Bouncing in and out of Benin; la voyage est la destination

Time is faster than many of us would like and much of it is spent working in order to be able to afford the homes we live in, the clothes we wear, the activities we enjoy doing in those snippets of time when we are no longer at work. There is an adage that many of us are working so that we can reach death, whilst not having the chance to experience life.

This is not the way I want to be.

Osho Quotes on Life and Death

Taking Sannyasin many years ago was not an easy choice for me. I can get overwhelmed by anxiety within my own mind and I can feel reproachful and guilty for things that have long since been said and done. Most likely forgotten by others, but remnants that stay in my mind and heart. However, as part of my dedication to self-love and also a life of service, I consciously chose to ascribe to Osho’s teachings, practice and guidance. To be accountable for my choices and actions always, but not to be laden down by what has gone before. To grasp life in each breath, to continually make the best choice I can, in that very moment, and to trust that this may not be the same choice I make again, even in the next five minutes, let alone years later. To come from my heart always, and to live, fully, in every breath. Conscious choices, loving mind, practices of kindness, service and honesty. I am often heard repeating my personal mantra –

I will only die once, and in that I will most likely have little say. But I can live every moment, and in that I have all the say in the world.

Consequently, over recent months I focused on a return to my inner source and once more began on the roads less traveled. For me, the journey really is the destination. I was very much entranced and moved by the film of this namesake, detailing the life of Dan Eldon, who died doing something he was deeply passionate about, uncovering the atrocities within Somalia, Africa. Thus, when I noticed the biography of Dan sitting on the coffee table of my Air BnB in Cape town last month, I knew that serendipity was jumping back into my life through my own re-opening. As other blogs will describe, I have consequently taken the opportunity to be on the road almost every weekend now for three months or so. It matters not to me how long I sit in the vehicle for, and how short a time I have at the other end. It is also the destination for me. I learn, I see, I watch, I play, I absorb.

Which leads me to the most recent voyage. A 36-hour round trip to the country of Benin, with a good friend of mine.

Getting the visa turned out to be the most cumbersome part of this adventure, but in fact, now that I am getting used to the African ways of visa applications, it really wasn’t so bad. (Just far more hassle than seems warranted. Surely these countries welcome the opportunity for money and interest to be coming. But who am I to say…)

A trusted and reliable driver took us to the border, wherein we switched over to another recommended man and his car. The crossing was full of ease (just a moment of possible corruption wherein they tried to charge us a second time for our visas…which was revoked immediately once they realised I could speak French and understood what was going on!) and the border itself amused me greatly.

It was a single rope.

That had pathways at each end that people could fit past should they dare. The immigration offices, were basic wooden huts. And some 50-100 yards along, a second rope appeared. Customs was apparently there, but I did not notice it. As we drove into Benin, there were some police stopping cars at their will, supposedly for this reason. But we drove smoothly past, without so much as a blink of the eye. Oh the perks of white skin. Who cares that all men are capable of much good, as well as much evil. In many of the places I travel recently, my skin colour is my golden ticket of trust. (As well as my surefire expectation of being the rich white girl who must surely ‘have something for her dear friend’). But that is another story.

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Once through the border and into Benin, my friend and I were instantly caught up by the wonders of the place. There was a huge sense of serenity and calmness. The roads were wide, fitted even with a separate line for motorbikes. There was no honking of car horns. Speed limits were adhered to and every vehicle appeared to be progressing along at much the same speed, both with courtesy to other drivers and a lack of rushing to get anywhere ahead of the game.

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There was a ‘hiccup’ (to put it mildly) with our Benin drivers, who had taken it upon themselves to drop us off not even halfway to our destination, having decided that conversations had at the border were non-existent and different words had spilled out of our mouths. This wasn’t a major problem however. Both my friend and I are experienced travelers and are also used to some of the try-it-on ways of the road. Admittedly, it took the driver by surprise, when we quite calmly and happily unloaded our bags and sent him on his way, ready for us to go and gain an alternative method for our journey. (I don’t think has happened before and I must say, you could truly have picked his chin up off the kerb as it fell in shock).

