Friday, September 28, 2012

Before I Moved To Benin

When I was preparing myself for this amazing adventure... I (like most other volunteers I would imagine) spent a lot of time being overwhelmed and stressed out. I made a few mistakes (for example I probably should have stopped working a few weeks sooner) which caused me to rush through a lot of my goodbyes.. it was a huge whirl wind. While obviously spending time with loved ones before you leave (especially those that you will not see again for 2 years) is what everyone should be doing.. and of course packing is important too.. I would advise making sure that you have enough time to really enjoy those last couple weeks. I know for me I spent way to much time wrapping up projects I had been working on for months.. and stressing over everything (imagine that). Packing is important.. but honestly anything you REALLY need to survive you can find in your country of service.. people do live there.. if they didn't you wouldn't be going.. anything special that you pack is really just a perk. I know that when I was packing I filled a good portion of my luggage with snacks from home (at the advice of a few different former volunteers) it felt like a silly waste of space.. but I assure you it wasn't.

That being said.. if I had the ability to do the last few weeks over again.. I would try not to stress so much.. maybe by 2014 I will have learned that one. I am starting to think however that my general stress level is deeply engrained and probably not going anywhere anytime soon.. I was stressed out as a baby and I will probably continue to be so for the rest of my life. I accept that.

So everyone is probably thinking right now.. ok Zoe.. as of this week you have officially been in Benin for 3 full months... why are you talking about this now?

Well.. my dear friend. Now that I am living in this little house of mine.. For the first time since I got here.. now that everything is unpacked and put in its place.. I have an opinion on what I should have been preparing for.. and what was superfluous. Here are some thoughts:

Things That I'm Glad I Did Before I Left

Spending Time With People: I spent a lot of time getting to see people.. even people who I hadn't seen in awhile. It is crazy really when someone knows that they won't be ABLE to see you they get the urge that they HAVE to see you... and it was really nice to get to talk with friends who I had been missing to no fault of either of us. However, this wasn't something I had anticipated and I think that some people who I did see all the time normally might have felt a bit neglected. I am sorry for this... This is probably the main reason why I feel that I might not have given myself enough open time before leaving.. the hustle and bustle of preparing for service is a crazy thing. I remember one day during the weeks before I left... some friends wanted to see Erik and I... people who I like a lot but who we rarely saw.. right before we were about to go out I got very upset.. I didn't want to go.. I was tired of talking about the Peace Corps with everyone and their mother.. I just wanted a NORMAL day with our NORMAL friends. Leave yourself some days where things can feel normal. [In case I offended anyone with this.. I'm very sorry.. if you are close enough with me to feel offended than i'm pretty positive I'm not talking about you. AND I love everyone very much it was just an overwhelming time in my life]

Getting Away: I know this probably sounds contrary to what I just said.. but another thing that we did before I left.. was Erik and I went on a small vacation. I know, far from a normal everyday thing. But it gave us a few days.. away from everything and we got to do things we like to do; go canoeing, see sites, go for nature walks etc. It was really nice. It was really good for me.. but I imagine even better for him.. to get me away from the constant packing and errand running. We weren't home.. so I couldn't worry about it. It would have to wait.

Let Them Throw You A Party: I struggled with this one. I wanted a going away party – who wouldn't. At the same time.. having a party thrown in my honor makes me really uncomfortable.. and I definitely vacillated about the importance of it. It seemed really silly BUT It was wonderful.. I am really glad that we did it.. and I am so grateful to all of my family and friends for making it such an amazing day. I think we timed it perfectly too. Not so last minute that I couldn't enjoy myself.. but close enough to my departure that people realized that I wasn't going to be having anymore free time before I left. I also got to see a lot of people who I may not have gotten a chance to see other wise. (Thank You Again Joanne and Richie for hosting this for me.. and Everyone Else who helped out that day – miss you all!)

Things That Were Important – But Mismanaged

Bike Classes: Yes.. I know I am not great on a bicycle.. and this was very important for my confidence. However, I don't like riding bikes.. I never have.. I still don't. If the bike classes were to really be worthwhile then I should have allotted more time to riding bikes before I came here. I realize now that the issue was never that I couldn't ride a bike.. that part wasn't hard to get past. The issue is I don't want to ride a bike. As of now I walk everywhere.. and I look very silly doing it.. eventually when I know the neighborhood better I'll ride my bike.. I just really hate it.

LeatherMan: If you are going into the peace corps.. get a multi-tool leatherman type of thing. Really really really important. Also Important however is maybe knowing what tools you have before you leave the country.. and practicing using it for everyday things like cutting fruit for instance. It is important to become familiar with it. For example during training one of my friends had broken her glasses (not very bad just needed a glasses screwdriver).. after a few days she sent them to medical to have them fixed (which meant they would be gone for about a week).. the next day I realized I HAD THE TOOL SHE NEEDED IN MY BAG ALL ALONG!!

