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Home By the Sea: the Paillote


If I had to point to my one favorite place in all of Benin, I'd draw your attention to a place that doesn't show up on any maps, isn't mentioned in any travel guide, and a decade from now probably won't even still exist: our paillote at the edge of the Atlantic. Unassuming, uncomplicated, and thoroughly authentic, the paillote has been a place of refuge and of reflection since approximately our arrival in 2006.

The paillote (from the French paille: "straw") is hardly well made, consisting of a rickety wooden frame and woven palm frond roof, set on a concrete platform facing the ocean. Every year we had to fight to get it repaired, as rain and wind take their toll over the course of the seasons. But a more peaceful place you could hardly ask for: spartan, alone. Cotonou's cell phone network barely reaches the place, thankfully. There's no electricity, little light, no pavement, just the red, dirt of the long beach road that stretches from the city, the dark stands of palm trees thick with the call of African long tailed crows.

Then of course is the Atlantic itself, at times troubled and occasionally, in the early morning light, placid, at times riven with breakers pouring over the bar, at times a tapestry of long period swells: there is no better place to appreciate it. We've slept on that beach with our camping gear and two very happy Afri-Mutts, enjoyed breakfast of croissants and coffee at sunrise, dug for treasure, body surfed, sun bathed, and escaped from everything else. Above all, that.

Like all good things, the paillote is in a vague danger of being replaced by something inferior, a state-run development project that promises luxury houses and multiple-star hotels. That vision may or may not come to be; if it does, the paillote and palms will succumb to concrete and asphalt. And a little corner of peace and tranquility will be lost. Simplicity is almost always better: the paillote gives us exactly that.


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