West Africa Cruise 2013 travel blog

Cotinou was busy but fine until we hit the dirt roads in full sized buses/coaches. Then it got awfully bumpy. Sean was getting banged against the window & I actually put on my seatbelt to keep from being bounced into the aisle. Trying to work the crossword puzzles the ship had given out didn’t last long in those conditions. The folks in Benin didn’t seem to react to the police escort the same way as they did in Togo. They just moved to the other lane & keept going, so this was not as quick a trip as yesterday, despite the gendarmes escorting us carrying automatic assault weapons.

We visited a sacred forest of gods where we saw statues & shrines to different gods, as well as plenty of plants, trees & birds. Many of the sculptures of gods were made from salvaged materials, but there was a rather surprising fertility god with a giant phallus. I guess the fertility god explains all the carved penis keychains we've seen at the markets, but I still didn’t feel compelled to buy any.

We headed to an old colonial town called Ouidah, which was one of the busiest slave embarkation points in West Africa (along with Goree Island in Senegal). Over the course of the slave trade, approximately 12 million slaves left via the Trans-Atlantic route, and more than 9 million via the Arabian routes (I somehow never realized there was such a thing).

We visited the old Portugese Fort & museum there. The museum had a sacred drum that you could only play if at least one of your parents have died. I might have the specific hands backward, but it was something like if your mother is dead you play only with your right hand, if your father only with your left, and if both, you can play it with both hands. We also visited the Gate of No Return monument marking where large numbers of slaves were sent across the Trans-Atlantic route.

Then we were off to a stilt village in the middle of a huge lake. I'm such a klutz that I managed to smack my head really hard on a beam as I was boarding the boat to take us to the village. It nearly knocked me to the floor & I actually felt like I had a dent in my head for a while there. My head definitely was still hurting, but I figured that if I hadn't thrown up or lost consciousness then I was probably ok, but both Sean who is a critical care nurse & Monica (Rastko's wife) who is a doctor, checked on me at the village to make sure I was ok. It actually hurt to put sunglasses on top of my head for a few days, but otherwise I was fine.

On the boat rides to & from the village we saw lots of the locals making their way in traditional dugout canoes and boats rigged with sails made from things like huge rice sacks sewn together. It always amazes me that kids are the same all over the world & waved when they saw us go by. The adults were more reticent to have their photos taken because they didn't want to be seen as a sort of sideshow. Sean did manage to get some clandestine photos showing the crowd of boats waiting to fill up with fresh water right across from where we were watching the dancers. Since Sean used to train elephants, we immediately noticed a cool carved chair covered with elephants & had to take photos in it.

The village was founded in the middle of the lake in order to protect them from the raiding parties who came looking for slaves. They've maintained this simple life of fishing & living on the water ever since. At the main center in the town we saw more Voo Doo (Vou Dou) dancers with incredibly elaborate costumes out of things like felt and velvet with tons of heavy beading. We figured the costumes had to smell like festering gym socks given the heat & wondered how often they have to be replaced because of that. These dancers seemed to be more of a performance than what we'd seen in Togo the day before.

The houses on stilts were a little shocking to see. The "bathrooms" were essentially outhouses stuck out on the edge of decking that amounted to a seat over a hole, meaning that all of the sewage went straight into the lake. They said this feeds the fish. Yikes! That’s not something I really wanted to think about, and it made me think I should consider ordering the beef for dinner that night.

On our way back to the ship, traffic was barely moving. There was a marathon on the same road in the opposite direction, but I couldn’t tell exactly what the hold up was apart from perhaps gawking. Gerri (from Chicago), who has run 25 marathons, was hanging out the bus windows yelling & cheering the runners on. Her husband Bruce said this was her normal level of enthusiasm. The police ended up hopping out of their van, & running forward through the traffic pounding on people’s windows to get them to move aside. I don’t know about you, but if someone with an assault weapon slung over his shoulder is telling me to jump, I’m likely to ask “how high?” The traffic miraculously parted & we eventually got through, though we were late back to the boat & departing the port.

We had a fantastic dinner with Rastko & Monica followed by the women doing much dancing in the lounge afterward. Sean introduced all of us to a drink from South Africa called Amarula (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amarula). We couldn’t get Sean & Rastko to join us on the dance floor, but Bill taught me a couple of Latin dances I’d never done before (Rhumba & something else). I wasn’t terribly good, but did pick it up more quickly than I expected.

There’s another Wendell on the cruise (!!), but unlike me he’s a gay Indian man who’s a fashion designer, and not great at karaoke, but he dances & is good fun.

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