Friday, December 28, 2012

On A Great Big Coconut Tree

This Christmas I spent the holiday in Grand Popo with some of my fellow volunteers.. For those of you who don't know Grand Popo is the Beach Resort town of Benin.. it is “touristy” (even in Grand Popo it is a stretch to call anything in the country touristy).. and it is beautiful. Grand Popo is in the south western corner of Benin near the border of Togo.

The whole week was a lot of fun. Sunday before going to Popo a group of volunteers in my region got together at my house and had an early holiday taco night (yum!). Monday morning we left with the best taxi driver ever (a friend of my work partners).. he took us straight to Grand Popo... avoided all of the holiday traffic (we made amazing time) AND came back to drive us home to Porto Novo on Thursday morning.

Once in Grand Popo we stayed at Lion Bar. Lion Bar is a very small Rasta Bar/Inn located right on the beach. There are only a few rooms but you can also pay for a tent and they have a beach area where they set them up for you right on the property. Because there were so many of us we rented out a room to use for our bags and then slept in tents. We had originally planned to stay at a fancy beach resort hotel, Awale Plage, but we had a lot of issues with them during the reservation process... so we decided to stay at Lion Bar instead. It was really really the right decision. The owner, Lion, was really cool... it was very safe, they watched out for our possessions just as much as we did, we were all able to stay together in one place, and he also ran an awesome little cocktail bar where you could get rum drinks in coconuts. Who wouldn't want to spend their holiday sleeping on the beach and sipping rum out of coconuts with a huge group of friends at a reggae bar?

Christmas Eve was spent catching up.. sitting in the sand.. drinking.. dancing.. talking about our posts... it was a really great time.

Christmas morning a few of us decided to go on a really touristy excursion where we got to see the Mono River, a zangbeto, Mangroves, a local village, and Sea Turtles (at a sea turtle conservation NGO). This was the first time in the six months that we have been living in country that any of us got to do anything touristy.. and even though we do live here and some of the activities were a little silly (like seeing a village) we had a really great time and we were glad that we went. - - HOWEVER if you do go on this tour.. and the tour guide tells you afterward that he also runs a restaurant that makes pizza (for a really really good price) do not believe him.. it is too good to be true. My personal opinion is that he had never made.. or even seen a pizza before.. but knew Americans like pizza. It was interesting however that none of them had cheese.. since a friend and I specifically asked that he not put cheese on mine.. and put the extra on hers.. and he said yes he would put lots and lots of cheese on hers. C'est la vie.

To celebrate Christmas I had made little “Christmas stocking” handkerchiefs filled with candy to give to the Environment volunteers that I had trained with (I would have loved to have made them for everyone but that would have cost me a lot of cfa). Our Environment group also did a white elephant in the Afternoon.. which was a lot of fun (we might do another one at our April training just because) so that everyone (not everyone came to Popo) can be involved in it. Later in the evening some German volunteers who were also spending Christmas in Grand Popo went out and bought fire wood and brought the wood over to Lion Bar.. we built a big bonfire on the beach and some Christmas carols were even sung.

Mostly, I spent my holiday laying in the sand.. staring at the Atlantic.. and thinking about everyone on the other side. It is weird that knowing we are connected by the same giant body of water makes me feel a little closer to home.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas as well!!

Lots of Love

PS – I wanted to add a really big THANK YOU for everyone at home who sent me Christmas cards and Christmas packages. I really enjoyed opening them. AND I used the pretty cards and and other decorations I was sent to decorate my house. My neighbors thought the cards were really great – but did not understand that they were letters from home.. Greeting Cards aren't a thing here. Candy Canes took a lot of explaining too.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Santa Comes to Africa Too!!

I hope EVERYONE at home is enjoying their various Winter Celebrations <3
Me -- I'm Spending Christmas on the Beach - Z

*In Other News -- I have officially been here 6 MONTHS! 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

All Things Girly

Maybe it's because it is the holiday season – and everyone at home is getting all dolled up.
More likely it is because I am in Africa and am filthy and covered with dust all of the time.

