My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Friday, August 14, 2009

La France!

Salut! Here I am in France, having an awesome time. Leaving Africa after almost 14 months was pretty surreal. The airport was a good send-off- plenty of typical Beninese antics: everyone had five or six bags to check (do they pack their entire life??), one woman refused to stop harassing the security guard until he let her on the plane with THREE carry-ons, and the plane left late because a majority of the Beninese passengers arrived late. I was with another American who had come to visit another volunteer, and what struck me was how incredibly patient I have grown since being in Benin. As I watched Daniel get so frustrated, I realized that that would have been me a year ago, but honestly, nothing at the airport phased me.
Even though it was a red-eye flight, I basically got no sleep. The flight was fine though, and I have never enjoyed airplane food so much haha- it was not Beninese! Of course, since we left late, the plane landed 1.5 hours late, and then we had to wait in absurdly long customs and baggage claim lines, so, I missed my train. I was able to switch my ticket to a train leaving one hour later (to the tune of about $45), but had no way to call the Dimitrovs to let them know. When I arrived in Grenoble, no one was at the station waiting for me, so I had to take a cab to their house. (I couldn't even think about how much it was costing me- I could have taken a Taxi from Cotonou to Dakar for the same price!)
Apparently they thought I had decided not to come and were upset, but they were really happy to see me. That afternoon I just relaxed with them, and in the evening I went out on the town with Roser, a Spanish student now living with the Dimitrovs, Cyril, my host brother, and two of his friends. It was so nice to be out at 1am and feel completely safe! It was also blissfully chilly :)
The next day Roser and I walked around Grenoble and had an awesome lunch on the river bank. Roser speaks really good English and is going to live in the States for about six months starting in October. After lunch we headed to get the famous pear sorbet that I have been longing for for over four years (we got it almost every day when I studied abroad here)... only to find out they no longer make that flavor! So sad :( But I still got delicious peach sorbet. That evening it was decided that we would go to Chamonix/Mont Blanc the next day (in the heart of the Alps, the highest mountain in Europe, and only about three hours from Grenoble) so we went to bed early.
Chamonix was INCREDIBLE. We tried to go there when I was here with my parents last April, but you need a sunny day to really appreciate it and we didn't have one. It took us four hours to get there because of construction and traffic, but it was a beautiful drive through the mountains. All we really had time for there was going up the Aguille du Midi, a gondola that goes WAY up into the mountains. It is really expensive ($50 or so), but the Dimitrovs treated us which was really nice of them.
Going up was amazing, albeit a bit terrifying! Definitely not for those who are afraid of heights- I am not afraid of heights but still had a hard time! Seventy-two people squeeze into this little cable car hanging from a wire and go roughly one bajillion feet up into the mountains over snow, ice, rocky peaks, cliffs, etc. When you get to the summit, you have about two hours to enjoy the views. I don't even know how to describe to you how beautiful it was, but I think the pictures speak for themselves :) I really have never seen anything like it.
Up at the top there are plenty of places to talk around, including snow and ice caves! I literally kissed the snow. I was freezing and thoroughly enjoyed it :) We watched the insane mountain climbers, and even had a nutella crepe.
On our way home that night Roser and I took the Dimitrovs to dinner since they had driven us to Chamonix and paid for our gondola tickets. We went to a nice place and had a great time. When we got home that night (not until almost one), Cyril's friends were watching a TV special on American spring break, and were just disgusted with how Americans act. I couldn't convince them that this is a unique phenomenon and that 95% of Americans are nothing like this. Sigh.
Yesterday I went up to the old fort overlooking Grenoble with Roser, and then we got lunch. I love little French restaurants- the couple were the cooks and bar tenders, and their daughter was the waitress. We were the only people in there because it was late, so they sat next to us and talked with us, ate their own lunch, just hung out. Later in the day I went to a supermarket, which was overwhelming to say the least. I am truly astounded by the comforts we have in the western world.
Today is my last full day here. Later in the day I am going to meet up with Stephane, my other host brother, and tonight I will have dinner with the family and get ready to take off at 5am tomorrow! I really, really can't believe that I will be in the States tomorrow. I can't wait!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Peace Out, Benin

