New friends, Voodoo, Ghani market & zemidjans

WARNING! A VERY LONG POST AHEAD. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

I have had a few pretty awesome days. Nothing big has happened but plenty of tiny moments which put a smile on myself or made me laugh out loud.

On Wednesday evening I went to Makoomba, a local cafe/bar/restaurant/pizzeria owned by a Lebanese businessman and sporting some everyday Lebanese essentials such as the shisha and fatouche. I’d been going there for a few days now because the food was more varied, of better quality and a bit cheaper than it was at the hotel restaurant. I wasn’t feeling great, for some reason my run that evening had given a massive abdominal pain and I had barely recovered from it. I was tired and wanting to be alone. It wasn’t meant to be though…

The waiters started asking me questions, and I was answering using my most basic and slow English. They nodded as if they understood. I only found out that they hadn’t got the slightest idea of what I’d said later that night when I was talking to my now Italian friend.

Anyway my interaction with the waiters must have attracted attention because I could see one of them talking to three men (rather Arabic looking) who were shooting glances at me. Next thing I know, one of them is walking towards me and speaking English. He then proceeded to making himself comfortable on a chair next to me and getting ready to show me some magic tricks! By then I’d established that he is Italian and not Arab (not sure that’s any better! :P) but there was still the matter of unwanted attention from a strange man.

The first magic trick involved some toothpicks and taking my pulse. ‘You are nervous!’ he said as I laughed. ‘No kidding!’ I thought. I could have told you that without a magic trick.

The next couple of tricks were card tricks. Now I must admit that I was very impressed and I laughed heartily! I might be nearly 30 but I still appreciate a good magic trick. I have no idea how he always got my card right or how he made it disappear and then make it magically re-appear from behind my ear. Magic!

I relaxed a bit but I still wasn’t feeling great and turned down his repeated invitations to join him and his friends at their table. I still waved him goodbye as I was leaving and I am glad I did.

We bumped into each other again the following evening. It is not difficult when the same people go to the same bar every night. We got a chance to get to know each other a bit more and I found out that he wasn’t a psycho and he didn’t really have a hidden agenda about me since he was in love with a air hostess living in Dubai. We could enjoy our time together now. Soon after his two friends from the night before joined us and we had an amazing, fun evening. We all laughed (mainly me!) and joked and talked and discussed plans for the weekend. I was so happy that I’d found some company and that I’d have someone to roam around town with. Even the briefest of connections and a shared moment is a treat when you are travelling alone and I was thrilled with my 3 new friends. I was going to enjoy every joke, every discussion, every laugh, every shared meal I had with them for as long as it lasted without worrying about tomorrow.

Friday evening came and so did the slightly disappointing news. My Tunisian friends were leaving on Saturday morning. We weren’t going to be able to going to the local market (with the Voodoo section) after all. That night however I met always-smiling Akim as described by his colleagues who practiced Vodoun as it is called here (also known as animalism). I asked whether it had anything to do with what we have seen in films and he said that it mostly didn’t. I pressed on and asked about the dolls and the needles and he said that it did exist but he didn’t have the experience to practice it at that level. We also talked about curses…’Yes’ he said ‘you can put a curse on someone.’

‘Well what about ‘What goes around, comes around’?’ I asked. ‘If you put a curse on somebody, wouldn’t it come back to you?’ ‘If you put a curse on a good person, the Gods will see it and they will send the curse to you.’ he answered. I am still not clear what happens if a good person puts a curse on a bad person, or if a bad person curses another bad person but I was under the impression that cursing is not a good idea and should be avoided. I loved the conversation with Akim, it is always a treat to speak to a local about their way of living and voodoo on top of that is such a fascinating topic. That night I also got shown pictures of Tunisia and decided that I should visit.

Saturday I woke up to a gloomy sky which later turned into a downpour and didn’t stop until the evening. Rainy season for you! I’d decided to brave it and go to the market without the guys but as luck would have it I couldn’t because of the weather. Couldn’t go to a swimming pool either so it was a rather long, boring day at the hotel.

Sunday however was sweet! Woke up to a good morning message from Davide (Italian friend) and then arranged to meet him at twelve for a visit to a smaller market. It was my first time on a zemidjan or otherwise known as a mototaxi. I’d been avoiding them mainly because I don’t speak French and wouldn’t be able to negotiate the fare and get ripped off as a result. But with French speaking Davide at my side it was time to give them a try. We hailed two and told them to take us to the Ganhi market (Marche Ganhi in French). The ride was awesome! I loved it! There’s something about riding without a roof. Our drivers were very cool and seemed to enjoy driving the foreigners so we ended up having a blast. 5km worth of smiles, videos and fun.

My Italian friend Davide on a zemidjan

My Italian friend Davide on a zemidjan

The drivers dropped us off at the market and we proceeded with a walk. I could see a bridge in the distance and wanted to see what it was all about. I tried to take a couple of photos on the way there but got told off by a couple of grumpy old women. I didn’t like the way they stared at me so I decided not to risk anymore photos of people. I’m not sure if this is the case here but I have previously met people who didn’t want their photo taken because they believed it took their soul.

We saw what looked a mini farm judging by the number of pigs, piglets, goats and chickens running around. Not to count the children! It was by the water (read piles of rubbish, stench and rickety shacks) and we stopped to have a look. Before we knew it a young guy was trying to negotiate photo prices with us but we said we didn’t want any photos and decided to walk back instead.

Don't even know where to begin with this now...a farm, a home, a playground, a dumpster, a toilet...

