Grand Popo – Bob Marley Is Alive And Well And Lives in Benin

On the shoreline between Lome and Cotonou, just east of the Benin border, lies the beach paradise of Grand Popo. Miles and miles of white, sandy beaches dotted with palm trees that cast a cooling shade on the few tourist that have stopped by.

And here, in the middle of nowhere, you can find one of the coolest places in West Africa. A place to hang, drink coconut cocktails and listen to reggae. And listen to reggae. And listen to some more reggae until your ears fall off.

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But visiting the Lion Bar is still worth the while. $10 gives you a room on the beach with funky star-spangled wall decorations, and quotes by famous and fallen reggae stars. Each room is named after an idol – for example “Peter” for Pete Tosh, and “Robert” for Bob Marley, of course.

And if they are out of rooms, you’re welcome to camp in a tent on the beach. They will even provide you with a mattress.

The one shower and one toilet are shared by everyone who is there. So on the main party night, Saturday, when Grand Popo comes a little bit alive, the lines are long. But the rest of the time, it does work somehow, and the shower and toilet never really seem unfresh and stinky.

If only you can stand listening to non-stop reggae day and night, Lion Bar is definitely worth a visit!

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Cotonou – A Poor Man’s Motor City

It took a moment to realize that I wasn’t in France or Senegal, or somewhere in between. And that the hundreds of motorcycles coming towards me at break-neck speed were not part of the Paris-Dakar motorcycle rally, they were just part of the local traffic.

In Cotonou, Benin, where there are more than fifty motorcycles to each car, the only way to get anywhere is by bike. The “taxi drivers” are easily distinguishable by their yellow shirts with serial numbers. And they will carry anything, no matter what you need to transport – a suitcase, a table, a fridge, two goats – anything goes. With so many motos around, the competition is fierce, and negotiating a decent fee is usually a breeze.

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But not only the moto drivers are looking for clients, everyone is. Sit down at the open-air bar at the Carrefour Cadjehoun roundabout, and you will soon be offered anything under the sun. Bedsheets, perfumes, DVDs, self-improvement books, umbrellas, cooking pots, work out gear. The people are desperate to make a sale, and walk from table to table, showing their goods. Mostly, nobody buys. Feeling bad for these salesmen who are trying so hard to make an honest living, we sometimes bought a pen or a CD. But what would we do with a cooking pot without a kitchen in Benin?

The most comical (read “sad”) display of goods was a woman with a whole round rack of clothes on top of her head in 90F degree heat. She could hardly see her way through all the clothes in front of her face. The heat inside the rack must have been deadly.

The most desperate of them was a seventy-year old man selling cheap baskets, with no one even looking at them. He stopped at our table for a long time, staring at us with his sad eyes, trying to convince us to buy one. We wondered what he dreamed about as a young boy. Could he ever have imagined that he would be selling crappy baskets at an age when he should be retired?

How much money can these people make per day? Two dollars? Five? Most likely not more than that. Perhaps just enough to have a couple of meals at a local food stand, and to take a moto ride home late at night when all the prospective clients have disappeared.

And the next morning they will wake up hungry, put their sales rack on their head and go out to try to make a sale, just to be able to survive.

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Porto Novo – A Glimpse of Life in A Dead Town

The capital of Benin is a small, dusty, and pretty much dead place. There’s really nothing going on. Even the sidewalk bars that open at night are lifeless. There may be people drinking and some music playing, but everyone looks as happy as if their favorite grandmother just died. Only the prostitutes laugh, talk and dance, trying desperately to make the few men enjoy their company instead of crying into their bottles of Flag beer.

We were really regretting coming to Porto Novo when, suddenly, there was a sound of beating drums and shrieks of excitement on the street. We rushed out of the restaurant where we were having lunch, and watched a parade of men in masquerade costumes stream by. The outfits, made of rags and covering the men from top to toe, resembled scarecrows. You couldn’t even see their eyes. The masked men growled at people and chased them, and if someone didn’t run away screaming, the scarecrows whipped them hard with leather rods. Interesting. So we followed.

We learned that this was part of the celebration of Benin’s 50-year Anniversary of Independence. The dressed-up hooligans walked up and down the Porto Novo streets, ran into stores, and begged for money. Like a cross between a Chinese New Year Parade the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Hundreds of townsfolk ran with them, or stood by, watching. Many gave them money when they asked for it, afraid that otherwise they would get beat up.

Others, the more greedy spectators, scoured Eduardo’s pant pockets to find some change for themselves. I was pretty much left alone, except for the probing hand of a guy in front of me who tried to open the front zipper of my backpack. Much to the pickpocket’s chagrin, I grabbed his hand and shook it. And smiled. He wasn’t amused.

When the parade came to an end, we returned to the slightly more alive city of Cotonou with a bush taxi whose engine died every ten minutes due to a dirty oil filter.

But we did make it there in the end. Alive.

