Living on 'African Time'

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Travel Weekly Crossroads' associate editor, Judy Koutsky, took a press tour of Africa's Ivory Coast. She is chronicling her adventures in regular, on-line travelogues. In the latest episode, Judy explores the country's remote northern region where, she discovers, the concept of time is open to interpretation. This is the fourth chapter in the "Judy Goes to Africa" series:

KORHOGO, Ivory Coast -- The plan was simple enough: Get up early, eat breakfast, visit Koni and Kasoumbarga (two local villages specializing in iron extraction and fabrication), eat lunch, go on to Tortiya (another village, known for its diamond extraction), get to the hotel in time for dinner and the night was at our leisure. But this is Africa. Things have a way of getting off schedule, and it begins with African time.

Time is not charted by the clock but by actual events. After breakfast, we went to the bank to change money. The bank is supposed to open at 11 a.m. At 11:30, it's still not open. But it's supposed to open at 11, I implored. "It will be 11 when the man opens the bank regardless of the actual time," our guide explained. The best advice I can give to those visiting the Ivory Coast is not to adhere tenaciously to schedules and leave that Western impatience behind. Things will happen when they happen, and that's it.

We waited two hours to change money at the bank in Korhogo only to find that they would change only traveler's checks, not cash. The fact that they changed it at all was done as a special favor because we were American journalists. I recommend changing all money in Abidjan. The banks in the financial district have the best exchange rate; once outside Abidjan, it is very difficult to change American dollars, even at hotels and banks. Keeping all my money and passport in a money belt worked for me.

By the time we were ready to visit villages, it was time for lunch, so we returned to the hotel. Scratch Koni and Kasoumbarga off the list; we already are hours behind schedule. We finally departed for Tortiya, a small village south of Korhogo, and had a very pleasant drive through the savanna. It's nice driving in the North because very few people have cars (in the three days we've been here, I've seen a dozen). We have the roads to ourselves, which is good considering how narrow they are. It's so peaceful driving here: rice paddies, mango orchards, gourd trees and maize, all growing harmoniously. No billboards or fast-food restaurants lining the roads; just our little minibus, dodging goats, cows, donkeys and women walking to and from the farms with baskets atop their heads. I could drive through this all day and still not be sick of the scenery.

We stopped at Fakaha, a village well known for its Senoufo painted cloth. After a demonstration, we bartered for the goods. I strongly recommend a stop here. Not only are the cloths beautiful (they make wonderful gifts), they are very cheap compared to what one would pay in Abidjan. After boarding the bus, which now was a little heavier, we waved good-bye and continued our voyage to Tortiya.

It's important to understand that the Ivory Coast, a former French colony, gained its independence just 36 years ago, and even today the country struggles between the traditional and the modern ways of life. Case in point: Scratch-off lottery cards are available everywhere, but the roads are barely passable. Because 60% of Ivorians live in rural villages and subsist on agriculture, maintaining roads is not been deemed a top priority outside the big cities. As a result, the roads are single-lane for both directions of traffic, and large potholes are not uncommon. It takes a bit of time to get from one village to the next. It was well into the evening before we got to Tortiya, and we made the final stretch in complete darkness.

The poor road conditions are only one example of the North's underdevelopment, which some tourists might view as a drawback. Telephone connections are very unreliable, and forget about sending a fax or e-mail. As stated earlier, most banks will not exchange money and operate on African time. But those willing to sacrifice modern conveniences will be richly rewarded with starry night skies and up-close glimpses of village life: traditional mud homes with thatched roofs, women with their babies bringing in the day's farm produce, men holding hands as a form of friendship and greeting, children everywhere -- and no "Guinness Is Good for You" T-shirts, which can be seen all over Abidjan.

I was told that most Americans who visit the Ivory Coast see only Abidjan and maybe Yamoussoukro. If this is the case, than these tourists truly are missing out on the real African experience. Because there are so few cars in the North, when the sound of a motor approaches, the villagers come out to see what's going on. They greeted our passing van with waves and smiles. Coming from New York, I've never waved and smiled to so many strangers in my life. Also, because the North hasn't been developed fully as an attraction, visitors can mingle with the locals without encountering other tourists. The heart and soul of the traditional Ivory Coast lives in the North.

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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