Ganvie: Life on water

At last!!! I finally managed to get to Ganvie on my very last day in Benin after four weeks of trying. I woke up today, the sun was shining (1st time on a Saturday since I got here), a friend of a colleague was coming to pick me up and there was nothing to stop me!

We had arranged to meet at the hotel at 11am and he turned up at exactly that time which is a small miracle given that we are in a country (dare I say a continent) that is not famous for its punctuality.

Kitted out with a helmet that was too big for me I climbed on the moto and we were off. The drive to the embarkation point would take about 30mins through the noisy, suffocating, hectic, traffic crazy streets of Cotonou and Calavi.

As soon as we arrived I started looking around for the official tourist office since that’s where I would pay for a tour of floating Ganvie. There was a board with the prices in both English and French. Imagine! A board! And in English? This was clearly my day.

It wasn’t long before we were met by an English speaking man (this was getting better and better) who pointed us to a souvenir desk saying that it was the official counter. I decided to believe him since looking around didn’t reveal anything else but sand.

We were told (again in English) that the tour in a sailing boat would cost CFA 4050 (roughly £5) per person and a tour in a motorboat would be a little more expensive at CFA 5050. Given my passion for sailing I didn’t hesitate to choose the sailing boat. Besides I was curious. There couldn’t be any sailing yachts around here so what was this sailing boat of theirs?

We were also told to hire a guide for CFA 5000 because apparently we couldn’t visit anything without one. This later turned out to be not true. As far as I could see we didn’t go anywhere that required special permissions so a so-called guide really wasn’t necessary. We could have just done with the driver. Furthermore he didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t have read myself. In short if you ever find yourself in Ganvie, do not hire a guide, it is a waste of money.

We went to the little improvised harbor and I immediately loved it. There was so much activity, noise, boats, women, market stalls, children running around, colorful traditional outfits, vegetables, fruit, fish and who knows what else!

Market at embarkation point to Ganvie

Market at embarkation point to Ganvie

We waited for our boat and I used every opportunity to snap a photo. Everything that was happening around me was so unreal, so different from everything I am used to, so out of this world. One aspect of Benin that I found fascinating was the people and the traditional dress they wear on daily basis. This is a place for portraits and it is a shame that I couldn’t get close enough to them to take the quality photo they deserve; the kind of photo that truly showcases their beauty, their character, their culture and their uniqueness; a true testimony to Beninese (and African) tradition and culture.

Young girl at a restaurant in Ganvie

Young girl at a restaurant in Ganvie

We got into a small, unstable boat and the driver pushed our way through the narrow canal of the harbor and into the open lake. I was taking a lot of photos (being fascinated with everything around me and wanting to capture it) until a young woman with an angry expression on her face (it said I despise you and I curse you) made a gesture (sort of a blowing of the nose with the thumb and index fingers) that she accompanied with hissing words. I didn’t understand the words which were spoken in the local language but the gesture and her expression said it all and I immediately put the camera down. For the record I wasn’t taking a picture of her specifically. I just saw an interesting formation to one side and thought I’d take a photo. We were in an open market after all. This woman left such an impression that I asked the guide what was she doing and what it all meant. ‘They don’t want their picture taken’ he responded. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘They think that you will turn it into a postcard, sell it and make money!’ he replied. I shook my head and said it was most definitely not the case and that I will not be going into the postcard making and selling business any time soon. Still from that moment on I was very careful with my photos. I didn’t want any more grumpy locals on my back.

As soon as we were on the lake, the driver put our improvised sail up – several pieces of cloth roughly sewn together. I was surprised how fast it actually moved. We were slowly making our way through the lake, the sun was shining and the guide was telling me about the lake and the multitude of local fishing techniques. As you can imagine fishing is a big deal in a village living in a lake. One technique involves sticking branches (previously bought from shore) into the water; the fish feeds on them as they decompose, the fishermen check the status everyday and when the fish is big enough they catch it.

On the way to Ganvie

On the way to Ganvie

Our driver putting up the sail

Our driver putting up the sail

Branches stuck in the lake used for catching fish

Branches stuck in the lake used for catching fish

We made our way into the village, stopped at a local restaurant to order way overpriced lunch for later and paddled on into the village. We made our way through the smaller “streets”, visited the local cultural centre (build by a former French First Lady for an overnight stay) and moved on to the main traffic artery. It even had a name – Lovers Road (a wider strip of water) on behalf of all the young people going for a boat ride there. We even passed by the local mosque where there seems to be a party in progress. There as loud music, people singing and dancing, food being prepared. Turned out to be a funeral. The photo opportunities were abundant and so limited at the same time – children would wave excitingly and hide their faces when I put the camera up; old wrinkled women would look on suspiciously; and men just didn’t offer any photos worth taking. Still I managed to snatch a few cheeky photos.

A trader at Ganvie market

A trader at Ganvie market

On the way back to the restaurant, the guide said that if I wanted to go to another village I had to pay extra. “Well, how much I asked?’. ‘Tell me how much money you have and I will tell you how much’ he replied. I’d left home with the last local cash I had and by the time I’d paid for everything else there was only a couple of thousand left. This apparently wasn’t enough.

Back at the restaurant we waited for our lunch which was taking a very, very long time. I had nowhere else to be and I enjoyed gazing around so it was actually quite welcome as it gave me an opportunity to experience local life for a bit longer. There was water stretching as far as the eye can see; rickety wooden structures built close to each other serving as houses, shops, even a beauty salon! Pigs, ducks and goats running around on artificially created land; sails going up and down as people entered/left the village; young children, sometimes even toddlers paddling in their canoes; ladies going about their daily chores, hiding behind large brimmed straw hats; traders selling anything from food through used clothes to petrol, yelling at the top of their voices as a way of advertisement. Everything was different, new, exciting, unusual and sometimes completely incomprehensible but always fascinating!

The "streets" of Ganvie

The “streets” of Ganvie

Lunch over, I was told that we couldn’t go back in the sailing boat because the wind was against us and we would have to get a motorised boat. And I would have to pay an extra CFA1500 of course! This is when I got a bit pissed off. I don’t mind paying special foreigners prices at 3-4 times the usual rate but can’t you tell me of these things in advance rather than making them up as you go along?!

We got back to shore, said our goodbyes and Charles (my colleague’s friend) took me back to the hotel. I was sweaty, sun burned and it was time to pack my bags and leave Cotonou behind.

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