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Africa » Benin » South » Cotonou
June 5th 2012
Published: July 13th 2012
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**photos have been added!



Tuesday
June 5


It was a stroke of luck deciding to sleep on the truck as a huge storm arrived in the middle of the night without warning, catching everyone off guard and flooding tents before people were able to get their rain covers on. I lay on the seats under my mosquito net (first time it's been used!) watching the lightning and torrential rain and jumping when the thunder crashed directly overhead
It was an uneventful morning until we were all on the truck, ready to hit the Benin border late morning. When the truck wheels first spun, barely anyone moved; it happens occasionally and we're used to the sound. But then the front right hand side seemed to drop and that got our attention. Jumping down we saw the source of the problem. The dirt ground wasn't actually solid and the concrete drainpipe underneath had collapsed. People started materialising from goodness knows where and offering their opinion on what to do, trying to help and then the owner came out. He began ranting, waving his arms around and when locals tried to placate him, he shouted at them. Carlos explained to him in French that we had originally parked closer to the road but were told to move to where we now sat but he wasn't any more rational this morning than he had been the night before.
For the most part there wasn't a lot we could do while Suse and a couple of the guys went through their options. There was a very real possibility that if we tried to move forward or backwards that the drain would collapse further and our truck could tip so it was eventually decided that a tow truck would be our best option. Thankfully the local gendarmerie was stationed not far down across the road and he called one for us, also offering sound advice and condolences at our predicament.
The tow truck had a hydraulic lift on it and had been out on the road we'd come in on yesterday, working on getting the truck up the cliff face. Once the price had been agreed, they reversed their truck and attached the rope, all of us staying out of the way with cameras in hand (okay so we were stuck but now we were getting out and it was exciting!). I sat with my camera on video mode and filmed it which I hope I can post here. As the truck slowly began to tow us out (having first lifted us out of the rut) and Suse steered us towards solid ground, the back wheel collapsed. Everyone jumped out of the way and I asked Suse later who said she actually thought it was going to tip.
After one final argument with the owner (he wanted payment for damages. Suse said apart from being told to park there, she'd pay if he'd pay for the tow truck. We left him empty-handed), we were finally on our way after a 3.5 hour delay. Thankfully the border crossing was easy but we lost an hour and were now back on GMT. We stopped in the village just after the border and while cook group tried to scrape some food items together, we found the best meat man so far (I'm still dreaming about it while I write this in Cameroon; it was the last time we found one. Sigh). With his hot charcoal sitting inside half a tin barrel, he cooks long cuts of beef (and sometimes goat). Stating the amount you'd like to pay, he slices small pieces with the sharpest knife I've ever seen, adds some fresh onion and a teaspoon of spice and serves it on newspaper or in this case, wax paper. The meat is usually quite chewy but we must've arrived early enough in the day and had delicious tender meat. Like I said, still dreaming about it...
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Thursday
June 7

