Ivory Coast – Luke Gelmi (Issue 19)

The latest intel is that I’m probably going to be shot. With a gun…

Apparently, it’s a mess over on the other side of the border with Ivory Coast. There’s a big refugee camp here in Liberia, full of people fleeing rebels in western Ivory Coast who are going through villages, killing people. I didn’t know that… Why didn’t anyone tell me?

A couple of ‘whities’ have been filling me in during in my latest pit stop; Harper. One’s a young Finnish bloke who has been here for a year; a fact that in itself blows my mind. The other is a surly old Irishman named Bob. Bob doesn’t seem to like me very much, and I get the feeling that I’m being told off by the school principal.

Apparently, anywhere within a hundred clicks of the border on the Liberian side is a serious no-go zone.

Apparently, I’ve been ‘very lucky’ even to make it this far. During the whole of the day’s ride to Harper I should have – on the odds – ran into one of these rebels on the road. I didn’t know that…

But, here’s the rub, I’m kind of in it either way from here on. There’s only one road into Harper –the one I’ve just ridden, full of rebels – and one road out, to Ivory Coast, which is also full of rebels… Shooting people. If I’m going to risk it either way, I might as well risk it going forward, right?
It’s a poor set of options, and my new mate Bob, isn’t keen to let me off the hook in a hurry. For landing myself in the middle of this mess, I cop a serious chewing-out for my ‘sheer recklessness’. But is it reckless if I didn’t even know? Less reckless, just oblivious. If I had known that, at any moment, I might have been in some rebel’s gun sights during yesterday’s ride through the forests of Liberia, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much…

Nothing left but to move on. Forward. Onwards and upwards. I suit up and head the short ride to the border. There’s a river, and no bridge… No one told me… There must be a way to get across.

I go through the usual motions; what else can I do? Checking out of Liberia is a piece of cake. It’s a remote border and there’s no traffic. Quick and easy. So it’s back to the bigger problem. I can see a couple of barges over on the other riverbank. I ask the locals who have gathered around my Royal Enfield like bees to the honey pot what the go is. Liberians speak English as a first language – though I could do with subtitles sometimes – so the conversation is pretty open and shut.

Apparently the barges are going nowhere today, I’ve missed my window, and there’s no amount of money that could make them move.

So, that leaves one little boat; a Liberian bloke floating in a carved-out tree, looking at me hopefully. Not gonna happen. I don’t have the stomach for this. Not today. I did it once in The Gambia, and I promised myself I’d never put myself and my bike through that again. A true once in a lifetime experience.

The crowd around the Enfield has thickened. It’s like the people have come out of the trees. They’re all gathered around to see how this is going to end up; they’ll probably get some cheap entertainment out of it, and they’re coaxing me to give it a go. No thanks.

I can see a boat on the other shore, one big enough to at least have a tiny motor on it. That’s what I want. But because no one’s moving between the borders it’s not going anywhere either. So I wait.
The bloke in the hollowed-out tree isn’t doing me any favours; he’s busily ferrying people back and forth between the borders, rather efficiently, which means that my big boat on the other side of the river isn’t filling up. Just as I’m thinking it’s time to take my medicine and get in the canoe, it finally makes the crossing – I think the owner smelled some fat stacks, a big pay-day, and came across to collect. Capitalist…

The captain of the ship is a bit of an oddball; a little man with only half a moustache, and I don’t mean half a mo like a Hitler style either, nor a pencil thin mo, he’s just decided to only shave one half, so that half his face has a moustache and the other half doesn’t. It’s distracting me while I’m trying to concentrate on the haggle. But we strike a deal and load up the boat. With many hands it’s surprisingly easy to lift the bike and get it in. Piece of cake. I straddle the Enfield to keep it upright and we gently chug across the border.

Onwards to Ivory Coast, Or Cote d’Ivoire, which means we’re back to French. It’s going to sound weird, but despite not knowing nearly enough, I find the French Africans easier to understand than the English Africans. Go figure… My mate Half-Mo ends up sharking me on the deal by using an exchange rate that is very much in his favour. Hard to argue, he’s one smooth operator.

There are fewer people over this side that are keen to help lift the bike back out of the boat, so it’s heavy as hell, leaving me literally dripping sweat in my leathers from the back-breaking effort. It’s bloody hot.