Don’t even know where to begin with this…a farm, a home, a playground, a dumpster, a toilet…

On the way back we stopped at an English speaking church where the Sunday sermon was in full swing. There was happy, African music coming through the speakers and many people were gathering in the court. Many women with white tops and blue skirts, slowly moving in tune with the music. I was trying to take a photo but got told off by a man (I think!). The thing is I am not sure if they were angry, or it was just the way they normally speak. Apparently we couldn’t take photos inside which I wasn’t planning to do anyway and got invited to next Sunday’s sermon as well. Davide was also telling me that they thought we were muslim (I told you he looked Arabic and I got turned into a Muslim on account of being with him) and he had to explain that we were as Christian as they come. Davide was so overwhelmed by the music and the happy atmosphere that he felt the urge to call his mother. ‘I must call my mum!’ he exclaimed all of a sudden. Cute 🙂

Dancing women, Sunday sermon

Dancing women, Sunday sermon. Not sure what that woman is doing pulling on the other one but the expression is priceless!

Happy, party Sunday sermon over we walked to the actual market. Now you know that markets are not normally the most hygienic of places but this little thing took it to a new level. The passageways were extremely narrow and at times I wondered whether there was really a passageway or we were walking through someone’s stall. It was dark and smelly. They sold vegetables, fruit, nuts, household items, cleaning products, live chickens. I got offered a chicken which made me laugh because I imagined myself coming back to the hotel with a chicken under my arm! There was also a meat corner and just looking at it is enough to turn the most hardcore meat eaters into vegetarians! Apart from that everyone was friendly and kept greeting us or pulling us by the arm depending on their aggressiveness.

Marche Ganhi

Just outside the main entrance to Marche Ganhi.

It all starts at a young age (just outside Ganhi market)

It all starts at a young age (just outside Ganhi market)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    All that emotion and walking in the heat required a refreshment so we stopped at yet another Lebanese establishment and had juice and Pepsi and took photos. Then I had the brilliant idea of talking to a zem driver about taking us to the embarkation point to Ganvie (a lake village, a local attraction, the Venice of Benin). Turned out they would do it (I was previously told by the hotel’s receptionists that it was too far for a moto) and it would only cost CFA 2,000 (£1.50). So we were off!

Davide and I cooling down a Lebanese place

Davide and I cooling down at a Lebanese place

On the way there though my driver pulled up for fuel and when I turned around Davide wasn’t there! Hmmm…not good. Luckily he re-appeared and came over. Then a discussion between the drivers ensued at which point Davide decided he didn’t trust them, it didn’t sound as if they knew where to go and we thought it better to go back to the hotel. On the way there my driver spoke to me English (surprise, surprise!) and asked why we had changed our minds. I couldn’t tell him the real reason so I just said ‘Sorry!’. It also turned out he was a Ganvie local and could also help us with the boats. Now you tell me?! Anyway, even after this info Davide didn’t trust them and if one of us wasn’t feeling great about it, neither of us was going. What was it? One for all, and all for one 🙂

We spent some time at the hotel, drinking beer and watching clips. Then we got hungry and decided to go to the Novotel and have lunch by the pool. It was a lovely, tranquil spot and we made even more friends. We struck up a conversation with three Indian seamen who had just finished their 6-months contracts and were about to go home. Their joy was so pure and innocent, so heart warming! We talked about the British invasion of their country (they were not happy about it!), their education system, the universities they had even BC, the country’s former riches, Muslim conquerers and looters. Then we did magic tricks! And they like me loved it and were impressed. It is so rare to see a grown up with the passion and curiosity of a child and this was the case with these three guys. I am not really sure how to put it into words but it puts a smile to my face and it moves me. It is somehow very special. After a while we shook hands, they went to the beach and we went for a walk on the grounds.

Davide wowing the Indian sailors

Davide wowing the Indian sailors with his card tricks

Moi! Enjoying the beautiful, peaceful grounds at Novotel Cotonou. Such a contrast to the hectic streets.

Moi! Enjoying the beautiful, peaceful grounds at the Novotel. Such a contrast to the hectic streets of Cotonou.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        We then went to pick up Davide’s luggage  (he was flying back home in a few hours) from his hotel and it turned out that his luggage was loaded on the shuttle bus together with an Italian group’s bags and taken to the airport. Great! He was so calm about the whole thing that I wasn’t sure if he was serious or joking. Luckily the shuttle bus came back and the suitcase came back with it.

While all of this was happening I struck up a conversation with another Bulgarian! Imagine meeting another Bulgarian in Benin. What are the odds? Turned out he was there on work, something to do with containers and ports and he lived in Holland. Didn’t think he would be gong to West Africa if he lived in Bulgaria.

We went to the airport. Davide wanted to see if he could do an early check-in so we could hang out without worrying about the bag. He went in but I couldn’t because I didn’t have a passport on me. Why would they stop me from going over to a check-in desk I don’t know. Yet another Benin airport peculiarity! He couldn’t leave the bag and we started walking back to the hotel when it turned out that check-in opened in 20mins and he was just walking me to the hotel so I wasn’t alone. I told him not to be silly and go wait at the airport. There was no point to walk to the hotel only to walk back in about 10min. We agreed to meet in 50mins after he had dropped off his luggage and I had done my run and showered. That was the last I saw of my dear Davide.

An hour later I got a message from him saying that he had to go through passport control before 8pm (it was 7.33pm) even though his flight wasn’t until 10.35pm and he wasn’t going to be able to meet me after all. He was sorry. I gave him a big virtual hug and wished him a safe trip and a great time with family and friends. ‘You are so sweet!’ he replied.

Alone at the hotel. Smiling about the humanness, joy and beauty of the last few days. Feeling grateful and waiting for new friends, new moments and new adventures.

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