My first experience abroad: Benin, Nigeria

My first experience abroad: Benin, Nigeria
Cows awaiting dinner prep...

I swelled with fury. For eight hours I’d been locked inside a dank room at the Royal Marble Hotel, left to watch low-budget Nigerian movies on a half working tube. I’d made many mistakes. The first of which involved boarding a plane from New York to Lagos with someone I thought I knew. The second was allowing our passports to be confiscated for “safekeeping.”

I sat on the edge of the bed, got closer to the window. Searched for a signal for my cellular phone. The reception was lower than my spirit. I powered off the phone, tossed it across the king-sized bed. Stood and resumed what began to feel like a manic pace. The mud huts and vacant lots immediately came into view. The red sand stained the concrete (and everything else) which served as the foundation to a small corner store stand. Small goats and hens ran amuck. A weighed down clothesline barely missed the ground.

Consumed with anxiety, I tried the door again. It finally opened. The strangers of men and scantily clad women speaking in other tongues stared me up and down. One zipped pass me, glad I’d opened the door since the lavatory was inside the bedroom suite. My love was nowhere to be found. Nor was our round-o-clock security detail. With him, I presumed.

I interrupted the soccer game, questioned the guests about the whereabouts of my love. After all, I’d traveled across the continent to support him after a death in the family. No one replied to my foreign tongue. Instead, I was met with snickers and smirks which led me to believe I was slight, if not fully understood. At that moment, I knew I’d need to revert to a universal language. In the midst of our explicit dialogue, the uninvited guests began to exit into the hallway. All except one. Clearly, she was confused and mistaken about where she should be.

Benin welcomed me with all its glory, prostitution, and voodoo 

It’s been nearly a decade since I traveled to Nigeria for a funeral. My new love needed my support and I was too happy to oblige given the freshness of our relationship. While we were going for a funeral, we’d also take time to enjoy a three-week vacation together with layovers in London. Only time would tell if our relationship would survive such a journey.

As an intuitive woman, I saw the signs and ignored each one. Love is blinding.

It was rocky from the start, beginning with the visa.

The visa process was a nightmare. After fulfilling all the requirements and expediting services, it was declined. I immediately thought they (i.e. Nigerian Embassy) can’t be serious. Perhaps it was my privileged way of thinking as a US citizen that led me to further contemplate why they’d think I’d want to visit Nigeria and not return to my home country, ever. We’d already purchased our airline tickets and I’d gotten the required vaccinations all of which made me sick to my stomach. We were going on this trip! (tip: never book a flight without obtaining your visa and meeting entry requirements beforehand) I appealed and obtained my visa after receiving sponsorship from his family. We were finally on our way.

Coming to America jaded my perception of Africa. Naively, I expected to see kings and queens or at least men and women that carried themselves as such. Instead, we landed at Lagos and were immediately met by panhandlers, con artists, and prostitutes. After coordinating our travel and security detail, we headed to a smaller airport to proceed to Benin.

Before traveling to Nigeria, I was warned about kidnappings, ambushes, and overall violence. Some of the helpful tips received from a trusted male native:

  • Never travel alone for any reason
  • Stay close to my love and a female relative of his
  • Don’t trust distant relatives and make sure at least two women (his sisters, aunts, or mother) are present, especially in the company of men
  • Don’t keep money inside purse but somewhere on the body in a discrete location
  • Avoid excess and/or flashy jewelry

Even with all the known scandal in Nigeria, I traveled without fear. We had an armed security detail that escorted us everywhere and stood watch outside our hotel room and additional security when traveling via car to avoid any attempt at ambush or kidnapping. It’s nice to have connections in Nigeria and furthermore status (perceived or real). My recommendation for anyone visiting is to invest in personal security of some sort for your own safety.

Royal Marble Hotel
The hotel is considered to be a luxury hotel located in the heart of Benin. I was impressed with the size of the suite. The separate living area was a nice size to entertain guests and the kitchen/dining area was fully equipped with a dining table, fridge, and microwave. Maid service kept it stocked daily with an assortment of free snacks, juice, and water. The bedroom was also very large. The only downside is the restroom was inside the private room so guests had to walk through here for access. For the number of guests entertained, this became a nuisance. During our visit, there was no WiFi or satellite service. It’s my understanding these amenities are now offered. Additionally, there’s an onsite casino, hair salon, and numerous dining options. Overall, the hotel was clean, safe, the staff was mostly friendly, and the food was plentiful. If I were in Benin again (which I won’t be), I’d consider staying at this hotel.

Passport safekeeping
Honestly, I didn’t want to part with my passport and didn’t take any jewelry with me. I recommend leaving all valuables at home when traveling in general. It’s too easy to misplace or lose something and the hotel safes are never secure enough. We were told it wasn’t a good idea to carry our passports on us, nor was it recommended to leave them locked in the room. Hesitantly, I handed over my passport to his mother for safekeeping. Now, a million malicious thoughts ran through my head. I was worried about being stuck in Benin, not being able to get home, and oddly concerned about what could happen with my photo and private information. While at the time I didn’t know Benin was the birthplace of voodoo, I was concerned about identity theft. It wasn’t long before realizing I should have been concerned about the voodoo too (another story).

