Kashyapa A. S. Yapa

It was around 9pm when the war began. At first, I treated it as a bit of a nuisance: just a small prick here and a pinch there. My sleepy thrashings kept them away for a while. Then the firing rate picked up, with a rhythmic pattern emerging. That kills your sleep: instead of resting, your mind begins to anticipate the next attack. As the night dragged on, they came out in force. Soon, I developed an expertise in catching them right when they are to shoot me, and eliminated two or three at a time. When the attacks came in waves, at every 5 minutes or so, I had no other option than to sit up on the bed.

Early that morning, after the third night on a trot sleeping in buses, I needed to stretch the body on something flat and walked from Rio de Janeiro terminal towards the City center. Lonely Planet Guide has warned their mainly gringo clients against cheaper hotels there. Dilapidated warehouses-turned-shops and cemeteries of samba schools' Carnival monsters line up the main road parallel to the Port. 

R de J Port
Warehouses in R de J
Gigantic granitic rocks mushroom in the middle of a continental tongue that jut-out to the seashore. 
Narrow side streets leading towards those hills are decorated with arches: tiny rooms, haphazardly built-up one on top of the other as and when the local beat-up economy permits, now lean-over across the street to kiss one another. This is the beginning of the favelas, of Olympic fame.

That's when I saw it. A multi-storied, downtrodden hospedaje, with a bare-breasted fellow greeting the rising sun at its second-floor entrance. A heart-warming sight of a real hostel. Too early for a hotel to admit me but I thought of giving it a try. The old administrator listened carefully to my Portuñol, his eyes not losing track of my sleep-hungry ones. "Yes, of course. You can have a room right away", for a small fortune of 15 reales! I have a great fondness for this type of men's hostels since my university vacation-training days in Sri Lanka. The YMCA hostel of Berkeley trained me better, for 4 years. These, in reality, are small zoological gardens. Apart from the entry fee, you pay in kind, to the rest of the living beings with whom you share the space. Once in Pucallpa, Peru, I forgot to keep the bread out, so the rats had to drill through my bags to get to their share. Here, in Rio, it was the bed bugs, pleading for blood.

This payment was not in 'kind', at all. They were not satisfied with my involuntary blood donation during the three hours I crashed on the bed in the morning. At night, a whole battalion was out in force, each with his own AK-47. As sleeping was impossible, I thought, the next day I could sleep enough on the flight across the Atlantic. Besides, in Casablanca, Morocco, I was to have a 15-hr layover, and airport chairs too demand a good dose of drowsiness. Thus, a night of hit and run games began. Guess I killed at least some 50 soldiers that night. Finally, around three in the morning, I succumbed.
I left the hostel under early lights and walked to the Central do Brasil train station. Lonely Planet recommended taking the air-con bus, directly to the Airport, but I wanted to see how other transit systems work and save a few bucks too. Just a few were on the road, but I felt no fear during the long walk. I opted not to take the short cut through narrow favela streets, lined with cramped, rickety houses clinging to steep rock walls, but followed the highway with flying cars and monster trucks. If somebody were to come, I at least had the space to move sideways. I would rather die splashed under a tire, and not knifed (giving a bad name to Rio favelas). 

Jams in Rio de Janeiro Center
An hour later though, I wouldn't have that option: then, these become 'crawler-ways'. The jams are so bad that Rio has to run its fancy electric trams, which shuttle tourists up and down the Malecon, behind a mobike-mounted traffic police!

The first leg to Penha train station was not bad. The suburban train was quite clean and modern, with Air and LED instructions on train stations-even in English. At Penha, luckily, the guy sitting next to me also got off and guided me to the next leg, the rapid transit bus station some 300m away. There was no free transfer; I had to pay again for the bus, plus another three reales for a card! The bus was rapid, for sure, but it went only half the way to the airport. Had to wait another half an hour for a slow bus to come around to finish the last leg! Then, I messed up on the terminal number and had to drag my bags a km and a half to the correct terminal. My attempt at upending Lonely Planet failed miserably.

