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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Cote d’Ivoire 2017 - Lockdown Experience - The 3 Year Recurrence

The lockdown, whose violation was, potentially, life-ceasing.
Cote d’Ivoire, in 2017
Every deputation to a new site brings with it diverse sights, sounds & experiences, contributing towards making some cherished memories, the kind one can write about during 21-day lock-downs.
Lockdown - Ivory Coast - Port Autonome De San Pedro - 001
San-Pédro, Cote d’Ivoire’s second largest port is the proverbial melting pot of international footfall. After being out at sea for months, while their cargo gets unloaded, sailors from around the world disembark from their ships, to check out the lay of the land, experience Terra firma and, not infrequently, create ruckus at nightspots.
This former French colony is also home to a fair number of mostly elderly French expats, living in some pretty expansive, opulent hilltop houses, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Being a relatively small town, you can very easily feel the diversity, in this tranquil, laid-back place.
Lockdown - Ivory Coast - San Pedro - 002
Within a few days of our arrival here, we also got acquainted with a small group of Indians living there, some close to 18 years, through it’s 2002 Civil War. All employed with different trading companies exporting agriproducts like timber, cashew, cacao - Ivory Coast is one the world’s largest producers. A great bunch to hang out with.
Despite being a relatively small project - my organisation’s entry into the country, work was relentless & exacting. The plant was intended to be built to European standards, in all respect, that the Moroccan client & Austrian OEM Engineers let us forget never.
Lockdown - Cote d'Ivoire - San Pedro - SANCEM - 005
One day, in May 2017, while in midst of our daily meeting with the client, suddenly, we started hearing multiple sets of distant Taka-Taka-Taka sound, like multiple Rock-breakers working in tandem. Not possible, because we had mobilised only one for here. The client’s South African Engineer correctly identified it as gunfire.
Thanks to some friendly, considerate security personnel, I had my share of satisfaction handling firearms while in Benin and Nigeria. The region, being as it is, we did not think too much of it and later proceeded for lunch at our accommodation. It was only once we reached our rooms, a little drive away, that we learnt that the Ivorian Army had taken to the streets. The sound of the intermittent gunfire had become more frequent, though still distant. The ceiling had been impacted by the proverbial excreta. Venturing out to go back to work was out of the question. Called up the client, they too had left site.
We were faced with another challenge. The workers were still inside, since lunch was brought to the site for them. The Port Autonome De San Pedro [San Pedro Port Authority], inside whose premises the site was located, had shut it’s gates, halting all vehicular movement, in or out. More than 150 Indians were now stuck inside. After some deliberation, lead by our Site Manager, some of us headed back to bring them out. Long story short, after spending an hour at the port’s gate, plenty of phone calls later, buses carrying our men started emerging out. With God in mind, and expletives on lips, we managed to get everyone safely back to their colony, without further conundrum.
Lockdown - Cote d'Ivoire - San Pedro - SANCEM - 006
With work stalled, it was decided that everybody must strictly stay in the house. Now, thing with our folks is that, when not working, alcohol sets the agenda or, often, is the agenda. With weekend a few days away, stocks were low. What was available got bottoms-upped before evening, and more alcohol had to be had.
Unbeknownst to the Site Manager, a few guys decided to venture out to score more booze. I found myself added to this intrepid band of 4 quasi-booze-hounds. From Boulevard Houphouët-Boigny [Houphouet Boigny Boulevard], where we stayed, we slipped out, taking along with us our Man Friday, Danny-boi, walking for half an hour, through some narrow unpaved pathways & bushes, eventually reaching the city centre, Rue de la République [Republic Road].
Lockdown - Ivory Coast - San Pedro - Army Pick-Up - 009
There, we spotted a pick-up van driving by, carrying a group of armed personnel. Even if they saw us, they didn't bother. Probably had better things to do. On the way to the market, one of the guys contacted the liquor store owner, who assured us of stock and sale. He did a Houdini act on us, though, once we reached his shop. Shutters down, incommunicado. Walking a few metres away we found Supermarché Sococe, though also shuttered, still had people passing through its service door. Soccoce happens to be the biggest Supermarket in town, stocking gourmet products. Patronised by the town’s expats, its offerings are also grossly over-priced.
After a quick dash to the neighbourhood back-alley clinic, & selling a kidney, the guys had enough dough. Liquor bottles purchased, beer cans emptied, mission accomplished. We commenced our trip back to the den, where rest of the alcohol would flow into the bloodstream. Just then, I got a call from the Togolese Engineer working with the OEM, asking me to come to Vox. Vox is San-Pedro’s biggest nightclub, where we’d drop-in occasionally. Clubbing the night away after a hard day's work can reenergise you for next day in a manner sleep wouldn’t be a patch on. This is especially true, if it extends into the wee hours, not permitting more than a couple of hours of sleep, before next day’s work commences.
Lockdown - Ivory Coast - San Pedro - Vox - 003
representational image via FB
Handing the liquor to Danny boi, we walked over to Vox, located on the ground floor of Hôtel Atlantique, one of the oldest establishments in San-Pédro. This place is frequented by expats & sailors in town. It also doesn’t bear as seedy a feel. Make no mistakes, all of San-Pedro’s nightspots are seedy, just that respective establishments keep it tempered to varying degrees. Again, everything there is overpriced.
Found the place padlocked, as would be expected at 7 in the evening. Quickly found the way in, through the back. The scene, as it was unfolding, felt like being in midst of an average stereotypical Hollywood conflict-movie, what with distant firefights, surreptitious approaches, rear entrances, engaging in activity, the optics of which strikes a discordant note with the environment. Syriana, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot anyone?
