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The Stilt Village of Ganvie

The bus journey was actually quite comfortable.  If you can stand the fact that they insisted on blaring loud gospel music for hours starting at 6am, followed by God-awful Benin-ois soap operas played back to back for hours on end, all of which had essentially the exact same plot.  There would be a room of men shouting at one guy, the victim.  He would eventually get beaten with a stick and have his shirt taken from him while all the men continued yelling.  Then there would be a “romance” scene with a man and a woman in some passionate embrace, followed by them having a falling out.  The woman would then grasp her face in both hands, crying, and begging the man to not leave her (am guessing here) while he loudly berates her before storming out.  Then the final scene would be the crying woman seeking comfort from her father/friend about the awful man who’d yelled at her.

I swear it was the same plot every episode – and the people on the bus were absolutely mad for it and laughed up a storm.

The good thing about this very long journey was the fact that we had air conditioning.  The bus also actually stopped a number of times for bush pees – and I learned a fascinating thing.  The women in Benin use large rectangles of fabric, much like the material they use to tie a baby to their backs, to cover themselves while they squat and pee out in the open alongside the men!  It’s ingenious!  The only trick is to skip wearing panties, and presto – the woman’s nightmare of peeing in the bush in Africa in private is partially solved.

Our lovely air-conditioned bus from Tanguieta to Cotonou

Sure beats holding it in for hours, I can tell you.  I made a mental note to make better use of my sarong for next time.

After weeks and weeks of public transport and bus stations – I can tell you that what Africa needs above all else – is an abundance of clean, available, usable, public toilets.  We take toilets for granted.  Toilets are a luxury item.  And peeing isn’t a big deal for guys – though some very funny signs in Togo and Ghana warned that urination against a particular wall carried with it the penalty of death!

We got off the bus in Abomey-Cavalie, the town where there was a port where one could catch motorized pirogues (long wooden fishing boats) to the stilt villages of Ganvie.  Hundreds of years ago, the local people started building homes on the lake to try and escape being captured in the slave trade.  Since then, over 130,000 people now call these settlements in the middle of the lake home (and, presumably so does the raw sewage they must pump out into it on a daily basis…)

Men and women sporting matching outfits in pirogues in Ganvie

We were met with the normal swarm of moto-taxis vying for our business.  Two guys who were particularly aggressive told us they knew where our hotel was and started grabbing our bags before we had negotiated a price.  They asked for 1500 and I stated I wanted to pay 1200 and they started arguing violently talking about the price of gas, blah and blah as per normal.  However, they were also super pushy, so I decided against going with them and walked a little further down to a nice quiet rider who immediately agreed to my stated fare.  At that moment, the two guys who’d lost my business come over and start screaming at this man saying he doesn’t get to give me and Mike a ride.  This escalates and Mike and I take a step back as now a larger group of men are screaming at each other and starting to fight.  The whole thing is ridiculous.

A “supervisor” of sorts comes over and asks me what is going on.  I state that I want to ride with my chosen moto-taxi.  He takes our luggage and starts walking away and gives it to two totally new moto drivers and we are forced to leave this melee that is quickly worsening.  I turn around and try to tell the poor man who is being attacked that I’m sorry – and off we go.

Not exactly what we wanted for our first 10 minutes off an 11-hour bus ride.

We arrive at our accommodation for the night and immediately order some dinner and beer.  After half an hour, the driver who was attacked shows up to apologize.  He told us that the two guys who first tried to take us to our hotel were drunk and it was good that I had avoided them.  At first I am taken aback by his kindness, but then came the predictable “sob story/ask for help/please can I call you in the US and you can get me a visa?” part of the conversation.  By this point, I was hoarse with my standard sore throat/cough and could barely speak English, let alone French.  I was exhausted, but I didn’t want to send this poor guy away empty-handed.

I told him, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t help him come to America.  That it wasn’t the prized solution he thought it was – it was a tough and unforgiving place where you need to speak English, not French, to get by.  I told him if he was determined to leave Benin, he should consider France first – but also to consider that perhaps life in the West was not as glorified as he imagined.  I asked if he wanted the opportunity to make some money and make up for the business he had lost that evening.  He said yes.  So – I asked him what he would charge us to go buy phone credit for Mike and some cough/cold medicine for me.  After another short lecture on how important it is for him to decide what the value is for his time (since so many Africans rely on the “pay me whatever you think my services are worth to you” mentality) we came to an agreed amount.  He happily went and ran our errands for us, and we were able to pay him for his time.

It felt like a positive outcome from a negative event.

The following morning, we moto’ed again over to the port to await the arrival of our orange truck.  It felt a little weird and good at the same time to be seeing our friends again, and we soon got a message from Sinead that they were running a little behind schedule.  A commotion on the dock drew our attention and we wandered over, only to find ourselves in the midst of an annual Voodoo ceremony commemorating the start of the Voodoo calendar in Benin!  It was quite a spectacle.

Priest officiating the Voodoo Ceremony

Woman, feeling the “spirit” move her

There was a couple hundred people all dressed ornately in white, some with face tattoos/painting.  A priest, I’m assuming, was chanting over some lit candles which were, in fact, not candles at all but lit cigarettes mounted in a tall candle-holder.  He was holding a pigeon that was presumably going to get sacrificed.  All the while, musicians played rhythmically on drums, drawing shouts and dancing from the crowd.

