Instead of breaking up my trip to Benin into several small posts, I decided to write one massive post instead. I wish I could talk to you all individually about how amazing and eye opening this trip was for me, but since that’s not possible, let’s pretend right now that we are sitting together in a cozy coffee shop, mug in hand (go ahead grab one & settle in…we are gonna be here for a while), and let me take you day by day, moment by moment on this incredible and once in a lifetime journey I just encountered.
Ben & I left Richmond & our two cats & dog (we missed them so much!) on Tuesday afternoon & drove about two hours up to Washington D.C. in my little Mini Cooper to Dulles Airport. Upon arriving, we met up with Ben’s sister, Abby, & got snacks & a drink before boarding my very first international flight. It was an overnight flight, & being the planner that I am, I was determined to sleep the whole flight. I took one Advil PM & curled up in my blanket (even though the plane was scorchingly hot) with my sleeping mask on to then find out that they were serving dinner! I had never had a meal on a flight before (except that one time I got bumped to first class, which was so cool), & it was free, so I had to stay awake to eat it. Abby also convinced me to get some red wine, & I thought it would help me fall asleep. Literally seconds after pouring my first glass, I spilled it all over my jeans & blanket & Ben (sorry…). Of course. I blame the Advil PM. I quickly passed the rest of the wine off to her to finish, ate my free food, & desperately tried to fall asleep. Listening to Ólafur Arnalds, I tossed & turned for the next four hours cuddled up with my blanket & the smell of red wine. Lovely. This flight, maybe because it was my first one, seemed to last an eternity (7.5 hours in reality), but finally we landed in Paris.
Our layover was something like five hours long & we all slept and hour or two more on the ground of the Paris airport. An hour before boarding, we found these amazing lounge chairs that looked out a giant window where we sat & watched planes roll in & out until it was time for us to board.
The flight from Paris to Cotonou, Benin was infinitely better than the first. For one, there was airflow which made a world of difference, & two, I was free to stay awake. I switched off reading my book (How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are) & watching season 3 of Jane The Virgin (which is so good and I am only half way done with it) and between the two (along with all the snacks & beverages Air France continued to serve) I was quite occupied. If that wasn’t enough, I had a whole spa package prepared for Abby & I to do in-flight. Disregarding all strange looks, we did sheet masks, moisturizers, facial mists, lip scrubs, hand & cuticle care, & the like. Maybe it was a little much, but my skin was very happy afterwards. I would totally do it again.
We made it to Cotonou around 9 PM on Wednesday night, greeted Ben’s mom (who we were visiting, seeing as though she works at the U.S. Embassy in Benin), & quickly headed off to bed to get a good night’s sleep after a long twenty-something hours of travel.
Finally, after sleeping at least 11 hours, we woke up ready for our first full day in Benin. I showered to get the “travel” off, and applied a new product to my hair: Best Day Ever. It is a dream come true for curly hair like mine, especially in the heat and humidity of Western Africa. I gladly used this product every single day while in Benin & it worked wonders on defining my curls, adding shine, & taming the majority of the frizz. It smells good, feels good, & doesn’t break the bank. *2 thumbs up*
I also slipped on my new bracelet from Guacamaya Tribal. The moment I saw it, I fell in love with the colors delicately woven in it, but decided to wait until my trip to wear it. The shades of pink, blue, white, & green flowed perfectly with my color palette I chose for this trip. I didn’t opt for wearing much jewelry while in Benin, but this bracelet was just the accessory I needed to complete my outfit. I love this brand not only for perfectly accessorizing me, but also for ensuring that all of their products are fair trade, and a portion of the benefits go to help provide full-time jobs for local artisans in Latin America.
For our first outing, we went to lunch at Hôtel du Lac for lunch. We ordered a Lebanese spread for the table as well as a Beninese dish consisting of chicken & rice in a tomato sauce of sorts. While. at lunch, we met up with a family friend, Yanick, who is a native to Benin. He is such a talented photographer, whose strength is capturing people in their habitat. He captures raw humanity to a T. (Check out his work here & here.)
