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We hope the following excerpts from Around the World in Sandals, will whet your appetite for more.


 

Try the bus!

The road  from Accra to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast)

March 1987           

            “Please write it all down and tell the world what is happening to us,” Thomas said.

     “Yes, Thomas,” I said. “Penny is recording all the stops and the amount of the bribes.”           

            We could hardly believe the treatment the bus passengers had to endure at the police and customs check points. We were now into the ninth hour of our ordeal from Accra, Ghana to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, also known as Ivory Coast.           

                A few days earlier we had gone to the Canadian High Commission in Accra to read the current newspapers. We met Brian, a government official on business from the Canadian Embassy in Abidjan. A friendly, clean cut guy in his thirties, he looked cool in his blue cotton shirt and pressed casual trousers. These contrasted noticeably with our clean, comfortable but travel-worn clothes that had covered many miles of overland travel under  West Africa’s broiling sun.

            Brian, who spent most of his time working in air-conditioned comfort, was taking a 45-minute flight to Abidjan the next day. He was intrigued by our travels. “Join me for a tall, cool one when you get to Abidjan,” he said. “You’ll find me at the Embassy.”

             Our day to leave Accra started before dawn when Penny and I arrived at the State Transport Corporation’s International bus station in Accra, Ghana. We were heading to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire – the republic next door – for what we expected would be a pleasant drive along the coast.

            Baggage handlers arrived to load the luggage onto the top of the bus. Most of the passengers’ belongings were wrapped in blankets tied with rope. There were a few bulging suitcases with snaps and ropes holding them closed and large red, white and blue striped shopping bags similarly tied with rope, and our two backpacks. Penny boarded the bus to choose our seats while I stayed to make sure our backpacks were positioned so they would not bounce off the top of the bus. Everything was well-organized – the workers pulled a tarpaulin over all the luggage and tied it down. The work took longer than expected; instead of leaving at six we left at seven-thirty.

            We followed the road westwards, passing plantations of rubber trees, oil palms and coconut palms. The forty passengers on the bus comprised Ghanaians and Ivoireans and us. There was also a man in the co-driver’s seat. It appeared to be a happy crowd, judging by the animated conversations in English, French and regional dialects. The women wore brightly coloured long skirts with matching blouses and headscarves. Most of the men were dressed in caftans but some wore slacks and cotton shirts.

            In the seat ahead of us sat a jovial man, his complexion matching his black shirt. “I’m from Ghana,” he told us, “but I live in Sweden, married to a Swede.” I think he was trying to tell us he was different from the other passengers. “I carry a Swedish passport,” he added, and told us his name was Thomas.

            At one-fifteen in the afternoon we arrived at the Ghanaian border post where our passports were stamped. We changed Ghanaian cedis for CFAs with moneychangers who strolled around with wads of different currency notes stuffed in their pockets. The CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) is the currency used in Côte d’Ivoire and most other former French colonies in West Africa. This business took about an hour; we left at two-twenty p.m. and arrived two minutes later at the Côte d’Ivoire border post.

            Everyone got off. The driver and his helper (or courier) handed down the bags from the roof. We all lined up outside the customs office where two men were on duty. I expected a lengthy delay. A couple travelling together were the first to go into the office with their bags. A few moments later they emerged frowning, and muttered something to the other passengers.

            Next to go in with his roped belongings was a man travelling alone. When he came out he ranted to the others. Thomas called to us. “The customs men are searching the bags then demanding 1,000 CFAs from each person.” I felt sympathy for these people as 1,000 CFAs is about five dollars which is roughly three days’ pay for many people in West Africa.

            Our turn came to enter the office. The customs officials, dressed in khaki uniforms, greeted us, checked through our bags and discovered our unused Super-8 movie and slide films. They removed our belongings, spread them on counters around the room in the hope, I believed, we would lose track of them, but we kept our eyes on every item. One officer spoke rapidly in French to his colleague but I caught the word douane which means customs. I realized they may consider a customs duty charge on the film.  This would not have been legal because films are regarded as non-dutiable personal effects. I protested loudly before he could speak to us and he backed down and indicated we could repack.

