Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What a summer!

My whirlwind summer began even before I left Badjoudé. The week before final exams, Benin’s national education board decided to extend the school year by a month. What a mess! My flight plans were nonadjustable but luckily my administration was understanding and allowed me to give my own exams and finish my classes early. Not only was it hectic, but I had major guilt leaving my colleagues to another month of working in the oppressive heat with kids who were beyond ready for vacation and many already gone to work in the fields.

Finishing on a Friday, I spent the weekend getting organized. Then on Sunday night I welcomed my postmate Heidi and Badjoudé’s former volunteer Malaïka, just in time to start our girls’ camp early Monday morning.

We brought 22 girls together from two local secondary schools, teaching them about self-confidence, good decision-making, family planning, women’s health, conflict resolution, healthy communication, etc. It was a good group- though shy at first they quickly opened up. Unfortunately, I had to leave before the end of the week but already in several days I watched the girls grow closer to each other and have more confidence in themselves. Though I was sorry to leave them, I knew they were in good hands. Heading down to Cotonou, I was getting more and more excited about the next stage of the summer…

Two days later (and after a great send-off by my friends Megan and Rima), I was on the plane flying home!

Before I knew it, the plane was landing in Atlanta. My parents and Uncle Richard were waiting for me with a bouquet of flowers, a huge neon-pink welcome home sign (thanks Dad), and even bigger smiles. We drove straight from the airport to a French café where we met up with some family, including my Uncle David who was flying out to Brazil the next day. There began my delightful reintroduction to American life:

“Green vegetables!”
“Strawberries and melon!”

Arriving home in the later afternoon sun with the trimmed lawn, flowers, and big trees I couldn’t get over how pretty and comfortable and CLEAN everything was. I felt like I was walking around in a dream.

[Now don’t get me wrong, Benin definitely has its beauty. Some of the most striking views of my life I’ve experienced in West Africa but the African aesthetic just feels so different to me. Even in its calmest moments – say, the minute just before a gorgeous sunrise over the plains – it is vibrant and tussled, never at rest, never totally tranquil. I think in America we sometimes overlook how many of us live in ideal magazine images of our own making.]

The next week was hectic with catching up with family and friends, shopping, my mother’s 60th birthday, and preparing for our upcoming trip to Mexico for my cousin Emilie’s wedding. Unfortunately, during that time we also found out my dad was to have an unplanned operation within the week and my grandmother was rushed to the hospital for the emergency removal of a tumor. As if that wasn’t enough, Grandma’s beloved companion, a little terrier named Ginger, was killed by a car the day we brought her home from the hospital! Needless to say, it made for a bizarre week- in and out of hospitals and me still getting used to waking up in an air-conditioned room in America.

My brother flew in two days before we left for Mexico and it was at this time my dad conceded that he wasn’t recovered enough to go on the trip. It is hard to express the many layers of our sadness and disappointment. In addition to being there to show our love and support for a beloved family member, this was to be our first family trip in years and precious family time amongst the too-few days of my visit. We knew we wouldn’t be all four together for at least another year and a half. Finally there was the let-down after being so optimistic that dad would make a full recovery in the three interim months since he’s finished chemotherapy. Though it broke our hearts, it was the right choice- the trip was not an easy one and we couldn’t risk him jeopardizing his already fragile health. So it was with very mixed feelings that we started our trip- excited for the adventure but heavy-hearted to watch Dad drive away from the airport.

The trip was a doozy—layover in Florida, flight to Cancun, 3 hour bumpy shuttle ride to a port town, then another hour by boat out to the wee island of Holbox, Mexico.

As if on cue, the exact moment we descended the boats with our many bags the sky let loose with a torrential downpour! I felt like I was in Africa again… or Okinawa! Why doesn’t America ever seem to have rains like these?

Following Beninese tradition, I took it as a sign of good luck and told the others of our party which by that point had grown to a group of nearly fifteen. However, they needed no encouragement to be happy. Huddled under a big paillote, we were all smiles as we chatted and laughed at the veracity of the rain. After more than a year of thinking, scheming, dreaming we were finally HERE. Emilie and Rowan were going to be married in their private paradise and it was going to be so much fun! Already you could feel the positive energy zipping through the air.
When the rain subsided, we mounted our golf carts (no cars on the island) and sped away to our respective hotels.

Ours was an adorable little place just down the beach from the two main hotels (aka “wedding central”). It was called Casa las Tortugas [House of Turtles] and was run by two Italian women. We couldn’t have been more delighted—hammocks on the balcony, complimentary chocolate shampoo, and welcome cocktails “bought” by seashells at the beachside bar! It felt like a mix of Tahiti, Bali, and Mexico. Totally charming.

The next few days are a happy, buzzing, twirling blur. We lounged on the beach, ate great food, took night swims in the phosphorescent ocean (looked like stars at your fingertips!), mingled with the other family and friends, and happily ran around helping with preparations. We drank and were bawdy at the bachelor/bachelorette party, toasted and were sentimental at the rehearsal dinner, cried and were touched at the wedding.