Don't let that tan in my photos fool you – it washes off with a good shower.

Either way I think it is time to talk about the girly things in Benin:
Nail Mamas, Tissu Shopping, and Belly Beads

Nail Mamas
aka the ladies who walk around with bins of nail polish on their heads

Can you see the star glitters?!?!

These amazing women will do a full mani-Pedi for 200cfa (the price of two pineapples or 40¢).Now of course when I say mani-pedi you have to think – 6th grade sleep over party with your best friends not fancy American day-spa. Don't worry her color selection will definitely help you imagine this. OH and sometimes the nail mama is feeling creative too. If you want just a plain color you have to specify or else it will never happen. Sometimes you get stripes and designs.. glitter.. or even every nail a different color. Tell her it's for a holiday, she will have a blast with that as well.. and we all thought the day's of holiday themed nail polish were over after high school (silly us). I occasionally go to a stationary nail/hair lady who I pass everyday on my way to work (more often I just do my own nails – I know party pooper). However, most nail mamas are not stationary, you can often flag one of the amazing traveling nail polish ladies down as you see her walking down the road. Many volunteers will get their nails done while sitting in the local buvette.. just ask a random child to go find her for you.
Tissu Shopping and Tailored Clothes

The Beninese version of clothes shopping. In Benin you can buy ready to wear clothes BUT it is very expensive... and unnecessary. You go to the tailor.

In this country you go to the market and buy fabric “tissu” and then bring the fabric to your tailor and get whatever you want made (the outcome may or may not be what you ordered but just roll with it). Frequently families wear matching outfits – which is kind of adorable. When anyone has a party for a wedding or a funeral or for some other big occasion – the entire party will purchase the same tissu for their outfits. The volunteers call this having même tish.. we have also been known to indulge in the weird habit for many occasions (and are required to do so for our swear-in ceremony). NOTE: This is not just a tissu thing – The Beninese LOVE getting matching t-shirts made for most any occasion as a souvenir. Most commonly this will be a t-shirt from a funeral with the date and person's face printed on it.

même tissu

The amazing thing about the fabric here is that it is not only fantastically brightly colored – it is also the most random thing in the world. You can find tissu with patterns of chairs – umbrellas – trees or flowers – hand bags – most animals – various shapes -- really truly anything. There is a tissu that one of my neighbors has.. it is toasters with pieces of buttered toast flying out of them (unfortunately I have not seen this pattern for sale). There are always certain tissu patterns that get popular and everyone will be wearing it in various colors. A really ugly prawn pattern was popular when we first got here.. luckily that one has died down. The tissu (and also the dress designs) go through “fashion seasons” just like clothes do at home (the amazing toaster tissu must have been last season). – Also beadazzling the clothing is a thing here – make sure you ask for your outfit to be plain – this guarantees nothing but it does give you a fighting chance.  

Belly Beads  

The lingerie of Benin. Women of all ages wear belly beads starting when they are a baby (for babies they are actually used to keep the cloth diapers in place). It is believed that wearing beads around the waist helps a little girl grow into a womanly figure. After a certain age these beads become “lingerie” in the sense that they are not meant to be seen. For little naked babies running around there is nothing taboo about them – but for older girls they are considered something for your husband.

That doesn't take the fun out of it though. Just like the Nail Mamas there are Bead Mamas as well. These women walk around with basins full of bead strands and sell them to you at 100 cfa a strand (depending how many times you want it to go around - 3 to 4 times is normal - and how big you are.. it is usually 300-500 cfa). I think that being able to afford more beads is a status thing for women – just like having lots of hair. The colors are almost as varied as the nail polish ladies --- and some bead mamas will also have beads that are different sizes are shapes. Usually they are just simple round beads.

