Out of Africa

April 7

Friday morning we asked the hotel for a taxi to Ouidah, a city about 40 km west which has a monument to slave history, and several voodoo sites. One arrived quickly, and drove us out there through morning rush hour traffic. The most exciting thing on the trip I saw was a guy holding a very large rat by the neck towards the traffic; I asked the driver “Agouti?” and he said “Yes!”. Agouti is translated in English as “grasscutter” and is a popular meat in West Africa.

The museum in Ouidah was quite interesting, with a guide who spoke barely passable English, old maps, models of the Portuguese and French forts, and various other slave and voodoo paraphernalia. It was interesting that they didn’t seem to blame the Americans — they seemed a little more upset at their own kings for exchanging 15 citizens for a cannon (10 men or 21 women).

The taxi driver insisted at stopping at the Temple of Pythons, a voodoo site with a room containing dozens of friendly pythons. The guide there said they let them go free, and people bring them back.

We drove down the Route des Esclaves (Road of Slaves) to the beach, where a large Point of No Return monument was being upgraded by being enclosed with some sort of wall. The wall was being built by men carrying concrete bricks on their heads from the beach. Not clear why the concrete blocks had been deposited on the beach instead of on the road; but it was good to know that since the demise of slavery the men carrying the concrete blocks on their heads had absolute economic liberty in deciding to spend their lives carrying concrete blocks on their heads instead of, say taking pictures of monuments to the obliterated practice of slavery.

After a short visit to the Sacred Forest, a voodoo site with several sculptures made for the Ouidah Festival in 1992, we returned to Cotonou. The driver dropped us off at the artisan center, where we negotiated to buy most of the items we failed to buy the previous day. We’re up from 30 kilos of luggage when we left to 51 (much of it in a big mask), and we bought a $3 spiffed-up shopping bag to help out, but there aren’t that many connections left, and we’ll hopefully get it all back OK.

We finally made it to Maquis le Pili-Pili. We were pretty much the first people there, at 7:15, but it had definitely filled up by around 9. The customer base of Pili-Pili all seemed to know each other. It crossed my mind that everyone in Cotonou who can afford to go there knows each other. There wasn’t any particular pattern to the tables; some seemed to be business dinners and others were obviously family celebrations with kids; but there was lots of shaking hands and hugging when a new group would come into the restaurant and visit the other people at the other tables before being seated.

It was probably the best African food we had on the trip: simple green salads; agouti with “vegetable sauce” (a sauce made with leaves, probably tomato and some starch, and a bit of crab) over rice dumplings we hadn’t seen elsewhere; and a largish fish which was most perfectly grilled ever, alongside manioc couscous and an oniony tomato sauce. Dessert was out of the question, we were so stuffed.

When we got back we asked the hotel if we could hang out in the room past checkout time, and they said we could stay there until 9 pm for an extra half-day of rent. That made Saturday seem much more feasible.

April 8

Saturday we called the taxi driver and asked him to take us to Ganvie, which the book, and he, had suggested. At 9 another taxi driver, who he’d phoned in turn, showed up to take us there.

Ganvie is a town built on stilts in the brackish lake north of Cotonou. From where the taxi drops you off, you have a choice of getting there on a boat with or without a motor. We chose without. There was an effort to put up a small sail, but not enough wind to do anything; it was paddling and poling that got us the 4 km or so to the village. It’s more Venetian than Venice — there are no walkways between houses or anything. To get water, you put pots in your pirogue, and pole it over to the water place. There’s a floating market. 30,000 people live there, and there are additional similar villages nearby. It was actually pretty fascinating. It was also interesting that the Ganvie culture didn’t like our beards — we’ve gotten lots of compliments all over the place, but the Ganvie people, women especially, almost universally were making “cut it off” gestures and frowns as we passed by.

The taxi driver dropped us off at another shop we’d intended to look at which had been closed for the inauguration. It seemed pretty jewelery- and decor-intensive, and it seemed unlikely we’d get anything until we realized that we are actually in the market for decor: there were drawer pulls that were kind of cute, and we were reminded that we’re in the middle of a kitchen remodeling project. As a way of using up a few more of our CFA notes before leaving, we bought a few of them. Who says they all have to match.

We stopped at a patisserie which was completely French except for the fresh papaya and mango atop our tart, and returned to the hotel where we checked out the swimming pool for the first time since Bamako. It was the warmest swimming pool I’ve ever been in, much like Caribbean ocean water.

A last meal at the hotel, which we hadn’t eaten at, was surprisingly quite good — smoked fish in “leaf sauce”, somewhat similar to the sauce the night before, and chicken in peanut sauce over plantains. We packed everything up, put all the hotel stuff on the credit card, the only place in all of West Africa we found which even accepts credit cards, and went to the airport.

Cotonou is unlikely to have direct flights to the United States any time soon. There was one guy manning the security checkpoint, ie watching people go through the metal detector, and seeing what the scanner picked up. I set off the metal detector, but he didn’t seem concerned. Ray took everything out of his vest to go through the detector unscathed, but the stuff he took out was never looked at by anyone. Another guy who went through the checkpoint passed a 2000-CFA note to the guard during a handshake; who knows what that was about. After security, there were two boarding areas. One was lit and had air conditioning, the other, whose doors were also wide open, was unlit, uncooled, and had doors wide open to the tarmac, which it would have been quite easy to get onto.

Air France is apparently quite unimpressed with the security there as well. They set up their own operation on the tarmac, and on the way to boarding the plane they hand inspected every piece of carry-on luggage and waved wands on everybody’s clothes to make sure they weren’t carrying whatever it is that wands detect. Dave gave the checkers some dates but there wasn’t any quid pro quo.

The lights didn’t work in the bathroom in the in-use boarding area, so people would leave the door open to let in a little light, but apparently not enough light to accurately aim, since the open door emitted quite an odor. The seats near the door were right next to an air conditioner, so we just kept closing the door. After a couple hours, we were on the plane, where we slept a tiny bit on the 11:30 pm – 6:30 am flight back to Paris.

It turned out there wasn’t any agricultural inspection coming into the EU so we have our remaining dates and date/peanut trail mix. There were a number of signs warning about grippe aviaire, the biggest threat since Swine Flu. How many of you remember Swine Flu? How about, “Whip Inflation Now”? Why is it that people have spent the last twenty years parodying “Just Say No” but “Whip Inflation Now” sank like a stone?

April 9

Now we’re in Paris, where we’ve taken a nap, and where we’re considering dinner options. The hotel seems pretty nice, centrally located, and with free WiFi Internet access in the rooms! So we should be pretty well connected for the rest of the week. The cell phone works again, but the hard part is hooking up with our friend who’s staying in his friend’s house, and doesn’t seem to be answering the phone. I hope we hook up soon…