Can you imagine a Brazil without capoeira or samba, or even its famed Carnaval celebrations? So tied are these things to Brazilian culture and identity, but they come from one community in particular: Afro-Brazilians, those of the former slave trade and now their descendants. The epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture is Bahia, in particular its capital, Salvador.
Situated on a hill separating it from the rest of the city, the Pelourinho charms immediately with its cobblestone streets, photogenic colonial buildings, beautiful views over the Bay of All Saints, and multitudes of grand churches. It’s the touristic centre of Salvador, but regular life continues for its residents sandwiched between the restaurants, shops, and hotels.
(the way home)
I enjoyed Benin so much that I stretched my stay an extra two days, cutting everything else from my itinerary. Instead of using them to go somewhere far, I chose to hang out — at the beach, at the badminton court, at Miguelle’s house, at my hostel with Firmin and Clementine.
With my French finally at a basic conversational level, it was all the more refreshing to get to know people better… tragically, just as I was about to leave. We coached Kesley through her interviews for a volunteer opportunity in Canada. Aubin and I exchanged music and learning materials related to informatics. Maman and her gang at the shop gossiped some more, teased me about potentially dating African women, while I dished right back to them. Lots of time killed on Youtube, huddled around a smartphone. I played a bit more badminton… and at least scored a single point. Watched a few telenovelas with Clementine and her family, then received a few bags of peanuts and tapioca flour to bring to her brother in Boston. I was killing time and enjoying company. I felt like I could stay… I really didn’t want to leave.
Abomey and Porto-Novo, Benin
Kesley pointed at the neighbour’s door excitedly. Before we had any chance to walk more than two steps out of our hostel, a set of 8 dots caught her eye. She called Miguelle and told her we’d be an hour late.
Next thing I knew, the two of us crammed ourselves and our stuff on the back of our hostel owner’s motorcycle, heading towards… somewhere. The 8 dots on the door meant there was a Ifá priest inside. When Kesley asked the hostel owner, he mentioned that his brother was one, and that he could take us there instead.
Knowing that I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, they gave me an example. A former president of Brazil, before becoming president, was in Benin and went to see a priest. The priest was able to divine his future, but told him that there were many evil forces acting in his life that were preventing him from his potential. Afraid, the future president gave some money to the priest to perform the rituals and sacrifices necessary (in this case, buying 8 goats and simply releasing them), and followed all instructions related to dietary restrictions. Few years later, this guy becomes the president of Brazil. Believe it or not?
Kesley did, certainly. She knew that there were people out there channeling evil energy towards her, she just needed to get rid of it. So it was decided!
Another day, another trip on the backseat, another badminton errand to run. It was a long ride from Cotonou to Lokossa, back on the dusty construction-filled road towards Lomé, needing multiple literally-on-the-road stops to fill up on gasoline. (Gas stations are few to none; vendors sell gasoline in bottles on the side of the road, imported illegally from neighbouring Nigeria.) Traffic is anything-goes: separated local traffic lanes (like “collectors lanes” on the 401 in Toronto) run adjacent to the fast lanes in the middle, but with the roads frequently blocked due to construction, everyone just ends up driving anywhere on the dirt, on sand, through fields…whatever means necessary to get to the next surfaced road. Motorbike traffic u-turns at will, driving up and over a median to go to the side of opposite traffic. Chaos, but it seems to work better than Ghana.
The night before and all through the morning, before heading on the road Aubin and Miguelle’s mom were warning me about “la poussière”. Didn’t know what that meant until I was covered in a layer of it, skin turned ashen grey, nasal passages burning. I let Aubin keep the helmet he brought to protect me from it — he was driving, he needed it more.
Cotonou and Ganvié, Benin
After 3.5 hours of waiting in Lomé for a taxi to fill up, I was finally en route to Cotonou.
Never mind the fact that I was the first passenger in the car because the taxi driver pretended to be a passenger for an hour before he revealed himself as the driver.
Never mind the excruciatingly upbeat and… morally questionable, non-sequitur Christian music he played for at least an hour ad nauseum — something along the lines of “You are stressed from work or exams? In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to be free!” *canned cheering* “You are gay or suffering from sexual immorality? In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to be free!” *canned cheering* (How do you go from exams to that?!)
Never mind the chaotic border crossing, the bad and very dusty roads, and the fact that it took another 3.5 hours to get there.
None of that was the problem. (At least this taxi wasn’t overfilled. It was comfortable, for once.)
The problem was one I knew would happen, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it anyway.