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.