Sunday, October 3, 2010

One Down, One, Maybe Two Years To Go

::raises hands above his head as he looks over the crest::

I think this is the beginning of the decent on this two-year Beninese rollercoaster. AHHHHHHHH!!!!!! Ok. That was lame. But, I think you get the picture.

Firstly, I want to thank all of those who sent me love over the past year. In all its forms. And secondly, I want to thank all of those who sent me tangible love in the form of packages, most expecially. The toothpaste they have here has more BPA than fluoride in it and the razors are sure to give me tetanus. I ate bacon bits for dinner one night and another night I just had croutons. I hope this exemplifies just how much I appreciate and NEED your love. :-D

So, a lot has happened over the past year. I moved to Africa. I made new friends. I sharfed. I started learning a new language. I was a teacher. I, theoretically, taught someone something. I wore funny outfits to work. I saw a scorpion. I killed a scorpion. I jumped in a waterfall. I petted a lion. I met people from Uruguay. I ate wildebeest. I went to the World Cup. I learned to kill a chicken, eat with my hand, cook with a Dutch oven (hee hee), and poop in a little hole in the dark with a flashlight. It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago I wore suits to work and worked out at a gym. Now I wear absurdly patterned clothes to teach in a grain silo and pull water from a well. To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this far. But, with your support, and a lot of reading and yoga-ing, I have made it this far.

After the World Cup ended I had to come back and do all my grades. Thankfully one of my coworkers returned a favor and helped me grade some of those exams. I have almost 300 students. I keep all my grades on my computer in a spreadsheet, so they didn’t need to be calculated. The work wasn’t too onerous, just tedious. I spent a few weeks here in Kerou eating yam pile and pulling water, then went down to Porto Novo to welcome in the new group of volunteers, a bittersweet experience. Welcoming in a new group of volunteers inherently means you’re saying goodbye to those who were here before you. To me, most importantly, it was saying goodbye to my postie and girlfriend, Karina. Not easy.

I did my thing during training and taught the new PCVs how to teach in the Beninese system, what it’s like in Benin, what food to eat, where to buy great cheese (Dassa), what I thought I did right, what I know I did wrong, what is “sharfing,” and hopefully imbued the right tools and attitudes onto them so they’ll become great volunteers.

Seeing all these new faces undoubtedly conjured memories of my training. Thinking about how I would be after one year in. How many lives I will have changed. How many times I’ll have had diarrhea. I remember just being in the initial planning stages for the World Cup and how excited I was; oh how the experience lived up to and exceeded all my expectations. I remember being excited for my new postmate and how amazing she turned out to be. It’s such an exhilarating time in your life: the training for a new adventure.

Well, I had no idea my training would equip me with the tools to grow comfortable with a lot of weird things: having small farm animals not five feet from me when I eat, people picking their noses and not being totally grossed out by it, pooping in a hole. I can now choose which piece of goat I would like sliced off for dinner. And, I have been prepared to manage many a bathroom incidents including but not limited to: “bucket” disposal, fecal matter examination, stool sampling, and malarial slide preparation.

This email is coming off kind of douchy, but I just want those out there to know what life is like for a Peace Corps volunteer. One has many successes throughout his or her service, starting a soccer league, teaching boys the importance of girls, having a student use the simple present correctly, but it’s the little successes, like making it to the toilet when you really didn’t think you would, having a friend at the bus station waiting for you when you arrive, and/or eating an omelet sandwich with lots of piment, that keep one alive.

I have learned a lot of things while being here. But, I think I’ve not-learned/un-learned some things that I would like to know. Like, how do you post a song to your facebook? I want to use facebook places. I want to shake my phone and have it tell me where to eat. I want to get fashion advice from “The Situation” daily. I want to see TV shows as they happen. I want to remember how to play racquetball. I want sushi and seaweed salad. I may be experiencing something over here. But, I often long for things from home.

That being said, I’m sure America will still be there in the next few years. And, to be quite honest, this place may never be the same again. So, I’m trying to extend my service for one year. I want to go to Madagascar. I was originally assigned to Madagascar but some crazy radio DJ ran for mayor of Antananarivo (the capital) and then staged a coup. So, yeah. But, things are apparently more stable now and something is calling me there. The lemurs. The scenery. The food. The culture. The unknown. Plus this will give me time to apply to graduate schools. And I surely need all the time I can get.

Friends. Family. You’re the safe harbor upon which I rely as I sail the S.S. Tartanic through unfamiliar waters. I want you all to know I love you and miss your terribly.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Other People Football

Greetings faithful followers, I apologize for my absence. Life is Kerou hasn’t been very exciting. That being said, my life that just took place in South Africa was an experience I’ll be sharing with you and, quite possibly, any children/grandchildren I may ever have.

Before I landed in Benin I knew I would be going to the World Cup in South Africa. Being in such proximity to a global event of this magnitude was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. It’s true that I’m not much of a soccer fan, but events like this are so much more than just the sport they highlight. It’s literally a global gathering of sports enthusiasts and people of varying backgrounds and cultures. It’s an opportunity to meet people whom you may never have the chance to meet in the “daily grind.” It’s a chance to see faces, hear languages, and share cultures with those from all corners of the world. Literally.

