The strangest day of my life occurred exactly eleven years ago today, on my birthday, Friday the 13th of July, 2001. The day began in Malanville, Benin, a small, dusty West African border town, and ended when my traveling companion and I declined an offer from door-to-door hookers at the Hotel Moustache in Niamey, the capital city of Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and went to sleep.
I think of this now, because this morning my dear friend, fellow Gent, and aforementioned traveling companion, Col. Andrew S. Trimlett wrote to wish me a happy birthday, and reminded me that it is once again Friday the 13th, and my birthday, and that the day could get weird. I’ve told the story of that day often, but this is the first time I’ve put it down in print.
Andy and I spent the month of July in 2001 traveling around West Africa by bus and bush taxi. The trip was Andy’s idea and something of a lark. He had developed an interest in the region in a class he took at San Diego State. I loved the music. Benin is the birthplace of Vodou. Fun, right? That was pretty much our decision making process. We booked roundtrip tickets to Cotonou, Benin, and developed a vague plan of making a circuit through Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and then back to Benin. Then, after a week of travel, we decided to add Niamey, Niger onto our itinerary, because… well, I’m not sure why. Because nobody we knew had been there, and it was on the Niger River on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and here we were, so why the hell not?
Which is why we found ourselves in Malanville, the border post between Benin and Niger on the morning of my twenty-third birthday. I knew it was Friday the 13th, and I’ve always been a magnet for strangeness, so I warned Andy: “This day might get weird.”
We began by catching a lift to the border on the backs of a couple of motorbikes, which operate as taxis in Benin. My backpack dangled over the back of the bike, and I held on with intense concentration, as every bump we hit pulled the pack – and therefore my body – towards the dirt road speeding by beneath us.
We made it to the border, and the crossing was simple; we didn’t even have to pay a bribe to get through.
On the other side, at the depot, we boarded our minibus – basically a medium-sized van fitted with benches inside. When the bus was full, we took off down the road towards Niamey.
But we only drove for a few minutes. Once we were out of town, the bus pulled off into a big, open patch of dirt. The driver said something, and people grumbled and started to get out. Confused, we did the same. Nobody really seemed to know what was going on as we waited in the 100+ degree desert sun. Until a second minibus pulled up and also disgorged a full load of passengers. We started to get a bad feeling as workers from the second bus began to transfer the luggage from its roof to the roof of our bus.
“Oh, hell no,” Andy said. Some of the larger and more assertive women from our bus said what I can only imagine was Hausa for the same phrase, but the drivers didn’t listen. The transfer continued, until the impossibly tall luggage stack was topped off by a motorbike, and the now-empty bus drove away.
The driver of our bus turned to the two busses worth of people. Everybody in.
This was clearly not a common practice, judging from the angry tone of the murmurs in the crowd. But what was there to be done? We were miles and miles from anywhere, on the edge of the desert. Everybody piled in.
Andy got in before me, in a window seat, the lucky bastard, and next to him was a young Cameroonian man in a Domino’s Pizza jacket. There was clearly no open seat to be had. The bus was already full way beyond capacity, and several other passengers had not yet boarded. I looked back at the driver. He pointed between Andy and Domino’s Pizza Guy. There was about three inches separating them. And that three inches was my seat.
I didn’t sit on the seat; that was impossible. I balanced on my neighbors. The drive was a constant low-grade war between bony hips, with Andy, Domino’s Pizza Guy, and me trying to shift in relation to our neighbor to relieve the pain that would invariably begin after a few minutes in this position. This bus would have been cozy with fifteen people in it, but I counted twenty-four adults and quite a few children on laps.
The heat was almost bearable while the wind was blowing, but during the three times the bus stopped because the engine overheated, and the two to bribe guards at checkpoints, it would instantly turn into a big, sweaty, suffocationg oven.
