Archive for April, 2006

Paris in the the Spring

April 13th, 2006 11:46 pm by dave from here

Our week here is almost over. Despite Yahoo’s consistent prediction of rain and showers, it has been delightfully partly cloudy, and not all that cold. (Yahoo has been spot-on with its predictions of rain at home, I hear.) Here’s what we’ve done so far.

April 9

As previously mentioned, we arrived at our hotel before we could check into our room, so we had to deposit the luggage and walk around for a few hours. When we returned, we took a nap, and discovered that our laptop worked in our room. We wrote up the several previous days in Benin, and then began to research Nearby Restaurants Open On Sunday. The one we found, Atelier de Joel Robuchon, turned out to be quite wonderful. I didn’t suppose we’d actually be able to eat there — I assumed we’d just stop in and try to get a reservation later in the week. But they had a large bar for walk-ins, with nice seats, and we sat down right away.

Apparently the restaurant was one of a trend in Paris of “casual restaurants opened by three-star chefs”. Just because it was casual didn’t mean it wasn’t expensive, or simple; it was inspired somewhat by the “molecular cuisine” movement. The 98-euro “discovery menu” of nine little tastes (each of which we split in half, as usual), started out with a whitish foie gras mousse, with a little red layer of port reduction gel, which you could see in the translucent cup from the side, but not the top. There were a few other salady things including asparagus and crab; a couple meaty things like salmon, and for the one choice on the menu, I chose lamb instead of cow brains, which I think I overheard later they’re well known for; and a couple desserty things, including chocolate. Ray ordered a few other things, and the waiter recommended some wines by the glass which were decent but not incredible. In all, the meal was a fun welcome to Paris.

April 10

One of the main reasons we decided to spend a week in Paris after this trip to Africa is that our friend Harvey was here, seeing the Wagner Ring cycle of operas, plus a couple of other random operas here and there. When we got in touch with him Sunday, he was too worn out from museums, so we hooked up Monday morning and continued deciding where to eat the rest of the week. Only one of the places we picked was open on Monday, and they could accommodate us for lunch. It was a bistro near the Eiffel Tower called d’Chez Eux which represents the Pyrenees region of France. The prix fixe lunch included a choice of the “salad chariot” (any mix of about eleven salads) or an assortment of about eight slices of various sausages; one of about five main courses; and the dessert chariot (a mix of about five desserts, including the house cake made with meringue). Yum.

Ray and everybody else who went to Cal Tech since the onset of amplified music for consumers remembers the overture to Act III of Die Walküre, since it was used to wake people up at Tech at 6 AM in finals week, and also when Techers were on the moon, and who knows when else. In 1968 it seemed like the tradition had been in place forever; but when you are 16 it seems that everything has been in place forever, such as the idea that personal liberty and democratic participation were always increasing, and except for things that were brand new, like sex. However, I now realize that amplified music in the home was at that time somewhat younger than the World Wide Web is in 2006 — in fact I can remember when we got our HiFi, and i’ve mentioned about the Victrola on the high shelf. So, when did people start playing The Ride? Any comments from any slightly older alumni?

It seemed to me that after all of that, I ought to try to observe The Ride in vivo. So we decided to see if there were any other tickets available for that night’s opera. The box office lady identified two separate 20-euro seats “you can hear but you can’t see”, and two separate 200-euro seats, in the section right in front of the stage. We left.

We crossed onto Ile de la Cite to see the stained glass windows, in the chapel next to the Law Courts, that a couple on the desert camping trip told us about. The Palais de Justice is a large complex, containing Saint Chappelle, a chapel basically made out of stained glass, which costs 8 euro to get into; and many other offices and courts, which you can get in for free and wander around in. We were initially under the impression that the glass was in the Law Courts themselves, which caused us to stand in the nonexistent line for that, rather than the 45 minute line for the paid attraction. You should make this mistake, too. Once you get past the metal detectors, the 45 minute line and the 2 minute line converge. (You still have to pay for the chapel, but that happens later.) The chapel is stunning and I’m really glad Harvey brought his binoculars because the detail on the high-up windows is quite incredible, especially when the sun is shining.

We walked through the Concergerie, home of a former prison for people waiting to be guillotined, and then back to the Opera to see if anything had changed. The 20-euro tickets were gone, but the main change was that now there were lots of people standing out in front trying to sell their tickets on account of Placido Domingo having cancelled and Siegmund having no particular voice. There was a woman selling a single 90-euro ticket, so we bought that for Ray, and I spent the evening walking around the Marais checking it out, and having just the tiniest snack since I was so full from lunch.

