I was in the backseat of a shared taxi bound from Lome, Togo, to Cotonou, Benin, flanked by an African couple that slid into the seats on either side of me. They squabbled across me in French, then the man looked away. The woman, meanwhile, noted the windows were down. She slipped her wig off, sliding it in her handbag.
Many women wear wigs in this part of the world. Initially, I'd marvelled at the perfectly even, straight bangs and bobs of West Africa – often with a splash of purple or red – but a hostel owner had set me straight.
"They're wigs. Maybe that's why people hate having windows open on the bus here. It'll mess up their wigs."
The woman next to me – who I inwardly nicknamed Shorn (for her buzz-cut) over the next few hours – was far too practical to risk messing up her wig. She just put it away.
We were surrounded by the usual vendors, and Shorn did her souvenir shopping while we waited for the driver to start the car. She'd select a few pieces – such as handmade baby clothes – from a seller carrying a basket of wares on her head. Shorn showed them to her husband, who sat bored and expressionless to my right. He'd mumble 'non' and Shorn would renegotiate with the seller, then try her luck with her husband again. In the end, the couple bought a tiny frilly dress.
The drive to the border was short, and I'd learned to wrap my hair in my scarf to avoid tangling from the wind – I didn't have the option of temporarily removing my long hair. On arrival, the car pulled into a market, where the driver evicted us passengers.
This didn't surprise me. I'd been through this process several times in other cars. Passengers walk through borders on their own, their luggage still in the trunk of the vehicle. The driver transits the border alone, then meets the passengers on the other side.
The man who had bought the front seat walked quickly, hustling to the border. The couple was slower, first stopping to consider some meat-on-a-stick sold at the market, and then proceeding. I followed them, not yet certain what was going on.
We exited Togo, casually strolling past Immigration. Shorn dropped a few coins onto the Immigration desk and kept walking without even slowing down, her husband by her side. They motioned me to follow.
"I have to get a stamp," I said. I hurried to the counter, where a man in a uniform stamped me out. The couple had waited for me, which was sweet of them.
We passed the police check at the end of Togo. Again, Shorn dropped a few coins off, showing no papers. I flashed my exit stamp and was waved on.
We crossed sunny no-man's-land between the Togo and Benin border posts.
Now we got to the medical check. Shorn's husband showed his yellow fever certificate and walked through. She showed her coins, but this system didn't work with this officer.
"Where is your certificate?" Shorn looked at him, then shrugged.
"Where is your certificate?" he asked her again. I pushed mine ahead, trying to take the attention away from her.
"Is she with you?"
"Yes," I said. Which wasn't a lie. Technically.
"You need to tell your sister that she needs her vaccination. It is for her own good."
I heartily agreed – he was absolutely right – and the officer let her go with just a glare.
At Benin passport control, again, Shorn and her husband walked right by. A man in a uniform came chasing after me. I do stand out in a crowd here.
"You need a stamp!" Indeed, I did.
Unfortunately, my visa that I'd diligently gotten in New York had expired a few days ago. When I'd gone to the consulate, I'd been told I might get a visa for six months. But they'd only given me three months and that had been a month before departure on my round-the-world expedition. That hadn't been enough time to get from Spain to Benin. I hoped the border guards wouldn't notice, or I'd have to buy a new visa on the spot. I'd already paid $100 for this visa, way more than the rate at the border.
Shorn and her husband had stopped and were waiting for me. Horrified, I mentally willed them to move on. The longer they waited, the more likely they were to be questioned about their documents. They were waiting for me because they assumed I didn't know the route. I didn't, but I didn't have to. I stood out. The taxi driver would have no problem finding me on the other side.
"Are they with you?"
"Why do they not come over here?"
"They have different passports. They are living here."
The officer ignored the couple – thank goodness – and turned his attention to my passport, with its expired visa. He called over another officer.
"United Nations! Look at this, it's from the United Nations! You really got this visa at the United Nations?"
"Yes, in New York."
They gazed at the visa, quite impressed. I was filling out their entry form in the meantime, fully expecting to be told to fork over some dough.
One of them stamped my passport and took my form.
"Welcome to Benin."
I caught up with Shorn and her husband. We walked past the police, me showing my passport and Shorn no longer even paying her occasional coins. So maybe I'd been right and they were from here. And we kept walking once we got to the other side of the border. Where was that taxi driver? Then, a different man got our attention.
"This way," he said.
He led us to our taxi.
The driver was clearly annoyed and had sharp words for us. Shorn said something back involving the word "passport," and they all looked at me. The driver's tone softened. My passport had held us up, not the local people.
We got in the taxi and continued to Cotonou, passing a voodoo-themed village on the way, with its weird statues that looked like a combination of Biblical scenes and voodoo vignettes. Traffic had backed up by then, slow and dense along the main road.
"Where are you going in Cotonou?" The driver asked me this in French. I struggled to answer.
"Hotel, en ville."
He nodded, drove us close to the city centre, and put me on a motorbike taxi with instructions to take me downtown.
And suddenly, I was independent and free. Moto-taxis are surely one of the more dangerous motor vehicles to travel on in Africa, which is why they are banned from many city centres. But they aren't banned in Benin.
I was able to get us to the main hotel street in the center of Cotonou, and using my map, we found our way to the hotel I'd picked out of the guidebook. It was too expensive, but the cheap one nearby had closed down in late 2010. And anyway, en route, I'd spotted a schwarma place – where there is schwarma, there is frequently hummus.
I ditched my bags in my room and headed out for some hummus. I nearly made myself sick on it. Delicious. And way, way too much of it.
And I tottered home. Home to sleep off my hummus. Tomorrow I'd go to the stilt village of Ganvie, and if I could, take a quick trip back to the voodoo town. The next day was Sunday.
Sunday. The day I planned to get through the notorious Benin/Nigeria border. I tried hard not to think about it as I drifted off into hummus-sleep.
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