As stated before, for me the journey is the destination, and this turn of events turned out to be greatly in our fortune. We met various people over the course of the next couple of hours, including one of Benin’s top Basketball players (who I shall of course be cheering on from the sidelines when next he plays over here in Lagos), a fantastic driver with a very plush 4×4 who become at our complete disposal for the remaining 24 hours, and some lovely women and children at the roadside bar as we tucked into a refreshing Beninoise beer as we waited for the car to arrive. It also gave us time to play with a drone and get some excellent shots of the main roundabout of Cotonou.

Venturing onward, we passed through a beautiful lakeside village and various scenes of greenery, with the sumptuous red soils that I have craved since my departure from Uganda. The air felt fresh, the roads continued to be free, and we had a very restful journey all the way across Benin, to the area of Grand-Popo, whilst enjoying the cool variety of music played by our driver. There was also the fun of the fuel refill. Memories of Indonesia and South-East Asia swarmed my mind, as I saw the young guy lift up a [huge] round glass bottle that had been baking in the midday sun and begin to filter it into our gas tank.

Granted, it had taken us much longer to arrive at our tranquil beach stay, but we had much enjoyed all of the adventure thus far. And the 5am departure from home was more than worth it. We threw our bag into our lovely room (4poster bed no less, with a shared balcony looking out across to the sea), grabbed a cool beer and headed off to swing in the hammocks. Lush.

An evening stroll ensued, as we walked through the village, fooled around with the drone, chatted to locals and simply noticed what there was around. The architecture is noticeably different to Nigeria, even though it is their neighbour. The French influence abounds and it was curious to see different buildings of an Art Deco style; for me, it was reminiscent of buildings in Napier, New Zealand. However, upon further inspection, we were a far cry from Down Under; we had in fact stumbled upon the holy land. Who knew, it was in Benin all along…

Children followed us around a lot, which normally I don’t mind. But the persistent catcall of “Yovo” (akin to ‘oyimbo’ in Nigeria; both meaning white man) and “cadeaux/d’argent” annoyed and frustrated me in equal measure.

I found it disdainful that these young children have come to know white skin people simply as bearers of money and who saw nothing wrong in pulling at my clothes and trying to yank the rings from my fingers or the bracelets from my wrists. They appeared to have an air of expectancy (could it also be greed?) from me and were most affronted when I refused them. I am the last person to deny any person in need, often finding my purse and bank account empty at the end of the month, having given out money to my driver, my guards, colleagues at work, people on the street and so on. But to simply give money because I am walking along, to a child who rudely demands it from me. No. It made me sad, that the tourists of this area clearly have created this scenario. Though it isn’t surprising really.

Benin, in the short time that I was there, showed me as being a safe, clean, and easily travel-able country. A simple gateway into Africa, to say you have been on the continent. And whether the tourists or the children started it, it has been perpetuated that the Yovo have money to spare and will mindlessly give it away. A cycle has been created and it is going to take much to undo it too.

For me, it doesn’t work like that. You need money from me, I give it to you freely, because you genuinely need it, or, you find a way to repay me. It doesn’t have to be with money itself, but with sincerity, appreciation, some form of understanding or reciprocity.

This experience left a bad taste in my mouth and it was the one thing I did not like about Benin. The only thing however.

Meanwhile, back to the escapades…

The next day was another haphazard and amusing day! We had the car at our beckon call, so we stopped at the lakeside for drone footage and for me to simply sit and stare out to the water. (I love this. Water stills me greatly. Mermaid that I am). We then continued onward, to the floating villages of Ganvie. Time was starting to run against us, but we were confident that it would all flow (pun intended) as we opted to take a motor boat and cruise around the huts. We learnt that the village has a population of 35,000 people and thanks to the drone’s footage, it was easy to see how. The village, from the air, proved to be highly organised in layout and structure, and far more expansive than we could imagine from our boating position. We passed by a church that reminded me of the Amazonian film ‘Embrace of the Serpent‘, wherein there were scenes of almost ‘cultish’ devotees praying to the higher spirits beset within their real-life ‘Jesus’. Here in Ganvie, the congregation were postulating and singing, whilst all dressed in white, with bonnets, long-sleeves and uniforms befitting a scene from ‘The Little House on the Prairie‘. Somehow, it felt very eery to me and I felt quite uncomfortable to see it. The world we live in, really is worlds apart from it’s own self, all over the world. One man’s norm is truly another man’s hysteria. It fascinates me to keep on having this reminder and to continually return to the adage I set myself the moment I set foot on African soil to live;

“forget everything I have ever known. For this is the only way I will ever be able to know about what I am about to experience”.

