We woke up early on the 15th and neither of us had had a good night sleeping. We did most of our packing and then went downstairs early for breakfast. I finished writing my blog entries for the 14th and we caught up in the news and weather in Colorado Springs where, two days before, there had been a severe hailstorm. Now, there were flood warnings for the coming week and as remnants of a tropical storm moved north from Mexico.
While eating, Becky saw a Facebook post from Masha Smirnova, our guide seven years ago when we took Intrepid Travel’s Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian trip across Asia with two friends and four cadets. She was announcing for Intrepid that they had a new trip with a hidden itinerary. They only publish the start and stop dates and locations and price. I’m in. I’ve already submitted a request for info and will plan on inviting a few friends as a gift to myself for my 60th birthday.
After returning to the room, we gathered our bags and went to the lobby. Georgia was ready and waiting and has clearly been on the health upswing the last few days. Everyone now seems healthy and adjusted to the trip, if occasionally troubled with some minor “distress.”
We left the hotel on time and spent the frist thirty minutes or so retracing our routes through Abidjan before entering the countryside. En route, we passed a huge new soccer stadium under construction funded by the Chinese. It looked remarkably similar to the Bird Nest Olympic Stadium in the artist’s drawing road signs.
We saw significantly more farming along the route than we’d yet seen on our trip, passing farms growing papayas, corn, vegetables, and bananas.
Rather abruptly, George asked Yah-yah to stop the van along the side if the road and he said we were stopping at a cacao plantation. We didn’t see anything--just jungle along the road that looked almost impenetrable. We walked back behind the bus by about 10 meters and saw a small footpath leading into the green and a couple of banana trees bearing green fruit.
Almost instantly, though, we began to see dozens of cacao pods hanging from the trunks and branches of the trees varying in size from small green okra-like pods to deep yellow golden ones the size of small Crenshaw melons.
George took one ripe one off of the tree and opened it up to show the many whitish, pulpy seeds within. We each tasted one and found it somewhat tart, but sweet. I chewed up the seed, which became bitter as I did so, and swallowed it--just in time to see George spit his seed out. Oh well. Evan did the same thing.
George explained that, once harvested and separated from the husk of the pod, the seeds were wrapped in banana leaves to ferment. A few days later they would be laid out in the sun to dry before being sold. He said that cocoa prices had recently tanked on the world markets and that that was causing concern in Cote d’Ivoire--the world’s largest producer of cocoa.
We were surprised to see so many pics on each tree and how close some of them sprouted from the base of the tree trunk. Very tiny white flower seemed to emanate directly from the bark of the trunk and branches, ultimately becoming a cacao pod. Some of the trees appeared for have three or four dozen pods at differing levels of maturity.
We returned to the minibus and continued our journey north. The air conditioning was working well and Yah-yah was driving safely but fast. There were not the many speed bumps in every village slowing us down as we’d seen in Senegal no police vehicle he checks that we endured in The Gambia or Liberia.
From the jungle coffee and cacao farm, we next arrived in Aniassue, which seemed like a small town with one intersection on the highway. We stopped at the intersection and picked up two women, one older and one in her late teens or twenties that would take us to the King’s residence. Both had some white powder or paint designs on their face that we're somewhat worn away. Before they got onboard, though George had gone to a small shop by the bus and bought a bottle of liquor that he said would be a gift for the king. I couldn’t tell the type, but it seemed to be a clear liquor in a tall, rectangular cross-section bottle in a plastic case.
We turned right off of the main road next onto a red dirt road that led into the heart of the village, arriving after about a half-mile at a compound that announced La Royaume d’Aniassué.
We stepped off if the bus and into the compound that had one large residential building a few lower buildings, a large paved area and a covered area with a concrete floor. There were about 20 kids playing around, some teenagers chatting behind a low wall and some adults.
We we're Les under the Cabana to a ring of plastic chairs that faced the King’s throne and asked to sit by a man who looked like the King’s chief aide and behaved like him, too.
George told them generally about us and there were translations into the local language and explanations in French.
