Sunday, March 1, 2009

Flat Al in Benin Part I: The South

Half a day and several Toblerone bars later, the tired trio made it to their next destination. Arriving at 2 am, they dazedly found the hotel shuttle, checked in, shuffled to their room, and fell exhausted into bed.
When Al woke up the next morning, he took in the tile floors, the air-conditioning,and the gorgeous view and exclaimed: “This doesn’t look like Africa to me!” True, the lovely Hotel du Lac – named for its location on the Cotonou Lagoon which connects the Bight of Benin to Lake Nakoué – isn’t most people’s idea of 3rd world accommodations, but it was the only hotel with airport shuttle service (getting a taxi late at night is expensive and dangerous). Kate also thought her guests could use some “easing in” to life in a developing country.

View from our hotel room
Wasting no time, Kate started them off on a busy sight-seeing schedule. They had only three days before heading North and there was lots to see! The first day, after a relaxed breakfast of pastries and coffee, was spent visiting Cotonou.
Described unflatteringly in Lonely Planet as “being stuck in a taxi with a chain-smoking speed freak,” walking around Benin’s largest city and commercial capital is a unique experience. Kate’s mom couldn’t get over the vast number of taxi-motos (call zemi-djans) swarming the streets like ants. Though intimidated at first, both Lois and Al quickly adapted to riding on the back of these vespa/motorcycles; good thing, too, since they are the primary form of transportation! In fact, motos are so prevalent that Benin and neighboring Togo are the only two Peace Corps countries in the world where volunteers are allowed to ride them (contingent on wearing a helmet at all times, of course).

While Kate’s mom was distracted by buzzing zemis, Al kept marveling at the women carrying huge piles of goods on top of their heads. Several times they turned back only to find him frantically trying to calculate the weight-balance ratio needed to accomplish this impressive feat. Flat Al would soon become equally perplexed by the packing capacity of bush taxis such as this one:

“Defying gravity! Inconceivable!” Al exclaimed.

By late afternoon, the group was tuckered out from meeting Peace Corps staff, exploring busy markets and attempting near-death street crossings. Fleeing the heat and clamor, they gratefully ducked into their last stop of the day, the air-conditioned Zinsou Museum. Only a few years old, the museum is quickly becoming one of West Africa’s premier galleries for contemporary art. The trio was won over by its friendly staff, progressive hands-on approach to art, and coffee shop (one of the only in Cotonou and Benin!). Unbelievably, museum admissions and tours are free so the experience was made even better knowing that, unlike most tourist stops, this one wasn’t reserved just for the wealthy.

The next morning Al and the girls left the hotel early and were met at the water’s edge by the friendly guide Pascal and his trusty boat. Minutes later they were happily speeding toward Benin’s most popular tourist attraction, the aquatic stilt village of Ganvié where 30,000 locals still carry out their lives in, on, and just inches above Lake Nakoué.

Both being snappy dressers, Al and our guide Pascal hit it off immediately.

Ganvié was founded nearly 300 years ago during the time when the Kings of Dahomey were busy scouring the countryside for smaller and weaker tribes to sell into slavery in exchange for canons and liquor. According to legend, as the slave raids became more frequent King Abodohoué of the peaceful Tofinu people decided it was time to take action. So, doing what we’d all do in a similar situation, he turned himself into an egret and flew off in search of a suitable hiding spot. He finally came upon a series of small, mud islands in the heart of nearby Lake Nakoué and thought CA-CHING. Religious ruling of the time said slave hunters could go anywhere BUT over water in search of their human prizes so if he could just figure out how to build a city in the middle of the lake and transport his people across the water, they’d be in business. Clearly, this would be no easy feat, but the king was no dummy. He turned himself into a crocodile and promptly called upon his reptilian buddies to help with the project. The plan was a success and the Tofinu people have been living there, safe from harm, every since.

Life and laundry in a stilt village

Making friends

Floating Market

That afternoon, Al, Kate, and Lois hopped over to Porto Novo. Built on a marsh and still liberally sprinkled with colonial architecture, Benin’s official capital has a very different feel from the hubbub of Cotonou. Here, Al and Lois got their first glimpse of Peace Corps volunteers in action. Southern volunteers were in the middle of a week-long summer camp for motivated young girls. The gang stopped over to check it out and meet some of Kate’s Peace Corps buddies.

Some participants of Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World)
No visit to Benin is complete without a visit to Ouidah. Accordingly, Al and the ladies dedicated the entire next day to seeing the eccentric city known for being the birthplace of Voo-doo and one of the most infamous names in the Atlantic slave trade.

