Rachel Décoste landed in West Africa’s Republic of Benin in August 2018, anticipating an important journey of self-discovery, but not predicting the extent to which the trip would change her life.
On her first day exploring Benin, Rachel asked a passerby for directions. Two weeks later, Rachel and the stranger were engaged. Within six months, they were married.
Rachel grew up in Ottawa, Canada, the daughter of Haitian parents who’d immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s. As an adult, Rachel relocated to Washington DC for college, later working for a bipartisan tech program associated with the United States Congress.
Rachel loved this job, she loved the diversity of Washington and loved working in public service. When her US visa was up for renewal, Rachel, then in her early 40s, figured she’d work remotely for a few months before returning to DC.
But rather than working from Canada, she hatched a plan to set up her desk further afield.
Earlier that year, Rachel had submitted her DNA to an online ancestry site. Rachel had long known she was the descendent of enslaved Africans, but until she got the results, she hadn’t known where her forebears had lived. Now, she had a list of countries where she had roots: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana and Benin.
“DNA tests for a descendant of enslaved Africans has very deep significance for us,” Rachel tells CNN Travel. “Even though it’s not a precise science, when you get the map of where your ancestors came from, it’s an emotional journey.”
Rachel arrived in Benin towards the end of her five month remote working trip. She’d already visited the other countries on her list, and her African trip was shaping up to be an extraordinary journey of self-discovery. Nevertheless, Rachel didn’t know what to expect from Benin.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I could find Benin Republic on a map before this,” she says.
She booked a room in a bed and breakfast in the port city of Cotonou, planning to stay there for two weeks – working from the B&B and exploring the country in her spare time.
Following a couple of days settling in, Rachel ventured out for the first time. She planned to visit Ouidah, once one of the most active slave trading ports in Africa. She expected this would be a moving and thought-provoking experience.
“I’m sure that one of my ancestors passed by there, just because of my DNA test,” says Rachel.
Exiting her room, Rachel searched around for the manager of her bed and breakfast – she was looking for guidance on how best to travel to Ouidah.
“She’s nowhere to be found. And then I look for the security guard, and the security guard is on break.”
Rachel figured her next best bet was asking a passerby outside, so she opened the gates and glanced around.
The first person she spotted was a man about to get on a motorcycle, parked just outside.
Rachel greeted the stranger in French – as a French Canadian, French is her first language and it’s also the official language of Benin – and politely asked him how to get to Ouidah.
“You have to go to a certain intersection downtown, where all the bush taxis are,” explained the stranger. “You find the taxi going to your destination, you pay for your seat, and then you’ll get there.”
He started passing on directions to the intersection, but then, realizing they were a bit complicated, changed his tune.
“If you want. I can bring you there, it’s about 10 minutes away,” he suggested, gesturing to his bike.
It was about 9 a.m. Rachel was wary of trusting someone she didn’t know, but she decided she was unlikely to come to harm in broad daylight. She agreed.
“I take a chance, hop on the back of his motorcycle, no helmet,” she recalls.
The motorbike-riding stranger was Honoré Orogbo, a single father and business owner in his thirties who’d lived in Cotonou all his life and just happened to be passing by that morning.
When Rachel opened the bed and breakfast door, Honoré had just finished eating some breakfast he’d grabbed from a nearby street kiosk.
From the outside, Rachel’s accommodation wasn’t obviously a B&B. Honoré says he assumed she was the owner of the house. It was only when she asked for directions that Honoré realized Rachel was a visitor.
When Rachel and Honoré arrived at the taxi rank in Cotonou city center, they realized the one heading to Ouidah was pretty empty. Honoré explained it would be some time before it departed – the driver wouldn’t leave until the taxi was full.
Rachel was disheartened. She didn’t have time to wait around – she wanted to spend the whole day in Ouidah without feeling rushed, and to safely return to Cotonou before sundown.
Sensing her disappointment, Honoré came up with a suggestion. He had a friend in Ouidah he’d been hoping to visit – while he hadn’t been planning to go that day, he could, he had a day off.
“I’m like ‘Cool. I’ll pay for gas. Let’s go,’” recalls Rachel.
Just over an hour later, they arrived in Ouidah.
“He shows me how to get back – where the bush taxis are that I can get back that afternoon – and he shows me where the Slave Museum is. And I’m like, ‘Okay, good to go. Thanks, sir,’” recalls Rachel.
