Sunday 7 July 2013

o : Grand Bassam

La Madrague
Grand Bassam

Dear o,

Everyone knows us by name now.  The beach merchants with their beer bottles of nuts, sarong racks and pet turtles call our names when we’re sitting for lunch in view of the giant Atlantic waves.  The pot-bellied hotel steward knocks on our door every night at 7:15 to ask what we want for dinner, to be served before 8 so he can go to bed on time.  The French-cuisine dinners he caters, as well as the breakfasts and lunches, are downright lousy, and we rarely eat here – but we’re not camping anymore, and wander from hotel to hotel for our meals.  It’s either that or takeaway pizza, a greasy vice just rediscovered.  We miss the semi-self-sufficient life on the road.  But we don’t have use of a campfire or our multifuel stove or our sacks and sacks of beans anymore.  We’re not moving onto the next place tomorrow, preparing our wallets and passports and languages for the journey.  I feel rusty when I get behind Archer’s wheel.  We’re stuck here, outside of Abidjan, on the wood-fenced, coconut-groved and wet-weathered resort stretch called Grand Bassam.  The merchants with wooden giraffes who pester sunbathing visitors are getting bored with us.  They shout our names and wave but only bother waving their product halfway up in the air.

We were only supposed to be here for a week at most, to acquire visas for Ghana.  But that didn’t turn out the way we planned, and then our plans turned out to have a few new holes, bored in since we left Europe: bureacracy, war, and international import/export law.  I wrote another, earlier letter to I. about our predicament, and things have changed some more.  Things have changed, and we’ve stayed put.  The daily rains have now arrived, and most of the people have left.  Locals populate the weekends while ghosts take on the Mondays.  Hotels are empty, restaurants are dead, half of the beachfront establishments are shut while the other operate for show.  We’ve sailed into the low season on a tide of waiting.

After learning that we may not be able to get into the DR Congo without weeks spent ferrying our passports to the UK and Canada and back again – weeks we don’t have – we decided to drive to Gabon, and sell or ship Archer from there.  On the way we wanted to have a few fixes (busted antenna, loose batteries) done in Accra, Ghana, but our transit visas afford us no time there.  A few noises in the engine and cranks in the steering prompted us to get the truck checked out a few days ago in Abidjan.  We asked for a full inspection – the same thing requested and never given in Bath, San Sebastian and Agadir – and we got one.  Archer has problems; a lot of problems; serious problems.

The Master Diagnostic Technician at the Abidjan Toyota shop was straightforward and friendly as raised Archer and brought me underneath the truck.  He explained that the steering fluid was not only empty (we knew that) but leaking.  Okay, I said, what about the cranking at 1500 RPM?  He pointed to the universal joint behind the new propeller shaft – the one replaced in Spain – and said the joint is broken and needs to be replaced.  Okay, I said, do you have these parts in stock?  No, he said, and he wasn’t finished.  He showed me wornout brake pads, busted suspension frames, leaking engine oil, and a handful of other problems I couldn’t quite see, couldn’t understand in French, or both.  Okay, I said, are these problems serious?  He looked at me and almost laughed.  Of course they’re serious.  He stepped out from under the truck as if he was worried the whole thing was going to collapse.

I returned the next day, driving between Grand Bassam and Abidjan which surprised the Master Diagnostic Technician, to receive the devis: list of parts required.  The total amount we would have to pay to order all the parts and have them installed would be more than twice what we paid for the truck itself.  And even if a lot of the problems are being made up, the steering fluid leak is serious and real: and that part would take three weeks to arrive.  After three weeks wait, we’ll have just two weeks left to drive 3,200km across six borders in the heavy rainy season when some roads will be washed out, to arrive in Gabon.

Clearly, our drive ends here.  The plan is now to get rid of the truck – and most of our mountain of stuff, shipped or sold – and go overland by train, bus and bushtaxi as far as we can get, and then fly the rest of the way to Tanzania.  After a few days sulk about our failure to get across the continent as we hoped and dreamed, this new way started to sound good: just a couple bags, no truck to worry about, no thinking about how much is actually left in the tank (instead of what the gauge wants us to believe), and the chance to meet others on the way.  We got excited.

And then we found out how hard it is to sell a right-hand drive truck in Africa (in many countries, such as the Ivory Coast, the government will not register a right-hand car), and how few ships bring cars to the UK.  There are countless routes and companies the other way around: perhaps a majority of cars on African roads are used European imports.  One man in Sierra Leone didn’t believe us when we told him that we’d bought our truck second-hand in England.  He thought all Europeans and North Americans buy their cars new, and when done with them, send them off to Africa.

So, I regret to inform you that the distances covered between my letters might diminish – it already has.  My last to you was from an hour away.  My next to you might be an hour further down, or five minutes.  Hopefully I’ll know a little more about my surroundings, because my discoveries in the last couple weeks have been mostly confined to embassies, visas, international shipping, how to sell a foreign car, and ADX power-assisted steering fluid.  Oh, and a few names of the merchants on the beach.  One of them is Yao, and he said he has a friend who might buy the truck.  But would it be possible to move the steering wheel to the other side?

Honestly, it’s worth a try.



View from our first lodging: Hotel Etoile du Sud.
Notice the fogginess?
That's the lens - it's very damp here.
Atlantic Beach