Thursday 25 April 2013

G Adventures West Africa. Day 14: Benin

la porte du non-retour (the gate of no return)
the departure point for local craft on Lake Nokoue
exploring the wetlands by local ferry
Day 14: Cotonou, Benin

After a quick sprint across the pirate waters of the Gulf of Guinea and into the Bight of Benin, we arrive at the port of Cotonou in Benin for the first of a series of rapid-fire excursions along what was once known as 'the slave coast'. The ports themselves are becoming somewhat monotonous, simply container handling yards with a mix of international ships awaiting their respective tasks. No oil vessels here though. This rapidly growing port rose from a small fishing village of some 70,000 people 50 years ago to the point where some estimates now tally the population at over 1 million.

Aboard our buses and out into the dusty metropolis we set out for, firstly, for a lap of the city, each thoroughfare lined by the seemingly endless rows of pop-up stalls and shanty shops plying everything from laundry powder to motorcycle tyres. En route to our first stop, the sacred forest of Kpasse in Ouidah, our police-escorted transport is waylaid by roadworks, but the gods are smiling and we're soon on our way.

The sacred forest may be a bit of a tourist stop, but it introduces us to some of the ways of voodoo and the significance of the various idols and icons. We're met, predictably, by vigorous song and dance before the witch doctor and his entourage meet us and bless our onward voyage. Playfully, I'm encouraged to touch the doctor's tree and make a wish, but as soon as my palm caresses the century-old bark, my hand is momentarily frozen to the trunk - almost as if the tree is saying "hang on, I'm not finished". The brief experience leaves me with a lingering tingle which I try, unsuccessfully, to dismiss as nothing. "You're looking a little pale," remarked a fellow passenger.

Next, the temple of snakes, a powerful and persistent figure that manifests itself in many West African belief systems. We drape ourselves in pythons before posing at the sombre Gate of No Return, a tragic jumping off point for many thousands of slaves on their way to only God-knows-where.

After a seaside lunch, it's to the famous floating village of Ganvie which houses some 20,000 residents on stilt homes above the wetlands of Lake Nokoue. The people live from agriculture and fishing in a scene not too dissimilar from those of Borneo or the Mekong Delta. Clearly nonplussed by the stream of camera-toting tourists, they shield their faces and flick water at us when lenses are pointed their way.

On the return trip we note with some curiosity the abundance of motorcycle taxis and their yellow-shirted riders known as Zemidjans, meaning 'take me quick'.

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