I had a chance to charge up my batteries and check my e-mails for the first time in godknowshowlong. There was no way of progressing past Benin before the embassies opened tomorrow morning, so I was in no particular rush to get there.
I decided to check out the market and get my beard trimmed. You know at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ when Belle kisses him and he turns into the prince? Yeah! Then Tanko’s nephew took us out for a quick jaunt around Accra. We headed to the Memorial Park only to find out it was €75 to film in there, so we went to the castle instead – only to discover that filming is banned outright. If in doubt, always find something to eat.
We went to the Ghanan version of McDonalds and stuffed our faces with hamburgers and chips. Yum. I had an ulterior motive though – I needed a good toilet. Remember me bragging recently that I had made it this far though West Africa eating all kinds of fly-covered junk from the side of the road without getting ill? Well, after two nights of really decent grub, I guess the irony was too much for my guts to handle. No explosive follow through’s or anything, just enough blurgh for me to be a little concerned. Rocco gave me a couple of his ‘poo tabs’ (yes he wrote that on the box in biro) and that bunged me up a treat for the next three days, so no biggie. You just wait until I get gastroenteritis…
Anyway, my spidey-sense told me it was time to leave, so we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags. There, I met a girl carrying a Manfrotto tripod bag, which could only mean that she was a film-maker. She wasn’t. But her sister was, so I was half-right. Had a good chat with them, made me feel proper amateur with my little A1 camera. But I was glad to have Rocco around. Everyone else that I’ve met is a little less than convinced when I say I’m making a television show. The Cape Verde police didn’t believe it so much, they kept me in jail for 6 days.
After a while, Tanko arrived to say his farewells. He had just come straight from a wedding (don’t worry – it wasn’t his and yes I made that joke) and was dressed in traditional Islamic attire. We had a chat about the road ahead – turns out he has a friend in Kuwait who may be able to smuggle my ginger ass into IRAQ! How cool would THAT be? Hearty handshakes and thanks all around, then it was a quick stroll over to the minibus area and before too long, we were on our way to Togo. To go to Togo is to go to a go to Togo a go go. So there.
It’s a short trip to the border and once on the other side (visa issued there and then, THANK YOU TOGO!), we found a shared taxi that was going all the way to Cotonou, the capital of Benin, in all but the name. While we waited for the taxi to fill, I met a guy who told me the hilarious story that German Togoland (as it was then) was only leased to the French and now that the lease is up, he is desperate for the Germans to come and reclaim the country so that they have somebody sensible in charge for a change. So if any Germans are reading this and are still aching for a bit of liberstradum, I’ve found a place where you’ll be welcomed with open arms. So not like Poland then.
Tell you what though, he’s given me a REALLY brilliant idea for the next Indiana Jones movie. Oh come on, after that last effort, they look like they need all the help they can get!
True to their word (usually taxis that say they go over borders drop you at the border and then run away giggling) we got into Benin and all the way to Cotonou, arriving before ridiculous o’clock at night, which was a bonus. If I hadn’t been quite, quite knackered, I would have bought a bottle of bubbly – Benin is country number 100!!!
Halfway back to Mandy.
An exceedingly frustrating day – first up, the Niger embassy was closed because it’s Independence Day over there at the moment. It’s going to be closed tomorrow as well. So I went to the Benin Direction Immigration Emigration office and tried (and failed) to get hold of this mythical five-country, Francophone visa that is alluded to in the Lonely Planet. Funnily enough, there were a couple of other backpackers who were trying to get their hands on exactly the same thing.
If only it ACTUALLY EXISTED. But it seemed to the Benin authorities that we were the first people to ever ask for it. And me and these other people all just happened to get there on the same day. Hmm…
Anyway, Ahmed from Germany, Eve from The Netherlands, and I would be frustrated in our attempt to escape from Benin today. Even the American guy, Ben, was having difficulty just getting a Benin Transit Visa just so that he could leave. You see, Ben in Benin wanted to go Togo. True! Oh yes my little droogy-woogies, the West African Bureaucratic Horrorshow was in full swing.
