African Anecdotes #1: Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Ivory Coast, South Africa

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Travelling by plane to Ivory Coast is a fairly luxurious experience. Swiss Air provided us with individual TV screens, headphones, music, and lots of food and drink to keep us going on the six hour flight from Zurich to Abidjan. Flying into Abidjan you can see the coconut and palm trees beside the lagoon and a skyline of skyscrapers. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Once you hit the ground though, the luxury and the beauty are replaced with African reality. As soon as we got off the plane, we could see porters lazing around on top of the carousels and on boxes and crates. Then once we got into the airport building, porters and other dodgy looking geezers were waiting on the other side of passport control to welcome us and help us with our luggage – basically they dive on top of you, start talking a lot of bullshit, and try and squeeze as much money out of you as possible.

We gave about 40 French Francs to our porter – who helped us bring our bags to the car of a friend who was waiting for us at the airport. Officially, the porters are supposed to get a fixed fee of 5 French Francs (or 500 Francs CFA), although our porter convinced us to give him a bit more so that he could bribe the customs officer to only search our bags a little and not ask too many questions. I think though that this was just a lie, and that he just kept all the money for himself.

Transport, like most things in Ivory Coast, is an experience. There are a lot of surprises – not all of them bad (for instance taxis, buses, coaches, etc are very cheap compared to Europe or even the States). We didn’t take the train (there is only one line which runs from north to south – from Abidjan to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso), however we did experience taxis, taxis collectifs, coaches and bacas (small buses which in general take people from the larger towns out to smaller villages). We also took a ‘bus-boat’ trip in Abidjan, and got a quick canoe-ride in San Pedro for a tour of the port.

Our first transport experience was taking a taxi-trip in Abidjan. Most of the taxis in Abidjan have counters, although it is quite usual to negotiate a fixed price with the driver as soon as you set off. I don’t know the reason for this – although it’s probably because there are so many taxis that drivers are willing to take slightly less than the meter-price just so that they will get the fare. Like most things in Ivory Coast, taxi-fares are to be haggled over.

One strange thing you notice about taxis is that they toot their horns a hell of a lot – sometimes to warn people near the side of the road, sometimes angry toots at other cars who are blocking their way, and also to attract people when they’re looking for a fare (which we found pretty bizarre – let’s face it, when you’re looking for a taxi, you look, see one, and flag one down – you don’t need some guy tooting at you, so you can say to yourself, “Oh yeah come to think of it I do feel like getting a taxi, thanks very much for alerting me to your presence.”). When you stick to using the meter you also have to be careful that they don’t put you on tariff 2 – the nighttime tariff, which is only supposed to be used after midnight.

In other towns, most of the taxis don’t have meters, so you have to haggle over the price, or if you don’t know your way around that well, face paying an amount over the odds. Sometimes we found ourselves haggling over sums as small as 125 FCFA, although it’s kind of the principal of the thing (also money problems – see later chapter – meant that we were sometimes strapped for cash). I actually almost got into a fight with one driver, since I thought we had agreed on a price of 250 FCFA (I hadn’t heard him saying to Rocheline that the price was 375). So when we arrived I paid him the 250, but he said, “No – it’s 375 !”. I gave him 350 and he still got out of the car to chased after me, so I had to fork around in my pocket to find another 25 FCFA. The guy was prepared to get into a fight over the equivalent of 25 French centimes.

Where a taxi fare would be rather expensive, for a journey of say 30 km to one of the villages surrounding Abidjan, a cheap option is the ‘taxi collectif’ – which is basically an estate or station wagon (usually a Peugeot 505) with 3 rows of seats, and which seats 2 in the front row, besides the driver, 3 in the middle row, and 3 in the back row, i.e. 8 passengers, although typically there could be a few more children or small people squeezed in (not to mention baggage, chickens, etc). It can be a bit squashed, especially if you have to share the front seat with another adult, but it’s worth it for a short 30-40 km journey.

