Here is my monthly travel column as it appeared Monday at 3 Quarks Daily:
The first part of this century West Africa was no place to be. Liberia was led by Charles Taylor, now serving a fifty year sentence for “aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history.” In Sierra Leone’s civil war, entire families were gunned down in the street. Children and adults had their limbs hacked off with machetes.
A few years later in 2010, Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president of Côte d’Ivoire, refused to cede power following elections. Subsequent clashes led to 3000 deaths. (Gbagbo was acquitted of war crimes in January of this year).
In the late 1990s though, you might casually catch a flight to Abidjan on now defunct Air Afrique for a bit of innocent, if unlikely, tourism.
It was still the era of guidebooks. Here is the then-current Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa:
“On the northwest edge of town near the beginning of the road to Dabou is the Parc du Banco. Several hundred meters beyond the dirt road entrance to the park you’ll see … Africa’s largest outdoor laundrette – some 750 fanicos (washermen), mostly Burkinabé and none Ivorian, jammed together … in the middle of a small stream frantically rubbing clothes on huge stones held in place by old car tyres.”
Some days are more freighted than others. Surely today was low on the portent scale. All we meant to do was ride out there and take some pictures.
Abidjan lay steaming, even before dawn. The business district called Plateau is not a geographic plateau like Harare. Not an elevated perch, no extended sight lines, no bracing breeze. Abidjan squats at sea level, sticky and claustral, flat and dense, all eyes across the lagoon to the ocean beyond.
Even before the sun took hold and the work day began, swelter insinuated itself, began to grind in. Languor and sloth set the pace. Commerce with scant vigor, exertion with reluctance, the languid jostle of a poor city, stale, half-hearted, humdrum.
Yet long before the sun, before the city stirred, a stealth army of rail-thin, ragged foreign boys fanned out across town, their mission to collect dirty laundry. They brought ten thousand sweaty shirts and dirty socks to the River Banco and busied themselves sudsing, well before the sun crested the hill.
Unlikely as it seems, determined young men fought for this work, because take home pay was more than double back up the road in Burkina Faso. This riverbank laundry had a trade union, union dues, and you could be fired. If young Burkinabé were determined to work, if they collected sweaty shirts and socks day after day, sudsed and pounded them on rocks, delivered them back and did it right, they’d pocket a hundred bucks a week.
You couldn’t take good pictures if you didn’t go early. Too late and all you’d see was clothes drying in the grass. So brash, new in town and a little reckless, we bounded straight out of bed without even a look in the mirror. Brush teeth, slip on yesterday’s clothes, grab cab, go. No questions asked or answered. No good sense. Traipsing.
A fiery orange cab idling on the curb. It’s still twilit, dawn an unfilled promise. He’s not exactly fired with passion for the new day, is he? Could it be we’re his last fare from last night?
First, to find a common language. Pretty much everybody will try English; Shona-speaking Zimbabweans, Setswana speakers in Botswana, Swahili-speaking Maasai. But neither West African officialdom (noted at immigration) nor, as we now found out, Ivorian cabbies. This would be done in French. Ce sera fait en français (I think).
Off and rolling, angling to hustle out to Banco Park before shirt hit stone, we explained, “Parc du Banco sur l’autoroute à Dabou.” The Banco Park out on the Dabou Road. We pointed at a map but he already had the pedal to the floor, through which, at an angle just so, you could glimpse flashes of pavement.
He nodded without looking back. Said he’d need trente mille Francs (30,000 CFA).
It took important minutes to figure out, but as it happened, our man behind the wheel seized on “Dabou,” a town almost forty kilometers west of Abidjan along the coast, and fled town as fast as if he were leaving work for the day and Dabou was home. We worked this out when we could look forward and back and see nothing but cooking smoke, nothing resembling a park, not even any traffic, horizon to horizon.
Non non non, NON Dabou-ville!
We shook our heads, posed as determined. He posed back wounded, as if he’d never heard of any Parc du Banco and relented to something we weren’t asking, okay okay then, only 20,000, as we hurtled further along the coast.
This pained him in a theatrical way but we matched his drama with scowls, tried to loom larger in the back seat than we were, and ultimately returned to the hotel, where we did as we should have in the first place. We inquired at the front desk, behind which a single gentleman practiced his torpor.
He set us up with this fellow Simeon, a graying older chap who drove for the hotel. Simeon knew all about Parc du Banco, of course. It would take part of an hour and he quoted 3500. Progress.
Simeon steered us back north out of town. At the junction where we went wrong the first time, a big sign off to the right read merely “Tampon Express.” Maybe that meant something else here?
Rumpled, heat-stained Ivorians coalesced along the verge. Walk-up entrepreneurs rattled around staking out their own patches of gravel for another day of peddling folding hand fans and drinks, and vegetables coated brown by traffic dust.
Sunlight touched the treetops. We feared we had already failed our day’s mission before 8:00 a.m., but we made a turn onto at a dirt track, motored over a hill and here we were.
Color returned with the sun and the launderers leaned into their work. Birds announced themselves with song. Wildflowers waved, butterflies blundered by and gnats performed en pirouette in slanted shafts of sunbeam. The scent of fresh mud rose from heavily trod paths along the riverbank. At our remove, the rush of current made a jumble of many dozen voices. Here were the best few minutes of the Ivorian day, heat yet to stifle, sweat yet to incite insects.
Brimming with industry and purpose, the river spread out ahead and below. The frenetic, clothes-beating fanicos, the laundrymen, spawned subordinate industries of sorters and pickers, haulers and folders, food suppliers and cooks, and the odd lone fellow out in midstream lathering up for a bath because there’s no need to waste a perfectly good bar of soap.
Shirtless men hoisted bundled clothing onto their heads, bundles that reached higher than they could stretch their arms. Women scrubbed shirts just beyond the shore, careful to move far enough out to evade silt.
Boom boxes blasted soukous. Freshly washed garments hung across half-submerged truck tires. Other tires, anchored to boulders farther into the current, held laundry to be washed, and blocks of soap to wash them. I could not see around a bend in the river but I anticipated a sort of goalie down there, on duty to stop the runaway sock or bar of soap.
Every last soul was soaked through, splashing and singing; two more boys took the opportunity to lather themselves up. An impromptu market spontaneously lit up along the bank. Baguettes and nuts were on offer now, and more women approached crowned with fruit.
We surrendered the sovereignty of the cab and walked to the crest of the hill. Simeon, bless him, put on a hangdog look and trailed us. He stood at a reluctant distance from the blond girl and the white guy, the only non-Africans in the park, appropriate as a knife fight at the poetry fair. We drew a crowd fast as Mother Teresa became a saint.
“Anybody who looks wealthy is at greatest risk” was Lonely Planet’s tactful way of implying if you were not African and you were carrying something, you might be relieved of it by the end of the day.
The first wave of challengers was just curious kids. The second wave, more insistent, we stymied by saying really fast things in English like, “We don’t speak French and if we did we wouldn’t, and Ouagadougou, Rangoon and Lubumbashi.”
They were bewildered but wouldn’t be put off. We understood Simeon explaining in French that we didn’t know any. Soon enough they presented a brawny Anglophone, broad of shoulder, menacing of mien.
He proposed that we had no right to take pictures without paying him money. I explained that when he showed me his badge that read tourist police we could talk, while I snapped more photos.
This befuddled him for less time than I’d hoped. He scowled, “You want to see my badge?” Simeon came up close, his expression like he had perhaps just found a sore inside his mouth. We held the hill for a minute longer, then ultimately retreated. And all these years later we’ve lost all the photos except this one: