A little less cycling, A little more sight-seeing

Firstly, apologies for lack of photos in these latest updates – internet is lethargic here and I need to get some km’s underway today. In the next week or two there should be another photo set on flickr so until then, you’ll have to imagine what you can from my words….

Benin Border

I knew I was approaching the border to Benin by the stationary trucks lining the road. Nose to tail, side by side. The two lane road was reduced to one and the traffic forced onto the dusty side in front of the continuous row of stalls selling drinks and biscuits and meat and spare parts. Everything you would expect at an African border. And some things you wouldn’t. The border formalities easy. Not very formal. I happily walked through with the hundreds of locals on foot but eventually searched out the place to get my passport stamped.

Kidnap on the Coastal Highway

In Benin barely an hour and it began to rain. Only the second time I have cycled in the rain in Africa. Once in Benin, once in Accra going to get my visa for Benin. It wasn’t to be the last time in Benin either. But it’s to be expected. It’s the middle of the rainy season. And at that time of year you expect to get wet.

The rain didn’t last long this time, but the grey cloud remained like a hangover to make for a gloomy morning. I lost myself in my own thoughts as my legs rotated the pedals on automatic. Thoughts of what’s in store for me on the road ahead – I’ve been thinking about the next country, Nigeria. People keep reminding me it’s dangerous, unsafe, corrupt, to expect trouble on the roads. My mind was conjuring up possible scenarios for kidnap, robbery and worse. And at that point, a large white van overtakes and stops in the middle of the road at an angle just ahead. Oh NO! Hijack… kidnap?! My mind quickly tries to decide the best plan – speed up, don’t stop, but which side of the van to go past? And then I see a little white smiley face peek out from the passenger window and wave at me. I recognise the face instantly. I know that van. It’s the French couple I first met in Hombori in Mali and then met again in Mole National Park in northern Ghana, and again in a random guesthouse in a little town of Kintampo and twice more in Kumasi. Unbelievable! They’re driving, I’m cycling and have been home for a month and still we’re travelling the same roads at the same speed.

We talk until another vehicle wants to pass this quiet stretch of road, which is long enough to find out what we’ve been doing since our last encounter. We are all going to Ouidah and plan to stay in the same guesthouse (the cheapest according to our guidebooks) so expect we’ll see each other later. They drive off. I follow, slower.

Ouidah Accommodation

At Ouidah, the cheap guesthouse looked closed down. But the owner let me in and I looked at a room. It should be closed-down. I’ve stayed in some pretty dire hovels in my time but this was unappealing in every respect. I cycled into the centre of Ouidah to look for a better kept place. I found one. For the same price, I was greeted by the friendly lady owner, who I interrupted from her snacks with a friend in the bar; and shown to a clean, freshly decorated, ensuite room with towel, toilet roll and soap included in the price. If you’re used to hotels in England that would all be standard. If you’re used to camping in the wild and occasionally staying in the cheapest African guesthouse, that is all luxury.

Route des Esclaves

After a rest over lunch, I went to explore on my bike. I cycled through town to Place Chacha. A large tree overshadows the square. Behind the square is the former residence of Brazilian Governor Chacha. It was beneath this tree that slave auctions were held. Traded for merchandise from Europe, the slaves were bought and sold, traded like cattle. Each slave had a price – those in their prime and in peak physical condition bought the highest price. From this square, the slaves were taken to the Portuguese Fortaleza São João Batista (now a museum) in town to await shipment to Brazil and the caribbean. When the time came, they were walked through town, back past the place where they had been sold and trudged down the dusty track to the coast. This 4km route from fort to sea is known as the ‘Route des Esclaves’. Shackled by the neck and ankles, the slaves walked in lines one behind the other, to their fate.

Having rained earlier in the day, the dirt road clogged my bike wheels as I navigated around the orange puddles. I passed the occasional guesthouse and restaurant and regular symbolic vodun statues such as the three-headed man, a panther and a serpent devouring it’s tail. No slaves now. Just a steady stream of men on motorbikes.

Voodoo round the world

On reaching the beach, an imposing columned gateway marks the ‘Door of No Return’, beyond which the slaves never came back. The bas-relief above the gateway shows lines of slaves walking out to the boats. To each side, guarding the gateway, metallic statues represent Egun-Egun, the spirit of the slaves.

