Wednesday, March 5, 2008

That Sinking Feeling

(This entry will be republished again later with more photos when I can find a cooperating computer)

A few French guests arrived at Chez Theo in Possotomé, a few friends that Rom had met previously in Benin. Floriane was an English teacher in Cotonou, and her husband Guillaume was working toward the exams to become a teacher in Benin as well. Flo’s younger brother Nicolas was on his first trip into the third world, spending his 2 week vacation to visit his sister and brother in law, and to finally understand the feelings sights and sounds they’d been trying to convey in email and phone calls for the past year.
Rom had mentioned to me that the others wanted to rent motorcycles for the day and ride around the lake. Did I know how to ride? Did that sound fun to me?
Rom arranged for the bikes to be delivered at 8:00, knowing they would arrive around 10:00. At 11:00, we finally had the bikes, and headed out on the road. They were little 100cc Suzukis covered in stickers praising Jesus as many bikes in Benin are.
I immediately had a little trouble with my bike. First the clutch cable was so loose that the bike was having trouble shifting. As the other bikes pulled away, I sputtered to a stop. Locals jumped at the opportunity to help out a struggling Yovo and dragged the bike to the little shack on the road to tighten the cable. I was still having a hard time getting the bike to ride, until I realized that the bike was built to shift in the opposite direction from the bikes I learned on and rode in China. This one required that I stomp down on the shifter to shift up, and click up to downshift. I had been racing the engine to get the thing rolling in a high gear.
Once I figured that out, I was on the road, the red dirt moving quickly beneath me, the fascinated smiles of the villagers following us. The feeling on the bike was very different from the one in China, mainly because it was actually the right size for me. I could place both feet flat on the ground, with room to spare, when I was at a stop. The bike was lighter than any I have ridden, and I was confidently in full control of it.
A few minutes along the main road, Rom suddenly pulled off to the right, nearly causing us to ram into him. He dismounted and we all did the same, following him over the ditch and into the brush where a group of people were digging in the dirt. Rom began to talk with someone overseeing the operation and then translated for me a few minutes later.
Apparently the people were digging for and then sifting out small stones from the ground. Discarding the soil and sand, they dumped the stones into buckets all day under the punishing heat. One man would use a pickaxe to break up the dirt, then dig it out with a shovel, tossing it to a woman who would throw it at a metal screen to sift it. A child would then shovel the stones into buckets.
“Can you believe these working conditions?” Rom asked me, as I swam in my own sweat and acquired layer after layer of red dirt from the occasional vehicle passing on the road. “They make 300 CFA (70 cents) per bucket. A good team might make 10 buckets in a day, but most make about three.”
For some perspective, a beer costs 500 CFA and a small dish for lunch on the side of the road will cost about 100 CFA. A ride on a zemi-john across a small town will cost about 200.