For all the men reading this blog: Men in Benin play pitanque and/or soccer.. they wear whatever clothes their wives pick out... and the spend A LOT of time sitting around and drinking beer.

Happy Holidays,

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Welcome to the North

This week I was in Parakou for a week of training. Parakou is located in the Northern half of the country... not the far north.. but it was a nice 6 hour bus ride from Porto Novo for me to get here.

My first impression of Parakou was that it was insanely quite (since it is a city I was expecting it to be similar to the cities I am used to in the South).. Secondly I noticed that the heat was much dryer.. Third I noticed that the landscape isn't nearly as green. This made me glad to be posted in the south I like the more humid heat.. I like the greenery.. and I love being so close to the Ocean. I have already grown accustomed to the faster (more crowded?) life of my area. That being said there is A LOT of north – the north is much larger than the south.. and Parakou is only one tiny city. [Note: If you had told me months ago that I would have called life in the south faster than anything I would have laughed at you]

There is a workstation here in Parakou. It is much different than my workstation at the Bureau in Cotonou. Obviously the biggest difference is that it is not attached to the main office – but it also has a bigger library and kitchen. It is more homey (really just a big house as opposed to an extension to the office with bunks in it). This also has its negatives however – there is only one computer and it doesn't get kept quite as tidy. I like that I can go to the workstation and actually take care of work with administration in Cotonou – but I definitely see the draw of having an escape that is completely separate from all of that.

In Service Training (IST) was interesting. Our pre-service training was filled with language and cultural sessions and many many hours of technical training for working at our sites.. the IST was focused more on the Administrative sides of things. The hotel that the environment sector stayed at “Le Princess” fed us really well for breakfast and lunch and really well done snack bars twice during the day.

During the first two days we had talked about our problems and successes.. had a security session.. and a medical session (information about what to do if you fall sick while out of the country) – half of the first two days was taken up by our individual reports on our communities – this gave each of us a chance to share our stories and some pictures with each other (and probably allowed us to stay more focused throughout the rest of the week).

We had an informative and important session on how to report our activities to Peace Corps. There is a whole system in which we have to enter project descriptions.. participants.. outcomes.. etc. In theory this allows Peace Corps to monitor the actual effect our programs are having and how many people we are reaching (this is actually a fairly new concept/system in Peace Corps). There is also a section where we write about our success stories (and frustrations). After we submit these quarterly reports to our administration they forward them to Peace Corps Washington. These reports are the source of all of the feel good stories that Peace Corps uses in advertising – these reports are also used by Congress for filibustering.

On Wednesday our work counterparts joined us for the rest of training. The sessions with our counterparts included planning projects and we had a session on the stages of habit changing (getting people to change their gardening practices reads similar to addiction counseling) and the ever entertaining topic of cultural differences. Mostly we had discussion and brainstorming on projects and ways to implement our new projects.

It was really really awesome to get to visit another part of the country.. but now that the week is over I will be very glad to be back in the south. I would say “time to get to work” but the whole country goes on break for the fete season (Christmas and New Years)... so I guess that will have to wait until the New Year!

Volunteers and Host Country Work Partners -- Parakou
Feeling more positive about things than I was a week ago.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Community

Next week my Peace Corps staging group has our first In-Service Training.

Part of this training is an opportunity for us to describe the ups and downs of our communities and hopefully describe a description that will allow the other volunteers in my sector to have an understanding of where I live and what type of work is available to me in my community. (Since my commune is so close to Porto Novo.. we actually went to Akpro-Misserete a few times during our pre-service training.. so hopefully I won't bore everyone too much when I give my presentation) Since I am reviewing all of these things I thought this would be a great opportunity to update my readers at home as well – since the last time I described where I live.. I didn't actually live here yet.

As everyone knows I live in Akpro-Misserete. I live in the commune head (kind of like a county seat) and my area where my house is located is very Urban. However most of the surrounding villages.. where my gardeners work become are more rural. The whole area has electricity and most people have running water or at least pumped water (I think this is because of the proximity to the Capital).

