Monday, January 3, 2011

A Jam-Packed Day in Cotonou, Benin (Nov. 12, 2010)

Good grief! I was so tired last night I went to bed at 8:30. The heat in Lome did me in. We got up just after 5:30 a.m. so we could be ready for our early morning start. No one was too peppy this morning! While we were waiting, the Captain made an announcement that we could not get into the port as a ship was occupying our space, and the port authorities would not let him use the tenders to take us in. Part of me was so happy that we didn’t have to do another sweaty day, and part of me was sad to miss the port. But before we had a chance to be happy or sad, the Captain went on to say that we would just be docking an hour later and then leaving an hour later. He is great…some other captains might have just sailed on.

Cotonou is the economic capital of Benin, as well as being the largest city, but Porto-Novo is the official capital. Cotonou was founded in 1830 to ease the crush of so many slaves passing through the other ports. In 1882, the French seized Ouidah and Cotonou and slavery was finally banned forever. In a single generation, the people of Benin quickly changed their ways, and went from being the most ruthless slavers to the best educated administrators and intellectuals in all of French West Africa.

Like many African countries, Benin gained its independence in 1960, and between 1960 and 1972, a succession of military coups brought about many changes in government. It has been an open democracy since the late 1980s.

The flag of Benin...

Once we finally docked, our day began like those before with dancers and drummers to greet us.

There appeared to be a lot of “official” people walking around the dock in suits, and the ladies in fancy traditional dress. As Togo and Benin are so close geographically, we had the same tour guide and driver as yesterday, and I spotted Marceline and our bus in the background.

Part of the dance ritual...

I went to take this dancer's picture and next thing he was a foot away from me! Then he stuck a wand in my hand motioning me to come and dance. After a few good natured steps, I quickly handed back the wand!

I loved the expression on his face...so gentle.

Rich took this video and Kersti got involved in the dancing. Go, Kersti!

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As we had the same bus as the day before, we knew we wanted one of those few seats where the window opened. Kathy and I made a dash for the bus. Today I could actually take some pictures without a dirty window in front of me, and get some air! This is the Congress Building which was designed by the Chinese. Quite distinctive! The President of Benin is elected and chooses his ministers to run the country.

This is the International Conference Centre. Our guide, Marceline, was from Benin and was quite proud of it.  Benin appears to be much more affluent than Togo.


A war memorial…

We hadn’t seen too many street vendors so far. There were some very nice shops. When I saw this wedding shop, I was thinking of my niece, Megan, who got engaged since we left home, and I wondered how different our wedding traditions are compared to theirs.

Still using motorcycles as taxis but you could see the difference in the roads…

Oops…wait a minute! We weren’t too far out of town before we got back into the familiar vendors. This is a gas station, believe it or not!

Transporting a door…

We wondered about many of these concrete buildings that appear to be abandoned. The government built them for the people, but in the culture of voodoo it is unlucky to live in them, so many were left half finished.

There were some lovely houses and hotels…


Marceline told us that we were now on the Rue de Pecheur heading to Ouidah. She didn’t tell us, however, that this would be a long bumpy route. It took us almost two hours to get there. Very scenic, but very long!

This building at the beginning of the route was the most advanced we would see for the next two hours.

This road is where all the fishermen live. It got increasingly less prosperous and friendly as we went along. Ouidah is a historic town where the ancient practice of voodoo began and still remains the strongest. I am not sure what these baby goats are eating…

You can rent these huts for $1 a day. The beach is lovely…


A couple of times we saw a rather nice hut, and asked “is this a church?” Marceline told us it was a bar. We found another nice building and asked again if it was a church because it did look like one. Nope, it’s another bar. Everyone laughed! We knew this one was a bar…

Marceline, our guide…a lovely and patient lady.

Fishing boats…

Beautiful view…we had a lot to see today and Marceline was really moving us along. We barely had time to appreciate the beach before she was hustling us back to the bus.

No time for a hair appointment!

