The 9th of August in the year 2009.
I know it’s been awhile since I’ve last posted, and here’s why. I don’t know if you’re all aware of this, but the availability of Internet in Africa is few and far between. And, let’s be honest, I’m a bit lazy. In America I was connected to the Internet 24/7, and I loved it. But, it was a part of the social environment. Everyone has iPhones, WiFi, and Internet capable phones. (I was a crackberry addict, I’ll be the first to admit it.) Here, things just aren’t like that. I’m reading a lot more: I’ve already finished two books and I’ve been here for two weeks. And, life is completely different. So, I apologize if sometimes it takes a week or two for some news.
I have a lot to explain here and I hope I can do it all justice.
I arrived in Philadelphia with my mother with a sense of anxiety: I was leaving all that I had known to venture off into a world with which I was completely unfamiliar. It was at this moment that everything I had studied, all that I had experienced, all that I was, came together to prepare me for 27 months of service in the Peace Corps that now awaited me. I know that fundamentally I’m not going to change. I’m still going to love laughter and I’m still going to try to squeeze every drop of fun out of life that I possibly can. But, the person I was and the person I’m going to be, starting from this point, are completely different. Coming to this realization is a bit difficult when you like yourself as much as I do. But, with all of this self-adoration comes a bit of self-reflection and evolution. I’m surely not, today, the best person I think I can be. Much has to change, maturation has to take its course, and I need to become something more in my own eyes.
So, I arrived in Philadelphia with mother and Neil in tow. I went into the designated hotel and began to meet a few of my new friends. We all did the obligatory salutations and got to know each other. I was a bit apprehensive at first not wanting to overwhelm some people, and thankfully I met up with Jamie (www.jamieinbenin.blogspot.com) and felt as though I had a buddy to help me through these greetings. (There is a photo of her reading with a pair of wayfarers in my photos.)
We all got some money from the Peace Corps and got a chance to go out and eat with all of our newfound friends. Thinking it was the last time I would get to eat some Mexican food, I took the chance to eat at a fancy Mexican restaurant called Tequilas. It was fantastic.
The following day we all went to get some vaccinations and left for Africa. The plane ride was long and I don’t know if you know anything about Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris, but it’s retarded. We landed somewhere on the tarmac and had to ride a bus, it felt as though, the entire way around Paris to get to the appropriate terminal for planes departing for Africa. In the terminal it was kind of stinky and the food was overpriced. But, we found our plane and left for Benin!
We landed in Africa in a bit of a furry. As you can probably imagine, things were a bit unorganized, but thankfully we met a Peace Corps representative named Iffy, yes it was a bit disquieting for me as well to give my passport to someone named Iffy, and moved into the baggage claim area.
This may or may not have been the biggest shit-show cluster f%ck I have ever seen. I hope I can paint this picture effectively. There are about a thousand people, literally a thousand, in a room built for five hundred. You enter the room and the conveyor belt comes out of the wall, extends halfway across the room, thus creating a funnel/traffice jam of people trying to find their luggage or an appropriate place to stand to find their luggage. (Let’s not forget that Africa is waging a war against air conditioning, so the room is hot, I’m sweating, so is everyone else, tensions are high as we hope to find all that we’d brought, and people stink.) So, we attempt to make our way to the conveyor belt and find a place to start collecting all of our luggage but everyone who is not a Peace Corps volunteer, there are only about 60 of us, has a cart and has created what I would imagine an L.A. freeway shit storm traffic jam of those carts around the belt. So, people are running over our toes, hitting us with carts, and then not understanding why people can’t move out of their way once they’ve gotten their baggage. It was at this moment I started to realize that common sense really isn’t just something most Americans are missing, this is a global retardation epidemic. Most of us get our baggage in around two hours of standing, waiting, and being generally frustrated. My one new friend Catherine has found out someone has stolen one of her bags that she had put into another bag for easier carrying. (She would later retrieve the bag after numerous return trips to the airport and hours of argument with Air France, though not all of the original contents remained.) As we walked out of the airport we were greeted with cheering Peace Corps volunteers, which was comforting.
From there we loaded ourselves into a few vans and, with the guidance of current Peace Corps volunteers, and made our way to St. Jean Eudes, which is a Catholic school/compound. Along the way Lucy, our PCV guide, answered our questions, tried to dispel any rumors, and informed us of a few vital tidbits of information. Looking out of the windows of the van I found myself in a completely foreign environment. Traveling throughout Europe has its own exoticism, but being in a country where dirt roads are the norm, laws seem to be merely suggestions, and people eat things I would never have considered food before hand carries an exoticism before now I’ve never felt.
We arrived at St. Jean Eudes in the evening to the cheers of current Peace Corps volunteers and we hustled off to a dormitory and found our mosquito-netted beds. We unloaded our things and headed off to the buvette, (which is the Beninese word for a place you get drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) which was on the Catholic compound. (I’m sure my grandmother is going to love that they were serving alcohol on the Catholic compound.) That evening we drank with our new friends, complained about the trip, and laughed as we got to know the new characters who would be playing the leading roles in the production known as “Real World Benin.”