Central Misserete has a health center, many many churches, the mayor's office (as well as his house where he often hosts meetings), there is a CEG (highschool).. a Primary school and a Maternalle (think pre-school).. and also a private primary school and a Seminary  The market of Akpro-Misserete is located in my neighborhood and the boulangerie.

My town is located between two major roads that split after coming out of Porto Novo.. One that goes north towards Sakete and Pobe (this road runs closer to Nigeria).. the other goes North towards Bohicon and is the road that I will take to go to Parakou on Sunday.

I don't yet feel well integrated into my community, but I realize this is a process so I am trying not to let myself feel discouraged by this. I think that my major problems with integrating (aside from language and cultural differences that I am still adjusting to) have been the fact that I don't actually work in the same community that I live in and also that my area is so urban. I do not feel/see the sense of community in my town that I see when I go to work in the outlying villages.

The Market sells all of the Benin Basics. African “Legumes” aka leafy greens, piments, tomatos, okra, oranges and pineapples.. and sometimes bananas. Most vendors have packaged pasta.. rice.. powdered milk (yuck).. and also tomato paste. Since I am so close to the major market in Porto Novo most people in my neighborhood go to Porto Novo to do their shopping. The produce is much more varied (and is a better price) in Porto Novo. In many ways this discourages the vendors from expanding... but at the same time.. the people who do shop in the local market wouldn't have interest in buying the more varied produce that they aren't interested in.

I do have some friends in my community. Unfortunately I am still new enough in my community that there is a delicate balance of whether you want to be my friend versus people who want me to give them money or help them get to America. Everyone here thinks that Americans are rich and can magically carry visa's for the US around in their back pockets.

Biggest Community Frustration: Not being sure who is really my friend and who I can trust. People not knowing who I am because I don't actually work in the same community where I live.

Best Thing About My Community: Being so close to Porto Novo.. Having Electricity and Water.. and Access to grocery stores.. and a variety of produce that is only available in the Capital and in Cotonou.

Things I Need To Work On: Feeling at Home... Getting people to understand why I am living here... and I would really like the people who do know me to stop treating me like I am a child/stupid. :)

That's All For Today

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Food Issue

In Benin people eat A LOT and being called fat is a compliment...
They also drink A LOT but not water only beer and oranges.. water is for when you are sick.
If you are not fat or you lose weight.. or you drink water... then people think you are sick or unhealthy.
I guess you can imagine where that leaves me.

As I have said before on this blog... people are accepting of my weird eating habits. I am not saying they understand. Basically, anything weird I do in this country is just brushed off as a weird yovo thing that the yovo does. [That being said I think I should mention that I have met a few vegetarian nationals]

At some point during my first month in Misserete I became sick.. not incredibly sick.. but sick enough that I called out from work and made an appointment to see the doctor (luckily for me I was already scheduled to go to Cotonou the next day). When I returned I found out that everyone at my office had collectively decided I must be starving.. why else.. is this overly hot tropical country where she isn't even supposed to drink the water could she possibly be sick. At which point I had my privacy completely infringed upon. It was insisted that I let some of my coworkers into my house to see that I had a kitchen set up and that I had food in my kitchen. Sometimes I really wish I could give the people I work with a piece of my mind.

On another occasion I had a man tell me – honestly – that people who don't eat animals don't have blood in their bodies. In case you didn't know.. human bodies are not capable of making their own blood we need to extract it from other living creatures. Sigh.

I have had people come to my house offering me food – with the intention of convincing me that I should pay them to cook for me everyday since I obviously don't know how to cook or care for myself since I don't make pate or akassa (the staples here.. both of which I don't mind the problem is I hate the sauces that they are served with).

