Akwaba to the Cote d`Ivoire

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Travel Weekly Crossroads' editor, Judy Koutsky, left New York on Oct. 23 for a press tour of Africa's Ivory Coast. She is chronicling her adventures in regular on-line travelogues. This is the first chapter in the "Judy Goes to Africa" series:

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- "Akwaba to Cote d'Ivoire." After weeks of arduous planning to enable Internet connectivity halfway around the world, and then maintaining my sanity during the 15 hour journey west, those words of welcome resonated magically in my ears. Finally I was in Africa.

I did not get to this point without a lot of well meaning advice about the Ivory Coast. I heard the tales from those used to traveling in style: The hotels are right out of the 70s, don't expect American first class comfort; the streets of Abidjan are 10 times more chaotic than Manhattan's; the country is poor, the food strange, the people many. These stories were told to warn me, prepare me, not to scare me off, I was assured. After all of this, I was urged to keep an open mind and not go there with preconceived notions. Although I may have had second thoughts, nothing could deter my enthusiasm for seeing a continent few ever experience. So I packed my bags (trying to pack light will prove to be very difficult, but you'll be grateful from the moment you lug your suitcases out the front door), got my shots (yellow fever, typhoid, meningitis, polio, tetanus), took my pills (malaria, RX for diarrhea which the nurse assured me I'd need), bought my sunscreen with DEET (with a concentration of no more than 15%, as it's a carcinogenic) and headed for the airport. Now I was finally here.

Day 1, Oct. 24: Abidjan

When thinking of Africa, one can't help but conjure up images of exotic animals, savannah, and a traditional village way of life. A trip to Abidjan will dispel those romanticized notions quicker than you can say akwaba (which means welcome in Baoule). Skyscrapers, banks, traffic jams, long bus lines, bustling businessmen and kids in the streets begging for money are just some images of growing urbanization that will greet visitors.

A good place to start exploring is the Treichville market, which is said to be the biggest in all the Ivory Coast. Not unlike Jamaica's market, but on a much grander scale, there are hundreds of little stands set up selling everything from masks to colorful African garb to exotic fruits, vegetables and fish. Purveyors can identify Americans, black or white, by the clothes they wear and are ready to make an irresistible deal. Although English is a problem here -- the official language is French -- these entrepreneurs know some, especially numbers ("65,000, but, for you, 55,000") and shameless flattery ("You are beautiful girl, you need a beautiful mask"). As we hadn't converted any of our money yet, we could only look, much to the dismay of the merchants. As I pulled out my camera to shoot a particularly beautiful display of handcrafted wood carvings, the young man shook his head vehemently. I understood. In the market, everything has a price tag, even the right to take a picture.

As we got on our bus to head for the next stop, young children surrounded us begging in French. One girl kept asking for a "bic," and it wasn't until later that I realized she wanted a pen. We felt guilty, for taking a few pictures and for their obvious poverty, so we gave them a few American dollars. The crowd quadrupled within minutes; one young boy with an effectious grin ran after the bus and lifted a ride on the back for several blocks.

After seeing this side of Abidjan, visitors should head for the business district where they'll see a completely different picture. Known as the Plateau, the French influence is most palpable here. We ate at a very posh French restaurant for lunch which is frequented mostly by Europeans. We ate duck and drank wine in a meticulous garden complete with colorful flowers and palm trees. Here was the upscale metropolis, no sign of poverty in site.

Fanicos. As we drove out of the city's center and along tall grass and palm trees, we came across women and men walking with very large bundles on their heads. As we got closer, we saw that the bags were wet and water was running down their faces. These are the fanicos, the washermen. Low on the economic ladder, they do other people's washing to make a living. They bring the bundles down to a large, shallow lagoon near the Parc du Banco where lots of children are cooling off on this hot day. There they scrub, using lye, and beat the clothes against large rocks held in place by car tires. After all the washing is done, they carry the wet clothes in a large bag on their heads looking for a spot on the grass to spread out their load to dry. The road was lined with pants, dresses and blankets as far as the eye could see. (I originally had thought the clothes were on display for sale.)

