Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Start From Scratch

A hotelier in Porto Novo pointed me to Chez Theo in Possotomé, on Lake Ahémè. I had liked the guy and his hotel enough that I was willing to take his recommendation, despite it being one of the lower options on the Lonely Planet list.
Possotomé is a tiny town on a lake that is reached only by a dirt road which is currently under construction. My book doesn’t even give a map, just mentions the town and a few hotels. When I asked the reception for a map of Possotomé, he took me around the corner and down a well-kept path under arches of bamboo towards the lake. A nice little surprise; I didn’t even know whether I was near the lake. Out on the water was a decent-sized cabana built of bamboo and straw. The bartender there handed me a bottle of Possotomé water. Apparently my French isn’t that good. I explained I was looking for a map and he then took me to a younger man with curly hair and a short goatee who was sitting at a table talking with a couple older Yovos, probably French tourists.
He turned in his chair and we did the name game in French. Then, in English, he asked “what do you need?” I explained my situation and he directed me to sit with him. The older French folks left the table and he and I got to talking.
His name was Romain, known as Rom. He was French and employed at the hotel. I figured he was one of those slightly jaded guys who take a job at a third world hotel to hit on the tourist girls that come by. The type of thing rampant in Greece and Spain. I began to wonder what type of hotel I had arrived at.
“What type of work do you do for the hotel?”
“Mm, how you say, I manage the project?”
“Really? That's part of my work, also!”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Well, I work for an online travel agency. Maybe you know Expedia.fr?”
“Yes! Of course! We should talk – I want to get this hotel more customers, and maybe we can do something!”
So we got into a conversation on the economics of internet travel. Rom was far from a jaded slacker looking for a way to while away a couple years after college. He had first been connected with the hotel as a final project for his MBA program. He had 4 months to help develop the fledgling hotel into something more. Rom talked of his work and how he transformed the place from another generic concrete African hotel to one that feels more unique and natural. The project was such a success that he decided to commit to it indefinitely, and here he was.
It was immediately apparent to me that Rom gets it. He spoke of developing the hotel with a keen business sense, but also with a sense for sustainability.
“Africa is free. I can do what I want. For this hotel, I use local labor, I use local materials, I use minimal cement.” I looked around and noticed that the pathway was lined with locally made clay pots which he used as decoration and path markers. Local baskets and weaves were used as trim and decoration. The cabana was built on sticks pounded into the mud of the lake as the nearby stilt villages did.
We walked down the path and Rom pointed out the onsite garden where he hopes to produce enough vegetables to make that the primary source for the hotel. The hares which are commonly eaten here are raised on site. And the fresh fish is purchased right out of the lake from the local boys in boats who ply it daily with their canoes and nets.
“Come, let’s go into the bush.”
We hopped in an ancient white Renault which was rust red on the inside from years of the dusty road. As we drove, Rom explained that Theo, the hotel’s owner had worked his way up from the humblest beginnings. “One bag of cement at a time”.
“First stop,” Rom said. We climbed out of the car and walked into a tiny village on the side of the road. There, Rom pointed out the well that the villagers were digging, the cages where they grow the giant rats they eat called Agoutie, a room where they raised snails to eat, and the vegetable crops they were working on. Rom explained that these villagers worked on some of his projects, so he helped them get their projects going. We picked up a villager and got back in the car.

Digging the well with a metal bowl

“Second stop,” Rom said as we climbed out onto the red dirt road again, and this time walked off into a forest of small manioc (tapioca) trees and of young teak trees.
“30 centimeters tall in October. Now, three meters!” Rom pointed out how some of them had been pruned by machete, against his directions. “I bought them a clipper and pay them 5 CFA per tree to do this the right way.”
“How do you know the right way? Do you know about agriculture?”
“My first degree before business was agriculture.” Wow.

Children hunting crabs among the mangroves

We continued toward the lake and entered a mangrove forest, where millions of little feelers were prying their way up toward the hundreds of branches attempting to link with the ground below. Within the forest, four children were carefully poking around for small crabs which they took home in old coffee tins for dinner.
“What do you think, bungalows among the mangroves?” Rom asked, gesturing out a paradise of a hotel in this untouched area.
The land all belonged to Theo. Theo knew he should do something with it, but needed a visionary with useful skills to get things going.

