I’ve Benin Worse Places

Last week, I convalesced with a giant tortoise named Togo before conversing with an enormous baboon named Benin (one of those is untrue). This week, I reached the easternmost point of my voyage, as I arrived in ‘Africa’s capital’ and largest metropolis: Lagos.

Day 43 – Cotonou, Benin

As you may or may not have read in last week’s spectacular post, I was savouring the thrills of commuting around Cotonou by motorbike – a method of transport I had oft given absolutely no thought to in the first almost-thirty years of my existence. However, with the beach a few miles from my hostel, I hailed my hundredth bike taxi (or zem) and did my best French haggling (which is now at an extremely high level). Shrugging and gesticulating complete, off we bounced.

As we pulled up, there were no sun loungers, hustlers, or indeed any humans at all – I wasn’t convinced I was in completely the right location. But a beach is a beach. And I had no intention of lounging around for hours on a towel sipping margaritas and basting myself in oil anyway. I headed to the nearest restaurant and was offered a quite spectacular menu of over eighty local and foreign options – all with a highly appetising accompanying photo. Unfortunately, they only had the ingredients for one: chicken shawarma (which was bloody awful). Even the chunks of pita bread that fell to the floor were being turned down by the thousands of weaver ants that had gathered around my feet. Tasty.

Day 44 – Cotonou, Benin

Cotonou lies on the southern edge of Lake Nokoué – the largest lake in the country. Apart from being the biggest, the lake also hides an enchanting secret close to its northern shore: the floating village of Ganvie. The most populous floating village on the African continent, its remarkable origins date back to the sixteenth century, when natives escaping slavery built a town in the middle of the lake as “no kind of war could be waged either over or underwater”. They were right, and the village has stood strong and grown to this day.

I caught a pirogue to the town centre where I hopped off at my ‘driver’s’ favourite restaurant and ordered the local speciality, indeed the only thing on the menu: fish-from-the-lake. Apparently caught that morning, it was pretty darn decent (lacking the sophisticated and experienced culinary palate of a Jacques Pépin, that’s as descriptive as I can get). Following a chinwag with one of the local pussycats, I jumped back on my ship and continued my tour of the town.

Schools, hospitals, morgues, you name it this watery metropolis has it, with its lifeblood being the thriving fishing industry. I saw children possibly as young as three or four in tiny sailboats literally learning the ropes from their fathers, who would then pass on the catch-of-the-day to their mothers to sell at the market on the mainland – and that is where my own excursion ended. I was tempted to buy a fish to take back to Cotonou for my supper, before remembering that I lacked the kitchen and (more crucially) the skills to do anything other than look at it. A superb day out, nonetheless.

Day 45 – Cotonou, Benin to Lagos, Nigeria

Just one hundred kilometres lie between the major African cities of Cotonou and Lagos, yet today’s exploits confirm that if there is anywhere on earth that can make a relatively short journey turn into an excruciatingly long one, it is here in West Africa. In all honesty, the Beninese side of things went rather smoothly, the bus arrived at the border promptly and without issue – albeit with extremely ominous clouds lurking on the horizon.

However, as we pulled into the border town, the heavens opened, signalling the grimness of what was about to occur. About three hours at border control and customs felt like overkill. But on the first road in Nigeria, we were searched and scrutinized at least ten times more, with our all-knowing driver passing monetary rewards to each guard via a surreptitious handshake as we passed. With our bags searched and passports analysed to within an inch of all of our patience, we then joined a road that was almost completely undrivable. And it was at this demoralising moment that, of course, we were rear-ended by an articulated lorry – simultaneously taking out all of our taillights (the fact that the road had forced everyone to a crawl saved us from injury in this instance).

It took ten hours, TEN HOURS, to make it to Lagos (a distance of Carmarthen to Cardiff). By which time I was all but ready to pass out. Unfortunately, I was dropped at a bus station on the wrong side of Africa’s largest city at almost midnight, without any local currency or a working SIM card to ring for a lift. I almost stupefied the guards when I went outside to hail a taxi and was quickly told to wait indoors or I’ll almost certainly get mugged (I later realised that Nigerians are merely concerned about the safety of out-of-towners, rather than there being actual mortal danger). Eventually, a fellow commuter kindly arranged an Uber to take me on the hour-long ride to my digs, which just so happened to be a four-star luxury hotel…

Day 46 – Lagos, Nigeria

I woke up in a bed which felt like I had been slumbering on angel’s wings, my follicles detecting the cooling breeze of functioning air-con, with the low satisfying hum of a mini-fridge chilling beverages in the corner – where the hell was I? Thanks to help from Lagos-born, Swansea comrade Arin, I had been hooked up in a hotel part-owned by her father, in one of the most desirable and exclusive areas of the city. Although feeling completely out of place, I sure as hell was going to make the most of it.

