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Trip Report Trip Report - Benin/Togo

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I’m sure everyone is sick of all the Benin trip reports on here lately ;), but for anyone that is interested, the following is a report of my quick trip to Benin/Togo with some of my photos.
http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=9nhoja.7mtx0wc3&x=0&y=-91j3bi
Overall, I really enjoyed Benin. There were days when I didn’t really see any actual tourist sights, but the mission of the trip was to soak up some West African culture, so in that regard, the trip was a success. The people were, overall, incredibly friendly and welcoming. Other than the intense heat, the only aspect of traveling there that I really disliked was my means of transport. I used bush taxis for longer distances and zemis (motorcycle taxis) to get around town and for shorter distances, which were uncomfortable at best and terrifying at worst, which was the majority of the time. (“Zemi” means “get there fast” in the local Fon language, and all the drivers seemed intent on taking this literally.)

Cotonou/Ganvie/Porto Novo

I based myself at the Hotel du Lac for my first few days in Benin – It is supposed to be one of the best hotels in Cotonou, but they have second class rooms that are about half the price of the regular rooms. In addition to having a nice breezy deck around a pool and a few other good sitting areas, a major benefit for me was that every zemi driver in town knew how to get there (the last thing I wanted to do was to prolong my time on a zemi while hunting for my hotel). Other than the big market in Cotonou, there wasn’t much I wanted to actually see in Cotonou. It is the best place, however, to base yourself for a trip to Ganvie and Porto Novo and to inhale ungodly amounts of pollution while darting around on zemis.

Day One
I planned to see Ganvie (the “Venice of Africa”) on my first full day in town. Ganvie is a stilt village about ten miles north of Cotonou on Lake Nokoue. In order to compensate for the accommodation costs that were much higher than all my recent trips (a second class room at the Hotel du Lac was about 70USD), I was intent on traveling as cheaply as possible. I took a zemi from my hotel (about 50 cents) to where I’d catch a shared taxi to the village of Abomey-Calavi, which is the launching point for Ganvie. I arrive at the taxis, and find one ready to go (it’s about a dollar for the taxi). So, as I sit in the front passenger seat (sharing the seat with a man practically sitting in my lap), I am so engrossed in everything I’m seeing as we drive along, that I do not realize until I see about the third sign pointing towards Lagos, Nigeria (which is east of Cotonou) that I am probably not headed north to Ganvie. (No one in the car speaks any English, and I do not speak any French, so I don’t find the “ouis” I’m getting from the driver very reassuring when I ask if I am really going to Ganvie.)

After dropping off everyone but me, the driver lets me out at what he claims to be near Ganvie. I’m clearly no where near water, and sensing that I’m highly skeptical that I’m anywhere near Ganvie, he gets a zemi driver to take me to Ganvie. Figuring I have nothing to lose, and really need to find someone that speaks English (there’s really no one around where he’s dropped me off), I get on the zemi and go to undisclosed location number two, that is still definitely is not Ganvie. Although there’s no stilt village, there are lots of people around, so I start wandering the street, trying to find someone who speaks English. (I’ve also accepted that I’m no where near Ganvie, so my mission turns from finding Ganvie to figuring out exactly where on earth I am.) So, as I roam the street like the village idiot asking people, “Where am I?” and showing them the picture of Ganvie in my guidebook, I eventually attract a small crowd of people trying to help me. We establish I’m somewhere near Porto Novo, and that I’ve traveled an hour in the wrong direction (although I had planned to see Porto Novo, it was early afternoon by this point and I really wanted a full day in Porto Novo). Just as I’m getting ready to figure out where to find a taxi back to Cotonou, two local guys decked out in full traditional West African apparel drive up in a nice SUV and offer to give me a lift back to Cotonou. After chatting with them for a few minutes, I decide they are harmless and off we go. Finally, later that afternoon - two more taxi rides and one zemi later – I arrive in Abomey-Calavi. The price for a trip out to Ganvie are fixed (about 15$ for one person), and you aren’t actually out on the lake all that long (they’ve limited the number of “streets” on the lake that the tourists can travel down). It’s very interesting and picturesque though, and you can stop and have a meal at a restaurant on the lake. (After the 2005 mutton incident in Jordan, which was the result of some translation problems with a waiter, I’m a little leery of eating when there is any room for confusion, so I declined to order anything.) Despite my transportation issues that day, it really was still a good day, as everyone was exceptionally nice and helpful. I’d find this to be the case throughout my trip – although it often took me a while to get to exactly where I needed to go, people were always willing to try to help, even if we had no idea what the other person was saying.

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    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. Your pictures are awesome! Where did they get that manequin? and what's the purpose of the fetish market..voodoo? again, thanks, I enjoyed it, keep it coming.

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    Linda, welcome back. Your photos are great. I visited Benin and Togo in November 2000, including the fetish marekts in Cotonou and Lome, and I think I have photos of the exact same dead stuff (while I'm sure it sells, I never saw anyone buy anything). Did you have to pay to take photos of the fetish market in Lome (I think I paid $1.00 as a "photo fee")?

    How was the border crossing between Benin and Togo -- I got pulled out of the crowd and had to pay another special fee (again, around one dollar).