During the first few months of my service I’d talked with some of my buddies and it was decided that Richard from Chicago and Doug from Brazil/Oklahoma would be my traveling mates. Richard is a genuine guy from the Midwest. He’s open-mindedly religious and painfully nice. Doug is reserved, but enthusiastic. He may have lived in Oklahoma, but he is decidedly not from there. We all love sports. We all love having a good time. And we all were looking forward to having a sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Planning our trip was a bit difficult as we all had to word together to get things done. Unfortunately for my friends, I don’t have internet and therefore couldn’t do much of the preparation. Doug and Richard both have Internet at their posts and, thankfully, took on the burden of getting the game tickets, reserving plane tickets, and finding places for us to stay (We’ll talk more about this later.)

We somehow managed to get dirt-cheap plane tickets to Johannesburg, the only thing is that the departure city was Accra, the capital of Ghana. Much to our luck, there is a Peace Corps presence in Ghana. So, we had some correspondence with people there that could help us if we needed. Also, Ghana is only one country over; about a seven-hour bus ride from Cotonou, which is Benin’s economic capital. Traveling through Togo was pretty uneventful, save for the 50 stamps and the onerous processing we had to go through with our passports. I mean, honestly, why must this be so complicated for just traveling through a country. You’d think we were trying to declare citizenry in this country there were so many documents to fill out. I think we were at the border for about 30 minutes getting stamps and paying money. The only problem that arose was when we were about to enter Ghana. We were standing at the border station working on getting our exit stamps to head into Ghana at the Togo office and we decided it would be a good idea to take a picture. Rich, Cara (a girl who was traveling with us) and I lined up and Doug snapped a photo. Unfortunately a security officer was walking behind us and he got caught in the picture. Well, this turned out to be a matter of national security and Doug had to work with the border patrol officers for about 45 minutes to get his camera back. Frustrating, I assure you.

So, we finally made it to Accra. Compared to Cotonou, Accra is about 25 years ahead of them development wise. There are movie theaters with new releases. I saw the new Iron Man movie and new Toy Story. There were malls. There are paved roads everywhere. It was the most developed city I had seen in almost a year. We felt like a high schoolers because we spent almost all of our free time at the mall. (Let’s go to the mall!!!) Aside from the developed areas, though, it was easy to realize that you were still in a developing country. There were shanty houses, polio-stricken beggars, and bush taxis aplenty.

Our flight was scheduled to leave at 11 pm. Unfortunately it started raining and when it starts raining the pulse of the city comes to a grinding halt. We planned to leave our hotel two and a half hours before our flight thinking that would leave us enough time to get to the airport. Think again. We were literally sitting in traffic about a mile from the airport. Sitting. It was a parking lot. Not to mention it was raining. So, we’re sitting there watching the time pass, along with people on the street, but we weren’t moving. It was getting dangerously close to the time when they would stop letting people check in. What could we do? The only thing we could. We got out of the taxi, in the rain, and ran. We ran all the way to the airport access road and flagged down the next available taxi. Thankfully there was a taxi turning onto the airport road from the parking lot we were just on. The driver was extremely nice and we told him that we would pay him entirely too much if he drove recklessly and got us there in enough time to catch our flight. Well, let me tell you that he may not have driven on the proper side of the road for the entire journey, but we made it alive and well. Check in was chaotic as most of the passengers for our flight were not-yet checked in. People were rushing around the airport frantically asking if Flight 207 for Johannesburg had departed. Thankfully they had delayed the flight in anticipation of their delayed passengers.

When I first heard that I would be flying Air Namibia to Johannesburg I was a bit anxious. My friend described my presumptions most accurately when he said he imagined I would be flying on a World-War II-era bomber with Ford Astro Van bench seats bolted to the floor and goats and chickens roaming about the plane. Thankfully, it was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was nicer than 90 percent of the flights I’ve taken in the U.S. Though, that may have something to do with the fact that I was on the same flight as the president of Ghana, who was also on his way to the World Cup. (Side note: coming from America, I thought presidents had their own planes. I mean, our president has NUMEROUS planes, which he brings with him everywhere, you know, in case one breaks down. Cause that happens.)

In Johannesburg we stayed with a distant cousin of Rich’s, Sandro. When we arrived we had no idea what he looked like, Rich didn’t remember meeting him at the wedding they both were allegedly at, and we didn’t have any pictures. And, our phones didn’t work in South Africa because they had Beninese SIM cards. We were just shooting in the dark. Not to mention the airport was swarming with people from all over the world whose planes had just landed AND their distant cousins who were searching for them. So, we went on a search to find Sandro with no idea who we were looking for. I kid you not, I was walking around the airport yelling “Sandro, hello, Sandro. Where are you? If you’re Rich’s cousin and your name is Sandro, we are here.” Thankfully we found someone who was kind enough to let us use his cell phone and we dialed Sandro’s number. Come to find out, Sandro looked at me and was like, “No cousin of mine would be caught dead with this guy.” (I was wearing air plane clothes and dressed for weather in west Africa, not the winter-like conditions that greeted me in South Africa.)