The ceremony itself was extraordinary. What had seemed logistically complicated on paper turned out to be a complete spiritual experience in reality. Emilie and Rowan made it totally their own, combining their personal beliefs and life experiences to incorporate Christian, Irish, Jewish, Native American, and African traditions. Again, extraordinary. And they made it an interactive event, choosing special family and friends to participate at certain points and then inviting everyone to sing and express affirmations together.

Though it had been threatening to rain, the weather held perfectly- the gray sky only making the colors of the flowers, the dresses, the natural offerings surrounding the marriage circle, the eyes of Emilie and Rowan as they looked at each other, all the more striking.

The sun made an appearance just enough to show off a spectacular sunset for the wedding pictures. As we walked our way up the beach to the reception area, our hearts were full to bursting. It was at that point I turned to my younger cousin Anna and we both agreed when our time came... we had better elope!

The reception was as fun as it should be- delicious Mexican seafood and everyone dancing on the raised, under-lit dance floor!

Just one more day to soak it all in and then we were forced to pinch ourselves back into reality. Another long trip and we were home again in Atlanta where Dad happily welcomed us back. Just a mere four days later Mom and I boarded a plane bound for Casablanca.

We landed the morning of my 24th birthday. We took a train to Marrakesh and watched the sun set over sand dunes while talking to two Arab men about Barack Obama,. Finally arriving at our hotel around 10 pm, we had a late dinner of fried rice and crème brulee. The next five days were exhilarating and exhausting. We had a great time hiking in the Atlas mountains, visiting Djemaa el Fna square, winding through the ancient medina of Fez, getting taken in by a fake guide, eating lots of amazing food, and drinking even more mint tea (addictive!).

When it was over, we’d had an awesome visit but I was ready to get back to a foreign country that didn’t feel so foreign, where I knew the right prices and could indignantly say “Excuse me, I am NOT a tourist!” In short, I was ready to show Mom the little corner of Africa that had – in a mere 11 months – become my home.

Morocco had been wonderful but it was the next two weeks in Benin that secured this one as a trip of a lifetime, especially for mom who at 60 years old jumped head-long into this adventure and impressed everyone along the way with her positive energy and zest for life. She said she “fell in love with Africa.”

We did it all! The first week was spent visiting the major sites in the south: Ganvié (a stilt village built on water), Porto Novo (capital left over from French colonialism), Ouidah (one of the largest and most important West African slave ports), and Abomey (the historical seat of the Dahomey empire). Soon we were making our way North where we spent 5 days in Badjoudé. (Mom didn’t want to leave… though I wonder how much everyone saying she was younger and prettier than me had to do with it!) From there we made our way through the Atacora mountains to spend the night in a traditional mud castle tata somba, went on safari at Park Pendjari where we crossed paths with baboons, gazelle, warthogs, and a herd of 9 elephants, hiked to the Tanougou waterfalls, and rode many, many motos.

[Sidenote: Through everything, Mom’s only hang-up was peeing in the shower (which everyone does here). Considering all I put her up against- latrines, sleeping on the floor, hiking 3 hours in the rain, eating with her hands, etc- I figured that was pretty good! ]

After spending so much time together, it was hard to see her go. However, I comforted myself in knowing we couldn’t have had a better trip – we did everything we wanted to do and I was able to send her home safe, healthy, and wishing she could stay longer.

Not having much time to reflect I was immediately swept back into Peace Corps life, teaching one week at a fellow volunteer’s summer school, spending ten days resting up back in Badjoudé, then 5 weeks in Porto Novo helping to train the new group of Benin volunteers. Of around 60, 14 were in my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) group. In honor of PC Benin’s 40th anniversary, the 9 weeks of training ended in a huge to-do for their swear-in ceremony. It was such a big deal, in fact, that Benin's president was invited. Unfortunately, he was unable to make it so my quest to meet Yayi Boni continues but he put on a huge cocktail party in our honor which eased the sting a little!

By this point, having spent too much time in the hectic, aggressive South and too little time relaxing, I needed a vacation from my vacation! So my best bud Megan and I took off to Ghana for six days.

We had a great time! Though definitely not enough of a visit to do it justice we comforted ourselves by knowing we’d be back next summer when I take the GREs (Accra has the closest [and only?] testing center in West Africa) We spent two days in the capitol and then headed straight for the coast where we based ourselves in a beach cabana in Cape Coast. From there we did day-trips to the neighboring towns and nearby wildlife reserve. Called Kakum National Park, it's known for a canopy walk that runs along the tree tops, 100 feet above the forest floor.

Being English speaking (1) and much further along the development road than Benin (2), Ghana had a totally different feel. We took advantage of Accra’s cosmopolitan life and indulged in some guilty pleasures- real pizza, ice cream, wheat bread, LOTS of smoothies, and even margaritas, nachos, kahlua mudslides, and a game of pool at Accra’s one sports bar! We also sampled some local fare including their bread (amazing!), spiced sausage, fried plantains, and delicious jollof rice (West African paella).

Our last morning was spent at this tiny pancake hut run by a rastafarian guy named Winstone, who we had met the night before. Though we ultimately had different ideas of what constituted a pancake, Winstone, his puppy Lyle, and the vegetarian revolution book he put on our table when we arrived made for fun company. Bob Marley’s wailing and nearby crashing waves melded into the perfect soundtrack.

It was a fitting end to our trip, and Ghana made the perfect ending to a crazy summer.