May 30, 2008

Five Journeys to Cotonou, Benin

Click to enlarge photos.

I went to Benin many times between 2003 and 2005—probably about five visits in total. Each time I went, I got more and more comfortable with French, my second language, and more and more comfortable with Francophone Africa, which is a different cultural experience on its own.

The first visit was the hardest. I traveled from Freetown, Sierra Leone, a former British settlement for freed slaves, and my first African country. Sierra Leone is part of the former British colonial empire in Africa, whereas Benin is part of the French side. The reason this fact is important is because it can be difficult to travel between countries from the different sides, even if they’re relatively close to each other.

For my trip, I had to go to Conakry (Guinea), then to Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) after a stopover in Mali, then finally on to Cotonou. Flying like this in Africa is not quite like going on Southwest Airlines through Midway or Las Vegas en route to Dallas. It’s more like going from bureaucracy to bureaucracy, and an adventure all of its own.

In the Conakry airport I was not allowed to proceed until I paid my first bribe of $10. I was pleased that I had bartered down from $25, but when I asked for a receipt (“J’ai besoin d’un reçu”) the airport guy laughed at me. Apparently you are not supposed to get receipts for bribes; I had no idea.

From the tarmac in Bamako, Mali, I watched as two dozen armed soldiers loaded gold onto the plane. Mali is a gold exporter, but why they were exporting to Côte d’Ivoire, I didn’t know. And finally in Abidjan, the last stop, I learned that my final connection to Cotonou was delayed at least 13 hours. Yes, that meant 13 hours hanging out in the transit lounge since I wasn’t allowed to enter the country. I boarded sometime around 4:00 a.m., flew the short distance to Cotonou, and went straight to meetings at 9:00 a.m. on the other side.

But anyway, I made it to Benin and had a nice trip. I went to villages, met government officials, tried not to make too many promises, and stayed in cheap guesthouses. I went back to Cotonou a couple times later, and then I lived there for about four months in 2004, before visiting one final time to check up on some projects before flying on to Europe in 2005.

Map of Benin

The Ex-Sheraton and the Fresh Chickens

Cotonou has lots of classic African quirks that make great stories. The Benin Marina hotel, which is the nicest place in town and where all the diplomats stay, was once a Sheraton property. One year the Sheraton folks decided to pull the license from the owners because the hotel was not measuring up to standards. That was no problem for the hotel—they changed the name to the Marina and went around advertising themselves as the “Ex-Sheraton.”

We thought that was pretty funny. Only in Africa could a hotel call itself the Ex-Sheraton and capitalize on the fact that it was once a worldwide franchised hotel, even though it lost the license for not providing good service.

Another time I went to a local restaurant called Pili-Pili. I was hanging out with a Beninese friend, and he told me that the roast chicken was one of the Pili-Pili’s specialties. Sounds good, I said. (This was in my pre-vegetarian days.) We met a few other people at the restaurant, and all seven of us ended up ordering the chicken.

Sometimes it can take a while to get your food at any restaurant, but after a full hour even my hosts were getting restless. One of us made the old joke about how the restaurant staff must have had to go to the market and kill the chickens for us.

Another half hour went by, and now everyone was upset. My friend called the manager over to complain. The manager went to the kitchen to investigate what was taking so long. He came back apologetic, but explained, “Since all of you ordered the same thing, we didn’t have enough chickens. The cooks had to kill some more and are still roasting them.”

Everyone at the table enjoyed the fact that they really did have to kill the chickens for us. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before – at least not that I know of.

Santa Claus in Benin

On my final visit, I came in on Slok Airlines (I was a regular frequent flyer) from The Gambia, and stayed in a small guesthouse in between visiting villages a few hours out of town.

The night I left Cotonou for the last time was Father’s Day, and I wanted to call my Dad in the States from a telephone service down the street from my guesthouse. I changed into running clothes so I could exercise before packing for the airport.

I didn’t know how much the call would cost, so I put about $10 in my shoe thinking that would surely be enough. I managed to get through to my Dad and we talked for about five minutes before being cut off.

After we were disconnected, I was going to call back but first I asked the attendant how much it had been so far. He told me it was a full $8, which I argued about but there wasn’t any discounting. He gave me the $2 (900 CFA) change all in coins, which is a lot of coins. I would have told him to keep the change, but because I was upset about being charged so much, I took it back outside.

Since I was on my way to run, I didn’t want to jog around with a fistful of coins for the next half an hour, so I had to figure out what to do with the money.

Then I remembered something from when I was a kid. Every New Year’s Eve, my Dad and I used to take $20 in $1 bills and drive around a less-fortunate neighborhood discreetly throwing money out the car window. My Dad was the driver and I was the delivery man for the money.

Ah ha, I thought. Here’s how I can get rid of all these coins that will be useless to me in a few hours.

I had no car, and was on a different continent, but the principle was the same. This time I threw CFA coins out on the road whenever no one was looking. The biggest challenge was avoiding all the kids who continually shouted, “White man! White man!” whenever I ran by, because they would probably find it odd that I was intentionally throwing money on the street. But I hoped that some of them found a few coins later and it made someone happy.

And then I went back to my guesthouse for the last time, took a shower, and rode to the airport for my midnight flight to Paris.

Voudriez-vous du Café?

Air France flies from Cotonou (COO) to Paris (CDG) three times a week, but the departure time is always the same – 12:20 a.m. Given the uncertainty of anything logistical in West Africa, check-in is at 9:00 p.m., and you’d better not be late.

If the flight leaves on time, dinner is served around 1:00 a.m. The coffee and tea comes about 1:30. Coffee at 1:30 in the morning! Normally I avoid caffeine after 6:00 p.m. for fear of not sleeping. But while traveling, all the rules change. “Merci,” I said when the flight attendant offered me a cup that night. “I’d love some.”

Speaking of my Dad, one time a few years back I was in New Orleans with him. He had just completed his first marathon, and we went for a celebratory dinner. He told the waiter at the Palace Cafe that he’d like an unusual appetizer. Could they please bring him some white chocolate bread pudding before the main course? Hey, why not– he had just run a marathon.

That’s what I thought about as I sipped my coffee while flying over Burkina Faso at 1:30 in the morning. Getting lost in a new country, drinking coffee after midnight, having your bread pudding before étouffée – this is real living.

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Comment on this article

4 Responses to “Five Journeys to Cotonou, Benin”

  1. I love dessert before dinner!

  2. Chris, thanks for a fabulous post re your time in West Africa, loved it, would love to read more!

    Merci bien,
    Lise :^)

  3. Definitely tell us more about your past in Africa! It’s fascinating and educational. :)

  4. You know, I finally came to terms with how everything is different when you travel, and after I did, I felt so much more free and open to the moment, I was able to let go of suffocating limitations and really feel what it is like to be somewhere. Like giving up on avoiding grease in China, and staying up late to have interesting conversation even though I have to get up early.

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