Thursday, February 27, 2014

Security in Abidjan

Before coming here, I kept hearing about how terribly unsafe this place was.  When I first told some relatives (who had never been to Africa) that I was moving to Abidjan, the first question was:
"-Where is Abidjan?" 
After a couple seconds of furious typing, I could hear an audible gasp.
It turns out, he'd been googling and the first image hit was something that looked like this:

--Is there war over there?  Why can't you just stay home?

I guess, the bottom line is many people are nervous about the security situation in Abidjan.  I think that this fear is misplaced.  While there must be some level of petty theft, I have not experienced any kind of crime.
In the beginning, I did notice the heavily armed military personnel, local police, and UN police walking around.  There are also private security guards at every bank ATM, and most businesses, apartment buildings and houses. This can make people feel unsafe, but as someone who has been out at night, who is in taxis everyday and who spent the better part of an afternoon wandering through Treichville, I find the concern overblown.

Does Abidjan have crime?  Yes.  Have I seen it?  No.  Does this mean you should go to Adjamé market on your own with your camera around your neck?  Well, that's just inviting trouble.

There are many issues in Abidjan, quality of schooling for English speaking kids, cost of living, and availability of housing.  That's a lot of real issues to focus on, don't waste headspace on the fake ones.
Security Guard at the local supermarket

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Abidjan Neighborhood Guide Part 2

There is another commune you'll keep hearing about: Marcory.
Marcory is split into different neighborhoods: Marcory résidentiel, Biétry, Zone 4, and whatever else I am forgetting.

Marcory was initially an industrial area that was never meant to be reseidential.  That changed over the years, and the area became the center of expat life when its proximity to the airport made it an ideal spot for people who wanted to be able to leave the country on a moment's notice, if need be.  Today, it's morphed into the place to be.

Marcory Résidentiel is, well, residential.  Most of the residents are Lebanese, and you'll see no shortage of Lebanese women walking or driving around.  The streets are really, really nice, with manicured lawns and trees.  I wish I could say more about the place, but I haven't spent much time there.  However, there are some decent schools -- if your kids are able to keep up with the french system, and I have heard that there are some Lebanese schools for people who want their kids to grow up speaking Arabic. 

Zone 4 is where I spend most of my time.  I go to the Cap Sud and Prima malls (baby malls, but who's looking). I love the nightlife (despite having to watch nasty old Frenchmen and their young Ivorian playthings). I love the convenience of having every western amenity within a stone's throw of where I live.  The best gyms, restaurants, yoga studios are here.  There's even a go karting place not too far away. I could go on, but I should probably tell you about how the place is.  Most of the activity and services are concentrated along the streets that you can see on the map (Pierre et Marie Curie Street is called Mercedes Avenue because of the Mercedes dealerships) .  

I live in Biétry, which is a bit further south.  I like it because it is pretty walkable and it's a bit further from the action (unless you're on rue du canal which is lined with prostitutes at certain times).  There are nice lagoon views,  some nice places to eat and drink (Paul, the french bakery I had lunch at in an earlier post is located on the boulevard de Marseille).

I am not going to sell this area to you, because everyone else is going to do that.  Marcory/Zone 4 is the most desirable place to live in the city right now because it combines safety, with services and traffic practicality.  If you are an active professional (making a western salary) and have no kids, living in Zone 4 is a no brainer.  The best gyms (Calao and Athletic Club) are nearby.  Yoga is nearby.  Nice hotels and spas are nearby.  You are on the road to the beach, which makes for shorter drives for weekend getaways.  Finally traffic will not rule your life the way it will if you live in Cocody.  Because almost everyone who works in the downtown area lives in Cocody, living in Zone 4 means commuting against traffic.  In other words, while your colleagues living in Riviera will be sitting in their cars, fuming,  you will be changing into your gym clothes.  It also means you get to wake up a bit later. 

Because there is no such thing as having it all in Abidjan real estate let me break down the negatives:

1. I hate how un-African this whole side of the city can feel.  There are times when the only black people in an establishment are the ones serving.  It can feel a bit neo-colonialist, and that may not be everyone's cup of tea.  
2. There aren't any real English schooling options for kids who live here.  There are kids who commute, but it's long, and it's not that much fun.
3. The entire area is expensive.  Taxis charge double, food costs more.  Everyone is trying to gouge the "rich" expats and UN people.  Can't say I blame them.

