Cotonou-Ouidah, Benin, Africa
On my flight from Morocco, the languages of choice were incomprehensible English, poor French, or Arabic. I had to rely on mostly the French to understand, then supplemented it with what I could understand of the English. I’m not sure why, but I always think Arabic is French for the first few seconds I hear someone speak it. The H sound gives Arabic away, though. But some guy seriously almost died on the plane. Or at least I’m pretty sure he didn’t die.
I was so tired, I didn’t know what was wrong with the man beside me and was concerned, but I couldn’t stay awake when I was so drowsy. The guy was to my right kept coughing and complaining about not feeling good. The woman on my left was watching Futurama in French on her laptop, so I just buried my face in my pillow on my food tray and turned my head to the woman as the man coughed and was given medical attention. At one point, the guy reached into his bag and something fell out and hit my foot, but I didn’t’ want to touch it or have the man reach under my seat because I didn’t know what was wrong with him. I felt horrible, but I kicked the object towards him as he dug in his bag for what I suspected was the object on the floor. It was. I hope he didn’t realize I had kicked it and not offered to help pick it up for him, I was just worried he was contagious. I awoke to find another, new man beside me and the other one in a very depleted state with a doctor and the flight attendants at his side across the aisle and up a row.
When I got off the plane, I was frantic that my baggage hadn’t made it. I left the plane and was hit by humid and hot air, even at 4am. I climbed onto a crowded bus and was pleased to find that I was not the only non-black (i.e. most likely a foreigner) and that no one was looking at me strangely. I quickly filled out the paperwork and passed through customs. My suitcase beat me there. I was relieved and grabbed it when it came back around. Then I was surprise to see someone checking luggage tickets at the door. I looked for mine, but I had never been given a new one when my flight was changed. I gave the guy what I had but, despite the luggage being part of a purple and black set with my carryon, he was not satisfied. I tried to explain and, just like at the customs windows when I tried to explain that I had the wrong street number written down, he just shook me off like he was fed up and let me pass.
I walked out the doors to the small group of people outside and was quickly greeted by Aminata and her THEX Bienvenue Kayla sign. She hugged me, said welcome, asked how I liked Benin, and many more questions. She was dressed in traditional, vibrant African dress with a head wrap. She looked very pretty and was slightly shorter than I. She led me to a car with a chauffeur. It reeked of gasoline and struggled to start and shift. As we left, I was surprised by how good the roads were. Then I remember Aminata was supposed to take me to get money and other chores done, but because I was coming in at such a weird time just hours before my first class I wasn’t sure how she was going to handle it. She said we could stop at the bank, so we went to two ATMs with guards sleeping at the outside but both were broken. I tried to explain to her I had American cash and not a card that would work here, that I had a Discover card. We returned to the airport where the currency counter was closed. We tried the ATM there and it didn’t work, but it claimed it was because I had the wrong pin, so I called my mom on Aminata’s phone (I knew it was only 10-11PM there). She answered and informed me that my card isn’t even set up for an ATM, probably since my brother recently lost the card and we had new ones issued. She (Aminata) said don’t worry, we’d find a way. We left.
This is when I realized how bad the roads are, apart from the couple I was on the first time. We drove through the ghettos over such lousy roads that it suddenly made perfect sense why the suspension is so horrendous in the cars there. Most people drive motos, though. We picked up another man that the others knew and he directed us to this shady-looking street with bars and scantily dressed women milling through thickets of men. The man left the car and traversed the street a couple of times in front of us with an older man. Then he came back to the car and asked for $203. I got 100,000 XOF for the money. That’s a surprisingly fair exchange, I think. We headed off for Ouidah then.
The drive was around an hour long. Much French was spoken, but too quickly and it took me a while to realize the heavy African accent that made it so difficult to understand. When I said it was too fast, the driver wasn’t saying much but the man in the passenger seat made obvious attempts to speak very slowly. Aminata was behind him and she started to talk slowly but quickly forgot… so there were these two talking with the man going slowly and Aminata rambling on. I felt bad because I was tired and distracted by the sights, and it was difficult to hear over the wind in the car. I didn’t like him slowing down for me like that; I felt bad. Besides, Aminata fell asleep before long and it was silent.
There were so many people sleeping on the street and sweeping even at that hour on a Sunday night. I was surprised by the amount of lights/electricity, too. The road had speed limits that no one followed and divisions (“Diversion!”) that were mildly obeyed. We had to crisscross between the road and the sides which were all under construction. I saw a man praying to Mecca at around 5:30am. The buildings were surrounded by clouds of reddish dust and the doors looked like unapproachable, barred sheets of 3000lbs chocolate bars. As we drove West and I looked out of my south-facing window, I said how nice the breeze was and if the sea was there. Aminata said yes, that’s why it’s so nice. Then I asked her if the water was hot or cold. She didn’t know. The man in front of her said hot, and all Aminata had to say was how horrendous the ocean was, how dangerous the current could be, and that she had never gone near it. She gave it voodoo connotations, but apparently a lot of people – especially children – are killed each year by the waves. Fishing is dangerous and a lot of people don’t know how to swim.
We saw lots of police blockades which looked like Army officers. Aminata said something to the effect that there’s little difference and they’re all corrupted anyway. I think one blocked off road was by the military, though… something having to do with the president’s arrival, presumably the Beninese one. The others were just periodic vehicle checks. We eventually made it past the never-ending lines of people to Ouidah by about 6:30am. I went up and joined the other girl Manon in her room. I hadn’t known there were even any other people here. Aminata barged in and flipped the lights on when Manon had been sleeping and started talking to her as if she had been sitting there waiting for us. (I felt bad; Manon later reflected on this moment with a frustrated twinge that I suspected was now habitual after her long stay with Aminata these last few weeks.) I managed to sleep for nearly an hour and felt pretty miserable. My lesson was at 8am.