Sunday, February 3, 2008

Magnolia's return

Some of you know that I have a cat named Magnolia. For those of you who didn’t know, I’m sure you can finally die happy knowing this vital piece of information concerning my life in Benin. She’s named after my idea of heaven on earth, Magnolia Bakery in NY.

Magnolia was probably the most spoiled cat in this country, that is, before she decided to run away when I took her to get her rabies shot at the local “veterinarian.” I say “veterinarian” in quotes because the sign only says veterinarian even though the women sitting outside of it are selling things like soap and bananas. Anyway, this happened about a month ago, and I kept looking for her and asking people if they had seen her. No luck.

I figured that she wasn’t the most street savvy cat, having been locked in my house for most of her life. I knew she wouldn’t last a week on the “mean streets” of Pobe, and after a month, gave up on the thought of finding her.

Then, the other day I was walking around the marche and figured I might as well ask the woman selling chickens if she has any cats for sale. This sounds like a really strange demand, but the women in the marche who sell chickens and goats also sell things like cats, dogs, and turtles. I told her I didn’t want to buy one today, but that I was just looking. She did say that she had one cat and that I could see it if I wanted to. I said OK, and the woman brought out this big tied-up burlap sack. I already knew I would probably end up buying whatever was inside the bag just to save it from its misery.

She slowly unties the sack and I look inside to find Magnolia! My jaw drops instantly and I ask her how much. 1500CFA or about $3. I actually paid that much when I first bought her and was kind of annoyed that I would be paying that again to buy back a cat that was already mine, but I figured it was worth it. I didn’t want to argue with her that it was already my cat because she probably would have made me pay a ridiculous amount to get her back.

I didn’t have a sack of my own to take her back home, so the woman lent me her giant burlap sack and asked me to return it the next day. Not wanting to walk the 30 minutes back to my house with a terrified cat in hand, I decided to take a zem (moto) which probably scared her even more. She was crying the whole way home and I thought how odd it would be to see a white girl on the back of a motorcycle carrying a meowing burlap sack. I suppose I’ve done stranger things, but nothing really comes to mind at the moment.

In other news I’m heading to Senegal for 3 weeks! I’m going overland through Burkina Faso and Mali and will then head on to Dakar, Senegal for WAIST (West African I…something Softball Tournament). It’s a tournament for all Peace Corps Volunteers in West Africa. Our team name is The Fighting Squirrels. It might sound weird that a furry, woodland creature is our mascot, and yea, it is weird, but we actually chose it because the Beninese national soccer team mascot is also the squirrel. I have no idea where that came from, but will let you know as soon as I find out. I’m fairly certain that squirrels don’t even exist in Africa, but I was also fairly certain that I wouldn’t get my cat back and look what happened.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Orphaned out

Madonna’s got one. Angelina Jolie has collected a few. And I’m pretty sure boatloads of other celebrities are on the waiting list. Part of me only wishes I was talking about some fabulous designer purse that cost more than some people here would make in a lifetime, but no, I’m talking about orphans.

Having missed the day at school where they handed out the “maternal gene,” I don’t exactly get the feeling of wanting to adopt every orphan I see so I can have a giant multicultural family, though I often think about how I’ll die a cold, lonely witch who has amassed an impressive number of cats. Also, since I’m pretty sure I got giardia from my host sister’s dirty little hands, I now not only look at children with dislike as I did before, but also with complete and utter fear. Every time a child grabs my hand I immediately think about the fact that this tiny, affectionate action could lead me to sit on my toilet for longer than is really appropriate to mention to anyone outside of the Peace Corps (seeing as bowel movements are more or less a part of everyday conversation, just like normal people would talk about the weather, baseball scores, or even last night’s episode of American Idol).

Now, over the holiday season, I’m sure most of you had the opportunity to go to a holiday office party where you may or may not have drank too much and embarrassed yourself in front of your coworkers. I guess I should feel lucky that I missed out on that holiday tradition because I surely would have been the one double fisting the eggnog and blurting out office secrets. Instead of partaking in that, I had the opportunity to go to not one, but THREE orphan parties in Benin.

You might be a little shocked that I say “I went to an orphan party” with as much ease as someone would say “I went to a Tupperware party.” I guess it’s a little strange, but what’s even worse is that immediately after I wrote that this little conversation popped into my head:

Deborah: Hey, Sally! What are you doing this weekend?
Sally: Nothing much, just hosting a little orphan party this Saturday. Want to come?
Deborah: Oh. My. Gosh!!! I just LOVE orphan parties. What time?
Sally: 7:00 sharp. Don’t be late, and could you please bring an appetizer of some sort?
I’ve heard you’re quite the hors d’oeuvre princess*
Deborah: Ok, will do. I make some mean pigs in a blanket. See you Saturday!