The Opera was staged by Robert Wilson, which means that where you have always imagined Valkyries thundering up to Valhalla with the bodies of the fallen heroes, in 9/8 time, instead there are 8 tall lean figures in cylindrical hats shuffling onto stage in the style of a Noh play through knee-deep fog machine fog, in 9/8 time. The libretto and music remained as written, though not as loud. Hoj-to-ho!

April 11

Tuesday we had lunch with Atau Tanaka, a researcher at a little Sony computer science laboratory tucked away in a little residential street. He showed us around and described the various pieces of non-product-driven AI research they’re doing there, including what he’s working on. He’s one of two music researchers in their team of seven.

He suggested a few things to see in the neighborhood where he lives, most importantly an Algerian pastry shop which had an intimidatingly large selection. Fortunately the adjoining tea room had a somewhat more restrained platter from which we could pick a few delightful little pieces to have with some mint tea. Then we walked around the area, and saw a part of Paris that hadn’t been gentrified yet, ending with a canal where some people were shooting a scene in what was probably someone’s student film project.

After lots of walking around, we just went to the restaurant five steps away from the hotel front door. It was early and we got to sit down without a reservation, but it filled up within a half hour or so. One guy juggled all of the dozen or so tables, and kept them all running pretty smoothly. For being randomly picked with no reviews or anything, it was quite nice.

April 12

Wednesday Harvey suggested going to Musee d’Orsay, and we met there when it opened. We bought Museum Passes. The assumption is that you save money by going to as many museums as you can, though it turns out you have to go to a lot to make that really happen. The real benefit is that you don’t have to stand in any lines to buy tickets, and you can go right in everywhere.

Musee d’Orsay is the major Impressionist (and pre- and post-) museum in Paris. It contains works basically from the nineteenth century. I’d gone to Jeu de Paume in 1978, the year they decided to turn Orsay into a museum. We were last in Paris in 1987, the year after Musee d’Orsay opened, but didn’t really know about it and didn’t have much time in Paris anyway. I’m glad Harvey pointed it out, since it’s a really nice place.

It used to be a train station — going into the main hall you see the typical curved ceiling of a late 19th century European station. The architecture project to make it a museum did a great job of preserving girders and old details here and there, including a major clock on the inside, and two on the outside.

The ground floor is mostly pre-Impressionist; the top floor has all the Impressionist masters like Monet, Manet, Seurat, and Van Gogh; and the middle floor has various other exhibits. Walking around the ground floor was quite relaxed and interesting. As soon as we got to the top, we were beseiged by huge numbers of Easter Week tourists who had made a beeline for the big names, and it was hard to walk through the rooms, much less see anything. After those rooms, though, the crowd thinned, and there were lots of interesting things, especially some pastels by Redon and Levy in a darkened room to preserve their color. I especially liked this one. On the middle floor there was some impossibly great furniture.

Harvey also found what may well be the world’s gayest painting, L’Ecole de Platon by one Jean Delville. It shows Christ as a pedophile — well, ephebophile if you want to split hairs, which there are remarkably few of once you get past Christ’s beard — surrounded by his fawning naked boy-apostles. Somebody made him rename it for exhibition but nobody made him lose the blooming wisteria. Or the albino peacock.

There are also some straight paintings in the Orsay, especially l’Origine Du Monde by Courbet.

I made a late lunch reservation at Mon Vieil Ami on Ile St-Louis. It was a small bistro with several good choices for lunch. Ray had roll-mops, then rabbit; I had a salad atop vegetables in broth, then a piece of fish on artichokes. The place is so proud of its vegetables it lists them all first in the menu descriptions, even though the amount of meat and starch they serve is normal. My dessert was pretty special, a base of rice pudding, topped with a lime-yogurt sorbet, surrounded by pears poached in wine. Ray had a yummy totally simple chocolate tart. The bites of Harvey’s pate en croute, duck and cassis couscous, and apple crumble with green apple sorbet were good too.

Harvey went home to rest up for the next Ring opera, Siegfried. We went back to the hotel because Ray had left his metro pass there, stopping in for a little while at a bookstore consisting entirely of photography books. We then continued to harvest value from our museum passes by going to the Pompidou Center to see Movement of Images, an exhibit about film and art. There were lots of cute little movies playing all the way down the main hallway, and it was especially nice to see Home Stories, a movie by Mathias Muller we’d seen in a film festival and lost touch with. It contained six minutes of scene after scene of famous Hollywood actresses get the same scared or worried expression on their face, stepping up to a door, or flinging it open, turning a light on or off, etc. There was also an exhibition of strange erotic drawings of Hans Bellmann. We didn’t have time, or want to pay extra, to see the Los Angeles 1958-1988 exhibition.

