We immediately liked Côte d’Ivoire. It was emptier, cleaner, greener than Ghana. It was also poorer, but prouder – dust was being swept outside roadside stalls again. There were no more piles of rubble or tacky advertising hoardings. It was friendlier, more like Cameroon or Congo. Policemen at roadblocks were back sporting shades, fatigues and guns, but surprisingly weren’t intimidating; they were cheerier, with more chutzpah. It felt good to be back in a land with a sense of itself.
There was a look to the villages with their yellow and orange painted cottages that I fumbled to find an adjective for and surprised myself with ‘provençal’. The countryside was more fertile, with huge palm and banana plantations, and markets bursting with fresh produce. The people were beautiful; taller, fitter, more elegantly dressed, with slinky young women and handsome young men everywhere. After mostly modern Ghana, the outfits were back to more traditional prints, and I suddenly felt my knee-length skirt was inappropriate. There were more mosques.
We were back to DIY traffic-calming measures – slaloms of logs and oil drums at the entrance to each village – and the return of bicycles as the major mode of transport. For men that is. Men were on bikes, women were walking, walking, carrying huge amounts of stuff on their heads, chewing ‘toothbrush’ sticks. We were also back to French bread and cacahouetes (sugared peanuts) in old spirits bottles: hooray!
I need to acknowledge my growing realisation that we feel safer here on a daily basis, not only safer than in South Africa but probably in most of Europe. This is because we have no fear – seriously, feeling zero threat – of petty crime. The social mores are so old-fashioned, the places we’re driving through mostly so remote, the respect for property, for age, for visitors so tangible – it’s almost unthinkable.
How rad: in my experience so far, central and west Africa, far from being more dangerous than anywhere, has felt safer than almost everywhere I’ve lived in the last 30 years – Coventry in the 1980s, Oxford full of drunken student rape, wild west London, gangland Manchester, pre-1994-election Johannesburg, current Cape Town. While this might be due to the fact we are blithely unaware of the subtle nuances of the political and social situation around us, perhaps that lack of prior judgement leaves us open to responding only to the evidence of our eyes and the feeling in our guts. Ignorance may be bliss, but propaganda can be paralysing.
Whenever I am scared, I remind myself of something I learned walking around townships: look, people live here. To them, this is their neighbourhood, familiar, comfortable, reassuring. If you come often enough, make this your neighbourhood, this too will be your feeling. The fear of fear itself will stop you seeing what is under your nose, and stop you living your full life. So relax. Just breathe, just be. Don’t imagine bad things happening; pay attention to what’s in front of your eyes. Respond to the positive. Smile and people generally smile back.
On our final day in Ghana, Ruby and I had spent our last Cedis stocking up on loads of mangoes, pineapples and watermelon at a huge market. The pre-storm sun was so fierce I couldn’t cross the road without my umbrella-parasol. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced any where else – you can feel it burning like an acetylene torch on your skin, so you know the rain is coming, even if the sky is a blazing blue. Ruby was only wearing a cap and scoffing at me. When she went down with a slight fever in the evening, I thought at first it was heat stroke.
She spent the whole border-crossing day in bed, but had come round a bit by the time we got to Aboisso. I missed taking a pic of the name of the town outlined in clipped hedges by a bridge at the entrance. At the petrol station where we stopped at to fill up with water, the people were so welcoming. After Sampson had entertained the crowd with a trick or two, a local doctor and police chief treated the kids to a cold Orangina.
Sampson said that driving through Africa should be made a treatment for spoiled whities with clinical depression, not because the majority are so badly off that it makes you appreciate what you have, but because the outpouring of positivity and love shining from the faces of people as you go past is such a tonic for the world-weary cynic. “I wish we all waved”…
His reciprocal idea was that it would be great to get a rotating sign from a Golden Arrow bus to mount on the front of Big Reg and swap the lettering of the destination for a greeting in the local language of wherever we are.
We’d read in the Lonely Planet about horse rides in Grand Bassam, the former capital of the French colony. Ruby adores horses and is besotted with the idea of riding and owning a stable despite the fact that she’s only been on a horse three times – annually as a birthday present for the past few years. We are focusing on emphasising the positive to encourage good behaviour, and wanted to reward her for working so hard last term. She’d already spent a morning helping James out grooming at the Coconut Grove Hotel’s stable, just outside Elmina in Ghana, when we’d checked it out for Mom.
