Monday, September 29, 2008

Where to Begin?

A lot has happened since the last time I blogged but then I sit down and can't remember all the things I wanted to say. I guess a fun starter is that I saw this pig being slaughtered the other day which was really disturbing. It was at the end of the road by my house and the thing was tied up on a table. A man pulled him to the edge of the table so its head hung off over a bucket and just stabbed him in the throat but it was squealing so loud it was a little too intense for me.

I've also had a bad week with bugs. Cockroaches are officially ruining my favorite time of the day--night time bucket shower under starlight before bed--with their constant presence just outside of my house. Better out then in though I guess...not that that even applies because I still get them in my house. On the bright side, Scout caught, killed, and ate her first roach the other day, reassuring me that she is indeed a savvy investment. I never really imagined getting to a point where I would prefer having spiders in my house...or hey, even roaches sound good after I found 2 scorpions on my wall the other day. I killed them toute suite, and had to bat scout away from them. I also painted so hopefully that will help me be able to see them more easily because they really blended with the cement walls before and I was lucky I noticed. I took a picture, and I found high speed internet in Lokossa when I went to the bank so I will bring my camera next time I go and upload my pictures.

Last monday I went to Lokossa for the bank which was the first time I went out and got a bush taxi for myself--I was pretty happy. The chauffer told me it would cost me 3,000CFA and I told him that was ridiculous and knew the real price, and that I wouldn't pay more than 400CFA for the half hour trip, and he conceded. This is one yovo that trick won't work with. Lokossa is a really nice town and it has a lot of things available there. I even found an eggplant which I used for an eggplant parm-type dish, minus the cheese naturally. It was really amazing. I've also mastered the art of making garlic bread in my little skillet so it was quite the Italian feast. I need to find a baking pan so that I can complete the makings of my little dutch oven.

So my house is finally coming along. I painted all the rooms--I should mention that everyone in Dogbo thinks I am crazy because I am a woman and I painted ALL by myself. I had my homologue and menusier come by just to see me in the middle of painting and congratulate me on my painting, my neighbors and people in the marché laugh at me, received looks of shock and awe elsewhere, and even my zem driver who dropped me off with the big bucket of paint at my house asked me 'You're going to paint? Toi meme? (you yourself?)' So, yay for cross cultural exchange and showing that at home this is entirely normal. I also made curtains for my 'living room' and my menusier is steadily working on the furniture so hopefully soon I can officially stop living out of my suitcases as I have been since July 1--THAT will be glorious. And I also moved my bed so now when it rains I won't wake up in the middle of the night to water dripping on my leg. I had my menusier make this table with a hole cut in it so that I can place a bowl in it so I was able to create a sort of pseudo-bathroom counter/sink area which makes me really happy. I fill it with water from my garbage can-o-water in the morning and use it for the day to wash my hands and face. THe next day I'll usually use the water for rinsing out other things, starting laundry, etc. You get really good at being resourceful with water here. It will be strange, I think, to come home and be able to turn on a tap and have as much water as I want whenever I want it--for showers too, or to not have to use filtered and boiled water to even brush my teeth, and I wonder if I'll ever really be comfortable with it again. I love showers, and dishwashers, and washing machines. But me, my dishes, and my clothes are clean here after I wash them, and now I know how little water it takes to do that. I think I have disappointed my petite, Basil (the kid who goes and gets me water every week for 25CFA a basine--it takes four basines to fill up my big garbage can) and this other girl who always comes to visit named Filomene because I like to do my laundry myself. The volunteer before me used to pay them to do her laundry and they always ask to do mine but the truth is that I like doing laundry. And even if I didn't I don't like other people touching my dirty clothes so I would probably do it anyway. Here's the thing...there's something really satisfying to having dirty clothes, putting some effort and soap into it, and getting clean, good smelling clothes when you are done. I think it's ironic because we build things to make our lives 'easier' at home but in a way they complicate things too. For example, laundry takes me a wicked long time...but when I'm done I'm spent and my arms are really tired. At home it would take a lot less time to toss a load in the machine, but then I'd have to use that time at the gym doing arm exercises instead to achieve the same result--what's the point. This is like the ultimate multitasking. And slightly random, I got a fan: Amazing.

