Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cotonou to Parakou: An Average Day of Travel

Today Dione, Bridget, Sam and I made the trek from Cotonou to Parakou, which is about halfway up the country.  I always forget to explain how ridiculous traveling here is, so today we kept a log of the happenings.  Enjoy!

5:47am -- Leave PC Office, get zems to bus place (Etoile Rouge)
6:03 -- Arrive at Etoile to mass chaos. 
6:04-6:25 -- Attempt to make sense of chaos, are told to stand/sit/be in three places at once.  Are subsequently ignored by four different bus officials when asking for clarification.
6:32 -- Get on bus that might be headed to Parakou.  Maybe.  Or Nigeria.
6:33 -- Get off of bus to put bags underneath (as instructed by angry bus man).  Walk against tidal wave of angry Beninese men and Kleenex-selling Beninese women.
6:35 -- Back on bus, get settled.
6:48 -- Get yelled at to move to extreme back of bus so that it can leave on time.
6:49 -- Rumor spreads that something is wrong with bus.  All other passengers get off of bus, decide that rumor is stupid, and get back on.  Crisis averted.
7:03 -- Bus leaves, weirdly on time.
7:08 -- Realize that Official Bus Man is wearing a shirt that reads, in English, "Lazy and Proud." 
7:13 --Someone throws a candy wrapper out of the window.  It flies back into our window and hits Dione in the face.
7:18 -- Stop to pick up more people.
7:19 -- Same man throws another wrapper out window.  It hits woman in front of us in the face.
7:48 -- Bus stops in the middle of main road for no known reason.  No one gets on or off.  Six minutes later, we go.
7:52 -- Feel strangely cold, thanks to the first moving air I've felt in a month.  Use extra jeans as a shawl/mini blanket.  Jeans were clearly not invented to be blankets.
9:07 -- Michael Jackson songs start playing from a mysterious source in the back of the bus.  Mysterious, as the bus has no speakers.
9:52 -- Man falls asleep on Bridget.  We giggle, take many pictures.
9:40 -- Start to get out of jungly south and into the drier Collines -- rolling hills, tall grass/scrub, and considerably worse roads.
10:12 -- We watch in horror as bus almost backs over three women and a giant pile of pineapples.  The women make it out alive.
11:27 -- Pass 2 semis going up a steep hill, one of which is labeled "GAS."  Surpisingly, do not die.
11:29 -- Road block: cows.
12:16 -- Dione gasps "OH.  MY. GOD," next to me as I'm dozing.  I wake up and, terrified, clutch the seat ahead of me, certain that I am about to meet Jehovah.  It's more cows.
12:59 -- In the middle of nowhere, there's a bunch of logs on the road creating a kind of stunt driving course for all passing vehicles.  Our driver zigzags through at minimum 80mph.
1:21 -- Woman in front of Dione literally just reaches up, tilts her hand back, and throws her garbage directly onto Dion.  We die giggling (silently).
1:30 -- We have a mini dance party in the back of the bus.  All other passengers fail to noties our genius on the improvised dance floor.
2:05 -- Another woman throws trash on Dione.  We're not sure she even tried to find the window.
2:08 -- Drive into giant cloud of "ass-smelling" smoke.  Wording courtesy of Bridget Kennedy.
2:56 -- Arrive at stop in Parakou, successfully avoid getting trampled in mass exodus from bus.  Buy wine at nearest supermarche.  We made it!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weekly Update: 12/17/10

- 150 Days. Sunday was my 150th day in Benin – almost at 6 months! Was thinking about what I’ve learned/how I’ve changed since I got here, and I’m kind of amazed at how comfortable I now am… it’s not exactly home here, but I don’t freak out every moment of every day now. Things are starting to seem normal. Even French.
- School = Fun! Had a lot of fun with classes this week – improvised a spelling bee, which they loooved, made them sing American Christmas carols, and tried really hard to find the balance between fun teacher and strict teacher. I think I’m failing a little on the strict teacher part, but I’m working on it.

- …But Also Sad. One major negative of the week was that I saw corporal punishment for the first time at my school. Several boys had been eating breakfast while flag ceremony was going on, so the SG (vice principal) took a thick stick and hit their hands at full force multiple times. If they pulled their hands away after the hit and didn’t put it back fast enough, they got more strikes. The boys were about 15 and trying their hardest not to cry… I had to look away, or I would have been in tears, too. Corporal punishment like that is illegal, but really common in Benin… and even though I want to, it’s not a good idea for me to try to stop it.

