Saturday, 6 February 2016

‘Early Morning Run in… Abidjan'

"Something, or something awful or something wonderful was certain to happen on every day in this part of Africa.” Hemingway with the quote. Road trip time. Let’s hope for the 'something wonderful' bit. We're in Côte d'Ivoire folks.

Word around the campfire is Abidjan’s a unique destination, relative to most of West Africa. I arrived last evening on Air Côte d’Ivoire. Small African airlines can sometimes give one the heebie-jeebies, no complaints though; the plane landed the right way up with both wings intact, avec des bagages. Great flight.

Abidjan is a vast city. At 3.8 million souls, the third-largest French-speaking city in the world. For pub quiz enthusiasts, Abidjan is the economic capital; for 5 points, the actual capital city?

Côte d'Ivoire was once known as the ‘teeth coast’ due to trade in Ivory. Later as the Ivory Coast in English, and since 1985 - Côte d'Ivoire. Population 22 million.

Before we run, let's pop back to ‘Dodge’ and a recent car accident. A matter of time I guess. I drive in Africa whenever possible. What happened? Well, it's 1900 hrs. Dusk 'O' clock. Rush hour traffic. I'm actually near the spot where I narrowly missed damaging a burly policeman's stick with my head (previous post). This time I sideswipe a battered old yellow taxi.

Samuel jumps out; he seems reasonable. About nine others, two holding babies, also alight from the said taxi, which doesn't look a complete stranger to minor accidents. They start remonstrating with, er, me. If we're taking sides here, I'm in a minority of one.

The crowd swells. Entertainment. I'm surrounded by more people than a fellow handing out free 20 dollar bills. This could be tougher than a night out in Wigan.

Samuel says, not unreasonably, "look what you've done to my taxi." I wanted to say something funny to lighten the mood. I didn't. "My fault", I said. "Let me take a photo of the damage'", I said. "Let me get this repaired", I said. "Let's exchange numbers", I said. "Pay d man now", the crowd said.

Samuel studies me. I'm bending down on one knee, using my phone as a torch, assessing the damage like I know what I'm doing. I don't. The only thing that could make this situation funnier? The police turning up.

On cue, enter stage right. "Your vehicle sah." Great.

The situation could have developed in many ways. Thankfully a happy ending, as always. The well-rounded police lady was okay. Samuel was good. The crowd enjoyed the entertainment, with me squirming mostly. Samuel would me ring next morning, and we'd negotiate something. Note to self, keep well away from Congo Cross, bad karma.


Reveille 0545 hrs. Early 'O' clock. No messing about this morning. No snooze cycles. I did have the Hokey Cokey as my wake-up call; it was taking me 30 minutes to get out of bed… no longer.

If I could pick the perfect time to run in Africa? 0600 hrs. Day of the week? Sunday. Circumstances? First time run in a brand new city. I have all those today. Two quick glasses of water. Skim BBC for the latest Africa news. What does the Yahoo weather app say? First light 0632 hrs. 24C, humidity 100%. Perfect. View Google maps. I have a rough idea where we’re heading.

Down the fire escape from the 4th floor. Security is surprised to see me; he opens the orange grilled gates. A seriously tough looking dog is barking, straining against his metal chain from the nearby railings. They say most Africans are scared of big bad dogs. Me as well. Rover looks like he'd bite my leg off and then the other one, just for fun.

Time for the two most positive words in the English language, as I'm always reminding my two young acorns; those words... 'let's go...' or this morning... 'allons-y'.

We head east across to Ave Marchand. Still gloomy. Find the road we want. Turn north on Boulevard de la Republique. Hotel Tiana on my left. A large group of armed paramilitary nearby changing shifts. In fact, security is omnipresent. They wear their distinctive red berets French style. Meaning plopped on their heads with the ribbons showing at the back.

Over to the right is Rue Jesse Owens. I lift the pace and attempt to 'sprint'. A classic box circuit of right turns to get back on the same Boulevard. No more 'sprints'. Past the gendarmes again.

