Sunday, January 23, 2011

Christmas on the Beach

Joyeux Noel!!! (Merry Christmas) Meillieurs Voeux!!! (Best Wishes) Bon Fete!!! (Good Party)

The holiday season was just upon me and boy was it something. My best friend Steven has told me about these Christmases at the beach and I really didn’t understand their appeal until this year.

Last year I spent Christmas with my postmate. I decorated the house with snowflakes, pin the nose on the reindeer, and a naughty and nice list. (Def. on the naughty list, duh. As most of you are as well, I’m sure.) So, that means that I did the Christmas at my post, which is something you’re supposed to do at least once. Check. This year I decided that I would do something I bit more adventurous/relaxing/around more of the friends I’ve created this year. So, I got a bungalow on the beach at a place called Auberge Grand Po Po with Shannon. Apparently this was one of the first places built in the area, is known for its food, and when I called I asked about food and he informed me that this was a “real” hotel. I daydreamed that perhaps, at least, I’d be able to get a massage while drinking out of a coconut.

We got there the Monday before Christmas and were excited for a relaxing week on the beach eating good food and forgetting we were in Benin. I had just recently been passed Hunger Games and was excited to read it. We arrived to the usual taximoto/argument/overpriced turmoil usually associated with Zemijohns to find our adorable little white bungalow nestled a few meters back from the ocean in a coconut grove. Not bad.

The first evening we decided to have dinner there. A few drinks beforehand on the little patio over looking the ocean: obviously. So, we’re about two American-sized (American-sized beers are about half the size of the beers we normally drink) beers deep and the cute little waitress asks if we’d like to move upstairs to eat. We said, why no. I think eating right here on the beach would be just perfect. Thanks, we’ll just stay here. To which she replied that they didn’t do that. Didn’t do what I wondered. Apparently you weren’t allowed to sit down on the patio and eat. They refused to serve us our food at a table on the beach-front patio because they didn’t do that. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t understand stupid. I wasn’t asking to eat baby sea turtle off the forehead of a trafficked child. I was asking to eat dinner at the same table I was having drinks because it had a fantastic view of the ocean. Strike one.

The days passed like the breeze billowing across the surf. I collected seashells. Did some beach yoga. Almost died trying to swim in the ocean. Seriously people, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention to the State Department’s travel warnings regarding swimming in the ocean in Benin. It was nearly impossible to get out and Shannon was literally swept from her feet by the undertow.

A few times at lunch we wandered the beach road looking for places to eat and souvenir shops. We stumbled past a makeshift hut/stand thing when its patron yelled to us asking if we were hungry. Though we had already eaten, the hot sun was pounding on us and a cold drink sounded nice. Marcel, the patron, was a super nice guy offering us ice-cold coca colas and beers to help beat the heat. Marcel’s Pizzeria turned out to be one of of lunchtime hot spots as he made fantastic thin crust pizzas, accommodated all of our white-guy necessities, and was centrally located between all of the hotels where our friends would later be staying. After a few beverages we ventured out onto the road again looking for some keep sakes.

The cool thing about this area is that most of the touristy stuff is actually made by the dude who’s selling it. That being said, the quality/usefulness of the products is questionable. A wallet made from a gourd hanging from my neck, yeah, not so sure. A wooden statue of an elephant, not sure that’ll fit in the taxi I’ll be forced into on the way home. That being said, I did manage to find a sweet bottle that was painted with mud and superglue. I got it filled with some of the locally made liquor, sodabi at this road-side stand I found the first time I was in Grand Po Po. (Side note, share this with your older relatives who may remember. Sodabi is similar to Jake, the liquor they used to sell during prohibition. Therefore, after prolonged consumption people have gone blind. I’ve heard of temporary blindness after bender one evening. And, everyone I know who likes sodabi is just a bit crazy.)

After one day of lazily flouncing around the beach, building beach chairs, jumping in the surf, resting under a beach hut, we decided to rinse off by the pool. It was just after midday and the sun was pounding, it was a million degrees, and I had sand in most of my crevices. We head over to the pool and there’s a guy cleaning it and his hose is attached to the faucet we would use to rinse off. So, I ask the guy if we can get in to wash off and he could just suck up the sand then. Or, we could hang out at the other end of the pool. Also, don’t think that our sand would clog the filtration system because there isn’t one. It’s just a concrete hole in the ground with water in it. They use the hose next to the pool to fill it up. He said that we couldn’t and to come back in an hour. In an hour I would be irritated and hungry; and in an hour I wanted to be at Marcel’s eating a pizza and cooling off. As you can see, I was not happy. Call me a prissy American and I’ll ask you to come live in my concrete hut for 15 months and try to call me prissy again. I’m on vacation. ::stomps foot::

After this I’d grown tired of the “real” hotel. On one of our earlier excursion we stumbled across an adorable little group of bungalows closer to where our friends had rented a place. So, we decided to move to the Saviors of Africa! Cuter rooms. No pool. Better service. Worth it.

