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his chapter and the next are not mainly about the Sahel region, but as they tell of our adventures on the way to Timbuktu, the actual goal of our trip, which again is located in in the Sahel, I've decided to keep using the same page design and sand background throughout our West African experience, for continuity's sake. The places south of Niamey and along the coast were rather lush and green in great parts.

  urious for Benin, our next destination, we hoped we'd like it there somewhat better than in Niger. Throughout our West African trip we continued hoping to yet find a country that would meet our expectations for interesting conversations, exchange of ideas and forging friendships, the way we were used to from earlier travels. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.  
  e arrived in Parakou, the bus's destination, in the late afternoon. At the busy bus station we asked some loitering youth about a place to sleep. The young guy seemed friendly enough, and told us we could stay the night at his place. After our various negative experiences we didn't really fancy this offer, and insisted on finding a cheap hostel or any other regular place. The youth insisted as well, and after some discussion we reached the conclusion that, this being another country, we should give it a chance; maybe people here would be more interested in meeting strangers just for the sake of the experience and less greedy than in Niger.  
  So we thanked the lad and trudged along to a small one-room house not far from the bus station. After depositing our bags in a corner, we left again for the market to buy some edibles, while the youth left to get some smoke, which we had asked him to and given him some money for.  
  efore nightfall we all were back again at the little house, where our new friend's roommate joined us for a feast of the cheese, boiled eggs, bread, peanuts and various different fruits we had bought. We spent a pleasant evening eating, smoking and talking. The conversation was a bit tedious at times, not only due to the fact that the young men didn't speak too much French, but also because it was, as usual, rather difficult to rouse their interest for any given subject between heaven and earth. We tried our best to be communicative.  
When it was time to turn in, we were given to understand that our hosts were to sleep in the only bed, and we should sleep on the floor beside the bed. Not a problem really, we were tired and didn't mind.  
with our hosts in Parakou
  waking early the following morning, as we hadn't slept particularly well on the hard cement floor, we shared the rest of the food we'd bought the night before with our hosts, packed up and walked back to the bus station.  
  We immediately found a truck ready to leave for Cotonou, the driver agreeing to take us there for the usual fee and, after exchanging addresses, we said farewell to the two lads. To our consternation, the one who had invited us to his place the evening before started to mumble something about a "cadeau" and asked us how much we'd have spent if we'd have slept at a hotel.  
  Pretty much annoyed, we answered that we wouldn't have gone to a hotel at all, but slept at the roadside, and climbed up onto the truck. Having shared our food and grass with those two ingrates, and also having left them a generous amount of the latter, in our opinion was enough payment for a night spent on the hard concrete floor.  
  uring the journey down to Cotonou we were enjoying the sight of the luxuriant vegetation in all shades of green, with some flowering trees in between adding a touch of colors. Sri Lanka.came to my mind, the country I always will remember for its greenery and trees ablaze with huge flowers.  
  It was far into the night when we reached Cotonou, and we were glad the truck driver allowed us to sleep on his vehicle. After rising the next morning and finding a well for a wash, we asked around for some village on the coast; and were told directions to a place called Chetih. By bus we got to a rather big village, where the district chief handed us a letter of recommendation for the Chetih chieftain.  
  he village was the last stop on the bus route, and we were told to employ some different means of transportation: Bicycle taxis, a novelty even for us seasoned travelers. Those "taxis" were a simple enough affair. To afford the passenger a minimum amount of comfort, a small wooden board had been fixed behind each bicycle's saddle, serving as a seat.  
  Soon it became evident why it hadn't been possible to continue by bus: There was no more road, just a narrow path through an environment that started to look suspiciously like a swamp.  
  A few kilometers further on, our drivers refused to go on, and we had to carry our heavy bags for the last part of the way ourselves. Not a pleasant undertaking in the heat of a tropical noon; the great humidity caused rivers of sweat to pour down our backs and fronts, while we didn't even have our hands free to ward off the swarms of attacking mosquitoes.  
typical Benin village on stilts ; photo: web
  hetih turned out to be a surprise: a village of huts all standing on stilts, located not on the coast, as we had expected, but sitting on the banks of some swampy river or lake.  
distrustful looks for the foreign devils
  he village chief, well fed and the proud owner of a transistor radio, a whole troupe of wives and dozens of children, welcomed us in a friendly way and, after having read out letter of recommendation, invited us up into his hut. We were treated to a fine meal, consisting of a mash of corn flour and some fish with sauce, and warm beer from a case standing in the corner of the room.  
the chief and his first wife in informal attire
  As a young man, the chief told us, he had been fighting for the French in Europe, ending up as a prisoner of war in Germany. He even spoke a few sentences of German, like: "Deutschland schoone Frollein".  
  Talking about local life and customs, we learned that the villagers, of course, all were of Christian faith, with nobody believing in sorcery. Though for a good Christian, the chief himself was a bit too eager to get some magic potions from us. :) Throughout the countries we visited in West Africa, sorcery and magic were, and still are, very much a part of everyday life, a fact even a mere visitor cannot fail to notice.  

We had amongst our possessions a small bag containing ashes from the grave of our deceased Sufi friend Baba Barkat Ali Sain, from Lahore, Pakistan. The village head was very pleased at being presented with a handful or those ashes, to be used as a protection against any evil. Baba Barkat Ali would have chuckled to himself.

Chetih fishermen
  After having eaten lunch with the chief's family, we all sat on the front porch to relax and take a few pictures. We didn't sit undisturbed for more than a few minutes though, as soon as we got spotted, eager villagers descended on us like locusts, as word about the magical ashes had gotten around. Saving a small quantity for ourselves, we distributed the rest.  
  The way we looked distinctly different from both the average Arab or European often caused Africans to imagine us being in possession of powerful occult knowledge.  
with the chief on his porch.........
  nce the crowd had dispersed and we were chatting some more with the chief and his first wife on the porch, something both unexpected and funny happened: A woman who happened to sit beside m, curiously pulled at my neckline and peeked inside my blouse. Next thing, her hand quickly entered my top, extracting one breast and putting it to her mouth to check for milk.  
........and with one of his wives
  Often hardly interested in communication, many West Africans nonetheless possessed a certain amount of curiosity concerning our physical characteristics. I remember a group of young boys following X going to take a leak and quickly running up to look at his member. Or the unforgettable elderly lady, somewhere else, getting, through my skirt, a secure hold of my pubis and shaking it in a testing but friendly way, probably her way of saying "Hello sister".  
local ladies and X
  n the afternoon we were shown around the village and introduced to its notables. Apart from the resident Voodoo priest, a somber if somewhat sinister fellow wearing a peaked cap, everybody from the "Youth President" upwards to the old secretary was pretty drunk, as were most of the chief's lesser subjects.  
curious Chetih villagers following us around..........
  While being conducted from one hut to the next, the group following us grew constantly. Every few minutes it got dispersed by our escorts, only to instantly gather afresh.  
.........and being chased off
  Having spent a restful night at the chief's house, protected by the fumes of a few "mosquito coils", a chemical incense-type mosquito repellent, in the morning we took our leave, without even being asked for a present; a pleasant change from what we were used to.  
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