Saturday, October 27, 2012

Trick or Treat: Send Me Extra Candy!!

It's the Halloween Season at home. What a weird time of year to be missing... the costumes, candy, haunted houses, pumpkins and parties!! Here in Benin it is not getting colder... there is no noticeable difference in day light.. and palm trees are definitely not turning red and orange. I don't think children here would be allowed to celebrate Halloween like we do... even if (especially if) they knew what is was. This time of the year.. life is definitely way more interesting back at home. I can't wait to hear about everyone's holiday adventures! We better start planning Halloween 2014.. I'm going to have a lot of Halloween-ing to make up for :D

I have been watching Halloween movies all week... and I'm going to go buy myself some candy to eat on Wednesday!! WOOOO PARTAY!! I tried to find some pumpkins to have a pumpkin carving party... unfortunately I didn't find any in Porto Novo (they do have them in Cotonou though so maybe next year!) 

Speaking of back home (and subjects I can actually relate to). My East Coastness is going to be the death of me in this country. I will be the first to admit that I have an East Coast personality.. generally speaking I am high stress.. overly organized... fast paced.. I live on a schedule. I have never viewed this as a bad thing... I walk a little faster talk a little faster and get things done a little faster. I had my first palm pilot when I was in Junior High (my dad let me take his old one when he got a new one).. and I am definitely addicted to schedules and making lists. I love office supply stores.. and I may or may not have a serious love affair with post-it notes. (I usually jump up and down like a 5 year old when I see the bulk packs in Costco). That being said.. I don't see me putting down the planner anytime soon... but what I plan to work on is just accepting that my perception of what makes a successful day.. and what I should actually be considering a successful day.. is something I have to take a serious *soul-searching* style look at. I learned the term “soul-searching” at Drew U.. not by choice... Hey ADMIN I'm using your vocab!!

This week I made a very packed schedule for myself. Monday went as planned.. Tuesday tumbled... Wednesday didn't happen... Thursday might possibly have moved backwards.. and so on and so forth. There are to many variables.. like rain, does the other person understand the point of the meeting.. or rain.. or lack of communication.. or rain.

On Thursday I changed my schedule for Friday to “Harass People” hoping maybe to light a fire on some things (like finding me a language tutor so I don't have to be reliant on others).. however it was raining and also some sort of holiday... OH WELL. Luckily for me, I live in a country where socializing and wandering around the marche is considered acceptable form of work by most onlookers.. So I spent a lot of time talking to people. I met a teacher and talked to him for a bit, I am going to start with my school part of my community study next week (something that I have been wholeheartedly avoiding). I got really lucky and caught my bread lady walking around the marche.. so I was able to ask her about some different products I saw. Lots of red bananas being sold this week.. a normal thing for Porto but I have never seen them around here.. maybe they are seasonal? There is something weird about bananas being red.

In the Peace Corps world this is a fairly successful week.. I should be thankful.. must stop beating myself up... I had the realization that I am stressing myself out. it really doesn't matter how much work I feel like I did this week. There is no way for me, someone who grew up right out side of Philly.. to have any real grasp on how much work I did or didn't do this week by anyone's local standards... right now my standards are irrelevant. This story will probably be strange to you in a you probably needed to be there sort of way... but it is what made me realize this:

Yesterday evening, my landlords son knocked on the door to find out if the water was out. We went through the normal greetings Bon Soir... Cava Bien... Tu fais un peu? (Did you do a little?).. To which you always reply Oui, Un Peu. (Yes a little). It is considered impolite to imply that you did more than a little... and as far as doing “a little” is concerned,  getting out of bed in the morning.. and breathing... both count. At which point he asked me if I ate an orange today.. which is a slightly bizarre question.. I think he could tell I was confused by it and then added something along the lines of “If you ate an orange today that's good.” I'm still not sure if he was concerned about my health.. or if he was implying that eating an orange is hard work. Either way, his concern wasn't over the amount of work I did do.. or I felt that I did.. or it looked like I did... his concern was that I ate an Orange. For some reason that made me feel a little better about things. It is funny how someone saying something so little and unrelated can just make things click. 

Enough with the differences.. This week there is one thing I can say is the same as at home. 
I am getting a lot of rain.. and judging by the weather reports my friends on the East Coast are about to get lots of rain too! I hope everyone at home is being smart and preparing for the storm that is coming that way :( Hopefully it isn't as bad as they are saying. However, the best thing to do is to be ready!

Cory posted this link on his twitter with tips for preparing. Be Prepared for Hurricane Related Weather!

Everybody Have A Happy AND Safe Halloween <3

Monday, October 22, 2012

No Juicy Stories.

