Monday, October 29, 2012

Updates 10/27/12 and Posts for Your Perusal

I have officially been in America for one whole month.  Home has been many things so far: comforting, confusing, wonderful, stressful, and full of dairy.  

Following the surprisingly accurate culture shock graph, the first two weeks seemed like they were made of glitter, rainbows, and ice cream: I saw all of the people I so dearly missed, got lots of hugs, ate lots of food, and had a great time reacquainting myself with American amenities.  For reference, cheese is a gift from God, hot showers are an example of total perfection, and there is absolutely nothing in this world like a teary-eyed reunion hug from your parents.

The next two weeks have been somewhat less euphoric. I'm happy to be home, and I love that I can call and text my best friends whenever I want. Certain things, though, seem baffling, unnecessarily stressful, and/or just really sad.  I don't get why we have 24 different types of face wash at Target. Why do we spend so much time worrying about matching their shoes to their jackets and which boy Taylor Swift is currently singing about? There's apparently a hashtag* #firstworldproblems, which I really can't bring myself to look at.  I guess it's good that we're self-aware enough to know that some of our problems aren't actually problems, but it's vaguely discouraging to consider how much time and energy we're wasting on those when there are bigger and more important issues we could be fixing.  I'll get off my soap box now.

The other big worry point in my mind is the job search -- I hate being unproductive and not having a plan, and both of those things seem to be happening right now. I'm much happier when I've got a project, and I can't wait until I have a place, a purpose, and a goal. If anyone knows people in nonprofits in DC, please let me know.

Whew.  Feels good to talk that out.  I think readjustment gets easier over time, and I think mine is so far just about the same as that of all of my other Peace Corps Volunteer friends. Like everything else we've done together, we will soldier this one through and come out better, wiser people for it. 

In the interest of memories and reflecting on this whole experience, here are a few of my favorite blogs and stories from the past two years (I made you a highlight reel).  And with this last post, friends, I'll consider this blog complete.

*There has been a lot of technological/pop culture catching up that I've had to do.  Hashtags still have me bemused, but today I've mostly figured out "YOLO", Ryan Lochte, Honey Boo Boo, the Facebook iPhone app, and how to save pins on my phone's Maps thingie.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Top Ten Books Read in Benin

Hokay, so someone asked me to write a list of my top ten books read while in Peace Corps.  Obviously I accepted, as it is a list.  I'm standing here trying to whittle it down, though, and I'm having some trouble because I really seriously like books.  In order to simplify this process, I'm adding rules:

  • I can't put rereads on my top 10.
  • I'm basing my choices on how interesting and fun to read they were, not necessarily literary merit or smart factor.
  • I can put up to 15 books in my top 10.

There, that's easier.  In a kind of vaguely ranked order, except the first one (a must-read):
  1. Half the Sky -- Kristof and WuDunn*
  2. East of Eden -- Steinbeck
  3. The Poisonwood Bible -- Kingsolver
  4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Chabon
  5. What is the What -- Eggers
  6. Cutting for Stone -- Verghese
  7. The Green Mile -- King
  8. No Country for Old Men -- Steinbeck
  9. Delusions of Gender -- Fine*
  10. The Fever -- Shah*
  11. Price of Honor -- Goodwin*
  12. Love in a Time of Cholera -- Marquez
  13. Breakfast of Champions -- Vonnegut
  14. In Defense of Food -- Pollen*
  15. A Tale of Two Cities -- Dickens

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ireland, Part 3: Cork/Blarney to the End

I'm sitting in the Chicago airport right now, waiting for my final flight home. While I had an awesome last couple of days in Ireland, I'm having trouble coming up with a cohesive way of summarizing it all, probably because, guys, I'm going home! In the interest of finishing what I started in blogging this trip (don't worry, there will be at least one more sappy blog post to come), here's a list of the post-Galway highlights:

  • Saw gorgeous and very green Irish countryside, only occasionally getting lost on the tiny country roads.
  • Sights seen and appropriately gaped at: Cliffs of Moher, beginning of the Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle, Cahir Castle, Rock of Cashel, and some awesome caves. Deduced that man giving tour, while fascinating, probably spends way too much time in said caves.
  • Toured the Jameson whiskey factory, and got to do a whiskey tasting between Scottish, Irish and American whiskeys. Cheat sheet on the differences: Irish and Scottish are made of barley, American is usually maize. Scottish malted barley is dried with peat smoke, lending the smokey flavor. American is distilled once, Scottish twice, and Irish three times. Irish aging casks are often old sherry or bourbon casks, whereas American ones are oak and are legally required to be changed yearly. Whiskey primer complete.
  • Watched a movie! This was a complete impulse move, and it was 100% worth the 8 euros.
  • Bridget's cousin Niamh takes us out for one crazy night in a small town Irish nightclub. We survive the challenge and have a fantastic time dancing with the locals.
  • Shop more. Eat more. Generally enjoy life.

And that takes us up until today (Sept. 27th), which is a total of 17 hours in transit on my way home. It's real. It's happening. We're really going home.

I just hugged Bridget goodbye (Vicky had a different transatlantic flight this morning)...a weird feeling. We just spent 2+ years of our lives together, balancing each other out through highs and lows. It's going to be strange to know I won't see them in two weeks in Cotonou. I couldn't have had better travel mates, though, and i've been consistently amazed throughout this whole multi-continent adventure at how seamlessly we've worked together.  There are very, very few groups of people who could travel together for a month and not really be tired of each other afterward...we're lucky, I guess.

Anyway, so that's the end of this trip. The adventures and mishaps, the stories we'll tell and the ones we'll pretend to forget. Bridget and Vicky, thanks so much for the last month, or the last two years, really. It's been amazing. You've been amazing. Now let's go home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ireland, Part 2: Driving

(Dear Parents and Other Nervous People, by the time I post this, we will have already returned the car. Please take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, and pour yourself a cup of tea. We are still alive, and will see you in two days.  Love, Lissa)

In Ireland, most of the things you want to see (castles, cliffs, scenery) aren't in the big cities. While you can get to them via busses or tours, those would require us to haul our bags around everywhere, which is not fun when you've got two years' worth of stuff crammed in there. When planning our trip, Bridget, Vicky and I decided that it would be simpler and more freeing if we just rented a car and drove around on our own.

Fast forward to September 20th, when we went to Budget rentals with a copy of Bridget's license and, shortly thereafter, walked out with the keys to a shiny silver Ford Fiesta. In order to save money, we got a manual instead of an automatic, which would have been about twice the price. We skipped the GPS upgrade (these technology things are confusing), but we did spring for full insurance, a move we later realized was our most brilliant of the trip.

It should be said that none of us knew how to drive manual. I mean, sure, we knew the concept and each of us had at some point spent an hour or two trying to shift in an empty parking lot, but beyond that, we were absolute beginners. Also, we hadn't driven in two years. Also, in Ireland they drive on the left. Adventure!

