While $20 weekend return flights across Europe have rather taken the frills out of most air travel, there’s still a strong sense of glamour when you head to the airport in Abidjan. Inside the clean modern building, the crowds assemble to welcome the evening’s new arrivals. The airport here is fantastic for people watching; it’s one of the few places where you can see Abidjan’s elite out in force. And they often make the effort – dressing up in all their finery, for this is a place to see and be seen. And due to a combination of the culture of welcoming family members, the treat of an airport trip, and the fact that few rich people in Ivory Coast live anywhere but Abidjan, you always get a good crowd. I tend to feel quite sorry for the passengers – as they come out from behind the exit screen – frequently exhausted – they fall under the gaze of the waiting multitude, as they search for a contact/friend and fully aware that everyone is watching them as if they’re on a catwalk, but with a haggard long-haul appearance.
You get all sorts. There’s usually a religious lot waiting for someone form their community. A few solitary girls with long hair-extensions and short skirts waiting for what turns out to be a diminutive old European who eventual gets swept up in the arms. Actually last night there seemed to be a lot of girlfriends/wives coming back from France for their white husband. You hear stories that the girlfriends don’t always return as planned after the chance of such a trip.
At the other end of things, I do feel sorry for those who arrive and find no-one waiting for them. Normal perhaps in Europe, but here given the warmth of many such reunions I pity those not welcomed by wives, aunts, uncles, drivers, house helps and children. The big men who arrive quickly get relieved of their baggage and parcels (how do they get a way with such over-sized suitcases?). At last they’re back to the land where bags are carried for you, doors opened and cars driven.
Things have improved considerably in recent years with regards to security, but there are still issues. Ivorians have a particular approach to rules – they’re not black and white things but always up for discussion – anything else seems cold and hard (cf mechant). So, it’s not a question of i) you’re allowed in this section, ii) you’re not. It’s that, “yes, I don’t have a badge, but… (cue long explanatory story and ensuing discussion). I guess they’ll get there in the end, but after spending millions on airport security machines, the big stumbling block to airport certification for direct US flights remains the flexibility of security for protected areas.
The final thing I like about Abidjan and I suppose other African airports I know, is that with a national elite that isn’t huge and at most one Paris-bound flight a day, you usually spot a few friends and contacts either coming off the plane or waiting in the arrivals hall. Perhaps if I lived closer the airport, it might be a cool place to spend a few hours every now and again just for the fun of it, though the airport is about the only place in the city where you pay for parking.
Some negatives could be improved for those judging the country by first impressions. The taxi rank when you exit the airport is a real rip-off (you should never pay more than 5,000 cfa to get anywhere). The drivers can be quite aggressive. If you pick up a taxi that’s stopped in the drop off zone, you’ll get a normal price, but the driver will pay a small bribe to the gendarme and you get your first sign of corruption three metres from the airport exit. Finally, you can usually spot some naked guy wandering aimlessly about in the first kilometre which probably detracts from the traditional Akwaba (welcome).