Cote d’Ivoire Adventure

We spent four days last week in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). First, we conducted successful meetings with our clients in Abidjan.  Jan led a “Plein Air” design thinking session (outside in a makeshift tent) for 30 eager mobile phone programmers and marketers.  She even used a white tablecloth (taped to the wall) as a screen for the projected PowerPoint presentations.  This was innovation in action, as the client provided simultaneous translation into French. The presentations were well received and the clients were enthusiastic.

jan at DAT

Ed spent time at a factory that makes pavers and roofing tiles. He learned about the “secret sauce” that makes them special, but was sworn to secrecy, so we can’t reveal it here.

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But the most memorable part of our trip was our journey to Yamoussoukro, the home of the largest Christian basilica in the world.  (Caveat:  Before he left, Professor Jim Patell told us about his journey to Yamoussoukro.  He and several Stanford students used a diplomatic car service, so they were able to smoothly bypass any roadside police stops and be assured that they would have no problems.  He recommended this approach. Did we listen to this tip? No. We checked this idea out with several locals who assured us that we would have no problems. Lesson learned ... five drivers and five cars later!)

We asked our SEED client to book us a trip with a car and driver from a reputable car service.  We ended up with a driver (Bamba) plus an English-speaking student (Armand) as translator.  The driver and student met us at the hotel at 8:00 am. We set out in the relatively new silver Peugeot 505, and things seemed OK. We filled up the tank with $80 of gas, as agreed. However, once we started going, we noticed that the car was very noisy. (The backseat, where Jan sat, sounded like a go-cart.) And, the driver seemed intent on being the fastest car on the road. 100km/hour. 120 km/hour. 140km/hour. We were stopped by the police at the first checkpoint, where the driver had to get out of the car and call his brother (who owns the car). He also had to make a payment to the police to let him pass.

We got back into the car. 100km/hour. 120 km/hour. 140/km/hour.  At the next police stop, the police were waving at the driver to slow down … but Bamba just sped through! After another noisy half hour (honking to pass any car on the road), we reached 150 km/hour and Jan suggested that he might want to slow down a little, since she was nervous and found his driving to be nerve racking. At first, Ed thought she was just being a “back-seat driver”, but soon he said, “Honey, you may get your wish.  Look at the message on the dash – ENGINE HOT! – I think the car is overheating.” Sure enough, the car had had enough!  The car decelerated, limped to the side of the road where it promptly died.

(Later we analyzed the situation – we think the reason the car was so loud was that Bamba was driving in 3rd gear! No wonder the engine burned out. We guess Bamba had never heard of 4th or 5th gear or checking the radiator.  Go figure.)

The driver popped out and opened the hood. Sure enough, the engine was smoking.  He grabbed a bottle of water from the back and added it to the radiator. About a minute later, two guys (Sam and Edmund) appeared from the median strip, which was planted with tall grass. At first we had no idea where they came from, but later we saw their small white car on the other side of the divided highway.

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The four men had a spirited conversation for a while. They added water to the radiator and tried to restart the engine. But nothing worked.  At the time we didn’t understand that they were on the phone with the “agent” in Abidjan who Jan’s client had hired to take us, arguing about price. Sam and Edmund knew we were stuck. Initially they were insisting on about $150 to take us to the next town, but later settled for $60.

About 45 minutes later, we agreed to be towed by Sam and Edmund in their small car. They crossed over from the other side of the median strip and came got to us by driving against the traffic. And, then, we were told, a new car would take us to Yamoussoukro. They tied a rope between their car and ours and we were off.

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Being towed by a 1988 Peugeot 205 was a new experience! The two guys drove slowly, but Bamba, our original driver, didn’t seem to understand how to be towed. So, then we stopped and switched drivers. Bamba drove the “tow truck” Peugeot (Where is AAA when you need it?), and Sam maneuvered the Silver Peugeot with us in the back seat. Sam knew how to maneuver the towed car so the line would remain taut. With this approach, we were able to move fairly quickly. A few times, we even passed trucks! You can see how close we are to the car in front:

documenting being towed

After about thirty minutes we arrived at a junction and basically got rid of Bamba and the silver 505.  Also gone was our $80 in fuel! We were in phone contact with the agent who had arranged for the car and driver, and he assured us that he’d work out a way for us to get home. As we probably should have expected by that time, there was no new car for us available so Sam and Edmund were engaged to take us to Yamoussoukro.

The five of us crowded into the 1988 Peugeot 205 for the 100 km trek to Yamoussoukro. Sam was a good driver and he knew the limitations of his vehicle.  (This reminded Jan of driving her 1974 Toyota Corolla with passengers.  You could never accelerate on an incline! However, Jan's steering wheel was in a little better shape!)

white car interior

Sam joked that he wanted to move to San Francisco with us and be our chauffeur!  He loved the idea of driving our Mini Cooper and VW Tiguan up and down the SF hills.

An hour later, Sam and Edmund dropped us with Armand at the Hotel President , the nicest hotel in Yamoussoukro. This was our introduction to the capital of Ivory Coast.

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hotel presidente

According to WikiTravel:

“Yamoussoukro is perhaps the single most bizarre modern city on Earth. It is a large grid of paved streets and lights with almost nothing at all in between them. It would seem that former President Felix Houphouet-Boigny's dream that his hometown would become a busy capital city never came to fruition. Nevertheless ‘Yam’ is worth a visit.”

To Ed, the wide roads were reminiscent of his first visit to Brasilia —a dream in the middle of the jungle—however, unlike Brasilia in 1970, there are hardly any people or buildings in Yam.

We took a cab to the Basilica, built between 1986 and 1989 by Felix Houphouet-Boigny. After completion, he donated the Basilica to the Vatican, with a 20-year fund for maintenance. The Basilica is enormous—larger than St Peters in the Vatican. It was quite the site—very controversial since it cost more than $300,000,000 and is surrounded by a very poor, dusty community. (You can get a feeling for the scale of the place based on the tiny dots representing people standing just in front of the Basilica and in the aisle in the picture below.)

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We enjoyed the English tour of the Basilica, and took an elevator inside a column to the top deck.We didn't have a wide enough lens to do justice to the massiveness of the interior.

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During the tour, our student translator informed us that the plan was for us to take the bus back to Abidjan.  Since this is not what we had in mind, and none of the buses we had passed on the way seemed very comfortable (understatement!), we called the arranger and let him know that we preferred to go in a private car.  We took a second cab to a restaurant where we dined on spaghetti bolognese, our version of comfort food for a stressful day.

Soon thereafter, our SEED client called and said he was mortified (since he had done the arranging for the original driver.) He said that he had arranged for a new car and driver (already in Yamoussoukro) to take us back to Abidjan. This new driver met us at the restaurant, and he successfully navigated the trip back to the hotel in Abidjan.

Our SEED client met us at the hotel in Abidjan and was glad to see that we were in good humor! We decided that it was time for a beer. As the wise man sayeth, “You can’t make this s**t up!”

Our client taught us a new expression: “T. I. A.” This is what he and his friends say when they encounter unexplainable situations.  “This is Africa”.

4 thoughts on “Cote d’Ivoire Adventure

  1. Diana James-Cairns

    I will use that expression on my trip to Kansas tomorrow TIK... great story - these are the things you will remember!

  2. Great story! Sounds intense! I can imagine that these months in Africa have forced you both to become more flexible and patient than you ever imagined. That basilica sounds like a bizarre place and I'm glad you got to sample most of the Cote d'Ivoire car industry! See you soon on the other side of the world. xoxo

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