Some Questions Answered

Quick post tonight. Today was Day 1 of staging (and Day 2 mostly consists of getting immunizations and beginning our travel). It was a long day, especially after arriving at my hotel around 3am last night, and I am pretty exhausted. We also have to get up tomorrow around 6am (I’m sure you all know that I am decidedly not a morning person, but I suppose this rising at dawn thing may be a pattern in my new life, so maybe it’s good to start getting used to it). But it still feels like 9pm to me and I did get some answers to previously unanswered questions so I thought I would give a quick update.

Q1.) How many of us are there? A: 54 Peace Corps Trainees headed to Benin. It seems like a good group of people (as much as one can judge something like that from 10 hours of interaction). It’s generally a young group, with over half of us having just graduated from college. There are a handful of middle-aged volunteers, and a good number of people in their mid-twenties but not fresh out of college. A few of the volunteers are embarking on their second Peace Corps experience after having been evacuated from another country earlier this year when conditions were deemed unsafe for them there.

Q2.) Are you really only allowed to bring 80 lbs of luggage? A: No, it’s not a firm weight limit. Some people have more, but they will have to pay an excess baggage fee. (Some also have less. One woman has only 1 bag–about 30 pounds! I am in awe…) But I’m still glad that I’m under the limit because lugging 65ish pounds around between Denver and Philly was enough.

Q3) How long is the trip? A: We’ll be traveling for about 24 hours total, but we actual flying time is about 15 hours. 7.5 hours from JFK to Brussels, then 8.5 hours from Brussels to Cotonou (but with a stop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso). Turns out we begin the trip with a bus ride from Philly to NYC. I have no idea why our staging event did not occur in NYC instead of Philly, but such is life.

Still unanswered: How the heck do you pronounce the country name? (I’ve heard Beh-NIN and Beh-NEEN, and no one seems definitively sure of which one is correct.)

Those are really the only updates I have tonight. I’m pretty psyched to get on the plane tomorrow. Leaving home was a lot harder than I anticipated; to be honest there were a few moments when I considered changing my mind and calling the whole thing off. Saying goodbye to all of you people definitely made my heart hurt. But now that I have taken that leap, I feel really ready to head to Africa. I met a lot of the other volunteers, and I am excited to get to know them better as training progresses. They seem similar to me in a lot of ways and I already feel at home in this group. Philadelphia has also been cool and it was fun to wander around a new city a little bit. Good practice for another new city in my immediate future that I suspect will be much more different from what I know than this one is. Being here has kind of reminded me of why I enjoy leaving my comfort zone (even though it feels very uncomfortable when you first do it), and I am finally feeling ready for this next phase. I’m excited for new sights, smells, and sounds; for the buzz of different languages; for the confusion of choosing between many foods that I don’t recognize. I look forward to the thrill of discovery that comes with figuring out how to live somewhere new–how to get from point A to point B, how to buy things and from where, how to use the currency, even little things like how to walk down a busy street (does traffic move on the left or the right? Do I look up or down, meet people’s eyes or not?).  These are things that one takes for granted after solely existing in one place for awhile; one knows how to live there, and so doesn’t experience the excitement of small discoveries like these. There is something so exhilarating about going somewhere totally new. It is both amazing and terrifying at the same time. I’m excited to finally find out how hot it is, what “rainy season” actually means, if the motorcycle taxis there are similar to ones I rode in Uganda, what the city feels like, how difficult communication is given my limited French ability, and so much more. And it’s SO CLOSE. Less than 24 hours left in the States. I’ll catch up with you on the other side of the pond:)

Bonne nuit! ~CMK

So kiss me and smile for me

Well, greetings. I haven’t posted in awhile. Life has seemed busy, but then, life always seems busy. Mostly I have just been enjoying my free time between graduation and Peace Corps. I’ve been trying to learn how to just live in the present and not get too caught up in the future. This is somewhat difficult when your plans are to move to a little-known African country for two years, because people have questions and of course the question that any graduate fields daily is “so what’s next?” But at any rate, I’ve realized that the answer to most questions that people ask me about Benin/Peace Corps is “I don’t know yet,” and I think I’m OK with that. Pretty sure that part of living in Africa will be learning to go with the flow and let go of some of the control that I’m used to wielding over every small part of my life, so this is good practice. So honestly, I haven’t been thinking about Peace Corps a ton.

