As you may already know, Benin Republic shares a border with Nigeria (the Seme border), so when a friend of mine, Wale invited us there for his 25th, it made no sense for us not to go. He is a very organised guy, (something that has always made me jealous of him), so he had everything figured out, an itinerary, getting there, etc. He even sent everyone the itinerary in the group ahead of the trip. This is probably something normal human beings do, but very alien to me.
It seemed like an adventure – a road trip with an interesting group of friends, to a beach resort, to celebrate the life of an old friend! When we set off, being that we live in Africa and there was no way there would not be some sort of delay, we spent three hours waiting for a “mallam” to change money from Naira to Cefa. One of the perks of living in Nigerian is that you do not have to go to a ‘bureau de change’, they come to you instead, in the form of a “mallam”. I have no idea what his name is, but somehow we started calling him “Alhaji Pounds”. In Nigeria, most bureau de change people are northern (Hausa). I always thought they just called them all “Alhaji” as a tribalist thing, but as I grew up, I learnt that an Alhaji is a muslim who has made it to Mecca, but we still just call them all Alhaji, Mecca or not, so I guess it is a tribalist thing! Lol. Nigeria is a very peculiar place, one I am totally in love with!
Alhaji Pounds wasted our time for at least 3 hours. We first of all waited from him to meet us at Dolphin estate for about an hour, when we finally found him, he did not have the money with him, so we had to drive him somewhere else, to somenone who had CEFA. He also did not have enough, so we had to wait for him to get some else to us. Long story short, we planned to set off at about 8am and even though we did, we did not start heading towards the mainland till probably about 11am.
The plan was to get a bus to cross the boarder, and then another bus (from the hotel), would pick us up and take us from he border to Ouidah and to the hotel. Now, the bus driver’s ECOWAS license had expired so he could not take us across the border, and the other driver also did not have a license that he could use on our side of the border, so we were advised to take a taxi. I am scared of everything, so naturally, the thought of getting into a taxi to cross the border terrified me because all I could remember was all the movies I watched growing up which just seemed to have a lot of smugglers, thieves, kidnappers and shootings at the Seme border.
We pulled up at a petrol station close to the border, and our driver, Tunde was kind enough to get us taxi’s for our border crossing. As we got in the cars, we realised the drivers intended to take us through the back route for N2,000 each. I was terrified and did not particularly agree because we had the correct documentation, so it made no sense to me why we were basically smuggling ourselves into Benin, of all places to get smuggled into, but apparently when you get to the border, they give you a tough time and those drivers were not ready to go through that – they were basically border crossing experts, and we listened to the experts, I guess.
It was definitely an adventure, one I am totally ashamed of, (and I’m not sure why I am admitting it on here), but off we went. It was actually the most appalling thing to see that there was such a huge oversight in the immigration process. Do the governments of both countries have absolutely no clue about this? It was just such a weird concept – pay about N500 at each 4 different check points and you’re in another country!
We crossed the border to the biggest plot twist ever! The driver sent by the hotel showed up with the most run down car I have ever seen. A run down 8-seater with no air conditioning, which was supposed to take us on a 2 hour journey from the Seme border to Ouidah, on a scorching West African afternoon. One of those moments all you can think is whoever answered the phone at the hotel probably just sent his brother to make some money off us. We were so tired and had wasted so much time already, all we wanted to do was arrive at the resort already. We decided to get into the car and told him we were not going to pay him as much as he was asking (70,000CEFA) because he had no air conditioning. Halfway through the conversation turned, argument, we realised it made more sense to get into the taxis that brought us this far, after all, they were like something out of pimp my ride. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but they were really old Toyota Camry’s that had been pimped out with fur seats, and radios that played music videos, most importantly, with A-grade air conditioning – at that point in time, that was living the life!
As we hopped out and let the driver know we were leaving with the other guys, he started making a fuss and said we had to go with him because he had come all the way. Wale offered to give him some money, as we understood that it must have been irritating for him to come all the way, but we also explained to him that it was just not conducive for all of us to get in the car and die of a heat stroke before getting to our destination. We got our things out, got in the other taxis, and next thing we knew, a fight was brewing. A couple more people showed up and were ganging up against the taxi drivers saying they were not going to let the cars go, and that we hd to go with the driver that came for us. It was literally the scariest thing, I had never seen anything like it before. 4 men telling us we could not leave if we did not go with this particular driver, sounds like the beginning of kidnapping story to me. So we quickly found a solution which was to get another car, that was not any of the tow options we had. It caused an argument for another hour or so which included the police and many other passers by. My friend tried to reach the person at the hotel, but to no avail.