While eating lunch one day at Marcel’s I noticed a clang clanging going on down by the beach. Marcel said that it was the local tradition of pulling in the nets everyday for the bounty. Apparently, everyday, except Sunday because the fish rest, men from all over the village come down in the morning and start pulling in the nets. This whole process takes about three to four hours as the nets are about half a kilometer, if not more, out to sea. I decided that I would go down there one morning and help bring in some fish. It sounded like the clang clanging was to a rhythm, which made me want to whistle/dance while I worked, and I decided to give it a whirl.

Normally you have to ask for permission before you take a picture. They get quite angry if you don’t. You usually have to pay. When you don’t ask permission you pay more. Sometimes they force you to buy them sodabi. Remember, always ask first.

I walked down to the ocean, attracted by the rhythmic banging, and asked if I could help. Of course. They love seeing the white guy do the work. Normally we’re just rolling around this country in an air conditioned SUV, unless you’re a PCV, then you’re smashed into a taxi/on the back of a zemijohn/sweating your balls off. I danced about as I tugged the line just like everyone else. They sang songs which I’m sure spoke of fish, women, and sodabi, and routinely got off the line to dance. Some of my fellow yankers were more serious than others. Some were obviously inebriated. Others looked respectable and family oriented. Each wanted his picture taken with a fevor unexpected given their insistence on me paying beforehand.

After the second hour of yanking I grew tired and my hands hurt. I was trying to figure out why I had paid money to come down to the beach to do work. And, the hotel had called down to say that my breakfast was ready and we all know they clearly weren’t going to bring it to me. J

Around one in the afternoon the nets finally reached shore and we separated the catch. Women from all over town came down to claim/pay for their basin of fish. Apparently most of the men who pulled the nets in were from Ghana and are brought in to do the manual labor. All of the profits go to some consortium in Ghana, which is two countries over, and the men are paid monthly. I noticed that a after the nets were caught in representatives from the consortium arrived, gave the prices for the basins and larger fish, took the best catches, and left immediately.

Later in the week some of my fellow PCVs arrived and we mingled, threw Frisbee, played games, and enjoyed the collective environment. This was the first time that the newest stage was allowed to take vacation, so you can be assured we profited from that.

Christmas day came along and I exchanged gifts with some of my friends. Up in Kerou I’ve had a lot of time on my hands and I was looking for a hobby. I remembered that I had a friend who repurposed old cow horns into decorations, and that I had bought some jewelry made from the same material. I can do that, I thought, and took to creating jewelry for my female friends. I made a few bracelets, a necklace, and some earrings. It felt pretty cool making something that was this pretty by hand. I hope I’ll be able to continue making jewelry from other materials when I get back. I’m sure whatever school I go to will have an art class to meet my needs.

After Christmas I went back to Kerou. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to get to Kerou, other times I have to take planes, trains, and automobiles to get home. Let’s just say that it took a car, a bus, three taxis, and two tractor trailers to get home. I was smashed in between kids, old women, PCVs, cotton, and at one point I thought I was livestock.

Being in Kerou for New Years was cool. I forgot that people don’t party on New Years Eve except at the stroke of midnight. Then the party begins. It’s not as hectic that evening, but New Years day is the real party. I went from house to house visiting my friends and colleagues. We ate lots of food, drank with friends, and danced the day away. That evening we went to one of the local clubs. (I know, I couldn’t believe there was a club here either.) Unfortunately the club didn’t have air conditioning, and it seemed as though it was nothing but students there. I decided that at my apartment was the best venue and returned.

Welcoming in the New Year in Kerou means that I’ve spent one entire year in my tiny village in the bushes. Among the many things I learned in 2010, how to actually live in Kerou was the most important. 2010 was the year I spent in Africa.

What does 2011 have for me. I’m sure new adventures and friends await; as well as reunions with the old. I have a sweet European vacation planned, and could potentially be ending the year in South America.

I wish you the best of wishes. Know that I love you all and will see you soon.

P.S. – there should be pictures up soon. Also, I’m still here for 7 months. I still need soap, shaving crème, chocolate, loose-leaf tea, and your love. The favor will be returned upon my own.

10 Things I Miss More Than Running Water

I chose this title because there are a lot of concessions I’ve made over here. I’ve given up a lot of things and I’ve been able to replace with other things. Not having air conditioning means I get a fan. I don’t have a ZipCar but I do have a bike. Simple things. But, there are some things that I miss more than I miss running water. Please, don’t be offended if you’re not on this list. It’s obvious that I miss my family and my friends. I miss holidays. I miss celebrations. Duh. This is some of the other stuff.

