Sunday, April 28, 2013

Boy In Benin

These past two months have been crazy for me... and after a whole week back at post (working very hard I might add).. I went to Cotonou to pick Erik up in the airport!!

At this point I don't know how much time he has had to process Benin – He has seen the craziness of Cotonou and met a few of my neighbors. I still thought it might be fun to give you some of his first impressions :)


This is a country of energy. My introduction to Benin was my first night in Cotonou. As my plane was descending into Cotonou, I saw a city spread out as far as I could see. There were no tall buildings, just a massive horizontal expanse blanketing the earth along the shores. The heat and humidity were stifling. Cotonou airport was abuzz. We were shuttled from the tarmac to the baggage claim and madness ensued. Everyone was fighting for their bags and eagerly offering to help with mine (for a price of course).The security guards were yelling at me to open my bags, but I could not understand their language. They finally got so frustrated they just told me to go through. I was relieved to see Zoe in the crowd, and this was closely followed by my first Zem (moto-taxi) interaction.

Negotiating a taxi ride is an exercise in haggling, with the drivers and Zoe yelling out conflicting franc amounts and calling each other crazy. I've come to learn that this is entirely normal, and she is very good at it! The drivers themselves are impressive, as well. I've seen them carrying 100lbs of luggage and a passenger; they carry livestock, building materials, basically anything you want, and they are EVERYWHERE. I've never seen so many motorcycles in my life. After a quick stop at the hotel, we took a short walk to meet her friend Amber for some felafel at a local restaurant, then returned to our room for some long awaited rest.

The next day, we got up early and I saw much more of the city. The tropical trees and interesting architecture make for a beautiful locale. People line the streets offering various goods multiple times, regardless of your reply. It is a very loud place, and drivers of all kinds LOVE to use their horns. We went food shopping at a Lebanese grocery store, had lunch at a veggie shwarma place (Karim 24), I took a nice long nap on the beach near Erevan (a giant Target like expat store), and toured the artisans market. There we found several huts in a park selling hand made souvenirs: masks, drums, sculptures, etc. In the evening we had a lovely dinner at Tandoori Nights, a local Indian restaurant (a treat from my Aunt Cindy), and wine with a fruit salad for dessert at a restaurant called New Livingstones just a block away. We both went to bed exhausted. The heat definitely takes its toll on my sensitive western body. Zoe has gotten used to it and is less affected.

The next morning I awoke very sick. I'll spare you the gory details, but my digestive system is having a lot of trouble adjusting. I've spent the entire second day in mild agony, finding it difficult to eat, drink, move, and think. This made for a less than bearable taxi ride to her village, about an hour outside of Cotonou, near the city of Porto Novo. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but I am happy now that I'm here and can see how my other half lives. The village is a maze of dirt roads lined by vegetation, goats, and curious children. The people here are clearly not accustomed to seeing white people. We march through a chorus of chants, “Yovo, Yovo, Yovo!” (It basically means whitey). At first I found this amusing, but it does make me a bit uneasy knowing just how much we stand out, that everyone sees us, that everyone is watching us.

Zoe's home is quite nice, relative to most. She lives in a concrete house behind the walls of a small compound, home to about 4 other families. Everyone is happy to see me and eager to speak. I wish we could understand each other. My conversations with the locals have consisted of “Hello. I don't speak French. Thank you, goodbye.” I'm getting frustrated because I'm used to being social and friendly and I can't do that here. We traversed her local market and Zoe introduced me to several of her friends, and I met the older women from whom she buys her food. They all seemed very nice and happy to meet me. Even though our cultures are drastically different, I get the sense that there are indeed people here who really care about Zoe and would like to make her fe
el comfortable and welcome. This is very encouraging.

Anyway, I'm still feeling a little sick but I'm starting to recover. I just hope this clears up by tomorrow so we can get out and explore! To everyone at home, I love and miss you all and I look forward to sharing my stories and pictures with you in a few weeks! Au revoir!


