My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I apologize in advance for the length of this post

I am finally getting around to posting a blog even though I have had a lot of internet access lately! We had a busy week training in Porto Novo, and the internet wasn't too reliable (although I had a wireless connection at the hotel a few times!). I guess I still have to write all about the week I spent with Sandy!
First, though, these are the pictures that need explaining: the one of me with a man is my homologue, Blaise. He is one of my best friends in Lobogo. There are details of the various slave monuments on the beach in Ouidah, then pictures of people getting their water from the hot springs in Possotome, as well as the lake and our hotel there. There is a picture of another English teacher at my school and his family, and finally pictures of our hotel in Grand Popo. Here goes: Picking Sandy up at the airport was frustrating. I used a Peace Corps recommended taxi driver, who was a nice guy but wouldn't leave me alone about marrying him, yada yada. When it became clear that I would not, in fact, be marrying him, he became determined that I “send him one of my friends” from the States to come and marry him. When I said that this was completely ridiculous as they wouldn't even know each other (along with the million other problems with this idea), he said that he and she could “email for several months beforehand to get to know each other.” This conversation grew very tiring seeing as how Sandy's plane landed an hour late and it took her over an hour to get her luggage and get through customs. Since the Cotonou airport is not very busy or big, there is only one massive luggage room and one customs counter, making for a really slow process. Nonetheless, Sandy made it to Africa just fine and we headed out to find an ATM before going to the hotel for the night. So, we get to the ATM and Sandy pulls out.... a Mastercard. Unfortunately, Mastercard is VERY rarely accepted on this continent, and the one bank who did take Mastercard said their system has been down for over a month. Luckily Sandy had brought along a decent amount of dollars and euros, so we headed to the sketchiest part of Cotonou at 10:30pm to find the illegal Nigerian money changers! I had also brought my Visa card so we had that for emergencies. Lesson here: don't bring a Mastercard to Africa!! It is rare enough to find an ATM or establishment that accepts Visa. I am a bit shocked that her travel agent did not know this or inform her of this. That night we stayed at the Novotel, the nicest and most modern hotel in Cotonou (they don't take Mastercard :)) It was like stepping onto another planet for me. It looked like a modern, very nice American hotel! We had been looking forward to a nice meal at the hotel restaurant, especially since I hadn't eaten since noon. Even though the sign said the restaurant was open until midnight, and it was 11pm, we were informed that the restaurant was closed for the night. The staff was extremely unfriendly, and the next day even tried to tell me that I hadn't paid yet even though I had paid in full the night before- good thing I kept the receipt! I ended up getting really yummy room service- a beer and real Caesar salad! (Unfortunately, they way overcharged me for it, and I had no proof of what I had bought so couldn't argue it when I paid the next morning.) I had also requested a room with two beds, and we were given a room with one large bed. Once again, not a huge deal, but they were extremely rude to me about it. It WAS nice to sleep in air conditioning and with a comforter and shower with hot water, though! We had the hotel breakfast the next morning which was pretty nice. We then headed out to Grand Popo. If you remember, Grand Popo is a small resort town on the border of Benin and Togo, juuuust on the Benin side. The taxi the night before had helped me find a taxi to take us there the next day (we took private taxis everywhere since I didn't much want to subject Sandy to the normal 5-people-to-a-back-seat-crowded-hot-smelly Benin taxis). Our driver was nice, but was extremely dumb and didn't pull off the highway at Grand Popo because I didn't tell him to stop, even though he knew that's where we were going! I'm not familiar with the roads in Benin, so how was I supposed to know?! We were nearly at the Togo border when I asked him if we were almost there, and he grew exasperated and said we had passed Grand Popo fifteen minutes ago! He was not very nice to us as we turned around and headed back to Grand Popo. Getting to Grand Popo made up for everything, though. We stayed in a place called the Auberge, which happens to be run by a Frenchman who spent 15 years of his life in Michigan! The Auberge is a set of old colonial buildings that he has turned into the resort, including guest rooms right on the beach, a nice restaurant and bar, a pool, and plenty of beach space furnished with hammocks and thatch roof huts to give you some shade from the sun. Sandy and I stayed in a cute little lofted room, and spent the afternoon laying on the beach. Some other PCVs happened to be there for the day, and Sandy really enjoyed getting to know them. There was even a former PCV from Cameroon on vacation there who sat with us for the day. The water is really warm, but you can't go in much past your knees because Benin's coast has some of the strongest tides and undertows in all of the world. There are tons of little sidewinder crabs that are fun to watch play in the surf. Sandy invited one of