Immediately upon entering the car, our chosen driver Bridget started trying to learn all the rules of driving stick shift all at once. As knots of nervousness visibly formed in Bridget's shoulders, Vicky magically transformed into a kids' soccer coach instructing, encouraging, and occasionally chiding as Bridget scrambled to do all 18 necessary actions at once. In the spirit of solidarity, I sat down in the back seat and immediately turned a festive shade of green.

For the next several hours, we collectively struggled: Bridget with the clutch, Vicky with the bajillion one-way streets in Dublin, and me with my overwhelming desire to vomit. We couldn't find the controls for the windshield wipers when it started to drizzle, then later accidentally turned them on while looking for a turn signal and subsequently couldn't figure out how to turn them off. At one point we ended up in a cul-de-sac, lost and having stalled out (again). After trying to restart the car at least 15 times, we took a pause to ask a concerned-looking service man to direct us toward Galway. He very politely showed us where we were going, then with a look towards our probably smoking vehicle asked in a very bemused voice, " did you get all the way here?" Good question, sir. Good question.

The first day was rough. We had a system worked out (Bridget worked the pedals and the wheel, Vicky shifted, and I kept my mouth shut), but the transmission would never be the same. By the time we got to Bridget's cousin's house, we were ready to hire a chauffeur and/or horse driven cart for the rest of the trip. But as just-finished Peace Corps Volunteers, we are nothing if not determined, and so the next day we got ourselves back in that car, strapped ourselves in, and hit the road.*

It's now day five of our Great Car Adventure, and I have to say, trial by fire works. Bridget can now stop, start, reverse, and shift all by herself, and this morning she successfully started the car on a steep incline and made it to the top (we cheered). She is, for the record, an absolute champion.

There have been mishaps, like that time we accidentally drove into the Ring of Kerry park, which is famous for its extremely narrow, windy, hilly, cliff-y roads...but all cars look better with a little texture, I feel. We've stalled out a truly impressive number of times in a wide variety of places including hilly farmland and busy city intersections, which I think just proves our ability to adapt our particular skill sets to any geographical setting.** Further, we've developed a highly advanced and effective system for preventing collisions, which involves the three of us collectively yelling at whoever is driving/walking/stopping their car in front of us. The turns are now smoother, the shifting less likely to send us to the chiropractor, and we almost always remember to stay on the left side of the road.

We're pretty much professional at this point. Now if only we could figure out how to turn those rear windshield wipers off.

*Jack, and don't you come back no more no more no more no more.
**Don't worry, this is already on my resume.

Actual (and appropriate) toll booth sign in Ireland.  No, they didn't write
this one just for us.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ireland, Part 1: Dublin

a. Ireland is SO COLD! I have developed a dance to warm myself up. It is both completely ineffective and absolutely stupid-looking, and involves a lot of kicking and yoga squats, but hey, it passes the time when gale force ice winds try to turn me into an icicle.

b. The first two nights in Ireland we spent in Dublin. Dublin is the home of many things, but one of the most important is the original Guinness factory. I am a fan of good beer, particularly dark beer, so we made it a point to tour the giant pint-glass-shaped factory and sample a glass of the product in its hometown. We also did a bit of shopping (a good set of day dresses is a necessity, right?), sampled the local selection of stews and seafood chowders, and just generally enjoyed the accents surrounding us. I definitely, definitely cannot do an Irish accent. Do not ask.

c. Moate! Bridget's dad is fully Irish (I hear he still has an accent), and so most of his family still lives over here. For our third night in Ireland, we drove* to Bridget's cousin's house in Moate, where her hilariously blunt family took us in, fed us ridiculous amounts of homemade food, and entertained us with gossip and old family stories. We'll be going back there on Monday to hang out with Bridget's cousin Niamh, who seems to have a devilish twinkle in her eye when she says she's going to take us out on the town.

d. Galway...was kind of a fail. After driving(*) all the way from Moate and managing to get ourselves to the hostel without the benefit of a GPS or visible street signs, we learned that we'd accidentally booked the hostel for the previous three nights instead of the correct ones. Furthermore, it was a big sports weekend in Galway, and that hostel had absolutely no space for us. We did a speed assessment of our situation, borrowed the hostel's Internet and researched other hostels, only to discover that while there were two with space that night, there were zero in the entire city for the following day. Game changer! We booked that night, got ourselves to the hostel, and rearranged our week so that we'd get to Cork the following day. A twist in the beginning there, but we won the day. Champions.

*This verb deserves its own post.

Athens, Part 2: Everything Else

As previously stated, our trip would have been much less awesome without Dora and Kimon, but since both of them are Real People with Real Jobs*, we had some time on our own to explore the city. And there's a lot to explore.

Everyone learns about Greek mythology in third or fourth grade, and if you've ever taken an art history class you've doubtless spent lots of time going over Greek art and architecture. Athens is almost tough to believe sometimes because every five feet you're suddenly in front of something super famous that you saw in textbooks back in school. There was the Acropolis. The Temple of Zeus. The Temple of Athena. Hadrien's Gate, and his library. Most impressively, the Parthenon, a huge and gorgeous structure on a hill that is considered one of the most architecturally perfect buildings ever built (the Greeks cared so much about the visual ideal and beauty that they engineered slightly tapered columns to give the look of absolute perfection).

Anyway, so we were busy. We spent hours in the National Archeological Museum looking at famous ancient statues...awed as we were, Victoria and I kept a running commentary that had our abs hurting we were laughing (quietly, promise!) so hard -- we decided that we could probably start a horribly inaccurate but very entertaining tour business through Athens. Let us know if you're interested.

*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*In a week, I start looking for real jobs. If anyone knows of openings involving writing (grant writing especially), development, NGOs, and/or women's rights/health, please email me at

At our Greek barbecue!
Learning to Greek dance

Climbing the Acropolis

The Parthenon

Vicky and Bridget look out over Athens

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Athens, Part 1: Kimon, Dora, and a Greek Barbecue

Immediately upon arrival to Athens, our hosts Kimon and Dora whisked us off to a Greek barbecue with a group of their close friends. Kimon and Dora are some of the nicest, most hospitable and generous people that I've ever met, and for the 3 days we were in Athens, they were our CouchSurfing hosts. CouchSurfing, as previously discussed, has been incredibly good to us: each time we've surfed with someone, they've not only given us a place to sleep but have also helped us navigate the city and given us information that's not found anywhere in the guide books. Kimon and Dora took it a step further than that... Well, more like a marathon further.

