Ivory Coast is only a couple of hours from Dakar by airplane, but the difference is remarkable.
It was raining when I landed, which was pretty awesome after about nine months without seeing a drop. There was no dust (shocking!). In fact, everything was green and lush. Plants bursting up through the soil, the pavement, the sidewalk...Banana trees everywhere. I'd left the desert behind. This was the Africa you see in cartoons.
"You don't need to go to the market here. The soil is rich and the climate is like a greenhouse," the cab driver said.
"Just pick it off the tree."
Abidjan, the main city of Cote d'Ivoire, was once the economic hub of West Africa -- a role it partially gave up to Dakar after a 2002-03 civil war caused a mass expat evacuation. But the fighting was relatively light and so the infrastructure is in good shape and business seems to still be ticking along.
Instead of the scruffy sprawl of Dakar, Abidjan offers a real city skyline (not unlike Montreal's from the right vantage) surrounded by green hills and a lagoon that is revoltingly polluted, but nice to look at. I watched a guy in a dugout canoe paddle past a backdrop of highrises.
The spaghetti nightmare highway system is tough to navigate. It was designed by the French after all. But there is smooth pavement, traffic moves fast, and the medians are full of attractive greenery.
One massive headache, though, is the serial shakedown of motorists by the defense forces at the city's many and ever-shifting roadbloacks. If you don't pay up, you'll be delayed for an undetermined amount of time, no reason given.
Word has it that the soldiers are given quotas by their commanders for how much money to take each day. They supposedly rake in about $600 million a year from the "business", much of it from commercial truckers who are then forced to mark up their wares to recoup the losses.
Abidjan is mostly Christian, instead of Muslim, which allows for a serious beer culture. The Alocodrome is pretty unique to the city -- a large open-air space with plastic tables and chairs where you can pitch up with a buddy for beer and dinner under the moon. I got a whole roast fish, and was a bit surprised when it came without cutlery.
There was a very good musician there who could make songs up on the spot for a small fee. His instrument was a half-gourd with metal tabs attached that made different tones. His lyrics were a bit unsophisticated, but memorable:
"Where you from my bruddah?/I come from Cote d'Ibwah/Listening to me is very very nice/Welcome to Africa/Listening to me is very very very nice/Welcome to Cote d'Ibwah".
It was indeed very very very very very nice to listen to.