- Niger Visa: Happier note: I finally filed for it! Got all the way to Cotonou WITH my passport AND my money AND the photos… I win. I pick it up on the 22nd, and head out the 23rd.

- Tissu! I just got my camera cord, so I’ll post more tissu pictures soon (I keep getting emails about this, which is hilarious). I took two outfits in this week (pink/green capris set and a brown dress), and just got back a new modelle that I had made – green with turquoise swirls on it. Pretty!

- Break Plans: I think I wrote about this earlier, but in case I forgot, here’s the plan:
  • 22nd – Cotonou (meet Dione and Sam)
  • 23rd – Parakou (meet Bevin and Bridget)
  • 24th-26th – Malanville (stay at Matt’s house)
  • 26th-28th – Niamey, Niger (see giraffes!)
  • 29th-30th – Sori (stay at Jenny’s house, go barhopping with her coworkers)
  • 31st-1st – Parakou (party with other PCVs)
  • 2nd – head home, start teaching on the 3rd
- I’m Loved! Thank you so much to everyone who’s sent me packages! It feels kind of like real Christmas thanks to you (but hotter and with more bugs, thanks to Africa). I now can live on only chocolate for three months… chocolate has protein in it, right? The PC office is mad at me because I keep clogging up their space with mail – yaaay! Love yall!


Weekly Update: 12/10/10

- Church Fete Sunday! Ate too many pig organs and almost puked. But I am a champion, and I carried on.

- 1st Devoirs. This week was CEG Daagbé’s first round of devoirs – kind of like school-wide midterms. I didn’t have to teach at all (yesss!), but I did have to oversee several of the tests, which meant glaring at the potential cheaters and threatening zeroes for anyone who talked. Not fun, but a good was to practice my evil teacher death look, and at least I didn’t have to lesson plan.

- Review Session. Before the devoirs, I decided to have a Saturday morning review session for my 6eme kids. I’d heard from other volunteers that no one comes to review sessions, so I invited both classes to the same time slot and bribed them with a point on the next quiz. Saturday morning, 81 out of about 92 kids showed up… I was both completely overwhelmed (the classroom was made for 36) and really excited. They all woke up and walked to school just to study English (or see what the crazy American lady was going to do next). How cool is that?

- Removed Tresses, Lost Hair. I took out my braids and lost a big blob of hair, so I talked to the doc. Apparently it’s a combination of the malaria meds I just changed from, and low levels of protein and vitamins. Random dark leafy greens from the marché: check.

- Cracked My First Coconut. It was fun, delicious, and apparently calcium-rich!

- Started a Gún Dictionary. Another professor, Gabriel, is teaching me Gún (he’s incredibly patient), so I’m putting all of the lessons together to hand down to the next volunteer.

- The Gift of Company. Last week, my friend Jenny’s village offered her an albino baby as a gift “so that she wouldn’t feel so alone being white.” I did not make that up.

- I Am Going to Hell. Don’t want to explain too much here in case more people from village read this than I know about, but basically the story here involves my having to tell many many details about my wedding/marriage to the Father of the Catholic church I go to. I’ll be sending my loving husband a “happy anniversary” card on the 4th of July.

- Sorry, Kitty. Discovered on Monday that I may have accidentally been filling my cat’s litterbox with cement powder for the last month… oops.

- Purposeless Trip to Cotonou. I got all the way to the Niger embassy in Cotonou, then filled out the paperwork for a visa only to discover that I’d forgotten my passport in Daagbé. Again. So I spent the rest of the day doing nothing particularly useful – spent time on Facebook, hung out with Elyse, and went to a surprise Christmas party at the Ambassador’s house. Among the highlights were Christmas-y smells, the possibility of speaking English at a normal speed, and mini pumpkin pies.

- Plans. One more full week of classes, then a half week that’s either classes or a teachers’ formation (no one seems to know), then break! Just found out that one of my other favorite people in our stage is coming, so now I’m even more excited! Yay “winter” break!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Weekly Update: 12.3.10 (Part 2)

- Homesickness: I’m not sure if it’s because it’s holiday season or if Daagbe’s just still not home, but I’m a little bit of a mess this week. I tried to make Christmas cards and had to quit because it was making me too sad… sigh. In my head I know this is going to be easier (and actually is easier than it was at first), but I still find myself daydreaming about stepping off the plane in Ohio pretty frequently.