So, Greek barbecue. One of the things we've craved while traveling has been "real" cultural experiences -- seeing how actual Turkish people drink coffee or how real Greeks spend low-key weekends. The stuff that's not in the tourist brochures and probably wouldn't make a good photo. So when Kimon, who picked us up at the port with a sign reading "Sister Mary Melissa", invited us to go hang out with their friends and eat home-cooked food, we were absolutely delighted. We tried to seem relaxed and cool about accepting the invitation ("Sure, yeah, that sounds great, we love food..."), we all exchanged secretly excited looks as we headed off towards the dinner party. Real Greeks! Doing Real Greek things! In Greece! We were winning at life.

The evening was wonderful. The food alone was ridiculously good and fresh*, the conversations easy and interesting and full of different perspectives on food, the economic crisis, and differences between our countries. We danced to old school rock and roll and then to traditional Greek music. The best part, though, was walking into a group of 12 people at a dinner party and them not missing a beat. It was absolutely perfect, but then it got better.

Kimon and Dora drove us to where we were staying, which turned out to be our own fully furnished apartment. When I say fully furnished, I don't mean that it had a bed and two chairs. I mean that our hosts had gone out and stocked the entire place with things they thought we'd like. Kimon reads my blog (Hi Kimon!), so he knew us pretty well before we arrived: he bought coffee so Bridget could wake up in the morning, fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfasts, cheese for our constant cravings, and, most impressively, Trappist beers for relaxing after a long day.

TRAPPIST BEERS FROM BELGIUM. I don't know if y'all remember this, but last July when my family and I went to Paris, my college friend Phil met up with me and gave me a Trappist beer he'd gotten in Belgium. I carried it back to Benin with me, and it completely made my month. Kimon and Dora somehow remembered that and tracked some down just to welcome us to Athens. I can't even think of the proper adjective to describe that, so I'm going to go with crazysweetawesomegenerousadorableletsbefriendsforever-esque.

I just realized that I'm writing probably a ridiculous amount about these wonderful people, and that very soon you all will tune out and skip to the post about the Parthenon. I'll make this quick. The rest of our time with our hosts was just as amazing as the first day, and every minute and meal we spent with them was as interesting and fantastic as that first day. They took is to their favorite off-the-track restaurants and a gorgeous bar overlooking the city on our last night.

Over plates and plates of fresh fish, calamari, shrimp and crab**, they asked us genuinely thoughtful questions about our lives in Benin, what we thought about it and how it had changed us. As we're finding recently, it's rare to find someone who wants to hear more than 30 seconds' worth of Our Thoughts On Africa, so getting to talk about it with people who not only were interested, but even asked follow-up questions.

I'll stop there for now, but to Kimon and Dora, who I know are still reading: thank you. We loved Athens, and I think we mostly loved it because of you. Your hospitality and genuine interest in our lives, your thoughtfulness and your enthusiasm made Athens probably our favorite stop on our trip so far, and we consider ourselves so lucky to have gotten to know you. Keep in touch, and next time, we'll see you in America!***


*A shorter version of the menu: kebobs and homemade grilled sausages, rack of lamb in the grill, Greek salad with fresh feta and local olives, white wine, grilled pita, French fries, and homemade tsiziki yogurt sauce.

**When eating with Greek people, always, always let them order for you. Best decision of the trip.

***Dora, I already have restaurants in mind. And Kimon, small batch local beers. Get ready.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Things We Are Learning

Post-Africa, it is maybe a really good thing that we're taking this trip. Why? Because awesome. But also because we're, uh, a little strange by American standards right now, and we should probably work some of that out before arriving in the U.S. of A.

Example: Every time Bridget says something potentially confusing to a waiter, hotelier, or person who might not speak English, she follows it with a click. In Benin, this would be a normal way to check for understanding. In Europe, it's just weird.

Thus, things we are learning on our trip:

1. You can't just click at people. Clicking means nothing in the west unless it's accompanied with a finger pistol gesture, and even that is strange.

2. On a related note, responding to questions in one of our standard grunts leads to blank stares and concern as to the status of our mental health.

3. No licking fingers, even to show that our appetizers were delicious.

4. Seventy eight degrees to the rest of the world is apparently not cold. Go figure.

5. No one wants to learn African. If you try to teach a group of new friends in a bar how to cheers in Gún, they will stare at you until you awkwardly yell "cheers!" and take a sip. Noted.

6. Rules actually apply to us now. We apparently can't just drive motorcycles without licenses or deliberately flout the no shoes rule in restaurants just because we're yovos. Boo.

7. We can stop apologizing to people every time we try to pay with a big bill. In non-West Africa countries, people don't hoard their coins. The same cannot be said for us, as collectively we could probably fill a treasure chest with our precious 20 franc and 5 euro pieces.

8. We can stop referring to dresses that hit two inches above the knee as our "slutty dresses". Besides the Amish, no one will be scandalized by our blindingly white kneecaps.

9. You can't just eat butter. Also, for some reason, waiters tend to have an averse reaction to you if every time you see a dairy product you break out in song and pre-rehearsed dance.  Bridget literally broke out in an impromptu mini-opera entitled "World of Butter! I'd love to live in you!" two breakfasts ago, and Vicky and I have been doing the Cheese and Butter Dance™ since we left Benin.
10. On the Internet, there is Google. Google is a thing that knows stuff. Instead of making up facts, maps and things we think we remember from this one book we read in third grade, we could probably just look it up on teh interwebs. Because Google is smarter than we are*.

*Someone should probably fact-check this on Google.

The Greek Isles

Google Santorini.

(I'm gonna give you a minute to let that sink in.)

K, so we spent half of the last week there, and the other half in Naxos, which is basically the same except less busy. I can't really thunk of what I want to say about the isles, because it seems like the pictures say it way more effectively than I ever could -- the clear turquoise water, black sand beaches, and white houses on steep cliffs overlooking the Aegean. We spent our days lounging on the beach and wandering into little beach shops,* eating fresh fish with tomato-and-cucumber salads and sampling different sorts of frozen Greek yogurt. It was heavenly, it was paradise. Our parents emailed to make us promise to come home.

*As we are going to be Real Grown-Ups now, we've decided to invest in important grown-up staples like classy handmade leather bags and sandals that won't fall apart in a month. And, like, scarves and makeup and this cool pair of volcanic earrings I found for $12. You know, investment pieces. Because that's what Grown-Ups do.