    Glad you enjoyed your trip.

    Michael

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    Thanks everyone!

    Dennis: yep, the fetishes in the markets are voodoo related and are used for medicine or because of other special powers – each animal had a different purpose, although I’m still confused about what exactly one does with a leopard cub’s head as part of a voodoo ritual. I never saw anyone actually buying any of the fetishes at any of the markets I visited, but there certainly seemed to be an endless supply of the stuff. As for the mannequin, I have a theory that all the mannequins past their prime are shipped to Benin for a new lease on life, as I saw numerous other equally scary ladies during my visit.

    Michael:
    Inflation must have hit Benin and Togo since you were there, as I was charged a bit more – about $6 at the festish market in Lome (although someone on Lonely Planet had to pay $20, so I thought I got off easy), and then $10 extra at the Benin/Togo crossing. It was mass chaos crossing into Togo, but I was there on a weekend and it was much calmer coming back into Benin. My taxi driver ended up sticking around with me till I got through and located driver number 2 (who had my backpack), so it ended up not being too bad.

    MoreMiles: Mali is high on my list too…I am hoping to make it there next year, although I absolutely have to go whenever it is cooler!

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    Day Two – Porto Novo

    Headed off after breakfast on a zemi to find the shared taxis to Porto Novo, the capital of Benin. Only waited 15 or 20 minutes for one to fill up, and we were off. And, it was my lucky day because there were only three of us in the back seat. Although I had written down, in French, where exactly in Porto Novo I wanted to go, everyone in the taxi was completely confused, even after I showed them the map of Porto Novo, which was the area that contained all the tourist sights – it was as if I were showing them a map of another country. After about an hour and a half, everyone piles out but me, and the driver motions for me to stay in the car. We make numerous other lengthy stops (basically, I’m now running errands with him). Finally, after much conferring with a group of local men (who are equally confused about what it is I’m trying to see in Porto Novo…I don’t think Porto Novo sees many tourists), I head off on another zemi, and am soon where I want to be.

    I find the voodoo temple on my “to see” list and am stopped by a man that speaks a bit of English. He takes me inside, and I’m completely confused because he also said that he lives there, and I spend some time with a family that also appears to be living there. After spending a bit of time goofing off with the kids, he instructs me to remove my shoes to enter the temple. Hm….this doesn’t look very “temple-ish” – but I see an area of the room where it appears they’ve been burning something, and there is a large shirtless man sitting there who appears to be waiting to hold court, so I figure I’m in the right place.
    My “guide” instructs me to sit on a mat in front of shirtless man, and then says, “Are you ready?” Perhaps because of too much coffee and delirium setting in from the extreme heat, I jump up and say “No! I don’t think I’m ready!” (I can be a bit of a control freak at times and like to know if I’m supposed to be ready, what exactly it is I’m supposed to be ready for.) It’s clear to them I’m never going to be “ready,” so shirtless man starts saying, “Something for me? Something for me?” I gladly hand over the equivalent of a few dollars, as even though I don’t believe in voodoo, I don’t want a hex put on me. (I later learn that voodoo is used for good, not evil, and that unless he is a sorcerer, he isn’t in the hexing business.) Shirtless man wouldn’t let me snap his picture, so I head out.

    I spent most of the day just wandering around Porto Novo, checking out the market and talking to people (there was one museum I wanted to see, but it wasn’t open, the other museum didn’t have much to see and is in French). Porto Novo is a sleepy town which has, as you might expect, seen better days, but I found it very funky and charming. The people were incredibly friendly and had a certain joie de vivre, which I found highly impressive considering if I had to live in such intense heat without air conditioning I’d wouldn’t be nearly so cheery. Porto Novo is definitely a place that if you were fluent in French, you could spent hours chatting with the local people. (I couldn’t even communicate with most of them but I still spent most of my day hanging out with different folks – the Benin guide and the digital camera were a huge hit.)
    After a late afternoon snack at a wonderfully shady restaurant I headed back to Cotonou and was thrilled to make the journey back with no unplanned detours or near death experiences on the zemi ride back to my hotel.

    At breakfast earlier that morning, I was pumping the waiters for info on how to get to a village I wanted to visit. One of them insisted that I make the trip with his cousin, who also worked at the hotel. Although I had planned to hire a taxi to take me directly to the village from Cotonou, Pascal, my would be guide, tracked me down at the hotel that night and was so nice, I figured I’d rather make the trip with him the next morning and give him the money as a tip that I would have paid for a private taxi.

    Day Three

    Pascal and I set off around 8am for Passatome, one of the only villages in Benin with places to stay (there is a water bottling plant nearby, thus a hotel has been built to cater to the business men/women that trickle through). To get to Passatome, we’d first need to take a zemi to the shared taxis which would take us to Come, and from Come, we’d need to take another zemi for the remaining 18 kms to Passatome. There are some fishing villages around Passatome that you can visit by pirogue, and various night markets in the surrounding villages, but my real reason for going was just to get out of the larger cities and see a village up close.