After a few minutes, several women starting showing signs of contortion and flailing about, as if possessed.  They pawed at their own faces and started screaming in gibberish (though, of course, we couldn’t quite tell the local dialect from gibberish, so whether or not they were speaking in tongues or not remains a mystery.)  It was quite a spectacle and Mike and I were proud that we had taken the initiative of walking over and getting involved with this local ceremony – we were travelers, unlike the other white “tourists” who stood waiting for their own pirogues to show up on the docks – completely ignoring this authentic display of culture because it wasn’t a part of their organized itinerary.

Soon enough, the Dragoman truck showed up and we were greeted heartily by our friends old and new before piling into two boats that headed out into the lake.

The stilt village of Ganvie was a photographer’s dream because it was full of people going about their daily lives, so very different to any other we’d seen, because their life was on the water.  It was a Benin version of Venice.  In addition, since it was a Sunday, and the start of their New Year, many locals were dressed in their very best – and even better, entire boatloads of men and women passed by our chosen hotel for the night dressed in identical vibrantly colored and highly-patterned costumes.

One of our pirogues used to get to the island

Our hotel was very basic and unfortunately, not all rooms had fans in them and we were facing a very sleepless night in the bug-infested, hot and humid night air.  In addition, the hotel was built out of wood with very rickety floorboards that had massive gaps/holes in them – our room being situated above the kitchen such that we also got the conversations and the plethora of aromas rising up from below.  Add to that the fact that the bed was on a sloping floor, we both committed to sleeping somewhere out in the open that night – especially after deciding to move the bed clockwise so that the slope was from head to feet rather than lateral, and realizing too late that this meant our mosquito net would no longer fit the bed.

Some of the oldest structures on the lake – over 120 years old.

We passed lunch with beer catching up with friends and watching life boat by us on the water from the convenient balcony above the restaurant which afforded a great viewing platform.  In the afternoon, we ventured out onto the water once more, visiting more settlements, some of the oldest stilt homes in the lake, and a few mosques/churches built on the few land masses/islands that existed at the center of this large body of water.

The oil needed for boats, generators and cooking in these villages came from Nigeria – and we were shown the giant jerry-can laden boats that make the hazardous journey via the lake across the border to buy illegal oil to bring back in the dead and dark of night.  We were also lucky enough to spot some beautiful kingfishers diving for their own lunches in the water.

Offerings on the ground at the Voodoo Ceremony

On our return, we saw a huge line of boats with villagers all patiently waiting for fresh water that is presumably pumped from a spring hundreds of meters below the lake bed.  The water was being dispensed by a giant pipe that one by one was filling the huge water containers that locals used for their freshwater needs.

It was a sight to see and the line didn’t seem to grow any shorter as the sun began to set.

My night passed quite fitfully and awkwardly – maybe one of the worst I’d had in Africa yet on this trip.  Mike, I and Jodie all opted to vacate our “rooms” above the kitchen to place our mattresses on the second floor of the hotel in a wide open space at the top of the stairs.  The air was still and hot, but at least it was cooler than our fanless rooms.

After about an hour, Mike fast asleep, I noticed I was getting bitten all over by mosquitoes.  I decided to go back to the room, realizing though, that our bed no longer had a mattress on it!  Thankfully, I had my own inflatable sleeping pad, but once I placed it on the bed – I faced two issues.  One – the slats of the bedframe were too big to properly support my small pad, and Two – the mosquito netting only covered the pad partially, inviting my original problem back with a vengeance.

Realizing that Jodie had also left her room, I went next door and settled my sleeping pad on her bedframe which was made out of wire and therefore supported my pad.  Unfortunately, without her mattress on the bed frame, the mosquito net also didn’t quite reach me, and some of the little buggers were able to fly up for their blood-feed through the wire frame of the bed.

It was 2am by now and I was exasperated and tired.

I decided to take my sleeping pad and try the other side of the hotel where perhaps additional breeze meant fewer mozzies.  I found Ron, one of the trucks’ passengers trying to catch some Zzzz’s in a chair – telling me it was just too hot in his room to sleep.  Sympathizing, I offered him my sleeping pad, and resolved to go back to where Mike was still happily asleep.

I doused myself in extra repellant, took an ambien, and hoped for the best.  I finally managed to get a few hours’ sleep before having to awake for breakfast and our boat ride back to the mainland.

Grabbing our luggage from the hotel in Abomey-Cavalie, our guides from Ganvie were kind enough to drive us to a taxi rank and negotiate for us a ride to Ouidah – our next stop along the Benin coast.  Turns out that the screaming/arguing we had observed a few nights’ prior amongst moto and taxi drivers alike – is standard practice.  At least we weren’t involved this time as it took about 15 minutes for our guides to negotiate a fair and reasonable fair to the coast.  I was so tired, I was glad to have someone else deal with this apparently unavoidable discussion/fight that ensues at almost every stage of navigating the logistics of public transport.

Super happy and chillin’ in our lovely hotel pool in Ouidah

On arrival in Ouidah, we found a lovely and well-maintained, clean, rather upscale hotel with a beautiful pool only ten minutes’ walk from the beach.  I was thrilled, and after some lunch and a swim, enjoyed a glorious nap to make up for my prior mostly sleepless night.