Monday, July 30, 2007

Cotonou July 21 - July 25 Part I

After the previous day's excitement I slept hard and was a little confused when I awoke at 5 am. Apparently, one of the roosters on the premises forgot he was supposed to wait for the sun. His call, along with the clamour of another downpour, had woken me. As I peered through the shadows of my mosquito net and listened to the rain (and another earnest "cockle-doodle-doo!") I thought to myself: I'm really here. I'm in Africa!

They started the morning session by telling us that in Benin, having it rain upon your arrival is a sign of good luck. This only confirmed what I was feeling... lucky!

What followed was a series of sessions about the program in general, about security, and finally about health for which we received our personal, fully equipped health kit and manual. And I do mean FULLY equipped... with the amount of medicine and information they provide I feel like I could easily treat a small village for all sorts of ailments. There are two full-time doctors at our disposal here. They are both really amazing and personable. Current volunteers bragged about how this is probably the best healthcare we'll ever have since even the smallest problems are given full attention. Having just seen "Sicko" before I came, I think they might be right.

Dr. Rufin who was giving the presentation made sure to include an in-depth discussion of the most "popular" Peace Corps disease - "Diarrhea 101" he called it. He made sure we clearly understood what it entailed, strategies for avoiding it, and the best ways to treat it. He also made it clear that it is not a matter of IF you get sick, but when. "Everyone has to go through it several times as part of the body's adjustment to a new environment." Awesome. I feel better already.

After lunch and a short break, we piled into vans to drive to le bureau ie. PC headquarters in downtown Cotonou. The ride afforded us our first look at Benin in the daylight. Upon arrival, we were systematically ushered through several station: one to pick out a bike and helmet, one to get our first of many vaccinations, one to get our initial allowance (25,000 CFA about 50 dollars), and finally a language interview. Although I would find out later that I placed in the highest group, I felt at the time that I let my enthusiasm overtake my vocabulary. Example: I was all gung-ho on telling him about working with refugees but when he came back with a question about what I would do if I were in charge of ending world poverty (yes, he really did ask this question!) I was at a total loss. Zut!

The first day ended with dinner and then some semi-awkward mingling. The social interaction was aided greatly by the arrival of the evening's beverage of choice: Le Beninois (aka Benin's Budlight) Santé!

The next day we explored some outside the compound before heading to our country director's house for the official welcome ceremony and some brunch. After winding past the shacks of several poor neighborhoods I was surprised when we pulled up to what looked like a PALACE in comparison. Despite being warned beforehand, I was still pretty shocked. It was a beautiful 2 or 3 story, white-washed house with tiled floors and a large marble staircase. There was a small yard within the gated exterior and even a pool that had been filled in to make a sandbox for the children. Incroyable.

Since Benin's ambassador was out of town we had some diplomat or another from Togo spoke before passing it off to the security advisor for the American embassy. We determined this guy's sole purpose was to scare/intimidate us into not doing anything stupid. A worthy objective I suppose but I found the jet-black sunglasses (à la Will Smith in "Men in Black") was a little overkill.

By far the best part of the whole event was having the chance to play with dogs and children, as well as tasting Beninese pineapple for the first time.... soooooooo good! Watching one of the assistant program directors interact with her husband from Niger and their two adorable sons made me think how cool it would be to have a multi-cultural family. They met when she was a PCV (peace corps volunteer) in Niger and he was her local language tutor. As she put it, they ended up speaking the international language of LOVE :). Hmmm.... wonder if that has a subjunctive tense......

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Touching Down July 20, 2007

I was lucky to get both a window seat and a great plane buddy so the trip went pretty fast. By the time we were ready to land in Cotonou I was both exhausted and thrilled. I wasn't the only one: since they had announced the final descent there had been a steady hum of excitement. It built as we pushed and leaned to catch our first glimpse of Africa and finally culminated in raucous applause when we touched down.

Nearly 2 hours later, after fighting our way through immigration, baggage claim, and customs we emerged, laden yet again with too many bags, to the welcoming cheers and smiles of Peace Corps Benin. Even though our plane had been delayed and it was now pretty late there were probably 20 or more staff and current volunteers there to greet us.