* Deborah is (sadly) not the true hors d’oeuvre princess. That title belongs to a one Ms. Beanerschnitzel whose real name will remain a secret to protect the princess’ identity.

The first party took place in Pobé with my postmate’s NGO. I basically sat around and watched as people handed out gifts like toy trucks, scary dolls, clothes, and my favorite item, small bags of rice. It was really well organized, and there was even a dance contest among some of the children. I also made a new “friend” at the orphan party. When I first got there a young girl kept staring at me and raising her eyebrows. I wasn’t really sure how to respond to this so I just smiled awkwardly and waved. That was probably a mistake seeing as she came over and talked my ear off for what I would say was a good 3 hours. I wouldn’t necessarily be so annoyed (that’s probably a lie), but she kept asking me questions about France even though I told her about 50 times that I’m from America and that they’re two different countries.

There was also food at the party, and even though it was clearly for the orphans, it’s a general rule of thumb that any white person at a Beninese party must eat. And by eating I don’t mean simply just eating a small plateful and calling it a day. I’ve learned that Beninese come dangerously close to force feeding people (ie. me) and making them feel like they just ate Thanksgiving dinner times 10.

Il faut manger.

I always try to eat whatever I can because I don’t want to offend anyone by not eating, and plus, I’m not the type of person who turns down free food. They were serving rice and small pieces of beef at the party and while each orphan got one piece of beef, I managed to get 4. I guiltily ate my food, knowing I should feel bad for eating more than the Beninese orphan children. My protein-starved body was; however, really happy that it was eating meat other than beef jerky.

(Note: if you’re looking for things to send me, send magazines and beef jerky. I wish I was kidding, but I’ve fallen in love with beef jerky and now place it in my “foods I cherish in an unhealthy manner” category that includes cheese, cupcakes, strawberries, and my dad’s corn chowder soup.)

After the party in Pobe, my postmate and I headed to another volunteer’s village for orphan fête (party en français) number two. This one was a bit more interesting because there was a Papa Noël present. But, first, there was another dance contest which makes me believe that dance contests are mandatory at orphan parties since we were 2 for 2 at this point. All of the contestants (who were all probably under the age of 12) could dance circles around me. They were so good that they made me rethink my lifelong dream of being a backup dancer for Beyoncé. I guess I just have to settle for dancing by myself in my room.

I feel I should mention more about Papa Noël since he was probably one of the weirdest (and scariest) things I’ve seen in this country. Santa was actually this skinny Beninese man who was dressed up like the real Santa from the neck down (minus the jolly belly). It was his interpretation of Santa from the neck up, though, that will probably give me the heebie jeebies around Christmas time for the rest of my life.

Instead of just putting on a beard and a hat, he had on an eerie Japanese Kabuki mask. I’m assuming this was done because no other ‘white person mask’ could be found, but come on…I was certain that a frightening Japanese mask would never pass for Father Christmas.

I was wrong.

The kids were excited to see him and even cheered as he came in on his decorated push cart. Some of the kids sat on his lap as he handed out packets of cookies. I’m pretty sure no kids cried, though I almost did. This has led me to believe that American children are a lot wimpier than Beninese children. I definitely cried when I was forced to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him I wanted a My Pretty Pony. Had I been forced to sit on the Kabuki Santa’s lap, I probably would have pooped my pants and gone into therapy at the age of 6.

Orphan party number 3 took place in another volunteer’s town. This one was different because we actually went to the orphanage instead of having the fête under a paillote (like a big umbrella made of wood and leaves) around town. There were about 9 volunteers (including one who dressed up like Santa), and as soon as we got out of the car a swarm of kids came running towards us. Immediately, three girls were asking for my name and fighting over who would be the one to hold my hand. I’m not sure if it was the African heat that thawed my icy heart a little bit, but I can honestly say that the day at the orphanage was one of the best days I’ve had in Benin. It was nice to feel appreciated by these kids for just simply being there and playing with them for a little bit.

