Grand Popo & Ouidah, Benin, December 12 - 13, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Where I stayed
Rollende hotel

Flag of Benin  ,
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Now comfortably back with the Daphne and the tour group at a beautiful beach resort area I needed a day to do no more than relax on the beach and frolic in the waves.  Supposedly there's a dangerous undertow at Grand Popo, but I didn't feel much evidence of it when I was in the water.  Sure, there were some basic sight-seeing options available - going on a guided night sea turtle-watching expedition on the beach, a guided morning nature walk and pirogue ride through the marshes, and an afternoon dance and ceremony at a local Voodoo house.  However, I felt rather unenthused about it all, and after the previous day of what I call starvation vacation, my primary interests were eating and drinking. 
At our beachside camp in Grand Popo we encountered a Rotel truck.  Rotel is a motel-like word, a contraction of Rollende Hotel and is the German version of overland group travel.  The Krauts know how to do it with style, and these enormous vehicles are equipped with tiny individual sleeping cubicles, a real stove in back, and even outside electrical sockets which enable passengers to (among other things) blow-dry their hair in the morning.  This overlanding in style, though, appears to appeal to a mostly middle-aged to older crowd that doesn't want to rough it too, too much.  The Rotel truck is relevant here since the driver told Dave about another Rotel truck that had been stuck in the mud recently and abandoned for many weeks on the notoriously bad southern road between Nigeria and Cameroon, a route we had planned to take in less than two weeks.  This report on road conditions led Dave to plan a different route across Nigeria, one that would take us into Cameroon far to the north of where we had originally planned, but more on that in my Nigeria chapters.
Benin is one of West Africa's smaller countries and (like Togo) quite long and narrow.  We stayed entirely in the narrow southern part near the Atlantic coast.  Benin has a pretty interesting history as the center of the Dahomey kingdom, one of the most powerful in West Africa up until the colonial era and one that grew rich partly through its involvement in the slave trade.  The region continued to bear that name as a colony and during the early years of its independence, before it was changed to Benin, the name of another historical empire in the region. 
Despite being a very poor country with an economy largely dependent on cotton and other agricultural commodities, over the last two decades Benin has become one of the stable democracies in West Africa.  Like most African countries, Benin's population includes a multitude of tribes.  The largest here are the Fon, who make up much of the population in central and southern Benin, and the Yoruba, who live in southeastern Benin and are also one of the largest tribes in Nigeria.  Unlike in the Sahel countries of Mali and Senegal, though, I found it hard to tell much difference between the tribes in coastal West Africa in terms of houses, appearance, dress, perhaps because so many people have adopted Christianity and many aspects of the western lifestyle. 
Benin, though, is actually one of the West African countries where Islam and Christianity have made the fewest inroads among the population, with something like 50 percent of people still practicing traditional animist religions or voodoo.  One such voodoo center is Ouidah, a small coastal city we visited between Grand Popo and Cotonou.  Ouidah has a few rather underwhelming voodoo sights, including a now serious tourist trap called Temple des Pythons, which you can go into for a look for an unpleasantly high fee and then be photographed dancing with a python around your neck for some additional dash.  I figured I'd pass.  There was, however, and interesting voodoo ceremony taking place under and around a large tree on one of the town's squares.  They weren't keen on pictures, but I figured I'd hold my camera down near my crotch to inconspicuously take a few snapshots of the ceremony and dance anyway. 
Ouidah was also a slave center during the pre-colonial era, and the Portuguese-built fort in town now houses a local historical museum on the slave trade.  After a few hours in town we drove along the Route des Esclaves, the now main road which follows the route slaves were marched along from the fort to the beach to board ships to be taken (mostly) to Brazil.  We had our truck lunch beside the beachside Point of No Return memorial, a monumental arch and sculptures depicting chains in slaves being marched to the sea.  The Door of Return monument, built in 2000 and symbolizing the return of the diaspora to Africa, was a short distance away along the beach.
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