But before they were due to go their separate ways, Rachel asked Honoré if he wanted to get brunch. She wanted a bite to eat before she started her tour – and extending the invite to Honoré felt like the polite choice, he’d gone out of his way to help her, after all.
Honoré agreed, touched by the gesture. The two sat down to eat.
Rachel was aware that she was a woman traveling alone, and while Honoré had been nothing but polite and respectful, he was still a stranger, so she told him she was married.
She also didn’t share details of her job, or her life in the US. But she did explain how she was hoping to travel around Benin over the coming days. She asked Honoré if he had any friends or contacts who worked as chauffeurs or tour guides, and who might be interested in escorting her around over the next couple of days. She figured that might be easier than relying on taxis.
Honoré contacted a tour guide friend, but he was fully booked
“So I said, ‘Well, how about you? Can you be my escort? You helped me out this morning, can I just pay you to do that for three days?’” recalls Rachel.
“No, I’m not a I’m not a tour guide,” said Honoré. “I don’t know my country’s history by heart, and that’s not what I do.”
Rachel backtracked. She didn’t really need a tour guide – there would be experts at all the historical sites she planned to visit – she just needed a ride.
After a bit of back and forth, Honoré agreed to drive Rachel.
“When she insisted, I said ‘Why not?’” Honoré recalls today.
He wanted to help Rachel, Honoré says. She seemed like a “good person,” based on the way she’d approached him, the way she’d asked him questions and the way she’d invited him to brunch.
The two agreed Honoré would drive Rachel around for the next few days, starting that day in Ouidah, and Rachel would pay him for his services.
For the rest of the week, Honoré took Rachel to Benin’s most important sites.
Touring Benin was a powerful experience for Rachel. She says visiting the slave fort, inside Ouidah’s Museum of History, “is a pilgrimage that every afro-descendant should visit to remind us of the cruelty that our ancestors survived.”
“I didn’t know this before going there in person, but if Las Vegas was taking bets on the survival of enslaved Africans, the odds of my being alive today would have been slim to none,” says Rachel. “I am a walking, talking miracle. I am the ‘one percent.’ I owe it to those who didn’t make it to live my best life.”
While traveling around Benin, Rachel and Honoré talked. While Rachel still didn’t disclose many details about her personal circumstances, but she found herself opening up to Honoré about her thoughts and feelings. Honoré opened up in turn.
“First conversations were about learning about myself, my family, my situation, who I am, who I really am,” he says.
“We were very open and very candid, because we were strangers and we’ll never see each other again,” recalls Rachel.
She remembers being touched when Honoré explained that he didn’t have a new model of motorcycle because he put all his money towards his son’s education.
“He says ‘I’d rather have my kid have those opportunities than drive a fancy motorcycle.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, those are the values of my parents.’ I saw myself in those values,” says Rachel.
In one of their many conversations, Honoré mentioned his brother was a tailor. On their fourth day together, Honoré took Rachel to a market to help her buy fabric that his brother could make into a dress.
Rachel was overwhelmed by the choice – so much so that she asked Honoré to pick his favorites. He opted for two pieces of colorful, bright Ankara fabric. The third option was a white, gray, lace style, called lessi. Rachel loved it, and figured the resulting dress could be “appropriate for a baptism or some kind of special occasion.”
In one of their many conversations driving to Benin landmarks, Honoré mentioned to Rachel that he would usually travel to Lomé, the capital of the neighboring country of Togo, when he and his friends wanted a night out.
Rachel was intrigued.
“I can’t guarantee that I’ll ever come back here. This is a once in a lifetime trip where I’m getting paid while I’m working in a foreign country. I want to take advantage of every opportunity,” she remembers thinking.
“So I said, ‘Well, I have to go back to work this week. But next weekend, if you’re willing, I could get two hotel rooms and we could go to Togo together.”
The following weekend, Honoré took Rachel to a poetry slam night in Lomé, followed by a bar with live music. They stayed out all night.
“We’re dancing. It’s just pure joy,” says Rachel.
It was around this time that Rachel started to feel things shift. She felt comfortable around Honoré in a way she’d never felt before.
“We get along great. He laughs at my jokes,” she recalls thinking. “I had a bit of a meltdown a couple times – which I’m not proud of – where he didn’t freak out, because usually angry Black women scare people. But he took it all in his stride.”
Rachel even briefly met Honoré’s son.
She described the situation in an email to one of her close friends back in Ottawa.
“I think I think this person should be my husband. But am I crazy? I’ve known this guy for a week. Is that stupid? Tell me if I’m crazy,” she wrote.