Running Errands: I am normally one of the most organized people when it comes to running errands. I know what I need, where to find it, and I go out and get it, I map out my destinations and set a schedule so that the errands can be over and done with. (So organized some people actually mistake it as enjoyment.. but no I like errands just as much as the next guy I promise). During the few weeks before I left.. I was having a lot of trouble making a comprehensive list. Mostly due to the fact that I really didn't know what I needed. There were many suggested packing lists available to me but what did I NEED? What was important to ME? Also.. I wanted people to run errands with me (which is definitely less efficient).. which I'm sure wasn't enjoyable to them.. but I was trying to multitask. I'm not sure if it is even possible when preparing for the Peace Corps... but I wish I had been able to set it all aside.. and sit down make a list go get what I needed and then been done with it (like normal Zoe mode).. I think a lot of potential down time was wasted running out to stores or waiting for someone to go with me so I could spend time with them.. or sometimes even going to the same store more than once eek!

Things I Didn't Do

Practical Cooking: Everyone who knows me.. knows that I love to be in the Kitchen - cooking... baking.. dancing.. thinking.. who knows. Before I left I went on a spree. I decided that I wanted to cook things I wouldn't be able to cook here.. I was pulling out all the stops. All the recipes I had been saving to try for special occasions. If I wasn't going to be in a proper kitchen for two years I wanted to get it all in while I could. IN REALITY I should have been practicing minimalist cooking.. using ingredients that I could find easily in Benin (to the best of my knowledge at the time)... so that I would be prepared to make a variety of dishes when I got here. I am slowly building up my repertoire of non-fancy peace corps style dining. But it is VERY BORING. I should have spent the time to compile easy and a varied recipes for here before I left.. I will have the rest of my life to cook fancy. (and for some reason every time I think of a recipe from home that i could probably make here I find out it needs celery!! i never realized i cooked with so much celery! i love celery.) :-/

Pretend To Be a Boyscout: I should have spent time practicing some basic knots.. I did bring a book on Knots but I didn't practice any. As of right now my clothes line is rigged up with mini-bungycords (which were a great idea to pack) but it doesn't look very pretty. I should have practiced setting up a propane stove.. because even though they gave us a brief demonstration.. it wasn't quite as easy as I had imagined. What do you do with your trash when there is no trash system.. not everything is burnable? I should have practiced my tree-ids.. not really important for anything but my own peace of mind: its something I am good at at home.. why not here as well? I should have practiced using machetes to open coconuts and dig in the yard. Maybe I should have done some pushups.

If anyone who doesn't know me (and is preparing for service in Benin (invitations start going out in a couple months!!) or another PC country) is reading this I just want to add some other thoughts.. I spent a lot of time stressing about language before arriving.. I wish I could speak better French.. but they get you through it. YOU DO A LOT OF LANGUAGE TRAINING.. practice your language.. but don't let it eat up your life before you go to stage. Bring a hoodie.. even if you are going someplace warm.. you will want it eventually. Ask people at home to write you letters.. or maybe even send yourself a care package before you leave (a lot of people did this).. it is hard to explain how excited everyone is during training on days when mail shows up.. it is like Christmas (or your comparative holiday) just to have something from home to hold... Even if you think you don't need letters from home.. once you are here and everyone else is getting them.. you will want them.. make sure your friends have your new address (I am very glad that I did!). Du Courage!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Finally Unpacked!!

Well.. this week was pretty crazy!

After the swear in ceremony last Friday we had some time to check out Cotonou and go to Erevan (which is a giant target like store where you can buy most anything American.. if you have the money.. except for apparently hot sauce) it smelled like America.. and I might have cried a little upon walking though the automatic door. Then we went back home to pack our bags and to move out of Porto Novo. A year later I arrived here.. just in time to write this post!!

Saturday morning I loaded all of my things into a peace corps vehicle.. and then my bags were taken away from me a put into the top secret peace corps storage area. I held onto my newly acquired Erevan pillow... my little red airplane blanket (that I currently consider the best purchase I have ever made in my life)... 1 “clean” shirt.. and all of the things I didn't want to hand over to the peace corps for fear of never seeing my luggage again (my photo book and electronics). I was going to Kloukanme (with another volunteer who couldn't move in yet) to visit a volunteer and to experience the work that environmental volunteers do (things are starting to feel redundant here)... and I would be back in Porto Novo to get my stuff and move in to my new home on Tuesday!! (We had a lot of fun in Kloukanme... the volunteer who hosted us was amazing.. and we learned how to bake cakes using the pot that PC gave us for boiling our water!!)