A few minutes later, a large man in a black and white rice came down the stairs and we all stood the greet the king as he entered our area. In the background, the kids were still gasking at us a little, but mostly just played around.
George introduced us to the king hrough his aid and a young man clearly in training who was helping to translate.
We then all passed by the king and his entourage shaking hands with everyone including the king. After we were seated again, the king asked us to introduce ourselves and I began in French. The king was pleased that Becky and I knew French and that also helped George with some of the translation.
I told them that we were from USAFA and that these students would soon be officers in our Air Force. The king asked each of their ages and seemed quite impressed that they were only 20-23 years old.
He then offered us a welcome gift which was the same liquor we’d brought them. George accepted it graciously and then reached into his bag to present our gift. I got the impression that many of these bottles just change hands like this and are never opened.
The king was very friendly and asked us if we had any questions. Through our questions he told us that he was king over a surrounding area encompassing 18 small villages. He was 72 years old with five wives and 37 grand children. He pointed out his youngest son who appeared to be a mid-teenager.
The king had ruled Aniassué for 50 years as of last December. He explained that the did not inherit the kingdom from his father but that the throne was handed down traditionally to the eldest son of the previous King’s eldest sister. He said that this was the only way to be absolutely certain that the family blood-line had been maintained because you knew for certain that the child from the King’s sister was related to him, but you could never be 100% certain that the King’s son was, indeed, the King’s son and not that of another man. This, their hierarchy was maternally based.
He had inherited the thrown at a time when he was a student in Paris. However, when the previous king had died and he was chosen, he was obliged to return to Aniassué and give up his studies.
We then followed his aide to an open area in which he opened the King’s received bottle of liquor and made a shirt ceremony of pouring a shit, taking a small taste, kneeling in front of an elephant shrine and pouring the liquor out onto the concrete while chanting. He then touched all of his fingers to the wet concrete and touched his forehead and then his chest with his fingers in a motion similar to Caholics crossing themselves.
He then invited me, as leader of the group to do the same, which I accomplished without incident.
Next, the king invited us back for photos at which time he insisted upon Georgia and Becky sitting on either side of him as the others gathered around for the group shot.
Once accomplished, we took some more photos of the kids--again, unlike in Senegal--no one had an issue with having their photo taken. They were very beautiful kids and many of the girls looked extremely similar to each other.
From the King’s residence we went to the Animist Priestess's compound. The entire area was Animist and in no place did we see any Christian or Muslim structures or symbols, throughout Aniassué.
We drove back to the main intersection and parked by a little boulangerie. The two women led us off the bus and about two buildings away and we entered through a concrete gate and then walked into the home of the ranking priestess at this Animist School for, presumably, witch doctors for lack of a better term.
We sat in the living room and she told us her story. Another priestess had told her mother, when he mother was carrying her, that she would be a priestess someday. She claims that, when she was four years old, she wondered off into the jungle near a river and was lost. Everyone was looking for her, but couldn’t find her. She was saved by spirits in the jungle, though. Growing up she didn’t want to be a priestess but decided at age 21 to change her mind and entered three years of training to become a 'certified’ Animiat priestess.
She now ran the local training facility and the program ranged from three to seven years. The trainees we're mostly girls but included some boys, too.
She gathered her herbs and medicines in the forest and produced her own treatments. She told us that people will come to her and that the toughest part of the job is diagnosing maladies. She says she works with modern doctors, too. When there is an ailment that she thinks she cannot cure, she refers them to modern doctors. Likewise, she said that modern doctors will send her their hopeless cases when they can’t treat or diagnose them. It made me think that some American doctors might like to do something like that with a hypochondriac that won’t accept their diagnosis. We didn’t discuss her treatments in any detail.
The young man who was translating and speaking for the king was also speaking for her. He seemed to be very engaged through the whole village structure.
From her living room, we went into the compound’s inner courtyard where a group of about 40 had gathered for a fetish priestess dance. It would be led by the head Priestess’s second in command and was part of the noviate’s training.
The group under the large mango tree pretty much ignored us and spent at least a half hour singing to two beating drums. The drums would cease and we would expect the dance to begin, but then it would start again.
