04 March 2009

Estragon's boot

Just on the Togolese border, about a two-hour drive west of Cotonou (it's a narrow country), sits a resort. Grand Popo, despite its particularly fetching name (which I swear I didn't make up), is beautiful.

I'm told.

Last weekend, six of us made it our destination (as much as I'd like to pretend otherwise, it's not all work here). Unfortunately, exploring West African countries isn't always a salutary experience—at least, this time, there were no car accidents.

Ready for a relaxing day in the sun, we set off out of Cotonou, and onto a dirt road that runs west along the country's shoreline. Unpaved, and relatively untrafficked, this road offers both spectacular views and a chance for you to test the mettle of both of your esophageal sphincters. And the resolve of your tires.

About an hour and a half out of Cotonou, the first one blew. This wasn't going to be a problem, though. We're living in Africa, right? We know how to change a tire! And besides, any self-respecting, NGO-owned, white four-wheel-drive has a spare bolted to its roof. Ours was quite the self-respecting vehicle.

What ours didn't, unfortunately, have was a jack that worked. We tried everything (pens, sticks, knives), but without a pin around which the lever could ratchet, the jack was nothing more than a bright red, human-sized metal rod.

Because a faulty jack isn't enough, our wrench was also one size too big for the lug nuts. No amount of hoping (and we did our fair share) was going to change that.

In this hopefulness, we were helped by a cadre of Beninois (their luck was no better than ours), and a few, kind, passing French families (ditto), including the French ambassador to Benin (at least, according to his wife). After an hour of jumping on wrenches, we did what anyone else would do. We called the ship for help, sat down on the side of the dirt road, and ate cheese sandwiches. The Beninois disappeared. And we got to enjoy being stranded in some of the most beautiful surroundings you could imagine.

Three hours later, the ship called back. Our erstwhile savior had gotten lost and come back home. But, another group was at a pool 12 miles away, and were on their way.

Their jack worked. Their wrench fit our lug nuts. And, with a fair amount of shouting back and forth between the us and the Beninese men that had mysteriously reappeared, we got ready to leave.

Tut tut.

"You must," I was told, "satisfy these men." Yes. Satisfy. I'm not making that up either.

We tried giving the group some money; this served only to inflame things. Volley after volley, satisfaction being more loudly demanded with every increasing incursion into personal space. Exasperatedly, I finally asked, "How am I supposed to satisfy you?" To which my interlocutor answered, "I can't tell you. It's up to you."

This was Samuel Beckett on crack. Estragon's boot wasn't ever coming off.

Instead, we piled into the car, gave them the money, and decided that their satisfaction was up to them.

We drove through Ouidah, the birthplace of voodoo (or vodoun), past the Door of No Return, commemorating the point on the coast of Abomey from which Portuguese slave ships departed with their cargo of humanity and self-righteousness, and to Casa del Papa, a mere shadow of Grand Popo. With a worse name, but, importantly, with a pool.

The Door of No Return, Ouidah, Benin

Everything was fine on the way back home. We stopped at an Indian restaurant for dinner, and were about 20 minutes away from the ship when, yes, the second tire blew. No working jack, no working wrench, and this time no spare, we were stuck. Another of our cars was still at the restaurant. We borrowed it, took their spare, tested their wrench, and went to jack our car up.

This time, the useless, human-sized piece of metal was bright blue. But the helpful taxi drivers that finally jacked our car up demanded no satisfaction.

The remaining pictures are here.


Ali said...

How do you get me to comment all the time? This never happens!

I would just like to point out the fact that your car got TWO flat tires while I was nowhere on the continent. Maybe all that mess last year wasnt my fault after all.

There's hope for me in Africa yet...

Anonymous said...

You really should write a book. (In all your spare time, of course.) However, I would warn your readers that it will severely try the limits of their cultural literacy!


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