    This was not a good zemi riding day – the rides were long and I made the mistake of wearing regular flip flops with no grip on the soles. Although the local folk seemed to be able to ride on the back of a zemi while carrying a bushel of pineapples, a goat and perhaps a small child and a piece of equipment too, I was having more trouble maintaining my grip.

    We get to the taxis and five (excluding the driver) pile in. There are only three of us in the back – it’s tight, but not bad. Unfortunately we then stop to pick up one more passenger shortly thereafter, and he climbs in the back with us. After about 15 minutes, I’ve lost all feeling in one leg from lack of circulation and start shifting around to try to regain some feeling in all of my limbs. The rather large man next to me is clearly irritated and appears to be telling Pascal to tell me to cut it out and move over. Move over?! Pascall relays Seat Hog’s message to me, I decide Seat Hog is an #$% for claiming a 105 pound woman is taking up too much room, so I firmly plant my feet down to where I’m more comfortable. Needless to say, Seat Hog did not give me a warm send off when we reach Come, which took about two hours. From Come, Pascal and I set off on a terrifying 18km zemi ride down a very bumpy, dusty dirt road with large trucks occasional coming at us (with Pascal wearing my large backpack – he tried to get me to wear it at first but I guaranteed him I would topple off the zemi and die). I think the scenery on the ride was very green and lush, however, I was too busy trying to get right with God so I didn’t really notice. My driver, Mr. Knievel, only slowed down his death mobile whenever I would let out a scream.

    I had planned to stay in the cheapest place in the village (about 10 USD), which the Bradt guide recommended even though it was the most basic. The guidebook raved about Antonie (the owner of the Palais des Jeunes) and how helpful and warm he and the staff were. Antoine did not seem very happy to see me, and like most people, seemed very confused what I was doing in Passatome (Pascal had asked me about a million times, “so you really don’t know anyone there? What are you doing there?”). I didn’t find the Palais des Jeunes remotely charming – quite frankly the brothel I stayed at in Ethiopia was more inviting than this, and the room was so oppressively hot, I failed to see how a fan would even help. I quickly decided I was fine embracing the princess inside me and asked Pascal if we could please hightail it away from the Palais des Horrors and proceed down to the hotel on the lake, Hotel Village Aheme. Ah, this was more like it – a small private “beach” on Lake Aheme, with chairs shaded by palm trees and a nice outdoor eating area. They had a 24$ room available which was perfect – clean, air conditioned, and spacious. The staff was extremely nice, and the one English speaking guys there promised to help me out and announced I should stay three or four days (ok Passatome was charming, but not that charming!)

    I bought Pascal lunch, gave him what I hoped he thought was a sufficient tip, and sent him back to Cotonou. After reading on the beach for a bit, I wandered around the village. Everyone was extremely friendly, and I met an English speaking guy in town from Guinea visiting his family in the village. We spent several hours roaming around, meeting a bunch of his friends and various kids along the way. We wander into the village tailor’s shop and I’m somehow talked into letting the man make me one of the crazy printed shirts (that I’ll add to my collection or ridiculous looking apparel from around the world that I will never wear in public). When I get back to my room, I realize I’ve just agreed to have a shirt made out of the same fabric/patter as the drapery in my room.

    I went to bed thinking that I’d just do a day trip to Lome, Togo from Passatome, as several locals had assured me this would be an easy trip. Passatome’s night market was the following night too (Passatome and the surrounding villages each have a night market every fifth night). At about 10pm, I was woken by some noise at my door – I was sound asleep so it took a few minutes for me to register what it is…someone is trying to get into my room. Holy smokes! Instead of screaming, I was so shocked I just sat there, frozen, listening to them trying to get in (good to know I operate well under pressure). After another minute, they give up and quickly walk around to the back (I can see their shadow outside the windows lining my room, so I can tell they are walking in the direction where there are no other rooms. Based on that I don’t think it was someone with a room mix up…plus there were only two or three other guests staying there.) After taking a peek outside and seeing no sign of life (and there is no phone in the room), I give up on finding a hotel staff person that night and spend the rest of the night on high alert, ready to wake up the entire village with my whistle that I’m now sleeping with under my pillow should my visitor return. They didn’t reappear, but the charm of Passatome had worn off.

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    After unsuccessfully locating a cab to take me from Passatome back to Come, where I’d find a taxi to Lome, Togo (the guys at breakfast looked at me like I was crazy when they figured out I was asking them to produce a cab in the village), I gave up and got on a zemi for the 45 minute ride back to Come. The rain on the ride back just added an extra element of fun on a now muddy road.

    At Come, a car was getting ready to leave for the Togolese border. By the time we reached the border, there were 7 adults, three children and a baby in our car. The driver tells me to remember the license plate number of the new car I’ll be getting into once I cross into Togo, since this new guy now has my backpack. I write the number down on my hand, but I’m obviously a little concerned how I’m ever going to actually find this guy, as we’re crossing on the weekend and the place is packed with people as far as a I can see. (Driver number one very nicely offers to stay until I get through and locate my new driver – I immediately take him up on this.) After only about 45 minutes later (and paying $10 more than that real price for my Togo visa), I’m back in the car with my old taxi-mates from Benin.

