The distance from Lomé to Aneho is only 44 km, but it took over an hour to reach the fishing town, right at the Beninese border. After a short stop for pictures, we moved to the border and did the paperwork for crossing. Ioanna had an expired visa and had to negotiate her entrance with the border police. It went smoother than expected, without any money changing hands.
Our next stop was at Grand Popo – which in French it means ‘big bottom’ – a short 25km away. Grand Popo is a popular resort area with an endless beach that is occupied by fishing boats and their busy crews. It is quite a spectacle, given the size of the beach. It was rather challenging to snap pictures of the fishermen, as they are hostile to tourists and always ask for money. Yet, years of experience in stealing photos with the camera at waist level made it possible.
After an annoyingly long lunch with lukewarm beer at the Tavern des Pirates, we set course to Possotomè, on the shores of Lake Aheme, some 45km north east from Grand Popo.
Our hotel was a complex of wooden cabins. The restaurant and dining area were on stilts over the shallow lake waters. Aside from a couple of million mosquitos, the dinner was good – lake fish and fries. We were the only guests and the evening was very pleasant.
I had a good morning start. For $2, I got a double espresso, from a real nespresso machine, the best coffee I would taste over the entire trip. It is really strange that coffee tastes so bad in Africa, but I got used to that and my expectations are limited. We continued with a long walk in the village of Possotomè, visited the house of the local priest and interacted with the dozens of children playing in the streets.
Kids in the villages are always fun to play with and look happy, but life is hard in sub Saharan Africa and they have a near-zero chance to escape their destiny and hardships of living on $2/day.
Bopa Togonu, is a small nearby village, populate by Yorouba. We went there to attend a traditional Zangbeto ceremony. The Zangbeto in the Yorouba religion are night watchmen, a police that patrols the streets during the night, to protect the community from criminals and evil spirits. During the ceremony, they enter a costume that is practically a hollow haystack and, supposedly, fall into a trance. As the Zangbeto cannot see outside the costume, a team of 2-3 men is helping each of them to navigate and “dance” around the ceremony field, under the hypnotizing music of drums and singers. To prove us that the occupants of the haystack-costumes are non-human spirits, every once in a while, the helpers would overturn the costume, to reveal that there is no occupant, or hand us a rope attached to the Zangbeto and ask 4-5 of us to pull it hard, to verify that it cannot move an inch. I am not sure what kind of tricks or magic they use but they are really impressive.
The village is about 500 strong and absolutely authentic. By authentic, I mean that it’s not spoiled by tourism. Not spoiled by tourism meaning that they live below the absolute poverty line. Houses made of clay, thatched roofs, dirt floors, without toilets, electricity or running water.
Although the ceremony was offered for us – they normally do it only at night-, the villagers got quickly in the right mood and the party took off. Healthy doses of singing, dancing and drinking a local rakia-like beverage, elevated the spirits. The party continued even after our departure.
Half drunk, we drove to Ouidah, a slave trade center between the 17th and 19th century. More than one million people were enslaved and shipped to the Americas over this dark period of human history.
We visited the Temple des Pythons, a humble concrete building building with a clay roof that houses about 50 pythons that are worshipped like gods. The pythons are not fed, but they are let out once a week to pray upon checken or mice. They are absolutely harmless and we got the chance to hold them in our hands.
Chez Maman Brunelle, is anything but fancy, a small restaurant, popular with locals and tourist guides. A half dozen cooking pots with hot cooked food were showcased at the entrance. The food was excellent and the owners very friendly.
After lunch we visited the history museum, within the compound of the old Portuguese fort and the Forêt Sacrée, the sacred forest for the voodoo believers, which features a collection of interesting voodoo statues and shrines.
We followed the trail of the slaves from the fort to the ships that would transfer them to America. Right on the beach, there is a large monument on the symbolic point of no return, a memory to the people that were uprooted and treated like animals, to serve the colonial aspirations of the expanding European nations.
We lodged in a wonderful lake side villa close to the beach that we booked through airbnb, owned by Beninaise businessman and his French wife. A warm shower, homemade caipirinhas and pizza from the nearby hotel, served on the wooden patio, made my friends forget that they were still wearing the same clothes since they left Athens.
From Ouidah, we took the slow way to Cotonou, driving along the beach to visit some local villages.
Cotonou has spread significantly over the last decade, today hosting over a million souls and growing fast. Changing money in one of the local banks was a long, but necessary painful process. After a quick stop in the airport to double check that the missing bags would indeed arrive in the evening, we continued to Porto Novo, the official capital and home of the national assembly, but not of the government, which is seated in Cotonou. It is located close to the Nigerian border, right on the inlet of the gulf of Guinea and is better known for its colonial style buildings.
We parked the car near the Brazilian-style mosque, formerly a church, near the market. Despite Sammy’s offer to escort us, we decided to take the walk to the market on our own. Port Novo has a large and colorful downtown market, with tiny shops that sell everything from graments to food, to electronics. Raising the camera to take pictures is always a challenge in the densely populated areas of the south and the market was no exception. People can get pretty annoyed especially here that the majority is muslim and sensitive to have their picture taken by a stranger.
We returned to the beautiful Grand-Mosque through the busy market alleys. The building was erected between 1923-1925 by the Brazilian-African community as a church and today it serves as a mosque. Nowadays, the local community has lost interest in its preservation and it is slowly decaying, but it is a magnet for tourists and hustlers alike as we would soon find out.
Absorbed in filming a video with her iphone, Efie did not notice the passing motorcycle who’s driver grabbed her phone and vanished into the narrow streets. It could happen anywhere, but it is especially frustrating when it happens while you are on a trip. We should have known better and listen to Sammy when he proposed to come along.
At least the bags arrived as scheduled, with the evening flight from Abidjan and Efie got some clean clothes to make her feel a bit better. The Hotel du Lac in Cotonou was better than my expectations and so was the dinner in the city center.
Next: Ganvie & Abomey