For most of December I wondered why I was in hot, dirty Benin and not at home with my family and friends, but the day at the orphanage actually made me really happy to be here. I think it even made me like children a little bit more even though I still slather hand sanitizer all over myself when one of them touches me.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Holy bologna

Seasons greetings from your favorite Filipino-German in Benin (actually, I’m probably the only Filipino-German in Benin, at least until my schwester comes to visit, and even then, I’ll probably still be your favorite hehe). I’m not as depressed as I thought I would be around the holiday season, but that’s probably because it doesn’t really feel like Christmas time to me. No snow, no overcrowded malls, no hideous reindeer displays, no jolly old men dressed up in Santa costumes. I don’t think any of that is going to appear overnight in Benin, but I don’t mind since I’m really looking forward to spending the holidays with some of the other volunteers.

I think this is where I’m supposed to have some revelation about the true meaning of Christmas, but instead of boring you with that, I’ll bore you with what I’ve been up to these past few weeks.

I finally started doing some work! As much as I’ve enjoyed doing nothing for the past few weeks, it feels good to actually do something meaningful. I think I was a little discouraged about my work situation this month because the President and VP of the artisans (my work partners) were really helpful in the beginning, but haven’t been so helpful recently. It took me a while to realize that I’m going to have to take much more initiative in getting projects and classes started. I don’t mind the complete flexibility in making my work schedule, but I’m realizing more and more that I like things a bit more structured.

There is also such a different meaning of “time” and “work” here that it’s kind of hard getting into a schedule. If I don’t happen to do something today, then I can always do it tomorrow, and there isn’t any consequence in waiting a day or a week or a month to start something. I guess the only consequence is the guilt I would feel not doing anything, which does weigh pretty heavily.

Anyway, so I had my first computer lesson this past week with 6 artisans. I feel really lucky to even have a classroom of computers available for me to teach with. The classroom is a part of my town’s technical school (where apprentices go for class a few times a week). Normally, the computers are reserved for students and faculty only, but the director of the school was nice enough to let me use the classroom for a few hours a week. The class was supposed to start at 5pm, but seeing as Benin is in Africa, and it follows “Africa time,” people didn’t show up until 5:45.

And this isn’t the first time that time has been an issue. Last month the VP told me he was going to pick me up to go to a meeting at 8am, but didn’t actually arrive until 10 or so, no big deal. I’m going to have to be stricter about the class really starting on time, but then again, what if I’m not? Is someone going to die? Is the world going to end? The answer is no.

Becoming more relaxed in my punctuality-ness is my first step to being “bien integré” or well integrated in my community and the Beninese lifestyle. The phrase is often used among volunteers to describe other volunteers who are really into Beninese culture. They eat a lot of pâte, wear tissue clothing all the time, date or even marry a Beninese person, and even join secret voodoo societies.

Anyhoo, the class went well, but it was a little shocking to realize how little is known about computers. I mean, in the States kids seem to know how to use a computer before they’re even eating solid foods. It’s just something that we’ve grown up with as a normal part of our everyday lives. There are obviously people here who know how to use computers and surf the internet, but what I experienced in my class gave me one of those “reality check” moments that I’ve had almost daily since I’ve been here. A lot of what I did the first class was teach people how to hold a mouse, explaining the difference between a left-click and a right-click, and other basic computer functions that seem like second nature to you and me. I don’t think people here are stupid; they’re not, but certain aspects of life and the things that are important to know here are just so different than what’s needed to get by in the States. For example, I may know how to use a computer, but ask me to kill a chicken, build a table, or pick out a good yam from a bad yam, and I’ll just give you a blank stare and an awkward “I have no idea what’s going on” smile.

Besides the computer class, I’ve continued helping with the English club at the local high school. I am also continuing my French lessons, but have added some Nagot (a main local language) to the session as well. Nagot is a really hard language to learn for a couple reasons: 1. It’s a tonal language so slight differences in intonation make a world of difference. I have this fear that I’ll end up saying something like “Yes, I will marry your son” when I really mean, “Yes, I would like 3 bananas” all because of an incorrectly inflected “A” or something. 2. I’m learning Nagot through French which means I have to go from English to French to Nagot and back again for anything to make sense. Oh well, I guess I’ll learn. On a good note, I am excited to say things like “baba baba” (grandfather) and “oooooh” (a response for things like good morning and good job).

I’m not planning on becoming fluent in Nagot, but I do want to be able to saluer (greet) people and buy things in the marché from the women who don’t speak French. Plus, people get really excited when they hear the town whitey say something in Nagot, and it makes me happy to put in that effort to learn something so culturally important to the people in my town. The other night I even got a round of applause from all the neighbor kids because I said “good night” in Nagot. I think I was having kind of a bad day too, but it’s funny how something small like that can just make everything better.