We'd spent Tuesday night bush camping and drove onto Abomey on Wednesday, arriving in time for lunch and a wander around the ground. Chez Monique had animals penned amongst trees and intricate wood carvings with seating for lunch, bucket showers and clean toilets (yay!) Today was an awesome day. Suse had organised motorcycle taxis and a guide to take us to a voodoo village, palaces and museum. Having only ridden a motorbike long enough to burn myself in Togo, I was a bit hesitant but I had a lovely driver who wasn't as interested in being first like Justice's and Jareb's were and I cruised along the streets happily.
At the village we were greeted by the 63 year old chief who is believed to be a descendant of a panther. His father lived to 130 and is buried under the floor of one of the rooms! He blessed us and introduced us to the spirits, giving them water by spraying it from his mouth and food in small stone bowls. The various fetishes were explained, some resembling ones we saw in the market in Lomé and after several photos, we were back outside on the bikes and off to see the palace ruins.
Royal palaces were built by the Fon people between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries and now form one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The last king to rule independently was Behanzin who was defeated by the French in November 1892. Kings burnt their palaces when they left so all are in ruins except for a restored one which houses the museum. Plans are in place to restore several others.
In fairness, when I think of palaces, mud walls do not come to mind and I had to remind myself where I was. The museum helped with the visual aspect and contained the throne of each of the twelve kings, made of intricately carved wood. Each king had his emblem, one choosing the pineapple (?!) while others include a lion, chameleon (sort of a slow and steady wins the race motto) and bull. One throne sits upon four skulls of people killed in battle and is much higher than the others, requiring a step to climb up to sit down
It was an interesting day and just long enough for peoples' attention spans. The sun was beating down and most were out of water and hungry. A few of us jumped on motor taxis and went for lunch at the 'best restaurant in town'. Hmm. Having ordered chicken and chips that took almost an hour (not a new thing), we saw that the chickens had obviously been Suse calls 'African race chickens' in a previous life. All bone and no meat meant we ate chips for lunch and then argued with the manager over change. It's frustrating being given 10,000 notes from ATMs and money changers and then not being able to use them because no one has change. We can understand small shops being stuck occasionally and we do try to keep small notes for small purchases but in a restaurant you'd expect different. Grr.
Heading back to the campsite, people relaxed for an hour or so before leaving to see a voodoo ceremony, anticipating something pretty special as it's a four day ceremony that only occurs once a year. There were five 'spirits' that danced to the beat of drums, cowbells and singing, sometimes sweeping in close to the crowd and scattering them in what seemed to be fear. Though if you were six years old and a giant bale of hay came running at you, I guess you'd be scared too...
Apart from the chief of the village hosting the ceremony, there were two others from nearby villages seeking protection and luck for the coming year. Several princesses were also present, gathered together with children trying to stay out of the way. It was hard to get any idea of what was going on really so I just enjoyed it for what it was. Here I was, sitting in on a special ceremony in the middle of Benin with only 14 other foreigners. Pretty cool. Some of the bolder children made their way over to where we were seated, looking at my camera over my shoulder. After taking their photos, I turned back to watch and soon after felt little fingers in my tied up hair. Untying it brought a little 'ooh' from behind and they spent quite some time finger-combing it and attempting to tie it back up. All school children have their hair closely cropped (boys and girls) and look forward to holidays when they can grow it out for a few weeks so I think they found my long hair a novelty
One colourful spirit seemed to be a portal or something as it would dance around and then stop and when the men tipped it over, there'd be nothing (or no one) there. We were suitably impressed and became even more so as fetishes appeared as if from nowhere. At one stage a small puppy was there! It staggered about, being blessed (I'm guessing?) by men with leaves dipped in a bowl of water. It was then put back underneath and sure enough the next time we looked, it was gone. Time was spent mulling this over and it seemed that a small enough person was enclosing themselves in the top of the dome, making it look like it was the work of spirits and nothing less. But, we were all happy to play along!
As the sun set, the ceremony wound down and we were invited one by one to get up and dance. Amid much cheering, the locals got a kick out of our presence and we walked back to camp feeling lucky. Or I know I did.
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Friday
June 8

The road from Abomey to Cotonou was not how you'd expect the main vein of a country to be, considering buses, trucks and of course overloaded vehicles drive along it all day, every day. Potholes, erosion and general mayhem made for slow going, hampered even more by rain as we reached the outskirts of Cotonou. At one stage, a lovely smooth stretch of sealed road was blocked off, forcing trucks, cars and bikes alike onto what was really the footpath. We were grateful (and still very puzzled) when a policeman moved the barriers and we were able to continue on the road. It was short lived though. Sitting up the front with Suse meant I could see that our road was yet again blocked, this time with cement bollards that weren't going to be moved. People who had been waving and smiling or even just staring at the truck as we passed had said nothing. Now we needed to reverse over a mile to a side road we'd passed - not easy in a truck our size when you have people walking behind or sometimes almost driving into us because they're too busy gaping!