- Daagbe People Are So Nice: Tuesday, after having my Christmas-card-related breakdown, I decided I needed to go to the marche so that I could make banana bread. Somehow in the course of things I got invited to one of my students’ houses, went there, was served an entire plate of crackers (which they packed up for me when I left), and sat quietly while they ran around trying to find something else. They brought a big cooler of neon orange liquid to me, and when I asked what it was, they said “beer.” Oh god. Turns out “beer” in this case actually meant orange Kool-Aid, so that was a happy surprise. The point of this paragraph: even though it’s been a down week, every time I turn around there’s someone or something that will make me smile if I just let myself.

- Banana Muffins with Fake Nutella: Make life exponentially better.

- Got My Hair Tressed: It’s in tiny little twists (not cornrow-style), kind of like you’d get if you were Brandy and/or in the Bahamas. It took four hours, hurt like hell, itches a lot, makes Beninese people really happy, and is significantly less sweaty than my normal hairdo. I guess that’s a win?

- Malaria Medication Sucks: I’ve been on Mefloquin, a once-a-week malaria med, since I got here, and now I think I’m going to see if I can switch to a different one. Two main reasons: first, Mefloquin makes your hair fall out. Not all of it, by any means, but between that and the not-much-protein thing, I lose a lot of hair, and I’m pretty sure baldness isn’t going to be all that attractive on me. Second, Mefloquin gives you crazy dreams – for the past week, I’ve been having recurring nightmares about tarantulas living in my kitchen and Popsicle having rabies. Kind of funny, but less so when you haven’t slept for a week.

- Church Fete: There’s another church fete Sunday! I’ve been trying for a week to buy the tissu that the church bought for the occasion (so the entire congregation will match… in theory), but even though I gave the money a week ago, the lady still hasn’t showed up at my house with the fabric. I’m supposed to get it tomorrow afternoon, but I have strong doubts about whether or not the couteriere will be able to make it into an outfit quickly enough (even if she does actually show up on time). Ah, well, at least I’ll have a Virgin Mary outfit to wear to school (I can do that here!). Worth it, I think.

Weekly Update: 12.3.10 (Part 1)

- This week was not particularly interesting, but while writing things down, I realized that it was going to be a long-ish post. Thus, for easier digestion, two parts.

- Santa Claus? Upon return to village, approximately every person I know asked me what I brought them. I caved to a couple (and I actually did bring back some things for the mamas I hang out with in front of the house), and I laughed a couple others off. I’m trying to figure out if this is normal, culturally (if one Daagbe person typically asks another for gifts when/if they travel), or if I’m just new and white. Either is entirely possible, and I’m trying not to get all testy until I figure it out.

- School: I’ve spent this week trying to fly through all of the material my students need to know before the tests, which start next Monday (I thought I had an extra week… Nope). My 6eme classes are pretty much caught up now, but my 5eme is behind, so I’m making them come in for a make-up class on Saturday morning. This makes me a terrible person, I know, but it’s Saturday morning or fail. At least I’m bribing them with free quiz points, that makes it better. I’m also holding an optional study session for the 6eme kids… they seem excited, but I’ve heard a lot of stories of kids not showing up to non-mandatory sessions, so I’ll be surprised if I get the majority of them.

- In-class Inside Jokes: Somehow I must have translated to my 5eme students that if you make me laugh, I’ll choose you to talk. This has led to some really awesome in-class habits, my favorite being that at least half of that class now makes ridiculous faces every time they raise their hands. I was trying to get them to stop yelling “Ici! Ici!” (Here! Here!) when they raised their hands, and I pressed my lips really tightly together to translate the not-talking thing. I wrote something on the board, turned back around, and André had sucked his lips all the way inside his mouth, leaned forward off of his bench with his had raised, and was looking so hopefully at me that his eyes were bugging out. I had to stop class for a minute because I couldn’t stop laughing, and now a bunch of the other kids do that on a regular basis. Score one for Mme Melissa.

- Calendar: This week is normal classes, then next week is tests (midterms, basically), then we have regular school until Dec. 22nd. At that point I make a break for Niger, and come back to start classes again on Jan. 2nd. Just FYI. Also FYI: School officially started October 8th or something like that, and I’ve now taught two whole weeks I think. Life is good.