Finally, the five priestesses who were performing stepped through a doorway into the courtyard with an assistant throwing out clouds of talcum powder (or wheat flour) to announce their arrival.
Prior to this, a couple women made a large circle encompassing almost all of the sunny part of the court with the same powder.
The priestesses seemed to range in age between about 15 and probably late-30s or mid-40s. The ranking women was clearly the oldest, while the second ranking was much younger and was one of two wearing a red fez. She was a remarkable dancer. The youngest in the group came out topless, while the others were wearing white bras.
The dancing and ceremony than ensued was just amazing. We never got the impression that this was centered on us or solely for or entertainment or to generate donations. They didn’t seem to even notice that we were there.
It went on for almost an hour in heat that wouldn’t wilted any of us. Different priestesses or trainees took the lead. At one point they each danced individually and then thanked and elderly gentleman with gray hair seated sin the front of the audience. The assistant helped with tosses of additional talcum powder from time to time, too.
At another point a rather young initiate came into the ring from the audience and played a pantomimed game of hide and seek with the second priestess.
We were all just amazed at the length of the event. Finally, the leader brought each of us a sheet of colorful flower fabric and invited us into the ring to join the dance. The crowd roared with delight as we mimicked their moves incompetently.
When we’d completed our dance and we're now all dripping wet with dusty sweat, the priestesses continued. Finally, the leader brought a dish around and we gave donations. I tossed in a 2000 CFA bill, about $4 and they seemed content. Again, I know the cadets each or as a group put in some bills, but I’m not sure how much.
Following this, the ladies each did a solid in the center aided by additional talcum powder and shuffled off the center ring after completing their own dance.
We were exhausted just watching, much less participating in this amazing event. The dancers came out of their dressing room to meet their friends and family and we were allowed to mingle somewhat. My camera was a hit and I took many photos of the kids and adults, including several family shots. They gave me the email address of the young man who’d done the translation and I promised to send them photos upon my return.
We thanked the high priestess as we departed and returned to the bus. We bought baguettes at the boulangerie as well as a few pastries and then loaded up to cover the final 20 km to Abengourou.
In Abengourou, we checked into the sad hotel called the Royal. The stucco was moldy, there were few lights and it was hot with zero circulation. Other than, it was probably the best hotel in Abengourou.
We settled into our room down a dark hallway and found a bare room with a low bed, TV smaller than most computer monitors and an air conditioning unit that only worked when the door key was in the slot by the door--despite all the jerry-rigging I tried to overcome it. Becky was not thrilled.
We agreed to meet George at 1530 to go to the market and tour the city a little. When we arrived at the market, we found it relatively clean an spacious by African standards. It wasn’t crowded either and we could walk down the aisles with ease. This was surprising because the main part of the market had burned down about two months ago and was a mass of charred stucco and twisted corrugated steel and rubble about 50 meters away.
The people in the market were friendly--almost too friendly. In the cosmetic area in which stylists were working on weaves and eyebrows, one young later suggested that she would like to make the male cadets “mes joués” (my toys). I told her that she couldn’t have any of them for less than 20,000 CFA apiece. The guys were clearly a hit, while all of the women stared at George’s blond hair and light skin.
Upstairs, the guys bought Cote d’Ivoire soccer sets before we left.
We walked back through the market to exit and I took many photos of kids and parents in their stalls.
We returned to the hotel and tried to arrange dinner. They told us that they would like us to order in advance, but we couldn’t do that until the chef arrived. No, they didn’t know when the chef would arrive.
Becky and I went to the bar, which was relatively frigid fromita a/c. We each had a Beaufort and watched World Cup, catching up on social media, working on photos and relaxing.
The cadets went to the remarkably nice pool and then hung out on the terrace for awhile.
Shortly after returning to the room, I was alerted that we could order our dinner. They gave me a menu and I ordered for Becky and me after asking all of the cadets what they wanted.
They told us that dinner would even ready at about 1900 and they would serve us outside on the terrace since they didn’t seem excited about running the cooler in the restaurant. I asked them if we could be served in the bar and we declined. While we were in our room running the a/c, another call came asking me to come back to the restaurant to speak with the chef.
