My adventures serving in the Peace Corps
Sunday, October 26, 2008
It's almost November! In a lot of ways time is flying here, although it sure seems like I've been here more than four months. On the other hand, many of the things I did before I left the States don't seem like long ago at all. In any case, I feel pretty at home in this country. The buzz here surrounding the American election is getting pretty intense, and all of us Peace Corps volunteers are excited. Obama had promised to double the Peace Corps budget, which is great, especially since in 2009 Peace Corps is having to cut 500 volunteer positions- Benin is losing 13. It feels good to see a leader encouraging serving your country by joining the Peace Corps instead of joining the armed forces. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for people in the military, it's just that they get all the praise while Peace Corps volunteers are either pushed into the background or even labeled selfish for just “wanting a free trip abroad.” (Which is complete crap, anyone that has served in the Corps knows what a huge sacrifice it is.) Anyways, sorry to ramble, I'm just excited to see how things turn out on November 4!
So the last time I posted was in Cotonou, and that day was rather frustrating. First, I locked my keys in my lock box AGAIN because I'm an idiot, and when we broke into the box we messed it up and now it barely closes, then my zem was an hour late picking me up, then in Cotonou I had two zems that got completely lost and tried to charge me more because of their mistake (we got into screaming arguments on the street, which is always lots of fun), the bank was having computer problems AGAIN and so after being there an hour I still was unable to withdraw money, and grocery stores are closed from 1-4pm so I had to wait until 4:00 to leave Cotonou when I usually try to leave by 3pm to avoid traveling in the dark. Then, the most frustrating thing was my taxi on the way home. The taxi ride is ALWAYS 1200 CFA, and I have always been able to get it for that much. This taxi, however, wanted 1500. I laughed and gave him my usual spiel “I'm not stupid, I live here, I know the price, I do this every week, blah blah etc.” He finally backed down to 1400, but I still refused because I know the real price and it is 1200 CFA. When I refused again, he proceeded to take my things out of his car! At this point there was only an hour or so before nightfall and I needed to get in this taxi. So I had no choice but to overpay! It was really frustrating. People here without fail assume I have lots of money because I'm white. Sometimes I try to explain that I'm a volunteer, but this doesn't register to them. The only good part about the day was that at the supermarket I bought goat cheese and French sausage to have as my dinner that night :) I also got some really nice packages from the States- keep sending the beef jerky and granola bars please!!
Last weekend on Saturday I had several other volunteers from the region to my village to celebrate my birthday, and my new couch arrived that day- see picture! Angele made us BBQ fish and eggs and rice and peanut sauce, which were all delicious, and we ordered beers from the buvette nearby. We ate under the mango tree in my front yard! Then we walked around the village a bit, and got another cold drink at the breezy second-story buvette because it was sooo hot outside. Then everyone but two of my friends headed home. The friends that stayed and I just had a nice long talk and drank a bottle of wine that evening, and the next morning we made peanut butter banana oatmeal pancakes!!! Real breakfast food is a rare, rare delicacy here. (Actually, one of the things I miss most about the States is going out to breakfast!) The only semi-awkward part about the day was the involvement of Angele. I kept telling her that this day was for my American friends, and that her and I would celebrate together on my actual birthday. This didn't really register to her though, and she decided to come out with us. That in itself was not a big deal, but she kept complaining that we were only speaking English and weren't translating for her. BUT, she NEVER speaks French with her friends when I am there! That really annoyed me because it was hypocritical. She couldn't understand that we always speak French here and this was our one break to speak English. Also, everyone paid for their own beer, but she and Fifa ordered drinks, and didn't even offer to pay, even though they invited themselves. Once again, I know she was not trying to be rude, but it was frustrating.
