Legend has it that, before the Portuguese left Porto Novo, they left a treasure behind. There have been many theories as to what they left behind, but some have believed that they left mountains of gold in the hilly landscape of the area. Others have said they left bottles filled with the sweet nectar from the Fountain of Youth, found in the New World. Despite all of the legends that have been swirling for centuries through this tiny country, none have been more intriguing to Elder Lala and I than the legendary “Meal of the Gods.” According to the rumors, this meal has been preserved using the dark Voodoo magic that reigns over Benin. The Portuguese, unable to bring the meal back to Portugal, left it in Porto Novo, hiding it from the new French colonizers.
Of course, Elder Lala and I could not pass up the opportunity to go on this little treasure hunt. Having rarely eaten a good meal in almost two years, we were very desperate to fill our hunger. Having heard that many have died trying to find the Meal of the Gods, we were not deterred. Armed with knowledge, good looks, and a bag of Church pamphlets, we knew we had the proper tools to get us our meal. Still, the stakes were pretty high. Finding a century old meal or… death.
After the treacherous 45 minute car ride to Porto Novo, we decided we would first look at the Old King’s Palace of Porto Novo. Our thinking was that the Portuguese might have left it with the King, seeing that he would have the means to protect the meal. Also, seeing that he believed in the natural voodoo powers that preserved the meal, he would be the only one who could protect it without receiving its curse.
Upon arriving at the “Versailles of Benin,” we noticed that the doors were covered with strange symbols that seemed to have no meaning. Elder Lala and I tried to decipher the codes on the doors, filled with symbols of lizards and weird voodoo doll looking people… however, neither my knowledge of the English language nor Elder Lala’s knowledge of Malegesh slang could help us decipher the code. No worries… en avant!
All of sudden, BOOM. We came face-to-face with the God of Thunder! At first, Elder Lala and I were taken aback because of his high stature and hammer in hand, however, we calmly collected ourselves and went over to talk to him. Unfortunately, as we tried conversing with him, he refused to help us find our meal. Instead, he just stood there showing off his amazingly crazy arm pit hair. Since we found that he was of no help to us, we decided to move on through the palace, hoping that maybe somebody else could help us uncover the secret location of this meal.
Upon entering the palace, our “tour guide” as he called himself, showed us the tomb of the last King to die in the palace (which was apparently in the 70s). Curious, I asked how he died. He said it was due to suicide, caused by pressures coming from the Beninois government and other royal families trying to force him to cede his thrown. Because his kingdom was collapsing, the King finally took his life, thus ending the royal line at Porto Novo.
Slightly disappointed by the fact that there was no King left to tell us where to find our meal, not to mention the depressing stories of suicide, we decided to keep going through the palace and hope to find some clues as to where the Portuguese might have hidden it. Going through the small door (built so that those who walked through would have to crouch to go in, thus “bowing”)...
We came across the baths of the Queen. Then our tour guide asked us to stop documenting our hunt with photos, out of respect for the sacredness of the palace. As nobody can stop the dynamic duo of Lala/Hawkins, we took one last secret picture in the palace.
During the tour, nothing seemed to speak to us as to where this meal might be. We even asked the tour guide if he had heard about the “Meal of the Gods” but he said it was just a myth. Determined, we continued to search for clues when suddenly, I stumbled upon a cannon. Apparently, it was one of the last cannons to be sold to the King of Porto Novo before the Portuguese left… engraved on it was the word “macaco.” Having no idea what that might even mean, we continued on our merry way. Looking at the scale model of the palace, we noticed that we had covered almost every single part that we were allowed into (save for the “Chambre Noir” which was where the disgraced kings would go and commit suicide. Neither Elder Lala nor I had any desire to go in there).
Then, right before leaving, our tour guide talked to us about the King’s garden, which hid many of the King’s secrets. Instantly intrigued, we booked it over to the gardens… probably the fastest that I had ever wanted to go see a garden.
Not having a tour guide at the garden, we were free to wander, looking for any possible clues. First, we came across a ginormous tree, probably the tallest in Porto Novo. Though Elder Lala wanted to climb the tree and see if there were any clues, I decided against that as we could see the dried blood from the local tribes that would make their sacrifices there.