Lunch had been nice, but we wanted to have just a little snack on the way home. The big streets only had brasseries, but we found a side street which must have been zoned restaurant-only. Having had lots of French food, we stopped in Yen, a nice-looking Japanese restaurant, and just ordered a few little things. The assorted hors d’oeuvres plate had about 10 tiny bites of things I still have no idea what they were, but they were all very good. For a Japanese place, it was very French. A bowl of soba was covered by sheets of seaweed, and topped with little pieces of scallop and buckwheat seeds. Black sesame and ginger scoops of ice cream were good too.

I suppose it must be the desert sand which has wrecked my camera. The “right” and “down” buttons don’t work any more. It was inconvenient not to be able to pan when inspecting a zoomed-in view of a picture I’d taken. It was a little more inconvenient not to be able to change the time zone. But it’s really annoying to discover that, after having used the “left” button to change the exposure compensation from -1 to -2, I can’t change it back. So now I’m only using it in “auto” mode (actually, Ray used it all day today at the Louvre.) It is nice that the museums generally let you take pictures (but not with flash, and not in crowded rooms). The Louvre had signs saying that all 35,000 of its displayed works are on its web site, which I haven’t had a chance to confirm.

April 13

Thursday Harvey didn’t have any operas, so we dedicated the day to the Louvre. We were going at vastly different speeds, so we just decided on times and places to meet from time to time, and did our own things. Ray and I saw Roman and Greek and French sculpture, bits of Flemish and Dutch painting, and some Mesopotamian artifacts. We all saw some excavations under the Louvre showing foundations of the medieval chateau it once was. We broke for lunch at the mockworthy food court nearby.

Even after the Spanish tapas at the food court, and the previous night’s Japanese snack, we’d had so much French food that we still weren’t ready to have more for dinner. Harvey had mentioned an intensely popular Vietnamese restaurant in his neighborhood, so we went there right after it opened. Within 10 minutes all the tables were full, and there were about 10 people waiting outside when we left. It was really good, and had lots of stuff we’d never seen in Vietnamese places in California, including pig feet in hot and sour soup in Hue style.

Out of Africa

April 9th, 2006 8:40 am by dave from here

April 7

Friday morning we asked the hotel for a taxi to Ouidah, a city about 40 km west which has a monument to slave history, and several voodoo sites. One arrived quickly, and drove us out there through morning rush hour traffic. The most exciting thing on the trip I saw was a guy holding a very large rat by the neck towards the traffic; I asked the driver “Agouti?” and he said “Yes!”. Agouti is translated in English as “grasscutter” and is a popular meat in West Africa.

The museum in Ouidah was quite interesting, with a guide who spoke barely passable English, old maps, models of the Portuguese and French forts, and various other slave and voodoo paraphernalia. It was interesting that they didn’t seem to blame the Americans — they seemed a little more upset at their own kings for exchanging 15 citizens for a cannon (10 men or 21 women).

The taxi driver insisted at stopping at the Temple of Pythons, a voodoo site with a room containing dozens of friendly pythons. The guide there said they let them go free, and people bring them back.

We drove down the Route des Esclaves (Road of Slaves) to the beach, where a large Point of No Return monument was being upgraded by being enclosed with some sort of wall. The wall was being built by men carrying concrete bricks on their heads from the beach. Not clear why the concrete blocks had been deposited on the beach instead of on the road; but it was good to know that since the demise of slavery the men carrying the concrete blocks on their heads had absolute economic liberty in deciding to spend their lives carrying concrete blocks on their heads instead of, say taking pictures of monuments to the obliterated practice of slavery.

After a short visit to the Sacred Forest, a voodoo site with several sculptures made for the Ouidah Festival in 1992, we returned to Cotonou. The driver dropped us off at the artisan center, where we negotiated to buy most of the items we failed to buy the previous day. We’re up from 30 kilos of luggage when we left to 51 (much of it in a big mask), and we bought a $3 spiffed-up shopping bag to help out, but there aren’t that many connections left, and we’ll hopefully get it all back OK.

We finally made it to Maquis le Pili-Pili. We were pretty much the first people there, at 7:15, but it had definitely filled up by around 9. The customer base of Pili-Pili all seemed to know each other. It crossed my mind that everyone in Cotonou who can afford to go there knows each other. There wasn’t any particular pattern to the tables; some seemed to be business dinners and others were obviously family celebrations with kids; but there was lots of shaking hands and hugging when a new group would come into the restaurant and visit the other people at the other tables before being seated.

