Saturday, July 31, 2010

Life is better!  Language is still really tough, and these French keyboards suck, but I'm much less on edge now that it's the weekend.

Big news: I got a cell phone!  It's free for me to receive calls (hint hint), but probably not free for you to make international calls, so check out and for cheaper calls.

My number: +

The best time for me is 4-5ish ET, but 12-2 ET works on most days.  I think I missed a call from home yesterday -- sorry mama!  If that happens, try calling back 10 minutes later... I now have my phone set on "ring" instead of "silent", so you have a much better chance of reaching me now.

Benin celebrates their independence day tomorrow, plus it's the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Benin, so big day of fetes with the host family tomorrow.  We're watching the parade and speech, then heading over to Moubarack's first birthday party in the evening.  I'll try to take pictures if it's safe enough, and eventually I hope to upload some... Fingers crossed for amazing internet.  Hugs to all, and thanks for the comments -- it really helps to know yall are reading!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thoughts: Wednesday the 28th

Had a rough day today -- starting to get frustrated with our two-a-day language sessions... my grammar is flat-out awful, and I feel like I have about 3 words in my vocabulary to with... Eh, well, tomorrow's another day, right?  A little homesick, fairly stressed about language, and still getting used to eating 18 carbs per meal.  Miss chocolate, chocolate chips, real coffee, fresh veggies, Glee, and my people, but no worries -- I'm sticking it out...  OH!!

My host sister is a coiffure, and she braided my hair -- I look a little wangsta and a little Alicia Keys; will try to post a picture when I have time.  It's hilarious and awesome (she did an amazing job, and it took her 5 hours), and it was a definite high point for me this weekend.

Friday: I met Barack Obama in Benin.

My family’s friend has an 11-month-old son named Barack Obama. I can’t tell you how much people loooove Obama here – there’s a beach in Cotonou (Coat-uh-new) called Obama Beach, lots of people wear Obama shirts on the street, and apparently some people even name their children after him. I’m going to his birthday party in a month (printed invitation in my hand within 20 minutes of moving into my host family’s), and I’m definitely getting a picture with little Obama.

Update (7.28):  Yesterday his moher asked me why I wasn't married yet.  I told her I was too young to get married, that I wanted to have a career before I even thought about that, and that my parents were both 30 before they married, so it was normal in the US to wait a little longer.  She thought for a second, laughed, and said, "Well, if you come back in 8 years, you can marry Barack."  !!!!!!!!!!!!  Guys, I could be Mrs; Barack Obama;  Hah!

Moving in with the Host Family

I was terrified to move in with a host family. Mostly, it was because I don’t speak French at all, but there was also the integrating-into-local-customs thing and the what-if-they-don’t-like-me thing.

Luckily, my host family’s pretty cool – other friends have had worse experiences (rats, people laughing at their French in a mean way), so I’m very happy with my famille hote. I moved in with them a couple of days ago, and for the most part they seem really patient and fun. I have a papa and a maman (that’s what I’m supposed to call them), and then four sisters who range from 17-22. Three of the sisters are fairly shy, so it’s taking a lot for me to get them to talk… I think they’re happy I’m with them, but it’s tough to make conversation when you only know greetings. I managed to talk to the youngest last night, and she ended up giving me a henna tattoo on my hand – I think that means we’re friends now.

The other sister, Madjidath, is totally badass – she’s really into teaching me French, she’s outgoing, and she’ll come just keep me company while I eat dinner (most of the other family members eat really late, so I eat alone a lot of the time). And there’s a family friend named Misturah who comes and visits every day – she’s also really patient and wants to learn English, so we’re teaching each other.

My maman is one of Papa’s two wives, the older of the two. Polygamy is fairly normal here, so many of my fellow trainees also have multiple wives. Usually, the wives work together and divide the work so that it’s easier for all of them. Unfortunately, Papa’s second wife really dislikes Maman, to the point that she refuses to respond when I say hello because I’m part of Maman’s family. It’s a tense situation, but we don’t see Wife #2 all that much since each family has a floor, so everything’s cool.

My room’s on top of the house, a little apartment with a bathroom (running water!) and a bedroom just for me. Three windows, so good ventilation, plenty of room for my water filtering/boiling equipment, bed and lockable trunk. There’s even a table so I can study. I had a run-in with a giant spider the first night I was here, but I failed to kill it and haven’t seen it since… I guess I’ll get used to having a free range tarantula as a pet.