I can not believe this time has actually come- I have been waiting to write a “goodbye Africa” blog for a long time :) Pictures in this blog: an awesome BBQ chicken salad I made, my homologue, his wife, and oldest son at my house for pancakes and coffee, pizza I made with real mozzarella, ice cream sundaes we discovered in Cotonou (keep in mind this is sub-Saharan Africa!), Belle on my mosquito net, the Amazon women fighters at the Independence Day parade, military at the parade, the president driving by (in the photo he is all the way to the right), and my friends and I at the parade.
My last two weeks have been pretty busy. At the end of July, Melissa and Katie, two other TEFL volunteers, came to Lobogo for a few days. The first night we walked around town and then made homemade ravioli, and the second day we literally didn't even leave the concession! We just lounged around and played cards all day. Unfortunately, that day I got pretty sick with a high fever and bad headache, so I ended up having to just lay in my bed most of the evening. I did not feel well enough to head to Lokossa for the fete the next day, but I didn't want to miss out so I went anyway :)
We were able to find a direct taxi from Lobogo to Lokossa because of the fete which was nice. Since I was feeling crappy I stayed at Michelle's house all day while the other went out for lunch and walked around. We all went to sleep early since we were getting up early for the fete the next day.
We left Michelle's house early the next morning and headed to the parade site. (I think I mentioned in an earlier blog that the national independence day party was being held here?) Lokossa was PACKED with people dressed in their finest, many wearing fabric with the president's face plastered all over it. (Some volunteers who recently went to Ghana found Barack Obama fabric!) The parade route was lined with every branch of the Beninese military decked out in their full regalia, and upon arrival we promptly embarrassed ourselves by blatantly staring at a military vehicle driving by, when we realized that EVERYONE else had their backs turned in respect. Oh well. Us yovos don't know any better! A woman also came up very quickly and pinned a small Beninese pendant on us, then charged us for it. They were cute though, so we paid!
After standing around for about an hour, the crowd got very quiet, and suddenly clapping and cheering started. The president drive by right in front of us, saluting the military. Fifteen minutes later, he drove by going back the other way, this time smiling and waving. I got a decent but short video of the first pass by. After that many of the military branches and bands went marching, but the crowd got too big and pushy so we headed out.
We walked to a big public park and watched two government helicopters take off (the Beninese went nuts). We then got pounded yams for lunch, and each of us unknowingly ordered a half chicken! After we walked to another public park where we watched the zangbetos perform. They look like big pyramidal haystacks that periodically shake and dance, but when the climax comes and they lift up the hay, there is nothing underneath! It truly is amazing; we tried for a long time to figure out how they do it and truly couldn't. After that most people headed out, and Michelle, Nathaniel and I found a salad joint for dinner.
When we were looking for zems to take us back to Michelle's after dinner, we stumbled upon a crowded park where there was live music and dance perfomances. There were some INCREDIBLE dancers and some not so incredible singers. At one point, they asked for people from the crowd to come up on stage, and Nathaniel got up there! He did a little bit of free style rapping, and when he was finished an spoke a bit of local language, the crowd went crazy. Half of the crowd was watching him, and the other half was watching Michelle and I for our reaction! Later, a man in full Michael costume got up and did a spot-on performance of Billie Jean, moonwalk and all.
The next day Michelle and I headed to Catherine's post to start planning our holiday trip to Mali. We are planning to visit the mud mosque in Djenne and then do a four day trek through Dogon country, where the people live in the cliffs. We will have a guide who leads us on the hike and shows us the best vistas and villages, and each night we will sleep on the cliffs under the stars. This trip will cost a pretty penny, so I am asking for some help from home as birthday/Christmas presents.
We made delicious Mexican food for dinner and watched Mean Girls before bed :) The next morning we made a coffee cake and watched Blood Diamond. It was good to see this movie again because I understood and recognized so much more in it. They were pretty accurate in their depictions of West African cities and villages. Staying in movie mode, Michelle and I watched Slumdog Millionaire that night, which was really good. Unfortunately, it was a bootleg copy and really bad quality, so I will definitely have to see that one again.
The next day I headed back to Lobogo and promptly realized I had forgotten my checkbook at the bank in Lokossa, so I had to go right back. Luckily I was able to get the checks with no problem, and all of them were accounted for. I stayed with Michelle yet another night, this time we went out for salad and then baked a key lime pie. We watched The Last King of Scotland, which was really sad and intense.
On Thursday, my homologue had me over for lunch. It was really yummy and we ended up talking for a few hours afterward. I love having frank, intellectual conversations with him. The rest of my time in Lobogo was spent getting ready for my trip: doing laundry, packing, making lists of things to do/see/buy/eat at home, saying goodbye to people, and cat-proofing my house! (The new trend is that when I leave for more then one night, the cats get crazy and knock everything off the shelves, break things, and sometimes pee in places where they shouldn't :( It was very odd leaving my house and my cats and the village for such a long time, but this is a much needed break! Of course, everyone reminded me about a million times to bring them “bonne choses” from America. Of course I want to bring them back a few things, but it doesn't have the same feel-good sense that it usually would because they expect so much.
Well, that's all from Benin! I head to the airport at 8pm tomorrow night and catch the red-eye to Paris. I will probably do a quick update or two from France and home, but I will be busy enjoying myself :) SEE you all soon!