            We quickly gathered our belongings from around the room and stuffed them into our backpacks. He waved us out without demanding a bribe. When we emerged everyone in the line-up looked concerned as we had been in the office for about fifteen minutes. Penny told them we weren’t asked for a cadeau (gift) of 1,000 CFAs each.

            I felt guilty that we were treated differently by not being asked for a bribe. It could have been because we were Western tourists who may have reported the incident.

             The next office to visit was Immigration. We added our passports to a stack on the desk and waited outside while they were perused and stamped with the date of entry. When the passports were ready, the passengers were called into the office one by one and told that to get their passport back they would  have to pay 500 CFAs each. For some unknown reason we were not charged the fee. We figured they did not want to start an international incident by extorting from foreigners. But they charged Thomas despite his Swedish passport. Perhaps, because he was African, he was fair game.

            While the passengers paid the bribes the driver and his courier  loaded the bags.

            Finally at three-fifty-five p.m., with passengers and bags on board, we left the border. Everyone spoke in animated voices. I sensed the conversations were about the recent experience.

            The road was paved and in good condition. The bus was comfortable and we sat back to enjoy the views. Oil palms grew on both sides of the road and occasionally we saw the ocean waves pounding the shore.

            Presently the courier, who sat in the co-driver’s seat, stood and announced in English, French and a local dialect that we would encounter a number of police and customs checkpoints enroute to Abidjan and that they would ask for bribes. If we refused to pay they would order everyone off the bus, search all the bags and demand a bribe from each person, individually. He suggested we pass around a hat and collect 1,000 CFAs from each passenger for a kitty from which to pay the bribes. We were shocked by this announcement but there was no use in our protesting; we were at their mercy.

            There was an uproar in the bus. By the time the announcement had been made in three languages, everyone was talking at once. Thomas jumped up and said it was because of corruption that Africans wanted to migrate to Western countries. He added that he could drive all over Europe and cross borders without having to pay a bribe to anyone. Some men and women said they would refuse to pay.

            The courier spoke again when the arguments had ceased and said we had no alternative but to pay if we wanted to reach Abidjan. Penny and I felt sorry for some passengers who looked destitute. We could have offered to pay for them, but in controversial situations like this it was better to keep a low profile.

            A hat was passed among the forty passengers and filled with 36,000 CFAs.

            At four-thirty p.m. we stopped at another customs checkpoint. The officer demanded 10,000 CFAs or he would order all the bags on the roof to be unloaded and individually inspected by his men. The courier handed over ten thousand.

            Thomas saw Penny making notes. “Please write it all down and tell the world what is happening to us,” he said. We could hardly believe these rip-offs and knew we had to record them to remember.

            The bus left, but incredibly, six minutes later we arrived at a police post. The police wanted to see all passports and all yellow health cards. The officer in charge added that all Ghanaian women had AIDS and must be tested. A passenger called out, “How long will that take?”

            The policeman answered: “The doctor is away. He will be here in three days.” Then he said we could proceed immediately by paying 40,000 CFAs. This was becoming bizarre. I thought it outrageous these passengers had to endure these injustices.

            “You are holding us hostage,” a voice screamed from the rear. A lot of heated discussion broke out among the passengers. The courier jumped off the bus to negotiate with the officer but was unable to reduce the demand so he got back on.

            A male passenger strode to the front of the bus and yelled at the officer that his comment about all Ghanaian women having AIDS was a slur on the womanhood of Ghana and that it would not be tolerated. The other passengers roared their agreement.

            The police officer ignored the outburst and stood his ground. The courier again got off the bus. Thomas stood at the door listening, then called out, “He’ll accept 20,000 CFAs.” Then Thomas said to Penny, “The officer’s name-badge says Sanhouman. Please write it down.”

            The courier counted out 20,000 into the officer’s hand.

            This stop lasted an hour-and-a-half. At six-ten p.m. we left but Penny hardly had time to record the last stop in our note book when, at six-fifteen, we slowed down at another police post but a policeman waved us on. I was amazed at this leniency and didn’t understand why. I expected more bribery farther down the road.

            At six-twenty p.m. we arrived at another police post. After a brief five-minute negotiation our courier paid 4,000 CFAs and we drove away. 

