Benin

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Cotonou onwards

‘There’s only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?’

Dalai Lama

Why a quote like this? I am doing quite exactly what I want, but there’s certainly something missing. It’s the quietness within, which seems so difficult to accomplish while on the bicycle. It keeps being a very high maintaining life style. I start to long for India more and more, a feeling not new to me, as I always been drawn to India more than anything else

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Sandfly, don’t bite me again!

It is not that I think that I am a doctor, but just that I think I can do it myself. A lot of things I can. And a few I can’t. Natural healing isn’t a skill I made into perfection yet, but I try. I reach onto my toes to grab a few fresh neem leaves in front of the Gastenhaüs. I wash them, although that’s not necessary with neem leaves because their properties are very strong. I pound them and I apply the broken leaves onto the big bulging reddish wound on my leg. I have an infection caused by a sand fly, a nasty round not yet flowing crater. When I do not notice progress in my healing technique, I am not too proud to seek traditional Beninese advise and I head to the polyclinic appropriated by pregnant women. Thankfully I am not pregnant but the sand fly definitely tried it’s best.

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‘Don’t worry, I am not going to hurt you,’ sweet voiced English. I turn my head towards Chantal, the doctor without a doctor uniform. I call her Chantal because it fits her, unlike the scalp in her hands, which doesn’t fit her at all. I had many infections in my life, only once a knife was needed and that was for a very very very bad infection. But never a scalp for this one and a halve centimeter diameter infection! I tighten my muscles. I then remember that’s the worst thing to do. Relax. Chantal’s cutting and stinging but with so much precision that I can’t help wanting to watch how she’s doing it. And she’s done.

The pulsing ache is gone. My deep clean wound is filled with bandage drenched in peroxide liquid, covered with a neat African plaster. I am much more mobile again. Off to the supermarket.

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At first, when I enter the supermarket, owned by an Armenian family, I am astonished. It has been some months that I have been in such a real real supermarket. I always had an extreme interest in supermarkets, maybe because it used to be my job (photographing supermarket items) and also because it tells a lot about the country and its people. Chinese supermarkets are the most interesting, but here I am, in a Béninoise one. My eyes turn to wide open balls and my smile’s broad seeing their extreme luxurious assortment, all things from Europe and all so expensive. Prices keeps me from buying, except for one pricy Italian meal, and I wonder who’s going to pay more than they would in their own country? There’s not much I long for, actually, there’s nothing I long for. I move back to the street stalls and eat local food, it’s just what I want.

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The cashier refuse to sell me a tin tomato paste, simply because she’s got no change. I learned from Brendan and I say ‘that’s not my problem,’ but she still refuse me bluntly. Well, I need it so I stand my ground, I get a bit tired of this typical African behavior, so full of non-professionalism.

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Moving back and forth between all the embassies, markets, post office and doctor I see things I get amazed by. What to think of a lady who fits a new pair of shoes while she’s sitting on the back of her motorbike taxi. She decide to buy shoes while she’s on her way to somewhere? From this point of view it’s not so strange when we ‘re eating on an outside diner and constantly being harassed by salesmen of unnecessary items and beggars. Another funny details are the free condoms at the Dutch embassy, how liberal we are. Sitting at the balcony over viewing the road, I notice how many security man are posted in this street and how they all look like G.I. Joe. Carrying a gun and a rubber beating bat. On one of these evenings I am halted by a man on a motorbike. He shows me his badge in the beam of the motorcycle light: ‘I am a police, show me your identity.’ I refuse. He’s not dressed as a police man and his badge looks dreadfully fake. ‘What’s your name?’ I ask. He seems to be a bit surprised and need some time to come up with one. ‘Mustapha,’ he reply. ‘Half the population’s called Mustapha. Mustapha who?’ I ask. ‘Show me your passport,’ he continues, refusing to tell me his last name. I keep refusing too, reply that my passport is in my room and that I never take my passport with me in case they steal it from me. ‘Hmm. Show me your bag then. I want to see what’s in your bag.’ And there I am convinced he’s a fake, I walk off. Ready for Nigeria!

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Nigeria, let me in!