Updates: the other wife said hello to me last night!  Minor victory, but I'm finding that it's really important to celebrate minor victories here.  And communication is getting better little by little -- I still don't have a lot of words, but I'm getting better at forming them into sentences.  Going with the family to a birthday fete on Sunday, so I'll let you know how that goes.

Le Nosh: Food au Benin

I meant to post this about a week ago, but I didn’t get to it until now... Benin, as a whole, is not terribly computer-friendly.

It’s been a week since I got here, and a week since I went a whole day without eating fish, tomatoes, and onions. The diet as a whole is extremely carb-heavy – the bulk of most meals is either rice, pasta, pate (“pot” – congealed cornmeal stuff), or potatoes, and there’s always bread on the side. Meat is expensive, so fish is the go-to protein. I am so, so sick of fish.

Pate really deserves a post on its own, so I might expand on it later. Basically, though, it’s a whole bunch of cornmeal cooked in water over an open flame, then beaten with a wooden spoon for a while. You pour it either into a mini cooler or into Tupperware-like forms, let it cool until it solidifies a little, then flip it out onto your plate. It’s kind of a weird texture, something between grits and warm carb-y Jello, and you eat it with tomato/onion sauce.

There are different kinds, too: the basic is pate blanche, and then there’s pate rouge (made red with palm oil) and pate noir (purpley colored, made with yams). Not exotic enough for you? Try akassa, which is fermented pate blanche and is even jigglier. You can’t eat the stuff alone (or I can’t), so there are a variety of sauces to amp up the flavor: sauce de legume involves spinach and sesame and is really good, sauce de gombo is okra-based and slimy… I can’t do that one. And then there’s good old tomato sauce, plain and simple.

Other foodie revelations:

- Oranges here are green. If you buy them on the street, they cut a hole in the top and you suck the juice out through there. Delicious, fresh, and healthy.

- You can get anything on the street, and it’s cheap and good – I got chickpeas and rice with a spicy tomato sauce yesterday, and a huge portion was 200 Beninese francs… about 40 cents.

- Another PCT was served giant snails with slimy okra sauce last night. He ate it. He’s my hero.

- New favorite drinks: fresh pineapple juice and the sweet hibiscus tea called “bissape,” both of which are served COLD here. Completely amazing when it’s so freaking hot outside all the time.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 3 of Training: Still Alive

The first couple of days with PC were kind of rough because I didn’t really have friends yet… I’m not all that outgoing in big groups, and even though I was trying to be friendly, I kept finding myself hovering on the outside of someone else’s conversation. It was awkward and frustrating, and I was terrified that if I didn’t start talking to people soon, I’d lose heart and want to head home.
Today was better. Not like I have 18,495 new best friends or anything, but we’re getting to know each other, so conversations flow much more easily now. We can make fun of each other and the program, and we’re digging out the cards and teaching each other games. There are a lot of people I really like here – everyone seems pretty laid back, fun to talk to, and excited by the projects we’re going to get to do. There are 60ish of us, and I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a great sense of humor.
Plus, there are some hilarious personalities and wildly interesting backgrounds – in our “class” of trainees (we call it a stage, which sounds vaguely like “stodge” in French), we have two former circus performers, a girl related to Kevin Bacon, and another girl who played Belle at Disney World. Alex, feel free to be jealous. And great storytellers (not me), and people who actually speak French. I’m excited to get to know these people, even though I miss yall at home.
More to update later, promise! Tomorrow, we talk to the PC people about where we want to be posted (fingers crossed for some place cool!), and then we learn to ride zemis, the motorcycle taxi things here. I have a really attractive helmet that I have to wear… just wait for the pictures to come. And I move to my host family’s house on Wednesday, I think, so that’ll be fun to talk about, too. Yay PC Benin! Love yall, and thanks for the emails!

