Saturday, August 31, 2019

Something more about Benin

Cotonou has been the place we mostly stayed and to be honest, there were quite many things to see and experience. Time was not on our side, as we remained only for three days, but at least the most important landmarks were checked.
One that interested us was experiencing the Dantokpa Market.

Its importance lies in being the largest open market, not only in Benin but in all West Africa. Since to understand a culture the best way is to get the vibes of the food and places where people get their groceries and appliances.
I don't have the exact aerial extension of the market place, but you can easily get lost inside it. To keep yourself oriented you might want to focus one or two landmarks, like the pedestrian bridge connecting the two parts of the market divided by the main road.
There you can find everything from jewelry, grocery, livestock, products for the house, pottery, televisions, car part. Really, you name it. It is just like a mall but in an open space.

If you get lost, you will find at least a dozen new friends who will try to direct you to their stand. One of them was particularly insistent and kept walking beside us talking and talking without stopping. After a while that we insisted we were not interested in what he was selling, we just continued our round totally ignoring him. Yet, he continued following us for the whole time.
He left us only when we left the market to the pedestrian bridge that would have brought us to our salvation.
One thing I have to admit is that he was probably the only one who came to us, besides a couple of merchants who didn't insist further when we said we weren't interested.

That was the day when we had, perhaps the longest walk of our journey. 20km by foot in one day; the other days the distance was only 10 km.

One place worth to see for its historical meaning is the Place des Martyrs.
This monument is a memorial place remembering the victims of the coup d'etat tried by Bob Denard and his mercenaries in 1977. The coup d'etat was a trial to overthrow the government of the People's Republic of Benin which was led by Mathieu Kérékou, whose communist party was the only allowed political party in the country. The coup d'etat didn't succeed, like many other attempts before and after.


One thing we noticed during the whole trip is that it seems like in Benin like Togo and Ghana do not know the concept of the city center. When we were asking at the reception or to the people where the city center was located, they looked at us like we asked where is the Martian spaceship's landing area. Therefore we had to walk around for kilometers before we could find it by ourselves.
You might say that we could have asked the taxi drivers. yes, we did, but they also had no idea what we were talking about.

Finally, we found the heart of the city, and no surprise it was located also in correspondence with the Danokpa Market.

Maybe too soon, it also arrived for us the time to leave the country and once again our road trip started with another ride to the border of Togo, where we hoped to find easily a driver to bring us to the hotel in Lome.

Have a great day!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Traveling from Nigeria to Benin

Crossing the border between two African countries might be an enlightening experience. Just like it happens on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, the impression a traveler has is to leave hell and reach heaven.
That was exactly the same feelings we had when we crossed the border between Nigeria and Benin.
Not just the people seemed more relaxed and keen to help, but the infrastructures told a whole story about how differently the two countries are managed.
From our hotel in Lagos to the border, we had a driver. He couldn't drive through Benin as he didn't have the license. Therefore, the challenges connected with finding a ride from the border to Cotonou, the city where our hotel were obvious.
We were lucky that the border officer helped us to find a driver, who for a reasonable price, would have driven us to our destination.
At that point, we had everything set, and the journey could continue.
The first thing to be noticed was the maintenance of the main road.
No holes, no significant damages on the asphalt, no checkpoints to rob the drivers... Another world, just like I said, the same difference between hell and heaven.
The journey would have taken about two hours, so I just leaned on my seat and took a nap.
I had nothing really to worry about.

Benin's capital is legally Porto Novo, but Cotonou is the heart of Benin's economy. The name Cotonou, in a local dialect (Fon) means 'by the River of Death.'
I could not find out the reason why, and perhaps the origins got lost in the past like it generally happens with ancient civilizations.
One thing we noticed was that, at least in Cotonou, the main road is well kept and continuously maintained to allow the circulation of heavy vehicles to and from the harbor. Nevertheless, the secondary roads are not even paved. They are left as sandy/muddy roads.
On one side, it makes sense to invest more in things that drive the economy of the whole country. Yet, I am wondering whether it would cost any big effort to pave also the secondary roads.

Another thing I have learned is don't bother yourself with questions which do not have an easy or unique answer.

Despite being a city on the sea, it seemed like people do not really care of the shores. They indeed have beautiful beaches, or better said they would have if they even cared about them.
Most of the places we have visited on the beach were occupied by the shacks of the seamen (and garbage).
So Benin gives the impression of being almost exclusively oriented on the practical side of things.


Similarly to Nigeria and generally in Africa, houses are built only to the level that they are capable of granting people with shelter. External walls are rarely finished, or pained. The roofs are completed to the bare minimum, and I am wondering whether doors and windows really do the job they are planned for. Despite this detail, people take great care in how they dress, particularly women, and they own expensive cars. Could it be again that they prefer to spend their money on a vehicle that can bring them to their work, or can help them with their business rather than in their houses?

Plausible.

On the streets, you will find everything from people selling gasoline stored in large glass containers (I am still wondering about this way of storing gasoline!) to goats and chicken. Nevertheless, I haven't seen a single dead animal on the road, and that was comforting.


 The official language is French, but people could also understand basic English, which made us a perfect match since my French is quite poor.

We spent in Cotonou three days, but my experience is too wide to be told in a single blog, so I will have to split the Benin experience into two episodes, hoping you will continue to follow me in this adventure.

Have a great weekend!


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Discovery of West Africa - Nigeria

It has been a long trip, but finally, I am back home.
That means that I am ready to tell you something about the journey, bringing you some vibes of Africa; my Africa.
I know that I have promised to keep a sort of daily photo diary posted on my social, but as we left Nigeria, we were transported back in the '80s.
We could not find roaming for our mobile phones and most important no internet.
We were sure to have Wi-Fi on our hotels, but things in Africa never go the way you plan them.
If there is one thing I have learned during my journeys is to expect everything, even the impossible.
Like the hotel promised on their booking pages, there was indeed a Wi-Fi, but it was too slow and most of the times offline, so… well, practically, there wasn't.

