Small Worlds

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.