Day 86: Voodoo and motos in Benin

Soutpiel Safari
John & Jenny
Sat 29 Jan 2011 20:39
Day 86: Saturday 29 January 2011. Chez Monique, Abomey, Benin. N07 11.869 E001 58.822. Distance driven 224 km
My problem is that I had a secretary, to whom I dictated, for so many years that I have lost the ability to write fluently.  All day, while I am driving, I think of things to write about, but when it comes to the evening I am too tired to write it all down.
Today was a day of very varied experiences, but to write it all down at my typing speed would take all night.  We drove eastwards along the coast road towards Cotonou and it seemed as if the whole world was on the road - thousands on thousands of small motorcycles (motos) like swarms of angry ants, enveloped us from all sides.  It was probably only that it was Saturday morning and everyone was going to the local market.  The road wound through village after village and each one seemed to have its own Saturday market.  There are very few shops in these villages - just stalls by the side of the road.  One can buy practically anything by the side of the road - beautiful fruit and vegetables, bread, basins and toilets, charcoal and firewood, cell phones, building materials, coffins, vegetable oil in bulk, gasoline, African wood carvings, beautifully decorated textiles, timber, cement - just anything.  This is my type of shopping as you don't have to find a parking place and then hunt around for the right change for the parking meter.  One just pulls off the road into the dirt in front of the stall you want to visit and stop there.  No formality, no regulations, no parking wardens - just stop and shop, what could be more convenient?
The motos are just incredible. Most are driven by Kamikaze pilots and they weave in and out of the traffic on both sides of the cars, but they never seem to have accidents and none of the drivers or riders wear helmets.  In terms of human cargo they are built for a driver and one pillion passenger, but no stupid Brussels regulations here.  It is quite normal to see a whole family aboard with the husband driving, the (big bum African) wife on the pillion with a baby strapped to her back and one or more young children sandwiched in between.  A family of four is quite normal, five quite common.  Then for cargo, one sees enormous bags of flour or grain precariously balanced across the pillion with the vehicle weighed down at the back.  If they can't get the load on the pillion then why not carry it on your head?  We have seen drivers carrying planks of wood up to 5 metres long balanced on their heads.  Today we found one guy towing a bunch of steel reinforcing bars bent into a "U" with the ends trailing on the ground 5 metres behind the bike!  Livestock, why not?  Live pigs and goats are just lashed across the pillion or the rear load rack. Live chicken? They just hang from the handlebars and flap in the breeze. The normal load is 20 chickens each side!
In Togo, and particularly here in Benin, we have seen hundreds of roadside stalls displaying bottles of golden liquid.  Most of these are recycled wine or gin bottles but the larger ones (10 litres or more?) are almost spherical with a long neck. perhaps these were former wine vessels - are these
demi-johns?  It soon became obvious that the golden liquid was gasoline and all the motos were filling their tanks from whisky bottles!  We were so intrigued that we had to stop at a stall to ask why they were selling in competition with the gas stations.  The fuel is said to be normal gasoline or diesel and of equivalent quality to that sold by the gas stations, but up to 20% cheaper.  For example, the regular price of diesel is 555 CFA/litre and the stall price is 460 CFA. The explanation got somewhat lost in the French but it seems this fuel comes from Nigeria where the retail price is much less than in Benin. It is obviously Black Market in some way but on a very large scale.  Coming from a process industry background I am horrified by the safety aspects -  there are perhaps 70 to 100 litres of fuel on display at each stall, all in glass containers with cork stoppers and the ambient temperature is about 33 degrees in the shade.  Nearby, you will find someone cooking on an open charcoal fire.  You only need someone to knock over one bottle and you'll have a major fire on your hands and there is no public fire service! Terrible, but it just doesn't seem to happen.
On the outskirts of Cotonou we turned north towards Abomey and detoured at Amomey-Calabie to visit the village on stilts at Ganvie.  We took a 2 hour trip on a motorised pirogue out to Ganvie where 30,000 people live in houses built on stilts and their only form of transport is by boat. The whole community is based on fishing but it has its own market, churches, mosque etc and its drinking water supply comes from boreholes 100 m deep below the shallow salty lagoon.
North of Ganvie the road deteriorated very badly and became full on potholes.  You folks in the UK complain about potholes after two bad winters but you haven't seen anything yet!  Here the traffic in both directions weaves across both sides of the road to avoid the holes and the motos just plough through the cars and trucks.  It is just chaos!
We are camped tonight in a lovely compound full of trees; it is a kind of encampement where most visitors are staying in rooms. Here we have met up with a Swiss couple, Oliver and Corrine, who are driving to South African but on a more relaxed schedule than ourselves.  We are now beginning to lag a little behind schedule and must make up some days in Nigeria, which is OK as we allowed 14 days for that country and we don't want to stay that long.