(Photos, despite the fact that my photography skills never seemed to actually capture it all, will be here in a day or two. I forgot to bring my camera to the internet cafe.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ferry to Greece

On the morning of September 9th, we woke up in Turkey with no solid plan but a vague idea that we should probably ferry to a Greek island. I don't know if y'all have ever tried to navigate the Greek ferry system, but there are approximately 200 companies, each with their own website. These websites are fancy and supposedly allow you to make reservations online, but are in no way synced up and often directly contradict each other. After several weeks of trying to plan our path from Benin, we decided to just, you know, wing it.
So Sunday the 9th. We wake up at 7, and are on the first ferry to the nearby Greek island Chios by 9. Arriving there, we expect to find a ferry going to another island around noon, from which we can get to our final goal island. What actually happened:

  • Get to Chios, ask nearby people to help us buy tickets to Samos. Quickly ascertain that the next ferry leaving to a Greek island departs on Wednesday evening, and the next one going to an island we actually want to go to leaves Friday. Problem.
  • Discover that there is a ferry to Athens, which is far away but a hub for ferry transport, leaving in 20 minutes. Determine that we should be on that ferry.
  • Find ticket office. Learn that tickets can only be bought in cash.
  • Sprint to nearest bank, where we learn that they don't exchange dollars on Sundays.
  • Sprint to ATM, get money, buy tickets from now adorably dramatic ticket lady.
  • Grab bags, run to ferry. Stash bags in luggage storage area. Proceed to marvel at luxurious ferry, which is essentially a cruise ship (Café! Wine and snacks bar! Terrace! Wifi!).
  • Spend 3 euros for Internet, research ferry schedules from Athens, hostels, and shuttles. Within 90 minutes Bridget has a plan and reservations at an amazingly cheap hostel in Santorini.
  • Take naps.
  • Switch ferries, and this time we know to dibs a couch before wandering around. Spend evening relaxing and listening to music.
  • Arrive in Santorini at 1am, are met at the port by a shuttle that takes us to the hostel, which is absolutely perfect. Congratulate selves again on being, all told, pretty awesome at making things up as we go along. Thank you, Africa.

Izmir and Ephesus

If Istanbul is the New York of Turkey, Izmir is the LA. A couple hours south of Istanbul by bus and ferry, Izmir is the second largest city in the country. It's on the coast, very relaxed, very pretty, and very wealthy. We stayed with another excellent CouchSurfing host, Baris, who not only picked us up from the bus station but also took us on a walking tour of the city center that first night, followed by an excellent dinner and drinks on the beach.

The following day we went to Ephesus, an ancient city full of ruins 45 minutes away by bus. You know the book in the Bible Ephesians? Written to the people of Ephesus.* The ruins were incredible (as was the power of the sun), the history attached complicated and cultural and hard to believe. I remember learning about the Greeks and Romans in third grade, and comparing their art styles and values in high school (cheat sheet: the Greeks wanted perfection, the Romans to be impressive). It was somehow surreal to be standing in front of marble that I'd read about in textbooks, only vaguely connecting it to something that existed in real life. Says something about the staying power of a civilization, huh? I imagine Athens will be a similar experience.

Anyway. In Ephesus we also visited Virgin Mary's last house (her retirement home, we decided) and the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. A short bus ride back to Izmir, and we got ready to go out to dinner.

Baris took us to a restaurant in nearby Cesme that had tables on the beach. Clarification: we sat at a table that was maybe 10 feet from the lapping waves of the Aegean sea. Over tapas-style dishes of Turkish food -- spicy eggplant with yogurt, fresh calamari, tomato and cucumber salad, cheese with fresh melon -- we talked about our travel plans and told stories of our adventures thus far, and Baris told us the history and stories of Turkey's number one national hero, Ataturk. The man knows his history: I doubt even Turkish textbooks could have given us a clearer picture of the man who created the republic.

The rest of the night was equally amazing: fresh pear cocktails at an adorable winding-streeted town, then out dancing at the coolest bar any of us will ever visit. And with that, our trip through Turkey was (very sadly) over. Now, on to Greece!

*Interestingly, the people of Ephesus had been worshipping various goddesses -- Hittite, Greek, Roman -- for centuries before that, and though they converted mostly to Christianity, the locals still seem to revere the Virgin Mary in a way that probably would have made my Baptist grandmother fairly uncomfortable.

View from the bus to Izmir.

At the Virgin Mary's house. People write prayers and hopes on everything
from receipts for wedding rings to dirty paper napkins and tie them here.

In front of the giant golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

Ruins in Ephesus.  This one was redone from fragments
by modernist artists, but it was the only one, I think.

The column behind us (in the background) looks like a
muppet.  Vicky and I did impressions.

The ampitheater -- you can stand at the bottom and talk in a normal
voice, and the people at the top can hear you clearly. 
The ancients were geniuses at acoustics.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Wonders of Transportation: Bus to Izmir

In Benin, a standard bus ride involves sweltering heat, loud music in Yoruba, at least one hour-long breakdown, a shouting vendor selling homemade "medicines" to cure headaches, heart disease, malaria, and male impotence, and at least one woman who thought it'd be a good idea to store all of her live chickens under her seat in a zippable bag. This is apparently not the case in Turkey.

On the bus from Istanbul to Izmir ($28ish, 8 hours) there are stewards, and they wear bow ties. There are -- get this -- SNACKS. Plural. A midmorning coffee/juice break with pretzels. We were so delighted that we couldn't stop giggling, and even the steward started chuckling at our excitement. Later someone came by handing out pink cups...full of cherry-vanilla frozen yogurt. And there were too many, so we got two! What is this magical place??

A Quick Note on

First, a definition: CouchSurfing is a website dedicated to helping people travel by connecting them to people who live where they want to go. To "couchsurf" is to borrow someone's extra couch, spare room, or a spot on the floor while you're in the city, thus saving yourself the cost of a hotel or hostel and making a new friend in the process.

If the average experience is even half as nice as our stay at Kayhan and Emrah's in Istanbul, I'm 100% sold. Our hosts were some of the sweetest, most helpful people I've ever met, helping us plan our days and navigate the city, picking us up in the center of Istanbul so we didn't have to take a bus, taking us to an open-air coffeeshop on our last night, and even driving us all the way out to the bus station to make sure we could get tickets to Izmir. When none of our American credit cards went through at the station (don't worry parents, it was just a company thing), he pulled out his card, paid for our tickets and told us to send him the money the next day. That is crazy.

So to summarize, CouchSurfing got us in touch with probably the best, most helpful person in all of Istanbul, and if that's in any way a normal CS experience, I'll be surfing for a long time to come.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Arriving in the Istanbul airport, we learned many things. First, people in airports dress strangely: we saw all manner of weird spangled peep-toe boots, oddly colored hairdos, and in one case, a floor-length burnt orange velvet dress. Second, we learned that Istanbul is HUGE and that the people there don't necessarily speak any of the languages we speak. Third, we learned that one of our bags was lost.

Bridget filled out all of the paperwork and we left, but unfortunately by that time our awesome CouchSurfing host Kayhan had had to leave for work, so we dragged all of our remaining bags onto the metro (functioning public transport!) and ended up in a park near the Hagia Sophia. People-watching is amazing, and so were the ice cream cones we found for one Turkish lira ($0.50) each.