It was probably the best African food we had on the trip: simple green salads; agouti with “vegetable sauce” (a sauce made with leaves, probably tomato and some starch, and a bit of crab) over rice dumplings we hadn’t seen elsewhere; and a largish fish which was most perfectly grilled ever, alongside manioc couscous and an oniony tomato sauce. Dessert was out of the question, we were so stuffed.

When we got back we asked the hotel if we could hang out in the room past checkout time, and they said we could stay there until 9 pm for an extra half-day of rent. That made Saturday seem much more feasible.

April 8

Saturday we called the taxi driver and asked him to take us to Ganvie, which the book, and he, had suggested. At 9 another taxi driver, who he’d phoned in turn, showed up to take us there.

Ganvie is a town built on stilts in the brackish lake north of Cotonou. From where the taxi drops you off, you have a choice of getting there on a boat with or without a motor. We chose without. There was an effort to put up a small sail, but not enough wind to do anything; it was paddling and poling that got us the 4 km or so to the village. It’s more Venetian than Venice — there are no walkways between houses or anything. To get water, you put pots in your pirogue, and pole it over to the water place. There’s a floating market. 30,000 people live there, and there are additional similar villages nearby. It was actually pretty fascinating. It was also interesting that the Ganvie culture didn’t like our beards — we’ve gotten lots of compliments all over the place, but the Ganvie people, women especially, almost universally were making “cut it off” gestures and frowns as we passed by.

The taxi driver dropped us off at another shop we’d intended to look at which had been closed for the inauguration. It seemed pretty jewelery- and decor-intensive, and it seemed unlikely we’d get anything until we realized that we are actually in the market for decor: there were drawer pulls that were kind of cute, and we were reminded that we’re in the middle of a kitchen remodeling project. As a way of using up a few more of our CFA notes before leaving, we bought a few of them. Who says they all have to match.

We stopped at a patisserie which was completely French except for the fresh papaya and mango atop our tart, and returned to the hotel where we checked out the swimming pool for the first time since Bamako. It was the warmest swimming pool I’ve ever been in, much like Caribbean ocean water.

A last meal at the hotel, which we hadn’t eaten at, was surprisingly quite good — smoked fish in “leaf sauce”, somewhat similar to the sauce the night before, and chicken in peanut sauce over plantains. We packed everything up, put all the hotel stuff on the credit card, the only place in all of West Africa we found which even accepts credit cards, and went to the airport.

Cotonou is unlikely to have direct flights to the United States any time soon. There was one guy manning the security checkpoint, ie watching people go through the metal detector, and seeing what the scanner picked up. I set off the metal detector, but he didn’t seem concerned. Ray took everything out of his vest to go through the detector unscathed, but the stuff he took out was never looked at by anyone. Another guy who went through the checkpoint passed a 2000-CFA note to the guard during a handshake; who knows what that was about. After security, there were two boarding areas. One was lit and had air conditioning, the other, whose doors were also wide open, was unlit, uncooled, and had doors wide open to the tarmac, which it would have been quite easy to get onto.

Air France is apparently quite unimpressed with the security there as well. They set up their own operation on the tarmac, and on the way to boarding the plane they hand inspected every piece of carry-on luggage and waved wands on everybody’s clothes to make sure they weren’t carrying whatever it is that wands detect. Dave gave the checkers some dates but there wasn’t any quid pro quo.

The lights didn’t work in the bathroom in the in-use boarding area, so people would leave the door open to let in a little light, but apparently not enough light to accurately aim, since the open door emitted quite an odor. The seats near the door were right next to an air conditioner, so we just kept closing the door. After a couple hours, we were on the plane, where we slept a tiny bit on the 11:30 pm – 6:30 am flight back to Paris.

It turned out there wasn’t any agricultural inspection coming into the EU so we have our remaining dates and date/peanut trail mix. There were a number of signs warning about grippe aviaire, the biggest threat since Swine Flu. How many of you remember Swine Flu? How about, “Whip Inflation Now”? Why is it that people have spent the last twenty years parodying “Just Say No” but “Whip Inflation Now” sank like a stone?