We spent our first day in South Africa catching up on some sleep, chatting with Sandro, getting to know the country, and walking around another mall. (I’ve not spent so much time in malls since I worked in one as a teenager.) The second night we were in Johannesburg we decided that we were going to spring for tickets to an opening ceremony concert the night before the opening ceremony. It was pretty cool as we saw acts from all over the world, as well as the Black Eyed Peas, whose songs have been all over our party play lists back in Benin. It was interesting hearing music from most of the countries playing in the World Cup. And, it was really cool just to be at a concert and feeling like I was in America again.

The next day we had to wake up and go to Rustenburg where were would be watching USA play England. Rustenburg is not a big city. To be honest, it’s not on most maps and was extremely difficult to find on Google maps. Because of this, hotels were not plentiful, let alone transportation out there. Beforehand, Richard had found us a place to stay on The girl who had set everything up with Richard, Vicky, came to meet us at a McDonald’s and gave us a ride out to Rustenburg. Because of where we had found our lodging I fully anticipated that I’d be sleeping on the floor with my jacket as a pillow. As it turned out, we would be staying on a ranch in a villa in the back of their yard next to the pool with other World Cup travelers such as ourselves. We had our own shower, two bed’s, and they cooked us dinner that evening, and breakfast the next morning. It was actually nicer than staying at a hotel, and cheaper.

Before the game we had a little barbeque, or braai as they call it, before we went to the game. Because we didn’t have transportation Vicky said that she would take us. She is a writer for some blog and had to cover the game anyways and she had a few friends who were going to the game, as well. So, we all piled into the Land Rover Defender, one of my favorite vehicles in the world, and started off for the game. Because Rustenburg isn’t a large town, the traffic to the game was atrocious and we were stuck in a caravan of cars that stretched for miles. On our way there we saw a few Englishmen on the side of the road evacuating their bladders. I took this opportunity to haze them a bit and screamed, “Look at all of you bloody bastards! You’re all too pissed to play, (pissed is British English for drunk) and even your bladders are small!!!” It was quite ironic because about 50 feet down the road Doug, Rich, Vicky’s friends, and I all got out of the car to pee. As we were walking back a fellow football fan called us over to his car and asked if we would like a beer. “Of course,” we responded. He asked us what we would like and Richard said, “Whatever you got. That’ll work.” To which he replied, “You greedy f@#%ing American!” Thankfully he was just raggin’ on us and gave us some much-needed refreshments.

After waiting in the line for about a half hour Vicky decided it was time to use the power of her press pass and skipped through the line of cars. We got up to the security guards, she showed her pass, and we drove on through. It was a rock star moment. We got to the stadium energized for what awaited us: Americans, our national anthem, football, and crazy Brits who would be just as if not more obnoxious than we. I’ll assure you that we were not let down. As we made our way to the stadium there were American flags aplenty, riotous Englishmen, and lots of screaming and vuvuzela blowing. The game was relatively uneventful and ended in a tie. The only reason we actually scored was because the English goalkeeper let a horrible shot slip past him and go into the goal. It wasn’t because of our athleticism, nor was it because we were the better team. I love America. And I love sports, but we have a long way to go on the global stage with regard to soccer.

The next day we caught a ride back to Joburg with friends of the Bourhills. We had to rush to get to the airport as we had to catch a flight to Cape Town. I was super excited for this leg of the trip. I’d heard nothing but amazing things about Cape Town and was expecting nothing else but a beautiful and international city filled with an electric nightlife, fantastic dining, and breathtaking scenery. I would not be let down.

The flight from Joburg to Cape Town is quite pleasant as you fly over the heart of the country. It gives you the opportunity to see the landscape and vastness that comprises most of the country. Joburg is in the northeastern corner and Cape Town is in the southwestern corner. So, you bisect the country as you fly over. South Africa looks like what you imagine the grasslands of Africa to look like: high, brownish colored grass with a sprinkling of green from the trees and bushes that hadn’t dried out during the winter season. There are rivers that seem to carve out imagined boundary lines. Mountains that make it feel as though the rolling grasslands are hiding the bones of ancient giants. It was truly a beautiful sight.