A captured crab

The third stop was down a painfully dusty side road that approached the lake from above. There was a plot of land that had been dug out in preparation for a home. A large baobab tree sat adjacent to it and the view went from the red dirt to the green mangrove forest to the blue lake. “This will be my home. All local wood, local labor. The land is so cheap, maybe 20,000 Euros all the way to the lake.” I looked at him with a sense of wonder.
“Africa is free. To-tally free.”
The paved road to Possotomé is slated to be complete in a year or so. At the moment the lake is dotted with a few villages and a couple rarely-visited hotels. Fishermen fish, kids hunt, locals labor. The villagers don’t need clothes, and water is pulled from wells or the hot springs down the road. By chance I arrived the day before the annual gathering of all the lake villages for a huge voodoo dance off. At night, looking across the lake, one can see a few fires and a handful of electric lights indicating the villages. There are no motorized boats on the lake and Rom would never want to introduce them.

Children fishing on Lake Ahémè

Africa, or Benin at least, is free, and this little slice of it is within Rom’s control. The lake has potential for immense tourism, with countless activities and sights in the area. This could turn into something big. At the moment, Possotomé is untouched and unspoiled by tourism. Starting from this potential, Possotomé and Lake Ahémè have the opportunity to introduce tourism in any way they like. Under Rom’s vision Possotomé will not become an ugly place ruined by tourism, but will move toward a balance of respect for the past while benefiting the locals and a responsible number of guests for the future.

Voodoo dancer in Possotomé

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Don’t Go Around Breaking Young Girls’ Hearts

Cotonou was much more pleasant than I expected, so I spent a few more days than the average tourist. I then headed west for a day trip to the coastal town of Ouidah. Ouidah was one of the largest ports used in the slave trade back in the day. This city was run by a variety of colonists, all in the business of buying rural Africans from coastal Africans and shipping them across the Atlantic to Brazil, the Caribbean, and finally the US. The slaves brought with them animist religious practices called vodou, or voodoo in English, as well as a lot of musical inspiration which became the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian sound that I had heard in the past but had never thought about its genesis.
As I explored Ouidah and then Porto Novo, I found that the locals reacted to me much friendlier than the Cameroonians did. I still had to ask permission for photos, still got a man really pissed off for taking a photo of his black market fuel for sale, but largely didn’t get the look of suspicion I felt in Cameroon. Even the children seemed to have a friendly little song that they all sang to me whenever they saw me.
Yovo yovo bon soir! Ça va bien? Merci!"
It took me a couple days to learn that Yovo is a Fon euphemism for whitey… so the song goes “Whitey whitey, good evening! Are you well? Thank you!”
I can’t imagine the nerve or the violence that would result of anyone singing such a song to any other race in my country, but here they don’t mean any harm and to them it seems a perfectly acceptable way of greeting a stranger. Having singing and clapping youngsters lurking behind every corner is at least more pleasant than I have experienced in other countries.

Black market fuel from Nigeria

Along with the singing, I felt it nice to be travelling alone again. I was able to manage just fine, keeping myself out of trouble, figuring out the bus/taxi/zemi combinations required to get from here to there, and even getting countless marriage proposals. It’s a fun game to be offered someone’s daughter and to be able to speak enough of the language to joke around with their proposal. At this point, it is possible my family would prefer to hear that I am betrothed, but so far I have turned down all of the offers in the end.
On my own, I have been able to stumble through enough French to have a girl explain some voodoo fetishes to me, and even convince a local fisherman to take me out on his handmade boat for a little tour. On the placid lagoon of Ouidah, he stood perched in the rear of his long thin canoe, stabbing a long branch from a palm frond which looked like a giant’s eyelash into the shallow waters. We met his brothers who were using nets and rotting palm fronds to attract fish for their family’s meal and income.
A local family welcomed me into their courtyard and gave me a glass of soldabie, the local swill made of distilled palm. Even though I have been drinking straight alcohol for a few years now, I find this stuff hard to sip.
Africa’s got soul, there is no question about it. In general I have a whole collection of little games, stupid human tricks and the like to distract children asking for a handout when I travel. One time, in a little village built on stilts above a lagoon, the children were getting a bit intense and I needed something to do. I did a little dance move and saw the whole swarm imitate me. One kid started clapping a rhythm. Hm.
So I directed him to continue while I started grumbling the bass line to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. I then pointed at more kids to have them clap, which they did. I then did the “hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo” rhythm vocalization that Jacko did, and after getting that going, pointed to a few kids to have them pick it up, which they did. Getting a few others to carry the bass line, I then did my best falsetto over the band to sing Billie Jean. All of us stomping in the dirt, and laughing at the end. It was the end of the Yovo chant and the money requests for a while and a great laugh for all of us.