Speaking of the neighbor kids, we’ve been hanging out a lot this past week. Some of you know that the word “affectionate” isn’t the word used to describe my feelings towards children, but I actually like the ones that live by me. They’re really friendly and helpful and when I come home with a bunch of stuff in my hands they always take it from me and bring it upstairs to my apartment. I still get the occasional “yovo” or “oweebo” (white person or foreigner in local language) yell from them, but I hope to be able to teach them to say something like “foxy lady” or even just my name. I think I’ll probably go for “foxy lady” because I think it would be hilarious to have all the little kids yell that when they see me.
All the kids are very curious about what I’m doing and will knock on my door a lot just to get a peek inside my house. Also, I normally burn my trash in this metal bucket once a week and whenever I do that, they all come out and watch me. All I’m doing is poking a bucket of burning trash, but for some reason this is highly entertaining for these kids. I don’t think I’ve talked about what I do with my trash here, but I guess now is as good a time as any. Trash collectors don’t really exist here. Most people either burn their trash or just throw it on the street. I toss all my food scraps out of my kitchen window (since I’m on the second floor it just lands in this trash pile on the side of my house where goats and pigs will eat it). All my paper and plastic trash gets tossed into a bucket where I douse it with kerosene and light a match. Interesting, right?

So after burning my trash the other night I bring out some crayons and a coloring book for all the kids and they start clapping and screaming. Then one of them asks me if I can get my camera to take pictures of them. Since I was in a good mood, I said yes and brought my camera outside. I took a few pictures and showed them on the digital camera screen and they start flipping out. I mean not just jumping around, but going crazy like it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. I’m not even gonna go into how amazed they were when I tried to explain the self-timer button. While I would like to say that I’ll post the pictures, I would only be lying. I’ve tried, but it just takes too long to load even one picture, so if anyone back in the good ol’ US of A would like to be responsible for loading some of my pictures on a website, please let me know and I’ll get you a CD of my pictures.

Hmm…what else did I do this week? Well, I fixed my bike (all by myself), ate lot of papaya (the VP of the artisans gave me 4 huge papayas. Thank goodness my postmate likes them or I would be a little nervous about eating so much that I would actually turning into a papaya), and met some Canadians (there are 7 or 8 of them in my town until the end of January. I think most of them are just out of high school, but their supervisor is a little older and it’s nice to speak English with them and share experiences).

I also went and got yam pilé with one of my neighbors for dinner one night. I originally thought we were going to eat dinner with his family at home, but thanks to cross-cultural miscommunication, it meant that we were going out to get yam pilé alone. He’s older and the director of one of the local high schools, but I never got the “creepy man” vibe from him so I decided to go. I had a good time, but I definitely thought more about how strange and different my life has become in a matter of months…all from getting on a plane. I mean, there I was eating yam pilé with my Beninese neighbor speaking in French. So weird. I guess it was just one of those “Holy bologna *, I’m in Africa” moments.

* I don’t think I’ve ever actually mouthed the words “holy bologna” in my entire life. I’m not sure why I wrote that. It’s probably because the word “bologna” is normally replaced by something more vulgar than a highly processed lunch meat, but not really appropriate to post on my blog.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I'm still alive although I haven't written in a while

Next week will I’ll celebrate my 4 month anniversary in Benin and my 2 month anniversary at post! Looking back, time has gone by pretty fast, but I try not to look too far into the future because it’s pretty terrifying to think I have 22 months to go. Luckily, I love my town and I have a great postmate so my time in Benin shouldn’t be too miserable (aside from missing family and friends, mosquito bites, inevitable stomach issues, and the constant feeling of being “the smelly kid” in class).

I still haven’t started teaching any business or computer classes yet, but I have helped out with an English Club at the local high school which is called “college” here. I’m really looking forward to doing that each week because the kids seem really enthusiastic and eager to learn. In terms of my actual work, things are moving very slowly. I’m the first business volunteer in my town so there is a lot more prep-work to be done than for another volunteer who is replacing someone. I’ve met with a lot of the artisans, but the only thing we need to do now is figure out some sort of schedule of classes. No one seems to be in any rush here, which is both good and bad, I guess. I thought I would have trouble adjusting to the slower pace of life after being in NY for 4 years, but honestly, I’m doing just fine. I enjoy making my own schedule, I love love love repos (3 hour midday break), and I have a lot of “me” time to explore my town, read, draw, watch movies, write letters, and make peanut butter. Yep, I made peanut butter. I spent an embarrassingly large part of my day making it, but it was fun. Once I start teaching classes I’ll have a more “set” schedule, but for now, I’m just simply taking pleasure in the less stressful atmosphere.

