Why You Should Go To Benin

After 7 weeks spent in Benin 2 years ago, it’s still an unforgettable memory. Little did I know, I was luckily there during the rain season (May-September), meaning that all the tourists were gone! Therefore, we were often the only “yovos” (“White” in Fon dialect) during the trip. Indeed, travelers don’t really flock to Benin when they end up in Sub Saharan Africa; and it’s quite a shame as the country is full of wonders and cultural treasures.

So pack your bags and discover the Voodoo rituals, ask the driver if you can get behind the wheel of the bush taxi or moto-taxi (zemidjan, “Bring me quickly!”, in Fon dialect), make yourself a tailored African suit, navigate on the “African Venice” and you can even walk around the country carrying a machete! (my favorite).

Discover Voodoo

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You’ll understand quickly that Voodoo cannot be reduced to torturing a doll that looks like your worst enemy. Actually, Voodoo is an animist religion that strongly shaped the beliefs and habits of Beninese people: it relies on the cult of the ancestors and the forces of Nature.

The home of Voodoo is in Ouidah – a quiet city that totally changes for the Voodoo Day on January 10th, every year – but it’s really everywhere! It’s easier to witness a Voodoo ceremony if you go deeper into the countryside as it’s part of a village’s life… to pay a tribute to newborn babies, deaths or any important milestones. They might even organise a Voodoo ceremony in your honor; and, really, it’s very uncommon and unique!

The most adventurous can also “consult the Fâ”, which is a one-on-one meeting with a sort of Voodoo priest that will predict your future and give you advice! Below, the one I met in his wooden house full of all kinds of potions… and he told me that I will never improve at soccer but I will meet an old wise man that will change the rest of my life!

An outstanding historical and cultural heritage

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Wars between the different kingdoms, foreign exploitation followed by colonisation, slavery, independence, birth of a new State… Benin has a long and very complex history that shaped the construction of today’s Beninese State. You’ll probably head to Abomey – historic capital of the last kingdom of Dahomey – and Ouidah – on top of voodoo, it was the main hub for slave trade and boarding – to discover the history of Benin.

Benin is also a great place to discover African art: you’ll meet everywhere craftsmen producing their own artworks. On a more personal note, I really enjoyed the Zinsou Foundation (in Cotonou & Ouidah) that continuously exhibits talented African artists. As a result of historical, cultural and ethnographic influences, all the sculptures, traditional objects or piece of arts that you’ll find all around Benin will never be the same!

Behave like a Beninese

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Benin is the ideal place to escape your daily routine:

  • Turn off your brain with the Beninese soap operas you are forced to watch in the bus before being invaded by street vendors once you arrive,
  • Hire a zemidjan all day long until you are to lazy to walk even 14 meters,
  • Try to survive the ultra spicy manioc, corn or yam paste,
  • Sit on the gear of a Renault bush taxi from the 70s’ and drive it yourself,
  • Share a dying motorbike with 4 other passengers and drive it yourself again,
  • Meet elephants that attack you on a safari,
  • Have a hike in the middle of the bushes, and lead the way with your machete.

You won’t be bored!

… and continue at home.

I proudly reached Level 1000 at Tetris after managing to put a machete in my suitcase; which I happily hung in my room. I guess it’s my most original souvenir ever and you can find yours in any market (in every city), especially the 18 hectares open air market of Dantokpa in Cotonou – the biggest one in West Africa -, where you’ll find anything you dream of.

I personally brought back an army of tailored African suits, a traditional wooden game of Awalé – a sort of Beninese chess – which occupies the days of seniors, and a lot of local drinks – all kinds of mango, palm or red wines made locally and, of course, sodabi, a mysterious (and very strong) alcohol that is drunk by all ages.

You have to try if you want to feel Beninese!

The Day I Hitchhiked to Tokyo

I really enjoy hitchhiking. I hitchhiked for the first time in Iceland on the Ring Road when I was 19. Now, 5 years later, I always try to do some when I visit a country – at least one ride. 

