A wee prelude: my boyfriend Brad is doing a 6 month voyage all over the place. Before seeing me in Benin, he left Winnipeg Nov 1 and went to Iceland, and Sweden. He just finished 9 days in Spain, saw two Barcelona football matches, and will go back to Sweden for a couple weeks and then to Malta for Christmas, soon thereafter various South American destinations and then to South Africa to meet up with me in Johannesburg! Here are his ponderings on Benin!!
Hello, Libby asked me to write something for her blog as I visited her in Benin from Nov 12-22. I think she just wants another viewpoint to show everyone back home shes not that crazy for going all the way to Africa! I dont know if she asked the right person but…
I would have sent this sooner, but Im not that technologically savvy for the people that dont know me that well. I just spent the last ten days or so learning what a blog actually is.
Now since Libby described our voyages so well in her last blog report, I will just try to write about my impressions of Benin.
I knew Africa was going to be a different experience in the plane on final approach into Cotonou. I could see the city, and normally back home you can see a four lane road made up of two columns of red lights, and two columns of white lights. Headlights and tail lights of cars, in appropriate lanes on the road. Well, from the plane I could see a swirl of a mass of lights on the road. White and red were mish mashed everywhere. Now it looked mad enough from the plane, when you actually get on the streets at ground level its pretty amazing. Amazing in the fact that there are cars, scooters, hand carts, and pedestrians, all in the same space and none of them seem to collide. As an air traffic controller, I could watch this all day. It reminded me of being at the Fort Whyte Center in Winnipeg when all the geese migrate in, and none of them seem to hit each other either. Bananas!
Getting past customs was quite easy and fast. Benin is the only country I’ve seen that has a coupon on the bottom of their customs entry card. Haha. Just detach it and you can save money on cell phones. A side note, almost everyone has a cell phone there. At least one. Most people have multiple, and are always switching their sim cards around. It seems like a drug dealing kind of thing to do to me, but everyone does it there all the time, and I never really quite learned why.
Libby and I mostly transited on Zems or scooters. Now I know Libby has talked about these before, so I wont go into too much detail. But riding around on them is an experience unto itself. Its terribly fun, but I think half the fun is the danger. Its the same kind of fun as going on a roller coaster, just without all the safefty stuff! You dont need a helmet, and you can load on as much produce, gasoline, animals, a coffin, or people until you’re just at the point where you’re riding on rims. Then you know you cant take anymore. In fact most vehicles in Benin are used much like this. When Libby and I took a tour of the stilt village of Aguégué, we went in a small boat with an outboard motor. The boat was sea worthy, although I think they found some loop holes in the scientific community to do so. I thought our boat was pushing it unitl I saw the sand harvesters. There are people collect sand from the bottom of the river, and bring it ashore for a living. These boats are so overloaded that the sides are level with the water, and sometimes, water is actually spilling into the boat over the sides. Yet they do not sink. Now I never took physics in high school, (I had a hard time just spelling it) but I would still like to hear Isaac Newtons explaination of that!
Africa was kind of like what I had been expecting in some ways, and not others. It was a very busy place, but it was also a lot safer than I had expected. If any one has every seen the Simpsons episode when Homer goes to New York, thats what I was kind of expecting. Homer gets his hotdog stolen by a pigeon, his camera stolen by a man, and his suitcase stolen by a cop in about five minutes after arriving in New York. But none of that happened in Benin. My camera actually slipped out of my pocket in a cab, and another passenger noticed and returned it to me. A very, very nice thing to do.
The one thing that was definitely dangerous, at least in the big cities of Cotonou and Porto Novo, was crossing the streets. As a pedistrian you have no right of way over anything there. After a brief miscommunication crossing a very busy street in Porto Novo, I was relegated to holding Libbys hand at all street crossings from that point on, haha. The miscommunication occured when we had been wating 5 or so minutes to cross the street. Finally Libby said “ok now” and then didnt cross, leaving me to fend (very poorly I may add) for myself crossing the street.
Nobody seems to swear in Benin. Not that I would notice, as I cant speak French. But thats what Libby said to me anyways. She also told me to stop saying the only French profanity that I knew which was “m#%&@”. Sorry Libby I was just trying to practice my French!