    It takes us about an hour and half from the border to Lome – at one point the car stops running and at another point the driver stops the car and motions for me to get out. I take one look around, see no signs we are anywhere near Lome, and say “Um, no.” After repeatedly telling me something in French and me ignoring him, he gives up on me and turns to the mom and her son in the car and they get out and start walking. Huh? It appeared to have something to do with the Togolese guard we were getting closer to (who only took a quick look in our trunk and let us go). We drove for a short bit and then picked them up down the road. I find it hard to believe that Togo is enforcing some “one person per seat” rule in taxis, so I’m still curious about this.

    I had no guidebook for Togo, but had written down the names of a few hotels I had seen on people’s travel blogs. I see a billboard sign for one of them – Coco Beach Hotel – point it out to the driver and motion for him to take me there. We turn down the road and I am immediately alarmed because we are in the midst of one of the poorest areas I’ve ever seen. Yes, I’m concerned about the conditions in which these folks are living, but - selfish or not – I’m equally concerned about where I’ve told this guy to drop me off. We drive for just a short bit and come upon a little beach “resort” (I use that term loosely). The contrast between the hotel – which was a tiny little place with lots of guards and expensive cars in front of the restaurant – was really quite striking against the neighborhood in which it was located. The room is more than I want to pay (about 65USD) and smells strongly of bug spray, but it has a cute outdoor restaurant right on the beach, a/c, and since I don’t even have a guide book for Lome, my options are limited anyway. Since it was a Saturday, the place was hopping with ex-pats and wealthy Togolese, but there were only a few of us actually staying there. I could have seen everything in Lome I wanted to see that afternoon, but I took one look at the beach and decided I’d rather lie on the beach in the shade doing absolutely nothing. (To be clear, I won’t be booking my next beach holiday at coco beach, but if you are in a sweltering taxi with ten other people and need a shower and a place to relax, this place is going to look pretty good, and they were able to whip up the best plate of vegetables I had the entire trip.) You could also actually swim at the beach in Lome – although the water was still pretty rough, there was what appeared to be a wall a little ways out to stop you from getting swept out to sea. At dinner that night, I locate a waiter looking to make some extra money the next day and he agrees to be my guide for the day in Lome.

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    Linda, another great report. I take it you found it (much?) easier to travel in Benin than in Ethiopia?

    Just took a peek at your first few photos--they are terrific. Nice composition.

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    Thanks very much everyone for your kind comments…wasn’t sure anyone would actually read this thing!

    Leely: you know, I actually found it logistically a bit more trying – primarily because of the language issue - but, I really enjoyed the trip more than Ethiopia. Although I met many wonderful Ethiopians, I just got a better vibe in Benin and it made the trip more fun. (e.g., although I often got a weird look from others when they got in the cab with me, as soon as I smiled and said, “Bonjour!” they were very nice, compared to say, having oranges spit on me at one point in Ethiopia.) I also knew there was an end in sight though which always helps – Ethiopia was the start of a two month trip and I was worried the entire two months was going to be that difficult.

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    The Lonely Planet website says that Lome was once the pearl of West Africa but now many businesses are just getting by. Although I wasn’t there long enough to make anything other than a very superficial observation, that is definitely the vibe I got. For those of you who have fallen behind in closely monitoring the political situation in Togo, tens of thousands (I saw estimates of up to 40,000) of Togolese fled to Benin and Ghana in 2005 after the death of their President and some seriously marred political elections resulted in widespread violence. Elections are scheduled for sometime this summer (they keep pushing the date back), and I definitely would not want to be in Togo during that time.

    I cannot remember the name of the very nice waiter that agreed to act as my guide and I lost the paper on which he wrote his name, so we’ll just call him “Bob.”
    So, after confirming with Bob that our first stop, the fetish market, was not far, Bob and I set off on zemis. After we arrive at the market, I make a mental note to clarify before the next leg of our trip what he means by “not far.” Of course, the man that appears to be running the show at the market that day offers to give me the “special price” for entry (I asked for the “extra special” price – he didn’t think that was funny). I paid about $6, but this price seems to vary wildly. Although it’s very convenient for me to decide after the fact that I’m uncomfortable paying to see this, it did bother me that by paying to get in, I’m helping to provide a market for this stuff so I won’t be paying for entry to anymore fetish markets. Anyway, I was glad to see that the market is not as big as I thought it might be, and there were no customers while I was there. The various animal heads and animal parts in the market are sold for spiritual powers and for medicinal purposes and, according to the guide at the market, are all from Nigeria. Also, the merchants are all from Benin. (I asked why, he just said “it’s a tradition.”) At one point, Bob asked if everything was ok. I said yes, but tried to explain that I’m not too hip on the dead animals thing. Bob speaks very little English, so I felt the need to do a pantomime to explain this, which included putting my hands around my throat as if I were being strangled. Bob, visibly alarmed, thinks I am asking if they are going to kill me and immediately begins assuring me that I will be ok.

