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.”