Sunday, April 17, 2011

Border Day. Or Not.

One does not cross the busy Krake (Lagos) border into Nigeria lightly. Not even Africans do this. They all seem to have an individual system, and the people I've met have been happy to share their strategies with me.

"Only two bags max. You must keep your money you need for the day in your pockets. Do not show where your other money is. Do not get into a taxi with people who look like thieves. They will crowd you and feel your pockets. Do not open your bags at the border. Do not speak to anyone who is not wearing a uniform. Change your money the day before. Only travel between 8 and 4 when it is light. Don't risk getting caught out when you can't see your surroundings."

I get it. The Benin-Nigeria border scares people.

And they, in turn, scared me.

In theory, you can't get Nigerian currency (the naira) outside of Nigeria. And it's a cash society. While there are occasional hotels that take Visa, dire warnings claim that fraud is near-instantaneous with your transaction. And ATM information is sketchy, and some have claimed using an ATM is as risky as using a credit card. I'm to forget that I own credit and ATM cards in Nigeria. I'd be carrying my money in, all on my person. This is where I start using all those US dollars and euros I've been hoarding.

On Saturday afternoon, I'd gone to the Cotonou car park where the border-bound taxis sit, and changed 30,000 CFA (francs) into naira on the black market. I got an amazing rate, better than the official one I'd looked up online. I should have changed more because in the morning the rate was saner, just a little off the official rate so the money changers could make an actual profit.

I zipped back to my hotel on a moto-taxi. You know, a moped. Here they are called "zems." The drivers wear yellow jerseys that have numbers on them. A ride in town is 200 CFA, which is about forty cents. The zem gives me freedom that I don't know in countries that only have car-taxis, which are expensive and not always available in comparison. And zems are fast as they dodge in and out of traffic.

They're also incredibly dangerous, of course. I try not to think about that.

Last night, I nervously prepared to transit Lagos. I'd hurried across Ghana, Togo, and Benin just for this moment, so that I could go into Lagos at the crack of dawn on Sunday. As a sometimes-New Yorker and former resident of Cairo, I'm aware that reputations of places are often totally exaggerated. I could laugh at myself later, though. I'm in no position to know what's real and what's just the bogeyman. Sunday morning, I reasoned, would be the quietest time of the week in Lagos.

In the comfort of my Cotonou hotel room, I put my credit cards, my ATM card, some dollars and euros, and my driver's license into a Zip-Loc back, then taped it up with duct tape. I sewed this packet into the inside of my trouser leg of my black pedal pushers, then used two safety pins to make sure the bag wasn't going anywhere.

I could have just used a money belt, but the problem with money belts is that thieves go right for them. They know exactly where they are. Or maybe that's just my excuse and it's all about vanity. Money belts can bulge.

I sat back and admired my handiwork. Well, that was...inept. I worried that I was outsmarting myself, positioning my valuables right where I could lose them myself without any help from thieves. I duct taped some more.

I'm usually pretty slack about security. I split my money and traveler's checks up between bags, but I don't bother being too careful. I carry my daypack on my front, never on my back, and I can't say I've never had problems, but I haven't lost anything yet. I did have to get my messenger back sewn up in 2001 when bag slashers crowded me in a Mongolian department store entrance, but my natural instinct was to fight my way through the crowd, not to stand there and panic (New York thing?) so they didn't get anything.

So I felt a little silly going to these extremes, but I admit I am worried about Nigeria. Lagos, actually. I'm not going into Port Harcourt, the place with a reputation for kidnappings of oil executives. I kind of want to stop in Lagos and see what's up. It's just a city. I could just stay in a hotel and never carry a bag outside and take taxis everywhere. But that doesn't work with my plan to be on the Friday ferry from Calabar to Limbe, Cameroon. If I miss the Friday ferry, I'd have to wait for the following Tuesday. And Nigeria ain't cheap.

The plan is this: Cross Krake border on Sunday morning, get to Lagos taxi park and connect straight out to Oshogbo, or to Ibadan then to Oshogbo. Oshogbo has a sacred grove of Yoruba god sculptures and a good budget hotel called Heritage. I could stay there, then it would be about 5-6 hours to Abuja the next day. I'm a little worried about getting a room in Abuja as the presidential election observers have booked a lot of available hotel rooms, but they might all be gone as elections were last week. A long bus ride would take me to Calabar on Tuesday, and I'd have Wednesday and Thursday to get my Cameroon visa at the consulate there, then will take the ferry out on Friday. That's my birthday, and my plan had been to be in Congo by then to meet a New York writer I'm friendly with, who is there on a newspaper assignment. But I got delayed in Mali and fell behind, so I figure spending my day doing nothing on a ferry is probably the next-best way to hit 45.