As we descended into Cape Town we flew through some huge and fluffy clouds. It was pretty cool to fly into and then out of these big fluffy clouds. I imagined that I was out there among them touching their fluffyness. After popping out of the clouds you notice how Cape Town is situated. The terrain is rather flat a few miles out of Cape Town and there isn’t much out there. As we’re making our final decent the ground just drops out from under us, and crests down to the ocean. This is Cape Town. Its northern border is literally defined by the cliffs around it, other wise known as Table Mountain. At night, the cliffs around the city are lit from below and if there’s fog, which there was most nights, it’s like the city is tucked away in a hidden compartment sheltered from the savagery and underdevelopment that defines the rest of Africa. To be honest, Cape Town is not Africa. It is literally the farthest point away from being in Africa while still being on the continent. All throughout the city you can see its European roots: from the Cape Dutch architecture to the names of the streets, Long Street, Oranjezicht, Malteno Avenue, to the restaurants, Irish Bars, and shopping. I’m sure the World Cup being in town had a lot to due with the fact that almost everyone I spoke to was not from South Africa, but the city has a very worldly feel. It’s also a boating hot spot, and the Victoria and Arthur (I think that’s its name) Waterfront is replete with million dollar yachts, luxurious hotels, and exotic dining. At that moment, Cape Town was exactly what I needed to help me feel right again. We were lucky enough to stay with a friend of Doug’s cousin, who is a model. The house we stayed in was at the base of Table Mountain and over looked the city. Most of the people we lived in the house were models. They invited us to go out with them most nights and liked cooking dinner at home with us. They were extremely nice and a lot of fun to be around. It was a really international house. The guy who owned the place was German. One of the girls was from South Africa and the other was Brazilian. We met some Dutch, some Canadians, and some English throughout the week with our new friends. It was a lot of fun.

One evening we went out to eat in the downtown/harbor. We really had no idea where we were going and just decided to walk around and see what we would stumble upon. Before hand, while we were standing in the airport terminal I had seen an advertisement for a restaurant called the Belthazar. The ad said they had the best wine list in Africa with over 1200 wines from which to choose. They also had an amazing cut of meat surrounded by some delicious looking red sauce and leaks. As I stared at the ad drooling and waiting for my baggage I thought to myself, “Bring it, Belthazar. Cause I’ll drink your wine.” So, we’re stumbling around the waterfront and I walked around a corner and see some outdoor seating at a nice restaurant and five flats-screen televisions surrounding the dining area. (Watching the soccer matches is extremely important when you’re at the World Cup.) As I approached the host’s stand I looked at the name of this restaurant and low and behold it was the drool-worthy Belthazar!!! I literally had stumbled upon a gold mine! I ran back to Doug and Rich and told them that we would be eating there regardless of what they said. It was a nice restaurant and I think we deserved it. I’ve been eating rice and beans and red sauce out of an aluminum pot from the side of the road for a year now. I think that it’s time to eat some delicious meats, yummy salads, and drink some expensive wine.

We sat down and it was just as it should be: people waited on me hand and foot, there was water at the table that wouldn’t give me diarrhea, and fancy menus. At first we didn’t remember how to act. This being the first time we’d been at a restaurant of this caliber in almost a year. That being said, it didn’t take me long to remember the proper comportment and feel just as I did while dining out in D.C. After looking over the menu I decided that I would like an assortment of meats only found in South Africa. I ordered a spread of Wildebeest, Spring Bok (the national animal of South Africa, or, the mascot for their rugby team, of which they’re extremely proud), Kudu, and some other bok, with a Caesar salad. I had been craving a Caesar salad for about nine months at that moment and couldn’t think of a better way to start my meal. We ordered a few bottles of wine for the table, as well. When my food arrived I noticed that I would be eating my meat from a sword. Literally my food came to the table on a sword. I looked at the sword in front of me and looked at the four little hunks of meat placed upon it. I was giddy with excitement.

Living in the bushes of west Africa has taken some of my snootiness and desire to be surrounded by class and wealth out of me. Sure, this was one of my intentions of joining the Peace Corps, but as soon as I found myself in this once-familiar environment, things felt right again, right as rain.

The rest of our stay in Cape Town was filled with soccer, clubs, restaurants, models, climbing mountains, and going to raves. It was a most fantastic experience. Ask me about it when I see you again and I’ll give you the details that are a bit too sordid to be shared with the rest of the world.

After leaving Cape Town I feel terribly ill. I somehow contracted tonsillitis, and then after taking the medication to treat the tonsillitis, which killed all of the bacteria in my body, both good and bad, I got a fungal infection in my mouth and was bed-ridden for seven days. Thankfully this happened in JoBurg where there aren’t many things to do. Unfortunately I had to miss the Cote Ivoire vs Brazil match. This was a bummer because my traveling buddy, Doug, is Brazilian and I didn’t want to miss the chance to support the other team to ruffle his feathers.