Breaking up dirt for stones


I asked Rom whether he knew these people before we stopped.
“No, I just saw them there and it looked interesting, so why not ask?” Rom and I got into another conversation about tourism. This is exactly the type of thing I think about: rather than going on a pre-programmed track where every other tourist goes, talk with the man on the street and learn that way.
Back on the bikes, we left the main road and traveled by a small foot path through tiny villages. With the wind on my face, a few bikes ahead and behind me, and the occasional villager standing in awe, I was ecstatic. I howled into the wind, unable to contain my excitement. We were a sight, and the locals loved it. One boy was so shocked to see us that he tipped right over on his bicycle and fell into the brush on the side of the road.
We continued around the lake, and joined up with a main road. There was a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and we all pulled over to grab some food. When the orders were being taken, Flo turned to me.
“What do you want to eat?”
“What’s good?”
“Want to eat a rat?”
“How is it?”
“It’s good!”
“Well, why not?!”
I was served an Agoutie, some member of the rodent family, large, furry with coarse straight hair, cute when they are little and a bit ugly when they are grown. It, like all African meat, is tough and required effort to chew. As Elvis commented back in Cameroon, “I can not handle that soft meat you people eat in the West! I need my meat tough, like the bush!”
It didn’t taste like chicken, more like beef jerky. It was served in an incredibly spicy tomato sauce on rice, and was reasonably easy to get down with the exception of my portion of skin with some fur still intact. Really chewy and not the type of thing I want to go through again. It did the job though.
Back on the road, we each took our turns with some bike issues. Nicolas had all the spirit in the world, but did seem to struggle with his bike. I wondered whether he was having shifting issues too, as he often had trouble getting started. At one point his accelerator got stuck at full throttle, and without a kill switch, it took some fancy shifting for him to kill the engine.
Nicolas’ struggle with the bike was very familiar to me. I always felt like the weakest link on the trip in China, hesitant to go off road or do water crossings because the bike was harder for me to manage than it was for my larger friends. Here, I just sat back and smiled while Nicolas took his turn to learn the things I had to learn in China. And when Rom was disappointed because Nicolas couldn’t handle some of the off road stuff he and I wanted to do, I understood, and had no problem going back to the road.
After a day of getting coated in fine red dirt, we were hot, filthy, and tired. When we returned to the hotel, Rom suggested we go into the lake. Perfect.
Rom, Nicolas and I hopped in one of the hotel’s pirogue canoes and clumsily paddled out into the lake. It was a struggle, owing to our collective lack of coordination and the fact that the wind was brisk, causing small breakers to form in the lake.
Lake Aheme is a freshwater lake that mixes with the ocean, raising its salinity a bit. When we jumped in, the water was hotter than a bathtub and the most relieving feeling I had felt in a long time. The lake is only about 5-6 feet deep, with the bed consisting of a thick layer of mushy clay filled with tiny pieces of sticks, stones, and who-knows-what. I did my best to keep my feet out of it.
After a bit of a swim, we wiggled our way back into the boat, taking with us a fair amount of water. As we splashed the water to bail it out, the increasing wind and waves just kept adding more water to our situation. Within a minute, there was so much water in the boat that Rom told us to jump out.
Within seconds, the heavy wooden boat was full and resting on the soft clay at our feet. I tried to think of how we righted canoes back at summer camp, but was unable to coordinate the effort with the others. Rom said he was going to head back to the hotel to get help.
As Rom made the long swim home, Nicolas and I balanced on the tips of the boat, struggling to keep upright despite the waves. We chatted and told stories and tried to keep a hand on the 3 paddles, palm branch and various clothes that had come with us into the lake. Eventually, on the horizon, we saw the hotel’s large boat approaching. However, it seemed to struggle in the wind also, continually diverting and not making it any closer to us.
As our bath approached an hour, local fishermen began to approach in their pirogues. Finally, one boat reached us. Shouting at us in their local tongue, we were pulled into their boat as two locals jumped off and began to swim around the other side of the boat. In a moment, the boat had swung around a few times and moved a short distance before the captain drove his palm branch into the clay and tied his boat to it as an anchor. The men swam farther away. Nicolas and I kept saying bateau, bateau and pointing to where we had been standing on it, but after a moment it was apparent that the men swimming for the boat thought it was over where they were. Now everyone was confused. I jumped back in the water, trudging over to where I thought the boat was, dragging my feet across the clay to feel for it. Nothing. Reports from the other fishermen indicated the same.
Occasionally, I would brush against a branch or a stone, my heart leaping for a moment until I realized it wasn’t the boat.
The fishermen chatted with each other while they searched, and I got very intimate with that muck that I had tried to hard to avoid earlier. The wind continued, splashing the green water into my mouth, it was slightly salty. I noticed the sun was quickly approaching the horizon.
Additional pirogues arrived, manned by young men, their dark bodies in stark contrast to the sky above me. I looked up as their boats passed by my bobbing head, their palm frond stabbing into the clay as they passed.

Pirogue captain with his palm branch


Rom arrived in another boat, along with Guillaume and a couple of the hotel’s staff. Now with a large crew we were sure to find the boat. But the sun had just reached the horizon and I suddenly got concerned. I thought back to previous trips, about how the scariest moment of my life was when I was nearly killed in a desert for accidentally ruining a local artifact. The Bedouin’s voice echoed in my head: “You can’t just go and make another boat! You can’t just go and buy another boat!”
Was the boat lost? Could it have sunk into the clay by now? How would Theo react? Whose fault was this? How much would a new boat cost to commission? My mind raced in the gathering darkness. Things were looking bleak.
I thought about losing a ski in deep snow and how the strategy to find it requires making a cris-cross pattern in an organized fashion across the hill. It was entirely possible that we’d moved past the boat dozens of times but due to its oblong shape, just missed it. I had no idea how to convey this to the fishermen who were becoming more and more difficult to see in the darkness.
Eventually my path crossed with Rom’s. “We need a strategy,” he said, and I agreed. “OK, each of us, 2 meters apart, move that direction.” He repeated the instructions in French to the others, and then it was translated to Fon for the fishermen.
In a line, we moved across the lake. And finally, my foot brushed against something hard. After feeling around it for a moment, I let out a cheer. The boat was found. There would be no threat on my life. And sure enough, the boat was just 10 feet from the boat that picked Nicolas and I up, right where he and I had pointed at it in the beginning.
That night, after swim-walking the canoe across the lake to the hotel, I discovered they had a bottle of Johnny Walker. I had a nice glass of it after a delicious meal and some fresh pineapple, and eventually dozed off in my chair in the cabana.
Fatigué?” Flo asked me.
“Oh you know, just an average day for me: riding a motorcycle, eating a rat, losing a boat, finding a boat. Nothing unusual.” She translated my response into French for the others and as they all chuckled, I headed off to bed.

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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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