The food there was very good. Libby and her housemate Roukia cooked many good meals. We had igname pilé which is like mashed potatos with very good tomatoey sauce. also couscous, lots of couccous. Libby was worried I was going to get sick of it, but I really really enjoyed it. I could eat it everyday. Ordering meat you have to be careful with. Im a bit of a baby, and used to more processed meat. In Benin, it was mostly bone in meat, or the fish was a whole fish, or the beef was hoof or tongue. Fish head is the favoured part of the fish over there, so I had to be careful. What can I say, I guess I wouldn’t win an episode of “Fear Factor”. I also got introduced to something amazing called a “Yovo Doko”. A yovo doko is basically a deep fried donut hole. But that doesnt fully describe how amazing they taste, especially when they are fresh. You know something is good (and healthy–haha) when your napkin you were holding it with is see-through afterwards. Yum! Also being a bit of an ice cream conniseur, I was delighted to discover “Fan Milk” which is bacically ice cream in a bag. With the heat, a popsicle would be a giant nightmare to try and eat, so the bag is genius, no mess at all. And all for the bargain price of 100 CFA for vanilla, and 150 CFA for chocolate. Thats about 30 cents CAD.
I should also mention that ordering food at a restaurant in Ouidah is kind of like playing a VLT. You order 2 omelettes and get one. Or you order fries, and get a full meal with a whole fish. Most times there isnt a menu, so they jsut bring you some food. Sometimes they dont have any food either, so you just have to go somewhere else. But most places do have beer! And a 600ml bottle of “La Beninoise” beer is usually about 500 CFA. About 1 dollar CAD. Hard to argue with that.
Speaking of gambling in restaurants there, how can I forget the bathrooms. I would say you could rate the bathrooms there on a scale of 1-10. 0 being no bathroom, which is common. 10 being a bathroom with a toilet, toilet seat, toilet paper, sink, soap, paper towels, and yes, a door. A 5 might be a toilet, no seat, no sink. A 2 I would rate as a stall with no door, and a 3 inch square hole in the floor to go in. Of course this is just my own rating system, when you go visit Libby you can come up with your own, and then we can compare notes. ALWAYS check for toilet paper before you do your business, or you will get caught with your pants down. No pun intended… all right maybe just a little one.
One thing that I could not handle or get over was the raging heat. When I landed there at 700PM after sunset, it was still about 35 degrees. I had sweated through my shirt before we had walked about 10 feet. Now those of you that know me well, know that I have very good good circulation. This helps me handle the cold very well, but the heat…. Generally everyone tries to avoid doing anything between 12-4 because it is ungodly hot at that time of day. I now fully understand the expression “high noon” as there is no shade anywhere to be found at that time of day. I only got dehydrated once, sun burnt, and heat rashed, so all in all not so bad for ten days.
I noticed that most things we take for granted in Canada are a real pain in the behind in Benin. Such as being able to drink tap water, instead of boil it. Or having consistent non-interupted electricity. Or having glass paned windows. The windows in Benin arent there, or at best are screens. This makes for very poor noise proofing. And when you have neighbours such as Libbys that start sweeping their yard at 5AM or start grinding metal at 6AM, or argue loudly until 12AM, or start revving a two stroke enigne for 10-20 minutes at 700AM, etc. some noise proofing would be very nice to have. Libby also has a mentally deficient rooster living in her neighbourhood. This rooster isnt aware that he is only supposed to caw at sunrise. Instead he does at all hours of the day and night. I would have really liked to find this little fellar and “thank” him but alas I did not.
I was only in Benin for 10 days but I had an amazing time. Im very glad I went to this country I had never heard of until Libby mentioned it. I learned a ton of things about it, such as the slave trade, and how Voodoo originated in Benin. I saw many things as well, such as my pal Benny, and the Presidito. I feel like I really got a wide spectrum of experiences when I was there as well. I got to see the madness of Cotonou and Porto Novo, when a red light turns to green and you cant see for a couple of seconds because of all the black smoke from two stroke enigines. I also got to see the quaintness of the stilt village Aguégué, and Possotomé the place Libby and I went that was right on a beautiful lake, and we stayed in a bungalow. The restaurant was on stilts over the water, and was kind of like the Pony Corral on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, only real. I am very grateful for Libby for babysitting me and my non-French ways for ten days. I got to have a wonderful experience that I would not have gotten to have have otherwise.