When I was checking out of my hotel on Sunday, March 4th in Lome, Togo to go to Cotonou, Benin, the proprietor mentioned that it was election day in Benin. When I took the tro-tro, the driver said that the border was closed because it was election day, but that I could walk across and get a tro-tro on the other side to go to Cotonou. But when I got to the border, it was CLOSED completely—no walking across, either. Did the driver know better but just wanted the extra fare? Or was it an honest mistake? I’ll never know.
So I got a shared taxi returning toward Lome, but I remembered that on the way there I had passed the village of Agebodrafo, which was the place on Lac Togo where my boat had disembarked when I left Togoville a few days earlier. I remembered seeing a couple of hotels there. So I thought rather than return to Lome, I could spend the rest of the day and the night in Agebodrafo.
I inquired at the Swiss Castel am Lac and encountered a couple in their early 20’s who were doing the same thing (tro-tro, border closed, back to Agebodrafo). No rooms there, but the hotel clerk recommended the Safari Hotel, about a km away, and even dispatched a young man to walk with us to show the way. What a treat! The Safari was run by a Swiss woman, about my age, and was CLEAN, neat, well organized. It was pretty rustic—no electricity in rooms, only in the main common areas, using a generator, communal bucket showers, communal toilets that flushed with a bucket, but everything was spotlessly clean and there were always full buckets of water in the toilets and the shower. The food was good, and there were lanterns and candles near and in the rooms, along with mosquito repellent coils. It was between the lake and the ocean, so the three of us, Ann (French), Tijs (pronounced Tees, from Holland) and I went wading in the ocean (big undertow). They were such an enjoyable couple—we really had a good time. We were drinking Flagg beer and I showed them how the young man on Mt. Klouto had looked under the liners of the bottle caps because it was possible to win lots of money—Flagg was having some kind of promotion, and darned if I didn’t win a free beer! So Tijs bought another to go with the one I won, and then we really were having fun—these are 21 oz. beers!
That night it rained hard, and was still raining a little the next morning when we walked to the highway to flag down a taxi brousse. The border crossing went very smoothly, but from there, things just didn’t march. In Cotonou the hotel from the guidebook wasn’t usable, the taxi had a flat tire, another taxi overcharged us and the hotel I finally took was overpriced and not friendly. Ann and Tijs decided to go on to Ouidah, a big voodoo center on which Ann is writing a paper at her university, and a place I visited later.
Cotonou is less than charming, especially with the zillions of motorbikes, all smoking, that really make a polluted atmosphere. These also serve as taxis, so they’re everywhere. I did eat in a couple of very good restaurants, perused their huge ‘Grand Marche’ (market) and did a little minor sight seeing. I also attempted a hair color and cut—the product didn’t cover the gray, but did restore the faded color in the rest. I also got a nice haircut. The beautician didn’t seem too familiar with western hair or color, for that matter; he said that I “could direct him.” He also read the instructions at length before we started. An exciting morning!
A real highlight was my excursion to Ganvie on Lac Nokoue a few miles outside of Cotonou. I flagged a shared taxi and he took me to Abomey-Calavi where I rented a pirogue (hollowed out log canoe) and a boy to poll/paddle. Lac Nokoue is a salt lagoon where the Tofinu retreated in the 18th century to escape the warring Fons, whose religion precluded them from venturing onto water. So the 18,000 people all live in huts built on stilts above the shallow water. It’s an extremely charming place—it even has a little hotel, restaurant, post office, shops, and in the middle was the floating market with lots of women in small pirogues selling produce, fish, and food to eat.
The village is about an hour away from Abomey-Calavi by boat, and on our way over and back we met many fishermen and women taking their products to market. They often sang as they fished or paddled along.
The next day I took a shared taxi to Porta Nova, the official capital of Benin although all the action is in Cotonou. I visited an interesting museum highlighting the Brazilian freed slaves (1848) that returned here. Their Creole culture is seen in a wonderfully preserved old house from 1870. The returning Creoles built in the Portuguese style (from Brazil) so their cathedral, mosque, and other landmark buildings reflect this.
The next day I visited two delightful museums—one, the Royal Palace of all the Dahomey kings from 1688 to 1976, and the other, an ethnographic collection of object d’arte. The town itself has a ‘museum’ quality to it with wonderful old buildings and friendly people.
Next stop—Abomy, where I stayed in a real backpacker hotel—not even a sign giving the name of the hotel (La Lutta). It has a thatched roof. Abomey was the capital of the Great Kingdom of Dahomey (1645 to 1892). There was a reconstruction of a couple of the palaces—each king had built his own palace until the 19th century. It was huge, and there was a court of 10,000 people. I ate barbequed goat on the street (with onions and a beer) and bought some souvenirs at the artesanias, jettisoning clothes that I won’t take home to make room in the pack.
From Abomey, I went to Ouidah, the real center of Voodoo. This town of 30,000 was once the only port in Benin so huge numbers of slaves went out from here. I visited a couple of museums, but the highlight was walking/riding the four km Route des Esclaves (Route of the Slaves). Here they walked from the town of Ouidah to the beach in chains, to board small boats that took them out to the big slavers and over to the Americas. Many from here went to Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil and took their religion (Voodoo) with them. Voodoo is still very much practiced here, but it’s not the Hollywood version.
Just as I started down the Route des Esclaves a white man asked me where the memorial “Point of No Return” was. My book said it was on the beach. He and his wife offered me a ride in their four-wheel drive vehicle, which I accepted. It turned out they were evangelists from British Colombia, Canada, and immediately asked me if I were Christian. In the meantime he was asking directions to the monument and not following them—or my suggestions. So I said I wanted to walk ‘that way,’ (he was going to go the opposite way) and as I was getting out, the wife said, “If you’re ever in a bind, call on Jesus—he knows you.” (An authentic African experience, I think!) Anyway, I found the monument (so did they, as I saw their car there) and it was most dramatic, right on the beach.
Maybe there really is something to this Voodoo—I went for lunch—had a large beer and chicken with couscous. At the end of it I was just thinking how good some pineapple would taste when the waitress set a plate of it in front of me, without my ordering it! Following that I decided to visit the Sacred Forest, which is the site where the founder of Ouidah Kpasse turned himself into a tree to escape his enemies. I was having trouble finding it when a young man got off a motor scooter and asked if I knew Ann and Tijs. He had guided them last week, and they had told him all about meeting me—the 65 year old backpacker. When he told me his name, Remi, it rang a bell and sure enough, I had gotten his name from the Lonely Planet Internet site as being a good guide and written it in my book! Since Ouidah is so small, I didn’t feel the need for a guide. Anyway, he helped me find the Sacred Forest and guided me around it. It’s full of statues of Voodoo deities—maybe they worked their magic!
Next morning I left to go back to Accra—two border crossings (pretty stressful—everyone is pulling at you to be your guide, change money, carry your pack, while the border people are looking for small bribes). I didn’t feel too well, but made it back to Accra before I felt too bad. What a bummer. I suppose it was the chicken and couscous, or the Voodoo! Anyway, I spent two days in Accra going from my bed to KLM to try to get my flight settled—not an easy task. I did finally manage to get a flight out of Accra on ‘standby’ on Thursday night, and another one out of Amsterdam on Friday morning, so voila!! Here I am at home, safe and not quite sound, but will be after a few days, I’m sure. So this will be my last epistle; thanks for all the emails—it’s fun to get mail when you travel.
It was a really great journey, but probably one of the most strenuous ones that I’ve ever done, and again, my grandson, Marco, said, “Gramma, you stayed away too long. We waited and waited and waited for you to come back!”