Friday, April 11, 2008

Up and down Benin

Benin is a tall, narrow country. Its skinny enough that as I headed out of the coastal capital this morning a sign said the road we were on leads to three different countries; Togo, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Nigeria is an hour or so east.

I was heading back up Benin after coming all the way down five days ago and both trips are worth a mention.

I balked at the six o’clock bus this morning and instead shot for the nine o’clock. A moto bike delivered me to the bus “station”—a parked bus on a side street—at 8:30am and we learned there was no nine o’clock. The next bus to Parakou would depart at noon. Not wanting to spend the whole day getting to northern Benin I looked for another option and found what the kids call a “bush-taxi.”

The seven-seat van had sheetrock strapped to the roof and gasoline piled onto the seats. There must have been 200 gallons of gas in those plastic yellow containers. It had been driven in from Nigeria where the gas is cheap and now it was heading up north.

I grabbed a roll of sweet bread for the road, indulged in a bowl of sweet millet and fried dough, and finally sat in the front passenger seat to head up to Parakou. We were waiting for a Nigerian to change money in the market and I sat there listening to Jill’s IPod, which works in one ear.

Eight-thirty became 9:30am and I got a little impatient. Just before 10am I got out of the van and said I needed to get going. The guy was getting customs forms for the sheetrock, I was told.

“He’ll be back in five minutes,” his friend said.

“I’ll wait ten and then I’m going,” I said.

Seven minutes later he returned but we still weren’t driving north so I pulled my bags out of the van and next thing I knew we were finally taking off.

There were two old women in the middle seats and a guy lying down in the back because all the foot space was taken by gas.

We left right at 10am and went steadily for 20 or 25 minutes before stopping, ironically, for gas. No one goes to gas stations in Benin. They just stop their car on the side of the road, which is almost literally lined with people selling gas their friend drove in from Nigeria.

We went steadily again for another 45 minutes before breaking down. The driver flipped up the console between us and there was the engine all hot and dirty. I grabbed a Coke down the street and asked to use the toilette. I was shown to a room that smelled strongly of ammonia and didn’t have a hole. It was quite confusing.

By noon we were back on the road and by 12:45 we were broken down again. It didn’t feel like we were stopped for the next hour and a half but in fact we were. I had a small, lousy papaya and a fine coconut for lunch. It’s tacky to mention they were $.22 each but they were.

We drove for two solid hours after that but I was sleeping until we pulled over again. It was just after 4pm, nearly eight hours after I took my seat for the five-hour trip.

But we got going again after that and the driver said in his passable English that if we made it to Parakou he was getting that overheating part of the engine replaced for a third time.

We got into town exactly 12 hours after I bought that sweetbread and I went ahead and got a $30 room in the hotel Lonely Planet recommends. It’s a “fine hotel” as the man at the desk promised and my room even has a patio with the air conditioner from another room jutting out. It would be another $25 to condition the air of my room so I just opened the door to the cool hallway to let some of that air in. It’s been interesting to consider tonight that I may not need to stay in the cheapest places all the time now and its unlikely I’ll meet travelers wherever I stay anyway.


I’ll now quickly tell you how I rode from Burkina Faso to Benin five days ago. The nice bus line’s weekly departure was sold out so I went for a second rate outfit and turned up at 4:30am for the 5am bus. We left at 6am which almost seemed like leaving early and I had a great window seat just behind the driver.

The key difference between the “nice” bus and ours is that the nice bus has four seats across and ours had five. The width of the seats was significantly less than the widths of our shoulders so we couldn’t all sit up at once. The three of us in seats 4, 5, and 6 worked as a team, with the guy in the middle leaning forward most of the time, which was quite nice of him. The only other place I remember a five-across bus was in India but that ride was only three hours.

We made it to the Burkina/Benin border in short order and they took all our passports and we waited under a tree where people tried to sell us stuff to eat. Then they called out our names so we could retrieve our passports or ID card. I saw the guard had an American passport and walked up to grab it before he said my name.

“How did you know it was you,” he said with a laugh, surveying the crowd of non-Caucasian faces.

We never broke down or drove at a reasonable speed. We did stop every couple hours so everyone could pee in the field or grab some food. We lost an hour at the border so it was only 15 hours on the bus to Benin even though we left at 6am and arrived at 10pm.

You can cover big distances here with an alarm clock, coolant, and good humor.