By the time is started feeling better again our vacation was almost over. We were a few days away from our return to Benin and the US team had made it to the round of 16, which is the round immediately following the group stage. Somehow they had managed to tie enough times and not lose that we advanced to the next round. We then decided that we had to find tickets to the game because they were playing Ghana. The problem with this is that we would be traveling back through Ghana on our way home. That means that if the US won it could be a bit dangerous and if the US won we wouldn’t hear the end of it from every Ghanaian we met. So, we were sitting in the mall trying to figure out how to buy some new tickets and I said allowed, “God, you wouldn’t think it would be this difficult to get tickets to go see the US lose to the last African team in the tournament. All we need are three tickets.” Much to our surprise there was an Thai/American sitting behind us who had three extra tickets because his friends had just bailed on him. What luck?! He literally answered my question with I have three tickets. If you have a ride I’ll sell them to you. The game was in Rustenburg, so we called up our friends, the Bourhill’s and asked if we could stay with them. They were just as accommodating as before. The last night we were there, after the loss to Ghana, they had a braai for us. A braai (pronounced bry) is a South African cook out. They grilled up some ostrich, wildebeest, springbok, and regular cow. The meat in South Africa gives anything we raise in the States a run for its money, especially the exotic meats like wildebeest and ostrich. This was actually the first time I was able to eat solid foods without pain in my mouth from the infection I had, and let me tell you, if there’s anyway to introduce yourself back into solid foods, fire-burnt exotic meats you’ve never eaten before is SURELY a way to do it.

The return trip to Benin was a bit depressing. Going from the exoticism, luxury, and civilization we had acclimated ourselves to in South Africa to the underdevelopment of west Africa can really bring one’s spirits down.

If any of my readers have never been to a global event like the Olympics or the World Cup, I highly recommended it. You get a chance to see the way people from other corners of the world carry themselves, dress themselves, express themselves, and amuse themselves. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and will surely be something I share with friends and family ad nauseum.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Can You Hear Me Now?

I’m a big fan of cell phones, cell phone technology, mobile technology, and the laws that shape them. I lived in France and had the chance to see how a mobile communications structure outside of the United States functioned. In France there are a lot of prepaid phone plans, unlocked phones, front-facing cameras, and a nimiety of Nokias; I’m talking about the cool Nokias we don’t get in the States. Before coming to Africa, based on my previous research and experience, I expected cell phones to be unlocked, on prepaid plans, and relatively simple. I expected most of the phones to be made by the manufactures I knew and hopefully some that I didn’t. I didn’t know what to expect of the coverage, and I was hoping to see some mobile banking and credit-as-currency exchange. Checking out the mobile telephony world here in Benin has helped me discover a lot about cell phones, service providers and how things can function outside of a contract, but also about politics, globalization, and a first-hand account of the advancements China and India are making in communications technology.

In America you’re either “IN the network” or you allegedly “have more bars in more places,” you can be “on a 4g network,” or you can have a “top 5.” Whatever your case may be you usually only have one service provider. An exception is if you need two phones because work provides ones, or you’re a drug dealer/pimp who has a spare prepaid phone on which you do “business.” (I guess those reasons are actually the same.) Here in Benin the cell phone companies’ networks aren’t as developed, their coverage isn’t as comprehensive, and therefore the Beninese have numerous cell phones. For example, in the south MTN has the best coverage, but in the northern part of the country it’s Bell Benin and Librecom who get the best reception. Another reason the Beninese have numerous cell phones is because it’s much, MUCH cheaper to call someone on the same network than someone on a different network. Case in point, it cost the same per minute to call someone on a different network who is sitting next to you as it is to call someone an ocean away in America. Because of these reasons you see men, and sometimes women, with multiple cell phones. They carry them in their hands to show off that they can afford two phones. They also pull them out and hold them while being photographed. (Didn’t Sarah Palin pose with her two Blackberrys when she was photographed for Newsweek a few weeks ago?) Most of the time the phones that they have are two cheap Nokias, sometimes they have one nice phone and one not so nice phone, and the way you can tell if someone is a “grand homme” in society is if he has a phone that can support two SIM cards. So, because most people have numerous cell phones the first thing someone asks you when they get your number is what network your on. Which is bizarre, because you can tell what network they’re on by the first two numbers of their cell number. So, if your number starts with 96 or 97 you have MTN, if you have 99 you’re on Glo. It’s also interesting to see the marketing campaigns that then come out based on these two numbers. “New Number, New Life. Go for Glo. Start your life with 99.” We use cell phones as a status symbol in the States, in some circles, but it's much more obvious here in Benin.

I like it when companies take the time to do market research and then adapt products to that market. And, I’m sure this problem isn’t exclusive to Benin. But, the idea of having a phone with two SIM cards kind of confused me at first. How do I choose which SIM I want to use for the text I’m about to send? How do I choose which SIM I want to use for my phone call? Does having two SIMs mean that my phones uses more battery life? How do I choose which SIM I want to use when I go on the Internet?

