My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Oh. My. Gosh.

I don't even know where to begin. Just got back from the best vacation ever!! The rest of Christmas day was pretty relaxing, just went out to get some cheese and pounded yam and talked to my family on the phone.
Friday, our guide picked us up at 7am and we were on our way. It was SUCH a beautiful drive! There are mountains up here and the lanscape is very rocky and brown. It is extremely rural and the few villages we passed were very small (as in, five to ten mud huts with thatched roofs in a cluster at the foot of the mountain). We arrived at the park at about 10am.
The park is HUGE, so it took us over an hour to drive from the entrance to our hotal which was on the north end of the park, at the border of Burkina Faso. About 15 minutes into the drive, we rounded a bend and nearly ran into a huge elephant smack dab in the middle of the road. Welcome to the sarafi! We were literally about 15 feet from it, which was both amazing and terrifying. We then got to the hotel and had a few hours rest there.
The hotel was really cool. It was in the middle of nowhere, but had a nice open-air restaurant and bar. The rooms were good for being miles and miles from any kind of civilization. There were eight people in our group... and we all shared a room that had two twin beds. So, we pushed the beds together and slept four there, and another four on the floor. (Welcome to the Peace Corps) Most of the other guests at the hotel were white, but I think we were the only non-Europeans. The hotel had a decent pool that we spent both afternoons lounging at and drinking ridiculously overpriced but cold beers. In terms of food, for breakfasts and lunches we brought food with us (ravioli and green beans that we ate cold out of tin cans, tuna fish, hard boiled eggs, bread, peanuts, etc. So luxurious, I know. Once again, welcome to the Peace Corps) and for dinner both nights we splurged and ate at the hotel restaurant, which was insanely overpriced but did serve us a three-course prix-fixe menu. I'm sure the French people were appalled by the fare, but to us it was like eating at a five-star restaurant! We even got wine the second night :) (And once again, I'm sure the French about died: it was served chilled.)
So the first night, we went on an evening safari. We went to a pond and saw tons of hippos and crocodiles in the water, then saw groups of elephants and gazelles. Soon after, a pack of about 100 monkeys ran into the road in front of us! We also drove to the border of the park and crossed into Burkina Faso just so we could say we had been there :) Then, just before we returned to the hotel that night, we saw the best thing EVER: LIONS! It was getting dark, and on the road ahead of us we saw several cars stopped with people standing on the roofs. We climbed up on our roof and saw two lions walking towards us in the grass! It was a male and a female. They walked very slowly towards our cars (which was REALLY scary but such a rush) and then slowly crossed the road right in front of our cars! It was probably one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life. We finished the night off with a cucumber/tuna salad, pork and rice in mustard sauce, and chocolate swirl cake three-course dinner :)
The next morning, we did a sunrise safari that started at 6:30! It was freezing cold (for once! So I didn't complain), but it was my half of the group's turn to sit on top of the jeep. When I say on top, I mean ON TOP: just a few small bars to hold on to, and no seats or anything- just sat on the roof of the vehicle. It was quite a rush! It felt like you were flying, but also like you could fly off the car whenever we went over one of the zillion potholes! We saw a ton more elephants that morning. Elephants are incredible. They are generally in groups and are a lot more graceful than you might think. We watched one wrap his trunk around a tree and literally uproot it from the ground! Our guide told us there are about 800 elephants withing the park. We also saw some of the most beautiful birds that were colored sky blue, navy blue, lime green, and bright gold. Apparently West Africa is the best place in the world to go bird watching.
The neatest thing we saw that morning was a huge group of baboons cross the street and then run up into a huge baobab tree and jump from branch to branch. It was spooky how much they looked like humans. (In the picture I posted of the monkey climbing the trunk of the tree, how much does it looks like the creature that lands on the wing of the plane in that episode of The Twilight Zone??) We then went back to the hotel and spent an entire five hours napping by the pool and it was wonderful. There were many european families at the pool with small children and it was so odd to hear children speaking perfect French! That never happens in Benin since French is taught only formally in schools.
We did another evening safari that night. We didn't see quite the plethora of animals that we had seen before, but we DID cross a river in a very rickity dugout canoe into Burkina Faso to a small fishing camp! It was quite scary to cross a deep and fast moving river that was home to hippos and crocodiles in such a rickity boat but it was quite the experience too. Dinner wasn't quite as good that night because it took about two hours to bring us our dessert, but it was worth the wait- chocolate mousse. We also had a mexican salad and chicken and rice.
The last morning we got up quite early again because we had to be checked out of the hotel and in our vehicle by 6:30. We went on a short safari and saw herds of water buffalo and tons more gazelles and antelopes. We then left the park and went to a mountainous area that has waterfalls. We hiked up to the falls which was actually really scary (I fell in the mud and felt like a really hardcore outdoorsy Peace Corps volunteer), but totally worth it. There are three levels of falls, and the top one-which is the highest and coolest- we swam in! It was like a lagoon paradise hidden in the jungle/mountains. And it is in one of my best friends' vilage! The one and only male volunteer who came with us decided to climb the falls and jump from the top, which was really scary but very awesome in the end. On the way out of the village, a man tried to sell us a freshly decapitaed cow's head. Quite the adventures...
So, all in all, it was an amazing, amazing, amazing trip. We all got along really well and saw some of the most incredible animals ever, and in the wild to boot. NOTHING like seeing them in a zoo. I feel like this blog does absolutely no justice to the amazingness of what we saw and did, but hopefully the pictures will help. It was one of those life moments when I just kept saying to myself "I am sitting on top of a jeep on a safari in Africa, looking at an elephant. Holy crap." Most people only dream of going on safari in Africa, but we actually got to do it. It is hard to wrap my head around!
Another amazing thing was feeling much more like a Beninese than like the other caucasian tourists. They all had fancy cars and ate snobby food, whereas we had a crappy old car and ate cold ravioli out of a can and hung out with our driver while he cooked on some charcoal outside of the latrine. It really felt more natural to do that. It was really cool though when I met a Dutch couple who had no idea that the United States had a program like the Peace Corps and being able to explain that to them.
Now I'm back at the workstation in Natitingou and leaving bright and early tomorrow morning to head to Cotonou to do some shopping and check my mail, then going back to village on Tuesday to celebrate New Year's with them. I hope you all had a good Christmas and have a Happy New Year!