After lunch, Yanick took us on a small walk in the city where we started to get a feel for the culture & people. The fashionista in me came out while people watching & noticing the same trends & silhouettes popular right now in the states clearly displayed on the people in West Africa. The only difference: fabric, but more on that later…
Later that afternoon, Ben & I had a rehearsal at the U.S. Embassy in Benin for a performance we would have there the next day. We had the amazing opportunity to bring classical ballet to a part of the world where the majority have only ever seen it in movies, if ever. After rehearsing for a few hours, we attended an outdoor Embassy employee meeting, ate a quick dinner at home, & went to sleep at a decent hour to get ready for our big performance the next day.
We woke up to a delicious breakfast which included the most amazing fresh pineapple & mango I have ever eaten. Seriously still dreaming about it. Then I slicked my hair back into a French twist & we were off. Before arriving at the Embassy, we stopped by a local vendor who sells handmade, hand-dyed fabrics. The owner’s name was none other than James Taylor. Perfect.
I found a gorgeous fabric that I instantly fell in love with, & if you’ve been following me recently, I have been trying to incorporate red into my life & my wardrobe, so it’s only fitting that the fabric I picked out was red & white. I plan on bringing it back to Oklahoma with me in July & enlisting my grandma’s help to make a skirt out of it. I’ll keep you posted…
The performance at the U.S. Embassy went so well. It was so special getting to dance with Ben again. He is so strong & took such great care of me (on stage & in life for that matter).
After the performance, some of the Embassy employees in turn showed us some of the dances from Benin, & asked us to come on stage & do it with them! (Mind you, I was in an all pink outfit: leotard, tights, skirt, & pointe shoes…total ballerina trying to learn an African dance…I can only imagine what I looked like.) What a cool experience! They could move in ways I have never seen before with lots of shoulder isolations & gyrations. I loved every second of it.
We then went home, changed, & packed our bags for a night away in Sakété (which was 2 hours away). Once we arrived, we met up with Jon & Ashley and they took us to their home where we would be staying. They are amazing people who moved from the U.S. all the way to Benin to love, nurture, & provide a family for the sweet kids at the Center. Over a taco dinner, I listened to them tell their amazing story of God’s perfect provision in their lives & over this orphanage. Those are some of my very favorite stories to hear. I’ll never forget it. (If you want to know more about the Center or would like to make a donation to help support their amazing work, leave me a comment below or send me an email. I did not include in photos because I decided to be present with the kids while I was there.)
I woke up early the next morning in Sakété to the sound of roosters announcing the start of a new day.
The only “makeup” I decided to apply on this day (but I wore it every other day as well, just not exclusively) was my Almay Smart Shade tinted moisturizer. I love this moisturizer because it doesn’t leave my skin feeling greasy after applying it, just perfectly moisturized, perfectly tinted, perfectly sun protected, & perfectly age defying. (15 SPF & anti-aging properties…score)
After my morning coffee & a chocolate croissant we brought from the city, Yanick took us on a walk through the village we were staying in. Just a few feet out the front door & already children are coming up to us saying, “Yovo” (white people). They don’t speak English, most of them speak French (I definitely should have kept up with my Duolingo better…) so I greet them, “Bonjour!” I reach out & shake their hands while they stare back with what seems like disbelief. I point to my camera as though to ask them if I can take their picture, & most of them let me. They always wanted to see the pictures afterwords. They thought that was the coolest thing. Then I would wave saying, “Au revoir!” & continue my walk.
This happened multiple times because, I mean, we were “yovo”. But sometimes they just wanted to play & hang out with us so we started dancing with them. This was Ben’s jam! He lead them in clap rhythms, dance moves, & even some ballet moves, & the kids were eating it up. I truly believe they would’ve kept following us & dancing with us all day if we had stayed there! This was hands down my favorite part of my trip.
Along with hanging out with the kids during our walk, we also were invited into people’s homes & stores. It was incredible to be able to see into the lives of these people. They didn’t have much, but they were some of the most joyful people I have ever encountered. Truly blessed by this experience.
