Monday, April 23, 2012

Togo et Benin

Quel bon weekend!
(What a great weekend!)

We were able to reschedule our trip to Togo and Benin, two countries to the east of Ghana.

Both were part of the French colonial empire, the influence of which is still very apparent. One of the highlights of the weekend was being able to speak French!!! I was a little rusty, but a lot of things came back to me pretty easily. The people in both countries seemed friendlier than those in Ghana, but I attribute that partially to my ability to communicate effectively with them in a language other than English.

We left Accra for Lome, the capital of Togo, located just over the Ghanaian border. Unlike Accra, Lome utilizes its beach front location, you can actually tell the city is located on the water!

I snapped this during a walk on the beach around sunset.

Throughout the day, many Togolese can be found playing football (soccer) and running on the beach. The city beach was much cleaner than those found in Accra. In general, I think Lome is a bit cleaner than Accra. I really enjoyed it.

Our next stop was Cotonou, one of Benin's main cities.

Crossing the border from Togo to Benin, I had my first direct experience with bribery. After purchasing my visa and leaving immigration, the next stop was a health check. At this point, white people were supposed to present documentation showing proof of Yellow Fever vaccination. I had left this document in my hostel, thinking I wouldn't need it until I reentered the United States. I got nervous pretty quickly and wasn't sure if I would be allowed into the country. I spouted off in French, explaining I was a student in Accra and had forgotten my card, blah blah blah. The border official was not havin' it, he couldn't care less. I wasn't really sure what to do next, since he didn't seem to be taking pity on me nor appreciating the story I was weaving in French. I stood there for a few seconds, calculating a new approach, before I noticed what every African was doing. Instead of showing paperwork, they slipped the official some money and carried on their merry way. So, I did the same thing and was good to go. It all worked out, but boarder crossings are a bit nerve-wracking. We crossed 3 (2x each) in three days!

Benin is famous for voodoo. While 40% of the population is Christian and 25% Muslim, most people practice voodoo, whatever their religion. The northern people practice voodoo under the name of fetishism. In Cotonou, we visited le Grand Marche du Dantokpa. It was HUGE. We were particularly interested in the fetish section of the market. Here, we found fetish shrines and many, many dead animals. Throughout my time here, I've really tried to check any familiarities and preconceived notions at the door, but I couldn't help but feel bad for all the animals.Rows and rows of everything from monkey heads to iguanas.

The following day, we went to Ganvie, a stilt village home to 30,000 people. We took a boat from Cotonou 18 kilometers up the lagoon into Lake Nokoue.

Cotonou from our boat:

Le Marche from the river

 Entering Ganvie

The floating market

The village was beautiful. Fun fact, the stilts are made of ebony and have to be replaced every 20 years.

The whole experience was a bit awkward though. Most of the places I have visited aren't what I think of as typical tourist sites. Accra has several independence monuments, but otherwise, I am usually visiting someone's home or place of business. It's not like walking around the mall in Washington, D.C.. It seems strange to take pictures of their daily life. I think I'd feel like I were in a zoo on exhibit if the situation were reversed. Consequently, I don't always take as many pictures as I'd like, specifically of people.

Now for the food.

Street food of choice:
Baguette, avocado, onion, tomatoe, lemon juice, and a dash of salt

I think I had 5 of these in 3 days. Simple, but so fresh and delicious.

I could eat French bread all day.

Anddddddddd, since we were in a French sphere of influence, I couldn't pass up

a crepe
or pastries
Kelly and I split un Mont Blanc crepe featuring chocolate, whipped cream, and vanilla ice cream. We also both got a pastry. Mine, the one on the right, was like a maple eclair/cream puff. It rivaled those I've had in Paris and elsewhere in France, if I closed my eyes I almostttttt thought I was on a different continent.

With the heat, humidity, and chaos of daily life, it can be easy to forget how incredible all of this is. I had a few moments this weekend when I couldn't help but stop and think, this is pretty damn cool. Four young women were able to successfully navigate three African countries on their own.

Updated list of countries I have visited:
Jamaica (x2)
France (x2)

Five additions in just over three months!

And, four/seven continents.

I've covered a lot of ground in two decades. I can't thank my family enough for affording me all these opportunities to travel.

Unfortunately, they've awakened a curiosity, so I hope I can keep this up in the next however many years.

I leave a month from today, May 23rd! Seems strange. I have a feeling this last month is going to fly by.

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