Sunday, September 28, 2008

Little Bit of India in Benin

Unwittingly, I immersed myself in Indian culture and history yesterday while in Benin. We started the day early in Parakou, the largest city in northern Benin. By 7am we were on the road to the economic capital of this West African nation. The first hour or two of the trip on well-paved road gave me a chance to dive deeper into the book I started a few days earlier, called Red Earth & Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. Though the book is set primarily in Hindustan, modern India, and the United States, the title would have been apt for the Beninois countryside in late September. The earth here is quite red, a dark, wet, terracotta red. As it is currently the end of the rainy season, we have seen our share of pouring rain in the last week. Dark clouds above the Parakou-Benin highway threatened rain for hours.

While reading my Indian book, I would look up from time to time to see the villages hugging the two-lane road, and wondering at products for sale as we passed. Homemade charcoal filled bags in one village. The next was filled with enormous dirty brown-skinned manioc, a starchy root vegetable. Green oranges, carefully peeled around and around piled up for sale to refresh the passengers of bush taxis. And later, the manioc flour in clear plastic bags, sold to make what? Our driver explained it would make a paste to eat. Like Cream of Wheat? Like reconstituted mashed potatoes? Fou-fou? We never quite figured it out.

A long seven hours were spent twisting and turning on the straight highway to avoid the goats sauntering across the road, the deep potholes, and swerving to avoid others approaching us, doing the same. Unlike many of the big trucks, we never jack-knifed, nor ended up in a ditch, nor crashed in a head-on collision. And unlike the smaller bush taxis, we never ended up stuck propping up the wheels with crumbling rocks to change a blown-out, flat tire.

Four of us planned to go out to dinner in Cotonou, rather than eating at the Ibis Hotel. We chose the Indian restaurant nearby, just a short drive away. As the first customers, we received the doting attention of our Beninois servers, and the Indian owner as well. Thinking back to all the delicious food I was reading about in my novel, I looked forward to trying some new dishes. The owner did not disappoint us. He gauged our level of tolerance for spicy food, our interest in various meats and fishes, and made excellent suggestions. We all left the restaurant fat and happy.

The French teacher in me wants to also share a little joke from dinner. You need to know that the local beer in Benin is called Beninoise. (Beer is a feminine noun, thus the "e" on the end) So the conversation went as follows:

male American: Je voudrais une Beninoise, s'il vous plait.

male server (from Benin): En bouteille ou en etre humain?

male American (not expecting a follow-up question to his order): Pardon?

male server (said with a coy smile and a laugh): En bouteille ou en etre humain?

male American (smiles, acknowledging the joke, but sticks with his order): La bouteille, s'il vous plait.

Some laughter. Discussion follows about the attractiveness of the female server...

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