Monday, June 2, 2014

The Art of Taking a Taxi in West Africa

"So do you want to rent out the entire taxi then?" The driver demanded, looking agitated and restless.

I looked from the four of us, to the driver, to the five-person dilapidated sedan he was calling a taxi.


So apparently in West Africa, a five-person taxi will always take seven people - the driver, two people practically sitting on each other in the front passenger seat, and four people whose hipbones become fused together after two hours in the back. If you want a normal amount of room, you have to pay full fare for those two extra seats. At first, this sounds outrageous and unjust. And then you realize that full fare for a trip across a country is about $6. Okay let's go.

And just so you know, at least in Benin, real taxis only exist for cross-country travel. At all other times it's the back of a motorcycle with one of these guys in the yellow shirts! At least those trips only cost about 50 cents...

The Cotonou Zem drivers

Anyway, we took a car taxi from Cotonou, Benin, to Lome, Togo, and let's just say it's not something I would ever willingly do again. The driver is often seemingly insane, swerving through traffic and recklessly passing cars by dipping into the oncoming traffic lane (even though we'll all be stopped at the next construction site soon enough). In addition, everyone seems to have their life's belongings on the trip, and sometimes the back of the car starts dragging on the ground. Other times, there are live animals, such as clucking chickens shoved in baskets in the trunk. Pray that the brakes work, and don't even ask if there's a seat belt!

I hope the people in the passenger seat know each other...

Some other taxi-riding tips:

1. Negotiate the price before you get in the car. Bring small bills; they won't have change.

2. Don't pay until you arrive at your destination, because there is a 50% chance the car will break down before you get there.

3. Get in a car with other passengers already in it, especially other women.

4. Don't put any personal belongings in the trunk, which can easily be stolen during traffic jams, as the trunk is likely overly full and permanently open.

5. Put your bag with clothes/other soft items on your lap to act as an airbag during a crash (see picture below).

6. And finally, put in your headphones and try to go to sleep. The less of the journey you have to witness, the better!

Backpack-airbag on lap