Transit: The most terrifying thing in Benin
There are several ways to get around in Benin. Here, I will list the most used and provide helpful commentary.
Walking: Pretty much everyone has access to this method of transportation. If you don’t you probably use crutches or a hand-pedaled bike/wheelchair which your friends or the kids in your family will help you navigate over rough terrain. Walking is generally pretty safe as long as you remember PEDESTRIANS DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. With this simple fact in mind, you should be prepared to actively dodge anything that is coming at you. If you are lucky, you will have an even surface to walk on, but you almost definitely won’t. So also make sure to keep your eyes on the ground or you will trip and fall into an open gutter while everyone around you says “Doucement!!” (“Careful!!”) You are also likely to get very dirty while you are walking because of all the vehicles stirring up red dust. Don’t worry, it should be a pretty even coating so it might even look like a tan.
Biking: This is my primary method of transportation. It is as fast as I need it to be for short to mid-range distances, and I can steer myself instead of trusting some stranger to drive me. I have two saddle bags that make it easy to bring whatever I need with me and I can stop to say hi to friends and neighbors that I see along the way if I want to. My bike (Peace Corps issued, thank you dear taxpayers) is extremely nice and extremely new. It screams “I AM AN AMERICAN WITH ACCESS TO RESOURCES YOU DON’T HAVE.” That’s ok because let’s be real, everyone is aware of my privilege whether I have my bike with me or not. If you ride right after it rains, beware. Your legs will soon be covered in splashes of mud. Everyone will kindly point this out to you when you get wherever you are going.
A small slice of the Beninese population also rides bikes. There are two primary demographics of pedalers—young boys between ages 8-15 who are too young or poor to have a moto and old men in hats. Do not ask me why wearing a hat is a prerequisite for an old man to ride a bike, but it is. Usually people do not carry much on their bikes but often the old men have something small with them, like a plastic bag full of bananas on the handle bar or one large can of tomato paste strapped to the back rack.
Motos: This is the most used method of transportation. It is wonderful and it is terrifying. Wonderful because it gives you an adrenaline rush and you look really cool while you are riding a moto (note: not a motorcycle. Think dinkier.) Terrifying because the roads are bad and you are the smallest motorized form of transit. This means you can go fast but also you are most likely to die in a crash. Most people do not wear helmets but do not worry I DO!! There are moto taxis called zems that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. The problem is you have to bargain for the price every time which can get annoying. Often people will try to triple the price on you because they know you are a foreigner. Tonight I took a moto-taxi and was very proud because he gave me the right price immediately. He said it was because I was obviously “Beninoise American” meaning I live here and am not a tourist. Wahhoooo!
Important tip: do not hold on to the taxi driver while you are riding. He will think you want to marry him. Simply hold onto the bar of the seat behind you and you will avoid sending sexual messages.
Side note: You can carry anything on a moto. I am not exaggerating. I have seen on separate occasions: a cow, 4 goats, a mattress, twenty 25 liter jerry cans, and 6 people being transported on a single zem.
Taxis: Taxis are for mid-distance trips. Generally old station wagons from the 80s, taxis are not reliable and they never have any shocks. You also have to sit 2 to the front passenger seat and 4 adults plus however many children in the back. After 15 minutes you will want to cry. Taxis can attach pretty much anything to the roof and often ride very low to the ground because there are 8 people and 6 huge cement bags full of yams being carried on 4 semi-inflated tires. Do not worry, you will feel every pothole.
Tro-Tros: 15 person vans with bench seats. I have not yet taken this form of transit in this country. Like a bus, you can travel far, but you can stop to get off wherever you want. Likely to break down, not highly recommended.
Buses: Think of your worst public bus experience. It is probably not as bad as the last time I took a bus in Benin, when I sat next to a man with serious body odor and a 12 year old “lap child” who did not fit on his lap. I had to loudly and desperately ask for an “arret pee pee” or a pee stop. Then I had to pee by the side of the road with only a swath of cloth around me for privacy and I got pee splatters all over my feet which is gross but also seemingly unavoidable. (Any serious female campers or masterful public pee-ers with helpful outdoor peeing tips? Let me know. Rest stops do not exist here and even when you are at a restaurant you often have to pee in a concrete stall with a drain on the floor.) Nevertheless, this is the best form of transit for going any great distance. You at least have your own seat and if you get on the right company’s bus, you’ll also have air conditioning (LUX!) Since I live on one of two major north/south roads in the country, I can flag down a bus with an open seat as they are passing through—this is highly convenient and something that other volunteers are jealous of.