I thought that I would get back to Rocco around 10am. In the end, I met him at 1pm. Then because of my change of plans, we had to go back to the Benin Immigration Emigration so Rocco could get sorted with a visa extension.
It wasn’t until 5pm that we jumped a Bush Taxi north. I was hoping to get as close to the Burkina Faso border as possible, but after a cop at one of the ubiquitous checkposts told the driver, it was too dangerous to drive at night and he pulled over (next to an open drain, what a wonderful smell you’ve discovered) and everyone had to sleep in the car until daybreak. Rocco did what was only natural and chucked at the side of the road.
Once dawn had crept up on us unawares, the driver finally took us to our destination. A bus journey to the next town and then – as there were no buses to the border, we hopped on motorbike taxis to the imaginary line that separates Benin from Burkina Faso.
In a stroke of genius rare in the political elite of Africa, the late Thomas Sankara (Tom Sank to his mates) changed the name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in the mid-eighties. Why? Well because it means The Land of Honest Men.
As any educational psychologist worth their salt will tell you, if you tell someone they are bad over and over again (as my teachers often did to me), they will eventually think – oh well, if everyone says I’m bad, I must be a bad person, so it’s my nature to do bad things. Then they’ll go off and set a cat on fire or make Indiana Jones IV. The converse is also true. Now, knowing the power of Semantics, Tom Sank changed the name of his country so that anybody being corrupt and dishonest is not just a liar and a thief, but is also a traitor, no less. The result is startling. Even people who would quite happily cosh an old lady to death just to get a better view of the football take a dim view of traitors – so in order to not be seen as a traitor, the good people of Burkina are bribe-adverse in a way that their West African brothers could only dream of.
Simply put, you cannot be a dishonest man in the Country of Honest Men. That’s the power of Semantics. For more information, see Great Britain.
As Rocco’s passport was in Cotonou getting his visa, he couldn’t cross the border with me, so I left him and made my merry way towards Niger, which I planned to border-hop. My Burkina Dasho (see what I did there?) was making good time all the way to Fada N’Gourma, the crossroads of the country. I had the good fortune of getting the last place on the bus so I didn’t have to wait for it to fill up.
Unfortunately, the road to Niger (country 102) was not so smooth. Because of recent bandit attacks (looks like somebody didn’t get the message about being honest), the road is closed except at certain times of the day, and I just missed out on the last convoy. So I had to wait until 4pm. Any hopes I had of getting back to Rocco today went straight out the window.
And then when I eventually reached the border – more problemo’s. Not content with ruining my plans yesterday by having an inconveniently timed independence day, today they were having an election. Which meant the border was closed, to everyone, until tomorrow. Bah.
I had a chat with the border guards on the Burkina side and explained what I was doing. They said I was free to go over to the border and step back if I wanted to, but that the Niger border guards are not nearly as much fun and may well shoot me. So I found a grotty little Auberge run by a great guy named Frederick, and I crashed for the night.
Frederick offered me a lift over the border on his bike, so at the cock’s call, we were hurtling towards Niger at a great rate of knots. There is a good 20km between the border guards and the border runs down the middle, so there was no bureaucratic tomfoolery to cause me problems. Once past the sign welcoming me into Niger, we rode for another half a K, just in case they had put the sign in the wrong place, I got off the bike, looked around for a bit and then we turned around and came back. I don’t know what Niger is, or what it does, but I’ve stepped foot on its soil. A perfect border hop, methinks.
On the bus on the return journey to Fada N’Gourma, I sat with a couple of deaf guys who were from Liberia. One of them was heading to Ouagadougou (best name EVER) to teach American Sign Language to deaf kids there. In just a couple of hours, I learned the signs for British, Australian, Film, Travel, Love, Beer, Whiskey (amongst others) and the entire alphabet. Not bad for a morning’s work. I have to say – signing is A LOT easier than French.
