Sunday, September 22, 2013

Things I learned this week

Things I learned during my first week in Abidjan:
  • Abidjan is less dense than I had imagined.  I imagined something closer to slums packed with humanity.  Instead, there is a shocking amount of open space.  Wealthy and middle class neighborhoods have huge swaths of basically undeveloped land.  Even in fully developed areas, Abidjan looks more like L.A. than New York. 
  • Human labor is very cheap here in Abidjan.  You can rent somebody's car for $50/day.  Car and driver = $60/day.  
  • As a result, most things are very cheap here.  Lunch on Friday (fried fish, cous cous and some chopped tomatoes and onions) cost $1 from a street vendor.  We were given a bowl of water to rinse our hands before eating.  It is customary to eat with our hands, although when I was hesitant, they brought me a spoon.  
  • I did not get sick from the street vendor food and I've yet to have any stomach problems.  All meat that I have eaten has looked and tasted how it was supposed to look and taste.  
  • Taxi rides are also very cheap.  Petrol must be heavily subsidized, since cars are apparently very expensive.  
  • Apparently, cars and most other imports are quite expensive.  Multiple people have said that you can buy a car in the U.S., have it shipped to Cote d'Ivoire, and sell it for double the original price in the U.S.  
  • There is something very feudal and mercantile about the economic system here.  There are apparently check points throughout the country where police officers (or gangsters) demand a "toll" from vehicles carrying cargo.  It reminds me of Paul Bairoch's description of 17th century Europe where a merchant would have to pay a toll every 5 miles on average.  
  • I have been pleasantly surprised by the food, both West African and "ethnic" (e.g., Vietnamese) -- much better than Sheila had led me to believe based on her experience in Ghana.  I'm tempted to think it's a difference between ex-English colonies and ex-French colonies, but that is probably lazy.  West African food does not have much in common with French food so far.  
  • That being said, one can get croissants and baguettes here.  The croissants aren't as good as in Paris, but are better than the median croissant in Washington, DC.  I haven't yet tried the baguettes.  
  • Many areas of Abidjan smell faintly (or strongly) of human waste.  
  • The embassy community seems pretty isolated from Ivorian culture.  Several ex-pats have expressed a degree of condescension about embassy lifestyle on issues ranging from transportation to antimalarials.  
  • Houses of embassy staff in Abidjan are amazing.  They live in large villas with multiple bedrooms, spacious living rooms, cozy furniture, air conditioning, multiple security guards, and large backyards that sometimes have swimming pools.  We are staying with a foreign service officer and his wife and they have been extremely hospitable, providing us with food, lodging and even a driver most days.  
  • Help or "domestiques" seem to be a staple of ex-pat life.  We are considering hiring someone once we have our own apartment.  We like the idea of being able to supply someone with consistent and stable income over several months, and an above market rate daily wage would be very affordable for us. Sheila also likes the idea of being able to work on her French. Needless to say, having someone help with daily errands sounds nice as well.  
  • We went to dinner on Saturday night at a restaurant in an open field with a band playing.  The band played West African music and latin salsa.  They played for more than 90 minutes without a break.  Afterwards, they passed around a survey asking how they could improve (and also asking for a donations).  
  • There are fewer rats in Abidjan than in Washington, DC.