Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

En route to Ganvie. It’s rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach.  Romantic, they write.  Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa. None of this is what I saw in Ganvie. We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou,  Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way.  Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably.  When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit. The only monkey I saw in three weeks in Benin.   Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet.  Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century.  The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe.  Or was it the Portuguese?  Some claim it’s the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest. Everything felt uneasy there. A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop.  Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats.  Even for those who didn’t speak French, it still had a chilling effect.  We found ourselves lowering...
Elephant Rides: Animal Abuse vs. Tourism

Elephant Rides: Animal Abuse vs. Tourism

Elephant rides top many bucket lists, and tourists from around the world seek them out. Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, India, always completely by accident.  Well, by accident or unknowingly on our part.  But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident.  I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated.  And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution? According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced.  City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked. Elephant rides often force animals to carry too much weight and for too long, with insufficient time to rest. Being on display in public exposes elephants to human food and limits their ability to exercise. As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time in the sciences), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally.  As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s...
Houseboat Cruise on the Kerala Backwaters

Houseboat Cruise on the Kerala Backwaters

A houseboat cruise on the Kerala Backwaters sounded like a great way to unwind from long hours in a tour bus. Kerala is a low-lying state in the South of India, on the West coast.  A long skinny strip, Kerala seems to be more water than land, including rivers, lakes, and the Arabian Sea.  All of these bodies of water are collectively known as the backwaters, a term that apparently has a connotation of beauty and serenity here, unlike in the US.  We are never far from water, and have so far gone on an afternoon boat ride on the Kerala backwaters and spent the night on houseboats. For a long time, the quickest way to get around Kerala was by water.  However, roads and cars eventually came to God’s Own Country.  With the boats no longer being used, that way of life (and all those jobs) were going to go by the wayside.  The story is that houseboat cruises on the Kerala backwaters were conceived as a way to maintain jobs and keep those (repurposed) boats in the water. Personally I’m curious how much this has actually benefits individual workers, since it seems like there are just a few companies that now own all the boats and hire a couple of guys to drive the boat, cook the food, and cater to guests.  Of course, they do have access to tips, but I would love to learn more about the level of truth to the claim that Kerala backwaters cruises are “like a form of social welfare.” Dina shooting the sunset For our houseboat adventure on the Kerala...

Domestic Servant

While in Benin, we discussed and even met some domestic servants. And by that I mean, adults who had worked as servants for a period of time to work off debt, and children who were “adopted” to help run the house.  It became easier over time to pick out these young girls, by their plain, short hair and extremely reserved demeanor.  They always referred to the women who essentially owned them as their mothers.  They were well-fed and pretty well dressed, but it was clear that they were always on duty: cooking, raising children just a few years younger than themselves, and cleaning.  These domestic servants were often orphans or in debt (or their parents were) and eventually they do attain freedom.  But their existence was highly disturbing and confusing for all of us. Before going to Egypt, I talked with Phil about a similar conundrum with the carpet makers of Cairo.  Several students would refuse to enter the factories, on the grounds that children make the carpets.  But, as Phil pointed out, they were essentially apprentices, earning their room and board by making carpets.  Many of them had no parents, or had parents too poor to support them.  Compared to being street children, this path had a future. Sometimes it’s hard to balance our idealism with realism.  We want every child to have a fulfilling life, complete with education, friendship, parental figures, good food, love and playtime. We want them to go on to work that they enjoy, or that at the very least can support them and their families, should they choose to have them. But that’s...

Is the Embargo Evil?

The UN condemned the US for the embargo on Cuba.  First, I have to stress how incredibly strong the language is.  The word “condemn” doesn’t get tossed around the UN the way average people use it, so this is actually a stronger action than it may first appear.  Also, the UN knows our current president is one who responds to and respects international opinion, which is perhaps why no one bothered condemning this practice while dubya was in office. My mom and I were talking about this the other day, and it seems like a lot of people we know are unsure about what the embargo means for Cubans and Americans, both now and for the future.  I don’t know nearly as much as I should about it, but here’s my take on it so far: Under Bush, Cuban-Americans could only visit immediate family members (no going to see grandma without your parents present, tough luck if they passed away) once every three years, for a period of two weeks Also under Bush, Cuban-Americans can only send a max of 100 USD a year to their family.  While this does make a huge impact on an average Cuban’s life, it doesn’t seem fair that the government can stop Cuban-Americans from sending more.  This american currency that comes in also creates quite a disparity amongst those with wealthy relatives who fled to Miami, NYC or wherever, and those who do not. Obama has taken steps to change both of these practices, which in my mind is a good thing. The embargo isn’t just on America.  Any ship that goes to...


The Zebelline of Cairo is the trash city.  We drove through it the other day, on the way to the most beautiful, amazing church I have ever seen.  I had never heard about the Zebelline before coming here and it’s not on wikipedia, so I’m willing to bet some of you haven’t either.  All the trash of the city is brought there, and the people who live in this largely Coptic Christian neighborhood sort everything.  They then recycle it for money.  Apparently the place has a mob structure.  Those at the top are making millions of pounds, and those at the bottom literally live in filth. If I ever thought Cairo was dirty, I had no clue what was coming.  We saw the zebelline on what was considered an exceptionally clean day.  The smell is pervasive, and was even worse a week or two ago when all the pigs were slaughtered.  If you haven’t heard, Egypt is wicked scared of swine flue.  They took all our temps on our way in (and redid mine several times, looking just freaked out enough to make me think they were gonna throw me in quarantine) and I’ve heard some people may have been x-rayed, but I haven’t been able to validate that claim yet. When swine flu first came into the public discussion, President Mubarak decided to slaughter all 300,000 pigs in Egypt, just in case.  There have been no cases of swine flu in Egypt, and no scares.  Muslims do not eat pork, so it is the Coptic Christian population that raises pigs, with tourists and Copts consuming them.  The pigs...

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