My handicaps were plenty – my very poor French, travelling on my own, hardly any other tourists to exchange information with and the absence of a public transport system in Benin.
Benin lacks pubic transport to an extent I didn’t think was possible, it just doesn’t exist, Not even taxis. When Beninoises speak of taxis they talk about run-down cars that pick up people as they go, but it is not a taxi you have to your own, unless you pay for all the seats. For longer trips the taxis often don’t leave unless they are filled to the rim, with a roof full of cargo.
Of course you can pay for more seats to shorten the time waiting for people and to have more comfort. On longer trips this can be pricey and beside it makes you feel like a real jerk, when you spread out while the rest of the people is squashed together for hours. So whenever possible, during these two weeks I zipped around on zems, motor-bike taxis., a risky, but rewarding way to be really close to everything.
It is very very unusual for tourists to travel that way, especially women, actually I never saw another one. That was also my advantage, most zem drivers thought I have lived in Benin forever and they never overcharged me. Whether in Cotonou, Dassa, Abomey, Quidah, Ganvie I was on a bike with complete strangers I entrusted my life upon. I decided on my first morning in Cotonou to do this and that’s the only way, go for it. Finding transport also along the coastal road is not too hard, also along the main road going north, but once you get off those backbones it can take a while to find transport.
Since I had anticipated a “terrain” completely unfamiliar to me I had contacted a travel agency before my arrival in Benin and agreed with them to use the service of a guide on a daily basis if necessary. On my second day I realized very quickly that this was very necessary. I knew how to move around in Cotonou, but how did I travel to places further away? With Boris, a very knowledgeable young man who had studied in Ghana and spoke fluent English, I travelled north on a minibus. He negotiated the two seats next to the driver, which made it a sweet trip, with soft music and a great view without being squashed in. Such busses are designed for eight passengers, we left with 12 people on board. Another time, going from Abomey to Cotonou we paid for an extra seat in a taxi to avoiding sitting on top of each other. After those four days travelling with Boris I knew how to go about things. I took trips to Ganvie, Allada and Quidah on my own, I knew where the collective taxis left, I was familiar with prices. If I had spoken French well, things would have been really smooth.
Concluding, your own transport is a big advantage, unless you have time on your hand and you don’t mind travelling in really wrecked cars (without being able to open the door from inside was my “favorite”) with lots of other people.
During those 17 days I met very few tourists, only in Ganvie, in Abomey and in Quidha, all of them French, and only one French couple travelled like me, on public transport. The biggest dilemma was of course my lack of French. I could not even erally communicate with the locals or my fellow passengers. Thus I also strongly advise to get a local sim card for your phone, with internet access. This really helped for getting information and being in touch with friends, when I felt a bit lonely.