The Cote d’Ivoire border post is a handful of buildings with a village market attached to it like a parasite. Immigration is easy. Fill out a form, get the stamp, done. Immigration always seems to be a breeze, never complicated, never a hassle. On to customs for a Laissez-Passer (“LP”, paperwork for the bike), which always seems to be complicated, never breezy, always a hassle. The young official tells me that the bike’s registration plus the passport are fine for Cote d’Ivoire, no need for a Laissez-Passer, no problem. Not again. I had this exact same problem with getting into Liberia. They wouldn’t issue me an LP “because you don’t need one” and I knew it would end up screwing me, and it did…

I make the same arguments that I made before, and they’re equally useless. It’s so frustrating. Why the hell don’t they just give me one, even if I don’t need it? What’s it to them? I’m not giving up this time. I’m up for the fight with this young bloke. We go round in circles, for about half an hour.

He cracks. Tells me he’ll issue an LP for 10,000CFA. That’s 25 bucks, double the most I’ve ever paid. That’s rubbish. I produce 4,000 CFA, 210 Liberian dollars and 1 US dollar. All counted, that’s about the equivalent of 6,000 CFA. He needs to meet me halfway…

Arguing ensues. I know the price is more than enough, so I stick to my guns. He cracks, and I’m pretty pleased with myself. I’ve become a hard-nosed sonofabitch. My interlocutor gets about halfway through filling out the LP, and he asks me what my mothers and fathers names are.

“What?? Porqwar? Ce pour le moto?” He stares at me like I’m a retard.

“Oh, le moto?”

“Yeah, le moto!” Moron! What have we been talking about for the last hour? He was writing out an LP for a person, not a vehicle. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. And besides, why would I need one? Makes no sense whatsoever. I reckon that he’s done it intentionally; this guy’s not thick.

Sure enough, he’s blaming me like it’s somehow my stuff-up, and the cost goes up to 15,000CFA to cover the ruined LP. Stuff that. This is bloody extortion. We’re both too pigheaded to back down now… So I sit in his office and wait. Keen to Shawshank it. I’m certain I’ll wear him down. Just chip away. I’ve got nowhere better to be. I get thirsty. Then hungry. And I crack. Waste of an hour. I take his initial suggestion and just leave. Winging it, without the papers, again. I just hope there are not many checkpoints and ride out.

Checkpoints. Lots of checkpoints. I don’t have the nerves for this… The stops aren’t bunting and ropes, either. They’re spike strips. Mean looking ones. Oddly, it’s a good thing for me. Cars can’t fit through, bikes can. By the time the cops or army realise from their roadside huts what’s going on I’m already past the strips, and accelerating away again, every time. I can hear the trilling of angry whistles fade away as I crack on. Risky, yet effective.

It’s a strange emotion. I’m happy the military are here – it decreases my odds of getting shot – but not so happy they’re here, because now I have to deal with them. The fourth time trying to bust a checkpoint, I run out of luck: there’s a bloke actually doing his job; standing in the middle of the road. He waves me over. A huge man, with an enormous gun that looks like it could blow a horse’s head off. No escaping this.

Please ask for the passport.

“Cart grease” Damnit! ‘Cart grease’ is the noise they make in French for motorbike papers. Translates to something like ‘grey card’, whatever that is….

I hand him my bikes rego papers, which he studies with a perplexed look on his face. Not good.
“Ooo eh votre Laisser-Passez?” Crap! I pull over the bike and take my time taking off my helmet before my head melts. It’s so damn hot. Now, how to play this?

Another army lad, a skinny bloke, has made his way over and wants to see my passport. Beautiful. I give him my passport and we flick through the pages, I give them the grand tour, talking about the journey so far, and I smoothly segue into my favourite distraction ploy: asking for directions. It works a treat.
The two of them go into great detail about how to get to the next village, which, given there’s only one road, should have been pretty straight forward. It’s perfectly steered the conversation; all talk of LP’s forgotten. I thank them for their crucial help, grab my papers and head off to waves and smiles. Like a goddamn magician.

I’m still on edge… This is a big country, and if four checkpoints on one road is anything to go by, there’s going to be a lot more to come. I don’t know how long my luck and bluster will last.

This article first appeared in Issue 19 of Overland Magazine.