Anyway, it is common practice and profitable business to make fake passports. The notion that someone was/is walking around with information from my passport still sits with me today. I convinced myself if I trusted this man, I had to trust his mother too, right? Thankfully, we were reunited with our passports soon enough. And, about that love spell, that’s a different story!

The experience abroad
For about five minutes I felt welcomed by the natives. This was when everyone thought I was also Nigerian. The language barrier gave it away. The women in particular isolated themselves and most were in a frenzy that I was with one of “their” men so I was told. Several propositioned him with no regard that I was there. In fact, the one that lingered around in our room, when all the other guests left, had plans to spend the night with my man. She didn’t care that I was there. It was customary for men to bring women as a “gift” to out-of-town guests. Those smiling faces that were being entertained by us, welcoming us to Nigeria, and showboating had brought whores as an offering to him. Once aware of the shenanigans, I began to make mental notes of all the attempts to get him alone. Trust is important in relationships and we honestly didn’t have much. Our relationship was new and it seemed I’d traveled to this distant land with someone who turned into a complete stranger the moment his feet hit the soil. He managed to stick by my side (and is still here) for the duration of the trip. However, that didn’t stop people from trying both of us!

I saw a few sides of Nigeria. I can’t say it was a totally positive or negative experience. It was simply different. Initially, I didn’t see a lot of respectable women. I saw young ladies selling themselves short in hopes of some sort of come up. What was a normal way of life for them was foreign to me in regard to the polygamous relationships most of the women endured and the abuse (verbal and physical) many sustained from their husbands.

There were many positive elements that resonated with me on this trip, however. I enjoyed the local markets, arts, crafts, and food. Let me just say you haven’t had real chicken until you’ve had fresh chicken! They’re not one and the same. It actually made me sick upon first eating as I wasn’t used to fresh meat. Go figure! I came to love it before we left. It’s hard to describe the taste but if you ever have a chance to eat a piece of freshly caught chicken (or any meat for that matter), go for it.

Everything was delicious. A fan of African food for some time now, the spices were spot on. While I had a number of dietary restrictions (i.e. no red meat, pork, and a host of allergies), I enjoyed a variety of chicken, fish, rice, vegetables, and desserts.

beninmealFor the first time in my life, I took part in the process of catching dinner.

As part of the funeral ceremonies, two livestock of cows were selected. This was a sad and emotional experience for me. Although I don’t eat beef, I felt bad for the animals. It was a slow torturous walk back to the house for these animals whom I believe sensed it was the end of the road, literally. I didn’t have the nerve to watch the slaughtering, cleaning, and cooking of these animals. Part of me wanted to yell for PETA and the other part of me accepted that this is what happens when we eat animals. It was another experience I’ll never forget.

I fell in love with the extraordinary garments which were rich in culture and heritage. I was lucky to be included in the ceremonies as a “member” of the family and was outfitted with a custom dress for the occasion. As a woman who cannot work with a needle and thread, I was impressed with the numerous sewing stations along the red dirt roads. The ability to pick your fabric and have exquisite outfits made, often on the same day, was a wonderful experience. And, the outfits weren’t just gorgeous, many told a story by way of the design, markings, and colors used in the material. One thing I would have loved to learn is the many elaborate ways to tie a head wrap. Next time!

Last but not least, we were here for a funeral. I had a chance to partake in the rituals and funeral ceremonies firsthand. Starting with a trip to the morgue.

Unlike those in America, the bodies are wrapped in garments and lay on concrete slabs that resemble bunk beds. I remember vividly the long line in the burning sun to enter the small facility to retrieve the body and the fire in our eyes once we inhaled the various chemicals. Much like in New Orleans, a festival begins and the body (in the casket) is marched back to the home with a full band and supporters from the village participating in song and dance as the parade continues. Upon arrival home, the body is displayed in a sitting room, dressed in final attire, and ready for public viewing. Before the burial the next day, the entire village joins in the celebration of life. Many rituals are performed, song, dance, and praise. It wouldn’t be a Nigerian affair without the showering of money to the family. Lastly, when most people die here, they are buried on their properties (if they have property) and as such, the conclusion of the burial.

an experience I’ll never forget.

Benin at-a-glance
Benin is considered to be one of Africa’s most stable democracies. They have a stronger political climate than economical as the area continues to be underdeveloped and corruption is abundant. The shore was once known as the Slave Coast where captives were shipped across the Atlantic. The culture and religion brought by slaves are still present, including voodoo. While this practice was once banned, it is celebrated in annual festivals and such. I had a chance to unexpectedly observe various rituals during my visit and was ignorant to the history at the time nearly a decade ago. Benin ranked as one of the largest producers of cotton in Africa and I’m told they also produce petroleum. Yet, this country remains one of the world’s poorest countries. This was evident in my travels through the area. There was a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots. While some lived in modern-day mansions, others lived in mud huts or homes stitched together with nothing more than fabric. I pray one day the corruption subsides and the people of Benin and surrounding areas rise up.

More experiences abroad in Cali and Bali.

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