Another level of security is at each junction and outside the main buildings. I quickly become accustomed to the ubiquitous yellow shirts. We're in Plateau District. A high profile area. Advisories are in place following the recent hotel attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso. Both countries border Côte d'Ivoire.

However, I can’t imagine any self-respecting terrorist bothering with my hotel. Budget all the way. Moreover, we have Rover. The French government is also taking this escalation seriously, increasing their threat level for Côte d'Ivoire & Senegal. Now officially raised from 'Run to Hide', leaving only two levels - 'Surrender', and 'Collaborate'... only kidding mes amis Francais...

Boulevard de la Republique ahead, and the national stadium. Named after the first President following independence, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. He ruled for 33 years. His successor suffered a coup, which then started a period of instability. Armed rebellion followed in 2002, and again following elections in 2010. Since 2011 things have stabilised, the country is firmly back on the upward curve. I understand enough French to comprehend the early Sunday editions; the trial of Mr Gbagbo, the former President, in The Hague for alleged crimes against humanity.

Let's leave politics. ‘Les Elephants’, as the national football team is known, is a potent force and current African champions. Far more useful to know the country's best footballer. When language skills let me down, I say Yaya Toure. As I line up a snap of the stadium, security jogs over speaking rapid French and waving his arms. No problem, I smile... Yaya Toure. I also have Didier Drogba on the bench, if required. Here’s the stadium.

The tree-lined boulevard streets seem mostly deserted. Any other day would be manic. Quiet, save for a few folks and a sprinkling of orange taxis. I keep mainly zig-zagging north. I want to find St. Paul's Cathedral. It looks splendid and somewhat unusual. Certainly unique. 

Time to drop off the higher ground towards Boulevard de Gaulle. The sun is rising majestically across the other side of the shimmering lagoon. I enjoy one of those feel-good moments. I feel lucky to be here, to see this sunrise, to be alive, and fortunate to be fit and healthy. 

Moving south-east now. 28 mins in, thoughts turn to heading back. I duck under a flyover; I know Divas... a flyover... I look up at the skyline. I've read this place was stunning in the 60s & 70s. Some said the Manhattan of W. Africa. Realistically these days, more of a poor mans Nairobi, but it certainly has something. Might appear shabby to some, but by West African standards? I like it.

A last look around at the sunrise and begin a steady ascent of the hill. I drift left past the Novotel picking out a couple of potential restaurants. Everything is so peaceful and quiet. I have crossed a few fellow joggers, not too many. Two of whom held their hands in front of them and made an exaggerated clap using their arms. Must be a local thing, unless there're sharks in the lagoon.

I can see the hotel, time for a robust finish? 50 mins this morning. I've enjoyed taking you round. Time for a breakfast of champions, eggs and plenty of coffee. Heck, a pain au chocolat as well. Let’s go crazy.

As I'm taking a final photo of the hotel, plainclothes security wanders over, a little agitated. ‘Monsieur, photos interdites.’ You know how this finishes, ‘Yaya Toure mon ami’.

The capital city? It's Yamoussoukro.

Postscript: Next week I’ll be regaling my Freetown divas with tales of my latest travels in West Africa. The genuinely wondrous things I've seen. Divas, remember the plumbed washing machine in Monrovia?

The bus stops, real buses with electronic destinations in the upper windows, pavements, credit cards, all in Dakar; oh, and 600 megawatts of power every day?

In Accra, the smooth paved roads everywhere, street lights, traffic signs, proper hotels, restaurants, cash machines, and the pizza oven in Coco Lounge?

Now Côte d'Ivoire? Well, sit down divas, brace yourselves. Flyovers, I’ll say that again… flyovers. Traffic and pedestrian lights. A modern airport with electric hand dryers, I’ll say that again… electric hand dryers, an airline, and aircon at the airport?

Conakry? OK, I’ll give you that one. Nothing.