Now that that is coming along I feel like I can explore Dogbo more and get out to meet more people. The people around my area are all starting to saluer me more and call me by my name, etc. which is really nice. But I haven't spent much time off of the Goudron or pavé (the two main roads in Dogbo that are paved) and need to start seeing more of the town on the terre rouge (red earth--non paved roads, which comprise most of dogbo).

So on my way to the marché yesterday I got a phone call from the French doctor who lives in Dogbo and works at Hopital St. Camille at the end of my street. She has been here for a year and will be leaving in June. Her husband is a professor at the CEG (school) here and they have two little adorable boys. Anyway she invited me and my postmate over for lunch with her fam and the French laboratory technician, who has already been here 3 years and leaving in 2 months. They are with the French NGO Fidesco. It was a lot of fun and we had lasagna (with a cream type sauce--no cheese) with salad (really just lettuce with a light vinagrette) which was absolutely amazing. It tasted so delicious and familiar. On a random note related to that, I found green peppers with my veggie mama at the last marche day and bought 2 even though they are pretty darn expensive and was able to make egg salad which tasted fabulous. So I felt so happy to be able to hang out in the presence of other yovos yesterday afternoon that I actually started to feel guilty about it. I realized that there is a definite yovo solidarity kind of thing that happens here. When you see another yovo on the street in a town like Dogbo(I mean to say not in the capital or Cotonou, or tourist spots like grand popo and park pendjari) you stop and talk to them and it is entirely clear that what brought you to stopping is that you are both white and 'what the heck are you doing here' is going through both your heads. But I couldn't help but think when I got home last night that why should that--spending time with other yovos--make my day? Isn't it counter to what I am trying to achieve here? But the more I thought about it the more I came to realize it wasn't just that they were yovos that mattered, it was that we share a pretty common culture. You can say Europe is a different culture from the U.S. all you want but we share some pretty basic western values and behaviors that are markedly different from Beninese culture. I can talk to a French man who is already married and it is completely normal--there's no chance that it will turn into a sketchy marriage proposal or anything like that. I can saluer him in the street and shake his hand and not worry about a leering look or that he won't let go of my hand for an innappropriately long period of time. And I can play with their kids who are bubbling with personality and not worry about them asking me for everything on my person--which is also a problem with women here too (il faut donner -you must give-...insert chosen item here) I get asked for anything from my earrings, ponytail holder, pants, bandana, etc. ANd maybe you'd think....well geez it's a ponytail holder, just give it to them it's no big deal. But the problem is in the precedent you set in doing that and the image of the yovo that you put in peoples' heads. So i never actually give them anything because I'd never see the end of it. So I realized that it is that kind of stuff that I miss and clung too when I was with the French family. We could just hang out for a few hours in the afternoon in a social situation with norms that were completely normal and familiar to me and it felt refreshing. I also met a Dutch couple who is working with an ONG here in Dogbo for 3 years already with another 2 ahead who are really nice and I hope to get to spend some time with as well. The woman works with my homologue a lot on different projects so hopefully we will be able to collaborate sometimes.

On another note...i don't know if there are more Albinos here or if they just stand out more here because, well...clearly...but I see a lot of Albinos walking around Benin--more than I ever noticed in the US. I would think Africa would not be the place to be if you lack pigment in your skin. ANd it is interesting because I heard on BBC in July that witch doctors in Tanzania were encouraging the murder of Albinos to use their parts for prosperity, luck et les choses comme ça. Good thing that hasn't happened here. I still have to check out the voodoo areas in my marche. They have some pretty funky stuff. ALright, this post is quite long now and I am going to end it for now. à la prochaine. Love, and miss you all!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

So I can't believe I've already been in Dogbo for 2 weeks...and I can't believe it's only been 2 weeks at the same time. Time is funny like that here. My house still is really rudimentary because I haven't really had the money to paint or anything but Peace COrps finally paid us so tomorrow I am taking the taxi to Lakossa to meet up with 2 volunteers there and go to the bank. Finally I will be able to get a fan which I think will significantly boost my quality of life here...or at least just my overall happiness.

