The road to Grand-Popo is actually nothing that remarkable, although it does sound like a cool book title. It’s a stretch of the Cotonou -Lomé highway that runs just far enough inland to be out of earshot of the ocean, with villages and towns strung along it like beads on a necklace. It’s what you find when you get there that changes everything.
I had booked three nights in a hostel that was the first place listed under “Rapport qualité-prix” in the Petit Futé. I didn’t expect heaven on earth, but that is what I got.
As you pull into Grand-Popo, you start to hear the whoosh of the sea that city noise has drowned out. My hostel was right up against the ocean — you could hear the waves from anywhere on the property.
I wanted to explore the weekly market, the cultural centre and a row of shops, but I was drawn to the beach first. The huge, crashing waves have pushed up a five-foot-high cliff of sand between the beach and the sea. I walked to the cliff’s edge, slid down it and felt the cold water splash around my ankles. I scrambled back up a divot in the cliff and sat down on a branch of driftwood.
Some touts wandered up with a backpack and a briefcase full of necklaces and rasta-themed tat. Oh no, I thought, please not this.
“Some other time,” I told them, hoping that they could pick up on the bat-signals my brain was trying to send out: Please-leave-please-leave-please-leave.
“OK,” one of them said. “We don’t always know what…state of mind people are in when they get here.”
So they had read the bat-signals after all. Stress, tiredness, frustration and the lack of a meaningful break since New Year’s had eroded what felt like a bowl-shaped dent in some part of me. I had hoped that at the end of the road to Grand-Popo, I would find something to fill that dent, before diving into an exciting, but also exhausting, whirlwind of a family visit followed by a few writing assignments. Even I was surprised that first afternoon when I almost physically felt the waves, one by one, bringing something to fill in that hole, until, amazingly, it wasn’t there anymore.
Well, fuck, I thought, with the confused awe of an atheist who’d just been healed by laying on of hands, It really was that easy.
Then there was lunch, which confirmed my delight and amazement — fresh crayfish in a sweet-hot-spicy-creamy lemongrass sauce with ginger. We do get fish in Pobè, lots of fish in fact, but by the time it makes its way to a dusty provincial town more than two hours inland with unreliable refrigeration, it’s usually been dried, smoked and/or salted to within an inch of its life, waiting to be fried and served as chewy silver-brown frétin over sour maize akassa, at workers’ canteens for a few hundred francs. Just the tender texture of actual fresh seafood took my breath away. Never mind the fact that I was eating it in front of the crashing blue sea it had been fished out of. By the time I even thought of Instagramming it, it was a pile of shells.
I did stop by the market, a quiet bare-bones market where I was the only tourist in sight and spent way too much on fabric, the cultural centre (which was closed) and the row of art and music shops, where I fell in love with some tiny bronze rabbits and met an artist about my age who lived a very eventful life.
Suleiman learned to dance at a very young age, or so he tells me, but was removed from his mother’s vibrant, arts-loving household by his fundamentalist Muslim father around the time he started school. After his father passed away he spent some time on the streets before being taken in by his mother’s uncle, learning to drum “from some vodou guys in Ouidah”, and touring Germany and Finland with his uncle and a bunch of other artists from Benin and Togo — incidentally, there are a lot of cultural exchanges between Finland and Grand-Popo because decades ago, a Finnish author saw some similarity between the way the sea crashes into the lagoon outside of Grand-Popo and something similar in his home region in Finland, fell in love with the place and built a huge Afro-Scandinavian cultural centre (which was closed when I visited, but may reopen sometime in August, stay tuned).
Anyway, back to Suleiman of the bronze rabbits — after his time in Europe, he moved to Togo and set up a nonprofit to send street youth to school and encourage them to learn music and dance as well as skilled trades. Much of their funding comes from Suleiman’s ceramics, bronze rabbits and wooden masks and bowls. “It breaks my heart when I hear about all those Africans who have drowned trying to get to Europe,” he said. “There’s so much to do here!”
(Incidentally, although Suleiman spent several years of his life in a fundamentalist Muslim household, he has since, like many Béninois, filled his plate at the all-you-can-eat spirituality buffet — a serving of Islam, some Christianity, some Vodoun, some animism and a generous spoonful of Rastafarianism on top — literally, in the form of his dreads and bonnet.)
The next day, the proprietor, Mathias, talked me into going on a tour, rowing through a mangrove swamp to an island where people practiced Christianity-inflected Vodoun and made artisanal salt. The whole tour was unexpectedly fascinating, from watching dozens of kids use a rope several metres long to haul in a fish net, to watching reed mats dry in the sun, to rowing through the mangrove swamp and listening to a tree twitter and vibrate with dozens of birds, from orange-yellow finches to huge white ibises. It was the first time I’d seen an ibis, and I thought of the wise funeral director Mr. Ibis in American Gods (literary reference again, sorry Jessica!), the huge painting of the Vodoun sea goddess Yemaya on the wall behind the hostel bar, a discussion I’d recently had with a friend about how the decision to cast a Black actress in the new Little Mermaid was probably just a salute to Afro-Cuban Yemaya, and how maybe we are all surrounded by gods, or at least running sequences of archetypes and symbols that pop up when you least expect it.
Even the saltmaking process, which was described in exhaustive detail and was not part of the tour I thought I signed up for, was strangely, unexpectedly fascinating. As best I can remember it, women gather clay from a specific riverbank, and then put it in piles to evaporate. Once it’s evaporated enough, they put it in baskets and pour purified water over it, using bowls and bottles to catch the liquid. They pour the water into a tank with a few palm nuts, which play some role in verifying the salt content. When the palm nuts are the right colour, they boil the salt water – indoors, in Willy Wonka-like vats over a roaring fire, which must be impossibly hot work in the dry season. The resulting salt is strong with a hint of dried red pepper flavour. I never realized salt could have distinct flavours until I tasted this salt.
I spent much of the rest of the day doing next to nothing on the beach. At dinner, the dining room was empty except for me and a group of very young French backpackers. finishing dinner and sucking down pina coladas. “You want to sit with us?” the young blond guy at the end of the table called out. I realized I had entered a very interesting space in the age continuum — old enough to be called “vous” by a university undergrad, but still young- and approachable-looking enough to be on the receiving end of “You want to sit with us?”
They were undergraduate pharmacy students from Paris, who had just finished a month-long volunteer placement in a small village near Calavi, giving health education to young kids, which they’d raised money for by selling flowers around campus. It was their first time in Africa. They were heading out on a weeklong vacation around Benin and Togo before flying back to France. They had paid Mathias’ brother Dixon and his friend to set up a bonfire on the beach, and they invited me to join that, too.
In Asosa and Pobè, I’d gotten used to seeing more of the stars than you’d normally expect to see in a city. These kids hadn’t. One of the guys flopped on his back on one of our reed mats, looked up at the sky and actually gasped. “Wow!” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the stars like you’re supposed to before in my life!”
Djembe drums and cocktails and coolness forgotten, the kids spent the next hour trying to find constellations and remember the myths that came with them. The wonderment in their voices was my gift for that day.
To be continued…