            When the police stopped us again at six-thirty-four, passengers’ voices grew louder and more agitated as they discussed the situation. A policeman boarded and asked to see all passports. As the courier started to collect the passports a skinny young man with a nut-brown face rose and said he had not been given back his passport from a previous police stop.

            Why didn’t he say something before? I wouldn’t have let the bus leave a checkpoint if my passport was missing. And where is the guy from?

            The courier asked his nationality.

            “Philippines. And my name is Patrick.”

            The courier conferred with the driver then announced we would turn around and go back. We drove to a small town, Aboisso, where we all disembarked to wait while the driver,  courier and Patrick kept going to the last checkpoint. I surmised that his passport was mislaid where Sanhouman collected the 20,000 CFAs.

            Forty minutes later the bus returned. They had not found Patrick’s passport. Penny and I spoke to him and he told us the driver and courier appeared to be on jovial terms with the police and that he would be very surprised if they were not in league with them, sharing some of the bribe money.

            Patrick seemed more interested in the driver and courier than his passport, which he didn’t even mention.

            We considered sharing with Thomas and the other passengers Patrick’s observations of the driver and courier but decided against it. The passengers were in a lynching mood, and we didn’t want to make the situation worse.

            At eight p.m. we reboarded the bus and set off again but five minutes later we stopped at the police post where we had previously paid 4,000 CFAs. After a five-minute negotiation we proceeded without paying again.

             At eight-forty-five, as if all the police stops weren’t enough, the bus sagged and jerked to a stop in the middle of a town. We had a flat tire. We filed off the bus. I was frustrated; it was now the thirteenth hour of a trip supposed to take only eight hours. While the driver and courier changed the tire, four policemen, obviously recognizing a rare opportunity, descended on the bus like vultures and rummaged through people’s bags. Whether any money changed hands we didn’t know because we stayed out of sight.

            At ten-fifteen p.m. we left but three minutes later, on the outskirts of the town, we stopped at another police post. They demanded 7,000 CFAs but we only had 2,000 left in the kitty. Negotiations handled by the courier could not reduce the demand so he announced the hat would be passed around again.

            People protested. Some said they had no more money to give. However, the courier collected 9,000 CFAs, boosting the kitty to 11,000, then doled out 7,000 to the police officer.

            At ten-forty-seven p.m. we left but twenty minutes later stopped at another police post. People were too tired to complain. Thomas marched to the front to listen to the negotiation between the courier and the police officer. Indignant, he returned and blurted out, “We have 4,000 CFAs in the kitty and he wants all of it. You’ll write that down, won’t you?”

            “It’s all written down,” I confirmed to Thomas.

            The courier parted with the money.

            At twenty minutes past midnight we arrived in Abidjan. We had survived eleven checkpoints on the 530-kilometre journey which lasted seventeen hours. We were exhausted .

            We shook Thomas’ hand and said goodbye. He was in Abidjan to visit friends. We told him we would let as many people as possible know about the injustices we had just witnessed. We wished him well as he went on his way.

            I felt sorry for Patrick who had lost his passport and had not changed any money into CFAs. I asked him to come to a hotel with us and offered to pay for his room. After we checked in and prepaid the rooms, he told us he hadn’t really lost his passport. He had just wanted to frighten the driver and courier to make them aware that handling other people’s passports was a serious business.

            “Are you saying that the trip back to the police checkpoint wasn’t necessary?”

            “That’s right.”

            Annoyed, I said, “That little lesson for the courier added an extra two hours to our trip.”

            “That’s right. I’m sorry.”

            “Well, where is your passport?”

            “You’ve got it.”

            “Where have I got it?” My voice rose.

            “It’s in your shoulder bag. On the bus I put it there when you weren’t looking.”

            I was irate as I rifled through the bag, found it and tossed it to him. I could hardly believe that he would plant his passport in my bag. I expected him to apologize and offer to reimburse us for his room, but he didn't do so. I didn’t press the point. He was a skinny little guy; I hoped he would use the savings to buy a good meal.  

            The next day Penny and I visited the Canadian Embassy and looked up Brian in his air-conditioned office. When we told him about the seventeen-hour bus ordeal he shook his head in disbelief. “I’m shocked. I do the trip quite often in the Embassy’s Land Cruiser. I’m never bribed and it only takes six hours.”

             “Just for the experience,” I said, “you should try the bus!”