On a completely random note entirely unrelated to anything 'My Heart Will Go On' is playing right now in this Cyber on a loop and I think it is funny because the last time I experienced that was on my last night in Shanghai at the all vegetarian tofu restaurant I was in and I had the exact same reaction then as now, which is the first time it plays I think 'Oh nice, I haven't heard this in a long time' and by the second or twentieth I want to break the speakers. I do NOT understand the fascination of Celine Dion here but I guess now and then it is nice to hear familiar music.

So things are going pretty well here. I am starting to find my niche and still finding new stuff evey day which I am sure will be the case for the next 2 years, actually. I have started carrying a notebook around with me so I can write down peoples names and Adja words as I come across them and it is really great because kids especially respond really well when you take the time to learn their names because no one really does. So i stop and talk with them now and they have started to call me Catherine as I walk by instead of Yovo, which is really nice...and sometimes they cadeau me with oranges (a cadeau is the french for present and is kind of used as a verb here). Some days it is a struggle to get myself to venture out of my house. I can hide away for the morning and pretend I'm not an ocean away from my friends and family in Benin where hardly anyone speaks English (though I did find a Nigerian clock vendor in the marché who spêaks English and it was SO weird to talk to someone from here not in French) but it is nice when I finally get out for the day and talk to people. It is just sometimes overwhelming because you can never just walk down the have to stop and saluer (greet) everyone otherwise you are seen as rude and it just takes forever and we come from this culture of 'get to where you need to be and do what you need to do ASAP' so sometimes I have to stop and calm myself and tell myself that stopping to talk to this person is not going to totally throw off my day. It is afterall part of what I was looking for in doing this--that person to person connection. I do however mostly brush off men entirely because I have ZERO tolerance for the forceful in your face 'madame ou madamoiselle?' and telling me you love me or asking for my phone number after talking for 2 seconds. And often when you tell them off they pull out the 'What...are you racist?' card and all I can really think is...'yeah because the number one destination for racist yovos is Africa'...that makes sense.

So in addition to getting harassed like that yesterday afternoon in particular, I also had a machete swung at my by a village fou. There are three Fous (crazies) in Dogbo and I have so far come across 2 of them. One crawls around on his hands and legs but belly up all day and the other is just a little old man who harasses me at least a few times a week, yesterday being the worst with the machete. To make up for it I guess in some cosmic sense, I got cadeaued with limes when I went out to find them for mexican night. 2 other volunteers came up to Dogbo for our marché day and stayed for dinner so we bought some miscellaneous meat (though judging from the carcass I am pretty sure it was a cow), and had like a mexican meat with pico de gallo (cabbage with tomatoes and limes, piment, etc) and our own refried bean (sorta) invention. It was delicious and so nice to eat actual meat since my protein intake here is usually eggs or beans. It is just hard to go out and get and cook chicken and meat for one person because marche day is only every 5 days and there really isn't storage. I think my post mate and I might meet up a few times a month to split chicken or something. We didn't make tortillas because we didn't have flour and we did't find avocados in the marché yesterday so no guacamole either but it was still just an amazing night. It's hard to describe stuff like that because the littlest things here start to make you so happy that wouldn't even phase you at home so I feel like some of the things I describe here are sounding really boring but they are like the highlight of my life here for the week. LIke finding avocados in the marché last week had me flying on cloud nine for days but at home it's just whatever...go to the 24 hour grocery store and buy some avocados if you want, big whoop. ANd I was unpacking some care package food that also probably wouldn't even phase me at home like tuna and chicken and it is like gold here. I actually stared at it for quite a bit and feel like I am hording it because one day I will break down and need to eat Western food. I'm trying to get over it and actually opened one of them the other day...Delish. This morning I actually made crepes just pour moi and they were AMAZING and reminded me of being home because my little house smelled like when my dad makes them. ANd i feel I am actually cooking now because my menusier finished my amazing kitchen table and shelves so I actually have room to move around and cook and put my stuff. The computers here are so old that there are no USB ports to even attempt uploading pics so I have to figure something out. Well I am actually out of time and i have no more money to buy credit here until I go to the bank so I will write more some time this week...when it is open here since it closes for reposé and les choses comme ca. à la prochaine!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Quelle Surprise!