    After I get done browsing the dead stuff at the market, the market guide, Bob and I go see a man selling non-animal fetishes. He pulls out the first one that only a tourist would buy, and tells me that it will keep me safe when traveling. (You say the name of your destination into it, then close it up, and carry it with you.) I ask if it will work when traveling on zemis, he says yes, I say “I’ll take two.” He then pulls out the fetishes that will help me find true love. I decide it might make a funny gift for my friends who are also romantically challenged, but I say I’ll first need confirmation that this thing can be used more than once, as certain of us are prone to making very poor decisions in the dating arena. If you are a nice, sweet girl like moi, I would advise against seeking clarification on this issue, as the local person to whom you are asking this will no longer think you are a nice, sweet girl, and they might enquire, “just how many times do you need to use it?” I never got a clear answer on this but, I did get a business card and instructions from the market guide to email them and let them know how it works out. I asked for a money back guarantee and he immediately agreed. (seriously.) We do a little blessing ceremony for loot I’ve just purchased (I say the names of everyone for whom I’ve purchased items, he does some hocus pocus thing where he’s waving them around and blessing them), we snap some pictures and are done. Of course, now that I’ve returned home (a) I’ve forgotten how to use these things (something about saying the name of the person seven times and then who knows what), and (b) I’m not sure all of the recipients are going to find it funny that I’m suggesting we resort to voodoo.

    Bob lives near the fetish market, so we stop by his home so that I can meet his wife and kids. I always try to finagle an invitation into a local home wherever I am, so I was happy that I at least got to do this in Togo. I am kicking myself now that I did not offer to take some family photos for Bob and his family. I don’t know if they would have reached him by mail, but it would have been worth a try.

    From Bob’s house (small two room structure), Bob and I take an actual cab to our next stop, the Grand Marche. (At this point in the trip, I am getting increasingly uneasy about the zemis, I’ve already had several close calls myself and the guys at the Hotel du Lac repeatedly told me to please be careful and use them sparingly since there are bad accidents on them all the time.) The Grand Marche was fascinating. Most of the female marketeers (who are nicknamed, “Mama Benz,” as the successful ones supposedly drive expensive cars) are dressed to the nines in beautiful, traditional West African clothing. Unfortunately, no one really wanted me to take their picture. I’m not sure what the hassle factor would have been had I not been with Bob, but I have no sense of direction and am easily lost, so I’m really glad I was with someone that knew the ins and outs of the market. The inside portion of the market is three stories and, as I mentioned in a comment above, on the day I was there everyone was sitting in the dark and using flashlights when customers came by. Bob was a great guide, and made sure to push me out of the way at the appropriate times (e.g., when man was ready to practically run me over while rushing through the market carrying 2 dead animals whose heads were just barely still attached to their bodies.) I bought a few cheap necklaces just to contribute something to the local economy and Bob bought a “gold” band for a few dollars. After Bob and I enjoy a cold Fanta (and see a bad zemi accident on the way to get a Fanta), he heads home to nap before work, and I spend a leisurely afternoon and evening reading on the beach again and enjoying some cold Togolese beer. I was glad I saw at least a little of Lome, but I was ready to head back to Benin.

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    Hi Maxwell,

    Did you write a trip report for your Ethiopia trip I've heard others refer to here? I'm captivated by your storytelling and I want to read more! I did a brief search but came up empty.

    Thanks,
    Heather

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    I know a number of lawyers who I would call frustrated writers, but Linda I think you could be published. Have you thought about it?

    Thanks for the tip (and the gruesome photos); should I ever manage to make it to Togo, I'll know to skip the fetish market.

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    I'm really enjoying your report, thanks! You have a terrific writing style, and a real knack for taking photos of kids. Looking forward to the rest! (and I loved your Ethiopia report, too)

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    Leely: agh!! As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a writer and have been trying to finish up something I started writing about my afternoon in a Shi’a neighborhood in Beirut last fall. Problem is, I can easily slap together a stream of consciousness trip report of the day’s events in about 20 minutes but have performance anxiety when writing “for real.” But, maybe I’ll motivate to get cracking again on that article...

    MyDogKyle – thanks – I really love taking pictures of the kids I hang out with on these trips, as those little encounters are often the memories that stick with me the longest.

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    Day Six
    After my morning coffee, one of the employees at the Coco Beach Hotel drove me to the main road where I would catch a taxi back to Benin. It only takes a few minutes to get a taxi to stop, however, we have a bit of a standoff as to whether I will purchase two seats so that I have the front passenger seat all to myself. Several men standing around get involved in my discussion with the driver, and everyone seems convinced that I’m not understanding how a shared taxi works and that I should buy two seats. I do another pantomime to explain that I’m ok being squished in the car (this time the pantomime is more successful that my previous interpretive dance to Bob) and we are on our way to Benin. The driver speaks a little English, and after much back and forth over why I won’t buy both seats, we agree that I’ll buy both seats if he will take me directly to the hotel I’ve picked out in Ouidah. Part of the rationale for me buying both seats was so that I could actually use a seatbelt, however, after I agreed to buy both seats I discovered that someone had ripped it out of the car.