We were heading for Ganvie where we were taking a boat out to the stilt villages. Once we'd turned off the main road towards the water, we were met with low wires hanging across the road. This happens frequently when people hook up their own electricity (rather than the government) and is where a previous truck took out a line. Shouting 'wires!' back to the rest of the gang, I could see heads start popping out to look and a few climb up to sit themselves on the headrests. Armed with an upside down broom, they can reach the wire and lift it, passing the broom to another further along in the truck and therefore allowing us to pass underneath safely. This happens in each country with varying frequency and curious onlookers are never far away.
After a lovely baguette filled with egg, avocado and onion (a late find by Justice and Cecilia!), we walked down to the boats and boarded ours. Ganvie lies in Lake Nokoué and has a population of around 20,000 making it the largest of its kind in Benin. People first started building out there in the 16th Century to escape the slave traders whose religion forbade warriors from entering water, so other tribes knew they would be safe. Being in a less traditional boat (we had a motor), we cruised past women who shielded their face from us and young children collecting fishing nets and handling a bamboo pole (dug into the ground, the boat is pushed along) several times their height with ease. It is constantly amazing to see children in the countries we're passing through and how much responsibility they are given. They fetch water, often carrying loads on their heads that we've struggled to carry; they're left in charge of siblings when they should still be playing with dolls and here they are, casting nets and fishing on their own...

The stilt houses began to appear above the tall reeds as we drew closer to the village. Turning in and heading for
DetailDetailDetail

This spirit opens the ceremony
the main 'street', we passed what you'd expect to find in any village: bars, shops, a hairdressers. People sat in doorways or on verandahs and were much more receptive when the cameras weren't visible. We passed a floating market with women all lined up next to each other, handing items amongst themselves, laughing and carrying on. Others paddled along, advertising their wares by calling out. There was a water station where people (many children) brought 50 litre containers and paid for clean water, then manoeuvring their way around others with their load. Church goers arrived by boat, as did those attending the mosque, drawing them up on the water's edge. It was a really interesting afternoon

From there it should've been a short drive to Cotonou, the capital. Following directions we were given, we ended up in Ouidah, further along the coast. Well, not what we expected but arriving at the beach, we saw a large sandy car park that was perfect for our tents. We asked the lone stall owner close by if it was okay and he happily agreed, introducing himself and looking rather thrilled that his evening had just become more interesting..
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The protectorThe protectorThe protector

This spirit can warn you of danger but not fight it

Saturday
June 9

People were in a playful mood last night and having tents in close proximity, there was a lot of shouting out and singing before people drifted off to sleep.
I spent the morning wandering around the monuments and on the beach. The 4km sandy track from town that we drove down the previous evening is where slaves were marched from holding cells to boats. The Door of No Return is a UNESCO site and the area is clean and well maintained. A few of us sat in the shade and were approached by Patrick, a Nigerian, about his homeland. He suggested which border crossing we should take and it was nice just to speak English with people again and have a proper conversation!

We left for Cotonou around midday and found the city easily enough and the camping ground with the help of a moto-taxi. We were camping on a dirt soccer pitch/car park outside a hotel that had both a pool and the beach! Both had a cover charge as the beach is patrolled and there is a lifeguard on duty by the pool but although people paid to go to the beach, no one used the pool. It turns out that men are only allowed to swim in the equivalent of Speedos and if you don't own a pair, you rent them! The idea didn't appeal to any of the guys in our group and we amused ourselves with the ping pong table, took advantage of the wi-fi (however slow it was) and all agreed to eat dinner in the restaurant so my group was given a day's reprieve from cooking!
Rain arrived completely unexpectedly and everyone dashed out to put rain covers over their tents. I'd been lazy earlier and hadn't put mine up yet and decided to go one step further and just sleep on the truck. Britt's tent had flooded so she joined Toni and I on board for what ended up being a restless night, thanks to mozzies buzzing under the mosquito net.
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Sunday
June 10