But now I have just over 48 hours until I leave for staging in Philadelphia, so I’m being forced to think about it. (And no, I’m not packed yet. Not to worry, it will be done before I leave.)

The whole thing still doesn’t quite feel real. Though it is sinking in more and more as that flight gets closer and closer. I’ve said goodbye to a lot of important people in my life already, and though two years really isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, it feels like a long time when you’re thinking about it in the context of saying goodbye. In a way, I’ve been feeling kind of in denial about the impending departure. This baffles most people, since obviously I have had my heart set on doing this for quite some time. (I mentioned it to my roommate in a text message and she replied with “Denial?? You’ve wanted this for 4 years. You know what I would give to be in your position? My left kidney.”) I feel like that is a pretty standard response (excluding the organ donation part), because I think sometimes we have trouble accepting that conflicting thoughts or emotions can and do exist within the same person. I am extremely excited about embarking on this adventure/service, but I’m also apprehensive about leaving the life that I’ve built entirely behind me. That’s one thing about preparing to leave…you realize how good you have it. Of course I realized previously that I have amazing friends and a fantastic, supportive family, but it has become even more obvious in the past few months. At some times I wonder if I am totally insane to willingly leave that life. It seems to me that the human relationship part of moving is going to be much harder than the physical standard of living part, though certainly a fair amount of people have told me in no uncertain terms that they don’t understand why I would want to leave “the good life” in America to go live in the developing world. I guess sometimes I choose the hard path for myself. But this is my calling at the moment. I know I have to do it. It sounds super cheesy, but I really feel as if something inside me is pulling me to this work, and I realize that I’m lucky to be so sure of what I want to do/my purpose in life. And I am confident that I can handle this, even if it will be hard. I suspect that once I actually leave it will be much easier, for me and for everyone involved (especially my parents). Transition periods are just rough.

At any rate, I have been making some preparations, despite my best efforts to not think about the future. I went shopping and bought some appropriate clothes (because PC guidelines say that women’s shoulders and knees need to be covered at all times, and that we are expected to wear business casual clothing during training). I had some things left over from Uganda, and I figure I will probably buy about half of my wardrobe in Benin, once I figure out what people typically wear/what makes the most sense for my new life there, so I tried not to go overboard with the clothing. I got some basics like toothpaste and sunscreen. My friend gave me a ton of digital movies and TV shows to store on my hard drive so I can watch them later. Currently, I’m in the process of buying some e-books to read while I’m there and getting some new music to expand my ipod. **If you have any book suggestions, I’d love to hear them, because I’m having a lot of trouble choosing.**

I also started doing some research on Benin, since I knew almost nothing about the country when I accepted the invitation. Here are some quick facts that I gleaned from reading the CIA World Factbook (that thing is so nifty):

+Benin is one of the least developed countries in the world

+It has one of the highest population growth rates in the world (2.91%) and one of the lowest life expectancies (59.84 years) –though by comparison, Uganda is more extreme on both counts: 3.58% population growth and 53.24 life expectancy

+The literacy rate is only 34.7% for the entire population, though over twice as high for men as for women (47.9% and 23.3% respectively)

+The capital is Porto Novo, but the seat of the government is in Cotonou, a nearby city that is much larger and is where our PC training will take place

+It is one of the most stable and democratic countries in Africa. The incumbent president (Thomas Yayi Boni) was just re-elected in March of this year by popular vote

+The main religion is Christianity (42.8%, mostly Catholic), but there is a sizable Muslim population (24.4%), and many people also practice Vodoun [Voodoo], of which Benin is apparently the birthplace

You probably won’t hear from me again until I’m there (though you never know), which should be around July 2nd or so. [Flight path for those of you who are interested: Denver –> Philly (spending 2 nights there with other PC volunteers for “staging” aka crash course on PC policies/what you need to know before you arrive in Benin/getting all our immunizations) –> Brussels –> Burkina Faso –> Cotonou, Benin] I’m still not totally sure what the internet situation will be, so please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me immediately. I’ll post when I can, but in this case, no news is good news. If you haven’t e-mailed me your address yet, now is the time so I can put it in my address book before I leave and you will get a postcard at some point down the road. Happy Monday everyone! 🙂