The drivers of taxis, taxis-collectifs, and transport in general can be exceptionally rude, almost to the point of it being comical. For example, in Abidjan we had just been to the bank, and rather than walking back to the hotel (15 minutes through unfamiliar streets), we decided to hop in a taxi. We asked the driver if he knew our destination. He did, but refused to take us there, barely disguising his disgust that we should want to go somewhere that close, saying, “I’m not going there! Get out!” We asked for a reason, but he just replied angrily, “Get out!”

And then there are the ‘bacas’. A baca is a small minibus, typically used to transport people between the larger towns and the various small villages (which don’t lie on the main coach routes). There are also bacas that go from big town to big town, although I wouldn’t recommend it (see our Soubr� to San Pedro voyage below) – if you can get the coach, it’s much quicker and more comfortable.

Our first baca-trip was from Soubr� to G�d�yo (Rocheline’s home village). We were told it was 40 km, and so expected to arrive in 45 minutes or so. We arrived in about two and a half hours! This was due to the state of the roads, which were really just hole-ridden dirt tracks. The holes and long ridges are created due to the rain forming streamlets or puddles which corrode or redistribute the dust/mud making up the road. Hence the journey was rather slow and bumpy. People are crammed in about 4 to 5 in a row of say 4 rows of seats, and the baca only usually leaves when there are as many people as possible. During the journey, seats can be liberated as people get off at various points (although people can also get on). Anything apart from very small bags is stored on the roof, so it’s a good idea to keep a lookout, and check that your bag doesn’t fall off, even if they are tied on.

On our first baca-trip we eventually arrived in darkness, about 9 p.m., and Rocheline didn’t recognise her village at first (she asked a woman getting off where we were). I met for the first time Rocheline’s father, and various other aunts, uncles, cousins etc. by a mixture of torch/paraffin-lamp light, and by the street lights which had recently been installed.

Bacas are usually pretty old rust-covered wrecks, with wires hanging out beneath the steering wheel and broken windows replaced with thin slices of wood. It’s a credit to the mechanics and guys that run them that they are kept going so long. Usually the hand-brake doesn’t work that well, so the guy that takes the fares, helps people get their baggage of the roof, etc. also has to get out and stick a block of wood under one of the wheels, every time the baca stops. Also to save space, he uses this same block of wood as a seat near the back passenger’s door.

When a baca is a little newer and less rusty, it’s known as a ‘dina’. When going to San Pedro from Soubr� we found out that the next trip by coach was in three hours time, so we managed to arrange two seats in a dina, which we were promised went direct to San Pedro. The journey was 100 km on good tarmac roads, so we were hoping it would take about an hour or so. It took about three hours.

The people responsible for the dina could best be described as cowboys, doing everything in their power to get a quick buck. In most of the villages we stopped in they did 2 or 3 trips up and down the main street, shouting “San Pedro, San Pedro!” to try and get more people into an already packed dina. They were squeezing five adults into each row, which were already a bit squashed for four. People in the bus complained, but were just ignored. One old guy made the valid comment, “You only respect money! You don’t respect the people that give you the money, your customers, … no!”

We also had to change to another dina, and wait 10 minutes or so while the drivers and their helpers traded money. It was plain that they didn’t give a damn about the passengers – even to tell us, “Ok we’re going to stop for 10 minutes, everyone can get out and take a break.” No – instead we had to wait in the hot dina, crammed in like sardines. Still, we eventually got there.

That kind of sums up Ivorian transport. Not very comfortable or agreeable, but cheap, and you do eventually get from A to B. The coaches are a bit better than the bacas and dinas. They usually only stop in the bigger villages or sometimes in the countryside to drop people off.

Coaches and bacas provide a living for some people in the villages – every time they stop, there are a bunch of young children (typically girls aged 10 or so) who come over to the bus windows selling bags of cool water, peanuts, baked bananas, sweet bananas, sweet bread, cans of coke and ‘Lotus’ (small plastic bags of paper handkerchiefs). They also sometimes provide sandwiches filled with meat and onions (wrapped in a bit of paper ripped from an old sack), or atik�e and fish (wrapped in a big leaf). All this stuff they carry on big bowls on top of their heads. If you have a few hundred francs CFA, then you won’t risk going hungry on a long journey, although small change is strictly necessary.