Another obstacle to starting classes was that I had a PC meeting in Natitingou (a large city in the north) last week. It was with all of the other SED (Small Enterprise Development) volunteers who I was with during my 9 weeks of training. It was really nice to see everyone because I hadn’t seen any of them for about a month and a half since we got to post. I loved hearing about everyone’s experiences and realizing that work stuff is moving just as slowly for them. It was also a good venting session for everyone to talk about their problems with their towns, the artisans, or language/cultural issues. I was also happy that the meeting was up north because I haven’t been to that part of the country yet. For as small as Benin is, there are actually a lot of differences between the northern and southern parts of the country. The north is much more mountainous than the south, but not as green, and since less people live in the north, it gives off a more relaxed atmosphere.

This past week has been pretty uneventful, but I guess I can describe my “typical” day so you have a better idea of what exactly I’m doing with all my time Benin. I usually wake up at 6:45 or so and go for a run or do yoga (it’s too hot to work out at any other time of the day). After that, I shower and eat breakfast (bread, oatmeal, or leftovers from the night before). Sometimes I’ll do some laundry in the morning so I can leave it out to dry for the day, though it normally takes only a few hours for stuff to dry when it’s really hot. On Wednesdays my postmate and I work with a French tutor from 10-12 and then I help out with the English Club from 3-5. On other days I do work stuff or enjoy “me” time. “Me” time will lessen once I start classes (which will probably be in the morning at around 10 or in the afternoon at 3 or so). During repos from 12-3 I make lunch or go to a local “restaurant” (the lady who sells beans or rice on the side of the road) and then I take a nap or read for a bit. Sometimes I’ll wander around in the afternoon or buy things to make dinner. You usually have to buy things like tomatoes, onions, and fruits every other day because they go bad really quickly if they’re not in a fridge. I actually have a mini-fridge (all my furniture is from an old volunteer), but I never really use it. I try not to use a lot of electricity, plus I don’t mind going out to buy things every day because it gives me something to do. After I make dinner (which usually takes a while because I don’t know what I’m doing), I read some more or write letters. It gets dark here at around 7, so I don’t go out after that. I think I normally fall asleep by 10:30 or so. Exciting, huh?

While there are obviously a lot of differences between the way people live here and the way people live in the States, I like to think it’s not too different. I mean, each day I wake up and each day I fall asleep, just like I would at home. It’s just the things I do in between that make it interesting =)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

3 weeks

Almost three weeks have gone by since I got to post, and I can honestly say that not much has changed from the first week, except for the fact that I know my way around town a little better. My house still isn’t finished (my proprietor said it would be done this week, but that really means next week or never), but I guess it’s not really that big a deal. I’m just bummed because I feel like I’m in this sort of limbo between the idea that this is home for the next 2 years and the reality that this is home for the next 2 years…if that makes any sense at all.

I also just can’t wait to decorate and use my pastel pink toilet and sink.

Anyway, my postmate and I have walked around a lot together and that has lead to some encounters with some interesting people. Most of the time people just want to know what we’re doing here, but sometimes we get the pleasure of dealing with the folks who want us to bring them back to the States. I haven’t thought of a great comeback yet, but I’m thinking I’ll say something along the lines of, “Well, you can come back to America with me, but men there cook, do laundry, and take care of the kids.” Since these fun tasks belong to only women here, maybe they’ll think twice about wanting to relocate. Also, I was walking down the street the other day when a man held his baby up to me and said (jokingly?) something about bringing her back to the States. Maybe I should have just grabbed the baby and walked away to see what he would have done.

The two things I do love about exploring my town are discovering new food places and coming across the town crazies or “fous” en francais (they usually just yell things and are often missing some major article of clothing, like pants). I also love having my regular bread, fruit, chicken, and cheese ladies that I always go to for, well, bread, fruit, chicken, and cheese. It kind of reminds me of some of the regular food places I had back in NY: Rabin Raj for egg and cheese sandwiches, Mamoun’s for falafels, and Grey’s for hot dogs. Sigh. Close enough right? Oh, and don’t get too excited for me that I found cheese in my town. When I say cheese, I really mean a mixture between mozzarella and ricotta that doesn’t taste like either of those. I’m not sure how to explain it, but it’s white and round and doesn’t melt. I think the whole point of cheese is for it to melt, but I’ll take it because it’s the closest thing to cheese for more than an hour away by bush taxi.

