Benin: Ouidah for the Revenant

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Okay, time to wrap up the Vodoun festival, with my favorite part: the Revenant, also known as the Egungun. Several years ago, it was seeing the gorgeous (uncredited – sorry!) photo of Revenant masqueraders below that made me put the Vodoun festival at the very top of my bucket list, though at the time I didn’t know what they were called or anything about them, and I expected to see them throughout the festival.

Benin's Mysterious Voodoo Religion Is Celebrated In Its Annual FestivalIn fact, they made only a few appearances, and only one of which I caught. On the evening of the 10th, a much smaller crowd of people than had been at the festival proper gathered in a dirt field in the center of Ouidah to watch the spectacle. From the moment I saw them I was transported with awe – although everything I had witnessed so far had been mind-blowing, these cultural masterpieces were what I had come for.

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Benin: Ouidah for the Vodoun Festival

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After I posted about the Fête du Vodoun yesterday I realized that I never actually explained what it is. A national holiday held every January 10 in Benin since the 1990s, it is a day for Beninois to celebrate – and to share with the outside world – the Vodoun religion practiced by a large percentage of the country (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 20-60%).

According to this informative 2012 article from the New York Times (that still rings true to my experience in 2019),

Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, this ancient belief system still has millions of adherents along West Africa’s former Slave Coast, from Ghana to the Yoruba-speaking parts of Nigeria, but especially in Benin. A succession of dictatorships suppressed vodun after independence, but in 1996 Benin’s democratic government officially decreed vodun a religion, and ever since, thousands have openly practiced it.

The Fête du Vodoun is, in effect, a show of pride in practices, beliefs, and a culture that endured despite endless attempts to wipe it out. Though festivities take place all over the country, the apex is in Ouidah, which is considered the heart and soul of Vodoun. It is around Ouidah that Vodoun first developed hundreds of years ago.

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Benin: Allada for the Fête du Vodoun

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There is no way I could ever do justice to what I saw in Allada and Ouidah, either in words or pictures. I’m overwhelmed by the idea of the effort it will take to even halfway decently convey its awesomeness, let alone the effort itself. So I encourage you to think of this as a shoddy CliffNotes version of events. If you want to really get a sense of it, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. (Or maybe it’s impossible to truly experience it as an outsider – I’ll touch on that in some later post.)

But for now, let’s get this show on the road… Continue reading

Sorry you don’t have this view from your office (I don’t either – it’s Mamie’s)

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While my Internet connection Chez Lo is faster now than it was two years ago (when it was basically non-existent), it is still not great. And that is why it has taken me two days and counting to upload my Vodoun Festival videos to YouTube so that I can share my next installment in the Benin-Togo-Ghana chronicles.

Hopefully I’ll be able to post them early next week, but in the meantime, here are some links I stockpiled so that I could one day share them here for your reading pleasure:

An amusing essay: Does Duolingo even work?

I’ve posted here before about untranslatable words in other languages. It’s interesting to see what the French consider to be untranslatable words in English.

Here’s an article from a few months ago – about why the French don’t show excitement – that is actually quite apropos for me to share now, the same week as my post about funny faux amis.

Even passive exposure can help you discriminate speech in another language, so put on that background radio/TV/computer/iPad!

That reminds me of the Paul Noth cartoon in the New Yorker that made me seriously LOL a couple of weeks ago:

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And with that, I’m walking away from my screen and going to bed.

Oh, wait, before I do.. one more insightful and ever so slightly relevant thing I read ages ago but never shared (and which reminds me, perversely, to encourage you to check out my Instagram profile if you want to see some of my vacation pix ahead of me posting them here):

Good night and good weekend, all!

[Saturday addendum via Irene Pedruelo‘s listserve: this essay on “privilege-centered design” is relevant well beyond design. Amazing quote: “If we only observe and imagine those who resemble ourselves, then what we call empathy is merely introspection.”]

Destination: Everywhere

UntitledAre you ready for my second awesome flight search discovery in two weeks? It’s another one that is gobsmackingly useful, and so obvious that in retrospect I feel a little dumb for not having thought of it sooner: there is a way to search for flights with only a departure location and travel dates.

Both Google Flights and Skyscanner allow you to opt out of providing an arrival city (for Google Flights you leave that field blank; for Skyscanner you type in “Everywhere”). You can then filter the flight results by price and choose your destination based on what you can afford.

I happened upon this travel hack last week after I decided to plan a girls’ getaway for my birthday in October. My high school friends had all intended to whisk us away to exotic locales for their big 4-0’s but never ended up following through. As the youngest, I’m the only one still staring down 40, and therefore the last best hope that we will go on a group trip before we all turn 50. So, after my college friend mentioned that she is planning a trip to Eastern Europe for her own birthday this spring, I started toying with the idea of turning my fantasy of a Martinique-Guadeloupe solo trip into a shorter 4-day birthday weekend with friends. Having heard that Norwegian Air now flies to Martinique for under $250 roundtrip, I figured it would be both a fun and affordable destination.

Then I searched for flights and saw that Norwegian Air doesn’t go to Martinique or Guadalupe in October, and the cheapest alternative flight at that time is something like $950. But now that I had gotten the idea of a birthday getaway into my head, I asked myself, “Where else could we go for $250?” A short Google search later, I found the Google Flights and Skyscanner tools and discovered that:

• for under $300 roundtrip, we could fly nonstop to Iceland – where I’ve never been and where the Ring Road is a highly scenic option for a 3-day excursion.
• for under $400 we could fly direct to Ireland – where I spent four months of my 20th year studying abroad, and where it would be lovely to return exactly half a lifetime later.
• for about $410, we could fly to Barcelona and drive from there to either Andorra or the French Pyrenees to hang out in beautiful house nestled in jaw-dropping mountains for a few days.