After signing my goodbyes, I had to get back to Benin. I found a minibus that was going to Porga (the village where I had stranded poor Rocco) and hopped on board, but (as always) we hung around for AGES waiting… waiting for what I don’t know, the bus was full, don’t forget that I’m on West Africa Indigenous Time here.
Although getting over the border was not plain sailing, I got stamped out of Burkina, but it was still a good few kilometres to the Benin border post. While I was getting my stamp, the bloody minibus up and left! The rotter! So I had to get another minibus, which got about halfway before promptly breaking down, so I got out (much to the chagrin of the driver who was adamant he’d have the problem fixed in a jiffy, but then they always say that) and got myself a motorbike taxi to Porga.
Once there (and stamped back into Benin), Rocco and I took a couple more bikes to the next town and from there, we jumped a minibus back to Cotonou. I stuffed my face with some grilled meat and paid double to get the front seat to myself so I could get my blog up to date, which I did (almost).
By the time we got to Cotonou, it was 5am. We spent over an hour (by the end of which I was ready to kill, kill and kill again) riding around on the local moron-mobiles (motorbike taxis) trying to find our hotel, WHICH WAS ROUND THE CORNER.
Cotonou taxi drivers are the WORST in the world. They speak not a word of French (the official language), so you’ve got no chance with English. YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE TALKING CHINESE. They do not know what a hotel is, or an embassy, hospital, road or train station. Even when you DRAW THEM A GODDAMN PICTURE.
During the day, the utter ineptitude of these guys is actually quite amusing, but at five in the morning after sitting squished into a minibus for 15 hours, one’s patience is wont to fray…
What they do is ask you where you want to go and after you say the name of the place 15 times, they say yes yes, get on and they go. They don’t know where they are going, they just go. When you finally get them to stop (by screaming at the top of your lungs and clipping them over the head in the style of Basil Fawlty hitting Manuel), they will look at you blankly before doing a U-Turn and trundling off in whatever direction pops first into their stupid little minds.
They took us, at half flippin’ five in the morning, to the CINEMA! Seriously! We wanted La Hôtel Concorde. They took us to the Cinema Concorde. Then, after I threw my hat on the ground and stamped on it, they took us to Hôtel Concordiere. After AN HOUR AND A HALF, we arrived at our Hotel, which was AROUND THE CORNER FROM THE BUS STATION. We could have walked it in five minutes.
AND they tried to kill us. Seriously – I was nearly broad-sided by a car, and Rocco escaped almost certain squishy death on a roundabout. It was enough that he got off his bike and got on another one.
Then (when we FINALLY arrived) they wanted more money. I stuffed the agreed 1000CFA in the guys pocket and walked off. Rocco, bless, stayed trying to reason with them despite my frantic FORGET THEM eyes and hand gestures.
Crikey. It was easier to communicate with the deaf guys.
After getting to the hotel, I had worked for an hour or so on getting a video speech for my mate Michelle’s wedding uploaded onto YouTube, so it was light before I got to sleep. Two hours later, I was back awake with things to see and people to do. Although after last night’s (morning’s?) shenanigans, I was slightly more than reluctant to get out of bed, but there was no time to rest on my laurels.
I got the wedding vid uploaded and sorted out a few bits and bobs online before unpacking my bag, repacking it and handing it over to Rocco. He would not be accompanying me to the next country, Nigeria, as (obviously) IT’S TOO GODDAMN DANGEROUS. But luckily for you lot, I’m as expendable as the crew of the Nostromo, so happy days off, I jolly well pop. Rocco would be flying over to Cameroon and meeting me there.
If I was going to get mugged, kidnapped, smashed up in a car accident whatever, I didn’t want to be losing my little lappy and my undies along the way, so I only took my camera, my passport and my toothbrush with me – the rest of my gear, I gave to Rocco.