I mostly hitchhike not to save money (well… except in Japan 😉 ), but to meet the drivers, to force the unpredictable and to spice up the backpacking routine.

Hitchhiking in Japan

So I was in Nagoya and needed to go back to Tokyo. I didn’t have a JR Pass and felt it was time to try hicchi haikingude (as they say!). I am always anxious between the time I decide to do it and the first ride. To force myself not to run away, my trick is just to tell everyone that I’m going to hitchhike to Tokyo. I would look quite stupid if I didn’t go after all, uh?

After the hitchwiki ritual, there I was in Nagoya’s subway to go as far as possible and get closer to the highway – I ended up on Toyota City’s main square where a traditional Japanese drums concert was about to start. “A good omen” I was telling myself; I couldn’t really go back, anyway. I took another train from there to go further, and this time, ended up in the middle of nowhere with only one car in the horizon. “I am not prepared yet to approach them and ask for a ride, I need some more time to be in the mood”, I was thinking. But then I heard the engine.

The first ride

I realised that they were the only human-beings around; so I ran. I ran to them with my sign high in the air and asked if they could bring me to the nearest gas station. Luckily, they spoke perfect English and told me that, of course, they would bring me to the highway! They were very helpful and were going out of their way to drop me to the gas station.

If I put things in perspective: they had no idea I existed 2 minutes ago until I popped in front of them, they had no obligation to help me and even did more than expected! Looking at how I was overthinking, I felt a bit stupid but, eh, that’s how you learn! It is actually a principle I try to live with: you can’t predict the unpredictable.

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My first driver and his father

 

Let’s get back to that gas station… because it was the biggest one I’ve ever seen! I was quite confused on how I should behave, but I was prepared: I learned a bunch of sentences introducing myself and what I was doing. Anyway, hicchi haikingude is pure trial & error: I first tried to stand at the entrance of the gas station, then went to speak directly to people going out from the mall complex, then stood at the exit or spoke to the people about to leave.

What was the best strategy eventually? I think none. I was still stuck and receiving the harsh (I deliberately use that word, comparing to my former hitchhiking experiences) refusal of the Japanese. Anyway, it’s quite normal when you ask for a ride.

How not to lose hope?

You just need to be patient and… at some point, something will happen. Between 2 refusals, I would rehearse my intro, laugh by myself or pray to get a ride within the next 3 cars.

A few hours later, a truck driver finally opened his door! And guess what? He was going straight to Tokyo! He was really friendly and, spoiler alert, even offered to pay for my accommodation in Tokyo (I obviously refused). Unfortunately, our conversation was limited as we couldn’t really communicate… so I observed what a Japanese truck driver can do to entertain himself. The whole ride, the driver alternatively focused on 4 things: his Japanese drama on a small screen, his fantasy football league on a tablet, his can of beer on a cup holder and, last but not least, the (beautiful) road!

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Hicchi haikingude is not easy; you need time, patience and perseverance. But most of all, you need the right mindset: hitchhiking is not a free ride. It’s a human encounter, it’s running into someone you would have never met, it’s seeing a total stranger opening the door to help you out, and it’s definitely restoring faith in humanity.

3 things you do when you live in Mexico City, guey

1. Saying “guey”, “wey”, “weeeeee” all the time, guey.

ALRIGHT, it’s not really 3 things; actually 33. But, la neta, you would never have read it otherwise! Now that you know, here are 32 other things that you do when you live in Mexico City:

2. Beating a giant SpongeBob piñata, guey.

3. Walking down the streets holding a giant SpongeBob piñata, guey.

4. Holding tight your belongings cause you arrived the day before and you are still afraid cause the media said that “Mexico City is super dangerous”, guey.