Nana had sent her a couple of new horse books with techniques in that had got her all excited and inspired. She wholeheartedly believes that she’s read so much she knows everything now, and all she has to do is get on a horse and she’ll be able to do the lot – if not from dressage to jumping, at least from walking to galloping.
We arrived in Grand Bassam at dusk, got a bit lost, and asked the way from a woman in a petrol station. She was gobsmacked to hear we’d driven this far from S.A., exclaiming “Putain!” Behind her, around fifty men dropped to their knees, as magrib prayers continued in the corner of the garage forecourt that faced Mecca. I just love the juxtapositions of travel.
We got sent down a long leafy lane lined with grand hotels and apartments, which lay parallel to a kilometre-long stretch of pale sand bordered by beach bars. Big Reg pulled up opposite Ibrahim and Nasseem who turned out to be the very grooms we were looking for! Ruby, recovering, was thrilled to hear about her early birthday present. We spent the night on a sideroad, within breathing distance of the shore.
The next morning, her fever was still there, but not high enough to stop her walking to see the horses, grazing on a field at the end of the road. Nasseem explained there were ex-champion racers amongst them, and went to show off No Limit’s mettle by making him rear up. Ruby thought it served him right when the horse then kicked him in the butt so he fell over! We booked a ride for when it was cooler, and spent the rest of the day doing school inside the truck sheltering from the rain. When it stopped, Zola got his skateboard out and had some fun on a beautiful bit of tarmac up to someone’s fancy house. It was probably an ex-president; we didn’t enquire.
At 4.30pm Ruby went for her ride on Altaïr. What astounded me was how at ease she was, how completely at home she looked on horseback. She walked Altaïr down the road past the truck to the beach, then along the sand.
Groom Railly explained that “Côte d’Ivoire horses are not like French horses”: it’s no good nudging them, you have to give them a “coup de talon” i.e. kick them hard with your heel to make them move to a trot. Ruby was not convinced and not at all happy with Railly’s directions to kick harder. When he lost patience, Railly hit the horse with a stick whip and Altaïr half-reared. Ruby was lucky to be leaning forwards and didn’t fall off, but got down immediately. I know – she wasn’t even given a riding hat, what was I thinking, I am a Bad Mother etc. etc…
Back at the stables to negotiate a reduced price with M. Togo for her abbreviated ride, I was staggered to find a professional painter hard at work outside in the corner. Idrissa Diarra does vibrant fleshy portraits of the deep forest that, with their huge leaves and bulging blooms, reminded me of my brother’s paintings. He was currently exhibiting at the Out of Africa Gallery in Barcelona http://www.galeria-out-of-africa.com/en/browse/page/shop.browse/category_id/109 Ruby was amazed by his dexterous ability to mix colour on his palette to the exact shade required. It was a privilege to watch him work.
There was no time to hang about. We’d crossed the border on a Monday, on a mission: Sampson had been watching the forecast for weeks, and for the first time ever, a five star swell was predicted for Côte d’Ivoire’s key surf spot that Friday. But Grand Drewin was at the other end of the country…
So we pushed on, sadly driving straight through Abidjan without pausing to look round. The economic capital was much easier to traverse than expected, and we were in and out in a couple of hours, serendipitously driving right past a mall that stocked ricecakes!
Big Reg drove on to Grand Lahou, and stopped at a lovely spot next to a huge lagoon with a gorgeous view across it to the sea. We arrived at 4pm and while I cooked, Sampson and Zola took a pirogue ride over to check the swell. Local guide Lazar was so impressed with our journey so far, he was wringing my hand with enthusiasm, and relating the details to everyone who subsequently pitched up. We passed an amazingly quiet night undisturbed by anyone and Ruby seemed completely better.
On Thursday, Reg motored further down the coast, and after stocking up at Sassandra market, we set off on the dirt road for Grand Drewin, pronounced Drevan. It was off the beaten track and not easy to find. We had to check directions twice, but after about 10km, rounded a corner to find ourselves on a high road above a village banking steeply down to the sea with the occasional line coming in already. Sampson was beside himself.
