From Badagry we crossed into the next country of Benin from Nigeria at the Seme border.
After nearly 20+ checkpoints (which is not an exaggeration) on the Nigerian side while approaching the border, half of which stopped us and failed at any way to leverage something for some money (have your passports and documents ready at the helm and they’ll give you less of a hard time), we arrived earlier than expected.
There Confidence, our tour organizer from Nigeria, met us there and seamlessly guided us through the process.
Stamping out of Nigeria was a long process, with a friendly officer (and what seemed like to be his toddler son next to him) taking his time to ensure we had all our information correct on our departure cards.
After correcting and recorrecting the departure forms, they quickly checked our yellow fever cards and asked us what we did as professions, where we stayed, how we liked Nigeria, and when we were coming back.
After seeming satisfied with our answers, the first officer had us move to the adjacent window to be stamped out. Then a plainclothes agent arrived and asked him to walk around the building to be stamped inside an administrative office, which was very random.
I’d imagine if Confidence weren’t there, there would have been a small irritating attempt at a shakedown. After a few more questions inside the office, we were finally stamped out, returned back to the window, had photos and our fingerprints electronically taken, and then directed around the corner to another window where a Benin immigrations officer was waiting to stamp us in.
Apparently the two countries share the same office and building instead of making us do a walk across a no man’s land between countries.
Unlike the ordeal to obtain a visa into Nigeria, Benin’s robust and easy e-visa process that took only hours (if not at most a day or two) to approve online allowed us to quickly passed through with our barcodes printed from our e-visa approvals.
However, two snags: After stamping us in, the Benin immigrations officer at the desk wanted to keep our hard copies of our e-visas, but Confidence and our guide Vincent insisted that we hold onto them just to be safe when we would exit in a few days for Togo. Luckily Confidence found a bystander at the border to quickly photocopy our visas, and thusly the Benin immigrations officer seemed satisfied and returned our original e-visas back to us. Bring 2 copies next time!
The other snag was that I noticed that the passport number I had registered on my Benin e-visa was different from the passport I had on me: my backup and older passport that I had originally registered the e-visa on was not only expiring in 2 months, thus requiring me to get this new fourth one I currently had on me, but it also was temporarily left behind back in Lagos!
Holding my breath and watching her give back my passport with the Benin stamp in it was just too much good dumb luck I could handle for one day regarding passports. I shall not take another chance like this again. This is how we learn.
We then returned to our cars and headed towards Benin and picking up our French speaking local from Porto-Novo, Jean, to join us.
Once reaching Cotonou, we took advantage of some extra time for a quick city tour first by driving by the largest mosque in all of Benin, the Grande Mosquée de Zongo (with “Zongo” meaning foreigner):
We then stopped at the Cotonou Cathedral, distinct for its burgundy and white striped tile architecture.
The cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cotonou.
We even crashed a wedding that was taking place here!
Any fans of North Korean-style monuments such as the one in Dakar may whet their appetite for it here at the North Korean built Place des Martyrs:
Saving the rest for Lauren and Priyanka when they’d arrive (and because there was a huge concert blocking off traffic around the new Amazonian statue), we checked in at both L’Epicurien and L’Address side by side as something had happened last minute to one of the rooms at L’Epicurean causing us to split up.
After an hour and half to freshen up, Letti, Sandy and I enjoyed our last dinner (at least for the next 12 days) together at L’Address as we waited for the other 2 folks, Priyanka and Lauren, in our group to arrive late into Cotonou. Karthik even came by one more time to say goodbye!
By the time Karthik left Lauren had just arrived to our lodgings at L’Epicurean.
While the rest slept in and before I had retired to bed myself, I asked my hotel’s staff to take me on a joyride around Cotonou and find an ATM; I had to withdraw $1000 in West African CFAs to pay for dinner and our lodgings as we haven’t found anything that could accept our credit cards.
The next morning and after Priyanka’s 2am arrival, we set out for Abomey by 9am, but not without first taking our full group photo at the new Amazonian Statue that pays homage to the the warriors based in The Woman King.
It was built just 3 years ago and wasn’t in any guidebook I found:
Then while leaving Cotonou north for Abomey, we quickly stopped for Atlas Obscura-esque photos of Benin’s prior attempts to become a communist state during the Cold War: Head to the bizarre traffic circle at the Place de Bulgarie where you can find a very random larger-than-life statue of Bulgaria’s first Communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov:
Further evidence of Benin’s Cold War past can be discovered at another roundabout north at red star-shaped (which is better seen from the air if you’re flying in or out) Etoile Rouge:
Returning 6 hours later after an afternoon in Abomey, we took an evening boat ride at Nokoue Lake . . .
. . . across to Ganvie, the biggest stilt village in Africa.
Unlike the floating Makoko village that we saw only 3 days ago back in Lagos, Ganvie is supported by the Benin local government. Therefore it appears much more calm and orderly; civic planning was definitely implemented here.
We had heard rumors that the locals here are so tired of tourists visiting their village they’ll intentionally try to ruin your photos with photobombs and troll-like behavior. I thought it just reminded me of how I would behave towards any gatecrashers at a party.
After an hour’s worth of touring around Ganvie and buying some souvenirs at one of the floating houses, we returned to the shore where the local village treated us to a Zangbeto ceremonial dance and voodoo celebration procession. Consisting of an elaborate ritual dance alongside chanting and drumming to honor the gods and spirits, the religion is practiced by 12% of the population in West Africa.
Although Ouidah is the spiritual capital of the voodoo religion in Benin, they can take place here too in Ganvie. Here you can witness followers and adepts of the various voodoo gods, from the elaborately costumed Zangbetos, to the followers of Kokou.
Zangbeto is therefore probably the most well known example of West African voodoo culture. The Ogu people of Benin, Togo and Nigeria regard the Zangbeto as their own “Batman,” or the guardians of the night of safety and security where they act as an unofficial police force patrolling the streets, scaring enemies away, or taking them in for punishment.
The fascinating part and a topic of contention is whether the hollow straw “puppets” are truly what they are; as the festival begins, it may be common to then be asked for tip money so they can show you there is really nobody inside these Zangbeto; sometimes they’ll turn over the mass coverings (made of tiny strands of hay, raffia or other threadlike materials dyed in various patterns and colors) just to present how there’s nobody inside, or a bunch of moving leaves, a small statue, or bottles of ceremonial alcohol. One was even flattened and run over by happy, dancing children to show how there’s no”body” inside the Zangbeto. Then they’ll put them back up into place where the Zangbeto are then able to fall into a trance which, according to tradition, enables their bodies to be “possessed” by spirits that infuse the Zangbeto with dance and magic.
Then after sprinkled with holy water and ritual chanting, as well as some processional drumming and being offered both money (that they wanted us to share with them) and alcoholic spirits (that was in turn shared with us), they are supposedly then will become possessed by spirits. Soon these hollow and unmanned straw puppets are spinning and dancing.
After a 30 minute presentation, we then drove another hour and half down to Ouidah, where we would settle in for the next 2 nights and celebrate New Year’s Eve at our beachfront villa of San Miguel!
Although it took awhile to find this huge villa at the end of the road, we were able to not only coordinate a check-in without the host there, but also with the power of Google and 3G data (THANKFULLY) find the only restaurant on the beach that could deliver food to us before we popped these champagne bottles.
Happy New Year!
- At time of posting in Cotonou, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a