Also, during my nine weeks of training, I only ate yam pile (my favorite Beninese dish) twice, but during my three weeks at post, I’ve probably had it 5 or 6 times. My postmate and I went to check out this yam pile place last week and we were deciding what type of meat to get. Our choices were fish, goat, and ‘agouti.’ I went with the goat, but my postmate got the ‘agouti’ even though she wasn’t quite sure what it was. She pointed to a picture of this rabbit on the wall and asked the woman who works there if ‘agouti’ was similar to rabbit. The woman said, “Yea.” Well, my friends, we later found out that ‘agouti’ means bush rat. It really isn’t as bad as it sounds (I tried a little bit), but I’ll probably stick to goat or chicken.

In other news, I finally named my cat after just calling her “cat” for 2 weeks. Her name is Magnolia. I’m not sure if I was really craving a cupcake when I thought of that name or if it was just too perfect for me to name her that, but there it is. You may or may not be judging my mental stability at this point (I don’t blame you since I did name my cat after a bakery), but I can assure you that my malaria medicine (the one that gives vivid dreams and hallucinations) has not made me crazy (yet).

Speaking of baked goods. I made my first cake in Benin! Yes, my initial fear that I wouldn’t be able to bake for 2 years is long gone. I made a pineapple upside down cake for my birthday party last week. I was a little nervous because 1. I’ve never even made a pineapple upside down cake in the States and 2. There are no such things as real ovens in PC houses and you have to construct a Dutch Oven with a big pot, old tomato paste cans, and a baking pan. Anyhoo, it turned out really well! Long live Martha.

My birthday party was a lot of fun. I went to a nearby town to visit some friends on my actual birthday, but we had a little shindig in our town the weekend after. My wonderful postmate hosted the party since I’m kind of homeless at the moment. We made a bunch of food and some sangria (made from boxed wine and mixed in a bucket…a classy bunch we are), and surprisingly, everything turned out really well! I was just so happy to be celebrating birthday #22 with a great group of people. I woke up on my actual birthday feeling pretty indifferent towards the whole day, which for me is not at all normal. Luckily, I was lifted out of my slump and ended up having a great week =)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

First few days at post

Well, folks. I made it through stage and am now officially a volunteer! The swear-in ceremony was on September 21 at the US Ambassador’s house in Cotonou. There were representatives from each Beninese Ministry that we’ll be working with (artisan/tourism, education, health, and environment). The best thing about swear-in; however, was the abundance of incredible mustaches. Yea, you heard me. The SED guys first decided to grow “swear-in beards” for 9 weeks, but that later changed to a “swear-in stache.” Represented staches included the Chester A. Arthur and Nintendo’s Mario, among others.

After the ceremony we went back to our training site town for a few days to pack up our stuff and head to post. I left for my town last Monday morning with another volunteer who is posted in a nearby town. Hopefully, I’ll get some pictures up soon because it’s incredible how they load things into these cars. I’ve definitely seen some taxis with so much stuff on top that they look like they’ll tip over at any moment. Anyway, I got to my post and unloaded my things and then went to a nearby town to get some furniture that a previous volunteer left for me. Unfortunately, my house isn’t finished yet, so I’m staying in another apartment right next door. I should be able to move in next week and finally get settled into my first house!

Oh! I bought a cat! She doesn’t have a name yet, and any suggestions would be welcome. I bought her at the marché in my training site town and brought her with me to post. She was definitely terrified in the taxi ride over, but she’s ok now and will probably enjoy her life as Benin’s most spoiled cat.

My first few days at post have been really great. I walked around the marché and other areas of the town with my postmate. The marché isn’t too impressive, but you can find all the basics like tomatoes, onions, rice, beans, oranges, bananas and stuff like that. My postmate and I are going to attempt to cook a few times a week, but we’re both pretty lazy when it comes to stuff like that, so I’ll probably end up eating street food a lot. Street food probably sounds a little sketchy, and it can be, but I’ve found some good places that serve rice and beans and yam pile, which is this delicious mashed yam dish with peanut sauce.

The one thing that I really love about my town is that it’s beautiful and fairly tranquil. A large road goes right through the town, but my house sits far enough from that road that the nights are really peaceful. I have also had the chance to go running this week on this dirt road that branches off from the main road. It’s a little hilly, but that makes my run even better because you can see the countryside when running away from town, and then you can see the town (which sits atop the hill) when you run back. Most of you know that I’m definitely a “big city” girl who still thinks Central Park is all the nature one needs, but I think I’ll really appreciate my 2 year break in “real” nature. I like to think of it as my version of Walden.