The drive from the airport can only be described as dream-like. I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of an African urban center: hundreds of mopeds zipping by with all combinations of passengers (2 men, a woman with a baby strapped on her back, a full family of 4), vendors on the side of the road illuminated by kerosene candles (like lanterns leading the way), women with huge baskets balanced effortlessly on their heads, etc, etc

After some time, we finally turned into our compound, a Catholic oasis if you will, called St. Jean Eudes. Pulling in, we were met by many more cheering volunteers banging on the windows and calling out names to show us to our rooms. Before we could sort through the chaos of bags and people, the skies opened and it began to pour;

my first African rain (but certainly not my last).

Staging July 17 - July 20

My Peace Corps experience started right away. Not 5 minutes after I boarded the plane in Atlanta to head to my staging in Philadelphia a girl walked by and greeted me with a "No way!" when she saw my PC folder. Turns out she was going to Mali so I only saw her once during the next few days. Regardless, it was interesting to feel that first surge of belonging to something.

Once at the Philly airport, I met a few more PC people (ALL GIRLS!) who were going to South Africa. We ended up in the same shuttle (but not the same hotel). Slowly, the numbers in the van dwindled until it was just me and another guy. Voilà, my first Benin counterpart! He said his name was Colin and he was from Iowa. I told him all I knew of Iowa was the Dar Williams song. He laughed and said that was a good start.

Once there, I saw that we were at the tail-end of the group and that registration was just finishing up. I filed through the line with all my paperwork and was relieved to see my personal passport after being separated for several months (sidenote: fed-exing off one's passport is a scary, scary thing). I was even more delighted by the next gift: a brand spankin' new Peace Corps passport (has a micro-chip and everything) with its shiny Beninese VISA!

As far as the actual staging goes, suffice to say I felt I came out okay in light of a fairly awkward, tedious, and very first-few-weeks-of-freshman-year-like experience. The three women running the orientation were nice but didn't seem to know much about Benin specifically, which was a little frustrating. The best I can say is that I met some nice people and got to make final phone calls sitting across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Oh yah and I ate well!

Philadelphia did well by me as far as offering good last-food-in-America options. I had falafel my first night from my favorite chain on both sides of the Atlantic (I first ate there in Barcelona), then spinach and goat cheese pasta with a bailey's créme brulée dessert the next, and finally good ol' fashioned NY style pizza and gelato for my last lunch. Awesome. Thanks, Peace Corps for such a generous food allowance!

However, by far the most excitement occurred when we got to the airport. Unknowingly, our bus driver dropped us off at the wrong terminal so we had to hike with all our stuff nearly a mile through the blazing heat and several construction detours. For some, this proved to be the ultimate PC test: did you really bring only as much as you could carry?

Thank goodness both of my bags had wheels (thanks, Dad) so I made out ok but let me tell you, some peeps were STRUGGLIN'. Worse, when we finally arrived in a sweaty mess they hadn't even processed the Mali group who had left 2 hours before us to avoid this exact problem. We ended up having to wait several hours in line to get checked in but we made the best of it, cracking jokes about how starting off a 23 hour trip dirty and gross didn't bode well for meeting PC's ridiculous request that we look professional upon arrival.

Eventually, we all made it through and with an hour before our flight ended up, where else?
The closest terminal bar, of course... cheers!

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Final Countdown...dahdahdahdahhhh

Can't believe it's finally here! By this time tomorrow I'll be getting into Philly and meeting some of the people I'll be spending the next two years with....

It's been quite a ride getting to this point. First and foremost there was packing. Eighty pounds really doesn't go very far when you're having to bring cooking supplies, teaching supplies, equipment, shoes, etc. Finally, I got it down to BARE ESSENTIALS and here's what it looked like:
A little nervous about getting all that stuff into two average bags, I was pleasantly surprised when it fit with little fuss. Just a few hours of maneuvering, re-packing, re-weighing, obsessing, and finally saying what-the-hell and the bags were ready to go!


Not bad for two years in sub-saharan Africa.

Now if I can only manage to download all my music, make a mini-album of favorite pictures, pack a carry-on that doesn't weigh 100 pounds, call all my friends, and see all my relatives in the next 10 hours I'll be good to go!