my friends to join us for dinner that night, and as we had a dinner overlooking the ocean, a crazy lightning storm came in that was absolutely gorgeous to watch. We had a bottle of wine, a steak and even some chocolate mousse. I may have been with Sandy and Liz, but it was still the best Valentine's Day dinner ever! After dinner, the owner invited us to join him for drinks and a night of conversation. He was quite a fascinating man who has lived in France, Michigan, and all over Africa. I also talked to some French volunteers from Lyon, and to my relief and great satisfaction I discovered that when I speak to French people, my France-French accent comes back!! I have been kind of bummed about how African my French has become. The next day we spent the morning walking the town and did a bit of shopping. There are lots of artisans in Grand Popo since it is a tourist destination. We bought matching fabric and Sandy even bought a pagne! We saw many beautiful hand-dyed fabrics, lamps made out of calabashes, and great jewelry. I got a neat bone and rafia necklace from one of the artisans we met. We lay on the beach some more that afternoon, and Sandy walked down the beach to watch the local fisherman pulling in their huge nets and boats. We had another amazing dinner that night. I must say, though, after all of these good dinners, all I really wanted was a plate of rice and beans!! The next morning we headed to Lobogo! They have made huge progress in putting down cement and gravel on many of the roads leading to Lobogo since I got here, so the drive in wasn't too bad. We got in and spent the remainder of the day walking around the village, eating some delicious rice and beans, and having a drink at my favorite second-story buvette. Sandy did just fine with my latrine, bucket showering, and sleeping in the heat on my couch! The next day she came to school with me, which I think went really well! She took pictures and videos of my lessons, and then went around practicing English with the kids while I gave them each their semester grade outside the classroom. I found out why you are supposed to calculate semester grades in front of the whole class: so that the kids can make sure you are not playing favorites or miscalculating. I still disagree with this, and my students seemed just fine with me giving them their grades the way I did. Wednesday was a busy day for us. After school, the administration bought us drinks and cookies, something we didn't much want to do but could not refuse. (Culturally, it would be quite rude to refuse the offer, but then the two of us ended up sitting there while the rest of the administration complained about school problems in local language!) Sandy had her first moment of huge culture outrage when she saw the men throwing their plastic cookie wrappers on the ground. I had to explain to her that they knew that their garbage would be swept up and burned later, but it was still hard for her to accept that the most learned and respected people inn the village were treating the environment like that. It was market day, so we walked into the village to explore the market. I walked her through every part of the market: the fish section, peppers, bananas, livestock, used clothing, etc. I hope she enjoyed it, because it was really crowded and hard for us to walk and chat together! After market, we changed into our matching-fabric outfits and we were invited yet again to someone's house for drinks. This time it was one of the English teachers at my school. Sandy was once again faced with culture shock as he invited us over and then proceeded to leave the room multiple times, and tons and tons of people came in and out of the house, most without explanation. We escaped in as timely a manner as we could, as we had a dinner of BBQed rabbit waiting for us in the concession! The culture shock continued as we were rushed to the table and then sat waiting for 45 minutes, and my proprietor didn't show up, and Angele didn't join us at the table, and music was being played loud enough to burst our eardrums, and Angele served her a plate big enough to feed an army. Sandy sure did get a crash course in Beninese customs! Overall, though, I think she really enjoyed my village. She loved sitting under the mango tree to read and relax, just as I do. She also fell in love with Fifa, who enjoyed taking her on walks around the village. The next day we headed to Possotome (pronounced po-so-toe-may), a village not far from mine that has the mineral hot springs and is the post of my friend Christopher. There are two nice hotels there (Possotome does a lot of eco-tourism), and we picked the one that took Visa to try and save some of our cash... only to find out that the Visa machine was down. Sigh. Gotta love Africa. The place was really, really nice though. Our room had AC and we ate lunch at the hotel restaurant which is built on stilts above the lake. They only had one entree: fish shish-kebabs with a tomato salad, which turned out to be one of the best meals I have had since arriving in this country! We then spent the afternoon walking around the village, sitting by the lake, and visiting my friend Christopher's house. He joined us for dinner, which we had at the other hotel in Possotome. I had bought a coconut on the streets that afternoon, and for my drink I had the bar tender crack it open and add ice, rum, and pineapple juice! We had a nice slow dinner under the stars on the edge of the lake. Sandy left the following evening, and we decided to leave Possotome fairly early in the morning