Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My Favourite Places in the World - Part 1

Grand Popo, Benin

Grand Popo is about as far away from home as I can imagine. It’s also as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen. What makes it so unique is that it is a sliver of tropical lushness surrounded by incredible poverty of West Africa. The beach is so serene that you (almost) forget where you are. I had stopped there in the summer of 2000 to catch my breath after a long trek down from Burkina Faso. I had entered Benin from northern Togo and had made my way south from Parakou and Abomey and then along the coast via Cotonou and Ouidah, to voodoo centre of Benin.

I had only heard rumours of an oasis on the road between Cotonou and Lomé and was absolutely shocked by Grand Popo’s its beauty upon arrival on the back of a zemijohn (a Beninois moped-taxi). The Auberge features a beautifully restored colonial building. On my budget, however, I opted for the smaller building across the road. I spent 3 days flaked out on the most beautiful beach I had ever seen – spending hours splashing in the powerful surf with local children. My only neighbours were a couple of Italian doctors who were spending a weekend away from their missionary hospital in Cotonou. They were friendly, but kept to themselves but were nice enough to hook me up with some desperately needed antibiotics.

What struck me most was the sense of space – a rare commodity in West Africa. I had most of a quiet beach to myself, and I was able to spend my evening sitting in open air restaurants eating local that day’s catch, nursing cold beer and reading Dumas in French (I had blown through all of my English language books, and bought a few books at a bookshop in Cotonou).

It only seems like places like this exist in fiction – but they are out there. At first, you might question whether it is worth all of the hassle in getting there, but once you’ve arrived, you will surely forget all of your initial doubts.

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