In Ouidah, Benin; Ground Zero of Voodoo Celebration.

Voodoo Day began early.
Voodoo Dignitary

We had elected to stay in the vicinity the previous night rather than return to Porto-Novo since the procession was scheduled to commence around 9:00 AM the following morning. Casa del Papa is the hotel of choice for Benin Jet Setters (both of them). Our guides tried subtly to suggest a closer locale, but I sensed that, aside from trying to save us a few bucks, they were hesitant to put the extra milage on their car. Given the horrific condition of the sandy and rutted beach road, either concern was justifiable. Our African hotel experience this trip has been hit or miss. Chalk this one up as a miss. I’m looking forward to spending an afternoon when I get home on Trip Advisor doing my picks and pans. Speaking of pans, the oil pan on our driver’s Peugeot jarred loose on his return trip to the village after dropping us off at the hotel, proving that both concerns expressed were warranted.

Upon arrival we waited at Reception for the better part of half an hour for the person supposedly on duty to show up. Despite the hotel being 3/4 empty he let out an audible ‘Tsk’ when we confessed that we had not booked a reservation. As a result, we were relegated to the ‘lagoon view’ rather than the ocean view. Historically, I’ve found lagoons prettier and more interesting than oceans; that coupled with a 25% lower price cinched the deal. It seems, however, that in local parlance ‘lagoon’ means ‘view of concrete cell-like block of the unit situated 6 feet across the walkway from you’. We were slated for a total of 11 hours there, 10 of them being in the dark, so for once I didn’t raise a stink about room choice. On the plus side, the water temperature and the pressure of the shower was great. They also served a particularly good brand of tonic and poured a decent helping of gin to accompany it. This was after sitting at a table on the terrace for half an hour waiting for a waiter to show. Those were the only pluses. God, I sound like an American tourist.

There was a_r cond__i_n_ng in the room. As you can see, it worked sporadically. I mentioned the Reception earlier on. That was the only reception there. Having chosen this five star dive largely to afford Lori and I the opportunity to catch up on our e-mails, despite continual assurance from the staff head honcho that the internet was fully functional, no signal could be obtained. He advised me that it had been working a few minutes ago. “What about now?” I questioned. “The signal is better outside the hotel” he replied. “OK, show me”, calling him out. We went to the middle of the highly welcoming dirt road with holes deep enough to give the Grand Canyon a run for its money. Radio Silence. I believe his ploy was to bring me to a spot whereby avoiding falling into ravines and dodging incoming cars would be enough of a distraction to keep me from realizing the weakness of the facility. The only reception in the place was on the sign above the front desk.

Be that as it may, we awoke the next morning eager to get up close and personal with the Voodoo celebrations. Which we did. We were driven to the same spot where we had had our session the previous day with Sa Majesté Dada Hounon Houna II

Hiz Honnah

(e-mail – vodunhwendo@yahoo.fr; Facebook accessible, too. I kid you not). We were amongst the first to arrive. There was a four piece band consisting of trumpet, trombone, bass drum and snare. They played in a style remeniscent of New Orleans jazz bands such as The Preservation Hall Society. Incredible to see, hear and experience the roots of the musical traditions that led to the creation of what we know as jazz.

Various individulas entered the compound dressed in full regalia, carrying an abundance of Voodoo paraphernalia. A group of percussionists played during the preambles and the acolytes spun themselves into a frenzy dancing to the infectious beat as they worked themselves up into a state of trance.

 

As more celebrants made their way into the compound, the fervour increased until Dada led a priestly procession into the inner sanctum with his trusted advisors and chiefs. That is where I had to ultimately get myself into, I realized. There was a curtain that blocked the view of the proceedings. I could only imagine what was going on in there. Were they slitting chicken throats and drinking the blood? Were they defiling young virgins? I had to be a part of whatever. Through charm and guile and with the help of Modeste, the local guide in whose hands Apo had placed us, I worked my way inside. The guys were sitting around on sofas watching TV and drinking. All that was missing was Peyton Manning on screen and some BBQ chips. I was home. We passed around a bottle of the local hootch made of distilled palm oil. Whether its primary adjective should be ‘delicious’ or ‘potent’ is up for debate. It’s a close tie. It has a similar flavour to low end tequila but is a bit sweeter. It knocks you on your ass, however, at the same speed as its Mexican cousin. Dada allowed me the honour of having him pour a shot of the drink into my throat. Sort of like an alliyah, I guess.

Time came to get a move on. Apo had handed us off to Modeste, who had steered us through the Sacred Forest last night. He had other clients to look after, so he presented us to another babysitter who took Lori and I by the hand.

Our Babysitter with Lori’purse

We were positioned at the head of the parade and ended up at the best vantage points for all the photo ops, which by Lori’s count numbered around a thousand. God bless digital.

And what a parade it was! Fronting the marchers was a mini-brigade of soldiers. Half a dozen, led by their sergeant. They were in full dress, including rifles, which they twirled like the US Marine Honour Guard. The thing about the guns that struck me as unusual was that they were carved out of wood.

My initial thought was that they would not be particularly efficient in any engagement, particularly if the other side has access to termites. What do I know? It seems that with the power of Voodoo, these glorified sticks can transform into operational weaponry. 10 CC is preparing a follow up song to their old hit since they have recently been made aware of this phenomena. It’s to be called Wooden Bullets.

We marched through the streets, accompanied by the militia, the band and hundreds of locals, pilgrims and other adventurous tourists, all dressed in costume and finery, many carrying various symbols and icons of Voodooism, many dancing, pirouetting and weaving in their trance like states.

 

The parade lasted a couple of hours with numerous detours along the way. At several locations, the high priest stopped in front of an alter or holy spot and recited a benediction or incantation. The procedural reminded me of films that I’d seen in which the Pope retraces the Ten Stations of the Cross on the Via De La Rosa in Jerusalem, kneeling and praying at the appropriate intervals.

 

 

We ended our trek at a large open field where bleachers and seating had been arranged for the spectators. Lori and I took our seats watching the procession come to an end. The next several hours featured dancing, twirling, praying, incanting and supplications in favour of the various Voodoo deities. Nothing more need be said by me. At this point, allow my partner’s work to speak for itself.

National Geographic Circa 1958
 
Acolyte of Night Deity. Deep in Trance.

 

Deities of the Night. Cousins with Itt.
Bruce with Terry & John

Final stop on tour was the Temple of Pythons.

Several hundred snakes, usually one to two meters in length live within its walls. They are allowed to slither about freely and if they chose to take a day pass and head into somebody’s home it is considered a good omen. Highly encouraged. Lori and I did our annual ‘Pose with the Reptiles’ shot and are now flying home figuring out which snakes to hook up with next year and which heights to scale. Stay tuned.

 

Lori with Graham & Eric

 

Bruce with Terry and John

 

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