Hope you enjoyed that – I sure enjoyed a break from writing this week and I'm enjoying having Erik here to spend time with me :-D 


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Time Is Flying

All throughout the year we have optional trainings that we are allowed to sign up for and attend depending on what our projects are and what we need to learn for them. Along with these trainings we also have two official “In-Service Trainings” (ISTs) that everyone is required to attend. The first one took place back in December and was used for evaluating our first three months at site and making plans for new projects after our first 3 months at post and our community studies. The second (and final) IST took place this week. The second IST is meant to touch base and give volunteers a chance to attend sessions for projects that are cross-sectoral.

So I guess I now know everything I need to know to be a successful volunteer?

Monday was just for the volunteers.. for talking about the results (and quality) of our first reports and for discussing opportunities that will be opening up to us in the following year.

Tuesday our work partners showed up and we commenced two days of “sector specific” workshops. Tuesday happened to focus on bees and bee raising... Wednesday (day three) was all about animal breeding (specifically chickens, rabbits, and bush-rats). While these sessions were incredibly informative – I don't really see myself doing any large scale animal projects (imagine that). I do however plan on doing a small rabbit project at my primary school for educational purposes, so things like – feeding and vaccinating animals was useful. I have already learned most of what I need to raise rabbits from my supervisor but its good to hear the opinions of multiple sources.

Thursday was the day of cross-sector sessions. I attended a session on Malaria and one on Latrine building. My counterpart and I are talking about the possibilities of doing a latrine project with the women in the farming groups that I work with.. so that the women have a place to go to the bathroom (as opposed to just going in the field).

Friday was mostly just an evaluation of the week. I attended an optional session on Grant Writing while my counterpart went to a session on hygiene (to continue with the cross-sector information). I found the grant writing session very helpful. Even though we have already learned all about writing grants it was good to have a more detailed session that specifically goes over the problem areas of our grant forms. I feel like I learned much more in this grant session than I had in previous grant writing sessions. 

It is really strange that our final IST is now over. We are officially no longer new volunteers. The volunteers from the training group before us will be going to their close of service conference next month and the new group of volunteers will be arriving in June. We are slowly moving into positions for second year volunteers and we are finding out which volunteers are planning to stay on for a third year.

This also means that there is no “official” Peace Corps reason for all of us to get together again until our close of service conference – which is a whole year away. This was a sad realization for me because I have some great friends who live in parts of the country where I am not likely to get to see them. It is crazy to think we might not get to see each other for a year!

Is time moving this fast at home?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ghana By Taxi

A few days ago I got back to Benin after enjoying my “first real vacation” since joining the Peace Corps. It was really exciting to get out of here after over 9 months... but by the end (believe it or not) I was very happy to be back.

Along with my fellow travelers I left Benin early in the morning with plans to reach Kpalime, Togo by sunset. - - Unfortunately this is West Africa and nothing goes as planned.. so after uncountable marriage offers and one surprisingly painless border crossing we found ourselves checking in at the Peace Corps Headquarters in Lome instead. It was Easter Monday and we were told that if we stopped at the Immigration office the next morning we would be able to get our visa extended and not have to pay again on the way back. This did not happen but we got to see Lome so I guess it was ok in the end. (If you are traveling in Togo.. the visa thing is true.. but it takes about 3 days not the 10 minutes the border police tell you.. so if you are on a schedule don't waste your time with bureaucratic nonsense in Lome – just my opinion)

Togo in general is just like Benin.. only maybe a little greener. Kpalime is a small town in the South-ish close to the Ghanaian border. The reason we went to Kpalime specifically is that this town has a little treasure known as The Belgian Restaurant – with Belgian food... and Belgian beer.. and a really really friendly Belgian family. The only photo I took during my 2 days in Togo was of the meal I ate in Kpalime. They made me a vegetarian lentil burger (not on the menu) and I had the first palatable beer to come my way in over 9 months. I love you Belgium.

The bulk of our trip was spent in Ghana – where they speak English – and serve fried rice out of street carts – and soy milk is everywhere. To the deprived PCV its also important to note that they have smoothies.. shopping malls.. wrap sandwiches.. and a movie theater.

