Wandering about in Cotonou

Not feeling like getting in another taxi or bus, we decided to spend the day wandering around Cotonou. We needed to find a bank machine to get some cash, and we wanted to pick up a different SIM for my phone in hopes of figuring out why text and Internet were not working. Since we were close to the hotels (Ibis and Novotel) and the conference centre, we decided to try walking there.

For some reason, we feel a lot safer wandering around Cotonou than we did in Accra. There seems to be many less people, so that we aren’t so crowded. The fewer people gives the impression that Benin is more developed than Ghana, but we have been told many times that it isn’t the case. In one area for certain Ghana is more developed, and that is Internet access and speed. The cellular network here only gets 2G (no 3G), and even wired Internet is very slow. Recently Ghana has become an access point for fiber that connects Africa to Europe – it will be a while before that increased speed link makes its way to Benin.

After arriving at the Novotel, we quickly discovered that our credit card did not work in their visa ATM. The ATM was hardwired to select “chequing” as the account, so we couldn’t tell it to use credit. Fortunately, the Ibis hotel is on the same road (same parking lot), and their Ecobank ATM allowed us to remove some cash. We’re guessing that would be true for any Ecobank ATM, but haven’t tested that theory.

With money in hand, we decided to try out the local form of transport, the Zemi-John – a motorcycle taxi. Note that there are few car taxis in Cotonou, so almost all public transport is via zem or foot. Occasionally we saw more than one passenger on a zem, but that gets extremely crowded and uncomfortable.

Looking at our guidebook, we decided to go to the Marché Ganhi (a market area in downtown Cotonou). After leaving the gates of the hotel, a couple of guys on motorcycles offered us a ride. They weren’t wearing the yellow jerseys of the official zem drivers, and probably had an arrangement with the hotel security. We negotiated to pay 1/2 of what they were asking (they asked 1000 CFA each, but we could take a taxi for 3000). We paid 500 CFA each, which turned out to be reasonable and only a little high). The route to the market was pretty much a straight line, and the first 2/3 of the trip there was little traffic. With each of us on different bikes, Becky was nervous at first because she couldn’t see Scott and didn’t want to get separated. The driver clearly noted this as he flagged the Scott’s driver to pull up beside us. (Scott suspects that he was really trying to renegotiate the fare in mid-ride, but who knows…) In the end, we arrived safely at our destination. The trip was kind of fun, but very disconcerting to ride the back of a motorcycle without a helmet. Fortunately both drivers kept to a pretty slow speed.

We picked up a SIM and bought a recharge card from a nearby street vendor. Not thinking, we bought the first recharge card we saw, which turned out to be 10,000 CFA ($20). This is a lot of money to put on a phone. We may end up using it in Togo and Ghana just because we likely won’t use it all while in Benin. We might even use it to make a quick call home – we are told that skype doesn’t work well here because the Internet is too slow.

With SIM and recharge card in hand, we stopped in a shop for a cool drink and tried to get Becky’s unlocked Android phone to work. It had worked fine with the Ghana SIM, but proved much more difficult with the Benin one. Neither Internet (GSM-EDGE) nor SMS would work. After fiddling for a while, we asked another person in the shop, since he was clearly using an Android phone. He responded “use Moov, MTN Internet is no good”, which didn’t help much. Fortunately, we were right downtown, and found a mobile shop. They directed us to the nearby MTN head office, where we were quickly sent upstairs, away from the queue, to the premiere service area. Speaking French poorly and being clearly non-native is an asset sometimes. After a brief wait there, the staff tried to get the phone to work. They did get Internet working, but SMS failed to send (we could receive but not send – and apparently, it worked in the MTN person’s phone, but not on Becky’s). We thought we had to somehow activate it, but they didn’t seem to understand that. After about 45-minutes, we gave up. We could call each other (using voice), which is enough while Becky is at the conference, so Scott can come and escort her from the conference site to the hotel at the end of the day. The site and hotel are very close together, but still better to walk together in the dark.

We were slightly adventurous with lunch and choose to eat at a Grill restaurant. It was still pretty up-scale from a local perspective, but not as posh as some of the restaurants we saw. It didn’t have AC, but rather fans and an open walled design, that is the cement wall was a mesh type design with lots of openings to allow air to pass through. This made for a quite pleasant place to sit and eat lunch, and the food was quite good.

After lunch, we decided to walk to the Artisan market. On the way there, we saw a motorcycle crash, and as we got closer, saw the driver had a badly bleeding head wound and possibly other injuries. By the time we got close, several guards from a nearby government building had arrived, and appeared to be phoning for assistance, so we didn’t linger and try to help. Scott decided this was a sign not to ride any more motorcycles today and we walked home from there, having not found the Artisan market. Fortunately it was only a few kilometres to walk back to Haie Vive and the home of our hosts.

We never did find the Artisan market, mainly because Scott misread the map, and we walked the wrong way. Perhaps we will try again another day.


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