Meanwhile, me trying to get a visa of Nigeria is becoming the most difficult request ever. I did not try it in Ghana as other travelers, the Icelandic group, were not even allowed entrance. I tried it in Togo where the ambassador himself told me to get it at the border. Which I found out is not true. So I am off to the embassy of Nigeria, searching for it together with Oliver, having found it 15 minutes before closing, being open only twice a week for 2 hours. Finding out I need a letter of identification from the Dutch embassy.

And here starts the battle.

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‘Why don’t you think about it? Do you really háve to go there? It’s dangerous and not a beautiful country. Men are not like the Beninese. And you’re a woman on your own, all alone. Think about it.’ Says the very friendly Dutch woman. So I do think it over.

‘Has she been there herself?’ ask my friend Yves, who is on his way to Nigeria.

‘No, she has not.’

Monday I am the first at the Dutch embassy, asking for a letter of identification. Whatever that is. The look on the friendly Dutch lady is not a happy one, but she says she will do her best, ‘Come back at 4 o’clock.’

‘Nigeria is very dangerous, our organization does not allow us go there.’ Is what the very young German volunteer workers say to me, in the Gästenhaus, where we all stay.

‘Nigeria is very very dangerous,’ says the ambassador of the Dutch embassy who invited me over for a personal talk. ‘We’re not going to give you a letter of identification. We have called with Den Haag and they said ‘absolutely not’. Nigeria has a negative travel advise and we warn everyone not to travel there, especially not you on a bicycle. You should not want to go there!’ is what the man tells me. To strengthen his message he gives an example: ‘I was there once to see for myself how dangerous it really is. So we went out with a bulletproof bus and two cars with armed policeman, one in front and one in the back and as soon as we crossed the border we had many problems. And we only were in the country for about 50 meters and then we returned, so I advise you: you don’t even want to go there! It is so very dangerous!’ is the big white man’s adding to his advice. ‘But your reality is very different than mine. I move among the locals like I am one of them,’ is my reply. ‘Whatever reality you and I are living in, it is dangerous. I am sorry but we are not giving you permission! Change your plans.’

‘Forget the Niger-Chad-Cameroon option Cindy. This is where all the dangerous areas are. Really’ is what Yves text me when I do try to change my plans.

I am moving back and forth to the Nigerian embassy and to the Dutch one for over a week. I try it all, promising I won’t cycle through the country but take a bus. I can offer them a statement where I will take complete responsibility myself.

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‘Go and fight for your right, Cindy’ is what Yves text me. And when I start to think I might be wanting this visa only for the sake of its difficulty, is where I start getting doubts about it all. Maybe Nigeria is wildly dangerous? Am I so stubborn? I ask Yves.

‘It’s good to be stubborn. If I can ride across Nigeria, so can you. You are an experienced traveler and a though rider. The fact that you are a woman should not be an issue, as Nigerians are courteous and deep religious. The kidnappings applies to both women and men.’

I regain trust in my own intuition, strength and experience. I mean, come on, I’ve been to and through some countries. I know what I am capable off and besides, the people in the Nigerian embassy bestow a very positive feeling upon me, it can possibly not that bad.

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I start collecting documents for the Nigerian embassy since I see every one applying with loads of paper carrying in neat plastic sheets. Well, I can do that too, and soon I am carrying a same neat plastic sheet with loads of papers: statements from Focus on Education, statements of my bank account, my travel itinerary. I meet a Spanish guy on a motorbike who drove in 12 days from Northern Spain to Cotonou and get his Nigerian visa on the spot. I got into another interview with a Nigerian lady. I plead and I stay patience but in a meanwhile I am off to the Burkina Faso embassy, just to be on the safe side. While my passport is there, to collect a visa, the beautiful elegant young lady from the Nigerian embassy ask me to hand over my passport ‘you will get it’, she says.

‘How are you going to tell the people about a Nigerian visa?’ is what the security cum doorman ask me when he find out that I get the visa that day. Not at 12.00 o’clock. Not at 15.00 o’clock but at last, at 17.00 o’clock. ‘You are Cotonouian now,’ he says with a heartwarming smile, genuinely happy that my patience has been rewarded.

