the journey north

follow lau and alvin as they drive up one side of benin and down the other. alvin is working on his second book, discussing eagle scouts and adventure… lau is helping him get around while learning more about the country God so seemingly randomly asked her to move to and serve in.

DAY ONE

I walked to Hotel du Lac to meet Alvin for breakfast. He was well rested. We met our driver, Carlos (what an odd name for Africa), and then set out on our way to Lokossa. This was Alvin’s first time to see Africa in daylight. He was struck by the amount of street commerce. He said, “It looks like everyone is selling, but who is buying?”

The trip to Lokossa was about 2 hours. We met Paul, an Eagle Scout volunteering in Benin with Peace Corps, at a restaurant called Les Colines. Alvin thought the outdoor set up, eating under payotes, was really cool. I had forgotten that was an unusual setting! We ate pile-pile (pounded yams, pronounced peelay-peelay) with fried cheese in a peanut sauce. It was delicious. I can remember when that was a strange meal.

We had a great discussion with Paul. Alvin loved it. We also got to see where Paul lives and teaches. He’s in his second year of Peace Corps, and you can tell he’s effective in the classroom just by how he describes it. I hope I’m that acclimated after a year!

We came back via Ouida so I could show Alvin the “Point of no Return” slave memorial. It’s really moving. It’s like a doorway to the ocean. You walk to it and through it and think, ‘This is what the slaves saw as they boarded the ships.’ Then you turn around and look back at the land and think, ‘This was their last view of their home, never to return again.’ Give me chill bumps.

After all that, Alvin and I took a quick dip in the hotel pool, cleaned up, and enjoyed a relaxing dinner on the hotel terrace… at which point I learned that Hotel du Lac has the BEST pizza in Cotonou. In all of Benin for that matter! They even have a brick oven. Delicious.

DAY TWO

After another breakfast at Hotel du Lac, Alvin and I loaded up the car (a really nice Toyota Landcruiser with air conditioning!) and set out for Natitingou. “Nati” is about 10 hours from Cotonou. We did a lot of sleeping on the way. It was cool to watch the landscape change when I was awake, though. Sandy roads become red dirt roads, “terre rouge.” Rural villages are much greener than the smoggy streets of Cotonou. Huts are made of red clay and thatched roofs. Near Nati, you can see the “tata samba” huts, which look like miniature castles. I hope to go in one someday. Once we arrived in Nati, we decided to push on an hour further to Tanguietta. There we checked in to the Hotel Boaboa and met two SIL missionaries, Carl and Ursula, for a Coke. We then walked to their house, where Ursula gave me doxycyclene tablets. I’ve been taking larium to prevent malaria here, but due to some mild chest pains (occasionally sharp, but mostly just dull pressure) I’ve been having, the Peace Corps doctor (a friend of mine) said to switch to doxy immediately. Ursula has been here for years and no longer takes anything, so I’m glad she had some pills to spare.

After dinner, Alvin and I were both exhausted. We settled into our respective huts. His with A/C, mine with a fan. You can’t expect someone to adjust to Africa in 2 days!

DAY THREE

I knocked on Alvin’s door at 6am to get an early start on our day of safari. He said, “go away!” We had a meager breakfast before meeting our guide, Victor Lola. He said we could just call him Lola. L-O-L-A, Lola, haha.

We drove about half an hour before reaching the park entrance. Alvin paid the fees and bought a map and post cards. We loaded up and began our safari, driving all morning. We mostly saw various breeds of Antelope. I think Pendjari Park has 6 different Antelope species. We also saw wart hogs, hippos and birds. We checked into the park hotel and settled in for siesta. Alvin did some writing, but I crashed. We set out again in the afternoon. At one point our guide stopped a man near an office to talk. The man then lifted a metal barrier to a side road, allowing us to pass. The guide then turned to us and said, “We are now in Burkina Faso.” Just like that, I was visiting my 15th country, though my passport bears no proof. We drove less than a mile before spotting elephants. These elephants were different than what I saw in Tanzania. The elephants in Tanzania were smaller and greyer. These elephants were larger and older looking. Alvin and the guide got out of the car and Alvin snapped some shots. The elephant totally could have charged him. I think it was probably one of the coolest moments of Alvin’s life, looking an elephant in the eyes in the wild. He was on cloud nine.

The guide was pretty pleased too. On our way back to the hotel, he said he hoped we could all get together and talk after dinner. That he had stories about safari and wanted to hear our stories about America. We ended up chatting before dinner instead, discussing African politics and economics. I was exhausted after translating back and forth between English and French for the guide and Alvin. It was good practice, though. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do the same two months ago!

DAY FOUR

We got an early start in the park today. Our guide Lola was really on his game. We saw an elephant and a huge camion that practically charged us (we were outside the car at the time). After exiting the park, we headed to the waterfalls. About 15 boys accompanied us, mostly for entertainment. They climbed up the side of the falls and jumped. Even our guide joined in. I felt a little self conscious stripping down to my swimsuit as the lone girl, but I jumped in fast and was instantly at ease. The water was perfect. Alvin and I swam up to the falls, climbed up the rock face a few feet, swam under the falls, letting the water pound our heads into submission. I floated. Absolutely beautiful. I definitely have to go back to the falls before leaving Benin.

