I just got back home from spending my “Workstation Days” in Cotonou!! Which is like being in America... only it would be nothing like America to anyone who is currently in America. To us however, it is just like being in America. I took my first hot shower since I left the states in June!
There are 4 workstations throughout Benin: Cotonou, Natitingou, Kandi and Parakou. Your workstation is based on your location in the country and it is where you pick up your mail, relax, use fast internet, watch TV and spend some time with other volunteers, and sleep in an air conditioned room (at least in Cotonou). My workstation is the Cotonou workstation, because that is the one closest to me. Which is really nice because the Cotonou workstation is also the Benin Peace Corps Headquarters. This means that when I go to relax.. I can also visit the doctor, stop in and talk with my program manager (or any other administrator that I like), and all paperwork and important things are processed in Cotonou. Every month each volunteer gets 3 free nights to spend at the workstation (2 right now because I am still in the adjustment period).. and the best part is that they are not counted towards our vacation days :)
Cotonou is the big economic city.. it is also the home to most of the Embassies and has a lot of expats. So while I can get almost anything I could possibly need in the Capital City of Porto Novo, where I live, Cotonou has everything else. If you can't find it in Cotonou... you won't find it in Benin. In line with my weird habit of getting really excited and buying strange things whenever I walk into a “western style” grocery store in this country.. I came back to post today with rose water, canned baba ghanoush, cappuccino flavored cookies, hot sauce, and guava jam. I also bought some more practical things that I actually needed... but that isn't interesting.
Volunteers also get the opportunity to eat non-Beninese food when in Cotonou!! I even had falafel one night!! It was so good!!! There is a french bakery that has chocolate soy-milk... and they also have kiwi juice?? and I had my favorite avocado sandwiches. Not this weekend.. but in the past I have eaten vegetarian bean burritos in Cotonou! Next time I go I am excited to try the Indian Restaurant that volunteers seem to like.
I discovered that Customer Service does exist in Benin (but probably only when the business is not owned by a Beninese person). Another volunteer and I stepped into a Pizza place in Cotonou “1 2 3 Pizza”.. we sat down ordered a bottle of ice cold water... and waited for about 10 minutes when the owner came out and told us that they couldn't cook us anything because the oven was broken. He gave us each a free salad... (with croutons!).. and he didn't charge us for the water! Now, I have no idea how the food there normally is.. but I would definitely go back and try! I would also recommend this place to anyone else visiting Cotonou, because they were just so nice and friendly!! Nice and friendly is not normal business etiquette in Benin.
Normally customer service in Benin is “I don't really have any interest in serving you... you are interrupting my nap.. and if you don't have exact change I won't sell you anything (Even if I have the change!).” Small money is very important here, having a 5000 cfa note is not worth as much as having 5000 cfa in change. The bank loves to give us the worthless 10,000 cfa note. The smaller your change is broken down the more it is worth in the market.
Aside from the wonderful grocery stores and restaurants that Cotonou has to offer.. Cotonou also has the beach! BEACH!!! and a private pool where volunteers are allowed to go swimming on Saturday afternoons!! So basically.. after weeks at post.. without any other Americans to hang out with.. eating rice, beans, and bananas every day. Cotonou is paradise.
I had a glorious weekend.