The rest of that day was divided between Times When We Were Running Around (mostly getting lost while trying to find Kayhan's car) and Times when We Were Falling Asleep in Public Places. Turns out very little sleep for two nights in a row makes traveling a challenge. When we finally got to Kayhan's house, we slept for a very long time, and the following day, he drove us back to the airport to get our long lost bag.
The next two days were a perfect blend of busy, relaxed, and adventurous (probably because I have two really excellent travel buddies). We saw the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, all of which are stunning and full of really fascinating history (Ottomans! Revolutions! Religions!). Turkish coffee in tiny cups and sesame pastries perked us up after hours of walking. Our feet will take a while to forgive us.

Later, we went to the Grand Bazaar and tried our hands at bargaining in a language other than FrenchGunFon. Vicky got a gorgeous brown leather jacket, I bought a silver pendant necklace, and Bridget found some beautiful earrings and a scarf. We told ourselves that they were rewards for surviving Africa, but I think we really just wanted to buy pretty things. Wrapping up our shopping spree, we wandered through Istanbul's Spice Bazaar, sampling Turkish delight, fresh mozzarella (string cheese style! Bridget has never been so excited), and all sorts of olives from giant tubs. Nearby, piles of yellow saffron, black and red peppercorns, dark orange chili powder and green pods of star anise waited for the culinarily inclined to walk by.

On our last night, our hosts picked us up from the Taksim area and took us to a little spot overlooking the whole city. There were tables and chairs sitting on a sidewalk on the side of a hill, and as we sipped Turkish coffees and talked about Africa, America, Turkey and life, the city of Istanbul stood winking and shimmering at our feet.

Part of the city of Istanbul from the Bosphorus

From Topkapi Palace overlook

In one of the greater successes in my life, I successfully get this
random French man to take a Beninese-style photo with me.

I can't figure out how to rotate this, but I love this photo.  Moral of the story: always give your camera to Bridget.

Woman with her kids in a room in Topkapi Palace.  The tilework throughout
the palace is incredible.
The Hagia Sophia (or the Aya Sofya)

This looks boring on film, but trust me, this building is jaw-droppingly impressive.

The Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque... again, way cooler in real life.

Incredible tiled ceiling.  The centerpiece there is a verse from the Qu'ran in Arabic.

Bridget in a cool cafe we found.

My souvenir, a silver pendant necklace.
On our way out.

Return to Ghana

On our first day after Peace Corps (though it didn't feel like it yet), we went to Accra, Ghana. It's been just under a year since we were last there, so when we met up with our friends Jim (who was in the same residential college with me all four years at Rice) and Bob. Collectively they form JimBob, one of the quirkiest and most adored duos in Peace Corps Ghana.
Anyway, so we got to Accra, which is kind of like the NewYork of West Africa -- cosmopolitan, pretty well developed, and full of anything you might want to eat. They even have (very very expensive) sushi. Crazy!
We didn't eat said sushi, but we did indulge in burgers and margaritas, and the next night we got Ghanaian fusion food, which was surprising and delicious. I got Ghanaian-style pork, but it was wrapped up in little dumplings and came with dipping sauce. Delicious!
A couple good moments from the trip to Ghana:
  • Got. Real. Coffee. With a whole wheat croissant!
  • Caught up with Jim about our Rice news. Yes, friend there, you have been discussed.
  • "You know, last time we were in Ghana, I don't think we went running at all. Oh, except the marathon, I guess." - Vicky
  • JimBob's version of cheers: Nsrahe! ("Adventure!") Learned this while sitting at an outdoor bar with a mix of PCVs from Ghana and Benin.
  • JimBob guides us around Accra mostly successfully. We get lost once for an hour trying to find Nkrume's mausoleum, then find it right as we were about to give up.
  • Found ourselves talking about people ("Look at her hair! I want it!" and "Damn girl, look at those shoes, get it!") in English, which is what we do in Benin. From the looks we got, we're going to have to switch secret languages. Oops.
  • Went to a really cool organization called Global Mamas, which is a group of women who make bags, clothes, etc out of the traditional Ghanaian batik fabric. I got a bag and an education -- if only Beninese couturieres could export their stuff like that... Check them out if you get a chance, their goods are in America, too!
After all of that, it was time to go. Getting on that plane to Turkey was SO exciting and so weird... It didn't seem real until the food arrived and with the first bite of real butter* I suddenly realized that Peace Corps is over for me. Like I'm not a volunteer anymore, and while thinking about sustainability and development is a good thing, it's not a requirement anymore. I won't be doing more projects. Got a little teary-eyed over butter, ultimately. But now, to Istanbul!
*True story
Jim meets us for breakfast -- real capuccino!
JimBob at breakfast on our last day in Accra.

Very posed photo at the Accra market.
Beninese faces.

Vicky and Bob, who is a very funny man.

Jones forever!
At the airport about to leave Africa for realz.  Excited for Istanbul!

On Peace Corps

(Written August 2012)

If you know anyone seriously considering joining the Peace Corps, tell them to do it.

I realize that I'm in my last month of service and that I'm therefore more than a little sentimental at this point. But I've been thinking lately (well, this morning, as I sit eating my spicy chickpeas and rice with the mamans in front of my house) how lucky I am to be here doing this, and how glad I am I took this chance.

Peace Corps hasn't been everything I thought it would be. I expected to be fluent in a local language, galvanizing an entire village towards gender equality and universal education, all while living in a mud hut and chopping down jungle snakes with my personal machete. My life is less grand and Hollywood-worthy than my Peace Corps fantasy, my achievements smaller, more specific, less likely to change a nation. And yet I'm incredibly proud of what I've done, what my fellow volunteers have done in our two years here. I'm even more amazed at what Peace Corps has done for me: two years and a month after arriving in Benin, I'm far more assertive, more realistic and determined in my goals. I can make a fool of myself in front of a group and join in laughing at the joke. I can give a speech, argue a point, and say no politely but firmly when necessary. Peace Corps, it turns out, gave me a backbone.

If you want to save the world, you shouldn't join the Peace Corps. If, on the other hand, you want to help out a small group of people while making yourself a better, stronger and wiser person, you should think about it. This isn't for everyone, and it's not easy. But given the choice I made two years ago, knowing what I know now about the experience, the challenges, the struggles and little successes, I'd absolutely, totally, 100% positive make the same choice again.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Visa Photos: Don't You Want to Travel With Us?

Our respective visa photos (Bridget, Lissa, Victoria).  Please note that
Bridget looks like she's a lost child, Vicky looks like she might be a serial
killer, and that my neck was deemed "too white" to photograph, hence the
scarf.  Want to be our friend?

