Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sometimes You're Just Stuck

"How do I get to Ganvie?"

I was addressing the day clerk at my Cotonou hotel, the Hotel Riviera Benin. Or at least the morning clerk. It was morning, after all, and I'd already availed myself of the free breakfast, as usual gnawing on bread with accompanying Nescafe. This hotel also included tiny croissants, cheese, and deli meat, so it wasn't too bad.

"You should call this man. He is reliable."

The clerk handed me a flyer. The guidebook had described the stilt village of Ganvie as heavily commercialized. The only person I know—which is to say I don't really know but have communicated with a few times online—who has been there wasn't too impressed with it, and she'd so far had reliable instincts. I was trying to keep my expectations low, but I still wanted to see this stilt village on Lake Nokoue.

Ganvie isn't the only stilt village in Ghana. I'd read of at least two others, but they were tougher or more expensive to get to. Ganvie may be commercialized, but I reckoned I could go there-and-back and still get to the voodoo village of Ouidah today, then head to Nigeria tomorrow morning.

I could just wing it, of course. I could get a taxi to Abomey-Calavi, then go to the pier and hire a boat. But this was reputedly a zoo, where you are accosted from all sides with offers.

I studied the warning on the flyer in front of me.

Probably overstated. But I certainly did not want to be subjected to theft, ransom, and harassment.

"Okay, can you call this man from the flyer?"

The clerk found his mobile phone, tried to dial, discovered he didn't have enough credit, dug around in a drawer for a scratch-off card, found it, scratched off the code, keyed it into the phone to add time, then dialed.

"Bonjour. I have a tourist here who is coming to Ganvie..."

I was a little confused by the whole thing. Would I really have a tough time if I showed up at the pier and winged it? Whose phone was that the clerk was using and who had just paid for the call? How did I get to Ganvie?

"Just take a taxi, only 500 CFA. Call Christopher at this number when you get there. He will meet you at the pier in Calavi. He will take you to Ganvie."

That sounded sort of reasonable, so I took the phone number, went outside, and looked for a taxi. There weren't any. I went back inside and waited for the hotel clerk to finish with another client.

"Where do I catch a taxi?"

He motioned to one of the thuggish-looking security guards at the door, said something in French.

The security guard took me outside and waved down a zem, one of the thousands of motorbike taxis that buzzes around Cotonou. He told the driver to take me to a taxi park for 300 CFA, and once there, I got into a shared taxi for Abomey-Calavi. The trip was 500 CFA (a dollar) and less than an hour.

The driver left me at the Abomey-Calavi dusty transit hub, with return taxis across the street and zems located where he dropped me.

"Take her to the pier for Ganvie," said the taxi driver to a motorbike driver. I checked my phone, tried to make the call to Christopher. I have something called a OneSimCard, which is supposed to work in lots of different countries. Sometimes it does. I make calls through a software widget where I dial into a central number in Estonia, and a computer calls me back on cheap rates, then patches me through to the person I'm calling.

No credit on my phone.

Shit. I hadn't anticipated that. I thought back...where had I been a few days ago where the data connection had worked unexpectedly? Ghana? That must have run out all my credit. I couldn't make a phone call and could only refill my balance online. Well, there would be a way to call at the pier. I'd just head down there.

I hopped on the back of the motorcycle taxi, and the driver took off. We zipped right, down a dipping roller coaster of a dirt road.

...and deposited me at a pier, or rather, at a shack next to a dirt patch by a couple of boats in an inlet.

'This is IT?" I couldn't contain my surprise. Where was the zoo? The touts? The aggressive boat-drivers? The zem driver laughed.

A man came running over and unlocked a padlock on a shack. He went inside and collected some paperwork. He brought it out and presented a price list and tickets to me.

8,500 CFA for a trip to Ganvie and back. All very official-looking. I'd read that there were firm rates, and that they weren't cheap. But I wasn't supposed to just hop in a random boat. I'd booked already.

"No, no," I said. "I need this man on the telephone, Christopher. Telephone. I need to call. No credit. Where is phone? Or internet?" If I could get online, I could add credit to my phone.

The zem driver and the ticket seller paused, stared, and discussed me in French. The ticket seller put away his papers and padlocked them again. The zem driver motioned me back onto the motorbike and we drove back up the dirt road.

This time, we took a right before reaching the main road, snaking through a small village. We stopped outside a shop, where the zem driver beeped his horn until a bald man in a long-sleeved striped shirt came out. This guy spoke English, and asked me where I was trying to go.

"I need a phone to call this man, Christopher." I waved the paper with the number at him. "I have booked with him to go to Ganvie."

The man dialed the number, but it was engaged. He then dialed the guesthouse affiliated with Christopher and spoke to someone.

"We will take you there," he said.

Which sounded reasonable enough. Except it wasn't.

We all went back to the pier, where the ticket seller again unlocked his shack. I paid the zem driver and let him go.

"8,500 CFA. We will take you in the boat," said the bald man.

"No, no. This man...Christopher...he said he was coming for me."

They both stared at me like I was insane.

I knew by now that something was wrong. No, everything was wrong. I was also in the unfortunate position of having no idea what to do about it. I sighed and paid the fare.

A boatman had materialized, a tall man in traditional dress, and he started up the engine on a small motorboat.

My heart sunk. I'd been counting on the boat from the flyer, which had shade. I wasn't wearing sunblock.

The bald man got in the boat along with the boatman and me. We motored slowly along an inlet, out into the open lake.

I have to admit, it was beautiful. I was worried about getting burned, both by the sun and by whatever was going on that I didn't understand. But both were out of my control.