Moroccan Air is Royal only in the name. Having only a few flights a week, it is dumped at the farthest end of the Rio terminal. Its in-plane service is just what you expect from an all-male staff: curt courteousness, on the fringe of being rude. A female voice-recording took care of the 'inclusivity' requirement. The few women who 'manned' the desks at Casablanca airport were overtly polite, on the fringe of being childish. A girl there sent all of us on transit to immigration; "go get the stamp and ask the airline desk there to send you to a hotel". Among so many Europeans in that long queue, my Ecuadorian passport would be easy meat for the dogs. I got back, and found a different girl who graciously gave me a room and meal voucher for their transit hotel within the airport, though I had to answer to a weird name she wrote on the vouchers. At the least, I should thank them for a good rest that night, the second-ever transit hotel I was offered during my 30 years of flying.

At the beginning, I had a hard time understanding the free-for-all culture in Brazilian bus terminals (bathrooms stuffed with tissues and also Wi-Fi), a complete contrast to its sky-high cost of living. In Rio, you run into hundreds of curled-up figures along sidewalk walls all around the terminal. Rio's glittery Malecon (sea front), less than 500m from the closest Favela, neither has those heavily guarded, knife-edged steel fences, like in Guayaquil. 
One face of R de J Malecon
The other face of Malecon

How then, do you prevent the poor from occupying those public spaces (their version of collecting tax returns) to the detriment of fare-paying passengers?

It was around 10pm the night before, when I got off the airport bus at Tatuapé metro station in Sao Paulo. Since I had plenty of time to catch the bus to Rio, I thought of strolling the streets to the bus terminal, 3km away. Yet, the street had hardly any soul present, looked a passage in a cemetery of condominiums. I turned back and caught the metro. Then, where were the Sao Paulo's 20-odd millions? Well, a good portion of it jam-packed the metro station. Like a fast-forwarded animated movie, people would get out of a bus and rush-in to the metro station, or would rush-out to catch a bus to go home, but none would venture out of the station perimeter. I could not comprehend what was going on with these cities, as I spent less than 4 hours in Sao Paulo, and the 24 hours in Rio was pretty much sleep-walking.

Now, a week among another set of millions of Abidjan helped me understand how these sub-urbs work, I think. During the conference, I stayed in IBIS Marcory hotel. Though the fancy Marcory suburb was used in the name to charge $150 a night, the hotel is located in the neighboring Koumassi district, a pressure-cooker with half a million of poor.

Lilian found Sri Lankan sidewalks too crowded for walking two-abreast. For her, it would be a nightmare sharing the sidewalk-less Koumassi streets, with honking taxis, mobikes, push carts, wheel barrows and women, the last with a pair of tiny feet (of her child, clinging to her back) pushing you further away from her sides. Everyone, of course, is precariously balancing a huge load of whatever. 
Carrying a child in Abidjan

The balancing act

At the traffic lights, a couple of seconds before the ever-lasting reds change to a 20-second green allowing the conglomeration to cross the 8-lane highway, young fellows lead the pack by jumping out to the tarmac forcing the cars to stop with a triumphant gleam in their eyes.

Though the Hotel IBIS and a few others stepped over the limits, the people, however, don't. In these cities, the rich and the poor tend to respect each other's territory, without the need for fences nor security guards. The poor has nothing to do in those fancy hotels or supermarkets, except for those who have been carefully picked to be huasicamas (maids, aids or guards). The only other Sri Lankan to attend the Abidjan conference found it out the hard way: the handbag he wanted to buy as a gift for his wife would have cost him twice his annual salary!

We skipped the conference's boring closing ceremony (where the hand-picked chirped what the organizers wanted to hear) and gave ourselves a treat. He surely got his: a chest-load of gifts, from colorful sandals, glittery handbags..., to Raquel-Welch-wigs, all at par with Sri Lankan prices (Ivory Coast once being the richest of West African economies, this needed some tough haggling). He just missed the Nobel Prize of economics by failing to buy at Colombo price, an Indian-print dress cloth, in Abidjan.  Shopping is not my favorite game, but I never enjoyed it so much as in this Adjame market.