First stop was the Ouidah History Museum, housed on the premises of the last remaining colonial fort. Built by the Portuguese in 1721 as a trade and missionary base, the fort stood watch as millions of Africans marched by on their way to slave ships bound for the Americas. Today, the museum documents with accounts and artifacts how Ouidah came to be the busiest slave port in West Africa.

From the museum we hired moto-guides to take us along the 3.5 km slave route from the city center to the sea. They competently led us through the six stages of the journey from slave market to the waiting ships. Among these stages is the “Tree of Forgetfulness” which was believed to have magical properties that allowed whomever circled it (9 times for men, 7 for women and children) to forget their homes and identities, thereby freeing their souls from the pain of their imminent departure. The final stage is today marked by the “Gate of No Return”, a striking monument which stands meters from the water and commemorates the thousands of slaves who left that beach never to return again.

The importance of understanding this dark chapter in world history was not lost on the three visitors. Kate reflected on how the consequences of this part of Beninese history are still felt today, Al was lost in thought remembering his own experiences of persecution, and Lois dutifully took notes and pictures throughout the visit to use in her new position teaching 8th grade Social Studies (which has a substantial unit on Africa). Though this was to be the least light-hearted part of the trip, they all left glad they had come and hoping to remember the important lessons they had learned.

“Will we ever learn from history’s mistakes or are we doomed to repeat them?”

Al and the “Gate of No Return”

Flat Albert does Morocco

Continuing his jet-setting lifestyle, Al decided to tag along to Morocco and Benin with Kate and her mom Lois. First up was the historic city of Marrakesh. Literally “Land of God,” the city’s spiritual influence was evident at every turn. Though their hotel was in the modern city, called Gueliz, they spent most of their time in the old fortified city or medina, exploring Morocco’s largest traditional market (souk) and taking in one of the busiest squares in Africa (and the world)-- Djemaa el Fna.

Walking around this bustling square is like taking a trip back to medieval times. Your senses are overwhelmed by a combination of exotic sights, sounds, and smells. Everywhere little groups are formed around performers of every type: musicians, dancers, acrobats, story-tellers, and –Al’s personal favorite- snake charmers.


Al, being the perfect travel companion,

graciously takes a photo above Djemaa el Fna

From Marrakesh they took the train up to Morocco’s cultural and spiritual center, the ancient city of Fez. Founded in the 9th century, Fez is home to the oldest university in the western world and its medina- largest in Morocco and home to over 2 million people- is the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world.

They soon found out walking around a medina can be tiring, especially when combined with frequent darting of high speed donkey carts on narrow lanes!

Al trying to entice Kate to buy some traditional Arab nougat candy:
“It’s as tall as I am and only 9 roubat!”

Al kept pushing for less healthy eating options, but luckily they held out for delicious smoothies, a camel burger, and falafel at a fun little café.


Refreshed after their meal, Al spied a chess set in the corner and bullied Kate into playing. Clearly hesitant at first, Kate’s confidence grew as she discovered –all expectations to the contrary—that Flat Al was actually a horrible player! When she claimed his king and victory only minutes later our pal Al was heard mumbling something to himself about sharks and “being taken.”

Chess: Game of Geniuses?

After a little more roaming, they were ready to bid their ancient medina farewell. Making a final stop at a sidewalk café, they drank one last glass of addictive Moroccan mint tea then headed back to the hotel to pack for their next great adventure.

“Mint is known to stimulate the brain, you know.”

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Flat Albert does Mexico

After looking forward for some time to finally meeting the great Mr. Flat Albert, Kate’s family got nervous as their departure date approached and there was still no word! Luckily he showed up just in time to fly to Mexico for cousin Emilie’s wedding. After arriving in Cancun, eagle-eyed Al was the first to spot the sign for the wedding party shuttle:

It was taking a while to gather everyone, so Al suggested visiting the airport’s Welcome Bar.

Nothing says “bienvenido” like an ice-cold margarita.

Next came a 3 hour shuttle to the coast, then another hour boat ride out to their little island paradise. Everyone appreciated the prevalence of golf carts (no cars are allowed on the island), one of which buzzed them through the little town to the beach on the other side. Arriving at their hotel “Casa las Tortugas” the group was delighted by its charm! Al especially took to the red porch hammocks, wasting no time before breaking one in.

Al, getting into the swing of things.

At one particularly festive lunch, their pal Al sampled some local beer.

Al, while he was still upright.

Unfortunately for him and everyone else, our buddy had “uno mas!” too many and was reminded why alcohol was not his drug of choice. While Kate’s beautiful cousin Amanda was stooped over the toilet, holding back Al’s wispy white hair as he put himself at ease, she was heard to grumble: “Know your limits, stupid!”