After our walk, we drove to the Center to hang out with the kids. Ben & I had the opportunity to dance for them and show them bits into the life of a dancer. I let them all try on my pointe shoes afterwards & and listened to their sounds of pain & discomfort while attempting to go en pointe. (I forget how hard it was at first!) Similarly to the exchange we had at the U.S. Embassy, the kids showed us their Beninese dance moves after our performance. They were so good! The kids would take turns in a dance-off fashion, where they would go into the middle of the floor in pairs & work it! Again with the shoulder isolations which I have yet to master.
I could have stayed there forever (especially if any of the French I learned would have kicked in), but that afternoon, we made the very bumpy 2 hour drive back to Cotonou. We had a chill evening to digest the events of the day.
So it’s Sunday now, & the word that we are ballet dancers has gotten ’round. We were asked to perform (for the 3rd day in a row) for a Beninese church congregation smack dab in the middle of their service! We were told that the service started at 10 AM so we arrived promptly at 9:50 AM to be able to see the floor we would be dancing on & to make any adjustments to the choreography if need be. Well, we said goodbye to that plan when, upon arrival, we were escorted to the front row of the service that was well underway! I thought…maybe this is the early service & they are running late?…this is probably the end of the service…right? Wrong. Twenty minutes into singing (which was already making me emotional) Ben & I were taken outside to a storage closet to get changed. There we were told that they would be back in 5-10 minutes to take us back to perform! This news did not sit well with me. My heart was pounding & my mind was racing just thinking about all of the ways this was not a part of my plan: I was not dressed, I was not warm, we had not worked out any adjustments necessary for the floor (which was comprised of tile floor with a small square of carpet in the middle). Basically I was freaking out. My eyes started to fill with tears out of all the uncertainty & fear & changes to my (perfect) plan, not to mention the aforementioned emotions from the worship service. I let out my tears while quickly stretching my calves & tying up my ribbons, while Ben’s calm, sure voice kept reassuring me that everything was going to be fine & I should take my time & do what I need to do. I dried up my tears & came to terms with the fact that this was happening, & that the Lord would keep my cold bones & joints safe during the performance. (We are in a church, right?) We walked out the door & Ben carried me on his back (as to not get my pointe shoes dirty) to return to the service where we were immediately introduced & brought to the stage. At this point (like in every other performance we had done up to this point) we would both talk to the audience about what we would be dancing, & share with them that is is our full time job & what it entails, etc. Ben, knowing me well, did not have me speak to them, but did the whole introduction himself. *thank you* Our Nutcracker music starts as he takes my hands & looks me in the eyes with a smile, & at that point, I’m sure (that I love him) that we are going to get though this together. I’m finally calm. We start dancing carefully trying to keep anything en pointe in the tiny square of carpet in the middle of the stage. It’s going well! We are doing it! My body is ok! Then comes the crescendo in the music with the big lifting sequence, & we realize in that moment (still performing) that we had given them the wrong track! There is a whole extra phrase of music on this one! So he turns me away from the audience where I quickly say, “Wanna do that again?”, and he sweeps me away to the corner for a grand repeat! We gracefully finished the performance, & took our bow. Never in my dance career have I felt more like a professional dancer than in those epic 20 minutes.
After the church service, we went home & changed before driving down another very bumpy beach road on our way to a relaxing time at Bab’s Dock. We go to the first location by car, but then waited for a small boat to take us across the lake to the actual dock. It was so nice to be on the water! The cool breeze was so refreshing. We arrived at the dock, found a table outside right next to a rather entertaining donkey (to say the least) & had a cold beer & French fries (which was exactly what I needed). We hung out, talked, hammocked, & people watched for the next few hours while totally forgetting we were in Africa.
