Tuesday, 10 March 2009

22: A yovo in Benin

A wise old face in Togo

Our anticipated one night stopover in Togo turned into six nights. The pace has slowed down over the past month, both because we found ourselves in places where we were happy to spend time in as well as in anticipation of the coming months, when our schedule will be governed more closely by limited visa timeframes. As our 7-day visa for Togo went into the red, we found ourselves back on the road, and after a quick 40 kilometres along the coast, into Benin.

On our first night in Benin we found ourselves pedaling in the dark to Grand Popo, once an important shipping point on this stretch of the 'slave coast', and now something of a sleepy resort. After pitching the tents we rode to a cafeteria to find some food. Returning from our plates of rice and fish, we found someone had deflated both of our rear tyres - bienvenue Benin! Fortunately the culprit hadn't noticed my pump and within a few minutes we were airborne again.

From Grand Popo we rode to Ouidah, another infamous embarkation point during the Atlantic slave trade era, that was home to French, British, and Portuguese forts. The last Portuguese ship apparently left with its human cargo, bound for Brazil, in 1885. Just over a hundred years later and you can pitch your tent 200 metres from the 'Door of No Return', a monument dedicated to those who were transported across the Atlantic, and sip cold beers by the poolside. How times change. Bruce Chatwin's The Viceroy of Oujdah had been one of the books I'd read before leaving home, and his fictional account of the last Brazilian slave trader to live in Ouidah helped to recreate a sense of the town's painful history.

Fedine spotted us pedalling around Ouidah as we looked for a bed for the night. He offered us the use of his rented room in exchange for us buying the food that he was preparing at his newly opened cafe. Since opening three days previously, he had been sleeping in the cafe at night to avoid the few possessions that he had bought to make coffee and omlettes from getting stolen. We readily agreed to Fedine's kind offer, and ate yet more platefuls of spaghetti and omlettes whilst he told us of his plans to start an NGO that would work with the unemployed youth in Ouidah.

Fedine rustling up another omlette

We said goodbye to the coast in Ouidah and headed north on a great sand piste that cut across to the main highway north at Aladda. Drums beat in the villages and processions of women in white robes paraded along the roadside in the Sunday afternoon heat. Cries of yovo (Fon for white) and cadeaux echoed behind us as we cruised along. Our arrival back on the sealed road coincided with a torrential downpour and the rest of the day was spent riding north, ducking in and out of shelter when the clouds opened. Later in the evening, 40 km shy of Bohicon, we found ourselves in the village of Massi. By amazing coincidence, Peter's cycling top bore the same name. This was surely a sign. We were led to the chief's place and amidst a crowd of shouting children we exchanged greetings with the chief and his entourage and were offered use of the village's meeting hall, where we could sleep for the night.

Riding north from Ouidah

The next morning after the usual rice and beans, we rode on to Bohicon and the royal palaces at Abomey. As I tried to withdraw cash from an uncooperative ATM outside the Bank of Africa, a smiling fellow approached me. Paul Tuthill hails from Dublin and has spent the past few months cycling and hitching across west and central Africa, including crossing through the Central African Republic and getting a boat down the River Congo to Kinshasa. In fact, I had remembered reading about a previous trip he had undertaken from Eygpt to South Africa and I had emailed the group he was traveling with at the time to come and stay in Lesotho. And here we were in Bohicon, Benin. Sometimes I think that it's a small world, but then I get back on the bike and realise that it's not that small.

Bohicon, Benin
Trip distance: 12,595 km


Manny said...

Thanks for the great read about your trip through Togo and Benin. I used to live there in the 90's. My question is about security. Are you not concern with security while sleeping in a tent?
Good luck.

Julian Bloomer said...

Thanks for your interest in the blog Manny. During our time in Togo and Benin we haven't been sleeping wild along the coast, only in campsites or the grounds of guesthouses, and there has always been security provided there. The main reason that we were doing this was because we wanted to be near to the towns we were visiting but we also found the coast so densely populated that it was hard to find a suitable wild campspot. Once away from the busy coast, however, there are plenty of opportunities for finding a spot to camp, and we haven't had any problems. We pitch the tents at sunset, by which time most people are on their way home, and we're gone early in the morning.