Hope this was helpful. 

Next up, is a post on security.  I'm taking requests in the comments section, so please don't hesitate to reach out, if you have something you'd like me to write about. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Abidjan Neighborhood guide Part 1

I was talking to a friend who was very confused about Abidjan's neighborhoods, and I promised that I would clarify as much as I could.

Abidjan is divided into 10 communes. 
Over at Drogba's Country, they are described as follows: 
Cocody = Beverly Hills (the bourgeois), Plateau = Manhattan (skyscrapers), Marcory = Las Vegas (the place that never sleeps), Treichville = Kingston (drugs in the streets), Kousmassi = Bogota (gangland), Port Bouet = Hawaii (coconuts and palms), Adjame = Texas (urban jungle), Attecoube = Bronx (the strongest make the law), Yopougon = Rio de Janeiro (alcohol, sex, party, beautiful girls), Abobo = Baghdad (danger everywhere).”

Given the reputation that many of the communes have, most expats choose to live in Cocody or Marcory, and I will focus on those.  

Cocody has long been favored by the Ivorian elite and expatriates living in Ivory Coast.  Many embassies are located in this commune as well as most of the international schools.  If you're looking for housing in Abidjan, you will hear a bunch of neighborhoods that are all located in this commune.  They include: 2 Plateaux, Cocody proper, all of the Riviera neighborhoods (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Palmeraie, Bonoumin) and Angré.

If you don't have kids, you'll probably want to live in 2 Plateaux.  The area is very nice and has a mixture of apartment blocks and standalone villas -- some with pools.  The area is less expensive than Zone 4, and has loads of stores, restaurants and some nightlife.  The only thing I don't like about 2 Plateaux is the traffic you end up sitting in, if you're commuting to and from Plateau (central business district) everyday.
little house in 2 Plateaux Vallons
Apartment building in 2 Plateaux Vallons
 The issues I have with 2 Plateaux are as follows:
1. traffic to get to Plateau is awful -- both morning and night.  I am told that it will improve once the third bridge is built, but who knows when that is.
2. If you have kids, they'll probably end up attending one of 2 schools: the American School or Lycée Blaise Pascal.  Both of these are located in Riviera 3.  If you work in the downtown area (Pleateau), you will have to drop your kids North of where you live, and then turn around and head South.  Because there are quite a few people doing this, traffic can be crummy as you drop them off, and then is terrible once you're driving in.  Of course, this isn't an issue if you have a second car with driver...
3. This area is not as walker friendly.  I find that as someone without a car, there are fewer things I can walk to...
4. Most of the nightlife is on the other side of the bridge...     

If you want a big house, pool and the suburban lifestyle, Riviera is for you.  The President lives here, so there is a strong security presence.  The international schools are here, so play dates are easy for those who have kids. 
Riviera 3 is the nicest of the suburbs.  The houses are very big, many have been renovated and are in good condition, and they offer the way of life a lot of expats are seeking. 


Tune in to Part 2 tomorrow,  I'll be talking about Zone 4...

#Abidjan #Cocody #Riviera

Exploring Treichville

The closest most expats get to Treichville is when they drive over it to get to Zone 4/Marcory.  Over at Drogba's country, they call this place Kingston because of the drugs in the streets. When I told my colleagues I was going, they insisted I take people with me and were afraid that I'd stick out like a sore thumb.   
Well, I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I didn't care, and the people around me didn't care either.  I spent about 45 minutes walking around and was struck by how incredible the vibe was.  The entire place was humming with activity, and people seemed very neighborly.  All in all, it felt like a really nice breath of fresh air, and I am glad I went.   
I am going to make some of the more safety-driven people scream when I say this, but I really want to live here.  Its tree lined streets are gritty, but full of charm and it is incredibly conveniently located between Plateau and Marcory (which makes for a great commute). You can also keep your costs low by going to the local markets and shops here.
In fact, the people that do go to Treichville go for its markets.  Everything you could ever imagine is there.  In fact, before buying anything in a store anywhere else in Abidjan, I'd strongly suggest looking for it in Treichville first.  That includes appliances, electronics, sporting equipment, musical instruments, speakers, pots and pans, everything.  


