Compact Benin was an unexpected highlight of our west Africa itinerary. We crossed the border from Togo to Benin via the border town of Hilakondji, and immediately headed towards Ouidah, a former slave town and now a center of voodoo. Here, we visited several museums, the Maison du Bresil which served as the Brazilian governor’s mansion, and the Museum of History, housed in the circa 1721 Portuguese fort of Sao Joao Batista. We also retraced the last 4 km walk of the slaves on the “Route des Esclaves”, which lead down to the coast and the Door of No Return. The next day, we visited Africa’s largest lake village, an extraordinary stilt village housing 40,000 inhabitants at Ganvie. While touristy, it was a highlight of Benin and not to be missed.
20 Jan: We drove until the border crossing at Hilakondji, Benin around noon. Just across the border we stopped for about 10 minutes so anyone interested could grab street meat. Robby picked up some roasted pork for 2000 CFA. Though the meat was tasty the small amount we got ended up being a little bit expensive. Several other people got cold chicken for about 500 CFA each. While it was cheaper, it was not as tasty as the roasted pork. We stopped in Ouidah around 2 pm for lunch at an empty lot on Rue Van Vollenhoven. Lunch was veggie sandwiches but we didn’t eat much because we had the roasted pork a couple of hours earlier. After lunch we were joined by Bree, Lucky & Dowelly to head towards the Python Temple. While making our way there, we saw the rest of our group taking a different route, arriving to the temple just ahead of us. Just to keep from being all crowded in together, we opted to let them explore the temple first, while we took photos of the Ouidah Basilica and had drinks just across the street at the Vatican Café. Large local beer was a bargain at only 500 CFA. After our drinks, some of the others came from the Python Temple and said they were able to sneak a peek without paying or taking photos, but from what they could see, it was a tourist trap to be avoided. We walked over to check it out for ourselves but the entire temple complex appeared abandoned, so we quickly moved on. Our next destination was past the Ouidah Mosque down towards the Maison du Bresil (Brazilian Governor’s Mansion) but it seemed that we had walked further than 200 meters indicated on the map. After stopping and asking locals they pointed just a bit further down the street. Entry was 1000 CFA. The building was nothing extraordinary but it did have an interesting display of art and information related to Women in Africa. Then the attendant walked us next door to the exhibition of contemporary art & voodoo symbols. He attempted to charge us another 1000 CFA each. Lucky and Bree paid but the rest of us were not that interested. Seeing that he was pushing the limit on entry fees, he then allowed us all to visit with only the 2000 CFA collected from Lucky and Bree. The displays here were also interesting and gave a little insight into Voodoo beliefs. Additionally, there was a grave in the center of the building, which the attendant said was the resting place of an American voodoo leader. Afterwards, we headed back into Ouidah, and saw an intricately carved tree stump in a town square. It was pretty cool and we took quite a few photos of it from various angles, before heading onward to the Portuguese Fort Sao Joao Batista/Museum of History which was built in 1721. Entry was 1000 CFA and interesting enough to visit for its displays and views of the fort itself. From the fort we started our journey along the 4 km Route des Esclaves, which is the sandy route that slaves were forced to embark to begin their final trek from the center of town out to the beach and the Door of No Return. Interspersed at various locations along the track were green statues of various royal emblems of the Chiefs of Abomey, and we took several photos of the more interesting statues. The Door of No Return was well worth a visit, decorated with bas-relief images of male and female slaves on a large arch and sculptures of slaves in shackles. We paused and reflected on just how many slaves passed through this area to meet their fate in the Americas and the Caribbean and it was a very somber experience. Our campsite was the “Le Jardin Bresilien”, which would have earned rave reviews except that they charged a whopping 2000 CFA for the privilege of swimming in their pool. Instead, some of the braver boys decided to check out the tumultuous ocean for a free dip but they came back stating the water had a strong current and felt a bit too dangerous for their liking. After setting up our tent and downing an entire carton of mixed fruit juices to replenish our fluids, we hung our slightly damp sleeping gear on the laundry line to dry and enjoyed the vegetarian curry dinner that Bree, Luke and Kendra made for dinner tonight. Since time had shifted ahead by an hour when we crossed into Benin, everyone was in their tents shortly after dinner, making for another early night.
21 Jan: Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs (thanks cook group) and we added nutella to our peanut butter toast for a nice change. We were on the road by 8 am headed to the Ganvie stilt village, which was listed as a highlight of Benin, albeit a touristy one. Since everyone on our group wanted to do the motorboat ride and there were 20 of us, the price came out to 3000 CFA each, and Nancy paid for the obligatory guide out of the group kitty. The morning started off hazy, making for some neat photos. To reach our motorized pirogue, we had to walk through the already bustling fish market and our group had to split up into two boats as we couldn’t all fit onto one vessel. According to our Rough Guide to West Africa guidebook, the Ganvie stilt village originated back in the days of the active slave trade, when the ancestors of the Tofinu people settled in the Lake Nokoué which was an ideal spot for grazing and farming. The slave traders, Dan-Homey, were forbidden for religious regions to extend their attacks over water, hence the name of the resulting village (Ganvie) derived its name from the Tofinu words “gan” (we are saved) and “vié” (community). Currently, 40000 residents call Ganvie home, and we found the lake full of fisherman casting their nets, and locals patiently rowing their pirogues towards the village. Our guide books and recommendations from previous travelers said it was really touristy and possibly worth skipping, but we found it well worth the visit. There were lots of photo opportunities and it was nice to just go for a boat ride. After the stilt village visit the next two cook groups (Robby, Hoff & Dowelly tonight) had to do shopping at the local market. Nancy pointed us towards the market and said there was a butcher area just past the market. The cook groups walked to the butcher area but it was closed and the locals said we had to take a taxi to the next closest one. Tonight’s cook group opted for a veggie dinner, buying 2 crates of eggs, green beans, cabbage, egg plant, green peppers, pineapple, onions and carrots. After shopping, Dowelly wanted to spend the last of his CFA coins so he bought a bunch of the Fandango (mango flavored Fan Ice). No one had tried it yet and we all found it to be one of the best they have to offer. We drove through several picturesque villages and were able to get some nice photos from the truck of local people, markets, and overloaded vehicles. We even saw a cargo truck that had swerved and flipped in the ditch. Locals were on the scene moving the goods into another truck to get everything to its destination. Around 1800 Chris scoped out a campsite just up a dirt road from what looks like a UNICEF humanitarian aid project. There was a whole small village of UNICEF tents set up and we even had a few local visitors walk over to our campsite just to say hello. Dinner was sweet veggie fried rice which turned out quite nice for a veggie meal. Bugs were swarming all around the lights so everyone jetted to their tents immediately after dinner. Luke and Mike were the last 2 after their chess game which ended at 2030.