A boy in Ouidah

Every one of my trips seems to have a brush with death in some way or another. As I was walking the road that the slaves walked to the waiting ships on the coast of Ouidah, I saw a group of youngsters ahead on the otherwise vacant sand path in a long forest of palms. The kids were all in their briefs and as I approached, they started shouting at me with a clear sense of urgency. They were speaking so fast that I couldn’t understand them. One seemed to be gesturing me away from the opposite side of the path, the side I was walking down. I had time to squeeze out one “Je ne comprend pas” before another boy in briefs and a blue t-shirt pulled over his head like Cornholio burst out of the foliage, running at top speed directly at me.
My first instinct said this was some sort of trap, a mugging, but within a fraction of a second, I saw that he was flailing his arms wildly all around his head. Was this kid totally nuts? Goofing off? I kept walking toward him. And then I noticed the black cloud following him.
My brain had enough time to tell me “African killer bees” before I turned, and started running too, flailing my own arms as a portion of the cloud diverted to me when the kid ran by. A few seconds later, my cloud was clear, sting-free, and Cornholio returned, obviously relieved that he too wasn’t hurt. I thanked the kids profusely for the warning and apologized for my not understanding, and they sent me on my way with big waves and smiles.
It’s too soon to say whether that is my only brush with pain or injury on this trip, but let’s hope so!

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Welcome To The Machine

I arrived in Cotonou, Benin late at night. My Lonely Planet refers to Cotonou as “A dangerous city” which is “like being locked in a car with a chain-smoking speed freak.” This was not something to be taken lightly. Definitely not the type of place to arrive late at night.
I took a zemi-john (moto taxi) from the airport to a hotel and was able to ask in French for him to take me to an ATM first so I could pay him. Thankfully ATMs are guarded by men 24 hours a day in Africa. In the darkness, the city was quiet. The air was breathable, and nothing like what my book described as we cruised down poorly-lit dirt roads and vacant city streets.
My hotel was on the main drag, Ave Steinmetz, and as it turned out there was a big road construction project in front of the hotel, so there was no traffic there either when I first stepped out to Cotonou in the morning.
In fact, it took me a while to find the insanity that my book described. I slowly walked northeast toward the Grand Marche, the enormous market at the heart of the town. As I approached the large intersections closer to the market, I could hear the grumbling of engines, and see the change in air quality. As I approached, the roar grew louder and when I arrived at the main intersection, it was as if I were standing at the point where two enormous gears mesh together. There were controlled intersections, something I hadn’t seen yet in Africa, and a mind-boggling number of zemis, taxis, cars, trucks, and people, all moving in coordinated chaos. Every truck, every car, every bike, and every head was loaded down with more cargo than it should be carrying. The roar of the engines, the exhaust, the countless moving object, all made for a phenomenally chaotic space. I followed the flow of traffic and made a clockwise circuit around that intersection before being spit out on the other side, and as I continued down the block, the machine grew quieter. Not quiet, but not as intense. So I turned around, and dove back into the machine and allowed myself to be spit out on the other side again.

Welcome to the Machine

I ventured into the endless, smelly, overcrowded Grand Marche one day and allowed myself to get lost. There was no use in trying otherwise. As dusk was approaching and the vendors were beginning to close down, I hailed a waiting zemi and asked him to take me to a restaurant I had to try: Le Roi Du Schawarma. The King of Schawarma. Now that’s a place I had to try!
The zemi was ecstatic to drive me and I don’t think he understood my directions. He just let me get on the bike and immediately kicked it up to 3rd gear, the dense crowd be damned, he began screaming like an ambulance siren, bobbing and weaving, people jumping out of the way for their very lives. As the driver wailed and we caught air off of the lumps in the dirt paths, I screamed “doucement!” between hearty laughs at the expressions of the fearful vendors and shoppers.
The screaming and wailing took me deep into the city, far from my intended destination. I eventually just told the driver that the spot over there was what I was looking for and gave him twice his requested fare for the memorable experience. I caught the next zemi back to my hotel; he got thoroughly lost, but I got a nice tour of the city in the process.
Cotonou, to me, didn’t seem to be the brutal beast my book warned me of. Perhaps I have seen bigger and more dangerous. For me gears of the machine were a game I could play by choice, and when I needed some asylum in the city, I could find it by heading a few blocks in any other direction.
Inside the Machine

