Four days at sea marked only by Gordon’s coughing which continues unabated. He finally goes to the ship’s doctor who puts him on antibiotics.
Our next three days are all port days and the main reason for taking this trip. We stop at Benin, Togo and Ghana, all places which we are interested in seeing but none of which we can imagine actually taking a vacation to. This is when a cruise really works. However much to Gordon’s chagrin the doctor tells him he is not to go ashore at any of these places. The air quality is really poor and the humidity and heat will get to a well man let alone a sick Gordon. What upsets Gordon even more is that the doctor has also told him he can’t talk for three days. I shall be a gentleman as always and refrain from making any comment, but we have had several husbands come up and ask Gordon to breathe all over their wives so they might be given the same diagnosis.
This blog is going out after the three port visits, and I know you will all be wanting to know how Gordon is, so I will let you know that he is feeling much better but still not back to normal (then maybe that is expecting too much)
Benin is the birthplace of Voodoo and was also one of five centres in West Africa from where slaves were shipped for the best part (or worst part) of three centuries. The slaves took their beliefs with them, thus spreading Voodoo all over the New World. Benin and Togo are both relatively stable countries but very poor.
We have arranged for a car, driver and guide to meet us at Cotonou, the city in Benin where we dock. Almost everyone on the ship is going on large organised tours run by the ship and they delight in telling us horror stories about the unreliability of tour guides, the dilapidated cars, and the dangers of traveling on your own (all three countries are crime ridden). I smile indulgently at them and quietly wonder why they bother to leave home.
But then everyone receives a letter from the ship’s purser telling us that it is extremely dangerous to travel on your own, therefore always make sure you are in a group. I am in a group of one, so now my bravado is starting to fade.
At eight o’clock that morning police cars arrive – they are here to escort the tour buses on their journey.
OK, now there is very little left of my bravado.
But my driver and guide are waiting for me. They are both clean, nicely dressed and friendly. I relax a little. Until we get to the car. The good news is that it is a Mercedes. The bad news is that it looks like it is a reject from “rent a heap cheap”. But being a Mercedes it is comfortable and has air conditiong that works.
The guide is called Venance Odouara and the driver is Harry. I have a feeling one of them is not being altogether truthful. They are here to show me as much of the country as possible in eight hours. But the first thirty minutes is spent driving up and down lines of containers trying to find the way out of the busy port. Neither Venance nor Harry has a clue where the exit is, despite the fact that they only drove in a few minutes ago.
When we finally get out Venance tells me we are going to drive along the the coast road for about twenty five miles looking at the various fishing villages. How charming, I think. But that is before we start. The reality is not quite so charming. It takes us ninety minutes to drive the twenty five miles. The road is nothing but sand compressed into a path by previous vehicles. There are huge ruts and potholes everywhere.
I know! The photo looks charming, but again in reality, not so much. The fishing villages are comprised of groups of very sad looking huts made of sticks and palm leaves, many of them leaning at alarming angles. There are no utilities of any descriptionSome have little cafes, with charming outside dining areasAt first these villages look picturesque, but on closer inspection I notice the trash. There is trash everywhere, the little villages are circled with trash, the road is lined with it, and the beaches are covered in itWe stop to watch a group of fishermen pulling in enormous nets from the sea. Somehow I get roped in to help. I am placed in the middle of a line of men trying to pull in the net. A photo op if I have seen one. But I am told that I cannot take a photo anywhere in Benin or Togo without asking permission. Voodoo followers believe that their spirit is captured in a photo and I will take it back to America. Venance tells the fishermen that I would like a photo of just me and so they allow him to take one. I am hoping he will be able to capture the full scope of the scene, but sadly he can only get in a fraction of it. Now no one will believe that I was in the middle of a long line of sweaty black guys. My dream come true and all I got was this miserable photo:I had thought this was done for a quick photo, but the fishermen clearly think I am there to help. It is incredibly hard work and within ten minutes I am soaked with sweat. I suggest to the guide that my moment with the natives should come to an end as soon as possible.
For the next two days the only photos of people I can take have to be done surreptitiously and usually from behind. Not one person I ask consents to a photo. It is very frustrating.
I have never been to a country where the people are not welcoming. But in Benin they are not. Quite the opposite in fact. Everyone, with very few exceptions, is noticeably hostile. They all seem to have gone to the Simon Cowell school of charm. No one smiles, they just glare at you. They have perfected a very threatening stare which they employ whenever I come near them. And if they see my camera they yell and wave at me to go away. I notice that whenever I get out of the car my guide and driver come and stand either side of me. I feel very uncomfortable, and the day has only just started.