April 9

Now we’re in Paris, where we’ve taken a nap, and where we’re considering dinner options. The hotel seems pretty nice, centrally located, and with free WiFi Internet access in the rooms! So we should be pretty well connected for the rest of the week. The cell phone works again, but the hard part is hooking up with our friend who’s staying in his friend’s house, and doesn’t seem to be answering the phone. I hope we hook up soon…

Small Worlds

April 6th, 2006 10:43 pm by dave from here

I’m sitting in our hotel’s cyber cafe which is free!  It also lets us change the keyboard layout (though I may have unwittingly removed that capability somehow), and I’ve also discovered we can use Ray’s camera (but not mine) to move text to alien computers — I should have tried long ago.  The guy in the cube next to me is from Palo Alto, here visiting some Peace Corps friends.  Yesterday a guy in the hotel recognized us from having been in a restaurant in Agadez.  And another guy recognized Ray’s pants as being from Niger.  Anyway, some more recent history…

April 5 

Today we finished up our tour of Abomey and Wills hooked us up with a friend of his who drove us in his rickety old Peugeot taxi to Cotonou.   There were three others besides us in the taxi but at least we didn’t have to go looking for it.  Wills brought it to the hotel.  As usual, stops were made at the beginning of the trip for food and gas — in this case the food was some still-unknown brown substance formed into a 2-inch ball wrapped in a large leaf.  I don’t know if it was beans or fish or what.

We are now ensconced in the Hotel du Lac, a nice three to four star place whose most noticeable feature, to us, is hot water.  The last time we had hot water was in Niamey, nearly three weeks ago. 

In the late afternoon we went out walking around the parts of Cotonou near the hotel.  We crossed the “old bridge” the hotel is just across from downtown (Lonely Planet shows a “new bridge” further north, but there’s a “brand new bridge” which merges with the “old” one not on its map).  We failed to find an advertised Internet cafe, we succeeded in finding a garish red-and-white Catholic cathedral, and we found some stamps at the post office.  It had a little cybercafe, which didn’t allow US keyboard layouts (or using our own computer) so it wasn’t worth it to blog.  We did notice that there would be a 40% chance of rain on Thursday, and things should be sunny on Friday.  We decided to hang around Cotonou therefore on Thursday, and do a day trip to Ouidah on Friday.

Despite an impending week in Paris, we made the curious decision to eat at an actual French restaurant nearby, just to see what it would be like.  It was quite nice.  There were lots of amuses-bouche (a tiny quiche, a tiny pizza, a little mousse which was perhaps avocado, and a little spoonful of guacamole which definitely was).  There were hot little whole wheat rolls (after weeks of white bread).  We had a salad with a nice assortment of leaves and rock shrimp (which they substituted for smoked fish, which they were out of); slightly overcooked asparagus with “sauce mousseline”; 12 little stacks consisting each of a bay scallop, a piece of cooked candied ginger, and a piece of spinach, all in a little sea of mango sauce; and a duck leg confit with fried potatoes and some more nicely dressed lettuce.  For dessert we had “strawberry and mango soup”, which had ice cream floating in it and was delicious.

The guy outside the restaurant hailed two little motorcycles to take us back to the hotel, which appears to be the way to get around Cotonou as well.  It cost us 40 cents apiece.

April 6

In the morning, we submitted a bunch of laundry to our hotel, which has reasonable rates (but which has so far failed to deliver on their “speedy” service option for a pair of pants).  After hanging around all morning writing postcards, we set back out onto the streets, again on foot.  It seemed quite curious that everything was closed.  It turned out that today was the inauguration of Benin’s newest president, Thomas Yayi Boni, so no one was working.  We did find a place to change dollars, which had a TV showing a sash being placed over him by the old president at the precise moment we were there.  We went to a large market in which the Lonely Planet promised monkey testicles and other voodoo fetishes, but all we found were the equivalent of Home Depot, Kragen Auto Parts, and Wal-Mart.  We weren’t looking very hard.  The fabrics are amusement enough.

Another short moto ride took us to the Center for the Promotion of Artisans, which must have had 100 tiny shops.  In a marked deviation from the usual artisan/tourist schlock experience, they didn’t all have exactly the same stuff.  Or perhaps we are growing more sensitive to the differences between metalized and beaded wooden masks.  Even so, after 30 or 50 of them, they did begin to blur a little.  We found a few things we could agree on a price for, and there were a few that didn’t come down from the asking price enough for us to be interested:

“They bring the prices down pretty fast,” I said to a Pakistani (?) fellow traveler who was asking about a palm-wood lamp.

“Too fast,” he growled, implying that the asking prices were indefensible to anyone from a Bargaining Culture who didn’t have a tour bus honking impatiently outside.

We did get a t-shirt featuring the new president, and a couple of sample ballots (each candidate was pictured as well as named).  After a few hours of shopping, we walked to a nearby recommended restaurant which unfortunately wasn’t open yet (it was 5, it opened at 7), so we moto’d back to the hotel.