 These guys were really friendly. I'm not quite sure what they were cooking, but it smelled delicious.

#Abidjan #Treichville

Gridlock and commuting to work from Zone 4

Yesterday was my first morning commuting from Zone 4 to the office, and I have to I was not impressed.  The whole point of moving to Zone 4, and paying a price premium to live in Abidjan's red light district, was a smooth commute.  Yeah, well, that did not happen.  I left home at 7:30 and got stuck in snarled traffic leading to the Boulevard de Marseille.  It was so terrible, I spent 20 minutes waiting in line to turn onto the Boulevard.  Once we made it onto the main road, there was no traffic whatsoever.  This makes me think that when I look for my, hopefully permanent, next place, to look for a place that bypasses that intersection.  If I can manage to do that, I'd shave a solid 20 minutes off of my commute.

The ride home was a breeze.  I left work at 5pm and was home 15 minutes later!  During the entire ride, I could see people commuting in the opposite direction sitting in terribly backed up traffic.  So glad I live on this side!

#Abidjan #Zone4

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Food is expensive here -- my grocery shopping round up

I went to the supermarket for the first time yesterday where I experienced my first case of sticker shock.  Eating imported foods is expensive, and I don't eat many of the local foods which puts me in a bad place.  I also don't have a car, which means I can only shop in places that are relatively close to my house.  I ended up going to Hayat, a butcher down the street from my house and a Coq'ivoire

1st stop: Hayat (in the Cap Sud shopping complex) 
Amount spent: 32 000 francs for 30 items. 
  • The upside: Don Simon Sangria for 1100 francs. Finding muesli.   
  • The downside: How expensive meats and produce were in the supermarket.
I have been told to go to markets for fresh fruit, but I am not sure where my local market is. 

2nd stop: le terroir (butcher's shop on rue du canal)
I walked by this place and everything looked amazing.  I ended up getting two lamb chops for 1 190 francs and 12 chipolatas for 2 313. 

3rd stop: Coq'Ivoire (poultry shop). I got 1 kg of chicken thighs for for 2950. 

4th stop: Street vendor I  bought 4 tomatoes on the side of the road for 200 francs, but they were looking kind of old.

Bottom line: I spent a grand total of 39 000 francs to stock up my fridge for this week.  I'm a single person, so that's a lot.  But I did end up buying poultry, meat, lentils, couscous, pasta, olive oil and some canned goods for that money.  Finding Don Simon didn't hurt either. I'm starting to learn that I shouldn't expect to save money on food here (unless I start eating a lot more local foods).  If I don't, my food costs will work out to the same amount of money I would spend if I were living in France, or any major US city. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Picky eaters in Abidjan

I love African food.  And by African food, I mean dibi, thiéboudienne, thiébouyapp, yassa, pastels.  My starch of choice is couscous, or potatoes.  In short, I should be living in Senegal.  But I'm not.  I'm in a country where when I tell people that I don't eat white rice, cassava (in all its myriad forms), or sweet potatoes, they look at me like I have two heads and ask what I do eat.  In Abidjan, the shortest answer to that question is chicken.  Basically, I eat "poulet braisé" and "poulet frit". And that's about it.
One of the many "poulet" dishes I've had in Abidjan

But that can get old (I know I have) you can stick to Ivorian fare and move on to fish, or you can try your luck with foreign cuisines and imported foods.  I went with the latter and ended up having lunch at Paul today in Zone 4.  It was good.  Really good. I had a quiche Lorraine and felt confident enough to eat the salad, the raspberry tart was perfect and I realized how much I missed western food. My lunch buddy had a sandwich and 2 coffees.  Altogether our bill was 16 000 Francs.
Even though I am writing this hours later, I realize how much food affects my state of mind.  The foods I naturally gravitate towards do not grow here and are imported.  They are expensive, and would kill any reasonable persons’ budget. I am going to have to find some kind of happy medium, between the affordability of local foods, and the splurge of imported ones.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Temporary housing in Abidjan

Looking for a place to live in Abidjan can be an exercise in frustration.  I've heard that leases can be hard to break, so there is no room for buyer's remorse. To try to not end up living somewhere I hated, I decided to find temporary housing first before moving into more permanent digs.
Luckily, I have a friend who came to pick me up at the airport (I landed at 4am) and let me crash with her and her parents.  She lives in Riviera 3, an affluent suburb walking distance from the American school.  It is a huge house in a really nice place, but for someone who doesn't know how to drive, it can feel isolated.  Taxis are expensive and it costs quite a bit to get to the city center.  Also traffic is a MAJOR issue.  I have spent every morning and many evenings sitting in snarled traffic.  So far, it's been bearable because I am commuting in an air-conditioned car and because I am not the one doing the driving.