Let me put this in the right perspective: I was his geographic and language orienteering expert. We had nine days of collective expertise on Africa, me landing here a day ahead of him. I could barely count to ten in French, but understanding what these Baoli or Senoufo natives mutter under breath was way beyond me. After the first few minutes of mayhem and still seeing his eyes glued to the bargain, the vendors indicated the price pulling out the correct amount of bills from their pockets. You see, the CFA trading at 600+ per dollar, just the fingers would not get you anywhere. Watching his audacity at demanding half the price, I was afraid that somebody might pull out a knife and cut him in half.

This is nowhere near Adjame chaos
I said I enjoyed this shopping. Precisely, I appreciated these peoples' struggle to deal with life as it is. The market is swarming with thousands and thousands, walking, running and crashing, on to one another and also against cars and lorries, all packed into a two-lane road. It is occupied to the last millimeter by feet, wheels, buttocks and polythene sheets demarcating vendor-space. And everything and everybody is swimming in filth. In this hot, humid, dusty, dirty, muddy, noisy, smelly and sweaty atmosphere, haggling over a Franc or two, day-in day-out, needs some guts.

Catching the client's eye
This is not just one street, but hundreds of 'city blocks' (if you can call them so). You tolerate the mud and garbage churning under your feet, because flag-colored cloths mesmerize your eyes; sugar and oil-coated food waters your mouth; and flashy electronic gadgets boggle your mind. All the while, wallets of the trapped victims are slowly emptied. Trying to replace my lost voice recorder, I almost fell for the Amazon's best-seller, for twice its price. Finally, I settled for a 30-dollar, selfie-ing and voice-recording smart phone. Compared to Adjame market, Pettah of Colombo in the seventies and Pedro Pablo Gomez of Guayaquil in the nineties were heavens. Today's Yerberos of Lima would occupy a distant second place.

Buses fight for survival at Abidjan terminal
I guess the market mushroomed around bus terminals, but then the parasite devoured the mother! Now, catching a bus there is a 'daymare'. Vendors have simply strangled the terminals of every bus company. Urban transport stops at least 1000m away from them as the roads are impassable. Hundreds of hecklers descend like vultures on bag-hauling passengers, to collect a 200 Francs commission from either side just for accompanying the bags to the terminal. Bus company agents are worse: through cronies, they re-sell the less-bumpy, front seats at a premium.

The best way to learn to swim is by jumping into water, right? So, I decided to swim, in French, with no accompaniment. Had to catch a bus in a remote part of the highway, and I found a 'volunteer' there flagging down speeding buses. He monopolized the trade, and charged a bigger cut too as clients were few. I had to pay another cut in catching the next bus, to Soubre, as I did not know where to buy the ticket. After a 6 hour wait, passengers of a damaged bus wanted to throw me off my hard-earned seat. My melange of spa-ngl-ench, expressed loud and firm, produced the desired effect. Then I offered an olive branch and shared the seat with an elderly, estranged passenger. At his first attempt to stitch a conversation, he concluded that I am a 'mula'. (That was my first reaction too, when I ran into a Nigerian in the plane, speaking fluent Spanish-lived in Riobamba, Ecuador and Portuguese-says now living in Sao Paulo). However, on a friendly note, sang the old man "Indien, bandien" (Indian, the bandit). Soon, I noticed that he was trying to fool a vendor. I picked up the rhythm with, "Ivorian también" (Ivorian, the same) and he burst out laughing.

Urban transport system in Abidjan is dead, almost. Given the hours everybody is trapped daily in 'jams', the number of city buses available is pathetically inadequate. May be the city officials want to contract Uber services, like US cities ( Run-down minivans and collective-taxies that fill the gap for the time being, compete to death for passengers. The smog-dressed van assistant would carry you on his shoulder in to the van, but that love is lost the moment you are packed inside. He never gives out a penny in change. A newly built 4-lane bridge eliminates the worst bottlenecks in L'Plateau and Trechville, but the toll, at 500F, is just high enough to keep those lanes open only for the rich. The amount of time and money the locals have to spend in simply crossing the town is amazingly high. Korhogo, the third largest city, has no city bus. Like Pucallpa, Peru, thousands of motorbikes own the town. In every trip, you spend ten minutes haggling for the price, hardly less than 300F for a kilometer's ride. Since my friend and I always packed ourselves into one bike, we had it a bit cheap. 