COS Week

  • ARGHHHHH.  COS week was kind of badly planned.  There were too many of us, plus half of the staff was gone (to be fair, some had emergencies), and the end result was that several of us ended up incredibly, incredibly stressed out.  After a day and a half of waiting and coming back and waiting and coming back, I burst into tears in front of a staff member, at which point they finally gave me a receipt to do what I needed to do: go to the cashier, give her 5,000 CFA, sign a paper, then have her hand me 5,000 CFA and sign another paper.  A day and a half, people.  Cheers for bureaucracy.
  • Medical Surprise. Don't worry, it's not HIV. On Wednesday, I tested positive for tuberculosis, but don't freak out.  I don't have actual active tuberculosis, and I could cough directly into your lungs and you wouldn't catch it (wanna try?).  What it means is just that at some point during my service, someone with TB got too close and the germs got into my system, so my body started making the antibodies.  As long as my immune system isn't compromised, it shouldn't ever develop into active TB, and unless it becomes active, I can't transmit it.  Repeat: I AM NOT CONTAGIOUS. I did an x-ray to prove it.

    Now, the sucky part: we're going to redo the test in the States just to double check, but assuming it's the same (it will be), I'll have to do nine months of treatment.  The kicker: no alcohol.  That means no drinks for almost a year, probably starting at the very end of October.  You can now officially call me Sister Mary Melissa.
  • But In The End... I finally, finally got my paperwork finished.  Guys, I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  I did it!

    I'll probably blog a couple more times, because it turns out that blogging's kind of an addiction.  But just since I feel a sense of completion and closure right now, I want to say this: thank you so, so much to each and every one of you who have stayed with me and read along with my adventures in Benin.  I love hearing that people actually read this thing, and it's incredibly encouraging to know that there are so many of you keeping me company from thousands of miles away.  Thank you.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Edabo: Last Week in Daagbe (8.18-8.25)

  • Ramadamadan. Went to a standard holiday fete (delicious food, beautiful new outfits for the family, dancing) at my host family in Porto-Novo's house. The twist was that we had all three generations of Peace Corps host sisters there: me from 2010, Claire from 2011, and now Suzanne from 2012, and that's not even counting our Beninese host sisters. Yay!
  • Louise! I forgot to blog this earlier, but the girl I tutored all of this year just passed her second level national ex, meaning she can go on to high school! The exam is SO hard, and only 27% of students who took it passed in the entire region (in our school, that rate's much lower). I am so incredibly proud of her!
  • CEG Fete! My school planned an adorable get-together to say goodbye, and after several replannings, it was held on Wednesday. There were speeches by the school admin in which they made me sound way more impressive than I actually am, a speech by the professors that quoted Charles Schultz/Snoopy (win!), a speech by me in terrible but enthusiastic French, beer, and fish sandwiches. And then presents! A pretty new boomba from my director and his wife, and then a shiny white outfit from the profs together that is easily the most beautiful, elaborately embroidered thing I own currently. Mainly, though, it was just really touching to see all the profs that were there to say goodbye, good luck, and that they'd liked getting to know me.
  • Friend Fete! Got together with my really close friends (the ones who threw the party for Mandee) in Porto-Novo for one last shindig. We got meme tissu, Maman Jumeaux made delicious ignam pilee (pounded yams) with spicy peanut sauce AND riz au gras, we ate a ton, drank a ton, and danced til we were all sweating. It was wonderful and fun, and even though I had to say goodbye to some of my favorite kids on the planet, I managed to not cry* until I was on a zem on my way home. I love my people.
  • That One Day I Was Santa. On my last full day in village, I went on a gift-giving spree, which really just means that I gave away bags of stuff I cleaned out of my house. Milk powder! Pens! Half-full toiletries! I felt like Oprah. People, sometimes ones I didn't even really know well, also stopped by my house to say goodbye and thank you, which was really touching. It's cool to see that people care, I guess, because I care about them too.

    Some close friends brought presents, like my friend Elise, who made me a last in-village dinner of vrai-vrai Beninese food: fresh pate and delicious sauce legume. My other really good friend GbloGblo lives in a mud house with her five kids and has no money to spend. She and her daughter Gerardine spent a couple of hours and the last couple of francs they had to make me bottles of roasted peanuts and corn to take home with me. "Tell your mom and dad that this is what we like to eat in Benin. And tell them hello from us, and that we hope they're well." I didn't cry, but just barely.
  • Edabo. I left Daagbe yesterday (Saturday the 25th), and this time, I did cry.  My friends were all around me wishing me goodbye and good luck, and the tears started rolling as I walked toward the taxi.  Not easy to leave, and I'll miss my village a lot, but by now the crying's done and I'm gearing up for this week: COS paperwork and appointments galore before we head out on our grand adventure September first.  Wish me luck with all of these signatures and documents!
*Crying by adults is not culturally appropriate. Only babies cry, period.

Updates 8.8-8.17

  • Addict. I'm getting several pretty American things made out of tissu before I leave: shorts, a dress, skirts... In related news, there's an excellent new song by the Nigerian artists P-Square and Akon called "Chop My Money" ("chop" = "spend" in Nigerian slang) that you should check out.
  • Name in a Song! My Beninese friends have been playing this "Melissa" song on repeat for me lately.
  • Return to Pakistan. I went back to the Pakistani missionaries' house with my friend Maman Jumeaux, and was treated to an in-depth explanation of what Ahmadiyyat Islam is (spoiler: it's not accepted by Pakistan's "regular" Muslims as real Islam) and given three books to read about the religion. I'd actually like to read one of them (a historical one), but might not have time before I leave and have to return the books... This makes at least three churches that have tried to convert me in two years. Fourth time's a charm?
  • Cooking Conundrum. Exactly 15 days before I leave post, I ran out of cooking gas. Replacing it costs about $18, which is a lot of money for just two weeks of use, and which is also money that I definitely don't have right now (see first bullet point). Problem. I'm going to try to tough it out and survive on a PCV raw food diet: powdered manioc (gari) with milk powder and sugar, bread with peanut butter, bruschetta, packaged glucose biscuits, and whatever food I can find to buy on the street. The main issue left is what in H-E-double hockey sticks I'm going to do without my morning caffeine fix... Pray for me.
  • Let It Snow. Y'all, it's so cold here. I keep waking up in the middle of the night to find another pagne to wrap up in, and stumbling out of bed in the morning wearing all the sheets until it warms up a little. Making myself take cold showers is an increasing struggle. And this whole no-hot-coffee thing... Not cool, Benin, not cool.
  • Warm Fuzzies. People have started realizing that I'm actually leaving really soon, and they're being especially sweet. I'm getting lots of "We love you!"s and "Are you sure you can't stay another year?"s, and one of my old neighbors quite seriously asked if I could just move to his village four hours away and do a quick two years there... I could stay with his family if I wanted. No, but aww.
  • SortSortSortSortSort. Turns out that even as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is possible to accumulate a truly staggering amount of stuff within two years. This week's project is going through all of it and trying to separate it into give-away bags in such a way that everyone I know gets something and no one's mad about what they got. This is likely impossible, but my irrational belief in myself as an organizational superhero leads me to at least try. Onward!
  • Best Wishes! I went to visit my work partner Epiphane's family for the first time this week, and while I think Epiphane told me at some point during the last two years, somehow I totally forgot that his dad is an Ifa (a voodoo fetish/spirit) priest. Really cool. Epiphane took me to see his father's personal fetishes,* which had their own building in the family compound, and then we took a walk around the area to see all of the other family fetishes. Back at the house, his father was happy to meet me, and he said he was going to pray for me. He then promised that he would pray especially so that by 2013, I would be pregnant with my husband's first son. I'm going to accept those prayers in a very figurative sense.
  • Local Language Lesson #644. At the same meeting, I asked Epiphane's father (who looks like a mischievous little elf) how to say "cheers" in Nagot, his language. Epiphane translated the question, miming the clinking of glasses and the saying of some celebratory word. His father pauses to think, then lights up, gives a big, few-toothed smile, and says, "Hallelujah!" So there you have it: the word in Nagot for cheers, according to a local voodoo Ifa priest, is "hallelujah."
*This is a terrible sentence out of context.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Camp GRACE (7.22-7.28)