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A motley crew of travelers

Being so often in an embassy is not that bad, I get to catch up with the Icelandic people and we chat so much that I failed to fill in the two forms before closure time. But this being Africa, that’s no problem. I meet the Spanish motor biker, let’s call him Pedro, a name which fits him. He drove in only 12 days from Spain up to here, only because he’s mad of driving and he happily drives from dawn to dusk. To retire to his tent fully dressed in his heavy motorcycle jacket and sturdy pants. He doesn’t undress himself because of being worried bitten by a mosquito. He tells me he’s sweating heavily when he’s cooking in his tent, but choose to do so over being caught by malaria. Pedro doesn’t know about cheap water sachets and about cheap meals, so I take him to one of my favorite Guinean street stalls, where the men greet me enthusiastic in their native language. The price of a plate spaghetti with double omelet is amazingly low for Pedro, so low that when a local comes up and ask to buy him a plate of food, Pedro hands out a coin, enough for a plate spaghetti. Of course I am very interested in his heavy BMW motorcycle, I always wanted to drive a motorbike and almost bought one in India, but thankfully second choice became a bicycle. He agrees that traveling by bicycle is much more being in closer contact with where you actually are, but he just love to drive, drive, drive. In his heavy duty luggage boxes enough pre-prepared food packages for 6 months. Next morning he’s off to Nigeria, where he will speed through in 2 days.

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Alone versus together

I stay two full weeks in Cotonou. One day longer due to heavy rain all day long, some days extra to let my infection close while I zip through the laid back traffic on the back of a motorbike taxi to go back and forth to three embassies. Once again alone I feel the difference, I feel more connection between the motorbike taxi driver and me, however little connection there is. Because of your usual, well known company you’ll often close out other people. Now I feel a lot more stillness, quietness and rest. Finally rest! I don’t have to please nor straighten certain moods anymore. There’s more connectivity within myself, but 12 days in a rich man’s house in Cotonou becomes a bit boring. I mean, it’s so luxurious I feel at home while I am in Africa: there’s a constant flow of wifi, there’s a kitchen and a few supermarkets around me.

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One of the things I miss most while being in Africa is the lack of spirituality. I am very active but sometimes I miss exercise in the form of stretching other parts of the body, where as in yoga. When I don’t cycle for a few days I feel my body aching with desire to be active. Very often I can’t find rest because I am used to being active all the time. And when I do have rest, I want to express my thoughts and turn them into words. I have a blog to keep updated, which I still do mostly for my own pleasure. I want to go through all the hundreds of photo’s I made, as this generate creativity. I keep having 100 unanswered emails in my inbox all from people who’re dear to me. Spirituality then, it’s difficult to tap from the source embedded within you when you are so overly active. I hardly can meditate since I am the kind of person who can only enjoy her ‘chai when the kitchen is cleaned and tidied up’. I need a strong hand to teach me and to lead me. I need an environment which is peaceful, quiet and inspirational. It seems India is the place to be. And I am in Benin. With a smart phone and all new found apps?!

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Onwards, with a Nigerian (and Burkina Faso) visa in the pocket

Having woken up early enough to make the 140 kilometer to Abomey, the night guard ask me if he has to order a taxi or a motorcycle. He knows I am on a bicycle, so I say casually that I’ll go by bicycle. ‘Abomey c’est tres longue,’ is his reply. He let his eyes wander over my body, with this, by now, well known look of a farmer who’s going to buy a cow at the meat market. He’s judging my body, my strength and my possibilities. It just doesn’t make sense for most of them that it is possible to cycle from a far place up to here. So cycling to Abomey is not to comprehend either.

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The day brings me incredible much joy. It’s the first day of cycling alone after 2.5 month more or less together. Those 2.5 month feels like 6 with the speed and pleasure we were at. The feeling of trying to keep up with them is gone and feels like a release, however much I loved to be with them. I don’t have to keep up with some one. My weakness is wanting to win, and of course I could never win from someone like Oliver who is without human weakness if it comes to cycling. Except in heavy traffic. Brendan is a sportsman, his bicycle light and his power great, certainly not one to try to win from either. Except in heavy traffic. Fact is that I am on the National Highway of Benin, a route to Niger and Burkina Faso, dotted with heavy loaded trucks and beautified with potholes never seen so much. Completely destroyed. Not in heavy traffic though. Suddenly the feeling of liberation’s covering me. I pee when the need is there without being a bit annoyed that I lose sight of the one I am behind. I eat when I am not yet too hungry, and the feeling one gives being together while eating is comfortable, alone is fine as well. I am happy and I peddle on the 140 kilometer until I arrive exhausted. To be mistaken by the waitress and having a fresh pineapple juice in front of me, with alcohol. No thanks: sure I do miss Oliver, he would be happy to drink it. Now I have to press my last energy out of my body to get it replaced without alcohol.