My neighbors are convinced I eat only crackers and oranges. Unfortunately, this doesn't keep them from asking on a regular basis if I have food to give them as a gift for their nagging. If one more person asks me for chocolate I might scream at them.

As much as no one here believes it – I do eat – I eat very well. AND I am slowly mastering the one portion cooking. We really take for granted the ability to refrigerate left overs at home.

I eat beans. I eat lentils. I eat pasta. I eat a lot of rice.
I eat vegetables. I eat bread. I eat fruit...

For breakfast I usually eat a cliff bar or any other various granola bar that I have received in a care package from home :)... (Hey GUYS Maple Nut Cliff Bars are my favorite (I also like the oatmeal ones) – yes I know they are hard to find on the East Coast – but I know a secret place that usually stocks them). On weeks where I am feeling a little more decadent (or should I say homesick) I will buy chocolate spread.. and eat chocolate banana sandwiches for breakfast. I don't attempt the peanut butter banana – Erik just does them so much better I could never hope to replicate.

Lunch is more varied. If I am going into Porto Novo for any reason I have voandzu for lunch. These are Bambara Ground Nuts.. and they are delicious. I usually eat them on bread or with gali (powdered manioc). The women who make voandzu here in Misserete make it way to spicy. During training I ate avocado sandwiches for lunch (there is a lady at Songhai who makes them with onions and tomatoes and is there everyday until 11) If I am feeling lazy I will just get some hot bread from my local boulangerie and eat it with peanut butter or I will buy a bag of oranges to “Drink.” If I am feeling more ambitious I might make myself french fries with chopped up garlic. I am not really a big lunch person – never have been.

Sometimes.. If I am visiting someone.. I end up eating a early dinner late lunch. Usually if you are visiting someone anytime between 2 and 5 they will give you something to eat. However since this is Benin they expect you to eat a lot. This is usually where I get my salad (salads here are served over pasta). I don't usually make myself salad because I don't want the lettuce to spoil if I don't eat it quick enough. I still seem to stumble on salad about once a week.

My favorite things to cook for dinner are lentils or plantains. I like to fry up plantains and eat them for dinner with rice and beans. Most often I cook up lentil with veggies and eat it with rice or on a baguette in a sloppy joeish type of fashion. I have found that lentils are really versatile and easy to cook in one portion – plus they are great when I am feeling low on energy. When I eat pasta I usually cook it with avocado or carrots and onions sauteed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Another thing I make is a vegetable and potato hash.. this is really good if I have veggies that are starting to go and it is very filling. Occasionally, I will just heat up a can of beans with a spice packet from home and eat it over rice or bread.. just to change up the flavor a little.

I eat a lot of onions carrots and potatoes. I sometimes buy green beans and cucumbers. I would say I usually have an eggplant once every two weeks (the problem with an eggplant is it is too big for one person). I eat “soy cheese” which is really a tofu like thing that the people here call soy cheese. But I only eat this on the day I go to the market in Porto. I am not sure what the shelf life is so I eat it right away and they don't sell it at my local market. Oranges, bananas, and pineapple are plentiful this time of year.. and Papayas are easily found in Porto Novo. Mango isn't in season yet.

On the rare occasion that I drink something other than water – my drink of choice is Youki Pamplemousse aka grapefruit soda. If they don't have that.. I will drink Judor which is an orange soda. It is really nice to splurge on a cold beverage from time to time.

Lentils and Rice (Adapted from my Peace Corps Cookbook)
Ingredients: Lentils, Rice, Chopped Onions, Carrots, Sliced Garlic, Green Beans, Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, Thyme
Cook The Lentils and Rice Together.
In a Frying Pan Cook the Carrots Onions and Garlic until well cooked in olive oil. Add Green Beans. Once the Green Beans Are Cooked add the thyme and balsamic vinegar. Add cooked Rice and Lentils and melange Until everything is well cooked and it tastes good.

*I will adjust this recipe with actual measurements next time I make it.
Much Love