1. Brunch. I’m sorry Mom. I’m sorry Internet. I miss brunch more than I miss flushing toilets, the metro, and sexting. I miss delicious Bloody Marys, crab cakes benedict, fried chicken with sweet onion gravy, scrambled eggs and thickly cut bacon. I miss endless mimosas. I miss jarring to life at some time on Saturday or Sunday morning/afternoons texting my besties, putting some clothes on, and stumbling to one of my fav. brunch spots. I miss the Logan Circle Leisure Sports Association.

2. My BlackBerry. A few years ago I ditched my iPhone/it fell in a pool. I decided to get a Blackberry. The feeling of the leather on my fingers as I updated my Facebook status was incomparable. I long to see that little red dot blinking at me just to get my attention. I miss my Google calendar that auto sync’d with my Blackberry Calendar. I miss BBM. Because I couldn’t take it any longer, I asked my mother to send my Blackberry Bold to me. The cell service here isn’t too bad. And, they advertise this phone as new, which it is not, on the billboards in Cotonou. I hope this implies MTN supports all of my required services. (Update-given the less than stellar electrical system in this country and its questionable presence, i decided to stick with my w810i—it has a flashlight, infinitely useful, long battery life, the Bold comparably does not, and will more than likely die right as i’m leaving—instead of switching to my Bold. Maybe if the Guyana thing works.)

3. The Internet. I don’t actually think I can explain how much the Internet was a part of my life before my service; therefore, I am equally incapable of describing how much I miss it.

4. Whole Foods. Monday night was my grocery shopping night. I would get back from working out and change out my bags and rush off to the Whole Foods a few blocks away between 14th and 15th on P. I would put my newly downloaded podcast about media on my iPod and shop away with the best looking shopping crowd in DC. This Whole Foods is in a particularly good looking part of the city. So, not only is the food nice to look at but the people are too. I got to pick out what delicious salads I would make for the week while learning about “the dismal state of health reporting on America’s morning news programs,” or about video games for the differently-abled. This shopping ritual made Mondays not so bad.

5. Drink Specials/Dance Parties/Night Clubs. $2 Skyy drinks. Philadelphia special: PBR and a shot of whisky. Two for One Top Shelf. Bliss. Shift. Black Cat. Town. Pants off Dance off. Hipsters. Awkward Dancing. Great hair cuts. Smart/Weird People. Those who understand this understand what I am going through. Those who do not, sadly, do not.

6. Mexican Restaurants/Chips and Salsa. Nuff Said.

7. The Metro. I lived two blocks from the Metro in DC. It was my main mode of transportation in and around the city. I was on the Yellow/Green line. This meant I could get to work in 15 minutes if train showed up right as I got there. Which happened. The Metro was romantic. It could take me all throughout the city, it was paid for, and there were other people to look at. Which could and did range from college students, to White House staff, to cooks at the Hilton. It’s clean and efficient. And, at times it’s funny. So far, it’s been my favorite regular means of transportation. And, you can go out with your friends and have as much fun as you want and have a safe way to get home.

8. Holiday Seasons. Jingle bells! Bat Man smells! Robin laid an egg. I love getting all dressed up for holidays. I miss dressing for International Talk Like A Pirate Day. It’s not everyday you get to wear a paper parrot on your shoulder during a staff meeting. I also miss getting together with family. I miss buying gifts for people. I miss eating too much. I miss falling asleep while watching “A Christmas Story.” I miss putting up stockings at work. I loved it when Mama D, my boss, invited us all over to make cookies! I miss Labor Day/Memorial Day weekends and the Fourth of July. I miss cookouts and Sam Adams. We definitely fete over here in Benin, but it’s just not like what I partied to in the States.

9. Racquetball. I’ve played sports my entire life. I like being in a league and the weekly competition. I picked up racquet sports in college and have been hooked ever since. I miss having my Thursday evening/Saturday morning racquetball matches against guys from all over the political/profession/age spectrum. I was playing in a league, so every match counted. I surely didn’t win all the time. But, I definitely didn’t lose all the time, either. And, I like the way racquetball makes my butt look. I miss having a regular outlet for the all-sport inside.

10. TiVo. Ok, it’s not just TiVo. I miss television, as well. I miss watching Big Bang Theory and then How I Met Your Mother on Mondays. Then, sometimes I would have to TiVo Dexter because of a date. Or that if I wanted to watch a movie I had ten movie channels and pay-per-view. Cash Cab. Mythbusters. Dirty Jobs. And, I could rewind and pause it at leisure. Granted, I’m watching a lot of television shows over here on my laptop, I want to be able to channel surf while eating some Chinese takeout. Guilty.

This list has been brewing in the back of my mind for a few months now. While all the PCVs are together for a meeting or haphazardly in the same workstation on transit, we/I like to talk about what’s happening in the States and what parts of my life I miss. You learn a lot about someone by the things that they miss.

And, as always, know that I miss you all terribly, especially my mother.