Friday, April 15, 2011

And Her Reward Shall Be Chickpea-based

Good morning, Lomé.

And goodbye.

That's it, my time in Lomé. Overnight. I read through my guidebook, concluded I wanted to see the Ganvie stilt village and the voodoo town in Benin, and mostly, I wanted to enter Nigeria on Sunday. I considered getting my Gabon visa in Lomé (and later learned I should have), but was more interested in getting past Lagos on a Sunday than in visa acquisition.

I had dinner after dark in my hotel in Lomé, breakfast in the morning, and I got a taxi to the shared-taxi center, a dusty ramshackle area along the coast. The Atlantic glistened at me from beyond the beach, across the road. Lomé has probably seen better days—much better days—but the ocean doesn't mind. I did later learn that the Underwear Bomber was from Togo, but his home isn't quite on the tourist circuit. A missed opportunity, perhaps.

My taxi driver found the Cotonou vehicles quickly and deposited me in one that was now full. That means I got the center seat in the back, but it was okay. There were only three of us in the back, and one passenger, a laptop-case-carrying man in his forties, in the front.

I was flanked by a couple that slid into their seats after I got in. The woman noted the windows, where were all down to create a breeze once we started driving, and immediately slipped off her wig, placing it in her handbag.

So many women wear wigs in this part of the world. Their hair is buzz-cut underneath, like a schoolgirl in these parts. Initially, I'd wondered about the perfectly straight, even bobs with a splash of purple or red, but the Sleeping Camel owner had set me straight.

"They're wigs. Maybe that's why people hate having windows open on the bus here. It'll mess up their wigs."

The woman next to me was far too practical to risk messing up her wig. She just put it away.

We were surrounded by the usual vendors, and the woman (let's call her "Shorn") did her shopping while we waited for the driver to start the car. She'd select a few pieces, such as handmade baby clothes, from one of the vendors. She'd choose a few she liked, show them to her husband, who was sitting bored and expressionless to my right, and she'd try to talk him into the purchase. He'd say no, Shorn would renegotiate with the seller who would pull out additional baby clothes from the basket on her head, then Shorn would try her luck with her husband again. In the end, she bought a tiny frilly dress, with the agreement of her husband.

The drive to the border was short, and I'd learned to wrap my hair in my scarf to avoid tangling from the wind—I didn't have the option of temporarily removing my long hair. On arrival, the car pulled into a market and evicted us all.

This didn't surprise me. I'd been through this several times in private cars. The passengers walk through on their own, their luggage still in the trunk of the vehicle. The driver transits the border alone, then meets the passengers on the other side.

The man with the laptop case walked quickly, hustling to the border. The couple was slower, first stopping to consider the meat-on-a-stick sold at the market, and then proceeding. I followed them, not yet certain if we were heading to the border or if we'd be getting back in the car in a minute.

We exited Togo, passing Immigration. Shorn dropped a few coins onto the Immigration desk and kept walking, her husband by her side. They motioned me to follow.

"I have to get a stamp," I said. I hurried to the counter, where a man in a uniform stamped me out. I noticed the couple had waited for me, which was sweet.

We passed the police check at the end of Togo. Again, Shorn dropped a few coins off, showing no papers. I flashed my exit stamp and was waved on.

We crossed no-man's-land between the border posts.

Now we got to the medical check. Shorn's husband showed his yellow fever certificate and walked through. She showed her coins, but the officer wasn't too happy.

"Where is your certificate?"

She just looked at him. Then she shrugged.

"Where is your certificate," he asked her again. I pushed mine ahead, trying to take the attention away from her.

"Is she with you?"

"Yes," I said. Which wasn't a lie. Technically.

"You need to tell your sister that she needs her vaccination. It is for her own good."

I heartily agreed and he let her go with just a glare.

At passport control, again, Shorn and her husband walked right by. A man came chasing after me. I do stand out in a crowd here.

"You need a stamp!"

Indeed I did.

Unfortunately, my visa that I'd diligently gotten in New York had expired a few days ago. When I'd gone to the consulate, I'd been told I might get a visa for six months. But it hadn't worked out that way. So I hoped they wouldn't notice, or I'd have to buy a new visa on the spot. I'd already paid a hundred dollars for this visa, way more than the rate at the border.

Shorn and her husband had stopped and were waiting for me. Horrified, I willed them to move on. The longer they waited, the more likely they were to be questioned. They were waiting for me because they assumed I didn't know the route. I didn't, but I didn't have to. I stood out. The taxi driver would have no problem finding me on the other side.

"Are they with you?"


"Why do they not come over here?"

"They have different passports. They are living here."

The officer ignored them and turned his attention to my passport, with its expired visa.

He called over another officer.

Uh-oh. Here we go...

"United Nations! Look at this, it's from the United Nations! You really got this visa at the United Nations?"

"Yes, in New York."

They gazed at the visa, quite impressed. I was filling out their entry form in the meantime, fully expecting to be told to fork over some dough.

One of them stamped it and took my form.

"Welcome to Benin."

"Thank you."

I caught up with Shorn and her husband. We walked past the police, me showing my passport and Shorn no longer even paying her occasional coins. So maybe I'd been right and they were from here. We were in Benin.

And we kept walking. Where was that taxi driver? Then, a different man got our attention.

"This way," he said.

He led us to our taxi.

The driver was clearly annoyed and had sharp words for us. Shorn said something back involving the word "passport," and they all looked at me. The driver's tone softened. My passport had held us up, not the local people.

We got in the taxi and continued to Cotonou, passing the voodoo village on the way, with its weird statues that looked like a combination of Biblical scenes and voodoo vignettes. Traffic had backed up by then, slow and dense.

"Where are you going in Cotonou?" The driver asked me this in French. I struggled to answer.

"Hotel, en ville."

He nodded, drove us sort of close to the ville, and put me on a motorbike taxi with instructions to take me to the center of the ville.

And I was suddenly independent and free. Moto-taxis are surely one of the more dangerous motor vehicles to travel on in Africa, which is why they are banned in many city centers. But they aren't banned in Cotonou. They're cheap. When there are hundreds of moto-taxis cruising the streets, priced at practically free, my trip has rapid movement. I can get to anywhere in town in a few minutes, something I cannot do in a car-taxi, which gets caught in traffic.

I was able to get us to the main hotel street in the center of town, and using my map, we found our way to the hotel I'd picked out of the guidebook. It was too expensive, but the cheap one nearby had closed down in late 2010. And anyway, en route, I'd spotted a schwarma place.

Where there is schwarma, there is frequently hummus.

I ditched my bags in my room and headed out for some hummus. I nearly made myself sick on it, eating my weight in hummus.

Delicious. And way, way too much of it.

And I tottered home. Home to sleep off my hummus. Tomorrow was Ganvie and if I could, a quick trip back to the voodoo town. The next day was Sunday. I was on schedule to get past Lagos on a sleepy Sunday morning.

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