I spent my first night on African soil last weekend in a small town/village called Dassa-Zoume, about 4 hours' drive from Cotonou. Dassa is known for its basilica, 41 hills, and a nearby river with hippos, among other things.
After spending literally hours working out the logistical nightmare of trying to arrange transportation, hotel rooms, and a hippo tour for 14 yovo nurses, we woke up bright and early on Saturday morning to shoulder our luggage and walk down to the port entrance to wait for our transportation.
In true Beninoise fashion, we sat and waited. And waited. And waited for nearly two hours for our pre-arranged transportation to arrive. As we were attempting unsuccessfully to call the interpreter who had arranged everything for us, another two interpreters--Daniel and Charalampous--rode by on a zemidjan, telling us that they would take care of everything, just give us 20 minutes.
And also in true Beninoise fashion, they returned in the allotted time with our new transportation--an old ambulance redone as a very large taxi. We were amazed that in only about half an hour it was possible to come up with transportation for such a large group of people!
After 4 hours bumping down the (mostly) paved road, we arrived in Dassa at L'Hotel du Auberge. What a treat! Each room was outfitted with a double bed, a fan, private bathroom with a sink, shower, and flush toilet (the old-fashioned tank-above-the-toilet variety). The sweet citronella scent permeating the air, screens over the windows, and a mosquito net over the bed made the ambiance complete.
We set out to explore the town, heading first in the direction of the Catholic basilica. It draws thousands of pilgrims each August as they commemorate the appearance of an image of the Virgin Mary in a grotto several hundred years ago. After exploring the church grounds, we asked some local women where we could hike in the hills, as some of the 41 rocky hills that surround Dassa are sacred. We started off down a path that turned out to lead directly through the yards of some of the townspeople, so we started attracting attention rather quickly.
After making friends with some of the children we met as we traipsed through their front yard, they showed us a small boulder we could climb in their backyard. It had a fair view of the town, but we wanted to keep climbing.
As we climbed, we scrabbled through a jungle of trees and stickery vines and tried to avoid stepping on the hundreds of large snails and giant millipedes(!). At times the rocks were so slippery that we had to haul each other up... with the help of four of the kids, who were amazingly strong. Finally there came a point where those of us in flip flops had to turn back while the rest forged ahead in search of a better view. We hadn't really thought to hike right away or I certainly would have worn my tennis shoes!
Andrea and I headed back down, making friends with the kids who hollered "yovo, yovo!" as we passed. After a lovely cold shower, we ventured into the 'backyard' of the hotel where some ostriches were fenced. Only in Africa!
After the rest of the group arrived from their climb we assembled for dinner at the hotel--we'd been instructed by the hotel staff to order 2-3 hours ahead of time, and the same thing for everyone: roasted chicken and fries. Dinner was eaten by candlelight as the electric lights attracted all sorts of giant flying insects which being true women we did not appreciate. Toughest chicken I have ever eaten, but despite that it was very good when coupled with fries and a Youki pamplemousse (grapefruit soda bottled in Cotonou, similar to a Fresca), not to mention a fabulous chocolate mousse.
After dinner it was time to tuck ourselves in under the mosquito nets to sleep before our 0600 departure to look for some hippos!
That next morning, our transportation was (thankfully) prompt... however, instead of the two vehicles we had contracted for through the hotel, there was only one: a rusty, beat-up blue van. One of the nurses who speaks French told our driver that since there was only one vehicle, we would not pay full price. We then crammed 13 yovos and two Beninoise into this tiny, uncomfortable, falling-apart piece of blue junk. There was a significant hole under the gas and brake pedals in the front through which the road sped by underneath. Several people sat on the floor, several had to sit facing backwards on a makeshift seat behind the front seats, and the rest of us crammed onto bench seats. For a tall woman like me, the seats were sufficiently high that I had to sit hunched over or risk a head injury. So off we went, until of course we had to stop at a roadside stand so we could get some (illegally imported, varied quality) petrol. Then onwards.
