Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Not So Straight and Narrow Path

Semkens, less than 12 hours away from leaving! Miss them!

Not really feeling too many creative juices today. To be honest, I am feeling wiped out at the moment. That’s because, yesterday, I drove to and from the Togolese border. In theory, a little drive of 42 miles really shouldn’t be a problem. Back home, that might only be a forty minute drive! You know, just hop on the interstate, and boom… you’re there! Maybe you’ll run into a little traffic due to construction, but even that only lasts a few minutes.

Except this is not home. Actually, this is far from it. You see, between the Togolese border and Cotonou, there are no interstates. In fact, there aren’t even roads. Well, that is, I wouldn’t call them roads.

You see, there used to be a road that connected the two countries. But, that road has been destroyed by the Benin government and ECOWAS (the European Union of West Africa) in hopes that they can actually build a road that slightly resembles a highway. Their hopes are that this will help increase economic growth, help ease traffic, and modernize the country a bit. In reality, this new highway will be a real benefit for Benin and everybody that has to drive through Benin.

Until then, we’re stuck with construction. Now, this isn’t the construction that Americans are privileged with back home: merging into one paved lane, warning signs, and actual construction. Like I said before, they have ripped out almost all the pavement and are slowly (maybe surely?) making progress on this new highway. Sometimes, drivers are forced to take little side paths that are barely big enough for one car, but are used as a two lane road. In other parts, drivers zigzag between paved segments which are never on one continuous side, but rather on both sides but kilometers apart.

However, my “favorite part” is the detours that must be taken through little villages. For example, on one part of the road we have to take a detour through Ouidah (see: Voodoo capital of Benin, snake temple). While the dirt road we had to take wasn’t too bad, it was really bad for the huge semi-trucks and the cars loaded (imagine a car carrying twice its size of goods on top of its roof) who had to make the same trek I was taking. Why? Because it had rained the night before, thus making huge puddles of what resembled chocolate milk (spoiler: it wasn’t). I actually pitied the poor truck drivers who were stuck in the mud trying to find their way out. The worst was when we passed a semi-truck full of coconuts tipped over on the side of the road (no regulations here mean people pack semi-trucks and regular cars as much as possible… so combine being too top heavy and bad roads and you get tipped over semis).

The gate of no return

Okay, really my “favorite part” of the trip was the little detour Elder Lala and I made in Ouidah when we visited the “Gate of No Return.” When we both went to Ouidah last December, we didn’t visit it for some odd reason so we decided to take this opportunity to go and visit the site! We actually had no idea where the gate was, but when we were in the city center, we decided to find the biggest road and follow it towards the beach. And, what do you know, we found it! Some guy did try to give us a tour, but he knew that the missionaries come all the time to Ouidah so he left us alone to wander around (for free!). Being that we were the only tourists, all that we could hear were the crashing waves of the ocean. It kind of left me with an uneasy feeling however, thinking back to about 300 years ago where one would most likely be hearing chains clinking and clacking, whips cracking, and the moans of the people walking towards the huge ships of the Europeans. Thankfully, I didn’t hear any of that while I was there but it really made me think about what the Dahomey Empire (what is now Benin) was really known for a few centuries ago. Nevertheless, it was nice to make a visit to the spot that I thought I might never get a chance to see while here in Benin.  

Me at the gate of no return 

Beach after the gate.

Statues on the side of the gate

Anyway, back to the roads, I don’t want to rag on this country for trying to advance itself… in fact I think it’s going to be a great day when the whole highway is finished! But honestly driving through the construction really just wiped me out. You have to stay constantly vigilant of potholes, passing drivers, poorly marked detours, etc. Then, you’re just constantly bouncing around in the truck because of the awful dirt road detours that you have to take. Sister Weed (who has to make this trip probably about twice a month) put it well when she said that all you want to do after driving it is sleep… even though you really only drove the equivalent between Philadelphia and Baltimore!

However, today I can’t go to sleep. In fact, I’m gearing up for a spectacular night of pancakes. Our “Soiree de Pancakes” for the young adults, young men, and young women is finally going to happen tonight (after being pushed back by the Branch presidency) and we are going to P-A-R-T-Y! After a poorly thrown activity thrown by the Relief Society last week (due partially to the power outages), the youth are super excited for our missionary activity. We’ve been making flyers, visiting inactives and amis, and telling everybody to tell everybody and their dogs to come! (Actually, dogs can’t come).

I’ll be sure to talk more about it next week after it happens because I think it would be a lot cooler to actually show you the pictures and the fun that we had! In the past 24 hours though, we have been getting everything together to have a mega-pancake party. To combat the power outages, we’re going to bring these battery things that we have at the bureau to power our computers when the power goes out… that way, the music won’t go out in the middle of the party! We’re trying to not make this thing a flop… and to be honest, the way I feel about it is that it’s all just so crazy, that it might just work!

Yesterday was pretty crazy and now today is going to be even crazier in trying to make over 100 pancakes for the branch. This will be the first time people will be eating pancakes, so we don’t want them to have a bad first experience with such a fine American delicacy. However, Elder Gray and I are confident in our craziness that we will be able to get this done! We won’t be giving them the total authentic pancake (no maple syrup) but we bought pineapples, mangoes, and limes in hopes that maybe we can make some good fruit syrups to put on the pancakes.

Now that I think about it, this week has been pretty crazy because we also had to say goodbye to the Semken's, who finished their missions this past Wednesday here in Benin. It was really sad to say goodbye to them because they did a great job here in the Office, but that’s the mission! We were happy to welcome in the Christensen's (who were working in Togo) and I’m sure they’ll do a great job. I don’t know if we and the Christensen's will be able to fill the void that the Semken's have left, but we really don’t have a choice, so onward we go!

Just another crazy week here in the Bureau and in Benin in general! Thanks to everybody for the prayers and the thoughts.

‘Till next week!

Elder Hawkins

Year 2000 commemorative statue. I think it was made by the Catholics (hence the cross). I'm not sure why it's there but I'm sure it has to do with Benin being a "Christian nation" and not a voodoo nation (Catholics are super anti-Voodoo) which is why I'm sure they put it at Ouidah (Voodoo capital). 

Note from the Fro:  Can't wait to hear how the pancake party went last night! He and Elder Gray have been planning it for WEEKS!  He had me send him a pancake recipe and I asked if he tried it out first before trying it for the masses.  He said that, thankfully he had, because that's when he and Elder Lala realized that baking powder and YEAST are NOT the same thing.  Oh dear. 

And I can tell he was super tired while writing this because usually, with his description of the road, he would have made a comparison like the one that came to MY mind.  So I will add my thoughts here, though it won't be half as good as what he would have come up with!  As he was describing this road I was thinking how it was just exactly the opposite of the "strait and narrow" path in Lehi's dream (1 Nephi 8:20). And how easy it is in this life to get side-tracked (or detoured!) from that straight and narrow path. Which ends up riddled with potholes that slow our progress, or people who have fallen by the wayside (overturned trucks), even shiny temptations (side trips, haha!) that take you further from the track. Just the mere struggle to get back to that straight path (zigzagging all the obstacles), can leave you extremely tired. Zapped of energy. Even wondering if you can ever make it back. Cue the mists of darkness descending. 

How grateful I am, not only that we have lovely roads (actually, ours are riddled with potholes at the moment as well...), but that we know that there is always a way back to that straight and narrow path.  Christ is the way, and I am forever grateful for His atoning sacrifice for us. But oh, how much easier would life be, if we just stayed on that path in the first place? 

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