On this Monday morning, I had the opportunity to watch & photograph a new friend, Jessica, have her hair wrapped in a very traditional headscarf. It was amazing! Nami from Coket’rie des Echarpes is such an artist! The intricate details of folding & twisting were just magical atop Jessica’s head. I was in awe. After she was finished, she turned around to me & asked me if I would like one too?! Of course I said yes! As I sat in the chair anxiously waiting for the work of art to be created on me, out walks Nami with my fabric in the most gorgeous shade of yellow with metallic stitches throughout. (How did she know I was such an avid metallic lover?!) I could barely contain my excitement, so when she asked me if it was tight enough, I told her it felt a little bit loose on my right side. (It was not.) Then she gave it one final crank (which gave me a headache for the next 2 hours…beauty is pain right?!) before finishing the top with a beautiful flower design. I proudly wore this magnificent creation for the entirety of the day.
As mentioned earlier, I loved seeing current trends seen back home, come to life in a different way in Benin. For instance, in the U.S., I would have probably gone for that same off the shoulder tie sleeved top, but maybe in a white or a blue & white stripe or something (simple) like that. But in Benin, the patterned fabrics, even mixing patterns, & bright colors are the predominate trend. But not even trend, more like their culture. Fabric is such a part of their lives. One of the best gifts to receive in Benin would be fabric, which then you would take to your tailor & have something made for you (or your whole family depending on how much fabric was given). Vito, the man who brought us to his church to perform, even had matching outfits made (hat included) for he & Ben to show his appreciation for our art. What an honor!
We then went to lunch at the café inside Fondation Zinsou (artwork on head included). It was inside this lovely café where I found myself in a tea. Who would have thought that I would have to travel all the way to Cotonou, Benin to find my favorite tea?! But alas, I did! It’s a rose green tea & it’s divine. (yes, you need it!)
To top off an already super cool day, we went home to cook a rather fancy meal in order to host two wildlife specialists for dinner! These two amazing people live & work in Africa studying big cats, crocodiles, elephants…really…you name it! This evening was particularly special to Ben’s sister Abby who is currently working for the Costal Humane Society in Maine. It was awesome getting to hear their stories of how they treat the big, wild animals, because she does the exact same thing but on a smaller scale with cats & dogs (& baby seals…yeah she’s pretty cool).
Ben was pretty much in charge of the dinner, & my job was to pick the wine. I wanted to make sure to get a white wine because we were having chicken (even though Abby & I both drank the red) & made the decision to get a Riesling. Once the dinner party was underway & I had poured both guests a glass of the Riesling, I started to get nervous that I chose a bad wine (if that’s possible…idk), until finally they spoke up & said this was their favorite kind of wine! *WIN* I felt very proud and distinguished that I correctly picked out the perfect wine for the evening. *big round of applause*
After the dinner party was finished, I took off my headscarf *tears* & went to bed before our final full day in Africa.
In the morning, we woke up slow & I was able to take a little bit of time to get ready. I decided to do my hair in braids, but I started off by spraying my roots with my new favorite dry shampoo. In a book I have been reading recently called, The Way She Wears It by Dallas Shaw, it prompted me to respond with my “signature scent” & my answer was Nirvana Rose. Then when they came out with a dry shampoo, I knew I had to have it immediately! (I mean, it’s my signature scent…) I brought a travel size bottle with me to Benin, & it was a lifesaver. It kept my hair looking fresh (even on a “day two” like this one) & smelling amazing. If you try this one and get scared that it goes on white, don’t worry, it shakes out like a dream. It works it’s magic while letting your hair keep it’s rich color.
After braiding my hair in double dutch braids & merging them into one braid at the end, I got dressed & we headed out on a day trip to Ouidah.
The drive to Ouidah was definitely something. Like most roads outside the city of Cotonou, driving through the endless ditches & potholes is treacherous. Some of the potholes are, no joke, the size of my car! (yes, it’s a mini, but still..that’s big!) My car would never survive in Benin.
Once we got to Ouidah, Yanick brought out his flying drone which instantly attracted a crowd. They all wanted to see the drone & watch it fly. After hanging out with the kids again for a bit, we went inside the café, again, at the Fondation Zinsou (just the Ouidah location) for a cup of tea & a sweet snack before our next adventure.