(If you're wondering why I don't just blast straight across Nigeria in a day, it's because that road has a bad reputation for danger, and I stand out. So I am going the safer-but-longer way, so that my mother and aunt don't have to worry.)

This morning, I woke up at five, which was painful since I'd not only stayed up late preparing my possessions last night, I'd also spent time on my my credit card and bank sites, since I have no intention of going onto any of them via a wi-fi signal or internet cafe for the next week. Keystroke recorders can easily swipe your username and password on a strange computer, and I don't want to think about what's safe and what isn't on wi-fi. The least safe way to do your banking is in an internet cafe on a PC with Internet Explorer. Something to keep in mind if you travel. I know a few people who've been compromised that way.

I showered, packed, then hurried the hotel's breakfast staff to get me my morning dose of bread and Nescafe so that I could take my anti-malaria meds without an empty stomach. I left the hotel, was called back in so someone could hand me a stamped piece of paper I was going to throw away five minutes later, then I hailed a zem to get to the motor park.

I made a series of embarrassing mistakes at the motor park. I changed more money, and a kid showed me another money changer (the guy I'd changed money with yesterday—Kazim—wasn't awake yet), then explained to me that on the other side of the border, I could get a taxi straight to Ibadan and didn't have to go into Lagos at all. He then helped me find my taxi. He then took my fare and gave it to the driver. 6,000 CFA? Really?

No, not really. The other passengers all paid 1,000. I looked at the instructions the lodge owner had written out for me in Ganvie.

1,000 CFA.


Not getting that back, am I?

The kid saw that I had 4,000 CFA left. I'd tipped him 2,000, which is about 1,500 more than I should have.

"You can't use that where you're going. You should just give it to me."

He had a point. But I always keep a little because you just never know. It was early, or I wasn't thinking, or something. I gave it to him. I had only Nigerian naira now. I swear I used to be a better traveler. Was it only yesterday I'd blown it so completely at Ganvie?

The ride was less than an hour long, which means I was really overcharged. Damn. That's $20 I let go of in three minutes this morning. And I was fleeced for a similar amount yesterday. I'm making stupid mistakes.

At Krake, I got out of the taxi and was immediately deluged by zem drivers offering to shepherd me across the border for 2,000 naira. I said no at first--that's $12 and I think I know how to walk across a border. But people were yelling at me when I tried and shouting for me to go back, so I negotiated and hired one for 1,500 naira.

He put my bag and myself onto his moto and zoomed off into a back alley. He stopped at a barricade, where some officials with stamp pads were hanging out in a hut.

The driver and the stamp guys had an animated discussion. They appeared to be chewing him out. I wasn't sure what was going on yet. Then one of the stamp pad men led me into an office up the hill, where a passport officer could speak English.

"The border is closed."


"They won't let you through. The Nigerians won't. It's closed. You have your visa, I know, but it is impossible. Try again tomorrow."

Oh f*ck. I hadn't known they were preemptively closing the borders. My original plan had been to skate through before the elections, but ironically, getting the Nigeria visa itself back in Mali is what had thrown me off. That and the Ghana visa.

"Come back tomorrow."

The zem guy apologetically took me to a Cotonou taxi. I thought I'd go to Ablomey, which is a tourist town three hours north. From there, I'd be three hours farther north and wouldn't have to navigate Lagos. The border up there is near Ketou, and it has fewer public transportation options but it's less chaotic. I'd been thinking of going that way anyway. Now the decision had been made for me. I thought for a second about Christopher's instructions: Do NOT go through a different border. Nonsense, I thought.

I had to change enough money at the border to get myself back to Cotonou and also to pay the zem driver. I gave him 2,000 CFA, which is $4. A bit here, a bit there.

As I sat in my taxi waiting for it to fill up to go back to Cotonou to connect to Ablomey, the moto guy's friend ran up.

"You can go to the other border at Igolo! It is open for sure. You will get through."

He took me out of the Cotonou taxi and installed me in a Porto Novo taxi. Another tip to him--my lowest denomination was 1,000 CFA. Crap. Then 700 more to Porto Novo.

The driver then put me on a zem in Porto Novo, issued strict instructions to the driver, and we were off. Where to? Who knows? The plan was in action, and I wasn't in charge of it.

He left me at another taxi stand. 200 CFA. The taxi took me 20 kilometers up the border to the Igolo border post. 1,000 more. I think. I can barely remember. But I clearly recall that there were four adult women in the back seat, one in the front and then the driver, and there was a total of six children. In a sedan.

A freelance border fixer approached me at the new border. He started at 1,500 naira, but he didn't have a motorbike.

"Border no ferme?"

"For sure you get through. Change your last 5,000 CFA."