So there IS internet in Dogbo...absolutely delightful. This has entirely made my day. I have to budget my time because It is pretty expensive here compared to other cybers, but it is worth it for at least once a week I guess.

So I got to Dogbo last monday. Our taxi came 2 hours late and it broke down and caught fire on the way but we did make it eventually. Unfortunately, we got in at about 5 and I had to find a menusier to change the locks on my door, get my stuff in the house, take care of the cat, etc. So I missed the marché and couldn't get any food--good thing maman had sent me out here with chicken since she didn't want me to have to cook my first night. First night was definitely stressful. The electricity didn't work so I had to go digging for my headlamp and I didn't have a key to the latrine since my proprietor wasn't home--don't ask what i did to get by. Also, the NGO of the volunteer who lived here before me came and took ALL the furniture, books, etc that she left behind even though they had no right too so I had nothing and slept with the mattress on the floor and hing up my net around it. FInally my homologue (in country work partner) was able to arrange to have the furniture brought back so now i have a tiny table, bed, and a bookshelf. I just put in a big order at the menusier (furniture maker) for a bunch of stuff so hopefully it will be done before November, because it is hard to get around in the house with barely anything.

Also, my cat has a name--Scout--as in boyscout, except in this case, bugscout. And she does not disappoint. All of a sudden she'll get up and run across the room to eat a bug. SHe doesn't eat cockroaches yet because cockroaches are about the size of her head but so far (knock on wood) i've only found 2 in my house and have killed them both promptly. There are a lot that hang outside in my back area. Having a cat here is weird--I go to the marche every few days to buy her fish to eat and i have a little litter box with sand in it for her, but like all things in Benin, it is a little more of a pain to take care of her here.

So my house has 3 rooms. You walk into one big room that will one day be an eating area and 'living room' area. then there are 2 rooms in the back that is my bedroom and kitchen. THe walls are cement and one day I aspire to paint them because they are really grungy and depressing. The floor is a mess too and decidedly impossible to keep clean with the dirt and dust so I bought some mats to throw down which makes me feel a little better about walking around on it. I have a tin roof, but you can't see it because there is a plafond 'fake ceiling' made of bamboo so that is nice looking. there are pro's and cons to the plafond, including for example that last night at 4am or so I was woken up by a huge lizard that was walking around in between the plafond and ceiling because they live there which is gross. Thank god for bug nets. In my back area I have two little cement rooms without ceilings lined with broken glass for security and a little hallway which is all private. I hung up a laundry line out there and I take my bucket showers by moonlight out there before bed--by far my favorite part of the day. In the morning i take out buckets of water to do my dishes and laundry out back as well and i drag out a mat to sit outside and read or eat breakfast in the cooler air since my house is so hot. Everything takes forever here with the water situation. Thankfully I have located BBC news on my shortwave (thanks, dad) which keeps me sane while working comme ca.

