The former president of Cote D’Ivoire, Felix Houphouet-Boigny had an ego problem. In 1985, he decided to spend an inordinate sum of government money building a colossal catholic church in his newly formed capital of Yamassoukro, built on the site of his ancestral village. This Basilica is larger than the Vatican’s St. Peter’s (which is the basis for its design) and is the largest church in the world.It was quite a stunning sight for two reasons. One, just the scope of the building itself, its lavish stained glass windows, and the architecture itself is incredibly impressive. And, more importantly, in an impoverished and struggling country where 3-700 million 1985-dollars could have built infrastructure, and hundreds of schools, universities, clinics, hospitals, and communication facilities to better the lives of it’s people (half of whom are Muslim anyway), it was the grossest and most disturbing misappropriation of financial resources I’ve ever come across.
I took some less-than-totally-respectful photos in front of the basilica to illustrate how I felt about this. And Catholicism in general (apologies for offending any sensitive sensibilities here…)
We took a few hours to rest from the heat of the day at the hotel before re-boarding the truck to visit the Presidential Palace and its famed crocodiles that get fed each day at around 5pm – supposedly to entertain the local tourists as much as to keep the crocs alive themselves.
On arrival, we were approached by armed guards who informed us that the driveway leading to the entrance of the palace was off-limits. Also, the caretaker of the crocodiles was off work on the weekend and so there was no feeding for us to view.
Someone in the group immediately suggested that we buy some chickens and feed the crocs ourselves, as is described in our lonely planets. The group came together and it was decided that Mathias would go to the local market and purchase a couple of chickens with our pooled funds. However, on learning that these chickens were going to be fed to the crocodiles ALIVE, a few members of the group started to get very upset and express themselves loudly in protest of how “cruel” and “inhumane” such an act would be.
Explanation of the fact that crocodiles would not eat an already-dead chicken as well as pointing out that having one’s head cut off to be eaten by a human or being crunched instantaneously by the powerful jaws of these ancient beasts are literally one-and-the-same was not helping to alleviate the situation and their vehement protests got louder.
I found the whole thing to be quite funny and an altogether entertaining insight into both crocodiles and human psychology. Eventually, the few folks who objected were told to remove themselves from the area and we all anxiously awaited Mathias’ return with the doomed birds.
Jodie threw the first chicken in and it managed to swim for a few seconds before it was promptly chomped in one enormous bite, feathers and all. It was over in an instant.
The second chicken was not as lucky and ended up traumatized just from being thrown up in the air instead of laterally into the water, resulting in it coming right back to the gate where we were standing like a boomerang! The guards then threw it in one more time and it was all over in a split second.
Seven crocodiles and two of them got to eat that Saturday.
Yamassoukro reminded me very much of Warsaw, Poland during the communist era. Large soviet-style concrete buildings devoid of art in their architecture, wide tree-less streets with broadly spaced urban design. And then there is the famed Presidential Hotel which reminded me of the state-ran Orbis’ hotels that we often had stayed in when I was a kid – with its red carpeted walls and enormous 80’s decorated lobby and monstrosity of an oversized concrete “block” on top of the hotel giving it the appearance of a giant mushroom.
To my delight, a group of us stopped here on our way back from the chicken massacre. Even more thrilling was the fact that I could order a gin and tonic WITH ice at their bar while we waited for the aforementioned mushroom-like restaurant to open. The hotel had a gigantic pool in the back and I sort of wished I’d come here earlier and crashed it.
Dinner that night was extra fabulous. We ordered perhaps our most expensive meal yet (around $10-15 each) and I had Rotisserie Chicken with vegetables and mashed potatoes followed by chocolate cake and real coffee. In case I haven’t mentioned it, “coffee” at breakfast was always Nescafe instant…so this was a lovely treat.
It was also a really good group dynamic and I will have very fond memories laughing with Sinead, Mike, Jack, and Mike (the driver) from that evening.
The following day’s journey (Jan 7) would take us back to the beach at the former capital of Ivory Coast – Grand Bassam with a stop for lunch on the way in the country’s largest and most modern city Abidjan. As we drove in, Peter and I contemplated what we really wanted to eat and we both agreed that Crepes would be amazing – and within seconds we saw a sign for a Creperie!!
We quickly availed ourselves with a small group to the Crepe restaurant which was ran by a French guy. I split a savory and a sweet crepe with Wayne and they tasted so good they brought tears to my eyes. We also both licked our plates – the food was that good.
On arrival at our beach hotel, we jumped into the pool with cold beers to alleviate the heat of the day and the long drive in the truck. Thousand of locals were playing, swimming, and socializing on the beach and I had quite an enthusiastic welcome from many of them when I decided to take a walk later that afternoon in my bikini and sarong.
It’s amazing to me how women here come in all shapes and sizes but it is so very rare to see a man with an ounce of body fat or sans six-pack abs. Men here are so athletic it is ridiculous. And it makes for very lovely people-watching.
The day’s culinary delights continued that evening as Danny and I led a group of hungry lesser spotted Dragos to the Vietnamese restaurant we had read about and had what then became the best meal of the last few days. Which even included a velvety creamy chocolate mousse to finish it off. I was super stuffed and happy when I hit my pillow that night.
The next day was relatively uneventful except for my TIA diarrhea which came back again with a vengeance in the middle of an art gallery that we were looking at. Thank God there were restaurants within a 50 meter run that had decent toilet facilities!
Since Grand Bassam was the capital in the late 1800’s – there were a number of older buildings from that era worth a visit, some of which had been converted into museums, others that had trees and vines growing out of and around them. It made for a pleasant stroll, if not interrupted by my growing bathroom requirements which led me to stay close to my room for the remainder of the afternoon.
On our last night in Ivory Coast, we ate at a beachside restaurant where I think we broke records for how long we waited to be served food…2 hours and 15 minutes – at which time the server brought bread ALONG with all of our main dishes!!! Why, oh why can’t Africa realize that a) if food is going to take that long to prepare because of a lack of staff – simply inform guests of this ahead of time and b) if it is going to be more than 2 hours before guests get food…bring the bread out FIRST….
So frustrating! This. Is. Africa!
Having said that, along with almost all of our meals in Ivory Coast, the food was delicious and the giant prawns I’d ordered were extremely tasty and had an incredible buttery/garlic sauce on them which almost made up for the pain in my belly from waiting in hunger for so long.