"What if I don't get through?"

"You will get through."

The money changers, who were sitting on three wooden benches, all agreed.

"Of course you will get through. There are ways."

"Okay, but if I don't get through, you give me back my CFA."


"Sit here."

I sat with the money changers. One of them spoke English and explained to me what was going on.

"He must go talk to the passport man, to get him to not stamp you out of Benin, in case you can't get into Nigeria. Otherwise you are stuck."

That seemed reasonable.

The fixer disappeared down a dirt road, the same one the border-crossers were using. At both borders, I'd been taken the back way. The not-so-closed way. Lots of local people were walking across these borders.

The fixer was gone a long time, and when he came back, he had a middle-aged, pudgy guy in a white tank top alongside him.

"This is the passport man."

The passport man showed me his ID and sat down.

"The problem is that the border on the Nigeria side is very tight right now. You will not get through."

"I would get through," chimed in the money-changer. "But the problem are...white. You stand out. Someone will notice."

"I advise you to exercise patience. Come back tomorrow. The border will be open at six. We have a hotel here. You can rest there and try again in the morning."

500 more to the fixer for his efforts.

The money changer gave me my 5,000 back.

I caught a taxi to Cotonou. I got the last seat, which means I was squashed into the gap in the front seat between passenger and driver. There was no back on the seat. This hurt. When we got to Porto Novo, I thought "Just get out. Go to a hotel here. Try again tomorrow."

But I wanted to get to Ablomey, to be three hours closer to Abuja tomorrow. And I didn't have any currency. Did they have my bank ATM here? Would a money changer be open on a Sunday afternoon? But should I just hang out here instead? But then I might end up going through Lagos on a weekday instead of a more-north border. What to do?

The ride back to Cotonou was painful, stuck in that gap. 1,500 this time.

I needed to get an Ablomey taxi. I was hungry and tired and hot and sweaty. I walked to the zem driver.

"Excuse me, where is the Ablomey taxi?"

"How much?"

I was taken aback. I thought it would be here, but if not, the fare is always 200.

"200, of course."

He actually laughed at me.

"That is not enough."

"Oh. I guess...I'll walk."

Of coure I wasn't going to walk. I didn't even know where it was. But I didn't know what else to say. I walked a bit, then realized I was broke. I had 3,500 CFA—about seven dollars—and I needed to be able to get to Ablomey and get a hotel and food and then get to border tomorrow. I walked to a money changer, but the zem driver laughing at me combined with all the money I kept spending and the little losses I took each time I changed money and the hunger and heat got to me. When I got to the money changer, I couldn't speak. I felt tears coming. I fought them but my eyes welled up with tears. The money changer looked at me, uncertain and concerned. I motioned him to say nothing. I stood there a minute, realized I had to walk to not cry, and aimlessly walked. Right across the motor park. No destination in mind, but if anyone talked to me, I'd surely lose it.

At the other end, I could see Kazim smiling and waving at me. He was the friendly money changer from yesterday. I hurried away. I couldn't face him. He'd ask how I was and I'd start bawling.

An old man spotted me. "Problem?"

"Ou est Ablomey taxi?" I whispered.

He took pity on me, walked me to it, and installed me in it.

About an hour into this taxi ride, we passed Ouidah.


That's not the right road.

I looked at my map. Maybe we turned at the next town?

We didn't. The driver pulled over for a second to pick up a new fare. I turned to the other passengers.

"Are we going to Lome?"

"Yes. Of course."


Ablomey. Lome. I was in the wrong damn taxi. Over an hour into the wrong damn taxi. What a day.

"Where are you going?"


They all looked confused.

One of them looked at me and in clear English said "You are lost."

"Yes. I am lost."

I got out. The driver looked disgusted. I gave him 2,000 CFA, cursing at myself. A zem driver was there, and he took me back to a Cotonou taxi. 200 more.

The Cotonou taxi was another 1,000 back, and partway into the trip, the rain started. I had thought I'd go back to Porto Novo and spend the night, but now it was gettting dark and raining. I guess I wouldn't do that after all.

In Cotonou, I cowered under an awning with some drivers while the skies opened up. Eventually, I pulled out my backpack cover—which still had red dirt on it from the last time I used it in Uganda in 2005—and my plastic coat, hailed a zem, and found my way back to my Hotel Riviera Benin, squish-squishing my way into my same room from the last few days.

Where I looked at my guidebook.

Abomey. Not Ablomey. Abomey.

Shit. No wonder no one understood me. And when did I get sunburned on my neck and back? That's gonna hurt.

And now? I had to unpin, untape, and unstitch my credit cards, so that I could get cash to pay for my room.

And then I'd get to try it all again tomorrow.

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