So this is all superficial skimming the surface stuff since there is so much to say--sorry about that! Marché day is every 5 days so you kind of have to plan what you want to cook, etc. I was so excited to find avocados in the marché and i also got a beet, some carrots, and cucumber. I realize that sounds boring but it MADE my day to be able to eat veggies how I wanted and when i wanted. I found some marché mama friends who seem nice so far and have given me the good prices for things. One is named Madeline and she always knocks ten CFA off of my eggs. I bought a big garbage can in which I store water. THere is a little petite named Basil who comes and fills it for me every few days and it isn't too expensive. My 2 neighbors Rosine and Rosaline are really sweet also and it is nice to strike up conversations with them. It is definitely overwhelming being here and I have to force myself out everyday to greet people and explore but hopefully it will feel like home eventually, and I think my host family might come visit this week. My maman and I were crying when I left and they were going to come already but my host brother and sister are in the hospital sick, so it had to wait.

It is hard being away from all of the other volunteers but it is nice that there is another in Dogbo. We hung out the other day for a bit and went to a fete saturday night with a french doctor who works at the hospital here. We don't want to be together ALL the time because that isn't good for integration so we don't see each other TOO much but if we need to talk it is nice to know she is there. Another volunteer also rode his bike into Dogbo for lunch the other day which was fun, but it is hard since all of my friends are scattered around the country and I don't know when I will see them next--In service training is around my birthday but that is only for health volunteers so who knows. ALright, well I am going to leave it for now since I know I can come back next week and update some more. Later gators.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Now Leaving the Comfort Zone...again

I'm a volunteer...whoo hoo!!

Training is OVER and we swore in at a grand fete at the palais du congress with President Yayi Boni in attendance, which was a pretty amazing experience. The last time I came to the Cyber the power cut out after I sent my first email and I didn't feel like sticking around for it to come back on so my apologies for the delay in the posting...though...this is probably my last time posting for awhile since I leave for Dogbo tomorrow and there are no cybers in Dogobo. I have to take a taxi to Lokossa though to get to the bank and I believe there is internet there so hopefully I'll be able to update at least twice a month or something comme ça. Ps-I hope you all enjoy the use of franglais.

So the other week was like Christmas! Thank you so much everyone for the packages! The peace corps was apparently holding them all for awhile and brought them all out one day! I gave the stuff to my host family who were blown away and overwhelmingly thankful for everything...They asked me a million times over to thank my family in the U.S. for thinking of them! And thank you for the stuff for me too! lol. I have secured foodstuffs to the best of my ability to keep them away from the ants...i hope it works. One day, i will come back to the United states and I will not have to worry about ants crawling on me all the time or my food, and it will be glorious...until then...well I guess it is protein, right?

Speaking of protein, i got a cat today! What is the association peut etre you wonder? Well...cats are eaten here. hence, i will be leaving my thus far un-named chaton dans ma maison where he can feast his little heart out on lizards and cockroaches, if he wants. I don't want my neighbors to think it is dinner. My brother came home today from the marche with him in this teeny tiny box and he was just sleeping. He was pretty gross and smelled like fish but i gave him a bath, which he did not like... and now he smells a little better and is looking pretty cute. Transporting him in a cardboard box to dogbo for a 3 hour brush taxi ride should be just delightful. He is calico--white, blackish brown and orange and since I just got my wonderully pink Razr phone from the U.S. unlocked for use in Benin I am going to see if I can send a picture text message to someone with him. Officially I have gotten all of my accessories in Benin to be pink too, which-- frankly-- amuses me. It seems like owning a pink solar powered ipod charger is contrary to the idea of a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I have to say...if that is so wrong then I don't want to be right because my iPod Might just be what keeps me sane on some days. Like when I am riding my bike and I just think I will run over the next kid who sings the Yovo song at me, I turn on the iPod and drown it out.