Lockdown - Ivory Coast - San Pedro - 007
Living in the present, enjoying life, things that people branding themselves "Life Coach" charge 1000s per hour to tell you inside cloistered meeting rooms, one can experience interacting with people in the great outdoors of Africa and, also, get paid for it - life lessons, Vitamin D & Dollars. The amazing continent is home to some of the warmest, most hospitable people. How to be happy, have a good time, is a lesson best learnt there.
Lockdown - Ivory Coast - San Pedro - Vox - 014
The evening had started in Vox much earlier that day. Ivory Coast, in its recent history, has witnessed prolonged periods of political upheaval. Perception of normal has, therefore, been moulded by these. People usually start streaming in only after 11, be it Vox, or Cyclone, another night-club in the vicinity, one which sees a more homogenous, mostly Ivorian crowd. Pricing is also better there. That day, however, 7 witnessed the footfall of 12. Undeterred by the events of the outside, everyone there were unwinding themselves.

With Stag entries, as it happens, a few minutes after you enter and seat yourself, one of the hostesses will approach you, first to engage in touchy-feely small-talk. Je parle Francais peu. Then, she’ll ask about your order. Once you decide your poison, she’ll prompt you to order for her, "et moi, Monsieur?". "Monsieur" changes to "Mon Chérie" on your next visit. Being a gentleman, you say, "Oui, d’accord, s’il vous plait!". Now comes the bummer. You order something, say Red Bull. It will cost you FCFA 4000 a can [~Rs. 400/=]. She brings for herself what looks like an Orange drink - it is, & non-alcoholic to boot, & it too would be priced FCFA 4000 a serving, when you’re handed the bill at the end. Dropping by, and checking on you from time to time, she will encourage you to re-order, if they see your glass empty, and also expect you to refill her jus d’orange, essentially doubling the price of your drink. The trick, therefore, is to order their cheapest drink, usually beer, and stretch it for as long as you stay. At the same time, keep a stock outside, in your vehicle. From time to time, come out, down a peg or two, then head back inside. With Redbull, ask for more ice, provided free, keeping the glass topped up. By the end, it’d be Homeopathic Red Bull. The extent people go to maximise fun, when experiencing liquidity crunch.
Lockdown - Cote d'Ivoire - San Pedro - Vox - 004
a concrete Barricade, bearing the United Nations symbol lying just off the road near our house. The UN Peacekeeping Force withdrew from Cote d'Ivoire only in 2017
There, coming out to breathe in some fresh air before heading back inside, we’d occasionally be greeted to a mesmerising sight of short volleys of tracer bullets cutting an arc through the night sky. Like witnessing a low-cost production of CNN’s Desert Storm coverage. As to why anybody was firing towards the sky remained a mystery, given that we later learnt that all confrontations were restricted to the ground. Sitting there, that night, on the front steps of Vox, we were feeling a little jubilant for no reason, in hindsight. Wolfing down on some delicious Schawarma Poulet [Chicken Shawarma], sourced from the nearby Chez Abou Haidar, life never felt better, or worse, surreal. One thing to be said of the Arab women1 there. So much dichotomy in conduct when interacting outside, usually store counter attendants & when you encounter them at the club. In there, they’re unleashed.
The French have maintained a strong grip on it’s former colony. There are frequent chatter amongst the locals, how the French arm-twisted their government to get onboard so-and-so agreement, or how one of their leaders sent his mistress to France for the birth of their illegitimate kid. While returning back with our workers that day, we saw armed French military personnel taking position outside Bolloré’s office, a French company. Similar sights were reportedly seen outside other French-owned businesses operating in Ivory Coast, like Friedlander & Total.
Lockdown - Cote d'Ivoire - San Pedro - Ballmer Maison -  011
Our absence was brought to light by the cook that night, who informed the Admin that 4 of the Staff had yet to have their dinner. He checked their rooms, to find them empty. Received a call from him, initially, to inform me of what had happened, only to learn quickly that I was with them. Anyway, I assured him of our being alive, with the clients, & that we’d return in the morning, what with us being without a vehicle.
Next morning, when we reached out place, our Site Manager was waiting for us, dressed in baniyan & lungi pulled up, ready to let loose his own volley. Standing there, we were at the receiving end of the fusillade of the choicest words. If it were to have been filmed & proposed for theatrical release, it’d have the runtime of a full-length silent movie, the silence being the creative input of the Censor Board. The matter was reported to our India office, who decided to recall us.
Lockdown - Cote d'Ivoire - San Pedro - 012
That day, too, work wasn’t going to happen, what with the Ivorian Army still having a go at each other. Spent most of the day sleeping. The next day around mid-morning news came in that things had settled. Readying ourselves, we resumed work by afternoon. In the coming days, as we went into high gear at site, the matter receded into the background - the tickets never arrived. With another successful project execution, the incident became, but a footnote in the organisation’s long history, joining the pantheons of other such colourful, be it irresponsible, acts committed by others elsewhere. The two days that May, in 2017, were to be spent in lockdown. The 5 of us violated it, perhaps, to the peril of our lives.
Lesson learnt, irresponsible acts can make for fond recollections. Wouldn’t recommend others to follow suit, though. Fatality had better than average odds of coming up trumps.
1 - Cote d’Ivoire, curiously, attracts a lot of people from African Francophone Arab countries, such as Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco. Most carry out trade and have set up MSME there -  Lebanese-owned business supplied our grocery, a Moroccan lady brought in our weekly fresh produce, while we purchased our fuel on credit from a Tunisian gentleman running an Oilibya franchise.
Lockdown - Cote d'Ivoire - San Pedro - Chez Abou Haidar - 008
The finest Shawarma Poulet can be had at Chez Abou Haidar, a Lebanese run eatery, just off Rue de la République. Their Cheese-covered Pizza is to die for.