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Trucker life

The road? I wonder how it is in such a terrible condition? It’s a national route! I have to zigzag over it, being pushed away by cars coming from the other direction, always into the ditch. When I am tired of being shoved in the mud or some centimeters below the patches of tarmac, I simply don’t go out of the way and as two stubborn donkeys we both stand still on the road. Who’s going to move out of the way? That’s always a bicycle of course. Cars are left behind in the middle of the road, stranded in a large pothole which seemed to have swallowed the car by surprise. Many trucks are broken, some tipped over, some tired, most have mechanical problems though and this is a sight so well known by now that you can tell why a man is walking with a jerry can. Why all these campfires are placed on the road. Why pulled out parts of grass are placed on the tarmac. Apprentice boys are worst of, they are always left behind with the stranded truck, their lives are now in sync with their truck. Beds of ropes are placed underneath the truck, and hammocks tied between the many tires. Always tires with no profile left, sometimes the iron rods sticking out. Colorful hand woven mats are filled with dozing youth, the one awake with a mobile phone against their ears. Like lazy puppy’s in idle positions, wrapped over each other, waiting until their masters comes back with the necessary truck parts. If at all.

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Isn’t that a very beautiful thing, how much waiting the Africans can handle. How patience they have to be, and are. I wonder if they know about mechanical stuff, about unwanted trucks from Europe, did they ever had a course in truck mechanic, sure they know about grease and oil and hundreds of parts are neatly spread out on pieces of cloth. Really, tens and tens, if not hundred trucks are broken, standing alongside the road, some until the nature ingest them.

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They just tip over, swirl too much, did not see the pothole, and I am worried they might fall my side. Sometimes I am a bit faster than they are and manage to pass them, right in front of their high up cabin. They do hold up traffic as they are slow on these broken roads. Children again scream ‘cadeau’ and for once I do not fuss about in my mind, greet them back with ‘cadeau’.

The route is nothing special but I enjoy it fully. Drink tea, watch two beautiful women from Niger, cultural very rich decorated and asking for food. I listen a bit to Alpha Blondy (an Ivorian singer whom I discovered as background music in a soap show on Ghana television). I notice a few voodoo shrines and curiosities along the route. Got goose bumps, wonder if it’s the start of malaria, but it always turns out to be a feeling of complete joy.

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What is Africa!

Africa is large pots on wood fire, just along the route. With a great, often surprisingly delicious taste. Africa is babies tight against a woman’s back, wrapped in colorful textile. Warmly filled by patience love. Africa is an overload of mango’s, to pick from the ground. Africa is second hands goods along the route, not only trucks but jeans too, ready to be sold to a new owner, once belonged to an European or American. Africa is men who are peeing, their penis right in sight of everyone who pass and who doesn’t want to bend their neck in impossible positions in order not to see his private part. The man peeing trying to get the white’s attention, screaming and waving. Isn’t he peeing? Africa is little children giving a wig to wear, tie fake hair onto their own beautiful locks. Africa is singing and swinging on Sunday’s mass. Africa is orange tailed gecko’s who’d constantly press them self up to built strong biceps. Africa is plantain and cassava. Africa is red earthen tracks, motorbikes maneuvering with 4 people balancing without effort. Africa is green and lush where bush meat is sold along the road. Africa is beer and sex. Africa is motorbikes laden with refrigerators, tied up pigs, meters long iron rods scrapping the tarmac, almost hitting your unprotected foot. Africa is a lot and I am happy to be back on the road, my body aching after two weeks no cycling.