Business called, so we ate lunch, bought some souvenirs for Alvin, and hit the road again. We dropped Lola off in Tanguietta before making our way to Kouande, a village two hours away, to pick up Dutch. Dutch is in his second year of Peace Corps, volunteering to help with the town’s environment and agriculture projects. He’s also an Eagle Scout, which is why we visited him. Alvin is working on his second book regarding Eagle Scouts. His first one discussed scouts that are have been successful in various walks of life, and this one will discuss scouts who continue to capture a sense of adventure in their careers. Turns out there are five Eagle Scout Peace Corps Volunteers living adventurous lives in Benin, so Alvin has come to interview for of them.

Anyway, with Dutch in tow, we headed to the village of Sinende to meet ES PCV Collin. The two hour drive provided ample time to get to know Dutch a little better. He is totally cool. In Sinende, I smiled as Collin rode up to meet us on his bike. He is SO much like my little brother Pierce. Tall, short hair and beard, big smile, and enough intelligence and personality to make a brick wall laugh. The four of us (Collin, Dutch, Alvin and me) headed back to Collin’s concession. He is in his first year and has only lived in Sinende for three months, volunteering to help develop businesses, so his furniture consists of two “pagne” chairs and a mattress on the floor. We all headed to dinner at the only “restaurant” in town, where we met Collin’s post mate, Aaron. The five of us enjoyed a lovely meal of yam ragu and chicken. Alvin then headed back to the concession with Collin and Dutch for his first experience of village living, while I headed to the “Auberge” in town, where a bed and bucket shower costs 5 bucks.

DAY FIVE

Well Alvin survived his first night in the village. Collin even heated his bucket shower on the stove. I think the three boys had a good time together.

We drove over to the secondary school (Where PCV Aaron teaches) to check out their library. It’s pretty unusual to have a library at a school here, so I was very intrigued. All the books have been donated, so it’s quite a hodgepodge of titles, but the students love it. We then hit the road to Gogonou with Collin and Dutch in tow. There we met Alex, a very tall ES PCV, who unfortunately lives in a house with very low door frames. He has to stoop down every time he enters or exits any room in his place. Alex teaches English, so we walked over to his school to check it out. We then walked over to a restaurant to meet Alex’s post mate, Emily, for a drink. Emily has more furniture (most of which she inherited from the previous PCV) than Alex, so we all headed to her house to chat away the afternoon. The conversation was all over the place. We then headed back to the same restaurant for another drink while we waited for some man on the street to cook some meet for us over an open flame. When if finally came, there was too little to really serve as a meal, and it was too rare, but we were ravenous, so we ate it anyway. I’m not feeling sick yet!

One of the village boys was playing with a stick and a wheel, like in the Norman Rockwell paintings. This is a favorite pastime for kids in Benin, so I wanted to give it a shot. But when I started walking toward the boy, he screamed and ran off. This started a routine of gradually getting closer to the “baturi” (Bariba for white person, or Northern speak for “yovo”) and then running away once I looked in the children’s direction. Each time they got a little closer, though, and finally we had ourselves a dance party. Emily and I got up to dance like idiots for the kids, encouraging them to show us the Bariba dance, which differs from the traditional dances in the South. After much coaxing and cheering, several young girls finally showed us the moves, which we then poorly imitated. Alvin then thought we should show them the “shag,” so he and I started dancing and turning together. We started with just a few young bystanders, but soon a whole crowd of adults had formed to watched the crazy Americans. We bowed to their applause and went back to our seats. I was thrilled Alvin could have such a cool village moment. Those are the things that stick with you.

Still hungry, we went to visit one of Emily’s “mamas” to get some pounded yams and fried cheese. The sauce was spicy and really really delicious. The PCVs and I couldn’t stop talking about the sauce, it was so good, but Alvin said, “So you eat food like this often?” “All the time!” He thought that would get pretty old. And sometimes it does, I guess.

The four boys went back to Alex’s place to have their Eagle Scout moments while I went back to Emily’s to crash. I like the North a lot.

DAY SIX

We visited Alex’s classroom this morning. Alvin got lots of pictures. Alex is a great teacher. It has been so encouraging to see all these Peace Corps volunteers thriving in their work and environments, even though they face all of the same challenges and disappointments I’ve been struggling with over the past few months. It’s good to be around people that understand when you vent, but don’t let you feel sorry for yourself either.

We said our goodbyes to Alex and Emily, then Alvin, Dutch, Collin and I made our way to Parakou. There we stopped for lunch and then checked out the Peace Corps station there. They have a whole compound, complete with a living room, library, kitchen, bathroom, office, first aid and bunk beds! If I were a PCV, and want to chill in Parakou all the time! Or better yet, manage the station. It’s like being a dorm counselor in Africa!

The drive from Parakou to Cotonou is about 6 hours, if you’re lucky, and I needed to be back in time for Book Club at 8, so we said our goodbyes and hit the road once again. I slept most of the way back.

All in all, I feel like I have a much better understanding of the country, the people, and where I do and don’t fit in here. The hardest thing about the trip was seeing Benin through Alvin’s eyes, remembering how difficult things are here compared to home. He didn’t complain, it just wasn’t natural to him, which means it’s really not that natural to me either. The best part about the trip was seeing someone from home and feeling connected to my “other” life while simultaneously forming a more complete context for my current life. Alvin also did a great job of playing Santa Claus, letting me reach into a Christmas stocking every day to reveal another present from the distant land of America. Things like Oreos never tasted so good!

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