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Disco Inferno

In one day, Guy, Elvis and two of Elvis’ friends, Patrick and Fredi, I did a rather grueling circuit across the southwest of Cameroon. As well as seeing the boats loaded for Nigeria in Idenau, we also stopped at a place where the 2000 eruption of mount Cameroon destroyed a large swath of farmland and roads, and visited a ~50 person fishing village named Dibunscha. These destinations were reached after the long drive from Douala to Buea to Limbe, so in short, it was a long day of travel.
However, it was also my last night in Cameroon and Guy was set on making it a good one. So after checking into a hotel in Buea, which turned out to be another Hotel Sans Eau, we were going out to the local disco. We’d be joined by his friends Lucy and Jeannine. I was a little self conscious, knowing we were going to a disco. I had no idea how developed or fancy things could get, after all, we were in a pretty small town in the middle of Africa, but I didn’t like the idea of going to a club in my backpacker clothes. When I travel, I take lightweight, compact, fast-drying clothes and chant in my head a little mantra a la The Fresh Prince in Parents Just Don’t Understand: “You see the world to learn, not for a fashion show.”
There wasn’t enough time for me to procure any nicer threads, so in my hiking boots, zip-off pants, and nicest REI buttondown, I was heading to a disco.
We spent a couple hours in Jeannine’s apartment before leaving, listening to more Cameroonian music. There was so much of it that I liked, though Guy and his friends seemed to be set on a genre that all had a very similar beat, almost akin to the Bo Diddley Beat, and with vocals that sounded like aggressive shouting, similar to Dancehall Reggae. It was beginning to sound all the same to me. I longed for some Makossa, and to get to some air conditioning if it was to be had, or a beer at the very least.
On the way out that night, I was introduced to Guy’s girlfriend, Olivie. I’d heard she existed, but found it hard to believe, the way Guy followed every woman with a significant backside, crotch first. He’d often make the shape of an hourglass with his hands, but his eyes out and say “I liiiike!” Every town we visited, he was busy collecting phone numbers and attempting to make plans later in the night which never came to fruition. But I had to respect the guy’s persistence and unflagging enthusiasm.
Olivie was incredibly cute and friendly, though one of the first things she said to me was “Guy doesn’t want to go with me anymore!” It seemed a crime, and I offered my condolences. So Olivie walked off, and we got in a cab to go find Elvis.

Elvis and the boys in Idenau

Elvis was posted at a bar with the other guys, and two new girls. Both college age, far younger than any of the men present.
“You know what I love, Adam?” Elvis asked. I knew the answer. “Women! They make me so happy! Even if I can’t fuck!” Elvis made a gesture with his fist and forearm. I assumed he meant because he was married, but I was pretty certain that it hadn’t held him back in the past. I concurred, of course, and we slapped hands, did the Cameroon handshake, and Elvis carried on in a torrent of belly laughter.
Together, with the two new girls, the whole posse headed down the road to a bar. ”Here you will see how the African woman dance!” Elvis shouted.
We approached a bar with a sign that read Zanzibar and had a chalkboard propped up in the dirt parking lot which said in French that there were people from Cote d’Ivoire present that night. Walking in, there were 6 lone men at tables and one hefty woman in a white tank top lip synching to an African song on a stage illuminated by one bare bulb.
Beers were procured, and Guy took me outside.
“Oh Adam, I wish I could be you!”
“Why is that?”
“I have big problems tonight. I want to, you know, with Jeannine or maybe Lucy, but because you wished Olivie could be with me, now she will be here!”
I had no intent to salt his game… I was just offering my condolences! Guy said he was worried about having to balance the conversations, and was worried if one of the other girls tried to kiss him in front of Olivie. I told him that I would help keep the other girls chatting so that it wouldn’t happen. It’s tough juggling language, conversational niceties, and some other guy’s fraternization!
It turned out that the dancing at Zanzibar was to be watched rather than participated in. Our group made up the bulk of the audience, and the women lip synching got progressively more suggestive as the night went on. One woman in a white Chinglish tanktop and short, high-waisted white shorts was the clearly most skilled dancer. Over the course of her songs, she abandoned the mic and incorporated some kind of combination of typical African dance as well as some incredibly suggestive moves like a stipper would perform.
The crowd went wild, with the women in our crowd doing the majority of the whooping and hollering, and of course, endless enthusiasm from Elvis.
“Oh my god! Man, can you believe this?! I love it! Look buttocks!! I love buttocks!!”
The dancer took to the floor of the stage and thrust her hips as if there were an invisible man below her. Jeannine jumped up and tucked a small bill in her shorts. Elvis and I did the handshake.
Everyone seemed to ignore it when, after her last song, the dancer caught a heel on the tattered red carpet on the stage and completely landed on her ass.
When Olivie arrived, she sat next to me and we chatted. I remember looking over as the big-bellied waitress, dressed in tight pink jeans with the belt undone to give her some breathing room, and a missed belt loop in back laughed when she received an ass-grab from one of Elvis’ friends. Seeing my shock, Olivie asked, “Not like your country?” No, not at all.
Guy seemed to spend the evening nervously loping around the room, avoiding all of the girls, and sucking on a small box of wine.
As it turned out, the performance at Zanzibar was a bit like a striptease, though without the stripping, and the girl in white came over to tell me she loved me before standing upright and immediately slamming my forehead so hard with her pubic bone that I saw stars and my glasses were knocked someplace behind me. After a short and incredibly rough performance, she returned to her friends and left me to pick up my pieces. I felt like a truck hit me and just kept going.
But apparently Zanzibar was just a bar and after that we were to go to Jupiter, the local dance club. Outside, the scene was just an African version of the same thing one might see at a western disco. Men looking tough, women looking sexy, moto taxis swarming around, tables with beers on them visible in the outdoor courtyard.
Guy’s nerves and consumtion of his box of wine had put him in a state I hadn’t seen before. At the door, the ladies were ushered through without cover; it was Thursday night, ladies night. Guy argued that since he had brought a handful of hot girls he shouldn’t have to pay eihter. My impression being that Guy hasn’t really refined the art of negotiation, the response wasn’t what he wanted. And when he tried to just walk in, he was forcefully pushed to the ground by the bouncer. I made myself scarce. I didn’t need to be the one Blanche (white) in the club that was associated with the one clown getting beaten by the doorman.
In the end, the girls smoothed things over and I happily handed over the 12,000 CFA ($24) required to get us both in. Not a lot of money to me, but a ton of money to someone in Cameroon.

