Let me start off by explaining the thought behind my blog name.
On the one hand, “Maps for Breakfast” symbolises my daily planning of activities whilst travelling, and the organisation of days out nearer home. On the other hand, the name represents moments I find myself daydreaming, consulting the world map on my bedroom wall in London and imagining what it would be like to visit particular countries. To summarise, “Maps for Breakfast” is me Google mapping everything, it’s me flicking through all the travel guides in a bookshop, and it’s me planning the ultimate round-the-world trip just because I’m bored.
So here I am in Abidjan, and as is usual on arrival in a new city, I am itching to explore. This, however, is not quite as straightforward as it has been for me in other cities worldwide.
Public transport here is confusing. The first few days I was escorted everywhere, and even now that I’ve been (mostly) left to my own devices, all I am capable of is getting to work and back. Though I’m sure my boss is pleased by this, I would like to make sure I see a bit more of this city than the inside of an office.
So why is getting around so confusing? For one, the local shared taxis only operate in particular areas, so to get to work I have to get 3 different “wôrô-wôrôs” (as they are known here) each to the end of their specific zones, and then the final one drops me off 2 minutes away from work. There is nothing to explain how the zones work; this is something that locals have been brought up to know intrinsically. This also applies to the local minibuses called “gbakas” which have set routes (though still unknown to me) and no fixed stops.
The second issue is that there are no road names here. Well, if you consult a map you might find that many of them are named, but knowing these names will do you no good as a taxi driver won’t know where they are located. Therefore I have had to learn what to specifically say to drivers so that they take me to the right place. Sometimes I cite the name of a pharmacy, sometimes a school or a petrol station. The relative lack of addresses also means that I can’t get post delivered to home here – which hasn’t bothered me yet, but come my birthday it might well feel like a loss.
Another scenario I have often found myself in occurs when someone is describing a place to me which I have yet to visit. As they are explaining themselves, I take out my phone and ask if they would be able show me where it is on a map, so I might be able to find the area myself, or so that I can at least have an appreciation of it’s location in relation to other landmarks. However, 80% of the time, the person can’t situate the place, as maps aren’t a medium they are accustomed to using to give directions. They are more likely to reply that it is near “insert name of pharmacy/school/petrol station”… so I have to hope that a) I can recognise the name through their thick accent and b) I know where this second place is located. Generally the conversation is concluded with puzzlement on my part.
Finally, there is the manner in which you catch public transport here. The heckling, the bargaining, the pushing. On busy crossroads you’ll find many wôrô-wôrôs and gbakas pulled over, with men or even boys waiting, ready to escort you into their vehicle before you’ve properly understood which direction it’s going. I’ve not quite adjusted to the commotion yet, but I am very quickly learning to assert myself and ensure they don’t over-charge me for being, well, white.
On Saturday morning I took myself for a wonder around “Plateau”, the business district of Abidjan, to get a feel for the city centre. I have now figured out that if I don’t know the specific route to a location I can treat myself to a more expensive “taxi compteur”, (a taxi on a meter, though it’s better to negotiate a price before jumping in) which enables me to cross-zones without swapping taxis. When meeting up with friends that Saturday afternoon they were surprised to learn that I had taken myself out exploring. I couldn’t tell if they were impressed, or if they thought I was a bit mad venturing out alone, but had I explained my plans to them in advance one of them would have joined me.
On mention of an interest in seeing areas of the country beyond Abidjan, the response is always that someone will accompany me, and that we should both go ahead and ask for time off work! For this I am certainly glad, as if I’m having trouble navigating Abidjan, one of the most developed cities in West Africa, who knows how hard it’ll be further afield! Either way I look forward, in an adventurous manner, to finding out and reporting back.
Ps. Has anyone else had experience with public transport in Africa? Would love to hear your stories!