We motored on for about ten minutes, and then there was Christopher, in the boat from the flyer, hurtling up alongside us.

He looked pissed.

He started chewing out the bald man and the boatman, and instructed me to change boats. Now I was even more worried...I'd paid these men to take me, and now I was switching boats. That meant paying again, and I knew it. But I'd booked with Christopher and he'd used fuel to come to fetch me. Ganvie is a few kilometers offshore.

I was screwed, backed into a corner. I wasn't getting out of today for cheap.

"Come here," said Christopher.

"What about the money I paid them?"

"How much did you pay them?"

"8,500 CFA." That's about $17. "For a ten-minute boat ride?"

He looked disgusted and spoke to them sharply. They went silent. I changed boats and they drifted away.

"Now I am worried," I explained to Christopher. "I've paid once. Now I will have to pay again."

"I cannot ask you to do that," he said. "If you enjoy it, pay what you wish."

I was still screwed. Paying what you wish is never what you really wish. I wish I didn't have to pay one more cent. I wish I hadn't booked in advance and had just turned up. I wish I hadn't made a mess of this situation. I wish I'd stayed at the hotel. None of this wishing has any relevance on the current situation.

"Where did they pick you up?"

"The pier."

"No. That is the pier." Christopher waved back at a bustling area on the shore, an area that featured buildings and vendors.

Oh hell. I'd been had. Had by a cooperative venture between the zem driver and the "ticket seller?" Had by the boatman, the bald man, and the zem driver? Turns out that there are set standards and regulations for the boats that carry tourists. There is a regulatory board. The little dirt area I'd been taking to was operating outside the law.

Should I have continued to insist the zem driver take me to a pay phone? Yes, of course. That was the right response to things being obviously not-quite-right. I remember being five months into the original MariesWorldTour, and taking shit from no one. I'd brazenly tangle with taxi drivers and touts, but I wasn't proud of this. The intervening years had made me soft, because in hindsight, I'd forgotten about the rough patches and thought only of all the kind, helpful people, and assumed that somehow, I could avoid the tricksters and just deal with entrepreneurs who weren't trying to take advantage of my ignorance of local infrastructure. I assumed that I'd been in the wrong to argue with people in 2001.

That wasn't the case. When you're traveling alone, you have only yourself for back-up. I was going to have to try a little harder. Worry less about being cooperative and more about watching my finances and my own agenda.

Christopher was still steaming, and I was confused about the situation I'd stumbled into. Why was I going to his lodge on the lake? Were the other guys just trying to make a buck outside the law? If so, why weren't they cheaper than the official boats? By agreeing to this pre-booked thing, I'd agreed to do something that wasn't yet clear...I wasn't making it to Ouidah today. That was certain. And how stuck was a boat. In a lake. In Benin. There was no politely backing out.

I took photos and tried to enjoy the scenery.

When we arrived at Ganvie, it was exactly as described. A village built on stilts, a few kilometers off-shore. Children learn to row the way we learn to ride bikes. Lore has it that the village was built so that its occupants could be protected from slavers.

Stilt villages are by no means exclusive to Benin. I'd seen one in Vietnam, one in Cambodia, and then there are the manmade islands of Lake Titicaca. Ganvie is mildly interesting, and would be worth a half-day's journey if I weren't embroiled in this turf battle and semi-scam. But I wasn't too impressed, and it's impossible to tell if this is due to it being not all that much to look at or if it's because I was too on-guard and wary to enjoy it.

Probably the latter.

Here are photos of Ganvie.

Christopher took me to his homegrown lodge, which would have been an interesting place to spend the night if I weren't alone and had brought a book. I already wished I had. He went to deal with some men who wanted to talk to him about installing solar power, while I sipped a Coke and wondered what to do with myself in this building on stilts in the middle of a lake.

I read my guidebook on my iPhone for a while, but I didn't want to run the battery out, so I had to stop after a while. I nibbled some peanuts that someone had left for me. After 45 minutes, I was completely bored and ungrateful and wished I'd just stuck with the bald man, whizzed through the village, and gotten in a taxi to head to Ouidah.

Eventually, Christopher showed up and apologized. We motored through the rest of Ganvie, then across the lake.

"Where will you go next?"

"Nigeria. I will go tomorrow."

Christopher nodded.

"I just did this a few weeks ago. I got into a share-taxi and men got in on either side of me. They started feeling my pockets, looking for money. It was scary. You must go through, and talk to no one that does not have a uniform. Give money to no one. And when you get to the taxis, try to select one that doesn't have thieves in it."

I wasn't sure exactly how one determines who is and isn't a thief.

"What if I go north, through a different border?"

"Do NOT go through a different border." He didn't explain why. "Here, I will write you instructions."

He took the little notebook I carry around and wrote me a page of instructions on going to Nigeria. Meanwhile, his boat man—who was really just a boat-kid—had been motoring us to the the official pier, where Christopher lodged a complaint about the usurpers. The official said he had no control over those people but asked for a copy of my ticket. Christopher hired a zem driver and asked him to take us up to the taxis. We both got on the tiny moped, me sandwiched in the middle. He was going to make the photocopy while I was getting in a share taxi back to Cotonou.

Christopher had been helpful and was an honest guy. The situation I was in wasn't his fault, but surely there must have been a better way for me to deal with it. I hadn't been on my toes. I was going to up my game, but in the meantime, there was one last formality I had to get through.

From the taxi, I handed him back 7,000 CFA through the window. Another $14 gone. What else could I do?

The taxi filled up and we raced back to Cotonou in the late afternoon.

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