The cardinal rule of traveling in Benin is: never be in a hurry. Surrender to the journey and try to enjoy it as much as possible because fretting about how long you’ve been sitting on top of the parking brake with sweat soaking through your t-shirt and your entire right leg completely asleep just isn’t constructive or beneficial to anyone.
Now, kicking back and just enjoying the scenery on these road trips is no small feat. There’s a whole conspiracy of obstacles and challenges you must overcome if your relationship with taxis here in Benin is to be a success. First, you have to find a taxi. Some cities/towns have taxi “stations” where cars informally congregate to find passengers. But most often you just stand on the side of the road and try to hail literally every car that passes you because there is no way to tell a private vehicle from a taxi. (Although chances are that the crappier the car looks, and the more stuff it has strapped to its roof, the greater the likelihood that it’s a taxi.)
Once you do find a taxi, do not dwell too long on the fact that all of its taillights have been broken. The light bulbs wouldn’t have worked anyway, so really that plastic could be put to better use elsewhere. Trunks also don’t close in Benin, so when your driver breaks out the bungee cords and rope to fasten the door shut (with, of course, your bags sitting on top of the pile — the first ones to go should this precarious closure malfunction), don’t be concerned. Just go with the flow! Beninese taxis have a Mary Poppins kind of magic to them, and can hold more bags of potatoes, stalks of bananas, suitcases, small children, chicken, dried fish, mattresses, and baskets than any other vehicles in the world. Guaranteed. And your driver will not let you forget this. Even when you insist it’s no inconvenience to hold one of your bags on your lap, he WILL find space for it in the trunk.
OK. Your bags are in. Now, find a seat. Oh, that front seat is open? Think you’re lucky, do you? THINK AGAIN. Perhaps for fifteen (maximum thirty) beautiful, beautiful minutes you will remember what it is like to ride comfortably in a moving vehicle with your own seat and a reasonable amount of space on all sides of you. You’ll have leg room. You may even have a head rest. Enjoy these few minutes, if you do indeed choose the front seat (often they insist), because as soon as you slow down to pick up the next passenger, you better believe he will squeeze right in next to you. And then you will enjoy the rest of your ride, as I’ve already mentioned, sitting on the emergency brake. Or worse, depending on the type of car, you will be nestled up so close to the gear shift that every time (every. single. time.) the driver shifts gears, you will have to contort your legs into yet another impossible position so that this unfortunate metal box can actually have a chance of continuing on its journey. Console yourself with the fact that there really isn’t any good seat in a bush taxi. Like the trunk, your driver will show extraordinary cunning and bravado in his ability to squeeze passengers into these death traps. Two in the front seat is nothing – often the driver shares his seat as well. In the back seat of a typical sedan you can expect to find at least four adults; children are not taken into account in the passenger tally. If you are in what is called a “neuf place” in Benin (meaning it should take nine passengers), you can usually find four adults in the farthest back seat, five in the middle row, and three passengers in the front seat (yes, that total does come to twelve, again, not counting children).
With all this extra weight, the fact that these unfortunate metal boxes do in fact still move at all is a bizarre, disturbing miracle of engineering (and duct tape). Their interiors have been completely gutted. There is often only one handle fixture used for rolling the windows up or down; it is passed back and forth among the passengers who attach it to the small nub protruding from the doors and adjust according to climate, although, given the unbearable heat, the only time we’ve been in a hustle to roll up the windows was when a torrential downpour came out of nowhere, which is really the worst luck you can have in a taxi here because I have yet to see one with a fully-functioning pair of windshield wipers. Also, doors on these cars can no longer close properly, so they leak. A lot. So that frantic passing back and forth of the one window-roller-upper was really futile because you’re still getting soaked by all the water seeping through the cracks around the doors.
Like motorcycles, almost all the taxis still have both plastic frames perched on either front door, intended to hold a very useful device known as mirrors, but those are long gone. In my most recent taxi, there was an entire section of the front console missing – I think it used to be a radio? The speedometer didn’t work. The driver periodically stopped to check the gas, the same way you would check your oil, since the gauge on the dash shouldn’t be expected to be accurate either. I also got quite a kick out of the very optimistic-looking temperature and fan speed controls for a presumed air-conditioning system. Yeah, right.
But what really took the cake in this car was its charming analog clock on the dashboard. It was stopped at 11:30, although occasionally the minute hand seemed to be in the midst of a convulsive crisis over whether it should be 11:29, wait, no, slowly towards 11:33 now, oh quickly back to 11:30! 11:29? No. 11:30. The second hand seemed stuck in a similar rut. For the better part of the trip it was diligently moving back and forth between the 2 and the 4, counting those same ten seconds over, and over, and over again. At one point it froze at the 4 for a good 30 seconds, and we really seemed to be one the verge of revolution and progress, but then it moved back on up towards the two to continue its same old familiar path. Even clocks know that time is irrelevant in Benin.
So the inside of your car is a mess. You’re hot. It’s crowded. Unfortunately the conditions of the roads offer no reassurance. Lanes? Hah. Respecting different sides of the road for opposing traffic, at the very least? HAH. Not here! On a road with as many potholes, no, craters, as these, each and every vehicle – from motorcycles to 18-wheelers – has free reign of every last inch of pavement to move around as they see fit. This means a lot of swerving, a lot of bumping, quick braking, desperate accelerating, and quite often the grating sound of the bottom of a car scraping against pavement. Which, in these cars, is truly a terrifying experience because one little loose screw could probably make the entire thing fall apart.
Somehow, despite all this, you make it to your destination, alive and well. And you’ve probably seen quite a few beautiful things along the way. Muslim men stopped in their fields, or pulled over on the side of the road at the call to prayer, completely serene and focused despite the busy highway next to them. Huge herds of cattle crossing the road, and the oddly comforting sound of their hooves, and their labored breathing. Fields of cotton in a soft white blur.
Close to a town called Glazoué, the mountains came into view and I was reminded of driving west on I-64, and that moment when the Blue Ridge Mountains come into hazy focus and you’re surrounded by nothing but trees on either side of the road. The mountains here are drier and rockier, but still very reminiscent of Appalachia. We were approaching the mountains around sunset, which made for an extremely pleasant end to a long and harrowing journey.
Read Rachel’s first Dispatch from Benin about rain and an impulsive decision.
Read Rachel’s second Dispatch from Benin about helping with delivering twins.
Read Rachel’s third Dispatch from Benin about communicating without words.