So with just one little bag and two huge balls of steel, I stepped into the breach. Well, after two motorbike taxis took me the wrong way first, of course. La Gare Routiere pour le bus pour Nigeria was just way, way beyond their comprehension. Anyway, I had the pleasure of a shared taxi to the border where I was a bit worried about the fact that my visa had expired last week, but if the guy on the border noticed, he didn’t let on and before I knew it, I was in Nigeria, country 103.
I had massively changed my route across Nigeria because of the riots last week in Maiduguri over the introduction of Sharia Law, which had killed hundreds of people. Instead of taking my originally planned northern route, I’m taking the southern route into Cameroon – one that skirts perilously close to The Niger Delta – the dodgiest bit of one of the dodgiest countries on Earth. But in a choice between being kidnapped by Muslim fundamentalists or angry fishermen, I’d plum for the fishermen every time.
The bush taxi from the border to Lagos was driven by John the taxi driver – who seemed convinced that he was driving Miss Daisy. I liked him because he said that Nigeria was better when the British were here. Oh pipe down – he’s right…it was – the kleptomaniac leaders of this place have stolen, according to the estimation of their own corruption, commission, – get this – $352,000,000,000 since the late sixties. Three Hundred and Fifty Two Billion Dollars. More than 4 times the aid given by The West to the whole of Africa over the same period. Nicked. So el Presidente could buy a house in the Azores, a massive yacht and send his kids to Harrow. Meanwhile, most people here live on less than a dollar a day.
The only good thing is that leaders of Nigeria historically haven’t lasted very long; there’s a kind of Golden Bough situation in which you have to kill the incumbent to become president, so once you are president, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder until the day that Johnny Come Lately decides he quite fancies running the largest country in Africa (into the ground).
I also disliked John the Taxi Driver because he almost killed me several times. He did this by driving really slowly and by not bothering to look in his mirror before pulling out. To be fair, he couldn’t see out of his back window, but then he had inexplicably covered it in (patently non-see-through) cardboard. Now Nigerian drivers are MANIACS, but John wasn’t, so every time he changed lanes (which was often), he would invariably cut up a boy-racer thundering along at one hundred and stupid miles per hour. The journey to Lagos was supposed to take 90 minutes. It took over four hours.
But there were mitigating factors. The road was bloody awful and the traffic was horrendous. But hey, I got to Lagos in one piece so I’m not going to complain. Better Late than The Late, as a helpful roadsign in Ghana said the other day.
In Lagos, I met up with Tony, my CouchSurfing host for the evening. Tony is from Ghana himself and is one of the toppest blokes I’ve ever met. From what I can gather, Ghanans are one of the most chilled out bunch in this region – the pitch opposite of your average Nigerian.
We searched for a while for a place to grab a beer and some food because it was after 9pm and everywhere was closed. Now, you may find it surprising that in the biggest city of the biggest country in Africa, most of the places shut up shop so early, but there’s a nice simple reason why – there is never any electricity.
Oh yes – did I fail to mention that as well as being a bunch of thieving scumbags, the political elite here are so inept that they cannot even organise their country to enjoy the same sort of reliable electrical power grid enjoyed by Britain for the past one hundred years? Yup. The gigalitres of oil that they drill every year cannot seemingly pay for any power stations or electrical infrastructure, so everyone has to make do with their own generators. So no late night bars, no night clubs – speakers, lights and refrigerators use a muck load of power, which the state electrical company NEPA (No Electrical Power Again) consistently fails to provide.
So Lagos at night is about as fun as slamming your fingers in the door and the lack of street lighting make it a muggers paradise. And we were on Victoria Island, the poshest bit of the city – complete with fancy hotels and sky scratchers and everything. But no power, no, that would be silly.
Tony’s gaff was great – up a spiral staircase, furnished with good taste and a nice big flat n’ widescreen television. Which made a nice ornament as most of the time, there is no bloomin’ power to watch the damn thing. I settled down on the coach and got some much needed shuteye. I’d be up early again tomorrow morning.