GRACE: Garçons Respectieux Apprenant a Creer l'Egalite
This was the first year we've done a boys' camp in southern Benin. We've had a southern girl's camp for years, and this year, realizing that we were missing an education opportunity for an important group of people, we decided to start an entire new gender-equality-focused camp...for boys. The logic is this: Benin is a male-run country. While the law is increasingly supportive, in day-to-day life women are still less than men: less powerful, less respected, usually less educated, and less financially stable. While we as volunteers spend a huge portion of our time teaching girls that they are smart, that they can and should assert their rights, and that they deserve respect and attention, that fact of the matter is that without men as allies, any move towards women's equality will be very, very slow. So we should continue to empower girls, but we should also put some effort into teaching boys and men why and how they should support their sisters, wives, mothers and children.
Thus, Camp GRACE. A week in Ouidah with 49 smart, engaged boys, 5 Beninese men ("tutors") as role models and team leaders, 15 soon-to-be-exhausted volunteers, and Samantha Speck, our fearless and feisty directrice. Lessons focused on health, education, financial planning, career planning, and above all women's rights and equality.
The boys, mostly under 13, were so sweet and polite, and you could tell that they were really excited to be away at camp. I found it harder to bond with them than with the girls at Camp GLOW, which was interesting, especially since the male volunteers had no such trouble. I wonder if that would be the same in America. Maybe. The boys were really enthusiastic about most of the sessions, and were particularly willing to discuss girl's equality in school. There were boys on both sides of the "Are boys and girls equal?" question, but I think the Beninese man who presented and the tutors made a lot of good points. Behavior change starts with new ideas, so if nothing else, we gave them that.
I brought five boys (Saturnin, Narcisse, Louis, Charle, and Martial) and two tutors (Epiphane and Gabriel), so our Daagbe representation was strong. I think everyone got a lot out of it. Favorite moments:

  • We went to the voodoo temple of serpents, where they have sacred pythons that you can hold. Beninese people are almost universally terrified of snakes. We told the boys we'd give them competition points for each kid that held one, and all except one did. One of my boys, Saturnin, was so terrified that as the man put the snake on him he froze, wide-eyed, and started shaking like a leaf. He smiled and stood as still as he could for a whole 15 seconds, then ducked out and dashed off laughing and shaking as soon as the man took the snake from his neck. The entire camp clapped for him.
  • Narcisse asks if maybe we could stay an extra week at camp? He'd call his parents right now to make sure it was okay.
  • Gabriel (tutor) and I gave a lesson on the importance of education and study strategies. Afterward, he thanked me for bringing him, adding that the camp was a really great idea.
  • Volunteers play the boys in soccer. Boys soundly beat the volunteers, but PCVs take the prize in style and best on-field impromptu dance parties.
  • Overall, a wonderful, inspiring, and often hilarious week, and a camp that I hope will continue to make an impact in the coming years.

Updates 8.1-8.7

  • Beninese Independence Day in Bridget's Village. After my COS medical (wherein they decided that I have neither giardiasis or amoebas, which seems impossible), I went to visit Bridget at her post. Takon is beautiful and teensy and fun to walk around. As it turns out, it is also fun to fete in.

    On August 1st Benin celebrated its 52nd anniversary, and the day started at 7:30 when one of Bridget's women friends dropped by to say hi and ask for a shot of sodabi. Yes. More officially, Bridget and I joined in Takon/Toffo's festivities by watching a parade involving gendarmes, dancing women, and four Beninese boys inexplicably doing judo routines. Next, we went to the mayor's house and ate fish heads and akassa as we drank free wine, beer, and liquor (the Beninese know how to party. Also, the withered old voodoo man next to us was drinking up, so we followed suit). We ended the day at Bridget's before nightfall, cuddling up on her couch and watching Community. Happy Independence Day, Benin!
  • Goodbye, Smarshley! The following day, we headed to Cotonou to say goodbye to one of our stage's funniest, most easygoing volunteers. We'll miss you, boo! Save some stories and eat some fancy London food for us, and we'll see you on the other side of the Atlantic. Practice that whiskey cake technique, too -- we may need it come Derby time.
  • Dassa Date. In May, Bridget, Sam and I bought a "date" as part of the annual GAD fundraiser. Turns out, it was a fantastic purchase.

    Dassa, where the date was set, is in the middle part of the country, in the region called the Collines ("hills"). For the first part of the date, we went off-trail hiking up a gorgeous, forest-covered mini mountain, pausing at the top when we ran into the mud houses of two voodoo princes who wanted us to come to their huge annual party the next day (this really happened). After politely declining, we hiked down, went SWIMMING in a real hotel POOL, cleaned up and went out to a dinner featuring roasted rabbit and prawns, and then went to a just-for-us private jam session with a group of amazing Beninese musicians. Bridget, our little honey-voiced songbird, even got on the mic and sang along with them to Bob Marley and "When the Saints Go Marching In". It was pretty impressive as a whole, and big thanks to Mark de Dassa for arranging it.
  • Life Goal #82: Check. On Tuesday, I realized a life goal I didn't even know I had. I paid a girl to do my laundry... in pancakes. Booyah.
  • Replacement Visits. The girl who's replacing me in Daagbe's name is Katie Lootens, and I got to meet her for the first time this week. She seems pretty great: has been to Africa three times before, speaks excellent French, has been studying Fon (a language very similar to Gun) intensively for over a month, and has been friendly and smiley to all of my village friends. I couldn't have gotten a more competent, ready-for-action replacement if I'd picked her myself. I haven't gotten to hang out with her too much, and I'll admit to feeling a little weird about someone else taking over my Daagbe, but so far I'm pumped that I got someone so solid to take care of my village when I go. She'll be here until the 18th, then will go back to stage (letting me have that last week in village alone to say my goodbyes), then will move in permanently on September 16th. Good luck, Katie! You're gonna rock it!