But let's go back to our journey.

Our route started in Helsinki, from where we reached Lagos, Nigeria.
From Lagos, we traveled by car following the main road to Ghana through Benin and Togo. From Ghana, we returned to Lagos by plane, and on our way back, we could have a stop in Doha, Qatar.

The first thing you notice when you come to any airport in Africa is what I call Africa scent. The scent made of the earthy iron-rich sand, mixed with the smell of the trees and bushes, food, and other scents I could not identify.

This is the scent I enjoy deeply inhaling it whenever I reach Africa.
Nigeria is located in the Gulf of Guinea. It originated from British colonial rule in the 19th century,  and in 1914 it incorporated the South Nigeria Protectorate and Northern Nigeria Protectorate. Nigeria became a formally independent federation in 1960. It went through a civil war between 1967 and 1970, and after that, the country experienced alternatively democratically elected governments and military dictatorship. At present, after the presidential elections of 2011, it reached a stable political situation.

Talking about the safety of a traveler, besides the local crime connected to drug dealing in the city of Lagos, a particular concern has been raised by the Boko Haram–related violence.

Nevertheless, after a peak in 2014 and 2015, the number of casualties attributed to the group fell dramatically. The Nigerian military, with assistance from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, has pushed Boko Haram out of several provinces in northeastern Nigeria. The group retains control over some villages and pockets of territory and continues to launch deadly suicide attacks and abduct civilians, mostly women, and children. In February 2018, more than one hundred students were kidnapped by a faction of Boko Haram known as Islamic State West Africa. They were released a little more than a month later.

The conflict has been primarily contained in the Muslim north, particularly in Borno state, but has displaced millions of people in the region.

The city looks at first glance divided between the "good areas" and the poor ones. Infrastructure is something the Nigerian government seems not really to bother. That is not related to the lack of funds, as Nigeria is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, but to a wildly spread corruption that avoids the movement and allocation of those funds for the public works.

The good 




...And the bad


Waste management seemed to be the biggest issue, particularly in Lagos, where the municipality appears to be unable to manage the rise in industrial and domestic waste. Together with waste management, the roads inside the city were relatively well kept (Africa-wisely). Nevertheless, the main road to the border was a nightmare. There, without an off-road vehicle, you are in deep troubles.
We spent in Lagos only one night. This decision was made mainly for safety reason. Secondly, because we knew we would have had the time to check the city and the Natural Conservation Center on our way back home.

The most exciting part on this first leg was indeed the road trip to the border, which in normal conditions it would have taken not more than a couple of hours. However, with the actual road conditions, it took about four hours.

Waste management has been a big challenge in the largest cities and the piles of waste stretch for kilometers.

The road is a constant market place and people come to sell and buy everything from livestock to fruits and vegetables or even furniture. A sort of one time stop for all your needs.


The guy you see leaning outside the vehicle is the one who is gathering customers and advice the driver when it is time to stop. He also collects the ticket money from the passengers.
This also included the times we were asked to stop by the border police.

The officers were looking for some money to be cashed at the expenses of the drivers passing by (and in a couple of circumstances our driver just drove by without stopping!). We have also been stopped by some local small criminals looking for some cash, which we quickly gave to avoid troubles.

All in all, people are friendly, and we have not been bothered during our strolls in the city. The stay went on as smooth as we hoped for, and we can call ourselves satisfied with this new challenge.
This has been a longer blog, but I was also supposed to compensate for the lack of blogging last week.
I hope you enjoyed this first part and you will follow me on this road trip for the following weeks.
Stay tuned!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Three... two...one... GO!

So, here I am the day of the departure finally arrived! The struggles we had with the visas for this trip took from me at least ten years of my life. It has been a real tour de force.

These are the times required for the visas process for our journey:

1. Benin visa: 10 minutes with the e-visa.
2. Togo visa: with shipping and handling, three days
3. Ghana visa: shipping to Denmark, handling time, and shipping back: one week.
4. Nigeria visa: Shipping to Sweden handling time and shipping back, three weeks worth of constant calls, email reminders, and a considerable amount of money to set up an alternative method for shipping the passports back.
What do we suggest? Africa is big, beautiful and exciting, avoid Nigeria!

This has been our crazy countdown:

Two weeks before the departure: we had to send back our passports to the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm, because of a series of misunderstandings.

Eleven days to departure: they received the passports.

Seven days to the departure: they asked us to send more documentation, which was promptly sent by email.

Four days to the departure: they advised us to provide for a courier pickup, which we provided the very same day. The courier pick up was scheduled for the following day, and we would have received it the day after, so two days to our departure.
We informed the Embassy about the scheduled pickup, and they acknowledged it.

Three days to departure: The courier informed us that the Embassy declared not having anything to be picked up.
Panicking we tried to call the Embassy... No answer
We sent four emails, and only the day after they replied that now the courier could come.

Two days before departure: Reschedule the pickup. Finally, the courier got our passports, and we started to feel more relaxed.

The passports reached us safely yesterday, one day before departure.
I have never in my life been more stressed than the last two weeks. I was as tense as a violin chord, but now, it's time to celebrate:

The Wandering Writer is back on the road! Whohoo!
Stay tuned, because I am going to post on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/pjmann2016/) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/paperpenandinkwell) a sort of photo journal, and every week you will have them summarized right here in this blog!
Have a great weekend!

What have I learned?

 Life is made of learning steps. Every day we learn something new, either about ourselves, someone else, the world around us, a new skill, o...