This week I also went to Porto Novo for a day with some other volunteers and then went to Cotonou because I went to my host mama’s papa’s funeral ceremony today in a town north of Cotonou. The cousin of my host family drove me up there and it was a really great experience. It was basically a big party with lots of food, music, and people dressed in similar tissue. While people are definitely sad when a loved one dies, the ceremony itself is more about celebrating their life than mourning their death. I don’t think that’s something that could be done everywhere, but it’s just a different take on that.

Post visit

(This is a really old post, but thought I would put it up anyway)

My visit to post (my home for the next two years) was definitely the most bizarre, awkward, and wonderful part of stage thus far. I left my training site town for Cotonou with another stagaire and our homologues, and after getting dropped off we went to search for a taxi to my town. After finding one (and knowing it could take hours for it to fill up) we walked around Cotonou and did some shopping (and by shopping I mean it was me just awkwardly following her around the marché while she bought some things). Anyhoo, we get back to the taxi and end up waiting for at least an hour and a half before it finally leaves.

I guess I haven’t really described the “bush taxi” experience yet, so here goes. First, imagine the oldest, most rusted car you’ve ever seen. Now, make it a Peugeot and add fifteen years to the car, and that’s the general state of most taxis in this country. I would be scared for my life every time I get into one, but usually I just think about how hilarious it is that I’m even in that sort of situation. I mean, how can you be sandwiched between a car door and a woman twice your size with her elbow in your back and not laugh? If you’re now wondering about the space issue in the taxis, I’ll try to clear things up. There will always be three people in the front- the driver, the person in the front seat, and the unfortunate person who is stuck between the two and who must be careful not to hit the stick shift or any of the exposed wires that are surely sticking out from under the dashboard. The backseat will always have 4 people (of varying sizes), hence the being smashed up against the door part. On my way back from my post visit there were actually 11 people in a station wagon taxi with 3 in the front, 5 in the middle, and 3 in the back.

I don’t think the taxi experience is too terrible because people get out along the way and it isn’t always that cramped. Also, there will usually be some crazy story that’ll come out of it.

My taxi ride was pretty interesting mainly because it involved me almost being “kidnapped” and married off to this woman’s son. I was sandwiched between my homologue and this crazy woman who didn’t speak any French. She had her daughter sitting on her lap so it wasn’t too crowded. However, this woman kept on staring at me, and since I am habitually awkward in those kinds of situations, I just kept smiling at her. Then she starts touching my hair. And hugging me. And saying things in a local language that I don’t understand. Luckily, my homologue was able to translate for me and the woman was basically asking if I was married and telling me that she had a son whom I could marry. She said that she lived in a neighboring town and that I should just stay in the taxi with her so I could go meet him. I just laughed the whole time because that’s what I do best. I only got a little nervous about the whole thing when I tried to get out of the taxi and she held on to me (but not too tightly) and kept yelling the name of her town and trying to get me to come with her. Good times.

I stayed at my homologue’s house for the whole visit and had my own little room on the other side of her courtyard. After napping for a few hours (the trip ended up taking about 8 hours) I woke up to a courtyard full of about 20 people. I later found out that they are the presidents of each association within the collective of artisans in my town. There are 21 associations for each trade (ex. furniture makers, seamstresses, mechanics, etc.). Everyone was so nice and welcoming, but the experience itself was pretty awkward because I had to go around the circle of people and “saluer” or greet everyone and also sit through a meeting that was entirely in Nagot (the main local language).

The next day I was taken around town by the VP of the collective on the artisan collective moto. I met the mayor (a woman), but didn’t really have a chance to speak with her because she had to go to a meeting. I also went to the offices of the police and the gendarme. Then we went to the CET (artisan technical school) where some of the artisans teach their apprentices a few times a week (the apprentices are at the artisan’s workplace the other days of the week). I’m hoping to be able to use the classrooms once I start teaching savings, credit, marketing, and accounting formations, but who knows. I also saw a classroom full of computers so I think I may have the opportunity to teach computer formations as well. Also, because my town is pretty close to Nigeria, I think there are a lot of artisans who are interested in learning English so that may end up being one of my side projects.

My two favorite stops of the day were visiting the king of my town and my new house. The king is this hilarious little old man who I want to be my new grandfather. I walked into his compound and saw him sitting on a throne-like chair in his courtyard. There were a couple people sitting by him and one man was kneeling in front of him saying something in Nagot. The VP tells me that he is praying to the king for the well being of our town or something along those lines. Then, the kneeling man whips out a few shots of sodabi (strong Beninese alcohol), and the king and this man start drinking. I guess I should add that this was probably around 10 or 11 in the morning. After that the king comes over to greet us and I find out that he speaks some English. He’s just so funny. I wish you all could meet him right now. I’m sure I’ll have some funny stories about him in the future.

