The wonderful world of befriending 3rd world strangers


On another trip, in a different time frame, it would have been nice to have just spent an extra day lounging under the shade trees in the village; but we were sort of under the gun on our manipulated visas (remember those?), so it was on to Pendjari National Park by way of Natitingou and the Somba country . . . and Parakou. Parakou is a sh—hole of a town, but it is the transfer point for destinations to the north. If Abomey was one of the high points of the Africa trip, then Parakou was absolutely the low point. Rides to Natitingou weren’t leaving until the evening, but we befriended a local who was also going to “Nati”, and we all headed to a restaurant. Did I say “befriended”? My son should have known better!!! I should have known better!!!!! Guys that just HAPPEN to be going your way and want to chat are almost ALWAYS some kind of con!!!! My son mentioned that he was hoping to buy some cola nuts before we left town, and our new “friend” just happened to know where he could get a good deal. (Cola nuts are, indeed, the source for our popular drink flavoring, but they are very bitter. Locals, however – particularly older folks – like to chew on them, and they are considered a very nice thank-you gift for small courtesies.) Only after he left us (with me paying for his lunch!) did my son do the math, convert into dollars, and realize that he had paid about five times what he should have!!! But things got worse!!!!!

Toward evening, we found a car/taxi that was going to Nati, and we put our bags in the trunk to await the departure time (departure time, remember, being when all the seats are over-filled). There was one other passenger, a local, but we needed two more. As night fell, the other passenger reclaimed his stuff and headed to another vehicle, leaving our stuff locked in the trunk . . . upon which sat a very large, very surly guy. The driver, meanwhile, had disappeared. This did not look good. The guy sitting on the trunk said we needed to talk to the driver, who had the key, in order to retrieve our things. The driver was nowhere to be found. I suggested that my son threaten to call the police, but he didn’t think this would help much and wandered off to look for the driver. I waited by the car to make sure that it didn’t drive off with our stuff. And waited. Somewhere along the way, my son picked up a teenager who obviously wanted to interact with these American foreigners and who tried to help us out. But the driver clearly did not want to be found, and the surly guy on the trunk wasn’t budging. Finally, my son went ballistic and started screaming at people in French. The teenager found the big-cheese in charge of all the “taxis” (basically, he got a cut of the profits for “allowing” them to operate in “his” area), and my son went off on him, then stormed off to find the police. This was NOT in the script, and the guy did not want the hassle. The driver was found (SURPRISE!!!), the trunk was unlocked, my son screamed at the driver and insulted him for a while, and another vehicle was found to take us to Natitingou. My son, it must be said, was magnificent in his outrage, and our new ride was really quite comfortable. It all turned out okay, but it made for a very ugly confrontational scene. What did I say about the journey being half the adventure? Well, this sure wasn’t a bus tour of Seattle!!!!


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