Instead I can tell you...
How to eat an orange in Africa!! 
  1. Roll the orange on a hard surface (as if you were going to juice it)
  2. Using a razor or a sharp knife carefully peel off the colored layer (but NOT the white layer)
  3. Cut off one end of the orange so you can see the yummy part.
  4. Proceed to suck all of the juice out of the orange squeezing until there is no more left.
  5. Toss the rest on the ground for some goat to eat.
That is about as juicy as my life has gotten recently..
I'll try to find you the juicy story i was asked for..  and get it to you next week <3

* * *

Nothing super duper exciting happened this week so I figured I would just do a general update.

Since I arrived here at post things have been moving.. forward.. in true Beninese fashion.

The first two weeks I sat around.. pulling my hair out.. and waiting for... anything.

During this time I spent a lot of time walking around my local market. I made friends with a bread lady in front of the boulangerie.. so now I always get the fresh bread in the morning which is nice! And the guy who sells locks nails and tires knows me now too. I also spent a lot of time sitting with my landlords wife.. I think she will be very helpful for me as I try to get to know the community because she seems to know everyone and she is very nice to me. My landlord doesn't speak any french but his wife does which is completely backwards to the norm.. he talks to me in hand gestures and grunting noises which might be his local language or an attempt to speak english to me. Since he doesn't speak english or french he might as well go for the language I know. The two of them have been very helpful to me since I moved in.. fighting off termites.. fixing door issues.. they even gave me a broom!

Outside of my "community study" I have been visiting the different farmers I will be working with... and going to lots of office meetings/formations. I even had a few meetings specifically scheduled to let me know that there wasn't time to work with me that day.. but I'm really glad there was time to schedule an official meeting to let me know that... (sometimes I have to try really hard to remind myself that I can do this).

I think the hardest thing for me since I moved into my house in Misserete.. harder than being away from anyone else who speaks english or who has any grasp of what my life is like at all.. and even harder than feeling like no one has work for me to do (even though every one seems to think I'm doing a lot of work and then seem to be offended when I look for work elsewhere).. is that people keep asking me for money.
The Reason For My Problems.
--I am not accustomed to this and I have found it very stressful. I had to remind myself this week that I can't hide in my house.. I have to go out and get to know my neighbors. I also realized that the root of me hiding wasn't the constant shouting at the YOVO or the fact that I wasn't feeling well.. I just was mentally exhausted from people asking me for money and not understanding/believing that I don't have any. I really don't enjoy that every friendly person who seems to strike up a conversation with me then wants me to give them money :( and the worst part is they are offended that I don't think that they are entitled to the little money that I have.  I'm already overcharged for everything based on the fact that I'm obviously a foreigner so PLEASE STOP. Even at work I was getting the feeling for awhile that people didn't want to waste their time working with me... since I am not yet allowed to start applying for grants for their projects. Fortunately, I think I pushed past this barrier (at work at least) and people are at least starting to let me tag along and talk to the farmers I will be working with. It isn't at the point I would like yet.. but its getting there.

Today a friend of mine who lives in the village of Vakon brought me to church with her for a little bit.. which was interesting. She is Christian Celeste and church is an all day affair for her. She was walking me to the road.. because I had stopped by her house and when I went to leave she wanted me to stop in and see her church. It was very interesting.. I obviously couldn't understand a word of what was being said it was all in a local language. It was much different than church at home. Everyone was dressed the same.. there was a band with a full percussion section.. and everyone was dancing (the whole time). I'm assuming the sermon was in the singing but I'm not really sure. I was given a piece of cloth to cover my hair with.. and then I was given a chair and it was insisted that I sit in it. Which was very strange – very few people were sitting and I was the only one with a chair. On top of that I was sitting in the corner with all the small children (who were staring at me) and I was the only person not wearing the matching white outfit. Not to mention.. I'm a yovo but maybe they didn't notice that. Benin is predominately Catholic and Muslim.. but in my region.. even with the Mosques being so very loud.. and I would say that the Christian Celeste Church is the most visually prominent. She said that next time there is a big party (such as a baptism?) she will bring me because it is a lot of fun...

This week I have a bunch of meetings and outings planned with work. I found a place for my garden so I hope to get that started as well.. and I am going to do some mud stove work too! Each week feels a little more full and satisfying.

Moving in the right direction.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Somewhere Over the River

I just got back home from spending my “Workstation Days” in Cotonou!! Which is like being in America... only it would be nothing like America to anyone who is currently in America. To us however, it is just like being in America. I took my first hot shower since I left the states in June!

