x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Practical Traveller: bureaucracy and budget trips in Benin

Chris Guillebeau encounters bribery and philanthropy in the West African country.

I lived in West Africa and visited the small country of Benin many times, but the first trip was the hardest. Flying around West Africa is not quite like hopping on the Air Arabia flight from Sharjah to Jeddah. It's more like going from bureaucracy to bureaucracy, and an adventure all of its own. Passing through the first airport in Conakry, Guinea, I was not allowed to proceed until I paid my first bribe of US$10 (Dh37). I was pleased that I had bartered it down from $25 (Dh92), but when I asked for a receipt ("J'ai besoin d'un reçu") the airport guy laughed at me. Apparently you are not supposed to get receipts for bribes; I had no idea.

From the tarmac of the next stop in Bamako, Mali, I watched as 24 armed soldiers loaded gold onto the plane. Mali is a gold exporter, but why they were exporting to the Ivory Coast, I didn't know. When I eventually touched down in Abidjan, the penultimate stop, I learned that the final connection to Cotonou was delayed 13 hours. Yes, that meant more than half a day of hanging out in the transit lounge since I wasn't allowed to enter the country. I boarded sometime around 4am, flew the short distance to Cotonou and went straight to meetings at 7.30am on the other side.

At any rate, I made it to Benin and had a nice trip. I stayed in cheap guesthouses, went to villages, met government officials and tried not to make too many promises. The Benin Marina, which is the nicest hotel in town and, therefore, where all the diplomats stay, was once a Sheraton property. Unfortunately, the Sheraton brand decided to pull the local owners' licence because the hotel was not measuring up to standards. That was no problem for the hotel - they changed the name to the Marina and went around advertising themselves as the "ex-Sheraton". Only in Africa, I thought, could a hotel call itself an "ex-Sheraton" and capitalise on the fact that it was once a worldwide franchised hotel, although it lost the licence for not providing good service.

Another time I went to a local restaurant called Pili-Pili. I was with a Beninese friend, and he told me that the roast chicken was one of Pili-Pili's specialities. I'm a vegetarian now, but at the time I was happy to go along with his recommendation. We met up with a few other people at the restaurant, and all seven of us ended up ordering the chicken.

Sometimes it can take a while to get your food at any restaurant, but after a full hour we were all getting restless. Someone made the old joke about how the restaurant staff must have had to go to the market and kill the chickens for us.

Another 30 minutes went by, and now everyone was upset. My friend called the manager over to complain. The manager went to the kitchen to investigate what was taking so long. He came back apologetic, but explained, "Since all of you ordered the same thing, we didn't have enough chickens. The cooks had to kill some more and are still roasting them."

Everyone at the table enjoyed the fact that they really did have to kill the chickens for us. I don't think that's ever happened to me before - at least not that I know of.

The night I left Benin for the last time was Father's Day, and I wanted to call my dad in the US from a telephone service down the street from my guesthouse. I changed into running clothes so I could exercise on my way back before packing for the airport. I didn't know how much the call would cost, so I put about $10 in local currency inside my shoe, thinking that would surely be enough. I managed to get through to my dad and we talked for about five minutes before being cut off.

After we were disconnected I was going to call back, but I first asked the attendant how much it had cost so far. He told me it was a full $8 (Dh30), which I argued about to no avail. He gave me the $2 (Dh7) change all in coins, which turned out to be a lot of coins. I would have told him to keep the change, but because I didn't like being charged so much, I took it with me on principle.

I didn't want to jog around with a fistful of coins for the next half an hour, so I had to figure out what to do with the money. Then I remembered something from when I was a child. Every New Year's Eve, my Dad and I used to take $20 (Dh73) in $1 bills and drive around a less-fortunate neighbourhood discreetly throwing money out the car window. My dad was the driver and I was the delivery man for the money. Ah ha, I thought, here's how I can get rid of all these coins that will be useless to me in a few hours.

I had no car and was on a different continent, but the idea was the same. This time, I threw coins out on the road whenever no one was looking. The biggest challenge was avoiding all the kids who shouted, "White man! White man!" whenever I ran by, because they would certainly find it odd that I was intentionally throwing money on the street. I hoped that at least one of them found a few coins later and it made them happy.

Then I went back to my guesthouse for the last time, took a shower and then rode to the airport for my midnight flight to Paris. I knew I'd be back in Africa, but I wasn't sure I'd ever return to Benin.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 175. Next week: going gorilla spotting in eastern Congo.???