    We have a backseat full of people by the time we reach the Togo/Benin border, I breeze through the crossing (far fewer people around this time), locate my driver, and we drive around picking up more passengers to fill up the car. The drive to Ouidah was not a fun drive and made me seriously reconsider what an acceptable level of risk is while traveling. There weren’t too many other cars on the road that day, so I wasn’t terribly worried about us hitting another car. Unfortunately this also meant that our driver felt free to drive as fast as humanly possible since there were few cars to impede his race to Ouidah. Although I wasn’t sure a seatbelt would save me if we spun out of control, the lack of a seat belt was making me even more panicky. (I accidentally completely submerged the family car into a bayou back in high school (with, um, my parents and grandma in the car with me), and would likely not be here today had I not been wearing my seat belt, so I will not even drive down the block now without buckling up.)

    Then, the rain starts….it’s pouring, and this car is so old that the windshield wipers don’t seem to have the extra high wiping speed that is absolutely necessary in this kind of downpour. I assumed that he would pull over – WE CAN’T SEE – but no…..we keep driving (at a very slightly reduced speed), but now it’s raining so hard and those damn windshield wipers are so slow, that we really can’t see where we are driving. In addition, the window is now fogging up, so he continually has to wipe the inside of the window while driving. He continues to pass any cars that we approach, and we are driving on a two lane road.

    After about 30 minutes, the rain slows down considerably to where the driver can see where he’s going. Hallelujah. We get to Ouidah and the driver starts trying to find my hotel. (I showed him the Ouidah map, but as usual, the map just seemed to confuse things more.) I’m not sure how many people were in the backseat at this point, as I was too embarrassed to turn around and look. I’m already feeling high maintenance because I have the entire front seat to myself, and now we are making what is turning out to be a long detour to find my hotel. The people in the backseat are all headed to Cotonou and are – understandably – not happy about this detour. I knew that the hotel was a few miles off the main road, but I thought that the driver understood this…we eventually find the right road (which is a bumpy dirt road, which further slows us down) but there is an animated discussion going on in the back seat which is clearly about me. (I keep hearing “zemi,” followed by much laughter, so I’m convinced they are going to seize control of the taxi and leave me on the side of the road in the rain to find a zemi.) We get to the hotel, the driver demands $10 extra (I thought five was fair, but he wouldn’t give me my backpack), and in the interest of getting the people in the backseat on their way to Cotonou, I hand it over.

    Ouidah is a coastal town and was one of the major players in the transatlantic slave trade. I’ve seen different figures, but it is estimated that over two million slaves left from Ouidah. Ouidah is also considered to be the spiritual capital of Benin thus, combined with its historical importance, Ouidah is probably the most touristy place in Benin. There is a tiny hassle factor here, but I never saw more than a few tourists a day and it was a nice change that everyone in town seemed familiar with all the tourist hot spots, so getting directions was never a problem.

    I stayed at a hotel (Jardin Bresilien) located on the beach, right by the Gate of No Return. Although it isn’t centrally located, I loved the beachside setting and the staff was exceptionally friendly, helpful and many spoke English so could easily answer any questions I had. If you don’t have your own transportation (I was the only guest during my three nights there that was car-less), you have to take a zemi to get into town, so if you haven’t made your peace with zemis, this is not the place for you. My room was only $30 USD, had a/c (when the power was working), and sparkling white sheets that were definitely completely clean and set my heart a flutter. Nothing fancy but perfectly adequate. You are likely to have lizards in your room here, so this also wouldn’t be a good place for someone with a strong aversion to reptiles. (After a 45 minute standoff with a lizard perched above my bed this past January during my first night in Cambodia, I had made my peace with bunking up with lizards so this really didn’t bother me, and, it was nice that my Beninese lizard didn’t seem to invite as many lizard friends over as my Cambodian friend.)

    I wasn’t looking to do much that day, so I spent the afternoon eating a leisurely lunch (they have a covered eating right on the beach), reading and waiting for the rain to stop. After the rain stopped, I took a long walk on the beach, which is lined with fishing villages, stopping to hang out with the very friendly kids I met along the way. The power finally came back on, so I went into town to check email, took a zemi home in the dark (not fun, especially on a muddy road), said good night to my lizard, and turned in early.

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    Linda, sounds like a scary drive -- similar to my drive this morning from Almaty to Bishkek in a deluge, but we had the very fast wipers and a very safe driver. Fyi, the border crossing from Kazakhstan to Kyrgystan is much easier (no bribe!) than from Benin to Togo.

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    Michael –
    Hope the ‘stans are treating you well – but on to important stuff: In my mind, everyone drinks a lot of vodka over there. Would I be able to drink my normal vodka sodas, or would I need to drink it straight to avoid committing some former soviet bloc faux pas? ((d))

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    Actually, I haven't seen much vodka, but I have been, at night, drinking kumys (fermented mare's milk) -- its worse than it sounds! I've been looking for something called shubat (fermented camel's milk), but I think they drink that out in the steppes, not near the cities. I'm leaving soon for the big market outside Bishkek, so I may be able to find some there.

