Intrepid Wander Woman Marie Javins hits the Nigerian and discovers you need both patience and courage to cross it
One does not cross the busy Krake border to Lagos, Nigeria without apprehension. Last week, I'd watched local residents cross between Togo and Benin without showing identification, tossing a few coins into the hands of border guards. No one would dare try that at Krake. This border is considered dangerous and risky. The Africans I'd met all seemed to have individual systems for crossing the Krake border, and had been happy to share their strategies with me. One had been kind enough to write out his instructions in my notebook, and had given me additional information verbally.
"Only two bags max. You must keep your money you need for the day in your pockets. Do not show anyone where your other money is. Do not get into a taxi with people who look like thieves. They will crowd you and feel your pockets. Do not open your bags at the border. Do not speak to anyone who is not wearing a uniform. Change your money the day before. Only travel between 8am and 4pm when it is light. Don't risk getting caught out when you can't see your surroundings."
I got it. The Benin-Nigeria border scared people.
And they, in turn, scared me. I hated not knowing if my paranoia was justified or simply overblown, but I couldn't risk being wrong that Nigeria's border couldn't possibly be as scary as people said.
Nigeria is primarily a cash society, and dire warnings claimed that fraud is near-instantaneous with credit card transactions. Also, ATM information was sketchy. Were there ATMs? Were they safe? Information on independent travel in Nigeria was sketchy, limited mostly to a single Bradt guide that I'd read cover-to-cover before leaving it at home as it had been too heavy and hadn't been available in PDF or Kindle format.
I sewed my credit cards and emergency cash into the inside of my trousers at five in the morning in my hotel room in Cotonou. Money belts are kind of pointless, I think, as thieves go for them first.
I'd rushed through Ghana, Togo, and Benin just for this moment, so that I could go into Lagos at the crack of dawn on Sunday. As a sometimes-New Yorker and former resident of Cairo, I'm aware that reputations of places are often totally exaggerated. I could laugh at myself later, though. I was in no position to know what was real and what was just the bogeyman. Sunday morning, I reasoned, would be the quietest time of the week in Lagos.
The plan was this: Cross Krake border, get to a Lagos taxi park and connect straight out to Oshogbo, or to Ibadan then to Oshogbo. Oshogbo has a sacred grove of Yoruba god sculptures and a good budget hotel called Heritage. I could stay there, then it would be about five to six hours to Abuja tomorrow.
I was a little worried about getting a room in Abuja as the Nigerian presidential election was happening. But I couldn't find reliable information on the safety of the southern route, though Nigerians later told me it was fine now, that the days of kidnappings were over. But tourists weren't taking this route and talking about it, so I was reluctant to be the guinea pig.
A long bus ride would take me from Abuja to Calabar on Tuesday, and I'd have Wednesday and Thursday to get my Cameroon visa at the consulate there, before taking the ferry out on Friday. That was my birthday, and my planned gift to myself was to splurge on the nicest hotel in a Cameroon seaside resort town.
I left my room and hailed a zem to get to the motor park.
A zem is the same thing as a scooter or moped. The drivers wear yellow numbered jerseys. A ride within Cotonou is 200 CFA, which is about 40 cents. Zems gave me freedom that I don't have in countries that only offer car-taxis, which are expensive and not always available. And zems are fast as they dodge in and out of traffic.
They're also incredibly dangerous, of course, as we're all zipping around without helmets. I tried not to think about that.
I made a series of embarrassing mistakes at the motor park. I changed money and the kid that showed me the money-changer, explained to me that on the other side of the border I could get a taxi straight to Ibadan and didn't have to go into Lagos at all. He then helped me find the right car. He took my fare and gave it to the driver. 6,000 CFA? Really?
No, not really. The other passengers all paid 1,000 CFA. I looked at my written instructions.
I needed to stop letting people rush me. I thought back to what Martin, a German development worker I'd met in Bamako, had told me.
"Keep your money in your pocket. When someone asks you for money, just don't put your hand in your pocket."
The kid saw that I had 4,000 CFA left. I'd tipped him 2,000, which is about 1,500 more than I should have tipped him.
"You can't use that where you're going. You should just give it to me."
He had a point. But I always keep a little because you just never know. It was early, or I wasn't thinking, or something. I gave it to him. I had only Nigerian naira now. I'm sure I used to be a better traveller. Was it only yesterday I'd blown it so completely at Ganvie? I'd never tell Martin about these few days.
The ride was less than an hour long. At Krake, I got out of the taxi and was immediately deluged by zem drivers offering to shepherd me across the border for 2,000 naira. I said no at first – that's $12 and I think I know how to walk across a border. But people were yelling at me when I tried and shouting for me to go back, so I negotiated and hired one for 1,500 naira.
He put my bag and myself onto his zem and zoomed off into a back alley. He stopped at a barricade, where some officials with stamp pads were hanging out in a hut.
The driver and the stamp guys had an animated discussion. The officials appeared to be chewing the driver out. I wasn't sure what was going on yet. Then one of the stamp-pad men led me into an office up the hill, where a passport officer could speak English.
