In Cote D’Ivoire, a tiny country in West Africa, there is a lot of love to go around.
I experienced it firsthand, when I traveled to Abidjan, the biggest city, and Assinie, a sleepy beach resort, to be with my friend, Sam, and his large extended family.
The day I landed, I was whisked from the airport to the family home by Abraham, the family chauffeur with the kindest face I have seen. When we finally reached (Abidjan traffic is reaching Mumbai standards of choking), I was met with three kisses by every member of the family, from a 3-year old child to the elderly matriarch and everyone in between. Americans like to do one, the French do two, but these are not enough for the Ivoirians. Three kisses, it seems, are needed in order to make a person feel seen, acknowledged, and loved. Or, perhaps, this is how much they need to express their feelings to full satisfaction.
I was delighted. Coming from the Indian culture that is quite conservative and generally low on physicality, this was indeed very agreeable. One of the relatives was so good at it, he made me feel like I was the most special thing on earth every time we greeted each other. As with me, it was with others: an exuberant grin lit up his face each time and spread the same cheer on those around.
And then there is the attention that is bestowed to one and all, young and old alike. Every so often, I heard individuals being called out, tenderly, with no other intent except to check in on how they were doing. It was like a roll call to make sure one of the clan hadn’t wandered off somewhere to no one’s notice. Except, this shout out was loaded with gentleness and care. It was like, how ARE you doing?, a genuine interest in you.
This was the case even with regular Ivoirians who walked past me, they called out “Bonjour”, waiting for the reciprocal greeting to be rendered. Civilised exchange still took place here, I noted.
As the week progressed, I found myself on the laguna at Maison D’Akoula in Assinie. Assinie is barely 2 hours outside of Abidjan, and yet, feels like it is in a different, idyllic realm. Things move more slowly here, the air is freer, the night sky more speckled with bright stars.
Sitting on my villa’s terrace at Maison D’Akoula, my gaze fell upon a two-person canoe that was approaching. The young men were engaged in deep conversation. As they neared, they looked towards me and called out.
“Bonjour, madame.” Bonjour, I said back.
One of them was munching on a sandwich, which he offered. “Vous voulez manger du pain?” he asked. Would you like some? I politely declined, and they went back to discussing whatever they had been discussing. A little camaraderie exchanged, friendliness released into the air.
They floated by. I got up from my chair and walked towards the ocean.
Palm trees lined the beach front, tall and short, all standing like silent witnesses from time immemorial. The fronds were fuller and more delicate than what we see in Asia, each leaf just a bit more sharply defined and stronger. As much as this landscape reminded me of Kerala, Goa and Sri Lanka, it had a distinct African feel to it. Like the men and women that walked below them, the palms stood a little more erect, a bit more stolid.
“So, what do you think about the Ivory Coast?” one of the family asked, sidling up beside me.
I reflected, watching a gaggle of children as they played around us, running, tumbling, laughing, as children do. One looked like an Ashanti princess, regal in her forehead, charcoal lined glistening eyes, and pert nose. Her brother stood in cultured quietness, speaking with full properness as royalty must. The youngest, a toddler, gave doleful looks as if to say it was not her fault she had come last to the family. There they were, with their cousins, each of them strong little souls proudly exuding an ancient majesty.
“Beautiful,” I responded, thinking of the children as much as the country. Everywhere I looked, there was a raw, timeless purity. As if the echoes from thousands of millenia were still pulsing through, unvarnished. This is, after all, where life began.
The waves crashed noisily. The Atlantic Ocean threw them forward, sending them to eagerly stretch inland, only to see them disintegrate and flow back. Full of vim as the ocean was, I could not help but think back to the darker times when humans were deeply hurt on these very waters. The ocean has seen many things. Shaking my head to dislodge the sadness that was falling over me, I saw in the distance a small fisherman’s boat, setting out onto these same waters. Deftly, the three fishermen rode the surf, bobbing up and down until they had cleared it and entered the calmer, wider watery plains. How differently the ocean served its masters today.
I sat down, digging my toes into the soft white sand. It felt cool, a welcome distraction from the morning sun that was starting to beat down.
“You came all they way from India? This is true friendship between you and Sam,” one of the family marvelled.
Friends like Sam are exceptional strokes of luck. These friendships feel like when two stars explode out of the same larger star and then, against all odds, find each other across the infinite universe. Even though we don’t see each other often and we live on separate continents, the bond is oblivious to the frailties of time and geography. He calls me his sister, he is my brother. And this being Africa, his whole family embraced me as their own.
Perhaps it’s Sam. Perhaps its Africa. There were many other friends that joined us in Abidjan and Assinie, friends who were also reuniting with members of the family after a long time. Bonds of the heart don’t get erased so easily.
The sun shone its afternoon brilliance, fighting against the inevitable impending descent.
“Hey, Archana,” Sam, called out, walking towards me from across the beach. “You doing okay?”
I smiled. Squinting up at him, I nodded. This was the happiest place on earth for me right then, right there.