The energy here made the hair on my arms stand up. Cotonou’s vibe had quickly pierced my soul and was flowing through my blood. I don’t know why I felt so good, but the sudden rush took over my whole body and pulsated through my veins as I let the crowd carry me into the market like I was a leaf being taken away by the river’s current.
24 Hour Energy
Just as I was beginning to become lazy and complacent towards the tail end of my three-week, sixteen-country trip—with thoughts of staying in my hotel room and enjoying the AC, cable TV and WiFi—Benin kicked me in my ass, picked up my mood, and gave me a vigorous jump-start, just moments after setting foot down the dirt road where the Royal Benin Hotel was located. It was just after 2PM and I’d just arrived an hour ago. I’d have less than 24 hours on this stop and hadn’t been overly impressed with the first two West African countries I clocked in during this trip: Cameroon and Gabon. Luckily for me, Benin was on a whole ‘nother level.
I wasn’t but twenty feet from my hotel when the dude inside the coiffeur (barber) shack shot me a smile when he noticed I was peeping his store; a far cry from the death stares and suspicious looks I collected while walking the dark and dirty streets of Cameroon just 48 hours ago. Soon I was strolling down one of the main streets, being greeted with smiles, waves and Bonsoirs everywhere. It’s astonishing how counties so close together can give out such completely different vibes; day and night! I was walking straight into rush hour and the first thing I noticed was the massive amount of motorcycles on the streets of Cotonou—I hadn’t been to a city with this many bikes since Saigon.
Fools Rush in
As I approached the market, I suddenly became engulfed in a roar of motorcycles and the afternoon traffic, as I eventually segued into the hoards of people all walking together towards the market, like salmon swimming upstream. The energy made the hair on my arms stand up. Cotonou’s vibe had quickly pierced my soul and was flowing through my blood. I don’t know why I felt so good, but the sudden rush took over my whole body and pulsated through my veins as I let the crowd carry me into the market like I was a leaf being taken away by the river’s current. Soon I was inside the market: Cotonou’s Marché Dantokpa. And spoiler alert: this goes down as my favorite market in Africa.
The Dantokpa market was enormous. It looked like it went on forever, and in every direction. It seemed never ending. And it was packed. I mean sooooooooooper packed. There were points in the market where I had zero personal space. I tried my best to maneuver over to an aisle of the market less congested so I could wiggle my phone out my pocket and take some snaps.
They had everything at this market and I’m sure I only saw one percent of it. They had all the mainstays: the vegetables, fruits, beans, grains and canned goods. But I really loved seeing the animals. I came upon a goat vendor and wondered how he was able to cram (and keep) all those goats in such a small space. Nearby, I had fun watching two goats “kid” around with each other; wrestling and playing and ramming their horns into one another. I’ve decided I want goats.
Cleanup Aisle 7
There was an area with lots of fish and I passed a girl with a bucket of little crabs. One managed to escape and enjoy freedom for about seven seconds, until a foot and a flip-flop smashed the poor little guy right there on the concrete. I felt bad seeing that happen. I don’t even like to step on snails. There were lots of chickens too. And everywhere I walked I received smiles, giggles and more Bonsoirs. Many of the children waved too, once they noticed me. They were all hard at work with their family in the market; commerce in action. There was even music! What a scene!
Here was another place I tried to burn images into my brain, because I wasn’t comfortable taking many pictures. The foot traffic was just moving so fast, and I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to stop and chat people up before asking to take their picture; but there were so many awesome photo ops and scenes! I came upon a four-story hotel in the middle of the market, with a balcony, so I asked permission to go upstairs to take some photos from above. Score!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Use multi-story buildings to grab some good pictures! Ask permission first, of course. I’ve never been told no, to date, and have been able to get some cool shots by using hotel balconies and roofs.
There were many reasons the people of Benin left me with such a great impression. Besides being friendly, they were honest. After the market, I was parched. I flagged down a guy hocking cold sodas from a cart. I didn’t understand the price when he told me, and I accidentally overpaid by 600%. He could have easily kept the money, but instead, he hurriedly searched for change from strangers to break my large bill. When I gave him a small tip, his surprise and sincere appreciation warmed my heart. Just two hours in and Benin had me feeling great, and had won me over in every way.
Look, Look! It’s a Tuk-Tuk!
It was getting late but I wasn’t done with the city just yet. I found a tuk-tuk on the side of the road and hired the driver to scoot me around for 45 minutes. It only cost me a few bucks, and I enjoyed the ride over the river and through the madness of Cotonou’s rush hour traffic. We passed mosques, churches, and monuments; and did it all surrounded by all those motorcycles—like we were swimming in the middle of a giant school of fish. What a rush! It was like the coolest Disneyland ride ever!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Grab a tuk-tuk for a city tour in Cotonou. It took me a while to explain to the driver that I had no actual destination in mind—that I just wanted to see the city; but he finally got it.
