Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Here Cowboy Bars and Dance Clubs Don’t Exist

Rom, Flo, Nicolas, and Guillaume invited me to join them on a trip back south to Grand Popo. I had read that this was the most tourist-oriented town in Benin, which isn't saying much, but that it is essentially a lazy beach town. That’s not the type of destination I usually choose, as after about 15 minutes sitting on a beach I am ready to walk around and see a town again. But I was really enjoying their company and figured they hadn’t yet steered me wrong.
Rom and I took the ancient Renault while the others took their Toyota 4-Runner. The trip was only an hour, and we pulled to a stop on a dusty cobblestone street in front of a church. There was a red yellow and green painted sedan parked there with paintings of Bob Marley and other Rastafarian symbols on it. A tiny hand-painted sign pointed to a path beside the church that said Lion Bar. As we walked along the side of the church, the reggae music could be heard.
Lion Bar was a small concrete structure with 3 windows facing the ocean (the left one’s frame painted red, the middle yellow, the right green). Inside the structure was a tiny counter, a large stereo, a small collection of bottles, and countless photos, pictures and paintings of more Reggae artists and Rastafarian symbols. I sat at one of the 5 barstools perched on the sand facing the windows and was served a cocktail made of fresh pineapple juice, ginger, lime, and rum by a man with a clumpy collection of dreadlocks and a smile that never seemed to fade from his face. His name was Gildas and he was the proud proprietor of Lion Bar. Behind the bar was a short row of about 7 clean concrete rooms with a mattress on the floor, a fan painted red yellow and green, and more Rasta stuff painted on the wall. Each door had the portrait and name of another reggae artist. The Bob room, the Peter room, the Culture room. There was one pristine toilet, and one pristine shower for the whole place.

Gildas behind the counter at Lion Bar

Gildas opened Lion Bar just about one year ago. He is another African success story: after working 14 years as a zemi-john, he scrimped and saved to buy the car I saw parked in front. He used that to give little tours to the occasional tourist, and kept saving to cerate the hotel he dreamed of. With a little business advice from Flo, Guillaume and Rom, Gildas kept things as basic and “roots” as possible. The place was only known by word of mouth and Gildas rarely had a vacant room. A devout Rastafarian, Gildas served the day’s catch, cooked by one employee named ILoveJah, after a short blessing to Jah, and afterwards the dishes were cleared by his other employee, Cofi.
The bar looked out to the Atlantic, with a small concrete platform for reggae bands to perform, two hammocks and a handful of palm trees being the only things that stood between Gildas’ little home and the white sand and blue ocean and sky. That’s it, that’s all, there ain’t nothin’ else.
Gildas spends his days serving drinks and food and selecting choice cuts from his large CD collection. You can hear anything you like, as long as it's reggae. Though in 24 hours, I never heard a single familiar tune.
On the beach were three simple straw huts for shade and when we sat in them I looked to the right and left and saw the beach fade off into the ether, without another soul visible on it as far as the eye could see. Over the afternoon and evening at Lion Bar, I kept track of who crossed this plot of land:
- 1 curious village boy
- 2 women with water buckets on their heads
- 1 goat

The view from Lion Bar

As we sat on the beach, I thought about how amazing this was, yet not quite what I was interested in. Yet when that Rasta vibe set in, it all made sense. I realized that I could spend some time without walking around, without seeing anything. That it is good to slow down and chill sometimes. I rarely do that.
Rom mentioned the stresses of traffic, of weather, of life in the west. “I don’t understand these things anymore,” he said.
As Rom and I chatted, our last talk before he had to go to Cotonou to meet his girlfriend, we returned to the topic of tourism. “Look at Gildas: with an investment of about $4500 he made this, and it pays for itself within a couple months.” It was impressive.
“You know, since you have worked in and are interested in tourism, if you want to come out to Possotomé, I think we can work something out. There are a lot of ideas left to do.”
That was a heavy proposal.
“Where do you see your life over the next 10 years?” he asked.
“You know, I have never really known, my long term plan has always been blurry. I just kinda go with what feels right at the time. With what brings me what I want at the time. What about you?”
“A wife, some kids, a nice house. But I am going to do it this way, not with the stress. I want to be free.”
It recalled a story that my old manager Maja told us at work one day about taking a simple route to the good life, which had the unintended consequence of contributing to my friend and colleague Warren’s decision to sail the world for a few years.
I always think of myself as too type-A to live the simple life. That I thrive on the variety of stimuli that I seek in the city, with my friends and family, and in my travels. Would I be happy without those things, but also without the stresses of the western world? It’s not an option to be taken lightly. It really would marry my passions tourism and business. There would be many sacrifices but also many challenges and successes.
That night, the reggae music and rum served in coconuts kept Gildas, Nicolas, Guillaume and me up until the wee hours, dancing in the sand as the wind rattled the palm fronds and the waves crashed quietly just a sand dune away.

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