In fact, Flat Al was still feeling so poorly the next day he missed the main event, which he would have enjoyed greatly since this was by no means a conventional wedding ceremony. Emilie and Rowan included traditions from Christian, Irish, Native American, Jewish, and West African faiths… there was even a huppah!

Fortunately, Al was able to see some pictures of which he highly approved:

Maybe if Mileva had been this attractive we would have made it!

At the goodbye breakfast he wished the happy couple well, then turned and shook his head smiling. Love is one of life’s mysteries for which he never found the formula.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Al returns to Eastern Europe

Al missed Eastern Europe and asked to return by joining a trip Josh and Alina were taking. At first, they were a little hesitant – what would happen to their romantic trip for just the two of them?
hopes for romantic time?

But upon realizing that they were traveling for 2+ weeks with only a few changes of underwear and not a lot of opportunities for showers, they realized it already wasn't going to be romantic in the traditional sense to start. Al was allowed to join.

They started in Prague, where they got a few days with Mr. Paul DeBell, too! They ate a lot of food, drank a lot of beer (and becherovka), and saw some pretty sights and fun museums.

Prague's castle at night

Some propaganda from the Communism Museum

More propoganda from the Communism Museum

Al admits that although he finds the fanged Matryoshka scary, there's also something a little sexy about it all...

Enjoying the night life in Prague. One of the four in the pictures above was not drunk. See if you can guess who!

Al claimed to enjoy hanging out with other intellectuals, but he thought Kafka was "kind of weird."

Visiting the memorial to the students who killed themselves to protest the occupation.

"One of my idols!" Al exlaimed, of Jara Cimrman, one of the Czech Republic's most beloved citizens. For more info, please see:

One of Cimrman's most brilliant inventions.

After Prague, the trio went to Vienna, but Al was less pleased with Vienna than other cities he has been in. And by Al, I just might mean Josh and Alina. Note the scarcity of pictures of Vienna. After a quick stopover in Bratislava, the trio arrived in Budapest, where they were reunited with Paul. The group continued on with the excellent food, abundance of beer, and some sights to remember. And, yes, a fascist rally. Although they didn’t know what it was when they first got there.

Al, slightly uncomfortable upon realizing that the rally was primarily for blaming all the country's problems on the Jews and Gypsies.

Kossuth, one of the most famous Hungarian rebellion leaders. Most towns have at least one ter (square) named for him.

The largest synagogue in all of Eastern Europe

A monument to the Jews slaughtered at the Danube river bank by the Nazis in WWII

Budapest at night

A few days down in southern Hungary provided Al with the opportunity to see Paul in the classroom, some small-town living, and yes, some ridiculously angry-looking (yet mechanically-oriented) children.

Paul in the classroom

A very serious Bendi

Bendi, fixing the engine

Josh and Alina had a blast on their vacation and ended up being thrilled that Al joined them. "He’s a light packer and never vetoes your pick for dinner," they were overheard gushing about their travel companion.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Flat Albert's Tour de France

Flat Albert jumped at the chance of joining the Lenn family on their recent trip to France. He couldn't wait to experience all of the great food, art, and culture. The family was excited that Al was joining them too:
After landing in Paris, Mike familiarized himself with the city
and decided to start with the most famous attraction in Paris, the Eiffel Tower
From the top, a staggering 1,063 feet high, one can see all of Paris, including the Champs-Élysées. This avenue leads into the roundabout from hell at the Arc de Triomphe, where 12 streets feed into the circle
Al then headed over to the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The island where it is located, Île de la Cité, is considered the center of Paris and the point from which all road distances in France are measured.
From the towers of Notre Dame, chimeras peer out over the city. Below, another famous cathedral, the Sacré-Cœur in Montmarte, is visible in the background.From Notre Dame Flat Al wandered over to Sainte-Chapelle to admire its beautiful stained glass
At the Musée Rodin, Albert saw one of his favorite sculptures, The Thinker
Left brain view:
The Kiss
Flat Albert next visited the Arc de Triomphe, and braved gale force winds for the view from the top
In the distance is the Grande Arche, a monument to humanitarian ideals designed to be a 20th century version of the Arc de Triomphe To keep from blowing away, Al tucked himself under Roy's care And after all the sightseeing, Flat Albert rested up for the next busy day.

