Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Last Hurrah: Benin Part III

After a less than restive night sleep, we arose, had a quick breakfast, and made for the taxi station. The ride to the taxi station took some negotiation but we finally ended up there. Quickly, I found a taxi that would take us to Cotonou. While only 1,000 CFA per person, we sat four across in the back seat and one half of me sat on an uncomfortable metal bar. The girls crammed in the back seat where I later found out there was little air. Like the taxi the day before, this taxi was similarly dilapidated, requiring a literal running start as two guys pushed the car until the driver put it into gear.

Riding through Cotonou, we saw a city very different from any we had seen. While it was as poor as Lomé, there seemed to be a lot more life. The entire scene was visually rewarding. A plethora of motorcycle dealers, fewer sellers of the usual roadside items whom were less well stocked than their Ghanaian counterparts (indication of wealth), and far too many vehicles and motorcycles on the road at once. As the taxi slowly emptied out, we negotiated to be taken all the way to Porto Novo and our hotel. Approaching a toll booth, our driver ignored the line of vehicles and proceeded to cut in front of the bulk of the line. It turned out that this was common practice although the constant blare of horns reminded us that not everyone accepted this practice. Not long after exiting the toll, the taxi ran out of gas and the driver had to run down the street to find some. After restarting the car using wires instead of the key, the driver had someone push the car in order to get back into gear.

Upon our arrival after a long ride, we checked into the Hotel Songhai in Porto Novo. I have always been curious why no African nation has adopted this ancient name Songhai, after the ancient Songhai empire, as Ghana did with the ancient Ghanaian empire. After about ten minutes in the air conditioned goodness, my roommate and I left our other two travel mates to relax while we took the opportunity to visit a stilt village.

A large lagoon/lake sits behind Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin, and Porto Novo, the political capital. Home to endless fishermen and women, an entire village built on stilts, and numerous crab traps and fishing apparatus, we negotiated an expensive boat ride with the wrong people. While we got an extended tour of the marshland and talked the price down from 40,000 CFA to 18,000 CFA for the two of us, my roommate figured that not one of the people in the boat on the way back paid anywhere near that much.

Riding the boat was relaxing. I wonder if one can take the boat all the way to Cotonou. We rode through the swamp grass, stopping every now and then to clear the propeller of weeds or to get the motor working again. After passing numerous fishermen and women, we arrived at the stilt village. Since the rainy season has only just begun, the water was a few feet below the village’s level as there was a sandy bar below most of the homes. The Japanese development agency built outhouses some years which has no doubt helped water quality. At the village bank, several women loaded their day’s catch into our boat for the trip to the market. Most of the fisherwomen had what I hoped were their children as their first mates, helping them load the fish and then taking charge of bringing their small canoes home. I say hope as it is sadly not uncommon for people to purchase children as slaves to work in their fishing boats.

One last side note: While writing this in my hotel room, CNN is talking about human trafficking. I wonder if any of the children we saw fishing were slaves.

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