Cotonou, Benin, December 13 - 14, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Friday, December 14, 2007

From Ouidah it was just a short drive along the coast to Cotonou, Benin's largest city and commercial capital.  The country's political capital, though, is smaller Porto Novo, which we did not visit, a short distance to the east. 
Cotonou is a place of almost otherworldly chaos, a hectic crowded city with a real buzz about it, one that looks like it's moving rapidly forward economically, in stark contrast to Lome's seedy decay.  Our drivers navigated around a few chaotic travel circles (Etoiles, as they are called in French) and then along the outskirts of the Grand Marche du Dantokpa, Cotonou's main market that must be the mother of all chaos.  We then quickly crossed the Pont Nouveau over the Lagune de Cotonou, the inlet between the Atlantic to Lake Nokoue.  The Lagune was filled with small pirogues and plenty of floating debris from the stilt dwellings and market-rear rubbish dumps that line its shores. 
While in search of our oceanside hotel campement, Daphne managed to get stuck in the sand on one of the beachside neighborhood's unpaved streets.  Although I'm quite used to sandmatting in empty places like the Sahara and Mongolia, providing some late afternoon entertainment for the hundreds of local slum-dwellers who gathered around us, gawked, and cheered us on was a new experience. 
Cotonou is another city that has a very bad reputation for crime, so Dave gave us a strong warning against leaving the security of the walled campement compound after dark. "Don't walk around; don't go into town; and don't leave the compound," he told us.  I again felt trapped like a caged animal, unable to make a brief escape from the truckmates who were getting on my nerves. 
Although the majority of us who didn't take one of the overpriced hotel rooms pitched our tents around the truck in a sandy patch beside a crumbling tennis court, with its rock jetty shoreline and grubby shared bathroom facilities the place that was far less inviting than its seaside location would suggest.  As in Lome, in Cotonou there were night fires on the streets around the camp compound, and the infrequent sea breezes occasionally brought their acrid smoke through the camp as we say around the truck eating dinner and through my tent after I had retired for the night.  The evening's lighter than usual camp conversation focused on "Who are the best-looking movie stars of both genders," with most offering their views.  I'll keep you in suspense about my opinion
The following morning we again braved Cotonou's chaos, waiting in and around the truck for several hours on a motor bike-clogged and diesel-fume choked main street near the market, while Dave and James want off in an attempt to do the nearly impossible task of finding a bank that would exchange travelers checks to pay for truck expenses.  I may have said it before in my other travel blogs, but I'll say it again:  Don't take travelers checks!  In many parts of the world they are nearly impossible to exchange, and when you can exchange them they usually exchange at poor rates or with high fees and involve painstaking and time-consuming bureaucracy.  Take cash, credit cards, and ATM cards when you travel. 
Our expectedly brief morning stop in Cotonou dragged on and ended well into early afternoon with some marketing for food for the days ahead in a somewhat more prosperous commercial neighborhood that had a few nice supermarkets and even a well-stocked butcher.  "Wow!" I thought, amazed by the variety of nice meats, "I think I want them all."  I decided to get a half dozen whole rabbits for my turn at dinner two nights ahead.  "Do they really have rabbits in Africa," I wondered, "or are these some kind of bushmeat."
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