It was fascinating to witness the village, with it’s restaurant, hotel, schools, and houses, alongside purpose-built fish farms.  The latter are made from weaving the reeds and placing them into circular areas, so that fish will enter to feed off the plants and then become much easier to catch. Women paddled past us, laden with babies both on their front and back, whilst also being the sole oarsman for the boat. (When I was in Lake Bunyoni, Uganda, I had a day of canoeing in a similar boat. And my arms throbbed for a few days after. It looks a whole lot simpler than it is). Even young children were commandeering boats and whipping past us. I am yet to cease being amazed at the physical strength the people here in Benin, Nigeria, and Uganda appear to have. I know for a fact my body has not faced the feats that many of these people have and I work hard in my exercise and fitness regimes to try and reach a level that is not even slightly comparable. Many of my experiences thus far in Africa have humbled me. This is yet another one.

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Upon returning to dry land and noticing that we were starting to run short on time to meet our return-home driver at the border, we discovered that our Benin driver was in a minor start of panic. As luck would have it, his car had encountered a flat-tyre during our journey and was currently in the hands of the local mechanic. We were left with no choice but to wait it out, though we no longer had any local currency. This proved to be a slight conundrum as not only were we hot and thirsty, but we were also hungry and set to be waiting around for quite some time. (A couple of hours in actual fact). We had no operable phone between us, in order to let our other driver know either. We were grounded. Literally.

Some negotiations later, and we found ourselves once again roadside, Beninoise beer in hand and engaged in another interesting meeting of minds with a local guy. Who in fact splits his time between there, and the local floating village of Makoko back near our homes in Lagos. This world truly gets smaller every single day.

Time continued to run away, as we continued to be at a standstill. There was nothing we could do. So nothing we did. We weren’t even particularly on the journey itself anymore, but the adventure continued.

By the time we did end up back by our car, we saw quite clearly the extent of the problem and yet found ourselves in another luxury 4×4 with relative ease, and once again our friendly Basketball player was back to chaperone us also. Hours later than we were due to arrive at the border, and we were off, to start the return journey, once again.

On the final leg of the journey, we discovered that the newly built and remarkably modern-looking border control (apparently commissioned by the EU some 18 months ago) was not yet ready to accept any crossings. It looked like an abandoned film set, in one of the end-of-the-world style scenarios. Consequently, our car took us as far as was allowed, then off we set, this time on foot. Motorbike drivers hounded us as we strode by, but my body very much needed the movement and I was much happier ambling along, chatting once again to the locals and noticing what there was to see. Granted, it was a fair walk to the wild west post of the border crossing. But it was a hoot. My friend went off to buy some cold beers for the next leg of the journey, and I found myself outside of the border barbers; well, you never know when you may need to look at your finest. Perhaps good luck and charm are things needed in times when a visa is lacking….

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A few minor hiccups on the other side of the border (where we were reunited with the drivers who had refused to take us to our final destination in Benin without a much larger fee), and off we went yet again. This time, homeward bound. Our Nigerian driver was impeccable, both to his word, his humble nature and in his safe driving of getting us from A to B. Bless him, he had ended up waiting for us at the Nigerian border side for over four hours. Yet there was not a single word of complaint heard. He was simply thankful we were happy and safe. And he even called me the following day to take him for using his services and for the kindness of having given him an additional tip. A really genuine, heart-felt man, who drove his car with professionalism, whether it was 5am or 9pm. Always under the watchful eye of his hanging toy dog. Who, it turns out, has no name.  Our driver then laughed and told us we should name him Tunde, after the man who had tried to dupe us. As he said he is a cheeky one, as is his dog. This tickled me pink, and pretty much summed it all up for me. It was a cheeky hop out of Lagos, a brilliant jaunt of mishaps and fun times, and all in all, a very much-enjoyed journey that was the entire destination all in one.

Merci a Benin, merci pour les souvenirs, je reviendrai!

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