"The border is closed."
"They won't let you through. The Nigerians won't. It's closed. You have your visa, I know, but it is impossible. Try again tomorrow."
Elections. Nigeria had closed the border for security. My original plan had been to skate through before the elections, but ironically, getting the Nigeria visa itself back in Mali is what had thrown me off my schedule. That and the days it took for the Ghana visa.
"Come back tomorrow."
The zem guy apologetically took me back to the Cotonou taxis. I thought I'd head from there to a tourist town three hours north. The border up there would enable me to avoid Lagos, though it has fewer public transportation options. I'd been thinking of going that way anyway. Now the decision had been made for me. I thought for a second about my written instructions: Do NOT go through a different border.
Nonsense, I thought.
I had to change enough money at the border to get myself back to Cotonou and also to pay the zem driver. I gave him 2,000 CFA for trying, which is $4. A bit here, a bit there, all adding up.
As I sat in my taxi waiting for it to fill up, a friend of the zem guy ran up to my window.
"You can go to the other border at Igolo! It is open for sure. You will get through."
He took me out of the Cotonou taxi and installed me in a Porto Novo taxi. Another tip to him – my lowest denomination was 1,000 CFA. Ugh. Then 700 more to Porto Novo.
The taxi driver then put me on a zem in Porto Novo, issued strict instructions to the driver, and we were off. Where to? Who knows? The plan was in action, and I wasn't in charge of it.
He left me at another taxi stand. 200 CFA. The taxi took me 20km up the border to the Igolo border post. 1,000 more. I think. I can barely remember. But I clearly recall that there were four adult women in the back seat, one in the front and then the driver, and there was a total of six children. In a sedan.
A freelance border fixer approached me at the new border. He started at 1,500 naira, but he didn't have a motorbike.
"Border no ferme?"
"For sure you get through. Change your last 5,000 CFA."
"What if I don't get through?"
"You will get through."
The local money-changers, who were sitting on three wooden benches, all agreed.
"Of course you will get through. There are ways."
"Okay, but if I don't get through, you give me back my CFA."
I sat with the money-changers. One of them spoke English and explained to me what was going on.
"He must go talk to the passport man, to get him to not stamp you out of Benin, in case you can't get into Nigeria. Otherwise you are stuck."
That seemed reasonable.
The fixer disappeared down a dirt road, the same one the border-crossers were using. At both borders, I'd been taken the back way. The not-so-closed way. Lots of local people were walking across these supposedly closed borders.
The fixer was gone a long time, and when he came back, he had a middle-aged, pudgy guy in a white tank top alongside him.
"This is the passport man."
The passport man showed me his ID and sat down.
"The problem is that the border on the Nigeria side is very tight right now. You will not get through."
"I would get through," chimed in the money-changer. "But the problem is... you are... white. You stand out. Someone will notice."
"I advise you to exercise patience," said the passport man. "Come back tomorrow. The border will be open at six. We have a hotel here. You can rest there and try again in the morning."
500 more to the fixer for his efforts.
The money-changer gave me my 5,000 CFA back.
I caught a taxi back to Cotonou. I got the last seat, and was squashed into the gap in the front seat between passenger and driver. There was no back on the seat. This hurt. When we got to Porto Novo, I thought, "Just get out. Go to a hotel here. Try again tomorrow."
But I wanted to end up three hours closer to Abuja tomorrow.
The ride back to Cotonou was painful, stuck in that gap. 1,500 this time.
I needed to get an Abomey taxi, to head north. I was hungry and tired and hot and sweaty, but a money-changer helped me into the right car.
About an hour into this taxi ride, we passed Ouidah.
That's not the right road.
I looked at my map. Maybe we turned at the next town?
We didn't. The driver pulled over for a second to pick up a new fare. I turned to the other passengers.
"Are we going to Lome?"
"Yes. Of course."
Abomey. Lome. I'd mispronounced my destination – totally my own fault – and the money-changer had heard only the ending of the word, then put me in the wrong taxi. Over an hour into the wrong taxi. What a day.
"Where are you going?"
The other passengers all looked confused.
One of them looked at me and in clear English said, "You are lost."
"Yes. I am lost."
I got out. The driver looked disgusted. I gave him 2,000 CFA, cursing at myself. A zem driver was there, and he took me to a Cotonou taxi. 200 more.
The Cotonou taxi cost another 1,000, and partway into the trip, the rain started. I had already given up on Abomey but had thought I'd go back to Porto Novo and spend the night, but now it was getting dark and raining. I guess I wouldn't do that after all.
On arrival in Cotonou, I cowered under an awning with some taxi drivers while the skies opened up. Eventually, I pulled out my backpack cover – which still had orange dirt on it from the last time I used it in Uganda in 2005 – and my plastic coat, hailed a zem, and found my way through the spray of the streets, back to my Hotel Riviera Benin, squish-squishing my way into my same room from the last few days.
Where I unstitched my credit cards, so that I could pay for my room.
I hoped Nigeria would be open for business tomorrow.