Sunday, December 29, 2013

Happy Holidays 2013

Last week I spent my second (and last) Christmas in Grand Popo.

As always Popo was wonderful. Everyone had a great time - a much smaller and more low key group than last year – which is probably a good thing. I am perfectly happy just relaxing on the beach enjoying the sound of the ocean, sun on my skin, and sand in my hair. I hope to get to go back to Grand Popo at least one more time before I finish my service, it really is my favorite place in Benin (Admin if you read this – COS conference.. please?)

I hope that those of you who celebrated this year, had an amazing time with your loved ones at home. I can't wait to be there next year!!! Thank you (again) for the holiday cards and Christmas treats that I received from home. <3

This coming week is the New Year. 2014.  For me the turning of the year is a time of reflection – and here in Benin the year has sure given me a lot to reflect on. I have a postcard on my wall that says “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” I am lucky enough, at this point in my life, that that I can say I do new things almost every day.

I started off my year right, a New Years meal in a friends village where we shared culture exchange through food. Followed the week after by the annual voodoo fete (I celebrated here in Misserete) with two of my close-mates, sitting on the VIP stage with Voodoo Priests, Village Chiefs, and Kings. I learned Goun, and I perfected Peace Corps Gourmet. I taught farming groups to grow new crops, and grew traditional crops with primary school students. I went on a Safari where we were charged at by an elephant, we went on a boat ride that was uncomfortably close to a family of hippos, and even saw lions. I road tripped through Togo and Ghana, getting a chance to see West African culture outside of Benin. Joined my new Japanese friends in traditional Beninese dance classes. Throughout the year I hosted many volunteer's at my house in Misserete and created uncountable memories. I was selected for the Peer Support Network, joined the Volunteer Advisory Committee, and formed an Amour et Vie team in my village. I befriended a wonderful kitten named Papaya, who does his best to make sure I am never lonely. I had to say goodbye, as some of the new friends left to return to American life, but I also was able to welcome many new friends, as my village hosted a new group of Peace Corps Environment Action Trainees over  the summer. For me 25 was a year of much growth. I worked hard and learned a lot about myself. I have become more confident and also more flexible. I became engaged and I am also a very proud new Aunt. 2013 is definitely a year I will never forget. All I can do is hope that 2014 is just as amazing and full of excitement and happy news.

Happy New Year Everyone

<3 Z

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Touristic Alternative

One of the “big” tourist attractions in Benin – other than Voudun – is the existence of lake villages. The most famous of the lake villages (the one that most tourists go to tour) is called Ganvie.

Perhaps, if you are a tourist, Ganvie might be exactly what you are looking for. The boat will stop at multiple gift shops and of course they will try to get you to spend ALL of your money on things that you either didn't want or didn't agree to.

Some volunteers have taken their families to see Ganvie and have had a good experience. A lot of volunteers have gone to Ganvie and had a horrible experience. Erik and I had a horrible experience, that ended with (after other things) having that hats that we had paid for stolen from us by the guy who sold them to us... by the time we were done there we were so very glad to be leaving. That being said you WANT to see  lake villages while you are here – and if we hadn't gone we would have wished we had – which means just dealing with the mostly bad experience to get a chance to see them. But what if there was another not quite as touristy, but tours provided, lake village, where they won't try to cheat you out of your money? Wouldn't that be great.

Cue in: Augege (pronouces wa-gay-gay).

This past Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a boat tour of the village of Augege, which is actually very close to chez moi. There is a newly built and small tourist center that takes boats out  from Porto Novo, and takes about 30 minutes to get to the village by boat.

While they offer tours, Augege is by no means a tourist trap. I guess a good way to put it is they are just learning tourism. They have one restaurant/hotel that prepares food properly for westerners (we didn't eat there so I am not sure what the prices are like) – and of course we did a lot of greeting people while we were there. One of my friends broke her shoe, and the tour guide went to find her a new pair while we were invited to sit down in a local's living room for a glass of water. The children sang to us, surprisingly not the annoying yovo song, and we got a chance to see what was probably the most elaborately painted church that any of us have seen here in Benin (who would have thought).

Unlike Ganvie which is over water year round, Augege does in fact have dry ground during the dry season, it is an island in the valley, mostly disconnected from surrounding villages. So if you really want to see houses with water under them, make sure that you go during the rainy season. Otherwise you are just going to see stilt houses, but you will be able to get out and walk around if the land is dry!!! I really enjoyed  the dry season tour.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Long Distance Loving

This week I received a PM from a future volunteer asking me about the experience of being in a long distance relationship during Peace Corps – as I replied to her I couldn't help but think that it really ought to be a post as well. A lot of aspiring and recently accepted volunteers are facing the question of “Well what about my relationship?” – I know that I was.