Speaking of being run over (yes, i know, my connectors are wonderful today) I came face to face with the harsh reality of driving in Benin yesterday. It is REALLY dangerous here in cars and on zems which is why we always have to wear a helmet. And they tell us in all of our sessions if we have a serious problem with the possibility of bleeding out on the side of a road while waiting for an ambulance to come for 3 or more hours than Peace Corps Benin is not for might think I am kidding about that...but I am not. We actually HAVE gotten THAT EXACT speech several times here. They want to emphasize that we can't get the same kind of medical attention here nor should we expect it. So I was on a zem yesterday and passed by this really congested area where I saw a dead man on the ground covered in tissue except for his feet--he had just been killed in an accident. I don't know if it was zem or car because it had already really dispersed by the time i passed by but I have to say it definitely shook me a little and prompted me to readjust my helmet. Good thing too, because I definitely fell right off my zem last night. It wasn't even moving so don't worry. My skirt got caught in the back apparatus and i fell right off into the road when i was dismounting, as a million people shouted doucement, as if i didn' t already know to doucement. Doucement, i've discovered is becoming an amusing pet peeve of mine. I love when people spill things on me and say doucement. All i can think're the one spilling this on me...YOU doucement! The first time my little sister did it it was KIND OF cute how she said doucement but now i think it would be cuter if it didn't take me an hour to wash 4 shirts by hand in caustic soap after l'huile rouge (palm nut oil) gets all over it.

So anyway, Grand Popo last week was BEAUTIFUL!!!!! It rained in the morning when we left and we were all upset but by the afternoon when we were there it was a gorgeous afternoon and sunny...we stayed for the day at 'the auberge' on the beach which had the little tiki hut type things to lie out on and hammocks and coconut trees. There were some other yovos around because it is a tourist spot...they were mostly french. And I actually got to have ice cream in the auberge even though it was chère. It was interesting--mint, made with actual mint leaves, and was really refreshing. You can't really swim in the water here because the tides are just too dangerous. When I heard that I thought 'yeah yeah yeah, whatever you say' and then I stood out looking at the water and knew i had no desire to go in past my knees. The waves are incredible. It was just a wonderful and peaceful day...for most of us. We squeezed 60 of us onto 3 tiny buses and one of them broke down just outside of Porto Novo so they got there really late and peut etre it wasn't AS relaxing for them. But it felt really nice to just be at the beach and is still odd to think that it feels like I should be back at school writing papers and les choses comme ça that habitually elevated my blood pressure every september through may.

Today has been weird because my fam is trying to send me out in style, making big meals and having us eat as a family (usually the kids eat in the kitchen and i eat with mama and papa alone), but I don't know why, my mama seems really angry and is yelling a TON at the kids today. It is really awkward to be around and I don't like it because at one point she was beating my brother and I am so unaccustomed to seeing that that i find it really disturbing even if it IS normal here. She smacked him hard in the face repeatedly and one time when I walked by she had his neck in both of her hands and was shaking him violently...i don't even know what he did. That's not to make my maman sound mean...she's not...that's just how disciplining children is here, and in 2 years, I don't know if I will EVER get used to seeing it.

So tomorrow I leave for Dogbo...I am pretty nervous and am completely stepping outside of my comfort zone again. But that's okay because I generally think that the most worthwhile things I have done or found in life have been outside of my comfort zone. I just have to brace myself for it and acknowledge that it is going to be really awkward for a really long time, but alllll the other volunteers are doing it too. And, I can just speak english to my cat...pas de problème, even if my neighbors DO think I am a folle. Plus, there is fanmilk in dogbo, which makes any day a better day for only 150CFA.

I don't know when I can write again here but I will commence with my letter writing to everyone as i get settled. Thanks again for letters and packages and thinking of me!!

PS - got a new phone number 93 26 00 77. Don't forget to type in the country code and calling out of US code that I mentioned in an earlier post. I have 2 phones now so if you call the other number I'll still get it but I am trying to phase it out because I think this company is better at my post, is cheaper for international calls for me, and then I can sell the other phone since I got to unlock the one I brought with me. A tout a l'heure!!!