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.”
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