La Cuisine Beninoise

I’m noticing a pattern, and that pattern is carbs. For breakfast, we have bread and coffee, and sometimes oranges (which are green here). For lunch, it’s pasta or rice with tomato/onion sauce and a chunk of fried fish, bones and fins intact… hilarious to watch people eat with a fork. I fail miserably every time. For dinner, more pasta or rice with sautéed tomatoes and onions and a chunk of seasoned beef, plus bread. I’m not sure if I’ve started gaining weight yet, but get ready – I hear the guys lose weight and the girls gain it. Awesome.
One surprisingly drinkable thing here is the coffee – I’d heard horror stories, but it’s actually not that bad. The bad part: the coffee is all instant, and there’s no milk or cream to mix with it. The good part: I’m okay with instant coffee as long as it’s hot, and we have sweetened condensed milk to pour in it. Not quite the same thing as an indie coffee shop cappuccino, but I’ll happily down it as my daily dose of caffeine.

Important info: Cell and Internet

My internet situation is kind of awful now, and it probably won’t get a whole lot better until next week, at which point it still won’t be great. Also, we’re not supposed to buy phones until much later in stage, so you won’t be able to call me for a while… sucks, but I’d rather follow directions than get sent back home, even if that meant I could talk to all of you in person.

Cotonou, Benin (buh-NIN)

I made it! After a really, really long flight we finally got to Benin late at night on the 16th. It was hot and humid (even though it’s the cooler rainy season), and it smelled like sweat, strange foods, gasoline, and rain all at once… I was thrilled.
We drove in a giant Land Rover thing to the hotel, where we were greeted by a big group of screaming, cheering Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), all of whom had traveled in from their posts to see us in. Amazing, and made us feel welcome.

Our hotel is fairly nice by Beninese standards (I think), and my roommate Sam – also from Ohio! – and I each have a single bed covered with a mosquito net. The mosquito net makes me feel like a princess. There’s a desk fan attached to the ceiling for air, a toilet that flushes but has no seat, and a cold-water-only shower that has no curtain or door. And I’m loving it, riding the highs before culture shock slaps me down, and I’m planning on staying happy as long as possible.

Most of our days so far are fairly full. We eat breakfast at 7:30am, start training sessions at 8, lunch at 12:30, more training, then we end for the day around 4 or 5. After that, we just hang out until on the patio watching the lizards run around until dinner at 7:30, then hang out with the PCVs and each other until bed time. Training hasn’t gotten tough yet, and right now, I’m living the life.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I'm in Philadelphia!

I made it to staging in Philadelphia!  Most of today was intro-to-the-Peace-Corps stuff, like big group discussions about expectations, anxieties, what's expected of us, how to not die on the way over, etc.  Sounds boring, but it was run really well, so I enjoyed most of it.  By the end of the evening, I was genuinely excited, like Christmas-eve-as-a-six-year-old excited.  These people are awesome, this job is going to be difficult and thrilling and amazing, and I can't wait to get going.  I'm hoping for the Peace Corps tagline: "The toughest job you'll ever love."

Met lots of cool people -- it was really quiet at first, but after half a day of group activities, everyone started opening up -- from all over the US, with all sorts of backgrounds, and all sorts of interests.  Surprise: there are very few hippies.  Everyone seems relaxed, friendly and definitely interested in helping people (sidenote: the PC mission statement, in the first sentence, includes the phrase "world peace"... hilarious and awesome), but not much patchouli.  I'll let you know if that changes.  

PC gave us a ridiculous per diem for today and tomorrow, so a big group of us went out to a really fancy dinner -- I got filet mignon and a really great glass of Cabernet.  It was heaven, and heavy, and after what's probably my last hot shower for a really long time, I'm now ready to knock out til tomorrow.

Tomorrow: yellow fever shot at 7:15am, check out of the hotel, then hop a bus for New York.  Five-ish hours in the airport waiting, then board a flight for Paris, then another for Benin.  Guys, in under 40 hours, I'm going to be in Africa.  Squeeeeeeal!

Monday, July 12, 2010


Since the beginning of summer, I've been looking forward to the next time I could head down to Houston -- I missed everyone, and I wanted a chance to fix my Mexican food craving before I flee the country.  It was a fantastic couple of days, and even though not everyone could make it, I loved hanging out with everyone who could.

To keep this short and sweet, my trip in bullet points:

 - Stayed at Katie, Danielle and Tess's apartment, which was amazingly close to everything we wanted to visit.

 - Got to see plenty of wonderful people, gave most of them self-addressed envelopes so that they will have to write me.  Devious, huh?

 - Took care of my most pressing cravings: pho at Pho Saigon, actually good tacos at La Tapatia, frozen yogurt at Swirll, and sharp white cheddar from Kroger.  Yum.