Cotonou – Africa’s Hotel California (You Can Never Leave)

It is widely known (and accepted) that in Africa, transportation works differently than in Europe or North America. Taxis are replaced by motorcycles. Minibuses and bush taxis leave when they’re full, not when you’re ready. Buses leave pretty much when the driver decide’ he’s wants to leave, even if it is a couple of hours later than the timetable shows. But , still, when you use a highly recommended bus company, you expect it to leave sometime. Maybe late. Maybe a day later. But it should leave sometime, right? Wrong.

After having spent far too much time in Cotonou, waiting for the Nigerien visa, we decided it was time to finally move towards the North of Benin. The plan was to ride up to Malanville near the border, stay there for one day, and then cross over to Niger. So we booked a ticket with InterCity Lines, a company highly recommended by both the Lonely Planet and other travellers.

At 6 a.m. on a Saturday, we get up, haul two motos to drive us and our huge backpacks a couple of miles to the Stade the L’Amitie bus terminal, and risk our lives getting there, because the moto drivers all seem to have a death wish. But when we get there, the bus isn’t there. It broke. It’s being fixed. They’re not sure when it will be done. Maybe tomorrow.

So we get another two motos, who again struggle with keeping the balance of carrying our heavy backpacks on their steering wheels, and go back to the missionary guesthouse. ”Can we please stay one more night?”

We decide to leave the next night. Sunday night comes along. At 10 p.m., we again flag down two motos to drive us back to the Stade the L’Amitie, again risking our lives getting there. And again, the bus isn’t there. This bus is also broken. But it’s coming. More and more people arrive, so we’re hopeful. It will leave this time. At 11 o’clock we’re impatient. At midnight we’re annoyed. At 1 a.m. we’re furious. At 2 a.m. we start thinking of alternate plans. At 3 a.m. we give up, and decide to go to Nigeria, instead. We leave on another moto just as the bus rolls in, 5 hours delayed.

We don’t care, our minds have been made up.

Nigerian Visa Part II – You Can Get It If You Really Want

“I can help you get a Nigerian visa!” The words sounded sweet, but it wasn’t the first time we had heard someone promise to help us to get the elusive document. But when Prince, a Nigerian living in Cotonou mentioned that he is friends with the ambassador, things started looking a little more promising. Only moments earlier, he had greeted the ambassador’s wife, a guest at his Benin Independence Day Celebration Party at the Obama Beach in Cotonou. So he seemed to be telling the truth.

Eduardo and I looked at each other. Maybe this was our chance. Maybe it would work out this time. Lagos was among the top reasons why we had decided to come to West Africa, and once again it seemed our dreams would come true. Maybe.

Our hopes faltered pretty quickly, as the “ambassador” turned out to be someone called Daniel that perhaps worked at the Nigerian Embassy, but wanted $800 to help us get the visas. We offered $300, but Daniel declined. Alas, we were back to square one.

But, wait a second! During our “negotiations” with Daniel, we had gotten in touch with a lady in Lagos who had read my blog, and she offered to provide us with an invitation. With Eduardo’s Peruvian passport (there’s no Nigerian Embassy in Peru), and the invitation, we decided to try on our own.

If the Togolese visa officials are corrupt, wait until you meet the Nigerians. The huge man in a bright pink shirt was intimidating. His face convulsed in mixed expressions of anger, surprise and ridicule. He stood up and leaned forward towards us, threatening us with his entire being.

“Why didn’t you get your visa in Peru?”
“There is no embassy there.”
“Who says there is no Nigerian embassy in Peru?”
“The Nigerian Government’s Immigration web page”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is.”
“Mr. Duarte, don’t you know you can call the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out if there’s a Nigerian embassy in Peru?”
“Well, no.”
“So how do you know there is no embassy in Peru?”
“There isn’t.”
“So why didn’t you go to the nearest embassy in another country?”
“It’s in Brazil [we made this up, we didn’t know]. That’s on the other side of the continent. Like how far Ethiopia is from Benin. It’s an eight hour flight.”
“Well, you should have gone there. I can’t give you a visa. You don’t fulfill the qualifications.”

After some begging, pleading, unscrupulous flattering, fake smiling, etc., our man said he can help us get a visa the unofficial way, but it’s going to cost us. He just had to talk to some friends at the border to make sure it was OK. He was lying, of course, trying to make us sweat.

After a twenty minute break, Eduardo was called in by himself to negotiate the fee [“it’s easier with men”], and we ended up paying only slightly more than we had offered to pay Daniel.

We finally did get our visas at the low cost of $320 (plus another $20 paid at the border, where we were interrogated in almost an identical fashion). Because the Nigerian visa process doesn’t end when you get the visa at their corrupted embassy, you have to cross the border, too. And they have all the power to deny you entry, if they feel like it.

So, yes, you can get a Nigerian Visa if you really, really want it!