Come Thursday morning.. I still hadn't moved into my house (or changed my clothes). Because of a taxi strike... I didn't leave Kloukanme until Wednesday and then stayed in Cotonou until Thursday morning. When I got here to Misserete I unloaded all of my things.. only to find out my house had not been paid for and if the money wasn't given to them that day that I would be loading my stuff back into a taxi and searching for a new house. AT THIS POINT IT IS NECESSARY TO THANK MY AMAZING PROGRAM MANAGER FOR FINDING THE MONEY AND HAVING SOMEONE DRIVE OVER WITH IT FROM COTONOU ASAP THAT AFTERNOON. I was able to take a nap in my house.. but I waited to start unpacking until the papers were signed.. because you never know. Luckily the money showed up and I was able to settle in.

It is a really huge relief to finally be able to unpack all of my things and set up my house... I was given a lot of furniture and kitchen supplies by the volunteer who I am replacing and another volunteer who lived near by.. for which I am very grateful!! However my lovely predecessor left the commune today.. and it really is a shock to finally be on my own.. away from all of the people I trained with... and not having someone to ask questions to all the time.. I still don't have this culture completely figured out... and I have a lot of trouble communicating (even when my french is correct). I also know that this is a really bizarre thing to complain about but my absolutely gorgeous house is way too big for me.. and it is making me feel extra lonely.. and its a little hard to feel integrated when you feel so fancy.

I spent my weekend walking around my neighborhood (I only got really lost once!)... setting up my house... transporting furniture.. and going to the Marche... on Sunday I made a trip to visit my host family in Porto Novo and to go the the grocery store since it is near their house anyway. It is nice to have something familiar so close by... its strange to think that not even three months ago that their house was so alien to me.

Tomorrow is a meeting at the CeRPA office.. and then I am going to sit down and plan out a schedule at least for the next few weeks. I have so much to do!! The trick is figuring out who is supposed to be taking me where and working with me on what :-/ at least for the start I need someone to go to the groupments with me especially since I am going to need a translator for a lot of the work (preferably one who can understand my horrible french).


Friday, September 14, 2012

Its Official!

Today was Swear-In for Peace Corps Benin.

Tomorrow everyone is moving to post!! However, I will not be moving to post until some time next week -- My house is not yet ready for me, SO instead I am going to spend a few days with the volunteers in the Mono-Couffo region seeing what EA work is done there. It really makes very little sense (since I will be traveling about 4 hours in the wrong direction -- a few hours past my workstation where i could also easily stay) but hey! it's the program they made for me.. and it will be nice to see another part of the country.

love from your [favorite] PCV

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Things That Matter Most of All.

I am writing an extra blog post this week. AND i am dedicating it to my Mom.. because she requested more posts (apparently a weekly post – on a weekly blog is not adequate)... and because I know that she is sitting at her computer at home either shamelessly promoting me on her facebook (maybe for fear that I will stop writing – don't worry mom I won't) or refreshing the blog incessantly in hopes that something has been updated (even though it's not the weekend). Hope you are pleasantly surprised <3

Thoughts At The End of Training

Five Things I Will No Longer Hate Doing After the Peace Corps:

  1. Going to the Verizon Store... today at the MTN store trying to get my phone replaced I actually said to another volunteer “I really miss queues”
  2. Washing and Drying... Not to be redundant... But I will never again complain about having to put my clothes in the washing machine.
  3. Public Transportation.. NJ Transit IS NOT that bad. As much as I hate taking the bus, at least you get your own seat. (ok maybe I will still dislike buses, just not to the same extent)
  4. Waiting For The Mailman.. he might take awhile, especially when you know that special letter is coming. BUT you know he will arrive.. and you know the letter will too.
  5. Boiling Water... at home I always avoided cooking most things that involved boiling water... I don't like waiting... I think after 2 years of constantly boiling my drinking water (on stoves that seem to take twice as long) I will become desensitized. Or maybe this country will teach me how to wait.

Ten Things I Will Miss Most From Home Revisited:

Original 10
The Shore – Yes Please
Philadelphia’s Vegan Food Scene – I shamelessly follow you online from afar..
Peanut Chews – I have been doing a pretty good job of rationing these out (thank god)
Going on Road Trips – American Road Trips yes... I have no desire to go on a road trip here.
Game Nights – I keep thinking about buying some games and then I remember I have no one to play with :(
Constant Internet Access – Well I caved on that one pretty quickly.
Showers – Bucket Showers!!
Reliable Electricity – So what if it all goes out occasionally?
Sundresses – You would be surprised how quickly thighs become scandalous.
Iced Tea – Oh.. now that I reminded myself!

After Training (still in no specific order)
The Shore
Food In General (I have no problems keeping my diet here but BOY do I miss some variety)
Safe Tap Water
Peanut Chews
Reliable Texting
Washing Machines
A Soft Pillow
Going Barefoot
Reading Cory Booker's Twitter every morning after checking the news.

