As we headed back from the beach in Grande Popo, we found a large empty warehouse-like building where we could shelter, sleep, and safely stash our packs as we wandered about over the next few days in this beautiful, spiritual, and haunted place.
Haunted? Yes. We had known that this area was the Slave Coast, the African source of much of the slave trade, but we thought it might be long forgotten. In front of a small, rectangular, thatch roofed building, surrounded by a grove of coconut palms was a large, tall, white cross with a statue of a black Jesus nailed to it. We must have stood there 5 or 10 minutes just taking it all in. So many souls had left here and not returned.
Hiro and I encountered several old men sitting in front of a building near the Black Jesus. We spoke with them; Hiro smiling and listening, periodically motioning in an attempt at sign language, me speaking with them in French. I asked a tall, thin old man about what was on the island in the lagoon, and whether it was possible for us to go and explore there.
He replied that the island was filled with taboos, that there were evil spirits of dead natives and slave-traders. He said that we could go, but he cautioned us that we might not like it or enjoy it. He warned us that we needed a guide, a shaman, to accompany and guide us.
We asked, “Where can we find a shaman?”
“I am and I can take you there,” he said.
Early the next morning, we met our shaman guide on the shore across from the island. He was smiling and motioned us to help him drag his rowboat into the water. We got in. He pushed off, got in and slowly rowed us to the island. The air was heavy and still; there was no one else around, either on the shore or in the water.
As we approached the island, we could see the towering trees that looked smaller from the opposite shore. We slid up to land and pulled the rowboat onto shore.
It was dead silent, except for the buzzing flies and mosquitoes.
That buzzing got louder as we entered a dense jungle. After a few minutes, we approached a small clearing in the forest, a kind of shrine with totems. Our guide stopped and said something in his native dialect as if asking the spirits permission to enter. He seemed to ignore us, as if he were in a kind of trance. Hiro and I stood silently. He motioned us forward saying, “Attention” in French, take heed. Then “Avertir, avertir..” – be cautious, “dangereux,” “Ne touche pas”… It’s dangerous, Don’t touch. He said, “Les esprits sont là, les esprits sont tout autour de nous…” The spirits are here, the spirits are all around us.
All the time, mosquitoes were feasting on us. We walked to the center of the island on a very narrow but well-warn trail. He told us that foreign people never come here, that it is forbidden, but he felt that we seemed different, so it might be all right. I think that this was the first time in this old man’s lifetime that he had seen a peculiar pair of travelers like Hiro and me. From the small clearing in the center of the island, we traveled on a circular path around the island encountering clearings with shrines and totems spaced irregularly along the way.
Finally, we emerged from the jungle at the shore just 100 meters from our boat. A couple of hours on the island had seemed like a couple moments. When we emerged from the jungle back to the shore, it felt as if we had awakened from a meditation or trance. We had completely lost track of time. It was a mystical, spiritual place. Hiro and I were happy to quickly get back into the boat and escape the swarm of mosquitoes that were grateful for our visit.
While we left our blood, we also left feeling the presence of the ghosts of those who had gone before.