I have been unable to get to the Internet for several days now and have been ridiculously busy after leaving Ghana overland into Togo for a night in the capital Lome. I had a quick tour of Africa’s biggest fetish market which features such lovely accessories as dead birds, monkey testicles and skulls of various animals for the voodoo loving Togolaise to enjoy. Not so much for me. After leaving Lome, I entered Benin which was the 200th country on the Travelers Century Club list and it was a very proud moment for me. Crossing overland at the beachside border crossing was very cool and was something that I have been working towards for a long time and capped off a year in which I have visited over 60 countries.
Benin in and of itself has little to offer in terms of must sees, much like Togo. However, I did take the time to head from Cotonou to Ganvie to take a boat tour of the famous stilt villages where all people live on huts built on stilts over the water. All movement between the houses etc. is done via pirogue (a dugout canoe). It was cool to see and I decided after getting some unfortunate news from back home that it would be best not to spend the night in Benin and try to get to Lagos, Nigeria where Africa’s biggest city would have better transportation and communication options. So that’s what I did.
Crossing into Nigeria at the Sema border crossing with Benin at night is like walking into a nightmare. First, everyone at the border tries to shake you down for every last cent you have. These people are incredulous and they lie and cheat and steal to get a little dash (bribe) from border crossers. I have had an incredible amount of experience crossing borders as you’d imagine and have dealt with corruption many times in my travels but never to the extent of which I saw in Nigeria.
There were people just hanging out near the border station in plain clothes who decided they wanted to be passport or visa inspectors apparently on the spot and threatened to get the police if I didn’t subject myself to their scrutiny. They would look at my visa and say it wasn’t valid or it wasn’t current. Obviously, it was and I calmly would show them the dates and prove it to be valid. When they realized they couldn’t bully me into giving them money they would start asking for it and stopping the charade and I would continuously say no very firmly.
Eventually, they were shocked or something that I wouldn’t give them any money because I guess most people do. The worst is the people who say they are drug enforcement agents and that I have to give them money so they don’t tell on me for having drugs. Well I don’t have drugs, never have, never will and said they are welcome to check my bags as much as they want. They would decline and then just simply ask for money. This would continue with the guy who stamps your passport as he would sit there with your passport in his hands and ask for money pretending to hijack my passport. After I say no very loudly and threaten to call the police with my cell phone he gives it back…another good move is to ask for a receipt which of course they will never produce and scares them.
After about an hour of intense grilling from the corrupt idiots who work the Nigerian border, I then have to deal with negotiating a taxi price into Lagos which is about two hours away. The only taxi available is a car that shouldn’t be on the road and looks like it has been in 10 accidents and has basically no windshield and 400,000 kilometers on it. But this is Africa and that type of thing is normal here so you do it with no qualms because you have no alternative at that time of night.
Driving the Nigerian highways is like driving through Armageddon. The roads are attrocious and there are people everywhere and no street lights anywhere. The drivers drive 200 miles an hour and there are police checkpoints literally every half mile or so and they were lit by roadside fires on each side so you couldn’t mistake them. You can’t even imagine how annoying it is. These checkpoints serve as a way for the police to extract more dash from tourists and drivers. My driver was a real piece of work and generally would skate through the checkpoints until we actually got to Lagos and the police yanked him out and asked for papers and of course he didn’t have up to date papers and was forced to shell out a quarter of what I paid him.
Driving in Lagos and the city itself is like driving through one of those visions of the future that makes the world look like it’s going to end. Lagos is simply put, the worst place I have ever been. Everyone is trying to rob you blind in all directions. The pollution, traffic and police are brutal. The police are almost all criminals apparently working the streets to protect and serve but trust me they are only serving themselves.
Additionally, I had no place to stay but knew the area I wanted to stay in that was close to Air France and the general area that is supposed to be safest in town, called Victoria Island. What a hellhole first of all and secondly, the hotels were like $500 a night. I literally walked into this hotel, very basic, and asked if they had a room. They said yes and I was relieved because of the nightmare day I’d had getting there and all I wanted was to sleep and relax. They said the room was $500 and I nearly hit the floor laughing but they were serious. Long story short, I ended up staying at this no tell motel in the middle of a really crap area for like $100…amazing.
Not to harp too much about how awful Lagos is but the airport deserves some mention as well. First, the population of Lagos is nearly 20 million people and the UN says in ten years it will be the most populous city in the world. This is ufortunate because it is a big problem and cannot possibly sustain that amount of people. The airport is a nightmare of epic proportions. They tell you to get to the airport between four and eight hours before your flight in order to be sure you get to check in. I got there about 5 hours before and was unable to get a good seat and ended up in the middle seat because as they said, I should’ve got there eight hours beforehand. Amazing. The airport is also overcrowded like you can’t believe and there is complete chaos the whole time and nobody who works there does anything. That is very similar to a lot of places I have been on this trip but in Lagos, they are very rude about it. The bottom line is that I will not be going back to Lagos any time soon.
I was fortunate that I was able to get out a few days early because I may have had a heart attack if I had to stay there any longer. I was able to get to Paris yesterday to watch the Inauguration of Barack Obama with people from all over the world cheering and clapping and it was a really touching moment that anyone who watched will not soon forget. It is once again OK to be an American traveling and I am proud that he is my President. We no longer have to say we are Canadians to avoid the inevitable tirade about how much they hate Bush and how he has destroyed the world.
Paris is such a treat and I am sorry I have to leave but have a lot to do back in New York before I go to Mexico next week. I was very happy I got to go the Hemingway Bar in the Hotel Ritz and had dinner in Montmartre last night which is one of my favorite places on the planet. I just had lunch in Paris and will be heading to the airport shortly and will have dinner in New York tonight. I am a little sad because this trip was wonderful and was a true epic. I will reflect on it and write some type of summary soon. Thanks for all your emails and take care.