a great guy, although I haven't really understood how he makes a living - he pretends to be studying and making music as a rap singer. Mostly, they sleep, watch TV and play scrabble (really).
The dudes are pretty cool and give me one room, sharing another. Again we go out and I buy some beers. We're in Yopougon, a very popular suburb, a long way from the Plateau business center
or even the posh Cocody residential area favored by the expats. But it's much better for what I like best, which is just walk around and watch people in their everyday's life.
The local soccer pitch sees much used by many local football teams, although it's in very bad shape, and the sand quickly turns into mud when a storm breaks out, much to the delight of the youngest. I have a chat with the coach, who tells me he barely escaped death when we was caught by incoming rebel forces who had been told he was police. A lot of people use these times of unrest to rat on a neighbor or competitor to get ride of him - literally. Yves on the other hand was a refugee in Ghana, he's come back only when the situation improved and it was safe again in Yopougo, a former stronghold of the losing Gbagbo forces.
Looking at the number of different newspapers being published, it's obvious politics is a big part of everyday's life - this is in contrast to DRC where you'd be hard pressed to find a decent newspaper, even in the capital.
The speech is surprisingly open and free, this (obviously pro-Gbagbo) paper talking about the visit of the President Ouattara to France and calling him and his staff the "putschists".
This one is an inside joke referring to famous French satirical newspaper "Le Canard Enchaîné".
On Sunday most people go to the mass, showing their best clothes
or mend their cars (bodywork is good though the tranny needs some work).
A few days in a big city is enough for me, I decide to move on. I have no other couchsurfing planned, instead I want to hit the beaches. Yeah baby!