Bonfires and Burnout
Beautiful, but blighted.
Cans, bottles, plastic and seaweed form black and white mounds that dot the beach.
The wild Atlantic rages.
Hulking, gutted hotels line the shore in a constant state of deconstruction.
A disused swing set faces the beach, seat swinging uselessly at shoulder height.
‘No Defecating’ signs entreat the literate dogs.
Welcome to Benin, whose London embassy is an upstairs cubicle overlooking Tile Warehouse.
We arrive in Ouidah, half-way between the Beninese border and its capital Cotonou.
Night falls, and we compete ferociously at a foosball table in the middle of a roundabout. Locals show us the tricks of the table, as motorbikes whizz past in the darkness. Several steps away is the Point of No Return, a sad monolith to remind tourists of Benin’s slave history. Its giant arch faces out to sea, a lonely reminder of those the journeys that started here, and the lives that ended.
As we've moved away from the (comparatively) travelled Ghana, we've found ourselves in increasingly obscure, isolated, and empty places. Our accommodation is a spartan, abandoned motel in the town centre. We duck under exposed scaffolding and dusty cement walls to sit in the empty reception and wait for breakfast. We spend the day exploring, visiting the Python Temple, a voodoo site which is apparently the town's main tourist draw. For a few CFA, we wander around a small enclosure pretending to understand the French tour. A listless python is placed on my shoulders, and I do my best to seem impressed. .
The only place to eat in town is a hollowed out hotel with space where the walls should be. Our waiter serves our radioactive cheese pizza with an unflappable earnestness. Swimmers step over gaping concrete maws, while employees burn a giant rubbish bonfire several metres away. Luckily for our pizza, the wind blows away from the kitchen.
After another night of laptop Game of Thrones, we set off for Cotonou. This necessitates a quick stop for some Guinness Foreign Extra, supped from a hipster-esque steel mug. The middle-aged proprietor sits with us. Lacking English (and my charmless French), we share peanuts and watch the world go by.
There's a unique charm to a trip like this. What you see is very much what you get. And while it may not look like much, there's hidden wonders to be found - albeit of a more modest nature. Cities and streets unfold in unpredictable sprawls, with a mysterious logic only clear after several days. Which is half the fun. The countryside is one long road of shops, phone stalls, huts, and food vendors. And you can get curry and a beer inside a building site.
As we approach to the city, we start to unravel. Our jovial bonhomie is frayed by my slow pace, Will's irritation, dust, traffic, our mutual impatience and heat. The city is huge, and busy. Vendors sell soap and trainers next to rubbish piles.
Women carry buckets of goods on their heads and chase passing cars.
A man walks through 4 lanes of motorway, carrying giant bags of detergent.
We separate in a sullen silence, marking the first time we've been more than a metre away from each other in 2 weeks.
On a passing motorbike, passenger and driver carry a wheelbarrow over their heads while weaving through traffic. Anything goes.
We reach our hostel gratefully, nestled in the safe, sleepy vibe of a diplomatic neighbourhood. It's early afternoon with time to spare, but the lack of off-bike amusement weighs heavily. I never thought it was possible to get cabin fever cycling a bicycle. Hungry for entertainment, we search the ex-pat bars on the strip for signs of life. The cumulative effect of physical exertion and bottled-up tension knocks us out early, without the energy to find out what happens at the Red Wedding.
The next day, we decide on a day off, before we beat each other to death with our panniers. We take a high-speed trip on the back of a motorbike (zemi-john) to Ganvie, the ‘Africa of Venice’. Lazy guidebook quote notwithstanding, it is pretty impressive. A small village northwest of Cotonou, everything is built on stilts overhanging Lake Nokoue. So close to the capital, its pace is markedly different. Villagers fish, chat, and paddle boats around the tranquil surroundings, while excited children scream at us from house windows. There’s a church, a mosque, a phone shop, and even a nightclub (unfortunately closed at 3pm). Our guide's keen and communicative, with excellent English.
We ask him how the toilets work, and question our choice of fish for dinner.
He's noticed our thriftiness and spontaneously negotiates for the local beer price, on the assumption we are poor students. The boat journey back to the city is another tranquil sunset spent on the water. Our murderous antipathy is now a distant memory, washed away by the lazy day and discounted lunchtime pint.
We spend our last Beninese night in Cotonou, dining at nearby Livingstones. A big ex-pat hangout, this lively restaurant wants to be a bar, but has too many TVs. The food’s great, though. We sit next to a Scottish group, dining out on a work break from their engineering jobs. Their designated drunk is a leery Glaswegian who, on finding out I’m Irish, greets me enthusiastically with Tiocfaidh Ár Lá’. The sheer ham-fisted idiocy of this clatters down the stairway of my mind. Eyeing his tattoos, glassy eyes and apparent lack of irony, I just wince back through gritted teeth.
To escape the Magalluf-emulating troglodytes, we zemi-john to a local hangout to meet our hostel mate. Lando and the Dodo Band are tearing through an impressive mix of jazz, reggae, and afrobeat. We spend the night soaking up the music, and reflecting on the trip with some locals. We end it drifting through empty beer gardens at 3am.
We are wholeheartedly dreading the next step, but its got to be done.
Tomorrow, Nigeria beckons.