We managed to get ourselves in trouble again, when we saw this group hauling in a fishing net. We asked the driver to stop so that we could take a picture. All of a sudden one of the men started yelling at us and throwing coconuts. His aim was excellent. He hit the bus twice and I was wishing then that I wasn’t sitting in front of the open window. Marceline yelled at him and he yelled back, and we were yelling at the driver to “go, go!” It was a little scary, but it seems we must have some drama on each of our tours, and this was it for the day, I hoped! Marceline said he was asking why we had to take their picture. She replied “what difference does it make if they take your picture?” But once again, it is the voodoo culture where they really believe if we have a picture of them, we can do some harm to them. We moved along, happy to get out of there!

Not much for these cows to eat…

The road was flooded here so we drove on the sandy side. Many times the road had big holes in it that had been filled with coconut shells and palm leaves.

We saw a huge group pulling in a net and took pictures from afar. Look at how many people are working together!

We waved at people and many of them waved back. But the closer to we got to Ouidah, the more primitive things became. I eventually just stopped taking pictures as I was scared to offend anyone. Thankfully, we finally arrived at our destination for lunch. We weren’t hungry so much as everyone needed a washroom break pretty desperately!

A very nice place!

Our spot on the beach where we stopped for lunch…

Nicely set up for our lunch...

Fresh fish…it was the best fish I have ever eaten!

We left just as this herd of cows started ambling down the road…

We bypassed the museum which we were supposed to visit. Yay! No one was sorry to miss it as we had a lot left to see and not much time.

This is the hospital…

A lot of these monuments have been erected in recent years to commemorate the ending of the slave trade. For over a century, about 15,000 slaves per year went through these ports to the Americas. That's a staggering amount! Many came from the voodoo capital of Ouidah and were shipped to Brazil and Haiti, ensuring that the voodoo customs went with them to these places.

To commemorate the “door of no return.”


This was to represent how the women were imprisoned by the hands of the slave traders.

Our guide at the monument speaking in French, with Marceline translating...

The top of the monument on one side showed the backs of the slaves as they were bound heading to the slave ships.

The other side of the monument showed the slaves from the front. The anguish on the faces was so sad. The men slaves would go around the tree that is shown nine times and the women would turn around it seven times. Supposedly at the end, it would erase their memories so they wouldn’t remember where they had come from. The actual tree still remains and Marceline pointed it out to us a little farther down the road.

It would have been nice to stay a bit longer…but we were off again.

This hedge looked so out of place with the rest of the surroundings. We must have been coming to a more affluent area.

Look at this little guy out on his own. I am sure his family was somewhat close by...

A nice home…I think it’s completed and lived in, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Haute couture? Could be!!

Our next stop was the Sacred Forest…we would have gladly skipped this one, but in we went.

Our guide with the Iroko tree, which is over 350 years old. Iroko trees are considered sacred as they house spirits who are entering and leaving the world.

It turns out this "sacred forest" hasn't been here very long, but we were there so we did the tour. The God of Fertility…yessir! Quite a few of the ladies posed with him!

A symbol of power with his one (big!) leg…the scout, the exorcist and the chief of the army…

The god of small pox…

The god of thunder…

The god of continuity and wealth…the rainbow on it denotes wisdom…

We weren’t supposed to look in this hut as it is the home of the voodoo chief. By now some of us were not sure if this was all real or a tourist trap…but how many tourists would come here?

Ewwwww…a monster worm

This moss covered ruin was a house in the 1920s…not sure what or who lived here…

This is a store…by now we were losing the significance of the Sacred Forest!

These scrap metal men looked a little out of place. I think this guy is playing golf, but it is the hunter with the snake…

The man with three heads is the god of deformed children…

Amazing how the branches on the tree were winding around. I am sure there was a lot more meaning to this forest than we got. We weren't really sure why we stopped when we seemed to be so pressed for time.

The oracle priest…

Back in the bus again and we were off to our next stop, Ganvie. We had a large group for this tour, so we needed a second van. Joe was waving to us as we caught up to them.

This was a huge market…

They also had quite a bit of rain…

The littering is such an issue. Even Marceline drank one of the little bags of water and then threw the bag out the window.

