That was twenty years ago.
It’s 6 in the morning and trying to find a hot coffee bar proves useless so we have to be satisfied with soluble coffee rubbed into a cup and one cigarette whose smoke rouse the curiosity of chameleon who was on watch during our sleep. In the courtyard two vans appears and guards who first frightened us. Each of the three comes from a different weapon, have different uniforms, but most fierce is in black uniform, and besides the usual already machine gun he carries a pistol and a machete that could behead easily anything and everyone if only looking funny. We are told that we are not allowed to use cameras so put it in the pocket of the bag, handy though, just in case. We squeeze with “weapons and luggage” how can each and hit the road. In front next to the driver sits the fearsome utter a word, scanning the faces in other cars. As air conditioning is a luxury, most of the cars have windows lowered in hope of some fresh air. We get out of Lagos and enter the beautifully built highway that connects Lagos to Cotonou. In less than an hour we get stuck in a traffic jam where old and dusty cars mixes with newer cars, pedestrians and people pushing carts.
Waiting patiently, more patient than black uniform which get off the van and starts giving orders trying to make some room. Somewhere far away from the road a circle of people who toss around something. Curiosity urges me to investigate more and see two guys in the middle of the circle with leather apron and machetes that rotate around each other while studying each other. I guess bustle is created by those who bet on one or the other, or so it seems, I hope that machetes are just for show. In the front fearsome is arguing with a driver who does not want to pull over, the crowd is so dense here it would be difficult to re-enter traffic. How oral arguments do not seem to impress he smash the guy in full face as it seems, I’m probably wrong otherwise he would not keep on clamour. Nothing can impress a man with a machine gun so he turns it in shooting position, pointing toward recalcitrant gun barrel. His arguments proves stronger so the man no longer waits and pulls the wheel getting off road. I dig out for camera to take a picture of that fight but meanwhile guard returns and don’t take the risk seeing that gun barrel pointed at me so discretely sneak back the device. Not far from there we reach Seme customs, here we leave the main road to get on a track where the dust is up to the ankles.
Few buildings shelters border police and customs. Between the two countries one iron gate divide the territory. Locked with a chain and a padlock this is the border. On both sides of the gate with plenty of people with bags and sacks waiting gate to be opened. Street vendors around offers everything from handmade slippers, using everything from tires to creepers, some unknown stuff as food and water in tetrahedral plastic bags. We have to wait a while, gate opens at fixed hours, so we get off the van for a cigarette and fresh air. The heat is stifling, finishing our water reserves we look at what happens when the gate opens. Poor people with bags are local smugglers, most of them have no ID card and their great smuggling is slippers from Nigeria against rice from Benin. When police opened the gate they run away, one way or another, while sticks are generously scattered on their back. I see those who have passed over are happy, nor feel pain if they managed to pass, providing today or this week, family will have food on table. It’s amazing how they could run with sacks on back, but once past, nobody asks them questions anymore, everyone knows that legally they do not exist. Finally we pass the open the gates and rejoin the highway, leaving behind the barricade that has diverted us. On road-side seats are strung with bottles containing a yellowish liquid. We realize that is gasoline but no one seems to be around. We learn that sellers are gasoline smugglers severely punished if they are caught, so they are hiding in the bushes waiting for potential clients, most often moped owners. Midday we reach ship, I glance at the package with speck and plum brandy that Father expects from Leonesa, his wife. Still looking good and that’s the first he is questioning me while Berta “three pistons”, the dog lost a leg, barks from the warehouse cover where she was banished for now. We go up to master cabin but as conditioning is not working it’s as hot as outside. Unwraps the package and invites us to speck and Transylvanian plum brandy strong as hell, for Christmas he was here so celebrating now, no matter is end of January and 45 degrees in his cabin. Sipping some brandy I feel like exploding while Father shows us how to check a good stuff. Taking a hefty swallow, for him at his two and ten meters and around 130 kilos, a well developed one and watch the hair on your arm. If it rises that’s quality merchandise. However, those 60 degrees in my glass weakened my desire to continue so I go to my cabin for a nap. After the midday heat tormented sleep in a barrack hot as a pizza oven I am not in the mood for local medical assistant who came to vaccinate us against all kinds of diseases. Fear is still higher than blue mood, don’t want to be shivering at fixed hours for a lifetime tremble, so I present myself with arm raised at stung. Damn cocktail do not know what he injected me, vaccinated against several diseases at once, but I feel a little dizzy. No problem, as an invisible hand switches off light in less than ten minutes is the dark, being near the equator has some advantages. I take one more shower, right in time for the beer on Rita’s terrace. It proves to be a construction in plancks and bamboo, especially nice is the pavement in the front with tables and chairs. Out of curiosity I visited the kitchen, we plan also to eat here, and can see it is well equipped with stainless steel tanks, even has a lifebuoy with lifeline, ship’s name on it and placed in the most visible place. Later find out what was already assuming, all the dishes are the price payed by crew for beer. Well, that’s it, nothing to do. We order beer for beginning, was thinking about 330 ml bottles but here the smallest beer is 600 ml. Good thing is quality, even if it’s smuggled from Lagos in conditions not quite orthodox. No matter, it’s bottled. After first beer I quench thirst and look around to nightlife. The bushes behind the terrace are both home to paupers living near the fence of the port. And not one or two, entire families and they do not seem unhappy. All revolve besides some huge cauldrons in which seethed all kinds of stuff out of sea. Even delicacies some would pay heck of a money in Europe, shark fins not being the most expensive. Our food is coming, obviously fish, it turns out better than expected, well cooked with all sorts of spices and seasoned with plenty of vegetables, many of them still not learned how to name. Anyway it’s super hot but not bad although nothing left. Hail for the beer! Goat meat sandwiches seller smells some business and comes to show his merchandise, African beads. They are not fine pieces of art but for a good price I buy few for small gifts. Fried banana seller does not have the same success, I do not trust careless placed tray on his head. And especially the dirt on his hands. He is insisting but the old beads seller roll up his burnus and push him away with a slipper, saying something I better don’t understand. He’s the today winner.
At one of the next tables a guy with black trousers and white shirt in bright red tie that matched a discordant note with terrace full of flowered shirts and casual attire. Father whispers he’s Transport Minister regular customer of the terrace. OK, now that beer is claiming rights and looking for a refreshment spot. Innocent question about where the toilet is arouses laughter. The first option is to bushes where with a little effort you can add some flavor to the soup in hot cauldrons. The second option is the tall concrete fence of national lottery across the street. The problem is that the road is narrow and there is not even a blade of grass along the fence. So you just pee openly in your back, everybody watching. Finally choose the second option to see I share toilet with the minister. Cool down, if this is local custom, that’s it! Back to the table I meet Rita who came to check business and greet old friends with a cold beer on the house. And did not come empty handed, are with her few gals which stick to the table. Nice but no one is interested and so they are talking to. A sprinkle coming out of nowhere to park our prayers cools down the air, we can breathe. Only girls already shivering, it’s too cold for them at twenty five degrees . Good hearted offers their coats, some even a nice warm place on board until the rain passes. Finally we decide to go for sleep. Pipe, that’s nickname of one girl does not want to detach from us, she has reasons, and go with us, without a scope, maybe she can close a deal. Arriving alongside we see that the tide is high and as everyone is asleep we try to reach the ladder that is already up. More difficult is with Pipe but succeed eventually. While looking to see what movies not seen yet she vanishes somewhere in a cabin. Good so, I just want to sleep.
PS The photos are from Capetown, have not really had a chance to do much in Nigeria or Benin