Her friend wrote back: “Rachel, you are not a stupid person. You have good judgment. You are a good judge of character. If he’s the one, grab him.”
For Honoré, the trip to Togo was a turning point too.
“I think it’s that night that the lightning struck,” he says. “It was not lightning but it was a feeling of love. I think that’s where the feeling of love started.”
Rachel only had one more week in Benin before she was set to return to North America. She decided she had no time to waste.
“I told him that I really wasn’t married. And he was very happy to hear that. And we got together,” she says.
“I was kind of surprised,” says Honoré now. “I thought a woman like that would probably have a husband.”
“Next day I saw her differently,” he adds. “Not like a tourist but my soulmate. That’s how the relationship started. Step by step.”
For the remainder of Rachel’s time in Benin, Rachel and Honoré spent as much time together as they could.
Long distance engagement
On the evening of Rachel’s departure, Honoré recalls sitting with her on a beach. He was enjoying the moment, but also considering Rachel’s impending return to Canada, and what it meant for their burgeoning romance.
“We were facing the ocean. In my head, I was thinking ‘the past two weeks that I’ve spent with you, I have no regrets. We had a great time together. I was really happy to meet you.’”
The two talked about the future, and if and how they could make a long distance relationship work. They realized they were both equally committed, and so they decided to get engaged, and that Honoré would relocate to North America.
It was a big decision. They’d only known one another for a couple of weeks. And for Honoré, emigrating had never been a goal. It would be a big change for his son. But Honoré says he decided to “follow my instincts, to follow my heart.”
Meanwhile, Rachel quit her life in DC, and went back to Canada. Rachel says her friends were shocked, but supportive and happy when she told them about the whirlwind romance. Her parents were more skeptical, she says. But they came round when they met Honoré, and saw how in love he was with their daughter.
Rachel returned to Benin six months later, in January 2019, for her wedding to Honoré. She wore the dress made from the white lace fabric Honoré had picked for her in the market the summer before. It felt like fate.
Meanwhile, the couple planned a Canadian wedding celebration for the following year, navigating Honoré and his son’s immigration journey in the meantime.
“I took the time during the separation to start preparing myself mentally and psychologically for a big move,” recalls Honoré. “I had to think about the huge life change that was going to be ahead of me, the cultural differences. I know people who went to the Americas and it wasn’t necessarily easy.”
Honoré also prepared his child for the move.
“I explained to him that, ‘My son, we will go to a different country and we will start over together. With time, you will have new friends, you will have new cousins. You will have everything you wish for. everything that you have here you will have over there, in time.”
Honoré and his son arrived in Canada in the middle of winter.
“It was really really really cold,” he recalls. “I just didn’t understand how cold it could be outside. Because the cold of Africa is a whole different kettle of fish, than the cold in Canada.”
Still, once Honoré was kitted out with Canada-appropriate boots, coat and mittens, he started adapting to life in a new country.
Rachel and Honoré say they were over the moon to be together. The months apart waiting for Honoré’s visa approval had been long.
Honoré’s son settled in very quickly, and Rachel adapted to becoming his stepmother, a role she says she loves.
“I’m embracing the challenge and the joys of motherhood,” she says now.
“It’s not easy when you’ve been single since forever to adjust to having to share your life. But he’s a good kid.”
Today, Honoré and Rachel live in Ottawa. Rachel works as a diversity and inclusion expert, while Honoré is studying.
Rachel also recounted her experiences traveling Africa in 2018, including meeting Honoré, in an audiobook called “Year of Return: a Black Woman’s African Homecoming.”
Rachel and Honoré are also bringing up their son together, and run a business selling warm, Canada-winter-appropriate pajamas with African prints, called Woke Apparel.
The pandemic put a stop to their big Canadian wedding celebration plans, but they enjoyed a small ceremony in summer 2020.
Reflecting on their journey together, Honoré says their story makes him consider that “sometimes you shouldn’t force fate.”
He sees meeting Rachel as “destiny” but considers moving across the world to be with her as proof of the importance of trusting your gut.
“Just follow your heart,” he says. “Follow your heart with reckless abandon.”
As for Rachel, she says their love story is a reminder to her that “it’s never too late.”
“You’re not too old to just travel alone by yourself, in a country that you don’t know, where you don’t know anybody. You’re never too old to find love. You’re never too old to become a mother.
There is no expiration date on opportunity. And grab life by both hands. If I can do it. You can.”