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.)