After several hours and several stops, as we were driving, and the war of the hipbones had reached a sort of resigned detente, I saw something run across the road in front of us – an animal several feet long. There was a quick discussion between the driver and his assistant. Then the driver slammed on the breaks, threw open the door, and jumped out. Passengers mumbled and griped as the temperature in the van crept back towards unbearable and the two men ran around on the side of the road, chasing the unseen animal.
Finally, they returned to the minibus with their prize. A three foot long monitor lizard, very much alive, with its tail tied to its neck, ouroboros-fashion. Domino’s Pizza Guy let us know that this creature made a good meal, especially when very fresh.
One of the large women next to me said what must’ve amounted to, “No f-ing way are you putting a live monitor lizard in this minibus!” because the driver took out his knife, stabbed the thing in the neck, bled it out on the roadside, and tossed it under our seat. We were off again.
After six hours and some of the worst roads I’ve ever experienced, we reached Niamey, and found a suitable hotel – the Hotel Moustache. There were no pillows on the beds, the toilet was broken, and there was a strange aroma, but the price was right, and the signage featured a smiling and luxuriantly mustachioed gentleman, so we decided to go for it.
After getting settled, around dusk, we decided to splurge for a nice dinner of something besides the gristly brochettes and glutinous soups that were our staple so far. So we made a selection from our Lonely Planet West Africa guide, and started out walking across town to the Golden Dragon restaurant for Vietnamese food.
About halfway through our walk, as it was getting dark, an older woman approached us at an intersection, and asked where we were going.
“The Golden Dragon,” we replied.
“No, no! Wrong way!” she said. She pointed down a long, narrow street that disappeared into darkness. “Golden Dragon is this way!”
The streets of Niamey were twisty and confusing. I wasn’t totally sure we were on the right track anyway. I was about to thank this kindly woman for her help, when Andy firmly said, “No. It’s this way. I’m pretty sure.”
No, no – we were wrong. She was adamant. We were head in the absolute wrong direction.
I could tell that Andy was no more sure than I was that we were on the right track, but he was firm with her. No. We knew where we were going. Thanks anyway, but we’re going this way. I followed his lead; yes – this way for sure. After a few more attempts to change our minds, she shrugged and walked off.
Once she was gone, Andy said that he had read about something like this in the guidebook. A scam of some kind. We looked it up, and sure enough, listed in the “Dangers” section, was a common scam where a woman approaches travelers, tells them they’re going the wrong way, and then gets them lost down a dark alley where they are robbed and occasionally beaten.
And sure enough, just a couple of blocks farther down our chosen path, we reached the Golden Dragon. Outside, their sign advertised the “Largest Menu in Niamey.” Inside, a portly young Vietnamese man played the Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an old Casiotone keyboard. The menu was indeed a thick volume – mostly because they had five meats, five sauces, and five vegetables, and listed every permutation these could generate. Beef with ginger and peas. Chicken with ginger and peas. Chicken with ginger and carrots. Chicken with orange and carrots. Duck with orange and carrots… etc. etc. etc.
After a lovely meal, we returned (cautiously) to the Hotel Moustache, where there was a party in full swing. Music thumped from huge speakers cranked to 11. Men and women lounged around, drinking beers, some dancing.
After this day, all Andy and I wanted to do was go to sleep on our inviting though pillowless beds. And that’s what we were about to do, when there was knock at the door.
Andy opened it, and outside were three young women, giggling. The most outgoing of the three asked Andy if they could come inside.
“No, sorry,” Andy said. “We’re very tired.”
“But, wait,” the leader of the three said, as she pushed on the door and leaned into the room. “We want to dance with you!”
Then she gave Andy the biggest, cartooniest wink I’ve ever seen, lest he miss the subtext she was laying down.
“No, sorry, we’re going to bed. Good night!” Against their resistance, Andy pushed the door shut as they frowned disappointedly.
He sat down on his bed.
“Do you think they were prostitutes?” He asked.
“I’m pretty sure, yeah.”
“Huh. Door to door hookers. At the Hotel Moustache. Well, goodnight.”
And with that, we shut the lights off and went to sleep.