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    No, I’m not…and I need to finish it soon! I am living my own little version of the “Apprentice” right now trying to get a business up and running in a week so got sidetracked but plan to finish it up this weekend. Thanks for the gentle push :D

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    Day 7

    The Bradt guide recommends two local guides in Ouidah: Martine de Souza – a descendant of Don Francisco de Souza (an infamous Brazilian slave trader in Benin), and Remi. At breakfast, I told the guys at the hotel that I was looking for either Remi or Martine, and after a quick call to Remi, he was at the hotel within 20 minutes. We settled on a price (I think I spent about 30 dollars) and were soon off for the day. You could certainly see everything in Ouidah on your own by using zemis, however, Remi is so knowledgeable and personable that it was definitely money will spent and a very enjoyable day. We saw the Python Temple, the Sacred Forest, the market, the Portuguese (slave) Fort (which houses the Ouidah History museum), the Slave Route & the Gate of No Return, with a few random stops thrown in. If you plan to be in Ouidah and want a guide, I’d definitely contact Remi in advance (theguidefr@yahoo.fr), as he works with various tour agencies and is often booked up. He also leads groups on country wide tours of Benin.

    My one regret from Ouidah is that I did not take Remi up on his offer to do an “Ouidah at Night” tour (this is basically a good old fashioned bar crawl, and the cost would have been us alternating buying drinks at the various drinking establishments in town). I think he’d be up for doing “Ouidah at Night” with anyone he thinks would be entertaining enough for a night out (he had some funny stories about some other tourists he’d done this with), so if you find yourself in Ouidah, please take him up on this and report back! My only excuse for suddenly becoming lame was that I really wanted to get an early start in the morning for my last day in Ouidah, and, the thought of possibly nursing even a slight hangover in insanely hot weather without a steady supply of cold Gatorade just didn’t sound fun.

    Day 8

    After spending some quality time with my four legged friend at the hotel and eating a leisurely breakfast (service is slooooow, so you will get “leisurely” whether you want it or not), I headed off to the Maison du Bresil, a tiny museum on the outskirts of town. The current exhibit is excellent and focuses on the (many) roles of women in Africa.

    I spent the balance of the day hanging out with kids playing in the street. As usual, the Bradt guide and the digital camera were wildly popular, however, my digital watch came in a close third after one of the little boys figured out how to make it beep. I had so many things I wanted to ask them, but alas, that language barrier…

    I finally said goodbye to the kids and decided to walk the Slave Route back to my hotel. Although Remi and I driven the slave route the previous day on his motorbike, I felt like something was lost by not actually walking the road (it’s about 3.5km starting in town and ending on the beach at the Gate of No Return). My “regular” zemi driver kept appearing/stalking me during my walk though (he had latched onto me my first night in Ouidah, and, since he was clearly desperate to make a few dollars whenever possible, he was something of my personal zemi chauffeur during my time in Ouidah), but I finally got rid of him and finished my walk in peace. I did give my zemi stalker a nice tip before I left Ouidah, mainly to compensate him for the petrol he used up trailing me around town in an attempt to (understandably) make a few more dollars.

    Day 9

    I went high class today and hired a private taxi (10 dollars) to drive me back to Cotonou for my flight home. The drive is only about 45 minutes, and if you take the dirt road that runs along the beach, it’s very interesting to see all the fishing villages and local people along the way. The drive was somewhat marred by the piglet fatality (as usual, the driver was driving like a bat out of hell, and I am 99.9 percent certain we killed a teeny pig when a pig family had the misfortune of trying to cross the road as we came barreling by.) Although the driver did not speak English, he did appear to understand the string of obscenities that came out of my mouth after the involuntary manslaughter incident, so he slowed down considerably after that. As you would expect, the people living in these little fishing villages are incredibly poor, and I can’t even imagine how important a piglet is to them, so in addition to not wanting to see a pig die, I really did not want to be a part of knocking off their food supply.

    I had been unable to get the Hotel du Lac in Cotonou to agree on a reduced rate for a day room, so I had the driver drop me off at a random hotel in Cotonou (Hotel Vickinfel) that was near the market. After comparing the Vickinfel to the second class rooms at the Hotel du Lac (the Bradt guide describes the Vickinfel as one of the better midrange hotels in Cotonou) I am convinced that the second class rooms at the Hotel du Lac are the best deal in town and were probably about ten times nicer than the rooms at the Vickinfel. All I needed was a place to store my luggage and a shower though, so I happily accepted their offer of a $20 rate for a day room.

    After lunch at the Vickinfel -- huge plate of rice and four boiled eggs, which I covered in hot sauce and washed down with several cups of coffee (seemed like a good idea at the time) -- I set off for the market feeling slightly ill. It soon started pouring, and was really a wasted day. I had planned to spend all afternoon at the Dantokpa market, which is the largest market in Benin. However, after an hour of traipsing around in heavy rain, I gave up and headed back to an internet café. I ended up heading to the airport much earlier than necessary, as after the power went out in Cotonou, I started feeling a little uneasy in the now blacked out hotel.

    Overall, I really enjoyed this trip – it definitely wasn’t relaxing or comfortable, but the incredibly friendly people made it very worthwhile. There is much more to see in Benin than covered in this report (the entire top half of the country, including two national parks). I remember reading an article a year or so ago about how people in sub-Saharan Africa are, according to a Gallup poll, the most optimistic people on earth. I thought of this article often throughout this trip – so many people I met had such an infectious enthusiasm for life, I could not help but leave Benin with very warm memories of everyone I met along the way.