To start I will say that YES for those of you who don't know I am in a long distance relationship.

A surprising number of my friends out here are also in long distance relationships. It works for some people it doesn't work for everyone. However, it is doable, and myself and most of my friends who are also doing long distance are still holding strong after a year and a half. We just have the home stretch now.

So you want to know how to approach a long distance relationship while in the Peace Corps?

A lot of how you approach the situation will depend on how long you have been together, your financial situation, and your Significant Others (SO) general acceptance of you doing the PC.

As far as a financial situation is concerned money isn't required (my fiancé and i don't have a lot of money) but it does make it easier – some volunteers swear by being able to talk to the SO every night... or traveling frequently to see each other..  which is something i could never afford to do. Every situation is different, but you can definitely find a way to make yours work for you.

It would be a lie to say it isn't hard. It is very hard. But you can do it.

My biggest suggestion would to be very upfront with each other before you leave about the expectations for this 2 year separation. TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING!

I know the application process has changed a lot, but when I did the relationship questionnaires we actually sat down and answered the questions together. It was difficult, but forced us to really talk about the situation (and as touchy as some of the subjects are we got some good laughs in as well) -- If you are already past this point in your application (maybe you just met!), you could use some the same questions as a guideline to sit down and have a discussion with each other. It seems silly as you are doing it but it really helps in the long run, and makes your SO feel like they are a part of your decision making and application process as well.

Going in to the the Peace Corps you and your SO may have already been together more than 5 years – or less than 6 months. I don't know how far along you are in your relationship BUT it is also good to have a discussion about the end point. This doesn't have to be marriage (ours was and he actually surprised me and proposed during my vacation home in November -- i thought we were waiting so it really was a huge surprise!!) BUT what ever the plan is for 2 years after – marriage, grad school, moving in together, or just picking up where you left off – you should try to make sure you are both on the same page. It is important to know where you both stand and have a common goal to be looking forward to. If not, your SO might be wondering if you are going to stay a 3rd year? Or if you are even considering them in your plans at all for when you get home.. these are hard emotions to convey when you want each precious moment of your short phone calls home to be happy and not volatile.

Lastly, before you leave set up a general plan for how you plan to keep in contact during your 2 year service. Simple things like how often (or if you write) should be included. Your SO might not know you want them to write -- and if you are expecting a letter it will put stress on the relationship. How often you plan to talk on the phone should also be on the discussion board (but this will change after you see the first phone bill and learn the realities of international calling). Most importantly, do you hope to plan any trips to see each other? If so where and who will be in charge of that planning process (preferably the person at home with the good internet).

That being said, don't forget that THINGS WILL CHANGE once you are in the Peace Corps and no plans you make or discuss will actually be fixed until they happen (often vacations fall through the wayside when finances change for example --- or maybe you won't have phone reception in your village). Be prepared for the fact that the plan you talk about will not always be exactly what happens. It is more like your 2 year relationship guideline.

Peace Corps is an emotional roller-coaster and you will have bad days and good days and a SO is really great for being your support system as long as they realize that we experience the extremes and they have to be there to support us NOT to tell us to give up and come home.

AND PLEASE don't forget to apologize to them from time to time when you feel like there have been more bad days than good and they are PROBABLY the ones hearing all about it. Don't forget to say sweet things and remind each other how great it will be when you are back together again. – It is also OK to cry from time to time, no one will think less of you for it.

Good Luck

*The “On The Homefront” book that Peace Corps issues to new volunteers for their families is also very helpful (I actually requested an extra copy to give to Erik and his family as well!)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Third Goal

During my visit home, I spent a day at a local high school talking to students (mostly French Language and Social Studies) about living in Benin, Beninese Culture and Peace Corps. I meant to post about this before (but my vacation home was just so jam packed full of craziness that I didn't get even one chance to update you.) Talking to students at home was incredible and I think that everyone visiting home during their service should take a day to set up a program with a local high school.

I really enjoyed the presentations that I gave, mostly because the students asked AWESOME questions. I unfortunately can't remember most of them now – but they ranged from “Describe your typical day?” to “How do you wash your clothes?” to "What do you eat?" and of course “How do you join Peace Corps?” Of course since most of the classes were French classes, there were also a lot of questions about language! It is always interesting to explain the ways that Beninese French differs from Parisian French, and to talk about how many different languages are found throughout Benin. The teacher who helped by setting up the program for me to come in (a teacher of mine from High School!) took some awesome pictures from the day -- I don't want to post pictures of the students (obviously) but here is a great one of me helping a teacher model traditional clothing.

