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I have been to Cotonou, the capital of Benin, twice. My first visit to Cotonou was in 2007, after I had just graduated from high school and was waiting for admission into the university. A few friends and I decided to celebrate our graduation by spending some time in an affordable place outside Nigeria. Naturally “affordable” would mean a nearby country as we could barely afford any trip outside West Africa. Secondly, our parents were to be paying for the trip and, if it was too extravagant, our strict parents would cancel the trip altogether.
We were a group of five. Our parents knew one another and we had all been friends since childhood, so our parents felt comfortable with the trip. The three potential destinations were Accra (Ghana), Cotonou (Benin Republic) and Lome (Togo). After a long and intense debate, we settled for Cotonou, the capital of Benin Republic. Nigeria is bordered by Benin Republic to the west, along the Lagos and Ogun states. We decided on Cotonou because we had done some research and Cotonou seemed to be the cheapest and closest of the three destinations.
We couldn’t afford flights to any of the potential cities and a road-trip to Cotonou from Lagos would be shorter and less tedious than the rest. Generally speaking, I still prefer road-trips. They are far more interesting than travel by air, especially with friends.
Our biggest barrier was to be language. You see, Benin Republic is a Francophone country while Nigeria is Anglophone. Before that trip, I was just a beginner in French. I could barely speak or understand the language apart from the little I could grab during my classes is high school. My friends were worse-off than I was, but nothing prepared us for the inconvenience the language barrier would cause in Cotonou. One of my friends on the trip contacted “another friend” in Cotonou to make hotel reservations for the five of us at a cheap motel in the town.
We set off for the much anticipated journey on Sunday, August 5th, 2007. At about 7:30am we all met at a place in Lagos called Mile 2 and from there we boarded a bus going straight to Cotonou. It was a lively and interesting journey.
My friends and I conversed throughout the journey until we reached the infamous “Seme Border.” We were able to change our currency at the bureau de change here. The border is notorious for smugglers, armed robbers and all forms of vices. Our bus was flagged down by immigration and customs officials after almost on hour of delay, we were eventually allowed to continue our journey.
I loved my trip to this lovely small city and I vowed to return here in the near future with more money.N
We stopped again at the other side of the border because a fellow passenger needed to ease herself. The bus stopped and she ran into the bush. While we waited, the rest of the passengers also came down from the bus to stretch their bodies. After a while, when everyone had returned to the bus, the journey continued.
For the remaining part of the trip, I slept until my friend, Ifeoma, woke me and said we had arrived in Cotonou. Cotonou doesn’t really look that different from Nigeria, it’s the same kind of environment and most of the population are black Africans. The major difference is that everyone in Cotonou speaks French. Altogether it took us roughly 4hrs to arrive in Cotonou from Lagos. This included the time wasted at the border
The Hotel Experience
We chartered a cab from the park that took us to our already reserved hotel, Hotel Camilio Palace, at Sekandii. The reservation we made was a single room with two beds. Three smaller people took one bed while myself and another friend, Tutu, took the other. Immediately after we arrived at the hotel, I called my parents in Lagos to tell them that I had made it. Then I went to take a shower and, before I knew it, I fell asleep until the following morning.
I woke up very early the next morning and arranged my things in the wardrobe. While I was at it, room service knocked and with passable English told us what they had on the menu for breakfast. We all ordered almost the same thing: baguette and fries with coffee or tea. Baguette is a kind of bread in Benin Republic: it is long, crusty and a bit hard. We definitely hadn’t seen this type of bread before and we found the taste curious. It’s not as sweet as the bread we are used to in Lagos, but the waiter said it is healthier.
After breakfast we watched some foreign movies on the hotel’s cable TV and before we knew it, it was time for lunch. The hotel had different types of rice and swallow meals on their menu. I decided to try their Jollof-rice with turkey and salad. It was not really different from the Jollof-rice we cook in Nigeria. In general, I think West-African countries prepare Jollof-rice in the same way, the only difference is the garnishing.