We were planning to leave for Nigeria today but problems arose, thankfully before we left the campsite. With everyone packed and ready to go, I was helping Suse write our visas numbers on the passenger list, ready to hand to officials when we reached the border. Alas, when I got to Cecilia's Danish passport, I flicked through and was unable to find a visa. Double checking before handing it to Suse for another check (perhaps it looked different to the rest of ours?), we stared at each other wide-eyed when we realised it wasn't there. Poor Cecilia. The manager of the orphanage she'd been volunteering at in Ghana had offered to help her, taking her passport to get the visa and only handing it back the night before she left. And not knowing what the visa was meant to look like meant she thought the stamp she'd been given was correct. Contacting the manager, he was all of a sudden unhelpful and unapologetic and anyway, there was nothing to be done. Thankfully, a pastor from the nearby church overhead the conversation and said he knew people at the Nigerian embassy, he being Nigerian himself. Pastor Emmanuel offered his assistance and agreed to meet Suse and Cecilia first thing the following morning and take them to the embassy. Suse broke the news to the group and a bunch of us made the most out of it by heading to an area we'd driven through upon arrival, in the hope of a restaurant for lunch.
For the most part, all people in all the countries we've visited so far have been helpful. Yes, some more than others but we've gotten by. A recurring theme though is that no one wants to be seen to not know something. People will hesitant and ask someone else if they don't know where you're trying to get to or don't understand and that's great. But when you get into a taxi or on a motorbike and you tell them where you want to go and they nod, give you a price and you take off, you expect they know where to go. After arranging six bikes and receiving nods of agreement about where we were going, we headed for the main road, going right when we thought we needed to go left. It's hard to dispute though when you think that maybe they know a short cut or more direct route - and you need to explain all this in French while holding on for dear life as you swerve though traffic. We stopped again, explained again, received nods of understanding yet again but within minutes were back on the side of the road trying to figure it out. Thankfully this time an English speaker happened to be in the vicinity and explained to the drivers whose chorus of 'ahh!' meant we finally believed we might actually make it.
And we did. Soon after, we came upon a Lebanese restaurant and were invited to order a mezze platter with different dishes to try. That ordered as our starters, we kept looking at the menu for our mains. When the waiter brought out a few small dishes, I asked if it was possible to place our order. He looked at us in amazement asking 'you want order more food?!' in halting English and we hesitated. Sure enough he brought out more food. And more. And more. He must've returned to the table four or five times with plates that amassed on the table in front of us. It was brilliant. When another group were brought a sheesha, I asked for one for our table, choosing apple flavour. I've tried them before but don't really enjoy any more than the smell and was content to sit and relax while the others smoked.
A colourful market nearby provided the food for our cook group and pitching my tent away from Sunday night revellers' cars (Sunday is a big night as all go out after church in the morning), I slept fitfully.
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Tuesday
June 12

Yesterday was uneventful except for the amount of effort it took to find a bar with a television to watch the football. European Cup qualifiers were on and we thought it would be easy enough to find the game on a tv somewhere, the entire continent being as football crazy as it is! In the end, we went back to the street where we'd eaten on Sunday and had a great afternoon.

Today would be our last day, Cecilia picking up her visa in the early afternoon. Justice and I decided to stop being lazy at least for an hour and go for a wander. We ended up on the outskirts of the city centre, outside a supermarket, wide eyed. Cities have currently been measured on how good their supermarkets are (jokingly, of course!) and Cotonou had just launched itself into first place. Run by Lebanese, it was full of imported goodies and the amount of exclamations as we browsed the aisles made us laugh at ourselves. Salsa, tortilla chips, cheese, proper cereal; it was all so good and SO expensive. Thankfully (?) I'd run out of money and only borrowed enough from Justice to buy cereal and a couple other small items before we continued on our way, coming across yet another supermarket. Heaven! Once we'd finished aisle browsing there, we were ready to head back to base when I spotted a pizza place across the road. No, the pizza wasn't gluten free but I really wanted one. And oh my God. It is quite possibly the best pizza I've ever had. And not because I'm travelling in Africa; I mean ever. The French owner had recently opened it more or less as a hobby it seemed as he already had a gastronomic restaurant at the top of one of the taller buildings in town. We were soon joined by others. Seriously people, if you find yourselves in Cotonou and you're craving pizza, find the red and white bricked Cathedral blessed by the Pope and on the other side of the road, towards the rail yard is 1-2-3 Pizza. Be sure to mention the crazy tourists from the truck sent you...


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Huh?Huh?
Huh?

It took us a little while to figure out that someone must be hiding in the top, only coming out when he couldn't be seen to dance around


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