We hung out by the pool, drinking beer and water, and noticed that the power went out while we were there.  We saw some lights on elsewhere in the city so we supposed it was just the hotel, and felt smugly justified in our decision to eat somewhere else.  We got motos to take us there, and noticed that its power was out too.  Oops.

Fortunately, Africa has a good infrastructure for this sort of thing:  street food.  We wandered around a few blocks until we found a place with tables, chairs, and a big table with lots of pots.  We had some meat over rice, some gumbo over some kind of paste, and a little salad, and a beer, using our headlamps to see what we were eating.  As the motos dropped us off at our hotel, the power was back on, so instead of the contingency plan of cooling off in the swimming pool we’re cooling off in the air conditioning in the room.  Maybe we’ll try Maquis de Pili Pili, a “slightly upmarket African restaurant”, tomorrow night, after we get back from Ouidah inshallah.



April 6th, 2006 10:25 pm by dave from here

Rumors, or at least intense networking, have facilitated our travels to Benin.  I’m glad the $1000 driver failed to show — the net effect is that we’ll have made the same trip for less than $200 or so by the time we get to Cotonou.  This, by the way, is about eight or fifteen times what it would cost somebody who was traveling in the African fashion rather than with European notions about time and personal space and the absence of live chickens therefrom, but we’re just spoiled.  The first segment, about half the overall distance for about $40, was on a bus from Agadez.  This was on the highest rated bus company, SNTV; whose marketing position is that on their bus line, people do not stand in the aisles.  And they weren’t.  When we left Agadez.  People were all seated like sardines — there were five seats across.  Sardines don’t sit, properly speaking.  I wonder about sitting sometimes.  Do you think we miss that 90 degree angle between back and legs that we had before we walked upright?

Before we got to Dosso, our first stop for the night according to the Modified Souleymane Plan, we passed an SNTV bus broken down on the side of the road.  With brand loyalty, SNTV stuffed its passengers and luggage into ours.  They had to stand.  A competing company also pulled over and took some.

Steve, one of the the tour organizers, wasn’t on the charter plane to Paris with the other guests, and he had some tortured Priceline-like multisegment flight back to London from Niamey on which he’d saved 60% — it was fun to hang out with him on the bus as well.  He has been to the South Pole and the Titanic’s graveyard and a lot of other places hostile to human habitation and the fact that he’s still alive is the starting point for many travel stories.

Once we got to Dosso, we found that things were in some ways less convenient than they would have been had we driven the extra six hours round trip to Niamey.  (On the other hand, there was time to get a good night’s sleep in Dosso). From Niamey, there is said to be a formalized autogare in which one finds “Peugeot taxis” which take up to four people comfortably in a car (and more usually five or six).  From Dosso to the town on the Niger side of the border, there only seemed to be horribly crowded minibuses (with like 25 people).  We made a reservation on one.  But my questions about the existence of “Peugeot taxis” or “petite voitures” apparently got spread, rumor-wise, around town, and the hotel guy knocked on the door and said there was one available.  I offered $18, he wanted $75, and I offered $48 as my final offer.  He didn’t seem too interested, but someone else assured me the price was OK. 

We waited by his car, he went off to eat breakfast, and soon a local taxi with a young driver showed up and we were on the road.  I wrote off the $9 for the minibus, since the $48 took us in a private small car, just us, to Malanville, the town on the Benin side of the border, where it was said one could find a “Peugeot taxi” to points south.  We were a little miffed that the driver failed to stop so we could get our passports stamped entering Benin (no one pulled him over or anything), but I was impressed that he parked right next to a recent-model very comfortable Peugeot, ready to take us to Cotonou (we actually wanted to go about 80% of the way to Abomey).  The driver wanted a lot of money ($155), and seemed reluctant to accept euros, but after several stops (gas, an attempt to change euros at an insulting rate of 600, etc.) we were headed fast down the highway, 120 kph, towards Abomey.  It was like being in California again.  Except for the military checkpoints; but that will happen soon enough.  We stopped at ECObank’s Parakou branch (open until 5 pm Monday – Friday:  try that in the US!) and changed the euros at the official 655.957 rate (CFAs are tied to euros at that rate).  Same as in Bamako.  While I was changing the money, Ray was watching a huge flock of bats fly around in the daytime.  He took pictures.

It occurs to me that the reason the driver from Dosso didn’t want to stop at immigration is maybe that he shouldn’t have been there.  I haven’t ever been through a border so laid back that they don’t even stop you.  On the other hand, at least three separate times on the way to Abomey, police looked at our passports, so maybe it’s a distributed operation.

