Life Unparalleled

Loving Life as a Foreign Service Family – Current Parallel 41° 23' N – Barcelona, Spain

Ben in Benin – Spring Break 2018


Two things we hoped for when setting off on this Foreign Service life abroad were being able to enjoy nature in its many varieties and traveling to other countries.  Sadly for us Lagos, Nigeria has been a bit of a disappointment in both of these areas. There is lots of green space in Nigeria, but most of it not accessible to us without an escort.  There is very little green space in Lagos.  Nigeria is surrounded by four countries none of which are easy to get to thanks to Nigeria’s terrible roads. Due to volatile currency exchange rate fluctuations in recent years, air travel out of Nigeria is also very expensive.  The exchange rates have been much more stable since we’ve been here than they previously had been, so maybe that will change, but the cost to fly anywhere with our family of 6 has been largely prohibitive for us.  We aren’t quitters though!!

Dannica was invited to visit France and Spain for nine days with the school French and Spanish Club, this would be during the kids spring break. We didn’t want to spend another break sitting at home but didn’t want to pay the $5,000+ it would cost to fly the family out of Nigeria. A few of our friends had traveled to nearby Benin for a relaxingish beach vacation. Some time out in nature and the sun was just what we were craving. Some friends of ours were also going to go with us with their two girls. However about a month before the trip they got a notice that their room was canceled due to renovation. After some panicked emails and calls in Ben’s rusty french, our rooms were still rented under our name and mysteriously we had 3 rooms reserved, though we had only requested 2.  We offered the 3rd room to our friends, if they wanted to come along.  We were worried though, that: (a) when we arrived in Benin the mistake would have been discovered and we would actually have only the 2 expected rooms, or (b) when we arrived in Benin our reservation would also have been canceled due to renovations.  In the end our friends (wisely) didn’t want to risk coming along and showing up and there not being a room available. Such are reservations in West Africa.

As the crow flies the resort was only about 95 miles away in reality it took 5 hours to get there and 7 hours to get home. Almost all of the time is wasted on the Nigerian side of the border due to their terrible roads, traffic, and customs stops by greedy cops. The consulate provides a motorpool escort to the border for those traveling to Benin as it takes us way out of the usual travel area, in case we have car trouble and need to get back home.  So off we drove with our escort trailing us.

I packed well in case of emergencies. I’m so glad I have so much experience camping and with road trips. Dramamine, enough food for 24 hours(some trips have taken as long at 12 hours), bathroom options, DVD’s, pillows blankets, major first aid kit, tire repair kits and emergency jumper box. My kids didn’t think anything of the extra stuff as they were used to me packing similarly at home. In Utah you just never knew how the roads or weather would be. At the last minute we arranged to have our awesome driver, Frank, drive us to the border on the Nigerian side and meet us there to return home a few days later. Ben and I can both drive in Lagos and drive well but that doesn’t mean it is a restful experience. Half of the roads on the way to the border are also under construction so you sometimes literally have to drive the wrong way down a street to get where you need to go. Taking Frank was the right move. It made the Lagos portion of the drive so much more relaxing. Everyone still got extremely car sick but that can’t be avoided unfortunately.

Benin-Nigeria Border is a rope held across the road by two guys. I’m not kidding. It is a bit crazy. Around the corner is the Nigerian Side and they have a series of six ropes you need to convince people to let down so you can drive across. They have guys lounging around the sides holding spike bars that they throw in front of vehicles trying to make a run for it. It is unreal. Click the photo for a full-size version.

The process didn’t take nearly as long as we expected,30 minutes compared to 2+ hours. We were on our own into Benin.

Child labor- a Western Africa Issue


I don’t think we’re in anglophone-west-africa any more…

Once we hit the roads in Benin they were smooth like glass. Seriously I can’t emphasize how potholed the roads in Nigeria are. We nearly cried. Cotonou is full of so many motorcycles! I even saw women driving motorcycles which I have never seen in Lagos, my driver later pointed out that women in Nigeria do sometimes drive motorcycles just not in the wealthier areas in which we live. In Benin they wear yellow taxi shirts, wear helmets, and stay(mostly) in designated motorcycle taxi lanes. It was mesmerizing to watch.



I love people on motorcycles!

Here we are stuck at a light and they just keep moving along. Smart.