 - Watched the Spain-Germany game at La Tapatia with Alex.  We were the only two girls there and the only two Spain supporters, and we cheered like crazy when Spain won. : )  She's going to hate this picture, by the way.

 - Made a sort of fancy-shmancy dinner with Alex and Tara, and Andrew and Tess came to eat with us.  The menu was delicious: pork tenderloin with apples, onions and spicy mustard (see post below), Alex's mashed potatoes (mmmm!), sauteed zucchini and squash.  And then, because that wasn't enough food, we made apple pie and peach cobbler a la mode.  We almost killed Andrew with too much food... but he   deserved a little indulgence, I think, since Teach for America seems to be working him pretty hard.

 - Thanks, everyone, for such a great trip!  I'll miss you!  Now only two days before departure... Ahhhhh!  Begin frantic packing session.

Tara and Andrew after our dinner, and a shot of Houston's post-thunderstorm sky from the top of the apartment building.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pork Tenderloin with Spicy Mustard Marinade

My aunt's job is to get other people jobs, and she's really good at it.  So when she tells me to do something, like make sure my blog has a marketable angle for my future resumes, I generally do it.  Thus, here is the first of many food-related posts -- a dinner party experiment that went surprisingly well.

While in Houston, Alex, Tara and I cooked a celebratory yay-we're-all here dinner, which included Alex's delicious mashed potatoes (with mayonnaise in them! Weird.), sauteed squash and zucchini, an experimental pork tenderloin, and apple pie/peach cobbler for dessert.  Having never made a pork tenderloin, I did the logical thing and made up my own recipe (looking on for ideas).  Here's the rough recipe -- it turned out really well!

Pork Tenderloin with Mustard-Honey Marinade, Apples and Onions
2 pork tenderloins
4 T. apple cider vinegar
2 T. spicy whole grain mustard (I used Spicy Guinness Mustard)
2.5 T. honey (or more, to taste)
1 t. dried rosemary leaves
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
One apple (preferably a firm type)
One small red onion

 1.  Mix vinegar, mustard, honey, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste.  Coat tenderloins in marinade, then let them sit in the refrigerator for 3 hours.  Periodically turn the pork so that all sides marinate evenly.

2.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Cut apple and onion into slices.  Sauté over medium-high heat until slightly softened.  Make a bed of apples and onions on a olive oil coated baking sheet.

3.  Take apple/onion pan and add a little more olive oil.  Sear tenderloins, turning so that all edges brown and seal.  Place tenderloins on apple/onion bed, pour extra marinade on top, and bake until pork is just barely pink in the middle, around 20-25 minutes.

4.  Slice and serve with apples and onions.  And Alex's Mayonnaise Mashed Potatoes. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Thoughts on the Amish

I went to Columbus yesterday to hang out with my cousin Blair, and on the drive there, I went by an Amish store.  Since I'm still thinking about packing 99% of the time, I thought it might be a good idea to stop by on the way back to get some candies and things as housewarming gifts for my host family.  Call me old fashioned, but I'm not crashing at someone's place for three months without a little something to make a good first impression.

I like taking Amish things as gifts because they're regional and because it's fun to explain Amish-ness, especially to New Yorkers and LAers (shoutout to Leslie).  I took Amish hard candies to Italy for my language partner, and we had a really hilarious conversation in broken Italian about what exactly a horse and buggy was.  I think I translated "buggy" as "insect-y" at first, but with a sketchpad and pencil, we figured it out eventually.

After I drove past the store, though, I started thinking about explaining the Amish to the Beninese in French, which was confusing -- French isn't coming any easier to me just yet.  I was mentally wrestling with the verb conjugations for "to have" when I realized something:  The Beninese people will not be impressed by the Amish.  The Amish live without electricity?  Great, so does most of the Beninese population.  They don't own cars?  Neither do we.

There are differences, obviously -- the Amish choose their lifestyle because of their religion and culture, whereas the Beninese just don't have the resources to access air conditioning and refrigerators, for example -- but the thought still kind of surprised me.  People in my hometown see the Amish as a kind of quaint but wacky subculture -- good for tourism, but why in the world would you not use a dishwasher?  But to the Beninese, non-electricity-using houses are way more of the norm, computers are still fairly confusing, and all-in-all, the Amish lifestyle doesn't seem all that surprising.

Basically, I'm going to need better host gifts.