Because I’m a technophile, and curious, I decided to purchase a “BlackBorry” from a street vendor. Copyright and trademark laws prohibit the sale of cloned phones in America. You can buy them over the Internet and have them shipped here, no problem. But, who wants to buy something from China/ for a few hundred dollars with no warranty and no guarantee it’s going to work on the network frequencies we use here in America? (They use different cell frequencies in Europe and Asia than we do in the States.) Not being on the same frequencies means you’ll have more dropped calls, “less bars,” and limited access to non-phone features like Internet and music services. This gave me the perfect opportunity to try one of these clones out. And, firstly, I want you all to know that a Blackberry is INFINITELY more intuitive than a BlackBorry. The user interface (UI) on my Blackborry is made to mimic the UI my Blackberry Bold. It actually looks a lot like my Bold with regard to shape and weight. The phone itself has a nice feel to it, but when you start playing with its features you realize that it doesn’t have the technological maturity of a real Blackberry. (Anecdotally, when you’re typing a text message you have to wait at the end of each word until the cursor moves past the letter to hit the space bar or you’ll erase the newly typed letter.) I was explaining this to a Beninese friend and I told him that I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. I’m America, I want things the way I want them at that moment. Especially when I’m typing out a text message. I want the entire process to be as quick and effortless as possible. And this isn’t that. I’ve found that this lack of UI maturity isn’t specific to my Bloackborry and is common in cloned phones, like the Nckia and the Nokla my friends have. Aside from my Blackborry’s flaws there were some interesting features that we don’t get on our phones in the states. My Blackborry had a flashlight on the top, which is rather useful in a country where electricity isn’t expected/always there. My Blackborry also had a TV antenna that telescoped from the top. I was able to watch the local station (ORTB is the name of the station, which is similar to NBC or FOX) at any time during the day through my phone. Another cool feature, which shows up on some American phones, is an FM receiver. In Kerou, my village, and all throughout Benin, the radio is a really popular and effective means of communicating. Most people around town are listening to their local radio stations, and it’s how most volunteers transmit information to the community about workshops and public service announcements. Aside from their flaws, the knock-off phones here in Benin seem rather suited to address a lot of the needs of the Beninese.

(Choosing between SIMs when sending messages and making phone calls turned out to relatively easy as the phone prompts you before doing either. I guess my confusion was founded in my ignorance.)

I see cell phones from all the manufacturers we have back in the States, and definitely some new comers. I see a lot of Nokias. It seems that Nokia has the cheap-yet-sturdy phone market cornered. The phone that most of the volunteers, and most of the people, have is a simple phone, no color screen, black, and perfunctory, made by Nokia. One charge lasts for numerous days, and you could probably run it over and not worry about breaking it. As I’ve said before, a lot of manufacturers are doing market research to adapt their phones to developing markets, and here in Benin where electricity is mainly for the wealthy and even then it frequently goes out, a lot of phones come with flashlights. (There is an old Economist from about seven or eight months ago that details phone adaptation, the influence of Asia makers, and mobile banking. Check it out if you’re interested. It’s one of their special reports.) It didn’t surprise me that there were phones with flashlights, what surprised me is that the only recognizable manufacturer putting flashlights on their phones was Nokia; SonyEricsson, LG, HTC, Samsung, Kyocera, and Blackberry don’t have flashlights. Contrarily, all of the Chinese and Indian clones phones, and even their own labels, have flashlights. Is this because they did market research, or because in the developing world, regardless of where you are, people usually don’t have electricity and if they do it’s shoddy at best? This led me to start looking at the projects that India and China have funded here in Benin to see if they’re doing a better job at serving the development needs of Benin because they’re recently developed (or are developing) themselves, as opposed to western development projects that merely seek impose their own beliefs of development? The Chinese are building hospitals and roads. They’re training new doctors. They’re making products at affordable prices. It’s the same with Indian development. I think they might have some good insight into leapfrog development instead of following the same 200-year path that America took. For example, the Chinese are working with mobile carriers to develop their wireless infrastructures instead of laying telephone lines. That being said, China and India are also flooding the market with cheap batteries that get thrown into the street when they die, and I’m sure all of the products that get banned from the United States and Europe due to safety concerns end up here, as well.

But, fret not: America still has influence when it comes to telecommunications in Benin. Kerekou was the president before the current president, Yayi Boni. Kerekou was actually a dictator in Benin about 30 years ago and then ran for president successfully, twice. While doing some research about telecommunications in Benin before I arrived I came across a political timeline, which led me to some other information. But, it’s from the Internet so no one can guarantee its validity. But, it said that in the mid-nineties during Kerekou’s second presidential campaign, he had a substantial donation from an American telecommunications company. Shortly thereafter Bell Benin communications became a major player in Beninese communications. I haven’t found out too much further as information about company ownership is scarce. (Also, due to my position as an American government worker in Benin I cannot make political declarations or accusations on my blog.) Don’t we have a telecommunications company whose name had Bell in it somewhere? Just something I found interesting.