Guest Blague: Sherry!

For those of you who don’t know me, hi! I’m Sherry (alias Rosa when in Benin, in order to avoid presenting strangers with the opportunity to address me as “chérie”), and Lissa and I became friends during college, thanks to the beauty that is JIBA. Now, after ever so many years of larnin’ and maturation, we are still friends, and I am not sure how this happened (no really, I just read through old emails to check, and I am truly at a loss) but after Camp GLOW last year, I half-jokingly emailed Lissa telling her how awesome her stories from camp were and how I was going to hop over the Atlantic to crash the party the next year--and then, somehow, about a week ago, there I was!
tl;dr I’m Lissa’s friend and I visited her in Benin and now I am writing about it and here you are reading (thanks!).
Considering that this is Lissa’s blog and “when in Rome” yada yada, I figured I would do my guest post in list form. Before I launch into those, I did just want to say, once more, thanks so much to Lissa for hosting me and letting me visit and to all the PCVs who were wonderful to me throughout my trip! :)
Things I loved about running around Benin:

  • Marché-ing in Porto Novo for pretty tissu, later to be taken to the couturière for the making of pretty clothes and things! Seriously, if Lissa were a superhero, I think tissu-shopping would be her power--well, her power and maybe her kryptonite, as well.
  • Birthday cake in a makeshift dutch oven
  • Seeing the new map! Eee!
  • Baby animals and lots of pretty foliage
  • Daagbe students and neighbors (and Lissa's adorable toddler "husband")
  • Daagbeians (is this the proper demonym?) shouting "May-lees-ah! May-lees-ah!" at us whenever we walked or zemmed past. They love her, they do!
  • Riding on zems
  • So many conversations in which questions about my family's health were matter-of-factly followed up with inquiries after Obama's well-being
  • Debating whether or not to buy penis keychains when present-shopping in the artisans' village (in the end, I decided that the fact that they existed was enough for me, and that I did not need to purchase any)
  • Piment, mmm
  • Lissa's miscellaneous calendars and goals and quotes posted up on her wall: same Lissa as always!
Things I loved about Camp GLOW
  • Singing and teaching songs (including, as Lissa mentioned, Jones cheers in both English and French)|
  • Interactions with the Beninese women (and a few men, too!) who helped with the camp and were fantastic role models to the girls, as well as cool field trips to broaden the girls' horizons
  • 4th of July celebration with the PCVs, with Real Hamburgers and Real Ice Cream (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Group of girls: Madame Rosa, how old are you? (cue guessing back and forth until they happen upon the right number) Oh, are you married? Do you have any children? Sherry: Mais non, but how old are you? I know you aren't married. How many girls are there your age who are married? Girls: We all know some in our villages, of course. S: What do you think? Would you be ready to be married and have children at 14? G: No! Those girls, they are always tired, and they are never clean, because they have no time to wash themselves!--I think this is as apt a summary of 16 And Pregnant as any of its viewership could give.
  • The end-of-camp skits, wherein the girls demonstrated what they had learned, simultaneously touching and (probably unintentionally) hilarious
  • Getting coffee for all the volunteers with Lissa each morning and debating whether the man was making it "that colour"
  • Watching Bend It Like Beckham with the girls, who had comically exaggerated reactions to all the dramatic scenes, as well as some pithy and astute commentary on culturally Western things I had taken for granted ("Wait, Madame, does everyone have her own ball to practice with?")
  • The girls' soccer game, so very apropos!
  • The girls, just on the whole: I was thinking I'd have to deal with some of the shenanigans Lissa had blogged about, like students calling her "yovo" and refusing to use "Madame", but the camp girls were wonderful(and had no end of dance moves to teach me! speaking of which...).
  • Dance party incorporating MoTown, Bieber, and multiple repetitions of "Waka Waka" (requested by the girls each time)
Things I wasn't expecting
  • Finding myself in a Rasta bar the first evening in Benin--or even, that there were Rasta-themed bars to be frequented there at all! but it was a really fun time with a little group of PCVs, some live music and slam poetry, and Beninese beer (which, incidentally, is no better or worse than what Lissa's posts have made it out to be)
  • Obama beer! it's for real, people! and I really hope he knows he gets to take his place in history along with Sam Adams as a president with a namesake beer (I'm kidding, yall. It's a blog blague!*)
  • That I’d get my first marriage proposal on the back of a motorcycle; it was so very Rebel Without A Cause (well, kind of)
  • A couple gendarmes stories, but I’ll pick my favorite: it took place on a taxi ride from Daagbe to Cotonou. Lissa and I had seen our driver bribe someone off early on but brushed it off, as our mental energies were fixed on the sheep (the poor sheep! though when we first heard moaning, we thought the noise was the car breaking down, and I do think that the situation might have been worse had the taxi's machinery actually been the source of the bleating) that had been loaded into the trunk of our car. This became especially worrisome once we began to think we smelled urine, given that my suitcase was also stowed in the trunk. Then, at some point, we were pulled over again, and this lasted a very long time.
    At this point, we realized that our cab driver might actually have been in some real trouble with the law, which you would think would involve more glamour than carting around livestock in your sedan's trunk but oh well. Also during this time, we, being yovos, had to hand over our identification to the fuzz, and we did have the pleasure of hearing the police debate what my ethnicity might be ("probably mixed, black-and white" "ah yes, probably mixed"). Then, this diversion being over, we waited. The man with the sheep (which turned out to be plural sheep--though, thankfully, they left behind no bodily fluids) and a couple other passengers decamped in search of faster transport, but being that it was raining and we were on the side of the highway with luggage to tow, we stayed put. Finally, some more money changed hands, and after that extended delay was over with, we were in Cotonou in no time.
Last but not least: favorite Lissa quotations
  • "So, how concerned are you about schistosomiasis?" (If you already know what schistosomiasis is, you've more understanding than I did, but imagine having this line dropped on you casually as you're wading across a semi-lit and mostly flooded street at midnight on your first night in Benin; happily, neither of us contracted schisto and so did not have to be much concerend about it)
  • "Don't play. I'm Beninese!" said in local language to zem drivers who were trying to rip her off, often resulting in their complimenting her as being a strong woman and then standing down (note: this is my rough translation, since I don't speak Fon/Gun)
  • "Here, we bon everything"
*Blague = "joke" in French

Walking toward the world map.

We're in Benin!

Couturiere working on Sherry's clothes.

Camp GLOW!

GLOW girls. The one on the right looks like Abagail Breslin!

Blueberry birthday cake!

Morning coffee man.  Photo taken surreptitiously via iPhone.
Sneaky sneaky, Sherry.