My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day :)

Hi! Had a couple of hours to kill in Cotonou before picking up Sandy at the airport (!!!!!!!!!!!) so I had time for a post. Not much to say since I updated a week ago, other than I'm SO excited to have my first visitor from home!! The taxi for the airport is picking me up at 7:30pm and Sandy lands at 7:50. Tonight we are sleeping in air conditioning!! Since it is the hot season right now, I can't even tell you how much I'm looking forward to that! Tomorrow we head to Grand Popo for two days of relaxation on the beach, and Monday we will head to my village where we will get matching outfits made, Sandy will get to watch me teach for two days, and she will also get to experience the wonders of latrines and bucket showers :)
The rest of my weekend in Cotonou last week was actually fabulous. We went to a Thai restaurant called Bangkok Terrace for dinner and it was phenomenal, both for the food and for the setting. It is in the ritzy area of Cotonou, and is all outdoors with paper lanterns and colonial Thai decorations, complete with a mill with a working water wheel and fountains. It was adorable! The food was fabulous (I really, really miss Ann Arbor's ethnic food scene) and I even had a big glass of red wine with my dinner :)
The meeting to plan the GAD dinner went well, and we are planning a Cinqo de Mayo themed dinner for expatriates in Cotonou on May 2, to raise money for Peace Corps Benin's Gender and Development Fund. We are serving Mexican food and even have a salsa band coming to play so people can dance. We even have use of a margarita machine for the evening! The money we will raise is used 100% for volunteers doing projects like girl's clubs, family planning sessions, HIV/AIDS events, etc. I may even use some of the money for my library project!
Here is some preliminary info about that: my cousins Dan and Corene have tons of books from a library that has donated them to my school in Lobogo, which is wonderful! I am even toying with the idea of taking on the large secondary project of building a larger library at my school, since now it is one VERY small room overcrowded with books, but I will let you know about that when the time comes. For now, the problem is the cost of shipping all of those books to Benin. If you have any interest in helping, or have any questions, shoot myself or my father ( an email.
I am also looking to raise money to buy my next door neighbor, Fifa, two pairs of eyeglasses. Fifa is albino, and therefore has very light eyes that are overly sensitive to light. She literally has to hold things 2 inches in front of her face in order to read them, and she is doing a year over in school now because of difficulties related to her deteriorating vision. Her family can not afford to buy her glasses, let alone take her to see an eye doctor, when the nearest one is three hours away. I have arranged with an NGO in Cotonou to get her a free eye exam, and will then be looking to buy her two pairs of glasses, perhaps when I come home over the summer. If you have any interest in donating any money for this, please let me know! There are some pictures of Fifa in earlier blog posts. I will also try and post some pictures of my current school library soon.
The other reason the weekend was great was that I got four packages! It was like Christmas! They contained such wonders as Kraft Parmesan cheese, febreeze, and maple syrup. That maple syrup, however, opened up during transit and spilled all over everything in that package, which was an absolute nightmare to clean. I managed to salvage half the bottle of maple syrup though!!
School this week went well but was extremely busy, as I had to finish grading exams and then calculate each of my students semester average, which is quite a long and complicated process. Glad to be done now, though! Unfortunately, the next round of exams is at the end of March, so I don't have much of a respite from the madness of grading exams. It's amazing how fast the school year is going. I found out today that end of the year exams are finished before the end of May! This week I taught my younger classes how to tell time in English, and with my older classes wee did a massive verb review, as their exams made it clear to me that they forgot everything they learned about conjugating verbs last year. Honestly, that was kind of fun to teach because we are never formally taught how to conjugate English verbs, so it was nice to have it logically laid out.
One obnoxious thing that happened this week was some man came to the school selling an elixir that "cures everything", so an impromptu staff meeting was held so all the teachers could hear about it. Not only did it cut out of class time, but people were actually buying this stuff, to cure "everything from cancer to infertility!" I was appalled. These were teachers buying into it, too. Ugh. It is things like this that remind me sometimes that I'm living in an animist and highly superstitious society.
For my travels this summer, I am now hoping to connect my France and USA trips, as that will save me over $1000 in airfare. I would be going to France the first week and a half in August and then heading directly home, to head back to Benin on September 8 or so. I am just waiting to make sure this is alright with Cam and Sarah who are meeting me in France. I am not thrilled about the idea of leaving here for over a month, but I can't turn down that much savings since I have no money saved up to begin with and am not making any now. As far as the France trip goes, we are now thinking a few days in Paris, 5 or so days in Grenoble with my host family, and then instead of time in Nice, we will spend a day or two doing wine tours :) Since the three of us are wine fiends, that should be the highlight of our trip!
One more exciting factoid: I found out I have yet another fruit tree in my front yard that is just starting to blossom: guava! I had never seen what a guava looked like, they look a bit like limes. You eat them skin an all. It was delicious! I am SO going to miss all the fresh fruit when I get home.
Guess that's all for now- I have to get ready to head to the airport! I will have internet access a lot next week as I will be at a hotel in Porto Novo for training (more air conditioning!!!), so don't hesitate to email me if you have any questions about donating to my projects! I thank you in advance! Oh, and happy Valentine's day! I will spend mine sipping cocktails on the beach :) I gave my students those cheesy candy hearts and tried to explain to them what they were and what Valentine's day is. I think they could have cared less- they were just grateful for the treats!