We stopped at a little restaurant in Parakou for a late lunch (5 pm).  The sauce we had on some maize paste in Dosso had been a little spicier than anywhere in Mali or Niger, where everything was actually pretty bland.  The gumbo we had on some other paste in Parakou was delightfully spicy — this is a good trend which I hope continues through the week in Benin. 

Our driver smiled once, when Dave told him we were back in the spice zone.  He hadn’t smiled at all until we had changed the 100 Euros and paid him 65000 CFAs.  That 5000 CFAs is probably his salary.  I wonder if he’s been aware all this time how badly that fat arbitrageur in Malanville has been robbing him?  People who use check cashing services and payday loans and convenience money changers are robbed the whole world around.

I won’t be surprised to see rain — the scenery is actually starting to get lush compared with the pervasive dryness and desert of the Saraha and the Sahel in Mali and Niger.  And it seems like we have re-entered the fish zone, only 100 km from the Atlantic Ocean, so it was our first fish tonight for about three weeks.  Afterwards we had three of the twenty or so mangos we bought on the street while stopping for gas — we did the computation and noticed that they were selling for a penny apiece.  (25 CFA for 5 mangos).  After selecting 5 mangos, I gave a 100 CFA piece, and instead of giving change, they gave us more mangos — we probably only got 13 instead of 20, but that’s all that fit in the ubiquitous black plastic bag that in some places adorns trees like a flock of birds.  It’s also nice to notice that in Benin, which is not in the bottom 10 poorest countries like the last three we’ve been in, we have not once heard the word “cadeau” — kids gather around and laugh and wave, but no one has asked for anything.  Very nice.

Other new things about Benin:

  • More different styles of granary.  For this whole trip, about every 150 km a style of granary fades out and another one fades in — round, tall, thatched hat, metal roof, clay, straw — you could probably tell where you were just by looking at a village.  In Thiebele women can’t look in granaries because it means they are looking for someone else’s “seed”.
  • Short-legged goats.
  • Big glass flasks holding gasoline.  Not just used wine and beer bottles any more — they look like Gallo jug wine containers but even more jeroboamly.
  • Real clouds.
  • Real forests, starting south of Kandi.  Of course nothing primeval, but dense trash trees actively harvested for wood.
  • People wearing yellow and green windbreakers.  I haven’t the fashion sense to begin to describe African costumes.  You have to come here to see the effect.  About two out of three men wear drab Western-style clothes but the other third just glow in psychedelic colors.  Women are almost entirely iridescent.  This is China’s contribution to the world, affordable fabrics in bright bright colors.
  • Lines on roads.  Roads you can drive 130 on because they are banked and laid out for that purpose.  Our driver to Abomey knew the road extremely well.  Five curves out of six he would take at 120, but on the sixth he’d slow way down, and when you got around that curve you would find a pothole sequence across the road that couldn’t be avoided at high speed.  The taxi’s horn was a train horn sample.  He used it like an Indian: an ongoing reminder of where he was.  It seemed he slowed down a little after passing the first overturned truck on the trip.
  • New pretty lizards.

April 4

The remarkable thing about Africa, even when you get out of the begging-only zone once again, is how little things cost that you need and how much things cost that you don’t need.  Dinner today was $5 for three people.  Yet, we were socially goaded into paying 10000 CFA (about $18) to some useless voudoun patriarch who nattered on about nothing in particular, and in the manner of religious leaders everywhere, had no particular insight or interest in where you were coming from, but only the confidence in his own ability to make you think he talked to God.

Our hotel, the Auberge Guedevy on the outskirts of town to the north (the outskirts appear to start about 700 meters north of the downtown area: where do they put 100,000 people in Abomey, which is the stated population?), hooked us up with a guide who spoke French and had an 80cc motorbike with top speeds up to 45 kph holding a big African and two randomly overweight Americans.  He drove us around the ruins of Abomey. 

The Danxomé (Dahomey in English, the “n” is nasal and French) kings ruled from 1600-1900, with a suitable number of fratricidal interregna, and each one increased his territory by trading slaves to the Portuguese for cannon (15 humans for each cannon) and thereby increasing the number of slaves available for trade.  Like most pyramid schemes it had to end; after the mid-19th century nobody with cannons was interested in buying slaves any more since Industrial Capitalism had proved more effective at controlling labor than any previous governing form.  The Danxomé were killing too many French missionaries, as celebrated in the murals that adorn the palace ruins, and the French needed the rain forest for Wage Work in the form of cocoa plantations and stuff, so they terminated the arrangement in much the same way as Bush terminated Saddam’s suzerainty when it grew inconvenient.  The French period of direct government lasted 60 years, longer than the Americans will bother to govern Iraq directly. 