The Peace Corps has volunteers all over the country and they work in myriad sectors. Volunteers usually leave after their two years are up, but there are a few who choose to stay. Some find love. Some like living in a developing country. Some also see the opportunity to live comfortably with jobs that pay American salaries while living on Beninese budgets. For example, the rent for a beautiful house in the richest part of Cotonou is about $400 to $600 dollars a month. Some of the people who have stayed are working with global development agencies and one “returned” Peace Corps Volunteer works in technological development as a consultant. One day we were all sitting around chatting over beers and I asked her about mobile banking. Per the Economist article I mentioned earlier, many African countries are recognizing the benefits of mobile banking and how it can expand economical development and expand opportunities for the poorer citizens in society to exchange/save money more easily. I asked her whether she knew about mobile banking in Benin and she said that it was stalled out because in Benin anytime a company deals with currency exchange it must be treated like a bank. One major problem with this is that to have a bank account in Benin you must have state-issued identification, and to get this ID you have to have a birth certificate. In most developing countries child birth DOES NOT happen at a hospital. Those who do have children in hospitals are wealthier and those who do not are poor. Thus most children aren’t registered with the states and do not have identification cards. It’s the poor who would be using the mobile banking services the most because they don’t have access bank accounts. To be honest, they’ve probably never been in a bank, much less seen one.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the culture of cell phones, how people use them, how I think they’re seen, and how that compares to American cell phone usage. In America cell phones are more and more becoming something other than a talking-into-and-someone-talking-back kind of device. We’re sending exponentially more texts than we sent two years ago, we’re updating our facebook status, and shaking our phones to find out which restaurant to go to tonight (Urban Spoon app for iPhone). In the not-so-distant future we’ll be accessing our Netflix and Comcast accounts to watch Avatar and Dexter anywhere we have service. Phones in America are becoming media consumption devices and advanced agenda/calendar/to do list/alarm clocks more than they are communication devices. Here in Benin phones are simple communications devices, but are developing at a rapid clip. Internet is just starting to become more available. Though most don’t understand what the Internet is. They don’t know what a computer does, nor how to use it, much less ever touched one. That being said, the Beninese use their phones to listen to the radio, as they come with FM transmitters, they can watch TV, as some come with analog TV tuners, and they use them as a status symbol, much as we do in the states. It’s rather common to see Beninese men and women walking around the village listening to music from their phones as though they were a boom box. People set them on the tables at the bars to listen to music. And, they’re all listening to the same four songs by the same people. (They love Akon here in Benin, and all over Africa, to be honest.) I don’t know the names of the songs but I know that I hear them all the time. Another feature that I come across a lot is the MTN “beep me” feature. As I said before, most phones are prepaid, and because of this people run out of credit all the time. But, they still want to talk to you. So, there is a feature through MTN that sends a message to someone saying that you would like to call them but you don’t have any credit. This is supposed to imply that you’re to call them back. (As you can probably imagine, this gets kind of annoying when the same people “beep” you every time they want to talk.)

All in all, cell phones are everywhere in Benin. Everyone has them. They’re cheap. They have multiple functions. And I feel that they’re going to be an integral role in Benin’s development. I think it’s really cool to see how people are just coming in contact with something we find so banal in America: a phone that just makes phones calls and sends text messages. Aside from learning about a country that is about five years behind America in mobile technology, I’m excited to get back to the States, get a new phone, and discover all the cool things I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sweet Heavenly Jesus It's Hot Here

I don’t know if you’ve heard this before but it’s real hot here in Africa. And, I know what you’re saying, “it’s hot in America. I know it’s hot. You’re close to the equator. Duh, Brandon, you’re retarded for not knowing how hot it was going to be before you went.” But, let’s be honest, I had an idea about a lot of things before I got to Benin. I knew there would be a lot of bugs, I knew travel would be a bit difficult, and I knew it would be hot. But, as with all the things I thought I knew before coming here I had NO FREAKIN’ CLUE how intense they would be. The bugs are huge, I’m lucky if the taxi I’m in DOESN’T have a cracked windshield and there aren’t 20 people inside, and I might be on the surface on the sun it feels so hot.

I’m not all that savvy with Celsius, but I do know that 40 degrees is not cool, not even tepid, and the temperature, I’m assuming, floats somewhere around 35-45 degrees daily and constantly. I’m not all that sure about that because I haven’t found a thermometer yet in Kerou and I can’t check the weather app on my Blackberry that I don’t have.

When the electricity goes out here in Benin, which happens often, I am forced to light my little living quarters with gas lanterns and candles. Thankfully the lanterns are made of metal, because everything else around here is melting. I have a picture posted that shows how my candle has melted on the bottle-turn-candlestick unlighted. It’s not that it’s turned into a pool of wax, but the candle has bent all the way down to the bottle and looks like a sad cartoon character. All of the chocolate that you all have so graciously sent me has melted in which the containers they were sent. But, fret not, it’s still delicious and I’m still eating it. Karina’s father sent me some lotion to help my feet that are so dry they’re cracked and bleeding and it was more of a crème; it could now be put into a spray bottle for application. If wood melted I’m sure all of my furniture would be in a puddle on the floor. Speaking of furniture, everything around here seems to trap the heat of the day and they radiate it in the evening when I need it to be the coolest. My mattress emits so much heat it could be attached to a thermoelectric generator to power a small boat, or charge a plug-in hybrid. My pillow is like a little portable heater, and, I’m not joking, the wooden chairs that I had made, which are literally make of sticks, radiate heat at night a cause me to sweat. My walls that are made of concrete emit so much heat that I have to sleep in the middle of the room to avoid it, it’s the only thing I can do. We’re not supposed to sleep outside do to security risks, but it’s becoming a more welcomed idea as the season progresses.