I thought a journey of 25km (16 miles) would not take us more than a half hour to an hour, allowing as always for what we fondly call "African time." However, goodness only knows how far we traveled, because it certainly took almost 2 hours in that wretched van to reach the river. Along the way, we had the additional boon of breathing in the acrid fumes from the petrol, and the unexpected adventure of a small creek having washed away a good chunk of the road. We all piled out of the van, and the driver attempted to drive over the creek. No luck. Now the van was stuck in the mud at a forbidding angle. Fortunately some men had come along on zemis, and they helped push the van back out of the mud. The second attempt over the "river" was the charm, thankfully, so we once again all piled into our assigned niches and we were off again.
(Side note: one of the zemi drivers was carrying a baby goat like a woman would carry a purse, with its legs were tied together and it was strung over one shoulder. The poor thing cried as it went past us, hauntingly similar to a child's cry. I realize that goats are animals, and they are also very tasty, and there are not really pets in this part of the world. But still! It was a little disturbing.)
After jostling around for nearly two hours, we finally reached the village near the river where we were supposed to meet some local men to paddle our canoes and act as our guides on the hippo-search. However, there were no canoes: someone had died in the next village over and the body was currently being transported somewhere. So we stood by the river and hoped for additional canoes to come along. Of course, the presence of yovos had roused the entire village--or at least most of the kids--to come and stand with people with the strange white skin.
(Keep in mind the absurdity of the whole situation from a Beninoise point of view. Not only are there 13 yovos in a rather remote village in south-central Benin, but that a group of Beninoise women would never ever EVER set out for this kind of trip--not just the hippo part, but the whole thing. It's just not done. One of our translators on the wards had already told us, smiling as he did so, that he didn't think we could possibly want to go to Dassa on our own, without an interpreter and (reading between the lines) without a man to navigate the bumps for us.)
So on the banks of the River Ouémé we stood hoping for more canoes. While waiting, we marveled at the industry of some ants who had literally dug a long, winding trench with raised sides in the ground, stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction. During our marveling at the ants, we realized that we ourselves were being explored by said ants. And the ants were biting. "Having ants in your pants" took on an entirely new, unpleasant, literal meaning.
So now we are standing, paranoid about the ants, and (of course) feeling all sorts of real and imagined critters crawling on us. And at about this time, a few canoes arrive to start our trip downriver to look for hippos.
One canoe held nine yovos (plus two men to paddle... the total weight must have been close to a ton! In a single, carved wooden canoe; amazing!), and the other canoe held only three yovos (one decided to wait it out on the banks) plus two guides. Down the river we headed, the men paddling leisurely and the yovos white-knuckling the sides as we adjusted to the back-and-forth motions of the canoe.
After about an hour, our guides pointed the canoe towards the banks and told us to get out. So we waited on the bank, watching mystified as the guides "called" the hippos by banging on the sides of the canoes with their paddles. Why hippos would be attracted to that, I don't know. Certainly none showed up. After a while, our French-speaking nurse negotiated with the guides to take us downriver further to where the hippos supposedly lived--a big, mean daddy hippo, mama hippo, and a baby hippo. Convicing the guides took some work, as they kept explaining that we did not want to get too close and that we would not see more than a hippo's back anyway (they don't stand up on their hind legs or shake hands in greeting, apparently).
But downriver we went again, the guides telling us to be quiet and still, yet singing and talking loudly themselves. After a while they skirted around a little island in the middle of the river and pointed to a small gray area raised out of the water. Apparently, it was a hippo sleeping. We sat for quite a while waiting, but the thing (pile of rocks?) never moved, not even when the guides "called" it with violent pounding on the sides of the canoes again.
We finally grew tired of the sun, waiting for the "hippo" to move, and the swaying of the canoes and decided to call it a day. Our guides paddled us back to their village where we happily climbed back out onto dry land and jammed ourselves back into the blue van for the long ride back to our hotel.
And that's it for the Dassa weekend, folks! We arrived safely back at the hotel, where we had to haggle with our drivers over the cost of the ride to the village. We had told them upfront that we would not pay the full price for only one vehicle when we had contracted for two. On top of that one of the men insisted that he ought to be paid extra for acting as our "guide" when we had neither wanted nor contracted for a guide... nor did he do anything other than ride in the car with us. Anyway, we settled things and piled back into the relative comfort our ambulance-turned-taxi to head back to Cotonou.
All in all: a lovely weekend away from the ship, an African-style adventure, and a lot of quality time with my yovo friends. What more could a girl want?