Those are three pretty awesome options. So, thank you to Google Flights and Skyscanner for helping me to get the 40th birthday festivities train rolling. (Why do I keep using non-aerial travel metaphors when I have every intention of flying??)

P.S. An addendum to my last post: Less than 24 hours after writing about how the Dakar of 2019 remains largely unchanged from the Dakar of 2016, I attempted to check the schedule for my favorite live music venue in the city, Just4U – and found it was closed for good!

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Waaaaaaahhhhh. A TRAGIC LOSS. Clearly I should have waited more than a couple of weeks before making any grand claims about this city…

A new museum – side by side with an old, beautiful station

IMG_6838When I flew into Dakar three years ago, the city held so much mystique. I had spent almost 25 years imagining what the sights and sounds and feeling of Dakar might be without having any clue how close my ideas were to reality.

Then I spent a year living here and exploring the city’s ins and outs. One of the things I love most about Dakar is its scale – in just over thirteen months I was able to visit practically every neighborhood and knock off almost every item on my list of interesting places to see and things to do.

When I flew back into the city at the beginning of this year, aside from the fact that there was a whole new airport (!), everything felt very familiar. All of my old favorite places were still there, standing the test of time. Another thing I love about Dakar is its creeping pace of change in comparison to New York. There is sprawl and gentrification and crazy over-construction for sure, and it brings upheaval, displacement, and inequality with it. But – again, only as compared to New York, where every time you blink another community institution disappears – it feels much slower and more manageable.

And… some of the development is very welcome.

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Case in point: the new Museum of Black Civilizations, which opened in January. I visited last week and it has some stunning art and artifacts inside.

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Smithsonian Magazine writes:

A little over half a century ago, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of post-independence Senegal, announced his plans to build a major museum of African culture in the country’s capital of Dakar. Senghor, who died in 2001, did not live to see his dream fulfilled. Now, at long last, his vision is coming to fruition… Senegal has opened a sprawling museum that celebrates black civilizations from across the globe—and experts are hailing the institution as an important step forward in the effort to reclaim African artifacts plundered during the colonial period.

It both saddens and infuriates me to know that I have had better access in New York (and London, and Paris) to West African artwork and cultural objects than most West Africans do in their home countries. So, it was heartening to visit the new museum last week and to see the beautiful exhibits of ancient and contemporary work – as well as all of the as-of-yet unoccupied space that can be used for, among other things, items returned from abroad. (Restitution efforts were kicked up a notch in November with publication of a French-commissioned report recommending full repatriation of looted cultural heritage to any African nation that requests it.)

It was also the most amazing surprise to pass my favorite place in town – the old colonial railroad station just next door to the museum – and see that rather than being torn down and reconstructed over the past two years, it has instead been given new life in the form of a cleaning, a paint job, and some new glass.IMG_6808

It is now even more stunning than it used to be. I took these photos from the car as we drove past, and I’ll try to get down there to check out the space on foot soon.

IMG_6809The station serves as the terminus of the just-finished rail line between the new airport and Dakar. I haven’t really kept up on those developments so I have no idea if the line is considered a good thing, a bad thing, or a little of both. But the rehabilitation of a gorgeous decaying train station seems 100% wonderful.

 

When learning French improves your English

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Whenever I come across French-English faux amis – words that sound or look alike but have two different meanings – I think about the relationship that the words do have with each other. Many times they share a Latin root, and each word’s definition adds an interesting nuance to the other’s – often to amusing effect.

Take for example the following French words versus their English false friends:

défunt (deceased) vs defunct (no longer existing or functioning)

préservatif (condom) vs preservative (a substance used to preserve foodstuffs and other materials against decay)

imprégner (to soak or permeate, as in these confusing matches) vs impregnate (most common definition: make a female pregnant; less common definition: soak or saturate with a substance)

corpulence (a person’s build) vs corpulence (obesity)

ignorer (most common definition: to not know; less common definitions: to have no experience of or to ignore) vs. ignore (refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally)

négligé (neglected, slovenly, scruffy) vs negligee (a women’s dressing gown, typically made of a light, filmy fabric)

I just find these pairings delightful, don’t you? Not as delightful: telling people – on more than one occasion – that there are way too many condoms in American food.

Which reminds me of one last, classic faux ami that embarrasses every French learner at some point or another: While “excité” can in certain circumstances refer to nearly the same thing as the English “excited,” it is more often used to refer to sexual arousement. So, don’t go around telling your French colleagues or in-laws, for example, that you are excité to see them.

If you’ve got other interesting faux amis to add, please let me know!

Also, a PS: Once, I was pleased to find a word (well, really a phrase) in French, “mal de terre,” for which I didn’t know the English equivalent. I had never heard the word “landsickness” before, and in fact I didn’t even know the concept of landsickness existed until it happened to me.

Recently, I came across the phrase “sea legs” used to describe “the illusion of motion felt on dry land after spending time at sea,” i.e. landsickness. I had always thought of “getting your sea legs” as adjusting to the motion of a boat on the water so that it ceases to be felt, but apparently it can refer to landsickness, too. I’m learning English right alongside French!

[Photo: Ruth Hartnup]