There are 4 workstations throughout Benin: Cotonou, Natitingou, Kandi and Parakou. Your workstation is based on your location in the country and it is where you pick up your mail, relax, use fast internet, watch TV and spend some time with other volunteers, and sleep in an air conditioned room (at least in Cotonou). My workstation is the Cotonou workstation, because that is the one closest to me. Which is really nice because the Cotonou workstation is also the Benin Peace Corps Headquarters. This means that when I go to relax.. I can also visit the doctor, stop in and talk with my program manager (or any other administrator that I like), and all paperwork and important things are processed in Cotonou. Every month each volunteer gets 3 free nights to spend at the workstation (2 right now because I am still in the adjustment period).. and the best part is that they are not counted towards our vacation days :)

Cotonou is the big economic city.. it is also the home to most of the Embassies and has a lot of expats. So while I can get almost anything I could possibly need in the Capital City of Porto Novo, where I live, Cotonou has everything else. If you can't find it in Cotonou... you won't find it in Benin. In line with my weird habit of getting really excited and buying strange things whenever I walk into a “western style” grocery store in this country.. I came back to post today with rose water, canned baba ghanoush, cappuccino flavored cookies, hot sauce, and guava jam. I also bought some more practical things that I actually needed... but that isn't interesting.

Volunteers also get the opportunity to eat non-Beninese food when in Cotonou!! I even had falafel one night!! It was so good!!! There is a french bakery that has chocolate soy-milk... and they also have kiwi juice?? and I had my favorite avocado sandwiches. Not this weekend.. but in the past I have eaten vegetarian bean burritos in Cotonou! Next time I go I am excited to try the Indian Restaurant that volunteers seem to like.

I discovered that Customer Service does exist in Benin (but probably only when the business is not owned by a Beninese person). Another volunteer and I stepped into a Pizza place in Cotonou “1 2 3 Pizza”.. we sat down ordered a bottle of ice cold water... and waited for about 10 minutes when the owner came out and told us that they couldn't cook us anything because the oven was broken. He gave us each a free salad... (with croutons!).. and he didn't charge us for the water! Now, I have no idea how the food there normally is.. but I would definitely go back and try! I would also recommend this place to anyone else visiting Cotonou, because they were just so nice and friendly!! Nice and friendly is not normal business etiquette in Benin.

Normally customer service in Benin is “I don't really have any interest in serving you... you are interrupting my nap.. and if you don't have exact change I won't sell you anything (Even if I have the change!).” Small money is very important here, having a 5000 cfa note is not worth as much as having 5000 cfa in change. The bank loves to give us the worthless 10,000 cfa note. The smaller your change is broken down the more it is worth in the market.

Aside from the wonderful grocery stores and restaurants that Cotonou has to offer.. Cotonou also has the beach! BEACH!!! and a private pool where volunteers are allowed to go swimming on Saturday afternoons!! So basically.. after weeks at post.. without any other Americans to hang out with.. eating rice, beans, and bananas every day. Cotonou is paradise.

I had a glorious weekend.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Photo Alert Photo Alert

Two posts in two days!! I must be really bored.

There is a first for everything... here are some of my Africa ones from the past few days! 

My first tressing:

By 5am the braids were out... way overly painful pour moi.
Oh.. If I'm ever feeling crazy enough to try this again... actually no, won't happen.   

My first African kitchen experiment:
Tortilla recipe becomes curried flat bread treats.
Check the Haiku.. (inspired by Erik's current haiku obsession)

Flour Tortilla
The Canned Hummus Is Scary
What Flavor Are You!

Maybe we should resurrect  my old Daring Kitchen blog...
"Peace Corps Kitch:  Qu'est-ce que vous mangez avec moutarde aujourd'hui!" 

My first boumba:

Ladies and Gentlemen... The Beninoise Photo Face
(please ignore the smile peeking through) 

My first monsoon related flooding... Yay!

All of the letters I've been saving from home laying out and drying :(
Luckily less than a handful had real damage... and only 1 was totally destroyed!! 

Wish I could say that was my first Africa Haiku...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

No I don't Eat Animals... and YES the Peace Corps still wanted me.

When I was applying to the Peace Corps.. a lot of people approached me about my ethical lifestyle. I can't even tell you how many times I was told... “But the Peace Corps doesn't accept vegetarians!?” Even a quick Google search would imply to most people that this is in fact true. HOWEVER this is NOT true... and being one of the veggies who made it through I feel its my responsibility to explain.

When you apply for the Peace Corps its a really really long process... they want to weed out the people who are applying on a whim... the people who aren't really that invested... the people who are most likely to give up early... and those who just might not cut it for one reason or another. Placing and Training a volunteer is a huge investment... paid for by the US Government (our tax dollars). If they invited all applicants to serve there would be a very high early termination rate.. it would cost us a lot of dollars.. and it would make the Peace Corps/Americans seem unreliable to the countries where we serve as skilled workers and more importantly as cultural ambassadors.