Extravagance at its worst - Yakro
Yamoussoukro, the official Capital, built imitating Brasilia but was never allowed to assume its role as such, seems the exception to this rule. Its collective-taxies take you even 4km for a mere 200F!

Ivory Coast cities also have forgotten to name the streets! The Abidjan map I got from the luxury hotel began way beyond the hotel itself. Google does a better job, but it fills the map with street numbers that you can hardly find and not known to anybody! Every street corner, even in rich areas, has dozens of small arrow boards, indicating which way to go for a big company or an institution in the neighborhood, and no more. Thus, I came to appreciate Managua of the 90s, where a house address would read "from where the Coca Cola was, two blocks towards the lake and one block up the road".

After struggling for over an hour in Google with the directions I got for my AirBnB room, I had to take a taxi, but the poor driver spent more time asking around in every corner. The next day, I went to the Guinea embassy in my own way: walking for over an hour and tracking down Google street numbers wherever they appear. I had to take a taxi again the day after to get there in a hurry, and I tried to guide the taxi but my French vocabulary ran dry. Abidjan post office is about to implement a postal code zoning system, using a computer generated three-word combination. They forgot that the only other place that system had been implemented was in Mongolia!

If you are fed up with mountains of garbage lining your streets, just send your mayor on an educational tour to Ivory Coast. Here they use the wind force to spread the garbage evenly on streets or fill the drains. In richer areas, still intact drain covers hide the splendor inside and the smell doesn't penetrate their A/C cars. In favelas, the dust, heat and sweat dilute the nauseating scent of aerobically treated sewage. In rains, all end up in the sea. If not, Climate Change will carry the blame for flooding. Ivory Coast did not report a single case of Ebola during the recent pandemic. Probably, Tuberculosis, Cholera, Yellow Fever and Malaria helped cover up the numbers.

Do you think I am just beating up on poor Ivory Coast? Let's talk about their good habits, compared especially to Latin America. The garbage piles are much smaller here, as the bags of yellow-painted tissues are absent. Multi-colored, zebra-painted water jugs, which adorn the public toilets (Asians can learn something about art here), keep their backsides clean. If we teach them to use handkerchiefs, we can save the remaining one percent of World's most biodiverse Guinea Forest Range from turning into 'Kleanex'.

Rural village in Korhogo
A week in Africa, and I could not pin point what exactly I was missing here. Riding a motorbike in rural Korhogo, the answer flashed: where are the dogs? Not one came barking. I should have picked that out faster, because Andean dogs hate sandals-wearing men! There is none here. Not even cats. Neither in Abidjan, at least in the houses of middle class and below. No, my French is not mature enough to pose the questions that are swirling inside your heads now, and the most diplomatic answer I got was, who can feed them in harsh droughts, when food is not enough to go around even among the humans?

I also could not believe how easy and cheap making international calls from Ivory Coast with my stone-age cell phone. Once I had to salvage my Arizona debit card from being blocked. (You know how fearful they become seeing money withdrawn from places with weird names!) Then came this painful business of seeking invitation letters for visas.

My Sri Lankan friend-of Adjame fame, complained about the lack of 'systems' here. He did not realize that the systems here (and elsewhere) are designed to make life easy for the filthy-rich and powerful, and keep the poor huffing and puffing in their intent to get to the back door. The difference between governing regimes boils down to, how greedy and ruthless the first group is.

That AirBnB room was in a middle class neighborhood. A wide and deep canyon in the back of it was crossed recently with a 4-lane bridge and its clean water, compared to foul-smelling neighboring streams, surprised me. Not a shack was visible in the canyon. Not sure how long that will last. When those in power treat 'taking a cut' as a right, the public also assumes its right to 'cut a corner'. Corruption becomes the norm and favelas spring up close to where the jobs are.

In Port Bouet -the favela that circumscribes Abidjan airport, at least a thousand people would live under the wing-span of a Boeing 777. Local magnates, sipping 20-dollar cups of coffee in Radisson Blu right across from the favela, may dream of putting up beachfront cabanas there. However, the sheer numbers of the poor, large enough to overthrow even the national government, make them shelve those precious dreams. On just the second day in Abidjan, I had the luxury of walking right through it and soon, I slept in a prison cell in it, pretending to be a hotel. My Ivorian friend is dreaming that the civil service job he just won would permit him to move out with his young family after 8 long years in the favela. Though the living conditions here are much worse than what I saw in Rio, I did not feel threatened at any moment in Port Bouet. May be..., it is the contrast that we are fed daily, which creates the perception that one is safe and the other invoking fear. Here, 'white' appears only when one opens the mouth!