so that we could make a stop in Ouidah on the way back to Cotonou. We visited the old Portuguese fort that is now a slavery museum. (Interesting fact: there were four ports that shipped slaves to the New World: Isle de Gorée in Senegal, El Mina and Cape Coast in Ghana, Ouidah here in Benin, and Angola.) We then went to the Door of No Return monument on the beach, where a tour guide accosted us and would not accept our refusal of his tour and kept talking to us even though we ignored him. As we headed back to our taxi, I grudgingly reached into my purse and took out my small change, and I only had 100 francs. Still, since we had repeatedly refused his tour, I didn't feel I was slighting him, and handed him the change. He grew furious and started screaming at me that he usually charged at least 1000 francs, but would cut it down to 500 for me. I calmly explained that we had refused his tour several times and had ignored him, let alone discussing any kind of price. The argument continued and I finally had to get in the car and tell the taxi to start driving. As we did so, the man threw the change in the car window and it hit Sandy and I in the face. hat really, really frustrated me and it took me the whole car ride to Cotonou to cool down. To make matters worse, our driver wasn't at all familiar with Cotonou and got us lost several times, and when we went to an ATM, it took several tried before it worked. Nonetheless, we made it to the airport well before her flight, and sat in the air conditioned lounge drinking beer for a while. Overall it was a great visit, despite the many small glitches and culture shocks! Since I had to be in Porto Novo (which is on the far side of Cotonou when coming from my village) on Monday, I stayed in Cotonou for the weekend. Friday night a few of us went back to that amazing Thai restaurant and talked to many people dining there who were with MercyShips, including several Americans, which was really nice. We stayed in the old medical unit, which was really weird since the old bureau was completely torn apart and abandoned accept for our room. The air conditioning had already been taken out, so it was absurdly hot in our room. The mosquito nets were also gone, which meant I was feasted upon by mosquitoes all night long. (The other two girls, of course, didn't get bitten. I don't what makes me so attractive to mosquitoes :() Saturday was a pretty fun day. We went to Dantokpa market, the largest market in Cotonou and one of the largest markets in West Africa. The only way I can think to describe it is: hell on earth. I don't necessarily mean that in a 100% negative way, I just mean that the place was writhing with dirty, smelly people selling anything you can imagine, beggars of all shapes and sizes, and thieves. The smell was quite offensive. I will say, though, that I don't think I have ever been somewhere that felt that “alive.” We spent several hours browsing through their massive selection of fabrics, and I left with two really pretty ones. I also bought a pair of hilarious gold knock-off designer heels that I will wear to the GAD dinner in a few weeks. We had lunch at a cool little hamburger joint, and then Nora and I headed to a ritzy tailor in the ex-pat neighborhood of Cotonou who copies his designs out of American magazines, and I ordered two dressed to be made with my new fabrics! For dinner we ate at the pizza place that overlooks the ocean, and I had pesto pasta and beer on tap :) We finished out of day of extreme indulgence with a trip to the ice cream shop. Then we indulged all over again on Sunday, when we sat at a restaurant from 1pm to 8pm drinking beers and eating hamburgers and fries. I will say, in our defense, that at that point there were about seven TEFL volunteers in town and we hadn't seen each other for three months, so we needed the relaxation and conversation! Before heading to Porto Novo on Monday, we went to the Indian restaurant in Cotonou, but unfortunately the Indian woman was not there that day so the food was not nearly as good. The drive to Porto Novo took twice as long as normal because of a bad taxi accident on one of the crazy roundabouts. We got to Songhaï, the hotel/conference center/organic farm/restaurant/cyber cafe where we were staying and had a relaxing night hanging out in the air conditioning! (Yes, even our ROOM was air conditioned!!! It was heaven- AC five nights in a row!) Our four days of training went really well. The first day was just for the volunteers, and we debriefed about our lives at post since November and learned how to write grants to raise money for secondary projects. (I am considering doing this for my possible library project, I will let you know as soon as I see the books arrive and talk with the PTA about its possibility.) From Wednesday- Friday, our homologues joined us. We had many fruitful discussions about their roles and our expectations from each other, teaching methods, and sexual harassment in schools and towards us volunteers. We prepared lessons and tests together, and it was once again frustrating to see how focused on formula and how unoriginal the Beninese teachers were. We did a visual aides and songs workshop with them, which was really fun! It was hilarious watching them try and figure out how to do the motions for Itsy Bitsy Spider and Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes! The most intense part was our discussion regarding sexual harassment towards us volunteers (not by the homologues themselves, but by other community members) and what the homologues