We passed a beautiful blue and white Mosque

This was our favorite sign we passed vegetALIEN PEACE FOOD. Awesome!

All along our route we saw these small fuel businesses. We also saw traditional filling stations which clearly had no fuel. Apparently the entire fuel market has been undercut and overtaken by illegal fuel smuggled from Nigeria, and then sold at the roadside. Here is an interesting article written about this practice.

The resort we stayed at had mixed reviews from our friends. Some said it was perfectly lovely with decent food, another said it was mosquito infested and the food would leave us hungry and make us sick. We found it to be just great. It was down a long dirt road that Google maps led us on that literally looked like a bike path

but we persisted.

The dirt road out was lined with small beach huts. Seemed serene to me.


In the Gordon family we are always on the look out for two buildings-the Maternity Center and the Library.  These are right on the coast, about 5km from our resort.


While Ben was checking in the kids enjoyed the ever common Agama lizards.

We settled into our cute bungalo and instantly hit the beach.

The water was so warm, 87 degrees but with a nasty rip tide meaning we could wade but not really swim.

Even when you can’t swim, soft sand and ocean waves are good for the soul!


View from our room

The next morning we went to the Lagoon and spent time stand up paddle boarding and canoeing.

Dy and Harrison


Ben, Oliver and our valuables in a floating canister

Roger took right after paddle boarding which meant he was also the first to fall in, it was only waist deep in most of it. He led us around an island.

Apparently “all” of the kids at the American International School of Lagos are doing a dance called flossing.  Roger has been doing it 24/7, whenever he is bored, and it kind of drives his siblings crazy.  He couldn’t resist the urge to floss while on his standup paddleboard.

A paddle is always relaxing


Yellow African Weaver birds had made this island their home. Their spherical woven nests were ingenious and Oliver was delighted to see them climbing in from the bottom to enter their nests.


We spent a lot of time at the pool as well. It was so warm! We have a nice pool at our apartment but it isn’t heated and the large buildings often block the sun from warming it much.

Refillable glass bottles and real sugar in the soda.


Coke commercial


Unusual Pina Coloda- made with coconut water instead of coconut milk but it got Ben and I to finally stop singing the song”Bring me two pina colodas, one for each hand…..”


I spent some much needed time relaxing in my favorite hammock

On day two we set out into the city of Ouidah to learn some things. Benin is the birth place of voodoo, a religion I found so interesting when I was visiting Haiti. We snapped a few pictures of statues along the way to the Python Temple.


Once inside the temple the guide explained the different traditions with the pythons. Ben will need to explain more my French is far from adequate. I did get that they usually have a virgin do something but that year they couldn’t find a virgin in the family so they chose a menopausal woman instead???? All I did get from it was there are 40 snakes living on the grounds and they are considered sacred. Once a month the snakes are released out into the village to eat, usually rats, mice and small birds. If a village member finds a snake that has eaten they are to pick it up and return it to the temple. Some of the snakes there are as old as 40 years old.

There was also an ancient looking tree, which they said was 600 years old, and I think they were saying that voodoo believers could have questions answered by touching the tree with the left hand, the hand closest to the heart, and asking.  There was a draping covering something at the bottom of the tree, I didn’t catch what was behind it.  Maybe a shrine?  There were also large clay containers, which were stored upside down so they looked like large clay spheres.  Every ?3 years? the containers are filled with water and the leaves of a certain tree, and a ceremony is performed to bless the water.  The water is then used for purification of homes and other ceremonies.  I believe this is the ceremony which is normally performed by the virgin.   – Ben


She thought I smelled delicious evidently.


Everett Roger has been asking for a snake for ages, this didn’t help.


Oliver was shocked with how heavy she was.


Harrison was the first to volunteer and ask questions as usual.


This is their actual lair. There are over 40 snakes living in the room. You can see the boys petting one then one by Ben’s back and head.


Pit of snakes anyone?

On our way back we did a tour of the Transatlantic Slave Route Project launched in 1994 with UNESCO.

Gate- Benin was a huge slave port of African slaves being shipped west to the Americas. At first it was rival tribes that would capture and then sell the slaves to the European slave traders but eventually the traders just started grabbing anyone they could get their hands on.

First they went to the slave market. After that they were brought to the Tree of Forgetting where women went around it 7 times and men 9 times. This would help them forget their past lives and accept their new ones. They were then send to a dark house kept free from artificial or natural sunlight. They were kept there for 2 weeks and fed one meal a day to prepare them for their travel across the sea.

