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.