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.