On to my house…it’s amazing! I really can’t believe how nice it is. I’ll eventually put up pictures, but for now I’ll just say that I am not living in a mud hut. My house/apartment is part of this bigger house that houses an NGO and some other people. It has a metal gate surrounding the fairly big concrete courtyard. I have my own set of stairs that leads up to my part of the house. It wasn’t completely finished when I went to see it, but there were 4 rooms (living room, bedroom, small kitchen, and bathroom) and they all had tiled floors. Also, I have electricity and running water!!! My house is definitely too nice to be a PC house, but I’m not complaining. =)

The next day was by far one of the most ridiculous days of my life. There was a fête (party) for all of the artisans. I think it was National Artisan Day or something like that. Anyway, the party included a parade around town followed by a speech, lots of food, and a football (soccer) match. The best part of the whole experience was that most of the artisans had matching “tissue” or fabric. My homologue is a seamstress and made me a skirt and a shirt so I could match the rest of the artisans. I guess this is a good time to explain the fabric/clothes customs here. While people do wear Western style clothing here, for celebrations and everyday life people wear clothing made from brightly (and sometimes oddly colored) fabric called “tissue.” Some of the designs are actually really beautiful while others have prints of things like cuckoo clocks, chickens and eggs, or flip flops. After you buy a couple pagnes (pahn-yuhs) which equal 2 meters of cloth, you take it to the tailor or seamstress to be made into clothes. The outfits for women usually include a long, tight fitting, uncomfortable skirt and a shirt with crazily designed sleeves. I am now the proud owner of a shirt that has sleeves resembling wings. It’s fantastic. Men normally wear tissue pants and a shirt called a boomba. The boomba can have pockets, interesting embroidery, or my favorite thing, tassels. The fashion sense in this country is amazing. Besides my new love of tissue, it amazes me that while it probably hasn’t dropped below 70 degrees since I’ve been here, a day hasn’t gone by where I don’t see someone in a colorful stocking or ski cap. Funky hats are pretty big here and I did see someone in a red, white, and blue cowboy hat the other day.

Anyway, the rest of the party was great. I took pictures with a ton of people because everyone wanted to be photographed with the new town “yovo.” I really think my town is the perfect place for me. The town sits atop a hill so you can actually see the countryside from the main road. It’s pretty spread out and my house is kind of far from the center of town, but I’m really happy about everything I’ve seen so far. Also, the road to and from Cotonou is really nice (meaning not completely covered in pot holes), so that makes riding in bush taxis a bit more bearable, too.

The rest of my post visit was pretty uneventful. I just hung out with my homologue and her family the next day and even got to watch some TV in English. I was also able to experience the cinematic genius that is Nollywood (the Nigerian movie channel). I won’t have a TV at my house, but I think I’ll be able to get some Nigerian channels on my radio so at least I can listen to the news in English.

After my visit I met up with another stagaire from a nearby town and we took a taxi to Cotonou together where I was able to check my email and reconnect with the outside world. We also met up with the two stagaires who will be posted in Cotonou, and went and got pizza and ice cream! Mmm. I’m still thinking about how good it was. It’s nice to know that if I’m really craving those types of foods that it’s only a two hour taxi ride away.

Overall, my wonderful post visit is what’s basically getting me through stage. I can’t wait to start living and working on my own and meeting people in my community. I know it’ll be really difficult the first few months, but I’m definitely ready for it. Since my post visit, nothing too exciting has happened back in my training site town. It’s been raining pretty hard for almost a week straight and at one point, the road in front of the volunteer house turned into a river and we couldn’t leave for a while. Luckily, it was the day of our Iron Chef cook-off so we didn’t have plans to go anywhere. Most of you know that I can’t cook/hate doing it, so I was a little nervous about having a cooking competition within our sector. However, it was actually really fun and my group ended up winning best appetizer! I think more importantly, it got me really excited to attempt to cook once I get to post. I may end up returning to cereal and sandwiches like I did in college, or I may just end up “surprising” my neighbors around dinner time and hopefully they’ll feed me.

Well, that’s it for now. I hope I didn’t bore you, and I hope all is well in the land of constant electricity, delicious and readily available dairy products, and clean water you can drink from the tap.