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Abomey, once the rulers torture kingdom

Again I am in a special guest house. Now not only a monkey is present, also a water deer and two crocodiles who have to share a small companion: a turtle. The garden is dotted with wood sculptures, more than there are trees. The garden is one big umbrella consisting of utterly green trees. Where ever I gaze at, it’s art. Either direction I look at, it’s penises. Large and not shy either. Yeah, that’s Africa indeed.

The owners of hotels in these parts of the world seem to combine their remarkable dreams with a little business and set up dreamy guest houses, a kind where Alice would Wonder. Set into two narrow countries where the village lay out is the same, where the street stones are the same and the people friendly and helpful. Nothing shocking, nothing frantic, nothing dramatic.

Until I reach the museum. I am astonished. These Africans were a bloody bunch of brutally slaughterers, butchers without a visible heart. Cruelty at its worst! In fact, it’s here, in Africa itself, by black rulers themselves, where slavery started. Fifteen slaves for one canon, but a Dutch one made in Dordrecht though. The museum houses the palace of the former ruler and really, for architecture you don’t go to West Africa. To me, this palace resembles a barn. In these barns are a few artifacts housed, and I am overwhelmed by its beauty. West Africans truly did not know what was architecture, unlike the Africans in the East, probably because the inside matters more than the outside. I agree on that though. To a certain extent. Their barns here were giving some beauty with bass-relief figures, cute and naive kind of art. Once we’re inside, because I am obligated to be with an English speaking guide, I am the one who’s cute and naive. Oh, how lovely, I see a big bird holding a small one in his beak. The big bird is carrying the smaller one because he’s tired, my childish imagination explains. The guide roughly spoils my dreamy justification. No! The big bird resembles the king, and the big bird must swallow -kill, destroy- as many little villages around him in order to be the ruler as long as possible. So no carrying around and be sweet to little birds.

When we go further inside the barn it reveals a lot more cruelty: the throne of the king is seated on four skulls, bleached and smallish, enemies of the ruler. Another skull is adorned with a stick and an animal tail and used to chase away flies. The message is clear! I got to see the sword of the beheader, a job to be done with one clear cut. If not, then the beheader would be beheaded himself. The message, again, is very clear.

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On the premises of the king’s ground stands a small, not very impressive mud structure. However, here’s where the king’s spirit dwells, and being built of curious mix of ingredients: water from 7 different rivers and water from the ocean, gold powder and gun powder along with powder of pearls, blood of animals and blood of 41 useless slaves, or captured enemies. This fine structure is mixed with water and mud and here you go: African cement for the former ruler. A ruler who was so popular that father’s would bring their daughters in the keen hope he would accept her, husbands who’s wives had been spotted, and desired, by the king must hand her over. Many women wanted to marry him. Many women saw it as an honor to die with him when he died, but only 41 would be lucky enough. They would be chosen out of a hundred wives, fed with alcohol and buried alive. Not with him but in a tomb not far away from the king, where an underground tunnel would give free connection to the spirits.

When I see another phallus symbol I shoot my long lingering question at the guide. I understand his English well enough that I learn that the penis symbol stands for power, virility and strength. Well, hopefully, yes… and this statue is placed at the entrance of every village so that people with a wish can come, and speak out. But be careful what you ask for as you always have to repay your fulfilled request.

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Opposite attracts

Then I head off to the last town with a hotel in this country, 90 kilometer ahead, a nice, relatively cheap and colorful brothel. Kétou. When I settle down in the afternoon I am in doubt whether to order a tea, but seeing the freezer full of beer bottles, I decide not to. When I am laying on the bed, covered by my own large scarf, I notice strains on the wall. They’re a beautiful minty green color, and knowing that this is a brothel, it must be sperm. Thé place to leave that substance behind, indeed. The shower’s got a red light, which leaves your body look better and smoother and more evenly colored as it actually is, handy when you decide to shower together. Inside a fight’s going on. Outside a little girl runs a food stall. She cares for me and my diner, she tends me sweetly and very well mannered, she’s charming and proud and she’s has good reason to be so. And that’s what I love about traveling: sleeping in seedy brothel, being served by a little innocent girl next door. Those two very different moments, one full of softness, the other harsh: when the kid’s being pushed away when a woman’s going to serve a few men from the brothel…

Au revoir Benin

From mid April to beginning of May 2013

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