Benin has a multiparty system now.  There are ads for candidates all over the place.

Anyway, the four square kilometers of palaces were mostly destroyed.  They were built of mud, and that requires continuous maintenance.  The first palace wall I saw I thought was a termite mound.  The local termites have very short mounds however, built around tree stumps and not freestanding.  I suppose they are very proud of their warlike heritage, too.

The palace ruins are occupied for the most part by gardens and small factories and other bits of village life, in the style of Ayutthaya and Pagan and the old Petra (though Petra’s inhabitants were evicted and I hear that Pagan is mostly tourist oriented now too).  The most complete remains have been made into a museum where you aren’t allowed to take photos and post cards don’t show the goriest bas-relief murals of Danxomé conquest.  I hope some Internet savvy person with a spy camera has documented the sodomy with a foreign object mural.

There are other sites around town, voudoun temples, statues and monuments and less well-preserved palaces and a silly village that continues to practice traditional blacksmithing in the style of Colonial Williamsburg or a Rennaisance Faire.  They were off for the evening but attempted to fire up a forge when we showed up.  Wills, the man with the motorbike, took us touring until the sun went down.  For that we paid him 25000 CFA.  By his reaction, it was maybe more than he’s used to.  I don’t care about “overpaying” actual humans who work hard; he was with us continuously for 9 hours, speaking French carefully and slowly, and fielding who knows how many catcalls in Fon language about Papa Noel being on the back of his bike.

But word must have got around that we were Posh, the next morning some twerp asked us to pay 20,000 CFA to look at an abandoned moat that he was car park guy for.  I turned my back on him.  (“Car Park” is a bit upmarket; it’s a place in the woods where a man will “watch your 80cc motorbike” for a few hundred CFA, just like he will in Manhattan.  It’s a bit formalized in Abomey; some walls advertise the watched space and give price guidelines.)

Stuck in Agadez

April 1st, 2006 10:37 am by dave from here

We’re still in Agadez, back once again at our favorite cyber cafe, because the promised driver to take us to Cotonou, Benin flaked out, even though he was promised an insane amount of money. So tomorrow we’ll take the bus to Dosso, and from there, a pair of “taxis” to Abomey, Benin. The taxis have four seats, and if we don’t want to wait for the other two to fill up we can buy them as well.

We bought a few more souvenirs today, most significantly some typical African shirts. Well, there are a lot of types of shirt here, but the type closest to something you would wear in the US is a shirt made with bright fabric in the pattern of an ordinary shirt, not, e.g., the ones that hang all the way to the ground so that you can go modestly to the bathroom in the desert.

The way this is done is to buy fabric, and then take it to a nearby tailor who slices and dices it into a shirt within hours. Three shirts being put together this way were agreed upon for 8000 CFA.

It’s surprising how close we are, in Room 9 of Hotel de l’Aïr, to Africa. In the street outside the hotel, all is tourism — well, no credit cards or ATMs and it’s hard to get a dial tone and European cell phones don’t work, or at least ours doesn’t, but they understand things well enough to invite you in for tea and talk for an hour in French as twisted coming from the direction of Fulani-Wdaabe as ours is coming from English. At the end of it, you walk out with a couple of place mats and they have a twenty dollar bill.

300 meters away, at the Grande Marché, it’s different.

We’re getting low on CFA currency, so we offered the tailor a deal with Euros which would have left him with more value, but he didn’t really understand the 10 Euro note we offered him with a 2 Euro and 1 Euro coin (8528 CFA equivalent). He may have doubted their reality or legitimacy (He didn’t speak French, I don’t know what he spoke, though he had enough Arabic to say Salaam to his passing friends, of which there were lots). Especially the coins seemed strange to him.

I’m not sure what happened in the ensuing discussion between a half a dozen of his neighboring shopkeepers, but we ended up paying 8000 CFA. I think the youngest person was in favor of taking the Euros. Early adopters and all.

The cyber cafe guy says we can change Euros for CFAs (“see-fahs”) at the gas station next door, so maybe that’ll make things easier for our taxi rides. The Cyber cafe is back in touristia, not Africa, though it is popular with several locals as well. The youngest geek reminds me of Nelson Mandela at 16. He showed me his GPS map of Niamey.

Now it’s off to dinner, and to bed early to get to the bus station before 6:30.