This lady was amazing. Not only was she carrying the tray on her head, but had hangers of clothes all around it. If only they knew we take their pictures because we are amazed at what they can do. When it comes to the women carrying their babies on their backs, Marceline got me to feel the outline of her back. After years of carrying babies and items on their heads, their spine curves in right above their buttocks, giving them the “booty” that African men admire.

A huge cemetery in the background…

I tried to capture the sounds and the sights on video...

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The architecture on these buildings is very unique…

And then we arrived at Ganvie, which is considered the “Venice of Africa” because the entire village of 30,000 people lives in bamboo huts built on stilts over the water. They initially moved here to escape the slave traders. 

The children immediately swarmed you with their hands out asking for “un cadeau.” We were warned if we gave things to the children to make sure we had plenty or to do it discretely, otherwise the children start fighting with each other to get the items. We saw this happen when one of our group started handing out candy. Next thing the children were fighting and pushing until one of the men came and shooed them away.

We got in one of these boats to head to the village…

Each family will normally have three boats—one for the man, one for the woman and one for the children. Can you imagine us letting our children out alone in one of these boats? No wonder the kids seem so happy!

We had a motor, but these people were content to paddle along. Notice the covered heads...

Our guide for Ganvie…once again Marceline translated for us.

There were a lot of tourists that day because of the cruise ship. Many people had their heads covered to prevent their picture being taken. Look at their unique sail…

How lovely (we thought!). They were singing as they pulled up beside us.

Then they latched onto our boat. It was pretty intense. They were singing and sticking their hands in the boat looking for “cadeaux.”

The water line shows how high the water must get during the rainy season…


This building was funded by a group of women from Italy...

On the right was a place to charge your batteries as electricity isn’t too plentiful here.

A restaurant…I wish we had had more time to tour the whole village.

Here we are arriving at our destination. This is a bar, hotel, and gift shop.

They were putting on lots of performances for the tourists.

At first we all thought this monkey was so cute and enjoying the music. But we quickly felt sorry for him on his short leash…

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They used gasoline to light the baskets on fire, often putting it in their mouths and blowing it into the fire.


We only had 15 minutes here, so it was either watch the show or go in the gift shop. We came all this way for 15 minutes?? Oh well, the ride was worth it, but we could have passed up some of the other places we stopped during the day.


Rich's Ganvie video...

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An elderly lady pulled up next to us with baskets of greens and what looked like yams. Marceline quickly negotiated with her and filled two bags.

The kids nimbly jumped from their boats. The email address is on the sign if you’re interested in renting a room!

And all too quickly, it was time to head back...

The kids were all friendly; the parents, not so much. This little boy was waving... 

All different types of houses on the river…


Like homes in any town, some are neater than others…

I do hope no one was living here!

Our boat slowed right down as the water was coming over the bow and soaking those at the front. We all squished towards the back to try to raise the bow. Meanwhile, the others in our group caught up to us.

Marceline…a beautiful lady…

And we arrived back at the dock with all its craziness…

Heading back to the ship, the drive back was insane. We were trying to make it back by 5:30. Unlike the Princess tours where the ship will wait for them if they are late, when you take a private tour, you’re on your own, so you better be on time. Our driver was amazing. When he saw a traffic jam, he whipped down another street and just barged into the traffic. Here we are stopping to let the others in our group cut into the traffic.

We were flying!

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At one point we saw a car with its wheel completely bent and broken. Alain, our driver, wasn’t going to let that stop us. Without missing a beat, he just drove up onto the sidewalk and starting driving down it without even slowing down. We were either going to make it back by 5:30 or die in the attempt!

This person was trying to cut across the “median” and got hung up.

This traffic circle had people cutting in and out. No problem for Alain!

We made it! Back at the ship, the dancers were going at it once again. While we were standing in line to get back on board, the crew handed out wet, cold facecloths and cold water. You should have seen some of the facecloths! We were filthy!

What a fantastic day. It was such a blur…we saw so much. It really was a jam packed itinerary, but because you are only there for one day, you want to see it all. Loved every minute of it!

We now have four wonderful sea days before we get to Namibia…

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