The history of the slave trade and vodun, the predominant animist religion, are historically interconnected. The vodun beliefs of west Africa were introduced by the slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean, where they successfully mixed with the catholic religion of the missionaries to form what we now know as voodoo in Haiti and cadomblé in Brazil. Vodun religion practised by over a million Beninoise today is much like that from Haiti and Brazil. Indeed, it is descendants of freed slaves from Brazil who re-settled on the coast near Ouidah who brought back the practise. Names such as da Costa and da Silva are not uncommon here, are reminders of this heritage.

The museum at Ouidah was informative and insightful. It displayed many photographs and images of religious festivals, both Vodun and Christian. Outwardly, the slaves would practise Christianity, but secretly look to the vodun spirits for guidance. Where clay figurines of the virgin Mary and Jesus may sit on a tabletop; beneath, out of sight, would be vodun fetishes.

Within the grounds of the fort was a commemorative display, erected by the portuguese surrounded by canons. Where fire-power meant ultimate power, one canon would have cost between twelve and fifteen male slaves or 21 females.

A name I won’t forget

Back at the guesthouse I met Francois. Down from Bohicon, Francois was in town arranging a funeral. He invited me to dinner. I suspected he had something else in mind after dinner too and politely declined. Perhaps it was just that he was stood in just his boxer shorts in the doorway of his room next to mine that gave this impression. Nonetheless, I went out to find and internet cafe and then dinner, alone. I aborted attempts to connect online when the power failed for the third time. When each time you have to sit and wait for the antiquated computers to slowly reboot this is a painful process. Instead I found a restaurant and ate in semi-darkness.

It was late by the time I arrived back at the guesthouse so I went straight to bed. Once again it was a case of sleeping inside my tent on top of the bed to escape the wrath of the mosquitoes. From the darkness I heard a voice call ‘Francois’. Ah, that’s his name. I have a terrible memory when it comes to names. I can remember almost everything else I am told about a person; but their name, unless I hear it repeatedly, I inevitably forget. ‘Francois,’ a female voice calls out in the throes of delight, ‘Oooh, Francois!’ Get the iPod quick! And so I go to sleep, drowning out the sounds from the room next door with my music. I will not be forgetting his name! I have heard it too many times. And he really did have after-dinner ideas.

Race To Cotonou, The Capital

The following morning I had breakfast at cafe Eureka. Sat on a wooden trunk that acted as a bar stool, I sat with my coffee and bread listening to the men animatedly discuss last night’s football game. And then who should walk in but the French couple. It turned out that we were both heading to Cotonou that day. But first they were going to look at the museum.

After breakfast, I departed on my bike and the French couple headed for the museum. Halfway to Cotonou, I stopped for a rest and while crunching on another frozen yoghurt I saw their white van pass on the road.

As I neared Cotonou, the road became congested with trucks and cars and taxis and motorbikes. While most vehicles were jammed nose to tail, me and the motorbikes were able to weave around the traffic and continue our journey. Of the many trucks and cars I passed, I also passed one white van. The French couple’s white van. I banged on the door as I passed. ‘Unbelievable,’ they were thinking, ‘We’re driving, she’s cycling and still we’re travelling the same roads at the same speed!’

In Cotonou I collected a visa for the Democratic Republic of Congo, drank numerous coffees and ate well at the Lebanese-run ‘Restaurant Byblos’ and ‘King of Charwarma’. A happy, relaxed couple of days in the capital. For those couple of days I locked up the bike and navigated the wide city streets from the back of a moto-taxi. These kamikaze drivers on motorbikes rule the roads here. Decked out in yellow bibs, each distinguished by a five-digit number printed in bold black across their back, they look more like escaped convicts. They drive like they are trying to evade capture too. One of my moto-taxi drivers looked a real cow-boy with his gold-rimmed aviator shades and necktie. But his tough-guy look faded on closer inspection. His neckerchief was a colourful print of Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends. Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Kanga smiling back at me.

Palaces Galore

From Cotonou, it was a long rainy day’s cycle north to Bohicon. From there I visited Abomey. Home of the Dahomey Kings and their palaces. And then it was to the Nigerian border….