All of this heat and all of this sweating means I have to drink a lot of fluids. In America the only hot drinks I drank were, uh… I didn’t really drink any hot drinks. I steep tea and let it sit until it’s chilled; and let’s be honest, those who know me know that I shouldn’t be caffeinated with coffee. So, to handle my addiction to cold drinks I buy little plastic baggies of cold water almost hourly. When I say little baggies of water I actually mean little plastic bags of water. I also buy little baggies of this stuff called “Beesap” which is not bees’ wax, and is not tree sap; nor is it a combination of the two. It’s actually boiled hibiscus leaves, a bit of pineapple, and some sugar. It’s quite delicious, and I had no idea you could even make a beverage from hibiscus leaves, let alone something this delicious. Surprisingly, I drink a lot of cold Coca Cola. Another sidebar, before coming to Benin the only time I drank soda was when it was mixed with something else while out on the town, and said soda was usually Sprite. (BY THE WAY PEOPLE, IT’S SODA NOT POP, deal with it.) Now that I’m here, the sweet and salty mix of an ice-cold Coca Cola literally defines the idea and sensation of refreshing. I don’t understand why Coca Cola has a different taste in America. I actually do and I’m scared of early onset diabetes, but I wish American Coca Cola was this delicious. From time to time I drink a nice ice-cold beer, sometimes it’s not so ice cold, but nonetheless refreshing. Another refreshing little drink is mixing a bit of Coca Cola with your beer. Don’t hate. Finding refreshing beverages isn’t too difficult if there’s electricity, but Some volunteers don’t have electricity in their villages. I feel for them. I can’t imagine what I would do without something cold to help fight this heat, especially because we have to boil our water to get rid of harmful organisms. I want you to imagine this: it’s one trillion degrees, you have no air conditioning, no fan, walls that radiate heat, and no source of cold beverage. That’s rough.

The body is an amazing thing. I don’t know why, or how, but even though I’m from the northeast and I love the cold, snow, and layered clothing, I’ve adapted to the heat. I don’t know if I would call it comfortable, but the sweating actually helps. And, it’s not an overwhelming, body soaking, passing out humidity. Thankfully in the northern part of the country it’s a dry heat. It’s kind of like Arizona: hot and dry. But, I imagine there are a lot more air conditioners and pools in Tempe than in Kerou.

Everyday is a battle here in Kerou: I’m fighting cultural differences, I’m fighting unattentive students, and now I’m fighting jock itch. I’m really not sure which part is most difficult, but I’m doing all that I can to chill out and get the job done.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Whole New Year

Kerou, Benin

A whole new year.

A whole new year in a whole new job in a whole new house located in a whole new town in a whole new country. There’s a lot of newness going on in my life. Not mention new friends, new food, new cat, and new rectal adventures.

I chose to pass the New Year celebrations in Kerou. I felt that if I were going to end the aforementioned new year in this village in the bush I should start it here. I felt it was the proper thing to do. 2010 will be my “year in the bush,” and I’m finally starting to feel happier, no, more excited about it. The first three months were difficult, but now I’ve figured out how to live here. I’m a creature of habit who likes to shakes things up from time to time and I’ve found a routine in Kerou. I’m starting to feel at ease in my job, my house, and my life.

This year brings about plenty of new adventures in my life. The first thing that I’ll mention is that I’ve started getting my plans in order for going to the World Cup in South Africa. Rich, Doug, and I have purchased our plane tickets and are now looking for a place to stay and tickets to the actual games. The latter has been taken care of and the former is still taking place. If you know of anyone who lives in South Africa and would be willing to board three upstanding, easy-going, Peace Corps Volunteers for a few nights please let me know. (NOTE: We’re Peace Corps Volunteers, we’ll sleep anywhere, we’ll eat anything, and we’ll use the scariest means of “safe” transportation we must to arrive at our destination. The life of a PCV is a life where one must make sacrifices and do whatever one must to accomplish what one must.)

This new year also brings new directions in life. I guess. Those who know me know that I have an “idea” of where I would like my life to take me. I know I like technology, I know I like media, I know I like clean energy, and I know I like working in or around the government. I think a Masters degree will look nicely on my resume. So, I hope to be able to take my GREs while here in Africa. (Which is totally possible, you can take them in Ghana.) When I come back I’m sure I’ll need a little time to readjust, read as much as I can before I go blind, and eat every single buffalo wing I can find in the Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Virginia region. (Those who know me know I’m a fatty.) If you’re smart you’ll invest in blue cheese and celery. After a few months of rest and adaptation to my mother country, I’ll be ready to get back into the swing of things and progress with my future. But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself, we’re talking about this year not the rest of my life.

So, the speculation is over about life, my life specifically. I hope you’ve all had wonderful New Year’s celebrations and are back into your respective lives that you love. If you don’t like your life, change it. It’s that simple. Sometimes that safest thing you can do for your future is to hold your nose, step to the ledge, and jump.