In order to insure interest and proper placement there are special questionnaires for special circumstance (Erik and I got a good laugh out of the relationship questionnaire(s) we had to fill out with questions such as “Have you informed your significant other of your decision to join the Peace Corps?”). During the application process I was approached many times by people who felt “special circumstances that require special questionnaires are a sure application death sentence.” Which is where I think that the misconception that the Peace Corps is anti-vegetarian comes into existence.

During my Interview in NYC I was told... “There are a lot of countries where we don't send vegetarian volunteers... you won't be going to China for example.” Ok... that is fine.. I didn't want to go to China anyway.. and then she added “I will be emailing you a special questionnaire about your diet you will need to get it back to me ASAP.” This questionnaire was rather silly and extreme in a “Worst Case Scenario” sort of way. Which is honestly what it was – “Here is our worst case scenario FOR YOU and what do you plan to do about it.” The questions ranged from.. please tell about your reasons for your vegetarian lifestyle... to will you let yourself starve to death when faced with no other options.

This questionnaire is NOT meant to deter vegetarians.. but it is important questionnaire with important implications... that if you are serious enough about your lifestyle you should understand that they need to ask. It WILL provide them with the information they need in order to safely place you in an environment where you will be HAPPY and be able to do the job they sent you to do. Granted if you say “No I will lay on the ground and let my self starve to death”.. you will probably get sent for mental health screening as well. It is perfectly acceptable however to tell them that you are health/nutrition conscious and that you will not let yourself starve to death. Let them know you take your diet seriously.. and explain to them how you plan to eat in order to remain healthy. If they know you know how to keep yourself healthy.. they will feel satisfied that you won't be putting your well being at risk. Besides most of the world sustains itself on rice and beans... not ideal but it's a real thing.

During the Peace Corps process they want to know that you are reliable, flexible and strong (and I don't mean physically). Flexible just might be the most important quality that they look for in a volunteer. Flexible means you are not easily phased.. you are resilient.. and you understand that things don't always go as planned. They want to know you won't starve to death because you can't read an ingredient label for every little thing you eat. Those don't exist in the third world. If you take this questionnaire as what it really is, an attempt for the peace corps to understand you more fully so that you can be properly placed... and you don't view it as a personal attack. This questionnaire will help you in the long run.

What I learned after this point in the application process was yes.. there are many countries where the peace corps doesn't feel safe sending vegetarian volunteers... but there are also countries designated as “Vegetarian Friendly.” A good portion of my training group was some form of vegetarian... because Benin is vegetarian friendly!! Peace Corps gets you to this point... they get you to where you need to be... now its up to you to make it work. Your host family has been informed of your dietary restrictions.. and at this point YOU DO NOT have to eat the food they give you if it isn't right (and once you get to your post you cook for yourself anyway). I was really really lucky and I had an awesome family who fed me right. There were a few times when they did offer me non vegetarian food before making my dinner... I turned it down and they made me vegetarian food... no biggie no hurt feelings it was just them testing something they didn't understand. However, I can see at this point where some volunteers might have felt obligated to take the non-vegetarian food.. causing a downward spiral of confusion.. you ate it yesterday it didn't kill you so you can eat it today too. You might have been accepting it to be polite.. but they won't understand that.. if its a health issue you didn't get sick... if its a religious issue or a question of values THEY DO NOT expect you to compromise that just to be polite. The peace corps told them.. the peace corps is paying them to feed you... and they want you to be happy as a guest in their house... be honest with them.

The Peace Corps does not want you to compromise who you are in order to serve in the country where they sent you to work. They will tell you this over and over again. This was one of the big cultural topics during training (Benin has a great support network of both volunteers and faculty who are always there to talk if you are having an issue) .. and one of the big goals of the Peace Corps is to teach the people who work with you about Americans. If you compromise who you are... you won't be happy.. and you won't be successfully completing that goal. A happy volunteer is a successful volunteer.

Here in Benin I have been a healthy and happy vegetarian volunteer. My neighbors and friends even know not to offer me dairy products or eggs (a local staple). The peace corps placed me in a country where they knew I could be successful (which they couldn't have done if I wasn't honest with them).. and the local staff made a point to place me in a region where fruits and vegetables are diverse and widely available. I take my vitamins everyday. People here understand what vegetarian means.. the problem is the understanding of why. A lot of volunteers have found it easy just to explain that something will make them sick. Some people go the religion route (however that opens a whole can of worms about God and other things). For me I have decided to go with a more simple explanation that is highly understood and allows for little confusion. I just tell them “It's the way of my family.” no one is going to argue with that -- tradition and family is just something that is respected. The best part is it's true too! 


WOW it is October... I have started receiving all of the winter jacket advertisements in my e-mail. Sorry guys I won't be needing that this year!! 

Also: I know people were wondering if I was surviving food wise here... That being said if there is anything else you would like me to write about specifically.. let me know!!