It was a low-key but nice birthday. Two of my neighbors gave me a bottle of wine, and a woman that I barely know gave me ten oranges, five huge onions, about twenty tomatoes, ten eggs, and about fifteen bananas! It was really nice of her, and not cheap either! I shared with my neighbors since there is no way I would be able to eat all of that by myself while it was still fresh. I baked myself a birthday cake by making a Dutch oven on my gas stove. It was pretty good! It was just a simple yellow cake, but I used coconut flavoring because I didn't have vanilla, so it was a bit coconut-y which was good! The frosting was another story. Since I didn't have powdered sugar, the Peace Corps recipe book (which is so awesome and helpful! It gives substitutions for American-Beninese ingredients, how to say certain foods in local languages, metric equivalents, tons of recipes, etc!) told me to grind regular sugar. I did this, but it didn't get as fine as powdered sugar. I went ahead with the frosting anyways, but it was just a liquid-y sugar-y mess. Most people ended up scraping it off the cake, as did I haha. Here is another example of cultural differences: I brought the cake over to Angele's house and said we would eat it after the dinner she was making for me. When she saw it she immediately stuck her hand in the top of the cake and pulled out a big chunk to taste! How crazy! Not the end of the world, but then it looked ugly for everyone else and I couldn't take a picture! She made me legumes (basically delicious collard greens) and pate for dinner, and I ate a ton. They also bought me a couple of beers to have with dinner. I got quite a few calls from the States which was nice :)
My other birthday present was my first day/week of teaching! I have four classes that each meet twice a week for two hours. So far the kids have been pretty good, although my younger classes have been a bit chatty. Since it is their first year learning English, we are doing the easy stuff right now so they aren't taking it too seriously. I know that I need to work on being more strict in the classroom. My two older classes are pretty good, although I have several overzealous girls who I have had to discipline for shouting out answers all the time. I was surprised with how much trouble the younger kids were having reading things aloud that I had written on the board. When they heard me say it they could easily repeat it, but saying things on the board was very difficult for them. The older kids knew a decent amount of English, and we reviewed the simple past tense of verbs.
Teaching is exhausting!I am glad I teach in the mornings when it is not so hot. The sun can be a big problem though, when it shines on me, the students, or the chalkboard. Two of my classes have permanent classrooms, although one of the is just a thatched roof with no walls. The other two classes and I have to search for open classrooms before class every time. We have also already run out of chalk. The resources/location here can definitely be frustrating.
After class every day I go to the same woman for lunch, and she has started to have cheese every day! She is also buying me cheese that I can cook myself for dinner whenever I ask for it, which is awesome! I then usually buy a cold beer, come home to lesson plan, and then maybe nap.
Yesterday I went to Comé, a town south of Lobogo to meet with a local teacher and several other volunteers about a regional English competition. Michelle (another TEFL volunteer) and I met up and had a cold beer first (let me reiterate- it's really hot here) and then we went to the teacher's house where his wife had made us a delicious meal of chicken, cheese, ablo (this sweet rice bread), rice, snails, and plantains, and more cold beers were waiting for us! Basically we are going to be the judges in a government-sponsored regional English competition this spring. The ride to and from Comé was gorgeous as usual, but two 45-minute zem rides in one day doesn't feel too good on the butt!
The kitties are doing fine. They are definitely getting bigger and are as attention-hungry as ever! The other night a huge praying mantis flew into my house and Belle jumped about four feet into the air are effortlessly intercepted it in her mouth. She then let out a primal growl telling Baby to stay away and proceeded to devour the mantis, which took her a while and made all sorts of fun crunching noises since the thing was about half as big as she was! More news from the insect world: I saw another scorpion in my house this week :( It was tinier than the first, but let us not forget the wisdom of Indiana Jones: the smaller the scorpion, the more deadly. (I have also included a picture of one of those huge and flat spiders that run like the devil. There are SO many of those nasty things here!)
That's about all the news from here. Today I'm going to Lokossa (how I posted this blog- at the cyber cafe there) to cook pad Thai with Michelle and take a real shower at her house since she has running water, and then tomorrow morning I'm going to the bank and post office there. Friday I'm going to another volunteer's house for a Halloween Party, and next Monday I may be going to Cotonou to have the doctor look at my toe again. (It's mostly better, but the skin now is really really dry.) I hope everyone back at home has a great Halloween and if I don't update again before them, a great election day! I miss everyone a lot, especially being my birthday week. The other day a Christmas song came on my ipod and although I was in a good mood, it made me cry :( Continue the letters/packages/phone calls! And I thought of one more thing someone could send- a laser pointer for my cats! They love chasing those things.