When I did, he told me that they didn’t have many things already ordered. I made some substitutions for almost all of us with consulting and just hoping I’d be close.
Soon after, Becky and I went down to the restaurant and found the cadets in the bar relaxing. We told them that we’d call them when dinner was ready. Meanwhile, they had turned on the a/c in the restaurant area and temperatures were approaching tolerable.
I was then called to the bar to help resolve a dispute over our drink bill. It appeared that Becky and the bar staff were talking past each other. Hunger and heat were not helping and we both went back the restaurant after a settlement with the bar.
Dinner arrived about 30 minutes late and they combined our side orders into single plates. The food wasn’t bad considering, nor was it very good. Luckily, however, it was much cheaper than Abidjan.
We finished, paid up without incident and everyone retired for a night that included lots of noise, loud talk in the halls, and loud banging lasting well past 0100.
Breakfast was pretty miserable. We had a choice of baguettes with preserves/jelly and simple omelets. No fruit, no pastries, and only hot water for instant coffee. Moreover, the waitress claimed that we had to pay for one of us to eat--that you the same room fee only included breakfast for one. That didn’t go well. We finally chose to order anyway and ignore her. When we left, she said everything was okay.
We loaded up from the rooms and left on time. George told us that we were meeting a second driver and minibus at the Ghana border, leaving Yah-yah in Cote D'Ivoire, but that the other bus had to come from Kumasi and it might be late. We would drive around abengourou little bit to “waste some time” and maybe make another stop or two because he didn’t expect the next bus at the border until 1200.
We stopped in the town of Niamble just before the border to walk around and soak in a little more culture.
First we stopped into a home compound with a couple of women pounding cassava in a large wooden bowl. I didn’t see how the younger one with the giant pestle was missing the fingers of the older woman as she kneaded the starchy, sticky, faintly yellow-white blob and occasionally felt and extracted tiny bits of the toughest fiber.
The kids asked if I would take my photo and, of course I obliged. The cassava stand was really a restaurant because people would come up with porcelain-lined steel pots, add cassava and then gets ladkea of a reddish fish soup with cooked fish heads.
Across the street another stand was selling some fruit and frying more fish heads in hot oil off the road, again with lots if kids. They were even more enthusiastic for photos, too,
Burning more time, we continues walk, visiting the compound of the local king, who wasn’t home--but more kids wanting photos were!
Yah-yah followed in the bus and a couple of cadets road along in the chase wagon. Finally, we got on board, too, and headed to the border.
When we arrived at the immigration, a guy in uniform stopped the bus and asked George for our “list” of tourists. He asked, “What list?” Apparently, we needed some certified list for our tourist group granted either at our entry or in some other way. George was confounded and said that we were just a tourist group, nothing special and that he’s never before heard of this requirement.
They argued for few minutes more without much progress when I interrupted in French and told them that we weren’t just tourists, but rather an official group of Americans on government business, handing him my official passport. For a list, we gathered our orders. The gentleman asked George and me to come inside.
Up some stairs and to the shack where the Ivoirian immigration officers were, we met one man at a desk and another standing. Over the next 30 minutes, he carefully transcribed all of our info onto an old-style log book. He was confused by our birthdays written with the month word as opposed to number and miswrote several. He wasn’t sure if October was month 9 or 10. I kept quiet.
Slowly, progress was being made.
Another officer in uniform came in and introduced himself. I returned the favor and we struck up a nice conversation in French during which he told me that his dream was to visit the American West and see the Grand Canyon.
Finally, our man completed his entries and then stamped all of our passports, adding a written note of date and his initials to each.
We drove in the now terrible dirt road to Ghana, arriving five minutes later at the sleepiest little border crossing I’ve ever seen.
We filled out immigration forms and went to the next room in which we filled out more forms.
The agent was only slightly quicker than his Ivoirian counterpart in completing our passports. There was no rush, however, as the next bus hadn’t arrived yet--nor would it.