A whole lifetime later, some of the guys around were able to reason with us and find us other taxis to take us, to our destination, because we were perfectly happy standing there till this persistent driver left. A few minutes down the line, we found two drivers to take us to our destination at 24,000CEFA per car, and then it hit us – that guy could not let us go because he had pulled a fast one on us and was about to cash out massively. He charged us 70,000CEFA for a trip that cost us 48,000CEFA in two cars. Before we left, Wale gave him 5,000CEFA, but he refused and said he had the guy from the hotel on the phone now. When my friend spoke to him, he told him he was disappointed in the car and is leaving in another car. The man from the hotel asked that my friend pay him 15,000CEFA, to which he basically said they were both jokers, so we left.
Spending the first few hours of our trip with different sets of drivers, we realised that French and Yoruba, my native language, were their first and second languages. More people speak Yoruba than English out there, which suddenly made sense why most of the people that come from Benin to do domestic jobs in Nigeria have a level of understanding of the Yoruba language, so much so than English.
About 2 hours later, we arrived in the town of Ouidah and spent another half an hour trying to find Casa Del Papa resort. On our way there, we drove past the “Door of Return” and stopped to take some pictures. Ouidah played a significant role in the 17th – 19th century slave trade. The city is where the important monument named “La Porte Du Non Retour” or “The Door of No Return” is located. The monument which is designed like a gate, symbolises the departure of captive slaves leaving for the Western world. It was the last place slaves walked through before embarking a slave ship; they knew at that point that they wouldn’t be able to ever see their loved ones and were forced to leave their homeland, Benin. It was really weird though that on the plaque next to the door, it said “Door of Return”, as opposed to “Door of No Return”, I still have no idea why, but if anyone knows, please drop a comment!
When we finally got to Casa Del Papa, it was already 4pm, so we had lost an entire day on a 2-day trip. Checking in took another 45 minutes so we rushed in to our rooms to drop our bags and hit the beach. Casa Del Papa is so beautiful and really tucked away. Wale did us a solid by getting us sea view rooms, which were right in front of the beach and had the most stunning view. The resort had quite a bit of activity but it sucked we did not get to do as much as we had hoped. We had a really nice dinner for his birthday that night, which consisted of great food and conversation, nothing else, it was so weird how much fun enjoying other people’s company far away from home was. We spent the rest of the evening chatting by the pool instead of going out clubbing and it was certainly my kind of evening!
We decided to wake up super early the next day to hit the beach again and do a bit of sight seeing before heading back home. Being the eager beaver that I am, I woke everyone up just before 7am, we had breakfast and then headed out to the beach, then to the pool, and got ready to head out.
On our way back to Seme, we stopped at the Temple des Phythons (Temple of Pythons), which is a very sacred place to the people of Ouidah. I should’ve said from the start that Ouidah is a very famous Voodoo town which gathers people from all over the world once a year for a voodoo festival in January. In the Temple of pythons, dozens of pythons are housed and worshipped. We tried it, and not only went in the temple but chilled and took pictures with the pythons, which my mother went totally ballistic about and was confused as to why I thought it an okay thing to do. I believe what comforted me was the story I was told about how their pythons don’t harm humans and how they let them out once a month to feed themselves, and how they typically come back. It was one of the reasons the tour guide gave us for all the snakes not being there at the time. He said some of them were not back yet and sometimes they don’t come back but if you see them in the city, you bring them back. Phythons don’t harm people in Ouidah and you are also not allowed to kill them. If you kill one by accident, you are required to visit the temple for a purification ceremony and, if you’ve done it intentionally, then you get what’s coming to you.
Fun fact, pythons actually smell really nice, kind of like oud, I was really surprised, and I thought they oiled and scented them in Ouidah because they worshipped them, but the tour guide said that’s just what they smell like.
After playing a little too much with pythons, we headed to Le Musée d’Histoire de Ouidah, (the Ouidah Museum of history), where though we were not allowed to take pictures, we learnt a lot about their history and the fact that they are now called Ouidah and not Xweda, a name given by the Portuguese. The museum mostly featured their early history under the Portuguese and how Ouidah’s culture and religion has influenced a lot of Brazilian cultures and religions. It was quite interesting to see how much they valued their culture and how it continues to impact some of their culture across the world till date.
Ouidah was absolutely amazing, and I wish we had stayed longer. I cannot wait to go back, probably for a week this time around and really experience the city. Call me crazy but I’d also really love to learn about the history of voodoo, and all of that great stuff that makes our Nigerian parents go squeamish. I had an argument with my boss the other day where I tried to explain to her that voodoo and idol worshipping are two completely different things because one deals with evil spirits and dark magic and the other doesn’t, a point to which she completely disagreed! I’d like to know what you guys think. Don’t be shy, drop a comment!