At the end of the road, right in front of the break, was the bizarrely named ‘Pacific Surf Camp’ a.k.a. Chez Jules. An immaculately kept lawn lay beneath a bevy of palm trees – one of Jules’s band of brothers would cut it every day by hand with a scythe. There was even surfers’ accommodation, which one would describe as rustic if one were under 25 and romantically inclined.
It was the most beautiful spot with the loveliest people. Jules, his brother Marco, and colleagues Jean, Armond and Sixco bent over backwards to accommodate our needs: providing vital space in the shade to do school, bringing food from the market, even arranging for water to be transported in.
The storm hit Friday as predicted. Sampson surfed dawn patrol four days straight: once with a turtle, once with a daring French teenager and once with a fun group of Lebanese Ivoirian locals who’d come down from Abidjan. I filmed most of them.
Zola went in on the third day when it still wasn’t quite small enough for him (or for me watching), but in his second session he screwed up the courage to plunge down a few waves – see the terrifying footage here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDFJOO6UQrM. Can you believe how much his surfing has improved in the last few months? Meanwhile Sampson was having the time of his life. His face in the mornings just before going out, having bolted down some cornflakes or cold rice pudding, was worth being woken at the crack of bleating goat …
On the second day, after a three hour session, where he had twenty waves of which the last four were “perfect”, Sampson came out with the face of a deliriously happy 12 year old boy. In future, whenever he feels depressed I shall say “You’re not depressed. You’re just not in Grand Drewin.”
Sampson was up for pushing on to Dagbego, another surf spot we’d checked out on the way, but I strongly felt we needed to give thanks for such a day. I spoke to Jules about giving a show to the village kids later. He asked me if we’d like some langoustines. I said we weren’t really in the top league of euro-carrying crayfish-eating tourists.
He said “This is your first time in Côte d’Ivoire, no? And we are so happy you’ve come all the way here. You must tell us what you would like to pay, and we will be fine with that.” I was moved that he was so genuinely grateful that travellers were finally coming back to his country after the twin calamities of the 2002 war and ‘la crise’ of 2011. We were paying about 5000 CFA for a big fish in Benin, so I gave him R7000 (R140) and hoped for the best.
When Sampson came in from his epic surf that Saturday morning, with me filming him from the rocks, we were surprised the kids weren’t already down at Jules’s place and went back to the truck to see why. We found Ruby in leggings and a long sleeved top complaining she was cold – it was 9am and 30˚ already. “That’s it,” said Sampson, “Malaria test”. She had after all been so feverish in Grand Bassam the previous week that she hadn’t been able to take her daily doxycycline prophylaxis, which makes her feel like throwing up at the best of times.
When it showed negative, we all sighed with relief and I told her “It must just have come back because you didn’t rest properly last time, what with your horse-riding and all. Get into bed and don’t move.”
After three days off school, Ruby had been back working a normal day for two more when her fever returned. Her temperature went from 38.6˚C to 39.9˚C in an hour. Why does this always happen when we go out of cellphone reception range? I spent the afternoon putting cold packs on her forehead in between paracetemol doses, and when it got up to 35˚C outside, got her in the shower and wet her hair. Twice. Later she felt like an apple and, when I fed her thin peeled slices, managed to get a whole one down. She could then stomach an Ibuprofen. Her temperature cooled, she fell asleep and I thought she was going to be ok.
We did a short show that evening without her. I did her trick, but the little kids were more knocked out by Zola’s magical prowess, and Sampson did the Walk of Death over our host Jules.
Afterwards, Jules appeared with a huge platter covered with a cloth, which I didn’t stop to examine closely as I was rushing back to the truck to check whether Ruby was still asleep. When she smelled it, she sat up: the langoustines were braaied to moist perfection with just a hint of onion, garlic and lemon sauce. They were the most delicious crayfish we have ever tasted. Ruby ate three and a half!
Undoubtedly, we’d had the best surf and the best meal of the trip so far on the same day. Côte d’Ivoire was feeling just Grand.