5. Realising that there is nothing to be afraid of, guey.

6. Ordering 50 tacos al pastor after la fiesta, guey.

7. Always bringing friends that visit you to the Torre Latinoamericana, guey.

8. Spending most of your time in the “2×1 al pastor” taquería downstairs, guey.

9. Becoming a guacamole ambassador, guey.

10. Feeling super fancy cause, now, y’know, you say “DF”, guey.

11. Being fresa and saying “CDMX”, guey. #CDMX #nomames

12. Ending up in Tacubaya station at 6 pm… and looking for the purpose of life, guey.

13. Finally drinking proper tequila, guey.

14. Discovering la palomita & el mezcalito, weeeeeee.

15. Saying to the world that you can dance salsa after 2 lessons, guey.

16. Buying your Mexican poncho for the winter, guey.

17. Eating the Oxxo pizza when you are broke (and had too many palomitas), guey.

18. Losing sense of reality at the Patrick Miller, guey (it’s really amazing).

19. Being stuck 1h30 in the traffic. Every. Single. Day. Guey. 

20. Becoming bored with pyramids, guey.

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20. The pyramids of Teotihuacan; probably the first ones you’ll see around el DF.

21. Going for a Temazcal Ritual on the weekend, guey.

22. Listening to Mariachis on Plaza Garibaldi, guey.

23. Having chilaquiles for breakfast, guey.

24. Trying spicy stuff, guey.

25. Crying cause you had spicy stuff, guey.

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25. Not the best idea to have mangoes filled with spicy powder the day you arrive 😅

26. Going for lucha libre and buying too many masks, guey.

27. Cycling and getting a massage on el Paseo de la Reforma on car-free Sundays, guey.

28. Being a “nachos-and-chili-con-carne-are-not-Mexican” ambassador, guey. 

29. Speaking Mexican and not Spanish, tío.

30. Trying to finish el Museo Nacional de Antropología for the 5th time, guey.

31. Getting used to Reggaeton and bragging that you loved Despacito way before it became famous, guey.

32. Missing all of this (mostly tacos al pastor) once you are gone, guey.

33. Bringing giant sombreros on the plane for your friends back home, guey. 

What’s your favourite thing to do in CDMX, guey?

If you want to read more travel insights, tips, stories and photos, subscribe to my newsletter here, guey! 😉

 

48 hours in San Salvador

Back then, I was heading back to Mexico City from San Jose (Costa Rica) by land. It was a bit of a rush as I merely had 1 month during which I spent 1 week in Costa Rica, 1 week in Nicaragua, 1 week in Mexico City and the rest in transportation and San Salvador. Ok, I was a bit afraid. But I realised that:

-If I didn’t go now; I would never go.

-It’s a country I barely know, except for all the bad media coverage. Time to discover the truth.

So heading to San Salvador I was, without any clue of what you could do there! And I did really enjoy the city; it was a nice preview and I wish to come back one day. 

 

San Salvador, in 7 words: urban jungle, chaotic market, disco church, crater hike, all-you-can-eat pupusas, freedom & nights-at-home.

First of all, I love big cities; it felt great to finally stay in a huge urban area (as I didn’t go to Managua) and to blend into the daily life flow. A very good start was to stroll around the chaotic Mercado Central and feel the local vibes; good luck to find your way!

Not far is located the most surprising church I’ve seen so far… and I’ve seen churches! It’s the Iglesia El Rosario, designed by an architect-cum-artist that didn’t want it to look like a church. Job done… as it looks like an abandoned warehouse from the outside and a disco place from the inside!

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It was also a nice surprise to leave the Costa Rican & Nicaraguan Gallo Pinto behind and try new things, like the very Salvadorian Quesadilla (nope, doesn’t look like the Mexican one) or Pupusa. 

If there is one thing you should remember from this post, it’s pupusa, the national corn or rice paste big crepes that you can fill with basically anything and order everywhere, at any time. They eat it by itself or accompanied with a meal. See it as the equivalent of the French baguette or Mexican tortilla. Below, the only picture of pupusa I have where it’s filled with cheese, as a side dish. 

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San Salvador is located right in a valley; thus, the city is surrounded by mountains and it’s easy to have a break if you are tired of the urban craziness. So hold on to the back of a local minibus and go for a hike!