On the second day, three of us decided to visit the Dantokpa market, while the remaining two stayed back to hang out with our next-door neighbors, who were visiting the city from Ghana.
The hotel receptionist, who could speak passable English, had told us to say “Com bien” when we wanted to purchase anything.“Com bien” means “how much,” but when the seller responded we still couldn’t understand what was said. Somehow, we figured a way to signal to the seller to show us the currency notes we were expected to pay. It was fun and tedious going through the market, Beninese people are so friendly and they seemed thrilled to have foreigners in their midst. We went through the vast market and bought everything ranging from sweets to underwear and footwear.
After we purchased something, we calculated in our heads what the equivalent was in our currency and discovered that Cotonou was generally cheaper than Lagos and Nigeria as a whole. While going through the market, another friend of ours saw an ice-cream shop and decided to purchase some. You cannot imagine our joy when we discovered that the shop-owner was a fellow Nigerian and he could speak fluent English. Yipee!
We chatted with the man, named Emeka, and we found out that we had over-paid for some of the things we had purchased. We didn’t have the same bargaining power simply because we couldn’t communicate effectively in French – but, even at the inflated prices, our purchases were still quite cheap when converted to Nigerian Naira. No wonder Cotonou is the Number 1 stop in West Africa to purchase used clothes, cars and other commodities in general. When I got back to Nigeria, I inquired as to why things were more expensive in Lagos, and learnt it is because of the numerous and exorbitant customs and border control charges that Nigerians are subjected to.
That day was very eventful, we all went back to our hotel room happy and stressed out at the same time.
On the third day, I woke up and ran to the loo – for some reason I was having stomach problems. It was so severe that my friends rushed out to get some drugs for me from a pharmacy at the hotel. I apparently ate something that I wasn’t supposed to eat while at the market the previous day. My whole day was messed up and I had to stay indoors and watch movies. I couldn’t eat anything, but I drank some juice and water.
On the fourth day, I was feeling much better. A friend of ours, who had earlier helped us make the hotel reservation, came to visit us from her school. She was studying in the North American University, Houdegbe. We chartered a taxi that took us around the city, from the zoo to the cinema. At about 4pm, some other friends from her school came to meet us at a local park. From there we went to Fijdrosse beach.
All I can say is that the beach was so beautiful and peaceful. There were few people there that day and the water and sand were so clean – I didn’t want to leave. The beach has a local legend of a certain goddess who allegedly resides in the waters and comes out during the dead of the night. According to the legend, you must not be on the beach from midnight to 5am, or you will never be seen again.
We stayed at the beach until about 7:15pm, and from there we went to a local bar where assorted bush meat, pepper-soup and palm-wine were sold. West Africa in general loves Makossa, a form of dance and music from French-speaking West African countries. We were treated to some of the delicacies primarily made out of bush meat and a live performance from expert Makossa dancers. It was fun all the way!
We returned to our hotel room a few minutes before 12am! Ideally we weren’t supposed to be out that late as we were still teenagers (literally), but we were glad to be free from the prying eyes of our parents. The city is generally safe, though from what we understood, there is some crime here and there.
We went back to our hotel room and started packing our bags for the journey back home. We didn’t experience any power outages (unlike in Nigeria), but then again it was a guest-house, so I guess they had generators.
Our Journey Back Home
Thursday, August 9th finally came and we woke up early to make the journey back home. The guest house organized a cab to take us to the bus-park. There we boarded a bus to Mile 2, Lagos.
I loved my trip to this lovely small city and I vowed to return here in the near future with more money. I slept for most of the journey and only woke when we reached the Seme border. The immigration officials stopped our vehicle and checked our documents. They eventually let us go after about 20 minutes. The journey continued smoothly. We made a few stops to pee, buy food and refuel the bus, and arrived at Mile 2, Lagos around 12:35pm. From there we said our goodbyes and found our way to our various destinations.
Also check out Ikeja, Nigeria.