They then visited the Tree of Returning.  They would walk around the tree three times, so that if they died across the ocean their spirits would know where to return to. They were paired male and female, often breaking up marriages and tribes. They were branded with their new owners initials and shackled down belowdecks in the ships. Smaller canoes would take 7 or so slaves out the the big ships at a time. Many of these people had never seen the ocean and were sure they were going on the edge of the world. They could not swim. Many dove into the sea to their deaths. Only about 1/3 of all slaves made it across the ocean alive.


Artwork representing the different tribes. We learned more about the facial scarification that many Western African people carry on their body. They are used to show where/what tribe the person is from. This statue with its 3 horizontal lines represents the Yoruba tribe which were taken in huge numbers.


The march


The Pairing


Praying that a Christian God will save them, the same Christian God who the Europeans claimed to serve.

About half way through our visit we were approached by a woman who runs a non profit called The Hunger Project Benin. She warned us our sleepy quiet resort, just us and a handful of other people, was about to be filled to capacity with 60 people from the Netherlands who were here to check out the foundation and celebrate 20 years of its efforts in Benin. She also invited us to stay and watch a play they developed to help educate about the issues with child marriage in Benin.

It was well done showing a 13 year old girl kidnapped and forced to marry a local chief as a 3rd bride. The second wife is concerned that the new wife is the same age as her daughter so she goes to find the girls mother. The mother comes to take the girl home but discovers she is pregnant. After seeing the fine house her daughter lives in she decides she doesn’t want to deal with the disgrace and the girls father sells her for a small amount of rice and corn. The women in the community revolt and do a march in front of press against child marriage. It goes to the court and is argued by parliament. The High chief ends up carring for the girl and her child who nearly dies during childbirth. In the end the kidnappers and the chief who married the young girl are sentenced to 50 months hard labor and exiled from the community. My favorite parts were the sign “No to child marriage” and “God is female” It was very well done and I imagine effective. It was performed in a combination of French and English. We were thankful that Ben speaks some French and thanks to just performing his 20,000th visa interview he speaks West African English pretty well too. The kids had fun ordering and conversing with the staff in French. It wasn’t until we were far down the road that we realized we were still all speaking French to each other. French would be a fun language to learn from the State Department but it would almost guarantee us a lifetime spent in Africa.

We brought our metal detector but didn’t get it out until soon before we had to leave. Next time!

Overall it was a wonderful vacation. We slept, we ate, we learned, we natured. You can’t get much better than that!


Home made soccer goals


The school uniform was khaki I thought it made it look like Ouidah was overthrown by Boy Scouts


Guards-Guns-and Borders We live a weird life.

The ride home on the Lagos side was rough. So glad Frank met us there and thankful for Motorpool. The kids got really car sick and we knocked them out with Dramamine. There are just so many bumps and swerves.

We all know I have some embarrassment issues from the special treatment we sometimes get because we are diplomats. Mostly I am just embarrassed but sometimes it comes in handy like the time I really needed to park at the hospital, and very soon, because I had a bad case of e.coli and I needed to use the restroom. There was no parking, but the parking attendant made someone moved their car so I could park. Embarrassing yes……but soooooo needed we were about to be in trouble. We get diplomatic plates so we can speed home and find parking because we need to use the bathroom more than the average Nigerian I guess.?!? Just kidding. True to form though after 6 hours of travel I really needed to pee. I just needed them to pull over on the side of the road as there are no public bathrooms here. Lets just say this motorpool escort driver loves to use sirens to try to clear traffic. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t. All police, ambulance and important government officials have sirens on their cars. Many diplomats do as well. So do many private citizens who have purchased lights or sirens.  There are so many of these people here I feel like most people just ignore the noise because even if they wanted to move the city is so jam packed they can’t move even if they wanted to. The diplomatic plates do at least get us waved through the dozens of police and customs checkpoints along the road though. In theory they are checking for illegal activities but really they want a bribe. We get waved through which makes me feel bad for everyone else. Ugggg, Nigeria so much potential and so much corruption.

Remember just like the van in the video says “No Thing Pass God”

Benin was a great vacation.  We loved it, and we think we’ll probably go back on some future long weekend.

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