Guy sleeping off his hangover the next day

Stepping through the hallway, the first thing I noticed was the heat. I was sweating in the night air outside, but a wet heat was radiating down the hallway. People moved past, exiting the club, completely drenched.
Inside was nothing like I ever expected. It was a club like any other, although less deced out in terms of decorations, televisions, and lighting gear than most I have seen. The bar offered less than 5 choices for hard alchohol, though it appeared that most people had empty hands. Who could afford a 2000 CFA drink after such a cover charge? The crowd was one black blob, all moving in unison. As we joined it, suddenly it was as if everything I’d experienced in Cameron suddenly made sense.
The enthusiasm and dance moves that I had seen Guy perform or on the music videos on TV were exactly what everyone was doing. Guy and Elvis’s incessant and blatant sexuality was everywhere: the grinding was more carnal than I have ever experienced and strangers danced with strangers in ways that would make most people blush. That community that I had seen in the taxis and on the streets continued in the club. While it seems back home in Seattle, people rarely dance with strangers, anything was fair game in Buea.
I thought that I’d sweat with the Africans in the cars and buses, but that was just the warm up. In this room where the temperature must have been a heavily saturated 100 degrees, the crowd was one enormous wet mass, all sliding against each other, throbbing to the beat.
The music that was getting to me in Jeannine’s apartment suddenly made sense. It all had that same beat because it was club music. The tunes were expertly DJed, never missing a beat as they segued from one tune to the next. The crowd whooped and sang along with every song and bumped hips or did a pelvis thrust in time with the moves that the performers did on the music videos.
One of the bits of Pidgin I had picked up was what I thought a little poem that Elvis taught me, but turned out to be the lyrics to one of the songs. I got a great reaction from the crowd when the one Blanche was able to sing along
“Boby na ma ting!
Boby na ma chop!”
“Breasts are my thing, breasts are my food!” All the girls played a game of grab-tit to the beat of the music.
And finally the fashion. Perhaps it is just because things different to us look cooler, but looking around the disco that night, I could nto get over the fashion. Every person looked straight out of some music video, some film, some… something. And it was just the little flourishes that did it: a newsboy hat here, a wide collar, a cloth tied around a waist, a pair of sunglasses, a sweater vest, a turtleneck, a gold chain. Everyone looked different, individual. No copycat goombahs with the open collar button down shirt and the same haircut. Everyone looked impeccable, and the tiny handful of name brands visible were all certainly fakes.
As we carried on toward sunrise, I wondered whether my clothes, which I wished I could have replaced for that night, looked potentially interesting and different to them. Maybe because I was different, I looked cool. It was hard for me to believe, but the feeling I got from the people at the club that night was that it didn’t matter. I was one of them for a little while, sweating, sliding, laughing with one big mass of humanity.

Relaxing the last morning in Buea

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