Our time at St. Jean Eudes was filled with classes on safety and security, health, language, and other Peace Corps-related topics to keep us safe and healthy. The Peace Corps does, if not to excess, everything that it can to maintain our safety here in Benin. It’s hard for some to understand the inherent dangers that come along with being in a third-world country. The value of life is exponentially diminished, hospital services are few and far-between, traffic control devices are merely a suggestion, and people are flying around on scooters and in vehicles that have century-old safety features. If you haven’t been in this environment before, let me assure you, it’s not the safest place on the planet. Therefore, having numerous classes and sessions on how to avoid the avoidable and what to do if something happens cannot be overdone.
While at St. Jean Eudes we weren’t allowed outside of the compound walls without an escort. Which, at first bothered me, then once I finally got outside I realized why. Being an American people instantly assume that you have money and therefore a potential target. Also, the French that they speak here is not the French I learned in school. So, having someone who knows the local language and traditions, and how to protect themselves is indispensable and necessary.
We spent four days in Cotonou at the Catholic compound and then made our way to Porto Novo where we would be meeting our new host families. When we arrived in Porto Novo, which is the capital of the country, for all those who’d like to know, we ventured off to a sustainable, organic farm known as Songhai. I was a bit apprehensive. I had a picture of my new family, but surely didn’t know what they were going to be like. I had fantasized about the family dynamic hoping they would be laughers and talkers just like me. I knew I was going to have a few kids, three to be exact, and a new brother who seemed to be about the same age as me. Though, to be honest, Africans age so gracefully that I’m completely inept at guessing their ages from looking at them, let alone in a photo.
As we entered the gathering area I noticed my new host mama immediately. She had a smile that would not end and we instantly connected and started talking. Thankfully she speaks French fluently, as I speak French pretty well. I sat down next to her and it’s been laughter and love ever since. As I’ve come to find out, we have a lot more in common than I would have ever assumed. She’s a Libra, single mother, was a teacher, has a son who has a Japanese wife (I was born in Japan), and served me green beans my very first night (green beans are my favorite vegetable). I honestly could not have asked for a better situation.
As of now, my living situation is as follows. I live in a small little compound that has four little buildings. I have my own little building that I share with my host brother, Theodore. He leaves for work before I’m up and gets home after I’ve gone to bed. I have a normal-sized room, nothing enormous, and my own shower and bathroom. (BTW, there’s not hot water, so it’s cold showers all the time. Which, in five-billion degree weather, it’s not so bad. When you first step in a little WOOT WOOT helps you get comfortable.) I like my little space. For those who know where I’ve lived before, I’m used to small living quarters, and to be honest, I like them. It’s easy to find things, you don’t have much to clean, and everything is close. Another building is where my host Mama lives, the kitchen lives, and the living room. Just to the left of this little building, which is across the courtyard from mine, is another little houselette where my domestique (another word for someone who cleans around the house and makes all of my food and does my laundry), my grandmother, her mother, the three kids, and an aunt all live. I’ve not looked through this area as it’s not mine, but I assume it’s rather close quarters. The fourth building, which is to the right of mine across the courtyard is where Mikial lives. I’m not quite sure how he’s related, but he works hard and is never without a smile. The sense of community in Beninese culture is quite profound, which lends to many non-traditional living situations. Oh, I also have two mango trees in my yard, how freakin’ sweet is that?!
So, what’s my day-to-day life like? I wake up at 6:30 AM everyday, which is around 1:30 AM for you Americans, and head off to school where I study French, have technical sessions on teaching practices and methodologies, and culture lessons to learn how to shop in the market, what we can and cannot eat, the ins and outs of Beninese social dynamics, and then security and health classes (I’ve never talked about pooping so much in my ENTIRE LIFE). It’s kind of like being in college. I have two more months of this and then I’m off to my post, which I learn this Friday, the 14th of August. We get an allowance of 500 francs (which is about a dollar, U.S.) a day for lunch, which is usually a bean sandwich with hot sauce and a Sprite. (I know that sandwich sounds bizarre, and let’s be honest, the Beninese put the weirdest things on sandwiches, but bean sandwiches are delicious. I’ve also had a sandwich with spaghetti, eggs, cooked tomatoes and onions, and hot sauce, which was also pretty freaking amazing. The bread here is just like French bread in France, so that’s good.)
I’m going to have an entire post on food here in Benin. I’ll have to give them one thing they sure are efficient.
Culture shock definitely hit me around day ten. When you’ve lived somewhere your entire life, who you are is directly related to your environment. Having all the conveniences of American life is nice and you don’t know how much you have until it’s on the other side of the planet. I joined the Peace Corps because I want to become something better. I want to be able to live and thrive in numerous cultures and situations. And, I knew it was going to be difficult, and right now it’s that time. Life changing events are never easy. But, as we’ve all heard, and I’m learning, it’s not the easy times in life that define you but the hardest.
I’ll never forget, though, that I have the best family and greatest friends to be the wind in my sails on the S.S. Tartanic if I start to lose steam.