Friday, February 6, 2009

I got Lizard Guts on my Face

I'm in Cotonou for several meetings today, so thought I'd do a quick update. I'm here for our quarterly VAC meeting (Volunteer Advisory Counsel), a GAD meeting (Gender and Development- talking about a fund raising dinner and auction for wealthy ex-pats in May), and a meeting about Camp GLOW, the girls camp this summer. (Can you tell Peace Corps loves acronyms?) I am excited because apparently the camp is getting pushed back to June, which means that the school year should be over by the beginning of June, yay! The national exams are in mid/late June, which means that school needs to be wrapped up several weeks before that. I am starting to think up girls that I will bring to the camp with me. I already know one for sure, but I might bring one or two more girls. I am really excited for that week- like a 6-day sleepover for the girls and showing them that they can do more than cook, clean, and have babies for the rest of their lives.
In terms of school getting wrapped up by early June, we will keep our fingers crossed. There is talk of a strike next week, which may or may not happen. If the teachers decide to strike, us volunteers are supposed to continue having classes, but it is difficult with kids not showing up and other teachers being angry as it seems you are not supporting their cause. The first semester is now officially over, and I am wrapping up grading final exams. Grading exams takes more time than I ever imagined it could, especially since I have just over 200 to grade. I also then have to calculate their semester English grades, which is a fairly complex process of averaging various scores with the class average, or something. No one is in a hurry to explain it to me, which is frustrating. It is expected that you will read every student's semester grade in front of the whole class and in some cases the whole school, but I refuse to participate in that. How mortifying- NOT motivating- to have your grade read in front of everyone, in a culture where it is not impolite to brag and laugh at others. (In fact, just the other day I heard kids at school laughing at my neighbor because her father is in the hospital, saying “Your dad's gonna die!! hahahaha” I was horrified.)
Classes have been going so-so, as I have had big discipline problems with my two older classes. They are so impolite and just talk over each other and over me in class, and their grades show it. I finally brought the discipliner into class and he gave them four hours of hard labor, which I felt a bit bad about but if it will help be a deterrent, then so be it. I tried rewarding my best class with a day of playing games, but they get so riled up over games and shout over each other so much that we had to stop, which was too bad. Controlling kids here is a whole different ball park than what we are used to at home.
I have been feeling fine since my stint in the med unit, and am hoping to stay that way! I finished my medication several days ago and have to go back to see the doctors in a few weeks to see if they were successful in removing the amoebas.
Last weekend was our big Italian dinner in Dogbo, and it was a big success! My job was to make a huge vat of sauce for the lasagna. We even had honest to goodness beef and vegetables to put in! We also made bruschetta, a big salad, corn bread and roasted garlic and fried onion bread, and chocolate cake for dessert. Mind you, all of this was homemade, down to the noodles for the lasagna! It is amazing how accomplished it makes you feel to make all of that from scratch, especially when it is so delicious! The only bad part about the dinner was that I could not have a glass of red wine with it because of my medication! The next morning I single-handedly whipped up a cinnamon coffee cake for us, and it was so good that I came home and made it for my neighbors the next day. The damage? About $4 per person, including drinks, a meal you would pay at least $25 for in the U.S., with the added benefit of it being healthy and made from scratch!
It is funny, I was talking to Leah on the phone last week and she asked me what I usually eat here, and I said “rice, beans, TVP, and soy cheese” to which she replied “so basically, you are a vegan.” I had never thought about that, but it is almost true. Although, I do eat a fair amount of eggs. Because I am so concerned about getting enough protein here, I actually think I eat more of it here than in the States. I have had not dramatic shift in weight- lost about 10 pounds- but I sure feel healthy.
Last story for this blog: I was sitting on my couch grading papers the other day when Baby snatched a lizard off the wall. Of course, being a cat, she had to play with and torture the poor thing for a good twenty minutes before eating it, so she batted it around the room, injured but not dead. Well, one of the times she batted it obviously had been caught in her claw, because as she flung her arm to try and free it, it flew across the room and smacked me RIGHT on the nose, causing a bit of lizard blood to splatter on my face. Well, I just screamed bloody murder until I washed it off my face with bleach water, and then had to sit down and just laugh, as that it probably the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me. Honestly, who could have ever thought that up?
Sandy comes one week from today! I am really looking forward to my first in-person contact with someone from home. I am meeting her at the airport on Friday night, and she was kind enough to pack a few valuables for several volunteers. Benin is the first leg of her long journey in Africa, and I am glad I get to ease her into this crazy continent! We are staying the night at a very nice hotel in Cotonou (as much for my benefit as for hers- like a vacation!) and then spending the weekend at the beach in Grand Popo, staying at a nice resort owned by a Frenchman who happened to go to school at Oakland University, so that is neat. I am really looking forward to this little luxurious weekend! She is then coming to my village for a few days and watching me teach and seeing what my life is like here, which I am excited to share with someone. She will get to take bucket showers and use a latrine just like me! We are also going to get outfits made out of matching material while she is here, since that is all the rage here in Benin. After her visit I will go directly to my week of training in Porto-Novo, during which I will get to see my fellow TEFL volunteers and my host family, who I have not seen in over 5 months! Needless to say, I will have a lot of internet access in the coming weeks.
Pictures in this blog: my adorable Baby, and my friend Nathaniel in Michigan State material he got sent from home. I must say I have some U of M fabric on the way that I will make a sun dress out of to wear to football games, how cool is that??
By the way, it is the hot season here now (seems like that would be an oxymoron, huh?), and it is SO hot. When I wake up at 6:15, it is already 83 degrees in my room, and by the afternoon it is in the low nineties. I can't WAIT for the rains to come back in March, although there have been fewer bugs which is nice. The bugs must know the rains are coming soon though, because TONS of baby bugs- especially spiders- have been seen around my house, gross. So, while you may be miserable with your snow and cold back at home, know that I am equally, if not more miserable here, without the benefit of artificial climate control!