I'll check back on this one after my first three months at post :)

Don't Forget to Smile Today!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Less Than One Week

On September 14th we will be swearing in, and then I will be moving into my house.. and setting up to be out on my own... in Africa. Scary.

Tomorrow is the last day of "technical training" and we are wrapping up our session on how to run an environmental club. My partner and I will be doing a lesson on pollination and we decided to show a clip from Planet Earth!! Yay film segments!! (Probably not realistic at our local schools... Qui sait). I have no confidence standing in front of a room full of people and speaking french.. and I completely crashed and burned when I was giving a lesson on deforestation earlier this week but I have been practicing all day for this one.. so hopefully it will go better. Its really stressful doing something you're normally good at (like talking to a group of people) especially when its easy topics that you know a lot about.. and just not having the capability to get the point across because of a language barrier :/eek.

Aside from learning about how to organize an environmental club, and how Beninese schools work (and how Zoe can lose her phone if she plays with it in class.. oops) we also learned all about mud stoves this week!! YAY MUD STOVES. Actually.. mud stoves are a lot of fun to make.. we stomped around in some mud... and made some villagers very happy by showing them how to make/ by making them a new more efficient stove to cook with (or maybe we just made them happy because we are a bunch of YOVOs). I know pictures were taken during our practice session... so when I get my hands on them I will add a picture!

That was basically it... Nothing too exciting to write home about this week sorry guys!!

We did have a big hotel party last night. We had to have our “after swear-in party” a week early due to scheduling conflicts. So that was kind of silly... but it was a great time lots of dancing and spending time together before we disperse. It is going to be weird when we are no longer all together here in Porto Novo!!

Thinking of Home

*good luck at your new job tomorrow sweetie <3

Monday, September 3, 2012

What I've Been Doing

Wow. It's September... Just two more weeks and I am a real PCV!

For the last two weeks I have been working hard on the technical aspects of training which we are now immersed in. I know some people at home are interested in knowing what exactly I have been up to.. so here is the run down of what training has been like since I returned from my post visit.

For the Environmental Program we do all of our training at Songhai... I know I have mentioned Songhai a few times on here, but here is the official description:

Centre Songhai

Created in 1985 by F. Godfrey NZAMUJO [google him]... Songhai's purpose is to draw Africa into a development mentality which consists in developing new strengths in spite of socioeconomic, cultural and environmental constraints.

The Songhai model is based on interrelationships between environmental resources, agriculture, technology, services and industry. It also includes a component of human capacity development. This is as an integrated set of management techniques, based on the values of leadership and development of entrepreneurial skills. In practice, the model encourages the use of local resources, the combination of traditional and modern agricultural practices, the adaptation of technologies and the diversification of activities. Through these practices, Songhai integrates concepts of “zero waste” and “total productivity” through the use of biological and ecological farming practices. Providing opportunities for rural communities to use and manage in a sustainable way their resources while promoting local economic development.” [description from my post assignment]

Basically.. it is a self sustainable eco-utopia created with the purpose of teaching the people of West Africa work ethic. It has been recognized by the UN as a “center of excellence” And it is a really.. really impressive place. They even recycle plastics.

We arrive at Songhai every morning early enough to water our planches (garden beds... but way more fun to say.. its pronounced plonches) before class commences at 8... Our various class sessions are over at 5.. and then we have an hour of tutoring in our local languages (I can now count to 10... saluate.. and tell you what I ate today). Usually I make it back home around 630.

The first week of tech training was mostly gardening and agriculture: I learned how to build a planch, Plant things... and also transplant things. All about soil structure, How to tell which disease/insect/deficiency a plant has, All about composting, How to prepare natural pesticides, How to collect and save seeds from various vegetables. We covered a lot of things I knew and a lot of things I didn't know... a crazy amount of stuff was packed into the first week. Early in the week we had a special session on the Food Security program here in PC Benin.. which I am very excited about.

This week (week two) was more of a melange of bigger projects. We spent one whole day learning about food processing and then canning tomatoes... it was a very long day.. but we had fun. Two days were spent with a local gardening group practicing PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action).. and then teaching them how to prepare a natural pesticide. Also.. it was tree week. We learned our local Tree IDs, grafting, how to plant a tree plantation, and how to collect seeds/plant seeds for said tree plantation. Most importantly we learned how to dig a hole with a machete. 

On a Funny Note: Starting this week, Mama is teaching me to cook [Rumor has it while we were gone PC told them all a story about a volunteer who never learned to cook.. and then got really sick and had to go home because they starved. Now all the host parents are convinced that none of us know how to cook].... today I learned how to make a salad.