can do to help us. The homologues seemed really angered that we had to go through this, which was great. It was also good to show them our cultural differences in how we view sexual harassment. What is sexual harassment in the States is “just a joke” here in Benin, and we had to let them know that in the USA, it is sexual harassment as soon as the victim feels like it is. One homologue went too far, though, and started telling us a story about one of his colleagues who would “do anything to sleep with the volunteer,” which in turn made the volunteer run out of the room crying. As I said, it was intense, but I think overall the training was great. The food was also amazing! Homemade juices and three-course lunches all made fresh from their gardens and farms and dairies! We went out to the one nice restaurant in Porto Novo two of the nights, and one night I got steak and mashed potatoes- it tasted so much like home! Wednesday night I visited my host family, which was really great. When I walked in everybody rushed up to hug and kiss me, and my little Vivi clung to me all night and repeatedly told me she loved me. Mama made rice and fish in tomato sauce for me, and I had a good conversation with papa. I had such a good time that I told them I would come back on Friday night to see them one more time. Well, leave it to my host family to disappoint at the end, but the second time around I was all but completely ignored, not fed, and didn't get to see my little Vivi. Oh well. We had our traditional TEFL tear-jerking bonding time afterwards wince it was our last night together. It was also a huge bummer- the AC and water both went out on the last night. We WERE able to get CNN that night though, which was really exciting, and that evening I found out that one of my best friends from high school and college got engaged!! That is so crazy, I don't feel like we are old enough for that to start happening yet! I hope that I will make it home in time for her wedding! I almost forgot, one more crappy thing happened that week- I found out I got rid of my amoebas, but now have a different type of intestinal parasite! I had been feeling a bit off in my stomach, but nothing too severe. Apparently this type of parasite, called Giardia, isn't as bad, and I took a one-dose treatment for it. I will have to go back for testing soon to see if I am finally parasite free! I was able to hop a ride on the free and air conditioned Peace Corps shuttle back to Cotonou, and did some grocery shopping and had a pizza (four cheese!) before heading back to Lobogo. I visited a store that is known among volunteers as “Target”- it was really like stepping into a Target! I finally bought myself a mug and pasta tongs. I also picked up my dresses from the fancy tailor- they are great! One is a shirt dress and one a wrap dress, both picked from American magazines he had. The wrap dress even- gasp- shows my knees! I will be wearing that one to the GAD dinner! It was nice getting home after being away for so long and being with people constantly, but it was also a bit lonely. The first week back at school went quite slowly, and it was extra frustrating as my sixième kids couldn't seem to get possessive adjectives and my cinquième students could not understand comparatives. I am a bit nervous now that I talked to my director about the possibility of building the library that he thinks I am for sure doing it, even though I told him I was just toying with the idea and made no promises. The bureaucracy around here is hard for me to follow and understand, and I'm not sure I went about discussing my idea in the best way. I also went around and announced to students taking upper-level or college entrance exams in the summer that I would be offering tutoring every Saturday, but now one came to my first session. The power also went out a lot this week, including once at night so that I couldn't sleep. It is usually exactly 90 degrees in my room when I get in bed at night, plus 100% humidity, so without the fan it is murder! I saw and killed another scorpion, and my cat bit the tails off of two poor lizards (the tails wriggle for a good five minutes after they are severed, it is really creepy) which in turn gave her bad diarrhea. Never a dull moment. I am now in Cotonou to turn in my semester report to Peace Corps and to get my vacation time approved by my boss and the country director (my school director already approved it!) It is the first time I will be sleeping in the new bureau, air conditioning, hot water, and wireless included! I must say, I have not been having a good day so far, though. I saw a bad accident with a dead man in the street on the way into Cotonou, I lost the ring I wear everyday (left it at a restaurant, went back two minutes later and someone had already taken it), I found out that the bureau is probably closed tomorrow based on a muslim moon sighting holiday, and the wireless internet is not working on my computer, boo. Anyway, just so you all know, as long as the vacation gets approved (which it should), I will be home August 15-September 7! Start planning your trips to Ann Arbor :)

1 comment:

Brenda said...

Hey Angelina! Wow!! You and Sandy did a LOT of stuff. I'm sure it was quite an experience for her and she really appreciated having a "local" go through it all with her! The pics are great as are the videos.

Hope this round of parasite exits quickly.

Thanks for giving us such a detailed report of your visit with Sandy. Can't wait to see her when she returns and hear about her stories too.

Take care!