I had a nice dinner and a great night’s sleep back at the Royal Benin Hotel, one of my favorite hotels this trip. The room was comfortable and the staff was friendly and helpful.
I awoke the next day with no plans. My flight out was at 3:35PM and I’d resigned myself to staying in and just enjoying my room. Thankfully, fellow traveler Ric Gazarian saw I was in Benin (via Facebook) and reached out with what would be the best tip of my entire trip: He insisted I visit Ganvie village. One Google search on Ganvie and it was decided—I’m going in!
Ganvie was a special place: a water village dating back to the 1500s. 45,000 people called Ganvie home, residing in wooden shacks on stilts over the water.
The boat ride into the village was insane; wooden boats in every direction, soon butting right up against ours, like gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. Once we passed the fishermen, we were in the mix with dozens of vendors. Ladies selling anything and everything you can imagine from their boats, like a floating marketplace. Cruising through Ganvie village goes down as one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had—ranking right up there with riding camels between the pyramids of Sudan and wandering through the corridors of Saddam Hussein’s palace in Iraq. Nothing could compare, this was just the coolest!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Oh. My. God. STAY THE NIGHT IN THE VILLAGE!!! All caps, because I want to stress just how cool it would be to actually spend the night in the village, and how bummed I was that I missed the chance: I had no clue this was even an option–and actually didn’t even know about the village itself until the previous day. We soon pulled up to a little waterside hotel that offered rooms for tourists. I immediately thought just how insanely awesome it would be to stay the night in the village–a village on the water that would be completely dark, where you would only have the stars and candles to guide you. What kind of sounds would you hear as you lay in bed? What did people do hear at night? Would there be music? Then I thought about the mosquitoes. Hmmmm. I’d say as long as you had a good mosquito net, long sleeve pajamas and some bug repellent, you’d be good. I’d really like to stay overnight in the village next time. If you end up doing this, please let me know how it goes.
Less Talk, More Music
When I’m not traveling, my day job back home is a radio DJ and program director. Radio is my other passion, so when I’m off exploring faraway lands and come across a radio station, I always stop in and ask for a tour. I love to see how radio stations in other parts of the world operate. So you can imagine my pleasure as I spotted a giant radio antenna along the banks. “Can we stop in?,” I asked my guide. I had to ask twice for him to understand what I actually wanted to do–I’m betting in all his years of giving village tours, my request to see the local radio station was probably his first. And so we did–we pulled in, right up on the shore, and exited our craft to see a handful if curious locals trying to make sense of why there were strangers suddenly walking through their area.
The language barrier was a little impeding, but I believe I met the program director. He was gracious enough to offer this stranger a full tour of Radio Tosô 100.3FM. I got to see the offices, studios and newsrooms. Physically, a little different than the stations back home, but the idea was the same. Sadly, many major radio stations back home employ less people than Radio Tosô, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Everyone at the station was welcoming, and I still keep in touch with one broadcaster today, via email. Super nice people, and I’m just sad I didn’t get to actually listen to Radio Tosô while I was in town. I wish they streamed.
>>> RELATED ARTICLE: RAMBLIN’ ON THE RADIO: MY VISITS TO INTERNATIONAL STATIONS <<<
Day number two in Benin was just fantastic! I had a sneaking suspicion that my river guide charged me too much, but it was my fault for not insisting on the price before getting on the boat (the guide actually hopped on the boat ten minutes into the tour). My driver, on the other hand, gave me an incredible price–so low, I almost felt guilty–he’d stayed with me the entire time, even accompanying me on the Ganvie village tour, in addition to providing the drive to and from the dock. His name is Edmond Gounon and his number is +229 95 74 97 38. He’s a winner.
Gotta Go, Cotonou!
An awesome walk through my now favorite market in Africa, an exhilarating tuk-tuk ride through the madness that is rush hour in Cotonou, and a private boat tour through the unbelievable Ganvie water village…all this in 24-hours? Wow, this was one of the most productive and worthwhile country stops in all of my travels. Add the fact that I just really took in a great vibe from the people of Cotonou–from both the folks I met and did business with, to the complete strangers on the street who met me with smiles and warm greetings–my stop in Benin was one of the best from this journey, and the country will be chalked up as one of my favorite countries in all of Africa. Au revoir mon Bénin spécial! See you next time.
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story:
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