I particularly liked Parque El Boquerón: you have a nice view of San Salvador and a hike that takes place inside a volcano’s crater. And it was one of the most difficult hikes I did; no marked path, you are free to wander wherever you want (even if it’s your own responsibility), I needed to implement a “Petit Poucet” strategy not to get lost and sometimes had to climb down trees to continue!

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San Salvador is not a hot spot for tourism and you do feel quite special to be there (just met a couple of travellers in my hostel). I was even the first foreigner of the day entering Iglesia El Rosario and it wasn’t that early! So enjoy this special feeling – which is usually not for big cities – and don’t be afraid if people approach because they are curious about you!

Finally, if it can help; I was staying at Hostal Cumbres del Volcan in a very safe area, with a nice staff and amazing dorm buddies. One thing I disliked a bit – and that I couldn’t really check deeply if it was necessary – is feeling forced to stay at home after sunset. It was a recommendation of the hostel staff and other travellers. 

What’s your feedback on that?

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10 reasons why I loved Copenhagen

Cool vibes. Seriously. I really felt at home in Copenhagen.

Ordering 2 pints of IPA at 11 am after visiting the first Carlsberg Brewery.

People make you feel at ease. And I felt super safe.

Eating at Copenhagen Street Food; a former paper warehouse transformed by artists into a giant food & design paradise.

Nailing your diet as all the food you’ll find is super healthy.

Having a walk at Freetown Christiana, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood, aka Green Light District.

Architecture around the canals is splendid!

Grabbing cheap Danish-designed stuff in the 14 Flying Tiger shops around the city.

Emerging from the crowd of tourist to see The Little Mermaid.

Navigating through the city by bike: they have priority over cars and cycling paths are huge!

 

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Love the atmosphere around the canals

 

 

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Little Mermaid and her fans

 

 

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Welcome to the Green Light District

 

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Street art everywhere
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Congrats, you are back in the European Union!

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26 life lessons I learned travelling

As I am preparing for my next trip back to Asia, I wondered what I had actually learned while travelling all this time. Most people will tell you that “travelling broadens your mind”, that it “makes you leave your comfort zone” and “discover other cultures”. Sure… but I wanted to know what exactly. So here is my attempt to formalise a bit of what I’ve learned.

Each letter has its piece of advice – don’t ask me why, I did that on a whim -,  so here are 26 philosophical insights I learned while travelling and travel tips I wish I knew before. They all helped me at some point somewhere in the world and I always try to keep them in mind, travelling or at home!

Always have toilet paper with you. It will be useful. You can thank me later.

Bargain at least half of the price.

Check if you bought a ticket from San Jose, Costa Rica or San Jose, California. I didn’t.

Download maps.me. Now.

Eat these tacos al pastor, you’ll follow your diet back home.

Flexible… be flexible. To the food you eat. To new experiences and itineraries. To the people you meet.

GPS can be used offline. You just need the pre-load the map.

Hitchhiking is great to meet locals, to travel on a budget and to get out of your comfort zone.

I am thankful for having toilets at home. And toilet paper.

Juggling is a nice ice-breaker. And you can carry your juggling balls everywhere.

Keep in mind that people are fundamentally nice and helpful.

Look at the CouchSurfing Event Page if you want to meet people, it’s a great community.

Music and soccer are universal languages. Even if you suck at it.

No worries, everything will be alright.

Observe: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Please, be respectful with the locals and the local culture.

Quote: “The word “adventure” contains 1001 forms: it is by itself a dictionary of the whole universe”.

Riding a motorbike is definitely the shit.

Speak to your neighbour, even if you are lazy. They might follow you on a hitchhiking trip 😉

The right person at the right moment is a thing.

Up to you to make your trip an unforgettable experience.

Vietnamese hats will save your life, one day.

When you travel with Air France, you can always ask for champagne.

XXIth century travelling is definitely easier than ever: try your luck and don’t be afraid!

You can’t predict the unpredictable. Don’t waste your time trying.