We waited at the border with the guards trying to watch the France-Australia World Cup match on a poorly tuned Sharp TV of about 15”.
We decided to drive to the first town in Ghana and meet the next bus there. It was only about five kilometers in and was a classic dusty poor little burg with a dirt center square for three taxis and a couple if spare car engines--plus one transmission.
We stopped to get something to eat or drink, but that was hard to find--at least in any clean and packaged form.& andIwillbe & the same%%^÷® and we can go
George found a bar with a covered back area and a big screen TV where we could get beer and soft drinks--but no food. Meanwhile he tried to comm from there with TransAfrican and our next driver--to no avail. Soon after, he found a money changers who gave us a good rate on converting CFA to Ghanaian Cedis. We changed all of them except 100,000 I kept in the car for an emergency and maybe a better rate somewhere. We put all of the cadets money into ours to improve the rate and pro-rated it for each. Next, we sold them some extra Cedis we had from from my ATM mistake.
After sitting for an hour watching the Iceland-Argentina pregame, he decided that we should bring our bags into the bar and let Yah-yah go on his way. TranaAfrica continued to assure him that our minibus was on it's way. It wasn’t.
George was getting very perturbed, We could tell that he didn’t think things were going well and he told Becky that they were not being “very professional.”
Meanwhile, back at the game, we were enjoying the show of all the Ghanaian fans, most rooting for Iceland but there still cheers when Argentina scored the first goal. The place erupted as Iceland evened the match, though, and then went crazy when the Icelandic goalie stopped Mesii’s penalty kick.
The Club beer bomber bottles were only 700 CFA ($1.25) so that helped.
We started discussing the over/under for a bus arrival and thought that 1500 was about right. At 1445, though, Becky and I went looking for George who was trying to arrange alternative transpo. I called the TransAfrica hotline twice, but no one answered. I called Tailor Made’s number and they answered promptly. There wasn’t much they could do, but said they would try to contact TransAfrica as well and see what was going on.
While speaking to the Tailor Made agent George walked up and said he’d found a van to take us but that the van we rode in wouldn’t have air conditioningat this point, we didn’t care so long as the windows went down and we’d all fit inside.
The locals took us to the van with a giant catfish painted on the side. We started to walk around it and Becky, the trip’s director of safety, security, and not doing stupid things, noticed that belt fabric was coming through the right front tire. She said that she wouldn’t rise in the van and we wouldn’t take it unless they changed the tire.
The driver said that it was okay. The other three tires were “OK” (meaning in the US they were only 10,000 miles past needing replacement).
Negotiations restarted. They said they would change the tire, but no one moved. George was negotiating, calling, promising, shaking his head, “Non!” and there was smsovement everywhere. I reiterated our objection in French to the driver and others and then, thanks mostly to George, the conversation shifted to another slightly larger van that seemed, upon inspection, to have four serviceable tires.
The deal to transfer agreement was struck and we starting bringing out bags as the cadets paid the bar tab in a combo of CFA and Cedis.
The cadets were turning a shitty situation into a fun one as we took photos loading the van, photos with the locals, selfies, etc.
Once loaded, we started to roll at 1530 with three each the back two rows, Austin and George in the second row and me serving as driver Fatou’s co-pilot in front.
The a/c didn’t function, so we just rolled the windows down for air.
The roads were amazingly rough from the very beginning, with car-swallowing ruts and pond-like potholes, or pondholes. George said that the road was in better shape than usual because it was mostly dry.
Fatou was a good driver, though, and did his best to keep us dry and right-side-up as well as loose from the Ghanaian Shihatsu massage.
After 45 minutes of fun, we were stopped at a roadside gate and had to show our passports and entry stamps to the customs officer. A few minutes later we enjoyed the luxury of a paved Ghanaian road--a treat that lasted for about 15 minutes, but I felt like Fatou covered as much ground in those 15 minutes of high-speed pothole slalom that we did in the previous hour.
Sadly, it ended quickly and we were back onto terrible roads.
The ride was fun so far, though, as the cadets played music on their cell phones and we sang along, much to the delight of Fatou and George.