We arrived at the Golf Hotel Inter-Continental, a popular resort among Europeans on holiday. The outside decor, which currently is being refurbished, is nothing much: a '70s-style yellow building, chipping in places. But the rear of the property more than makes up for it. With palm trees galore and a swimming pool as complex as a water-park theme ride, complete with slides, islands, twists and turns, it was peaceful and well maintained here. Just a short distance from the pool is the "African Riviera." Many lounge by the pool or beach for hours, then eat in the hotel restaurants (which are very good), not even leaving the grounds during their stay.

In Abidjan, like in most cosmopolitan cities, there is a striking contrast between the rich and poverty-stricken -- poor peasant marketers and fanicos vs. business hotels and expensive French bistros.

That night we went to a native African dance where they wore masks and danced on stilts. The two-hour performance was high-energy with an assortment of drums, songs and fast-paced dancing. The performance told a story, which was narrated in French, about a village boy trying to win the heart of a girl in a rival village. The dramatic ending, when the young boy ate fire, won the mask of the high spirit and married the girl, was a great way to conclude the evening and our introduction to Abidjan.

Day 2, Oct. 25: The Train Ride

So far, we had been traveling in a very comfortable, air-conditioned minibus with a well-versed tour guide. However, the tourism department wanted us to get a taste of the how the Ivorians travel. So the next morning we were up at five and left shortly thereafter to head to the train station. As for the subsequent six-hour, overheated train ride, I wouldn't have given it up for anything, not even a cool, painless excursion in a minibus.

The train, taking us from Abidjan to Dimbokro went through the lush and surprisingly tropical African countryside. We passed by countless palm, mango, coconut and papaya trees, coffee fields, rice paddies, forests (what's left of them) and savannas. We stopped at a station every hour or so, with a vibrant and eager crowd waiting to sell their fruits, vegetables, sandwiches and water to the traveling passengers. These women and children, dressed in bold, colorful garb, balanced the merchandise on their heads while walking alongside the train. Many locals on the train bought the cheap plantains, yucca, and cola nuts for what amounted to less than one American dollar. The train ride enabled me to see the Africa I'd read about in books.

Yamoussoukro. The political and administrative capital of the Ivory Coast (Abidjan is the commercial capital), Yamoussoukro was more my pace. This quiet city lies in the heart of the savanna, with much smaller and more manageable markets and fewer people (population: 100,000; Abidjan: 3.5million). After traveling for so many hours, we were anxious to get to our hotel and wash off the grime of the day. The President Hotel far exceeded any expectations I might have had. As nice as any luxury accommodations in Europe or the U.S., this hotel had all the modern amenties one likely would not expect in the Ivory Coast. With a restaurant on the 48th floor, giving us a spectacular view of the world's largest basilica framed against the savannah countryside and distant mountains, this hotel is well worth a visit. As I explored, I was delighted to find beautifully manicured grounds, complete with a golf course, large swimming pool, fitness center, and health spa (manicures, pedicures, masseuse), all excellently maintained. I could spend a week here and still not be bored. The best part is that it's a short distance to downtown Yamoussoukro and everything it has to offer. (Tomorrow, we are going to Our Lady of Peace Basilica, the local market and the Lake of the Sacred Crocodiles).

Maquis. After eating at so many posh, French restaurants, tonight we were treated to local ethnic food at an Ivorian maquis. The maquis eateries are popular among the locals because the food is cheap and good, the surroundings unpretentious and cozy. They served us plantains, fried and sweetened, fish and chicken prepared in traditional African sauces, manioc, a native Ivorian vegetable grated and served like cous-cous, yams, papaya, mango, pineapple (all locally grown) and sweet onions. Maybe it was because everything was grown naturally, maybe it was because we were in Africa eating a traditional African meal with the mayor of Yamoussoukro, maybe it was the Ivorian wine; whatever it was, our taste buds were in overdrive and we gave in by indulging shamelessly.

While both places are worth a visit, Abidjan and Yamoussoukro are in sharp contrast with each other. Abidjan offers all the big-city essentials: active nightlife, large markets and diverse restaurants. Yamoussoukro, however, seems more sophisticated, and the people seem more relaxed and friendlier.

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 1: "Akwaba to Cote d'Ivoire"

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 2: The Paradox of Our Lady of Peace

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 3: Forgerons, Potiers and the Dance of the Leopard-Men

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 4: Living on 'African Time'

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 5: No Electricity, but the Men Wear Levi's

Judy Goes to Africa, Part 6: Friendliness is Country's Best Attraction

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