Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Welcome To The Machine

I arrived in Cotonou, Benin late at night. My Lonely Planet refers to Cotonou as “A dangerous city” which is “like being locked in a car with a chain-smoking speed freak.” This was not something to be taken lightly. Definitely not the type of place to arrive late at night.
I took a zemi-john (moto taxi) from the airport to a hotel and was able to ask in French for him to take me to an ATM first so I could pay him. Thankfully ATMs are guarded by men 24 hours a day in Africa. In the darkness, the city was quiet. The air was breathable, and nothing like what my book described as we cruised down poorly-lit dirt roads and vacant city streets.
My hotel was on the main drag, Ave Steinmetz, and as it turned out there was a big road construction project in front of the hotel, so there was no traffic there either when I first stepped out to Cotonou in the morning.
In fact, it took me a while to find the insanity that my book described. I slowly walked northeast toward the Grand Marche, the enormous market at the heart of the town. As I approached the large intersections closer to the market, I could hear the grumbling of engines, and see the change in air quality. As I approached, the roar grew louder and when I arrived at the main intersection, it was as if I were standing at the point where two enormous gears mesh together. There were controlled intersections, something I hadn’t seen yet in Africa, and a mind-boggling number of zemis, taxis, cars, trucks, and people, all moving in coordinated chaos. Every truck, every car, every bike, and every head was loaded down with more cargo than it should be carrying. The roar of the engines, the exhaust, the countless moving object, all made for a phenomenally chaotic space. I followed the flow of traffic and made a clockwise circuit around that intersection before being spit out on the other side, and as I continued down the block, the machine grew quieter. Not quiet, but not as intense. So I turned around, and dove back into the machine and allowed myself to be spit out on the other side again.

Welcome to the Machine


I ventured into the endless, smelly, overcrowded Grand Marche one day and allowed myself to get lost. There was no use in trying otherwise. As dusk was approaching and the vendors were beginning to close down, I hailed a waiting zemi and asked him to take me to a restaurant I had to try: Le Roi Du Schawarma. The King of Schawarma. Now that’s a place I had to try!
The zemi was ecstatic to drive me and I don’t think he understood my directions. He just let me get on the bike and immediately kicked it up to 3rd gear, the dense crowd be damned, he began screaming like an ambulance siren, bobbing and weaving, people jumping out of the way for their very lives. As the driver wailed and we caught air off of the lumps in the dirt paths, I screamed “doucement!” between hearty laughs at the expressions of the fearful vendors and shoppers.
The screaming and wailing took me deep into the city, far from my intended destination. I eventually just told the driver that the spot over there was what I was looking for and gave him twice his requested fare for the memorable experience. I caught the next zemi back to my hotel; he got thoroughly lost, but I got a nice tour of the city in the process.
Cotonou, to me, didn’t seem to be the brutal beast my book warned me of. Perhaps I have seen bigger and more dangerous. For me gears of the machine were a game I could play by choice, and when I needed some asylum in the city, I could find it by heading a few blocks in any other direction.
Inside the Machine

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