***I now have to take a moment to appreciate my eyelashes, or rather the mascara that worked wonders on my eyelashes. A few days before I left for Benin, I went to Walgreens in search for the new Lash Paradise mascara (which I now own…yes, it’s amazing too…still deciding which one I like more), but they didn’t have it in store yet, so my friend in the beauty department suggested I try the Thick & Fast mascara by Soap & Glory. I had never tried their mascara before, only the Pillow Plump (which you know I love), so I bought it…& man, does it work! This mascara was the only one I brought with me on this trip, & it held up beautifully. I performed in it, cried in it, sweat in it, etc. & not to brag, but my lashes look bomb in some of these pictures. I had never looked at pictures & noticed my eyelashes until this trip. Just can’t say enough. The picture below speaks for itself. Interruption complete***
We then met up with our guide who took us on a tour of the history of this city. First, we started with the Voodoo Temple of Pythons, where we learned about the rituals & sacrifices made there as well as going into a whole room filled with pythons! I even held one around my neck! They told us that once a month, they open the doors of the temple & let the pythons free into the city. Eek! I’ll hold one once, but I’m not so sure about them rolling around the city, finding them in my house, & then bringing them back to the temple. Maybe I would get used to it?
Then our guide took us on a very solemn tour down the historic road where tragically over one million African men, women, & children were sold, bought, chained, stripped, beat, raped, & forced to walk down to the port along the ocean to be sent abroad. It was surreal & eyeopening to actually be there where they walked, or to be there under the very same tree where they were sold as property. I can’t imagine having my freedom stripped from me like that. We also learned that their own people & leaders were the ones selling them! I couldn’t believe that. As hard as it was, I’m glad I was able to see what I saw, & hear the facts straight from the source as opposed to the receiving end in the states.
After another hour long bumpy drive home, we decided to go out to dinner. We went to a local restaurant and sat outside where we met some amazing ladies from the Peace Corps. I love hearing people’s life stories & hearing what they do & what lead them to do what they do, so encounters like these are the best. I sat across from a girl about my age who is working with the Peace Corps to help educate the women of Benin in sexual health, prevention, & family planning. Many women in Benin end up having more children than they can support & take care of, or they die in childbirth because there are not enough midwives (or blood) to help in a crisis.
On this trip, I met so many incredible people who are doing incredible things in West Africa. It made me ask myself this question: What meaningful work am I doing in my life?
My challenge to you, is to ask yourself that same question. No, you don’t have to move to Africa to do meaningful things (but you can, & if you do, that’s amazing!) But what are you doing, wherever you are, that matters? (If you are doing something meaningful & would like to share, I’d love to hear it! Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org! I would love to hear your heart on whatever the matter.)
On our last day in Africa, before our evening flight, we went out for some last minute shopping. We bought some more fabric & bits to take home for friends & family, then we packed our bags and were off!
What an amazing trip we had. It wasn’t near long enough, but there’s chatter about returning for more dancing in the future…only time will tell.
If you’ve made it this far in my post, congratulations, & thanks for reading about my journey. I have one more honorable mention before I let you go. Every morning for the past 30 days, I have started my day with Skinade which is a skincare supplement drink I was sent and have been absolutely loving. Before I started with Skinade, I religiously took Emergen-C every single morning to help me stay healthy and boost my immune system. This drink is the total package. It’s packed with collagen, vitamin C, MSM, vitamin B complex, omegas 3 & 6, & L-lysine. Here’s the kicker: it actually tastes good! I’m totally loving it so far & I’m sad I only have 5 days of my pack left. I definitely recommend this product, though having a high price, I am loving the results I see from using it. If you’re interested at all, just click the link to read more. *This is not a sponsored post. Just genuine thoughts on a current product I’m using*
(+ Skinade ^)
*Huge thank you to Yanick Folly for some of my gorgeous photos above:
#(s) 10, 14, 26, 30, 32-40, 52-55, & 75*
Stay tuned for my Benin Travel Video!
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