May 12, 2010
Hotel: Chez Monique, Abomey, Benin
We woke up this morning around 5:30 to get to the bus station, hoping to catch an actual bus for the 3-hr ride north to Abomey. One thing we had noticed in Benin was the proliferation of motorcycle taxis, known as zemidjans (or zems for short). The drivers all wear yellow or purple shirts, and the cost is pretty cheap. It was so early though (still dark out) and there weren't many out on the street yet, we had to wait a few minutes before a moto came by, he then drove off and was able to get two more. They plunked our bags onto the handlebars and then we rode off into the cool morning air on the pillion. About $0.60 to the bus station, at Etoile Rouge (Red Star plaza) a legacy of Benin's flirtation with Marxism in the 70s. The bus station was pretty calm, no touts but lots of vendors selling fruit, cookies and chocolate croissants (gotta love the French, they know their pain au chocolat). The bus (Confort Lines) was a bit beat up but still looked good, and we finally set off almost on time at 7:15AM.
The bus was going all the way to Parakou in the north of the country but we planned to get off in Bohicon and take a taxi to Abomey. The bus ride was uneventful other than a lengthy wait at the northern edge of town at the bus company office. We were in Bohicon by 9:30AM and caught another zem to our hotel. Abomey was home of the Dahomey kingdom; this UNESCO site is home to many former king's palaces. We planned to visit several palaces here and the museum.
Chez Monique was on the western side of town, in a gorgeous garden full of wooden masks and phalluses. We checked into our room and sat down under one of the open-walled huts to have a drink.. barely 10AM and our transportation is done for the day, so we thought. There was a guide there that spoke English well, we decided to setup a tour with him for the day, we only wanted to spend about 2-3 hours tops then relax the rest of the day. He arranged mopeds for my friends, and I would ride on the back of the guide's motorcycle. We planned to visit a voodoo
village, the museum, palace and a subterranean village.
Well as it turned out the voodoo village was some distance out of town. But this was Africa! Riding on the back of a motorcycle down dusty red roads and green foliage, I had a huge grin on my face while passing houses with the serpent and the rainbow god painted on them. In the village, we were treated to a blessing by the voodoo priest, chanting over some of the fetishes. It was all pretty interesting. The priest used schnapps as part of the ritual, pouring some on the floor and drinking the rest. Our guide explained some of the practices; at the entrance of many houses is a Legba altar, a mound of dirt with a phallus sticking out of it. This provides protection against evil spirits. (What is it about penises that protects from evil? They paint them on the sides of houses in Bhutan for the same reason).
We next went to the palace/museum in town, unfortunately no photos allowed here. Each king built their own palace, there had been a dozen or more kings each with their own sceptre and stool symbols. It was quite
hot now and we were pretty dehydrated, even after drinking a few litres of water we still felt super thirsty. But the day wasn't over yet.. our next stop was the subterranean village which turned out to be nearly 20 miles away.. we thought it was in town but it was clear back on the other side of Bohicon! Had we known that, we would have given it a miss.. it's a new archaeological site and wasn't in the guidebook we had. There are several hundred pits in the surrounding area dug by the kings for protection or storage. It was interesting, but was not interesting enough to come all the way from Abomey!
Our last stop was at the first king's palace, visiting the sacred lions. This was also on the outskirts of Bohicon.. our guide took us down myriad side trails and paths to get there; I wish I'd had my GPS turned on as I'd loved to have seen our route! There was a huge baobab tree here, with giant beehives up in the trees. The palaces were built from red mud adobe, quite picturesque in the late afternoon sun. The sacred lions were here in
a cage, they looked a sorry sight and quite angry as they are only fed once a week. There was a collection jar here for the priests to use the lion urine in rituals. Supposedly a larger enclosure is being built but I think it will be some time before it is finished.
We headed back through the southern part of Abomey, past one temple where some kids tried to steal my friend's watch. There is a large fertility statue here that used to have a phallus but 'mysteriously' disappeared. We were pretty exhausted at this point, our expected 2-3 hrs had turned into 6... it was getting dark and we had been on the go all day. Our guide offered to take us to a real voodoo ceremony being performed but we declined.. needing some downtime at least. We had dinner at a small bar down the street from our hotel. 'Maquis' are universal through Benin and west Africa.. these small bars/restaurants are where most locals go to eat and drink.
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