Howdy, folks. I am sitting in an internet cafe in the fine city of Lome. I just remembered how to change this horrible French keyboard into one that converts key entries into the right Anglo-American characters. So I can now write this post in under three hours!
I've spent the past few days in Togo and Benin, possible two of the least-known countries in West Africa. This might be because of their size; they're both small, slender countries wedged in between the more famous states of Ghana and Nigeria. In Togo's case, it might be because the country's long-time political instability and occasional rioting mean that few tourists come here.
I started my trip East from Ghana a few days ago. I didn't want to get stuck in Togo any longer than I had to, so I made a plan to get to Porto Novo, the quiet capital of Benin, by nightfall. Basically a few things had to go right: I needed to cross two borders, get the right visas, and find transport between cities. Above all, I wanted to avoid running out of daylight and having to find a place to stay in Lome or Cotonou at night -- both cities aren't exactly known for being safe. But then neither again are Togolese roads after dark... I'm sure that Togo holds the world record for unsafe passing on blind turns.
In the end, I made it to Porto Novo just after nightfall. The trip was pretty uneventful, but a little grueling. I had read about the 'sept places' (seven-seaters) that the Togolese use for shared transport and assumed that they were the same Peugeot saloon cars with seven seats that they use in Senegal. Wrong: here, they have normal mid-size sedans that they pack with seven people (four in the back, two in the passenger seat, plus the driver). It can be a moderately to highly uncomfortable experience depending on whom you're sharing with. One or two large African ladies really makes you wish for a different form of transport. But I was thrilled to see a slender Tuareg-looking guy climb in next to me coming back to Lome!
Still, the so-called 'sept places' are nothing compared to using zemi-johns (or zems for short); they are cheap Chinese moto-taxis that do all the short-haul trips in Togo and Benin. Unlike in Rwanda, the ones here aren't closely regulated and the drivers don't give customers crash helmets. I've had to take four so far, and each time has been hair-rising: zipping and weaving through crazy traffic, through smoke and dust, or often at night. After skidding around sandy roads last night, I think I'm going to try and avoid them from now on.
I was in Porto Novo for two nights and didn't really do much. I did, however, see the 'Musee da Silva,' a museum dedicated to Porto Novo's Afro-Brazilian history and community. I have a passing interest in Brazil, coming from an amazing Spring Break in Rio two years ago and from my girlfriend, a Brazilophile who spent a year there (http://teffsinbrasil.blogspot.com). I learned that many of the capital's buildings (churches, mosques, town halls) are directly based on cities on the Brazilian coast (such as Bahia). There are also a lot of people of Brazilian descent living in Porto, which explains the Cape Verdean-looking people I saw around town.
I liked Porto Novo, and I planned to stay in Benin for a few days at least. But it was not to be. I went to the Directorate of Emigration and Immigration in Cotonou to get my visa extended yesterday morning, and met probably one of the rudest women I've ever encountered in an official capacity. At first, she refused to process my visa because the office was going to close for lunch in fifteen minutes, even though no one was around. After she finally agreed to help me, she insisted that I list the phone number and room number of the hotel I stayed in the night before. I told her that I thought it was room 12, but that I wasn't totally sure. She told me that if she called the next day and I hadn't been staying in exactly that room, I wouldn't be able to get my passport back unless I paid a "sanction" of indeterminate amount. She said I would need to travel back to Porto Novo to confirm if I wanted to get the visa. I'm sure that she was looking for a bribe, but unfortunately for her, I don't pay bribes.
My failure to get the visa meant that I had 6 hours to leave Benin or else my transit visa would run out and I would really be over a barrel. I decided to try and squeeze in one last tourist site first: Ganvie, one of Benin's best attractions. Ganvie is a large village, home to over 45,000 people, built almost entirely on stilts. The town was established in 1717, when a local tribe fled from the Dahomeyans (another, stronger tribe) that wanted to capture them and sell them as slaves to the Europeans. Because the Dahomeyans were forbidden by custom from entering the lake, the strategy worked well and Ganvie sprung up from there.
I joined a group tour of eight older French travelers who were going to Ganvie by motor-pirogue. It's a 20-minute boat ride to the village, and the route passes through a number of the fish farms that the locals make out of local vegetation. Their fishing technique involves staking brush in the shallow lake bed and then slowly creating giant pens using netting to catch the fish that come to eat the decomposing plants. Once the fish are trapped, the fishermen can collect them fairly easily. Some fishermen:
Ganvie, despite getting some regular tourist traffic, is about as traditional and interesting a place as you could hope for. About 90% of the houses and buildings are built on stilts sunk into the mud, and the remaining ones are built on artificially-created ground made out of clay. There are houses, markets, churches, shops and even a nightclub built this way. Many merchants and service-people have their wares loaded in a pirogue and travel from house to house trying to sell. I even saw a floating pharmacy laden with cheap medicines from Nigeria. Basially, everyone older than 5 years has access to a dugout canoe (or pirogue) and can easily use it to get between buildings.
The most amusing thing about the town was the names people gave to different waterways. Locals joke that Ganvie is the Venice of Africa. There is a stretch of quiet water called Lovers' Lane where teenagers dress up nicely and cruise down the strip on their pirogues looking for a little action or flirtation. In keeping with the Venetian theme, there is even a part of town known as the Rialto -- really, it's a partly-constructed cement bridge spanning a waterway between two neighborhoods.
After getting back from Ganvie, I was anxious to cross the Togolese border before my visa expired. I made it just in time, shortly before the main post closed for the day. The Togolese border officials let me through without any hassle or even visa charges, probably to avoid missing the Egypt-Cameroon game.
I made it to Lome and found my hostel quite late last night. I'm about to go to the Market of the Fetishers -- folks who sell eye of newt, python skins and other vodou-style indispensables. More on all that later!