As we were wandering the gardens, I heard a strange bustle in the trees. Thinking it was just the wind, Elder Lala and I continued our conversation on the superiority of Wawa hoagies to French baguette sandwiches. But, once again we heard a bustling in the trees and then HOLY COW THERE’S A MONKEY IN OUR FACES. Completely not expecting monkey’s, Elder Lala and I jumped and ran away like little girls.
Then, as we collected ourselves once again, we went back over to the monkeys, where Elder Lala tried to converse with them (apparently monkeys speak a language similar to that of Malegesh). However, the monkey decided to run away and wouldn’t speak to us. Although, I did manage to get a pretty good picture with a monkey in the background.
Still, we did not come on this mission to scare monkeys away! Using some quick thinking, I we found a lady selling bananas, knowing that all monkeys love bananas. I mean really, have you ever heard of a monkey not liking a banana. Elder Lala slowly but surely stretched out his hand to the monkey, hoping to give it to him as a sort of peace offering. The monkey, though cautious, did finally take the banana and devoured it (note: I have never seen a banana eaten so masterfully).
Finally, after finishing the banana, the monkey apparently understood what Elder Lala tried to tell him earlier. Yet, the only word we heard come out of his mouth was “Songhai.” Having not a clue what that meant, we kept trying to communicate with him, but to no avail. All he kept saying was “Songhai, Songhai, Songhai.” Goodness, what could this little monkey be trying to say to us!?!?!
Disappointed and discouraged, Elder Lala and I hopped back into our square bus thinking that all hope was lost in finding that one good meal on our two year missions. Driving back through the hilly city of Porto Novo, we were almost out of the city until we saw the gate that said “Songhai”! Using the emergency break, we do a power slide into the complex hoping to find the hidden treasure we were searching so long for.
Inside, we found ourselves stopped by a tall, dark man. With a James Earl Jones-like voice, he asked us for the password. Having no idea what it was, we explained what had happened and what we were looking for. Not believing a word we were saying, he said that we needed proof that we were directed here by the proper deities. I remembered that I had taken a picture of Elder Lala’s badge and my own in front of the monkey sign. Holding up my camera to the guard, he sneered at first but then could not deny the fact that we went through the almighty King’s monkeys. Slightly angry, he let us into the courtyard where we sat down.
And then, our doubts, fears, and despairs turned into hope and joy as we saw two dishes heading towards us. We had done it: we received a portion of the legendary “Meal of the Gods.” With the purest rice I had ever tasted, the sweetest banana plantains that I have ever put in my mouth, and the meatiest chicken found in all of West Africa, Elder Lala and I finally dined like kings, or better put, gods. Finally, after months of suffering with the patte, the pima, the hot dogs delicious, we had received the greatest thing a missionary in Benin could hope for: a good meal.
One more Pic:
Note from the Fro: Loved the adventure of Porto Novo! A couple of other things I learned from Elder Hawkins this week. I asked why there were SO many power outages in Benin and not in Togo. They are constant in Benin, and because of it, his internet connection was impossibly slow. I didn't even receive his email with pictures until today! This is what he said:
Elder Hawkins: It wasn't like this at first but I don't know... we've heard so many different things. First off Benin doesn't make it's own power: it buys it from Ghana and Nigeria. Apparently, they got in a disagreement with the Nigerians so they don't supply Benin that much power. Now, Ghana is running into power problems because it's the end of the dry season and they get all their power through Hydroelectric plants... so when there's not a lot of water to power the plants, there's not power! I love these place!
And yeah... Togo has some of its own power plants. I would say we have like 8 hours of power throughout the day on a good day. It's usually less.
I cringe to think of how we complain when our power goes out every once in awhile during a storm!
He also received the package we sent him, once again using FedEx as it is the fastest option we've tried so far. This time, I thought since he might get it within the week, I'd bake him some homemade cookies! When asked if he'd received the package, this was his reply:
Elder Hawkins: Froizzle I didzle. Holy modizzle... those cookies... unimaginably awesome and amazing. I don't know why you haven't been sending me those the whole time. It's amazing how your cookies are still the best I've eaten here and they were a week old!