In Rio, I had no favela food, but in the transition zone where I slept, the construction workers and the elderly congregated in a restaurant that served lunch, buffet-style! The bus terminal mostly junk food and some dishes at 30+ reales. Yet, this place marked all plates (one was called doradinho) for 12 reales. The owner showed me a food warmer with 8 hot and 4 more cold salad dishes, and walked away. It was all you can serve yourself in one plate. The plate was huge, plus there was cassava, manioc flour, to fill whatever void left. Since the spicy looking doradinho turned out to be chicken, I filled the heart with salads.

A travelling breakfast
The sooner I was done with fancy hotel buffets in Abidjan, my friend introduced me to the maquis, the roadside restaurants, where beer and food stalls combine efforts to cut the costs. The bar sits in the back with tables set out under a shade in front. Food is prepared on a grill or on charcoal stoves, spiced with road dust and fume. Both parties serve the same table, depending on clients' demands. In the first maqui in Abidjan, the soup was watery and the fish tasted nothing. Only the price was sweet, one fifth of that in a proper restaurant. The next day, in Korhogo, the thick soup was like a medicinal herb and jalepeño mix. And we were served with 'pacali', manioc cooked till it became a sticky paste. The finger bowl also came in and I filled my heart eating with fingers. My mother would turn in her grave seeing how they eat here, making a ball using the palm. (Small kids in Sri Lanka got a beating if the food rises up above the second finger joint.) 

Maqui - under the shade
Later we found a maqui in a barrio, which served delicious fresh water fish with 'Attiki' (cassava) at half the city price. In Abidjan, this could have been favela food, but I track them down even in middle class barrios.

In Soubre, a small town at the western border, a papaw of one kilo costs only 200F.  As I tried to negotiate to make sure I heard it right, the vendor, annoyed, pulled out two 100F coins: the price was not worth more talk. A big coconut costs just 100F. In Port Bouet, a 20m2 house rents for 15,000F a month. A decent meal can be found for 500F. Now I understand why the Ivorians won't pay 500F to cross the bridge in Abidjan, and why the 3-day Conference charged 500,000F to attend. Two different worlds: as the two sides of the same coin, they never meet. The problem is..., the theme of the conference was rural water!

Guess, with that, we can end this conversation. I will jump to Sierra Leon on 26th Dec and will walk back through Guinea to Ivory Coast, for which I have a 90-day multiple entry visa. As Guinea consul would not speak a word in English, not sure how my friend convinced him, as I had no invitation letter nor an onward ticket. Yet, I could not convince the Ghana lady, in English, to let me walk through Ghana to Togo, from where I am to fly out to Lagos. She insisted on an invitation letter. Nigeria also asks for an invitation, for somebody to carry the 'burden of immigration responsibility' (whatever that means), but charges only $3 for Ecuadorians. Just that some big shot who grabbed their visa-modernizing contract, makes you fill out 10 pages of electronic nonsense, forces you to pay with the credit card and charges $20 extra for the convenience!

After going through all that hassle to get an interview with the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan, I just heard that they can issue visas only for resident Ivorians. No matter their elaborate web site did not elaborate on that. And my donation of $23 is graciously accepted by the corrupt bureaucracy! They are on par with the Peruvians. When I was running around with the Sri Lankan passport, the Peruvian Consul at Ecuador border told me that I need to get back to Sri Lanka for the Peru visa. The top of the list for me, though, is the El Salvador embassy in Managua in the 90s. The lady there had never heard of Sri Lanka before and simply did not want to hear of it from me either!

So, now you know, if you can dig up that long lost friend to send me an invitation letter for Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger, you are most welcome.

Kashyapa A.S. Yapa
18th December 2016, Ivory Coast.

If you would like to start a discussion on this theme, please write to me.

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