If you ever get a chance to go to Ghana.. Go.

My stay in Ghana can be divided into 3 parts:

Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary & Wli Waterfalls
Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary is a wildlife sanctuary located in the Hohoe area of Ghana. According to our guide the sanctuary was actually started with the assistance of Peace Corps Volunteers back in the day. The tour includes some up close time with their monkeys and a 10 minute walk through their nature preserve.

Wli Waterfalls are the largest in West Africa. There are two cascades the top cascade is 85m (the tallest in West Africa) and the bottom cascade is about 60m. You can hike to the bottom and there is a great picnic area and opportunities to go swimming if you so choose. The hike to the top supposedly takes close to 4 hours and is a pretty steep hike. We chose to do the hike to the bottom and a 20 minute hike up to a view point... it was really rough.

The Coast
I am not sure what was more beautiful the Coast or the Waterfalls.. Ghana is a very beautiful country. The town “Cape Coast” has a really great vegetarian restaurant near Cape Coast Castle called Baobab House. (Like I said we spent most of our vacation eating). There are 3 castles along the coast of Ghana that were built during Portuguese colonization to be used for slave trade. The other two are in Accra and El Mina. We got a chance to see all three during our trip – the one in El Mina is the oldest building standing in West Africa.

While at the coast we stayed at a place called Stumble Inn. Like everything else in Ghana this place was BEAUTIFUL. We had dorm style sleeping right on the beach and there was a restaurant that served breakfast lunch and dinner at a reasonable price with multiple vegetarian options. You sit at a cabana overlooking the ocean where you can be served your food or really just hang out. Unfortunately :( I spent the whole time here being very sick. Quite frankly, I don't know if there is a better place I could have chosen.. They had toast. They had tea. The managers (two American volunteers) went to find me a fan. They gave me bananas with my toast that I ordered for breakfast to help me get healthy again. It was an awesome place. I would have preferred to be healthy and sitting in the sand.. but if I had to be sick at least I could hear the ocean and eat toast. There is not toast in Benin.

Osu Castle - Accra
As far as I am concerned Accra could be an American City. Maybe it has been awhile.. but I think it was wonderful. I probably spent a bit too much of my time while in Accra just eating great food and staring in awe at the aisles of their grocery stores. There are some really beautiful national monuments in Accra and some market places that are worth checking out. Really though, we went for the food.

We made a straight shot taxi trip back to Benin from Accra on the last day of our adventure and aside from a small thunderstorm the ride back was uneventful (that's a good thing). Other than the dust in my house and some new satellite dishes in my concession little changed while I was gone.

I want to say back to normal life for me..
I'm not sure if that applies.

<3 Z

Sunday, April 7, 2013

C'est quoi ça?

For those of you who don't know. My Better Half aka Love of My Life aka My Best Friend is coming out to see ME at the end of the month. Not to brag or anything.. but it is pretty awesome to be so loved that someone would fly allll the way from Philly to West Africa just to give me a hug.

Since I am feeling very loved. I decided to make YOU feel very loved too. I am embracing the fact that having this blog does in fact make me a blogger (weird right?).. and being a blogger entitles me to do a prize giveaway thing-a-ma-jig!! So we are going to play a game. And then I am going to send Erik home with a prize for someone!!

Rules: Below are five pictures. Some are easy some are more difficult. In the comments tell me what is shown in each picture. Everyone who [really] tries to answer will be included! (This means that you can peek at each other's answers all you want). When Erik gets here he will pick one of your lovely names out of a hat. 

Benin PCVs.. I know what you are thinking. This is for people at home.. 


PS.. I have mentioned all of these items in my blog at one point in one way or another (except maybe one.. OH and that one also happens to be -a form of- the prize).


1. Peanut Butter Sachets
2. Broom
3. Shea Butter
4. Sticky Fruit/ Hurt Baby Fruit/ Azobebe
5. Moringa Seed Pods
Winner: fcrum