I would love a chance to give more presentations like this when I get back to the states!


Here in Benin my week was spent mostly meeting with people so that we can get back to work (which sometimes involves having a meeting to discuss when you are going to have a meeting to discuss the possibilities of getting back to work). I went to the market and restocked on things like laundry soap and toilet paper – and of course fabric. Basically just trying to get back to normal, and trying to stay out of the heat. (and cleaning up after yet another flood!) Hopefully in the next few weeks I will be able to tell you about some cool projects!!!


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Glad I Have You.

I can not BELIEVE that it is December already – 2013 is almost over.
Which is crazy -- I will finish my service in 2014!

Just as a general update from the last post – Thanksgiving in the Oueme-Plateau was a huge success. We had appetizers consisting of cranberries, tomato basil bites, and guacamole. We feasted on candied yams, green bean casserole, 2 types of stuffing, corn, and 2 types of mashed potatoes  – chopped carrot sticks, cranberry sauce, corn bread and of course gravy (the wonders of packaged powdered stuff) – and we topped it all of with pumpkin pies and pumpkin cake and candied pecans, and left over Halloween candy– For those non-veggie persons in attendance there was duck –  and I am more than sure that I am forgetting something.

We all ate until we were stuffed (as one should for Thanksgiving) and then in true holiday fashion proceeded to spread out and lounge while we looked for a second wind. Papaya had his own turkey duck and cranberry dinner that I brought him from home specifically for the occasion. Making him the only member of the party to actually eat Turkey this thanksgiving – something that other volunteers seemed to get a kick out of.

I must say that both Thanksgivings that I have spent in Benin have been more than memorable with lots of great food and wonderful caring people. Although – the volunteers who have already finished their service must have been more organized than us since THEY thought to take a big group picture last year. Something we failed to remember to do. But I will add a picture of the spread (to this post) next time I am in Cotonou land.


As I am sure many of you realize based on my November blog posts – Coming back to Benin after spending a few weeks of luxery in the US of A was super hard on me. People who I talk to on the phone (and some other volunteers) definitely took the brunt of my unhappiness.. As you know, I try to be as positive as possible on the blog (which says something) – and now that I am starting to feel better and things are maybe starting to move back in the right direction, I think I would like to just talk about some of the reasons that I really am happy to be back in Benin. This blog is sometimes more reflective for me, than it is informative to you -- i realize that. I am also OK with it and am very glad that I have this output.

Peace Corps has its ups and its downs, but I think that I can honestly say that on average I have been more happy than not. It is just the emotional breakdowns that stand out. Being with so many of my friends over the weekend really helped snap me out of my most recent slump.

I love what I am doing here even if it doesn't always seem 100% effective (but hey that’s PC) – I am glad to be back in the country with my close volunteer friends and my cat who (bless his little heart) only wants to see me happy.

The lessons I am learning here are not comparable to anything else – you learn a lot by living in a culture that isn't your own. New ways of looking at the world around you, and new ways of approaching people.

The things that I really missed about Benin while I was home are as follows:
*you know the drill no specific order/list of 10 :)

1. The warm tropical weather – I don't care how “nice” it was at home for November. It was cold and as we all know I am not a cold weather person.
2. The fact that people know (and care – good or bad) when you haven't been around. As much flak as I received from some people who did not SEEM happy that I had been gone or that I returned. I also had many people in my village who were thrilled to see that I had returned. Specifically certain people who I walk pass everyday who it would not have occurred to me – as a westerner – to even mention my absence to – were truly concerned when they stopped seeing me.
3. Being around people who understand what I am going through here.
4. My two favorite Beninese beverages. Sodabe. Bissap.
5. Fried plantains.. Fried soy sticks.. Fried dough... Fried things.
6. People GENERALLY on an interaction to interaction basis are much warmer and friendlier here in Benin... Yes this is directed at you Barnes & Nobles employee who made me cry.
7. Napping – or really just down time in general. I barely got a chance to breath when I was home.
8. I missed the rice and bean lady.
9. The clothes here really are just that much more fun to wear.
10. Lastly, I missed the ridiculous, interesting, informative, frustrating and entertaining conversations that I have here in Benin on a daily basis. The mixture of things that are said to me daily definitely keep me on my toes.

So there you have it. In my favorite list making fashion.

Have a great week,