Within days of landing, I decided to start looking for temporary housing in Zone 4 (where many expats live).  I knew it was going to cost an arm and a leg and I was mentally prepared to settle on something overpriced.  A real estate agent took me to 4 or 5 different places, and I think I got PTSD.  You see, the studios I visited were so expensive and so shoddily built, I am not sure I can un-see what I saw.  Every studio cost at least 500 000 Francs a month.  They were dark, poorly built, and tried to pass off hot plates as stoves.  One place was weird, and I couldn't quite figure out why until I noticed that there wasn't a right angle in the entire place.  In case you can't quite see what I am talking about in your mind's eye, think along the lines of a motel near a rest stop, then transpose it to West Africa.  Now, you're getting close.  It was so bad, I couldn't bring myself to take pictures...  
Because the housing Gods must have sensed my despair, I ended up finding someone looking for a room mate.  The place is far from ideal, but it's affordable, and it'll do until I can find something more permanent. 

ATMs in the Cash Economy

In Abidjan, cash is king and requests to pay by credit card are often met with a blank stare or a clerk helpfully offering to take euros or dollars.  If you have dollars or euros,  you're in luck: people will take them, gladly.  If you've run out of cash, you need to get to an ATM and that's where things get messy pretty quickly.

It turns out American cards don't have a security chip (la puce).  This is a royal pain because it means most Ivorian ATMs simply won't play ball with you.  You will put your card into the machine and enter your pin, only to have the machine say it can't give you money.  Since the message looks eerily similar to the message you'd get when your account is overdrawn, your first instinct will be to think you've run out of money.  Don't panic.  It's just the ATM.  You will just have to try you luck elsewhere and keep trying until you get cash.  I would love to give helpful hints on which ATMs have worked for me in the past, but I can't.  Ivorian ATMs are fickle and those that have worked for me once haven't necessarily worked the next time around.  Basically, you've been sucked into an ATM version of duck-duck goose.

So, what to do? Carry cash.  The thought of ending up somewhere, alone with not cash and no working ATM has struck fear in my heart, so much so that every time I find myself down to my last 10 000 Francs, I start feeling anxious.  You could also get an Ivorian bank account --haven't done that yet, so we'll see how that goes. 

Taxis in Abidjan Part 1

If you don't have a car in Abidjan, you will soon become intimately acquainted with taxis.  They come in three colors: red, green, and yellow.  I haven't quite figured out what they all stand for, in part because people keep giving me conflicting explanations, but when I do, I promise I'll share the info.

Most taxis in Abidjan are red peugeot or toyotas.  You'll see them driving through the city at break-neck speed trying to get as many fares from point A to point B as possible.  When they're empty and are looking for customers, they won't hesitate to honk at you.  I'll admit that I found the whole honking bit scary in the beginning, but I'm starting to get used to it.

Now, once you've found an empty taxi, you must tell the driver where you're going and haggle over how much you are going to spend to get there. 
These negotiations can take time, hence the man leaning on the taxi in the picture below...
There are 3 tricks to taking taxis and not getting ripped off:
  1. Knowing how much it should cost to get to where you're going and set the price before you get in the car.
  2. Not saying how much you're willing to pay before the driver says how much he wants.
  3. DO NOT use the meter in the cab.  You will not come out ahead.  I promise. 
If everything goes according to plan, you're now ready to hop in the cab and embark on a death defying ride to wherever you're going. More on that some other time...
Man negotiating his fare

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Welcome to AttiekeLand

When I heard I was moving to Abidjan, I figured I should look online and see what information was out there.  Turns out there wasn't much out there for English speakers.  It wasn't much better in French, with all kinds of contradictory accounts about things like traffic, cost of living and security.  Once I got here, I decided I would start blogging about my experiences in AttiekeLand.
Lunch on the Riviera