Zombies might exist: what you take for granted here may not be true elsewhere.

 


 

My favourite one is and will always be Letter W 😉

Which one is yours, or, what did you learn travelling?

Bonus – A tip from the book “On a roulé sur la Terre” (Sylvain Tesson & Alexandre Poussin, who cycled the entire world): when they were lost, they would open a map and really show in public that they were obviously lost (or even pretend to be) until a local would approach them. It worked perfectly and they often spent days together!

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Cuba = Reggaeton every day!

Hasta Que Se Seque el Malecón

At the time of Cuba’s opening, there will be an increasing amount of people flocking to La Habana – or Varadero, Cuba’s hot tourist spot – and an increasing fear that Cuba’s uniqueness would definitely belong to the past. Most tourists enjoy their time on the fine sandy beach, smoking fine cigars, riding open-top cars from the fifties, along with mastering the art of Cuban-style mojitos (understand a well-loaded mojito). But, as we – I and my then roommate – travelled through the 1250-kilometer-long island, we discovered that Cuba was much more than that.

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Here are some insights on what made us really feel the Cuban lifestyle:

We fell in love with the Cuban vibes. Most tourists stay in the “Habana Vieja” district, which is as incredibly beautiful as crowded with tourists. I don’t have any problem with that, but keep in mind that a country has so much more to offer as well! By Cuban vibes, I meant the one you feel walking through the Malecón and the historic center – away from most attractions -, where you successively run into kids in uniforms going to school or playing soccer and adults chilling peacefully outside or watching telenovelas (Cuban-style soap operas). There is one constant: the reggaeton beats that follow you through your walk everywhere you go. And all of this takes place in a mix of freshly renovated houses and dilapidated old ones and I must say that the latter really makes the scenery unique.

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Feeling the Cuban vibes also meant eating like a Cuban.

It might seem obvious, but since the society is divided between Cubans and non-Cubans, foreigners tend to eat at the places for foreigners or rich Cubans. Eating like a Cuban means converting your CUCs (convertible peso) into CUPs (national currency) and heading to a cafeteria, where you can eat, almost for nothing, tortillas, arroz congri (rice mixed with beans), Cuban-style pizza, and drink a home-made juice. After we talked to some Cubans and discovered that the average monthly salary was between 10 and 15 CUCs (10-15 euros), we understood that most Cubans eat at the cafeteria when they don’t eat at home. Cafeterias are usually in someone’s house and the transactions go through the window. Here’s a 4-ball ice cream that I bought for the equivalent of 0,25 euro!

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For us, a simple way to live the Cuban lifestyle was to do the opposite of the crowd.

When we took the now touristic soviet-style steam train at Trinidad and stopped in another city for the break, we saw everyone heading to the touristic attractions that were waiting for them all day. We decided to go the other way alone and we discovered, out of nowhere, a food stand that made delicious fried fish sandwiches. After we ate four of them, they thanked us for having made their day!

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Street art that we found after walking randomly, somewhere in La Habana

Finally, the best thing we did was to hitchhike: it really allowed us to understand the Cuban way of life and the separation between foreigners and locals. It all started when one day, we tried to book bus tickets to go to Las Terrazas but somehow, we ended up in a bus terminal that was forbidden to foreigners. We were told to go to the Via Azul terminal, for foreigners and rich Cubans. All right. We finally arrived at Las Terrazas with the Via Azul bus but decided to come back to La Habana hitchhiking. We first realised that many Cubans have to hitchhike to go to work, to school, or anywhere. Since the competition is rude, many of them prefer showing some money bills instead of their thumb! Our time finally arrived, and we successively got into a taxi (for free), a truck cart, and, best of all, a bus that was supposed to be reserved for Cubans!

Of course, there is plenty more to discover in Cuba. Talk to people, follow the unknown, don’t limit yourself to the main attractions, and you will understand how a Cuban live and think! (And of course try some mojitos, they are the best!)

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1 country = 1 playground

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