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

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…

Oh, the places I have gone!

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The trip I’ve just returned from, which took me through Benin, Togo and Ghana, was one of the best of my life thanks entirely to the Benin portion. I feel that my new life’s calling is to work for the Benin Tourism Board. People should be flooding into the country every January for the awe-inspiring Vodoun Festival and to visit Abomey, capital of the fascinating Dahomey kingdom. On the other hand, considering that I was horrified by the bad behavior I witnessed on the part of many tourists during my trip, maybe it’s not the best idea to encourage more to come.

I’ll fill in the details when I post photos and videos over the next few weeks. There is so much ground to cover, both literally and figuratively, that I’ll split things up into manageable pieces.

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flight connections

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I’d just like to point out the existence of a website I just discovered, Flight Connections, which features an interactive map with every flight path that exists. Choose a departure city and the map populates with all available flight paths, then choose your arrival city and a sidebar populates with airlines and possible travel days. Type in your dates and with one click, a SkyScanner window opens with airfares and booking information. It’s pretty magical – and so obvious, I don’t know why it never occurred to me to search for a site like this before today.

Whenever I’ve needed this service in the past, like when I was trying to game the airline miles system, I’ve always just Googled individual cities, i.e. “City X direct flights,” and then triangulated as needed. I could have saved so much time – and had so much more fun – using this little tool. On the other hand, I’ve just spent an hour looking at random departure-arrival combinations (Cairo to Addis, Addis to Nairobi, Nairobi to Lamu…) and fantasizing about future vacations there, so maybe on the balance it is actually a time-waster.

Anchors aweigh! (Or more appropriately, wheels up!)

40 for 39

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At the age of 38, I realized that I had been to 39 states and 38 countries and territories, and that felt pretty neat. Because I like finding arbitrary ways to make my life needlessly challenging, I decided I would always try to keep my state and my country counts at or ahead of my years-on-earth count.

In September I went to Idaho for the first time, sliding into 40 states one month ahead of my 39th birthday. Last March I went to Vietnam and Hong Kong, which I thought brought me to 40, until I realized I could count Vatican City and Palestine and be all the way up to 42.

In January I’ll be visiting Togo and Ghana for the first time, which means I will be relatively safe in the countries department for awhile. However, I’m already a little anxious about how I’m going to rack up state number 41. I’m overdue for a visit to Missouri to see my friends, Ryan and Tom (hi!!!), and that’s probably what I’ll do. But I keep thinking I should knock out Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky in one fell road trip swoop and you know it’ll take me like ten years to execute on that plan. I could more easily go to Georgia, the only state on the eastern seaboard I haven’t technically visited, but I have grand plans for that state, too. When it comes down to it, I have grand plans for everywhere I want to go, so I either need to start spending more time and money on vacations or become more at peace with breaking them up into little bite sized chunks. I’m not sure which option is less improbable.