Just over ten years ago I visited Benin for the first time. It wasn't my first time to Africa - that had been a trip to Tanzania right after 9/11. This time I was going for a french language intensive course and some research for an undergraduate project through the McNair Scholars Program. I went by myself, as there were no organized trips from my university that year.
For one month I stayed in Cotonou, a large city of nearly 1 million people on the coast. I rented a room at Codiam, a modest guesthouse where I had a small bedroom and a bathroom that was adjoined to the room next door. My professor at Wayne State had put me in contact with some of his colleagues in Benin and they were very gracious. Bienvenu, Fidel, and Sourou took me to see the Temple of the Pythons in Ouidah, to choir practice at the Bon Pasteur catholic church in Cadjehoun, and to a zoo near Porto Novo.
You know that feeling when you meet new people and you don't quite know the protocol? Like you don't want to order a beer and then find out that everyone else abstains from alcohol entirely? Or is that just me? Anyway, when I visited Benin it was pretty hot. Ok, really hot. I had arrived in May and stayed into June and so even though it was getting into the rainy season the heat was intense. Plus, I had opted for a room at Codiam that did not have air-conditioning and the small fan in the room didn't do much to penetrate the mosquito net over my bed.
So there were times when I would get up in the middle of the night and take a shower, and by the time the water had rolled from my head to my feet it would be warm. (And there was no hot water there, it was so cold that it would take my breath away as it hit my body initially.) In addition to getting used to the hot weather, I was new to some of the food in Benin. For instance, I didn't realize that it is common practice to take really hot chili peppers (piment) and leave them whole in a dish of rice or sauce to flavor it. For some silly reason one day I decided to eat one (whole) while dining by myself at the canteen at Codiam.
My eyes began watering immediately, and I started to cough. I felt so silly, and didn't want to cause a commotion but still there were nice people who came by to see if "the American" was ok. At the time my French was really terrible, and so I had a hard time letting people know what had happened, and I eventually showed them the piment that I had eaten whole. There were some chuckles at that, and someone offered me a beer.
No beer has ever tasted better. (Ok, maybe another one has, but this one was monumental.) It was a Castel, a brand that was really popular at the time and produced locally in Cotonou. The top of each bottle is wrapped in a gold foil that to me is the essence of Castel. It is a gift to be unwrapped and enjoyed, to be celebrated.
Not long after the piment incident, as I like to call it, I told the guys what had happened. And that I had "discovered" Castel beer. They loved hearing that I liked the beer, and that I was trying Beninois food. Turns out they were erring on the side of caution with me, too. They didn't know how accepting I would be of the Beninese culture but had still wanted to fulfill their side of the bargain of showing me around.
So towards the end of the trip Bienvenu took me to two separate places that really had an impact on me. First, he brought me as his guest to a funeral ceremony in Abomey where he grew up. I'd never been to anything like it in my life. Because the person who died was an elder the ceremony was a celebration of his life and his legacy. Yes, the family shed tears at the loss of their loved one, but the whole day was spent enjoying wonderful food (plate after plate arrived during the day), great drinks (Castel!!), and music and dancing. Bienvenu told his relatives that I liked Castel, and they didn't hesitate to bring me as many cold beers as I could drink that day.
I met Bienvenu's parents, aunts and uncles and extended family. I met his in-laws, and Bienvenu showed me the path that he used to take to sneak over and visit Anie when they were dating. Their collectivités (essentially large family compounds) had been adjacent and so they had known each other since they were kids.
On our way out of town we visited the Royal Palaces of Abomey, a reminder of the powerful kingdom and lineage of 12 kings who ruled from the 14th century to right around 1900. The palaces are designated as world heritage sites by UNESCO. There is a beautiful mango tree in one of the courtyards, and the groundskeeper allowed me to pick a couple to bring back to Cotonou. I may or may not have snuck one in my suitcase on the way home.
Right before I left Cotonou Bienvenu and Anie invited me to dinner at their house. It was the first time that I met Anie and their son Kevi, who was just 2 or so at the time. The food was amazing, grilled pork and some delicious rice and sauce. And yes, you guessed it, plenty of cold Castel beer.
Castel is no longer the most popular beer in Benin, but it will always be my favorite.