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    Hi Maxwell,

    I read your trip report on Benin and decided to email the guide, Remi, even though it has been a long time since you were there. Well, I received a reply from him!

    We arrive by ship in Cotonou for only 1 day, and want to maximize our time there. Remi and I are now communicating, thanks to you.
    :) If you can suggest a 1 day itinerary, I would be most appreciative. I asked Remi what he would charge for the day...do I accept his price or bargain? We do want to pay a fair fee for his service.

    Les

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    Les - That's great to hear!! Remi was delightful.

    I didn't bargain with him on the price - I can't recall what he charged me, but I remember thinking that I thought it was fair. (I'm thinking the price he quoted might have been close to something I saw in the guidebook that mentioned him or printed on something at the hotel.) If you are docking in Cotonou, I would assume he'll have a car to take you around & outside of Cotonou, so I'd expect this to be more expensive.

    He'll be full of good suggestions, but perhaps he could show you the market in Cotonou if you wanted to see that - it'd at least give you a glimpse at Cotonou mayhem (I would put this low on the priority list though), and then go on to Ganvie, which is right outside of Cotonou (the stilt village dubbed the Venice of Africa), and then on to Ouida, which is only about 45 minutes away if my memory is correct, where you could walk the Slave Route and see the other things of interest in the town (it's a small, relaxed place so it's easy to zip around and see a lot in a short amount of time.) It would be a busy day, but it'd be doable if you had a full day.

    Were you the one going to Sierra Leone too on your cruise? (Someone on this board was going to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and I am dying to hear about that).

    Please post back if you can after your stop in Benin - will be curious to hear how it goes. I know you'll love Remi!

    Linda

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    Les, I just looked back at my report and now recall I might have got him to knock 5 dollars off his first quote but then tipped him of course. 30 bucks was definitely reasonable for the amount of time he spent with me, but we were in Ouida the entire time and were on zemis, rather than a car.

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    Hi Linda,
    Thanks so much for your reply. We will not be going to Sierra Leone. Our ports in W Africa are Dakar, Banjul, Tema, Lome and Cotonou. I have only been to Southern Africa, so this will be very different and exciting.
    Leslie

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    Les- What ship will you be on? Max and I did a 6 week cruise through W. Africa, S. Africa, Namibia, then on to Brazil and home, in 2006, 7 countries for W. Africa, on the Prinsendam. What an incredible trip. It was absolutely the best cruise that we've taken. We also visited Cameroon and Gabon. After the ship being held for ransom in Cameroon, and some of the passengers being arrested in Gabon, I don't think any passenger ships will call at either country again. I know HAL won't. It is an absolutely awakening experience and the memories still feel fresh. Good luck. Liz

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    Maxwell- Wow! You are one very brave person. On our cruise through W. Africa I told Les about above, I never could have imagined the cultural experience it would offer. The site where slaves were sold was burned in my mind. I'll have to say Benin was our favorite of the 7 countries we visited in that part of the trip. I loved the Magic Forest, Ganvie,and Ouidah. In some of the countries we had police escorts front and back and I still can't believe how you made it through. My hat is off to you. Your photos are incredible and I will again read every word of your report. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Liz

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    Hi Liz,
    We'll be on the Tahitian Princess which is a former Renaissance ship. I've only been to countries in southern Africa...quite a few...but this will be different. My friend that I'm traveling with lived in Cameroon for the Peace Corp in the'8o's, She wasn't surprised when I told her that your ship was held for ransom there!

    Leslie

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    Linda,

    Hi again. Remi has become quite the businessman...he wrote back and said that his charge for the day would be $100 + $150 for a car! (I did tell him that we could use a private taxi). I'll write him back, but unless he suggests a fair price, we'll have to "wing it" and get a taxi at the port to take us to Ouida. If we do "make a deal", I'll let you know.

    Leslie

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    Leslie,

    You could just grab a taxi and meet him in Ouida (I am guessing (but really have no idea) that both the taxi drivers by the dock and the tour guides probably up their prices for the people in port for the day, so I'd be curious what they try to charge you for a taxi to Ouida).

    You could also print out the Lonely Planet Benin chapter on-line and wing it yourself. (I used the Bradt guide so have no idea how good the LP one is - it's just 17 pages but would imagine it covers Ouida fairly well.)

    In any event, I'll be very curious to hear how all your stops go in West Africa! When will you be there so I have a trip report to look forward to?

    BTW, Martine de Souza was the other main guide in Ouida that was doing day tours - I just found this by googling -
    http://home.online.no/~annekie/
    if you click on the "Martine's CV" link along the top she has 2 email addresses listed. This was a piece NPR did on her a few years back
    http://tinyurl.com/lj22c3

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    Linda,

    Thank you so much for the link to Martine. I am usually pretty good researching online, but I could not find a way to contact her. I just sent Martine an email. I will keep you informed. I appreciate your help so much.

    Leslie

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    Hi Linda,

    I am writing to thank you...Remi was a delight! It turned out that we gathered a small group and spent the day with him. He is warm, knowledgeable and wonderful to to have as our guide.
    Leslie
    BTW, Martine was a guide for a ship sponsored tour.

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