A Day At The Museums
The next day, Flat Albert couldn't wait to see the great museums of Paris. He started with the celebrated art of the Louvre.
Inside, a crowd with their cameras gathered around quite a celebrity...
The Venus de MiloJust do it: The Winged Victory of Samothrace, or Nike
Art being restored:
Throughout the musuem, artists paint copies of the work
And paintings such as La Grande Odalisque by Ingres have been co-opted into advertisements
Elsewhere in the Louvre, Flat Albert easily slipped through the crowd to pose with the Mona Lisa,
and view da Vinci's other impressive work
Portrait of an Unknown Woman, attributed to da Vinci

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

St. John the Baptist
"Can you believe the condition of the roof?"

Works by other artists:
St. Sebastian, just hangin out
"Dude, this really sucks"

The Oath of the Horatii
, Jacques-Louis DavidThe Coronation of Joséphine, Jacques-Louis David. Refer to the people at the edge of the photo for perspective of its size
This larger-than-life work was starting to give Flat Al quite the opposite of a Napoleon complex. Luckily, he came across figures a little more his size at the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte at Invalides later that day.
Flat Albert and the Lenn family then took a break for lunch
Sights like those above were a reoccurring end to Roy's meals.

Re-energized after lunch, Flat Albert was ready for the impressionist masterpieces of the Musée d'Orsay, located in a former railway station
Fittingly, the first painting he saw was Luncheon on the Grass by Manet. The band Beirut used part of the image for the cover of the Lon Gisland EP
Whistler's Mother

The Dance Class, Edgar Degas
Renoir:Claude Monet:
The most impressive (or expressive, if you will) part of the collection, the Van Goghs:
"Such a curious fellow"

With the suggestion of afternoon siestas and comfortable beds, Flat Albert went to rest up for his trip to Lourdes.

A Trip To Lourdes
Next, Flat Al and the family hopped on the high-speed TGV toward the town of Lourdes. Located near the Spanish border at the foot of the Pyrenees, Lourdes is a seven hour train ride south. Al enjoyed the the many sights that whizzed by:
Upon arriving, Flat Al thought the presence of palm trees in an alpine village to almost break the laws of space and time
After such a long train ride, Al and the family relaxed in a brasserie and enjoyed the view of the river and the town
Flat Albert then explored the city on foot
The Château Fort of Lourdes, which has origins dating to Roman times
In 1858, a fourteen year old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a grotto. Since that time Lourdes has become a popular pilgrimage site where visitors come to pray at the sanctuary above the grotto and drink from the spring waters.
Lourdes is a small town of 15,000, though it attracts over 5 million visitors a year and has the second-highest number of hotels in France after Paris. The tourist season lasts from Easter to November, and at other times of the year the town is relatively quiet. So on this night in March, only about four restaurants were open. Flat Al and the gang settled for something familiar:Roy: Hey Flat Al, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France?
Flat Al: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Roy: Nah, man, they got the metric system. They don't know what a quarter pounder is.
Flat Al: What do they call it then?
Roy: They call it Royale with Cheese
Flat Al: Royallle with Cheese

Last Tango in Paris
Flat Albert began his last day in France with a visit to Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. Located here are the tombs of singer Édith Piaf, composers Bizet and Chopin, writer Marcel Proust, and painters Georges Seurat and Jacques-Louis David. As remembered from the visit to the Louvre, David was Napoleon's court painter. However, when the Bourbons returned to the throne, David was exiled as a revolutionary and not allowed to return even in death, so his tomb contains only his heart. Oscar Wilde is also buried here, and admirers traditionally kiss the monument at his gravesite while wearing lipstick.Of all these notable figures, however, the most visited gravesite (and fifth most popular tourist attraction in Paris) belongs to none other than drunken buffoon Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors. The grave has been notoriously vandalized over the years, and the bust in place there since the 10th anniversary of his death was stolen in 1988:Today the grave is cleaned up a bit, but because of the large crowds and chances of vandalism, the cemetery has been forced to hire a full-time security guard at the site. Here you'll notice that someone has graciously left a joint at the foot of the grave:
Flat Albert next ventured over to Montmarte, the surrounding district of Paris high on a hill. Montmarte is known for the Sacré-Cœur Basilica as well for the historic presence of artists, performers, and caberets such as Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir. The steps of the Sacré-Cœur are a popular gathering place for tourists, and here Flat Al watched as a blue jean-clad performer serenaded the crowd with Radiohead's 'High and Dry'After all that walking Flat Albert and family were ready for dinner, and for their last night in Paris they returned to their favorite eatery of the trip, a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurantAfter the fantastic meal, Flat Albert still had one sight left to see- the Eiffel Tower at night. Upon exiting the Metro he was impressed with the economy in which Parisians found parking spaces:Al held off from pondering the physics of it all and made it to the bridge just in time to see the Eiffel Tower's brilliant displayVowing to return again, Flat Albert bid adieu to the City of Light.
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