Whilst the hotel was sumptuousness itself, it was currently closed to the public as it was undergoing renovation. As such, the WIFI was switched off and the restaurant closed, which wouldn’t have unduly bothered me in any other part of West Africa (usually I collapse in a fit of wonderment when the internet functions and food is readily available). However, being in a rich residential part of town meant Uber’s were necessary in order to eat, drink or dance (which I recently perfected). Therefore, I spent the day out-and-about doing a few chores: setting up my phone, withdrawing another new currency (after convincing NatWest that this was not a scam) and stocking my mini-fridge with all the essentials – beer and… well, further beer.

Day 47 – Lagos, Nigeria

Today, was a Monday. It was also a Muslim holiday, meaning that everything in the city was closed (slight exaggeration). Well, that was my excuse for barely leaving the confines of my chamber anyway. It’s very difficult to leave the clutches of angel’s wings folks, especially when the intensity and chaos of Africa’s largest city lie just outside. I was amazed to discover that a staggering twenty million people call the Nigerian capital their home. That was until I tried crossing it during rush hour – then it felt like I had met every single one of them.

Whilst I was currently entertaining an existence entirely opposite to that of the first forty-five days of the trip, I thought I might as well go all out – by visiting an Irish bar and ordering a cheeseburger, chips and Guinness. This was not, however, an entirely uncultured trip – oh no. Believe it or not, Guinness is a Nigerian institution, holding the world’s second-largest market for the beverage, as well as the very first brewery built outside the British Isles. They also produce their own non-alcoholic version called Malta, which Arin told me she was given from a very young age (explains a lot). I could only describe it as a combination of regular stout, mixed with Calpol (and not in the I’m gunna pretend to be ill to down a bottle of Calpol way). Bizarre.

Day 48 – Lagos, Nigeria

West Africa is known for a lot of things: fantastic seafood, muddy jungle roads, addictive Afrobeats, the wide expanse of the Sahara Desert – but wildlife is not really one of them. I’m doing it a huge disservice with that statement. But in comparison to the safari’s and national parks of the Southern and Eastern reaches of the continent, the West’s selection is rather limited. It’s partly my fault for barely seeing any though, as I simply haven’t had enough time to delve deep enough into the hinterlands of each nation to visit the few parks that do exist. Today, however, I would get my mammal fix.

The Lekki Conservation Centre lies a stone’s throw away from the capital (if that stone is being thrown by an angry Steve Backley), and is home to all manner of crocodiles, serpents and primates (two of which were more elusive than Trump’s tax returns). It made such a welcome change to be wandering through a jungle in search of monkeys (and malaria) instead of a city in search of embassies (and extortion). It instantly reminded me of the national parks I visited last year in Central America, just without the copious quantities of United Staters.

Well, it worries me slightly to see mammals so fearless of human contact, but I guess I am contributing to the problem. I watched a troupe of mona monkeys frolic and fight together, over various nuts, before shimmying to the tops of trees and out of sight. Or they would have been had the park not built ‘The Longest Canopy Walkway In Africa’ (which was far more flimsy than it looks). From up high, I was able to ensure that those simians had absolutely no respite from human interaction. I jest. Whilst I was as attempting to be as discreet as possible, others had no problem playing them rap music (why not classical?), taking countless selfies and feeding them all manner of ridiculous foods (lobster thermidor is certainly not a suitable dish for a chimp – or a human for that matter).

Day 49 – Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos, for all the pollution, traffic and bribes, is nothing like the city it is portrayed to be in Western media. When mentioning I was visiting the Nigerian capital, I would often receive concerned looks and comments on crime and gangs (although I should probably stop asking Ross Kemp for his opinion). But, as is always the case, its reputation is unwarranted. I had no more difficulties here than in any other African city. Plus, there’s far more to see – including a rather remarkable five-story art gallery hidden in the suburbs.

Nike’s Art Gallery, no nothing to do with them, was a talented Nigerian artist’s dream about thirty years ago. Now, her sanctuary houses more than twenty thousand works of art, by artists from all over the country. The building, despite comprising more rooms than I could count, is completely full, from floor to ceiling, with paintings, sculptures, jewellery and textiles – quite a remarkable sight. I almost had the chance of meeting the woman herself, but she left five minutes before I arrived (I hope by coincidence). Although, I probably would have made a large fool of myself by pretending to know something about her art when, in fact, I do not. It looks bloody nice though. Keep it going please, Lagos.


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2 Responses to “I’ve Benin Worse Places

  • Love reading your exploits Jack! What a fantastic experience you are having! Keep safe!

    • Jack Noah Rees
      2 years ago

      Thank you Hilary! Hope you’re keeping well!

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