Bonjour mes amis. If you are surprised about the frequency with which I am posting, I am also surprised. I don’t think this will be typical of the rest of my time here, but it has been really easy to access the internet because there is wi-fi at the Peace Corps office where we have been having training. So I figure I’ll take advantage of it while I can. We are still very much in the orientation phase of training, so this post will be similar in style to orientation: somewhat broad and not extremely in depth. There will be plenty of time for focused, in-depth entries later:)
The last few days have been so busy that it feels like we have been in country for much longer than five days. Today we finally have some down time (or at least I do, because my particular schedule worked out really well), but it has been a whirlwind until now. The process of traveling here was quite long. It began with a 3 hour bus ride from Philly to New York, and we arrived at the airport about six hours early for our flight. This turned out to be fortunate (or well-planned) because apparently it takes some time to get fifty four people, flying on tickets booked by a third party, with two years worth of luggage, through the check-in and security process. The flights felt long because I was terribly unsuccessful at sleeping on either of them. It was kind of fun, though, because as our first flight was landing, the flight attendant made an announcement that 54 young Americans were on the flight on their way to the Peace Corps, and the whole plane gave us a round of applause. And when we finally arrived at the Cotonou airport after 24 hours of traveling, we were met by a welcoming committee from Peace Corps, including the country director (our big boss, basically), a handful of PC staff, and a bunch of current Benin volunteers. It’s always nice to be greeted at the airport, especially when the airport is in a new country and uses a language that you don’t speak well.
Orientation has been kind of a blur of a lot of introductory activities and lessons. On our third day in country (which happened to be the 4th of July), we were told that “L’anglaise est mort” [English is dead] now and encouraged to use only French or Franglaise (at least one French word in every sentence). This rule hasn’t been followed very carefully, but we’re trying, and I think everyone’s French has improved to some degree in the past few days. I suspect the learning will accelerate rapidly when we move out of our hotel and in with our new host families tomorrow, because we will be forced to speak French all the time. We celebrated a fun and quirky 4th of July thanks to PC staff, who decorated the hotel in red, white, and blue and the current volunteers, who created a lovely American meal for all of us (hot dogs, pasta salad, fruit salad, chips, and Coke…then cookies and brownies for dessert). I was impressed by how good the food was, considering they had to cook for so many people and with such different ingredients than one would find in America. We finished the night by playing American music from some iPod speakers while playing with sparklers that one trainee brought from home and drinking Beninese beer (when you can buy a massive bottle for the equivalent of $1, you drink the local beer, even if it is 4th of July). Most of us called it a pretty early night because we had to be leaving the hotel by 6:30AM the next morning for training, but it was still a lot of fun.
One of the most exciting parts of orientation has been transportation-related. We got to test ride our new bicycles a few days ago, and they’re quite nice. They are Trek mountain bikes, and many of them are brand-new or gently used by previous Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). We also got a bunch of gadgets for our bikes (my favorite of which is called a “Cool Tool”–you outdoorsy people probably know what these are), as well as brand-new helmets for bicycles and motorcycles, which we are required to wear under penalty of termination from service. Motorcycle taxis are apparently the main form of transportation in the cities as well as in the rural areas (though in rural Benin, I expect to ride my bike more), so yesterday we got training on taxi motos, or zemijans as they are called here. This basically consisted of learning how to flag down a zem, how to haggle with the driver over the fare (much harder in French than in English!), and then finally a test ride around the neighborhood on a real zem. I think feel a lot more comfortable on the zems than a lot of the other trainees since I rode bodas in Uganda, and a lot of the key points are basically the same. I’m pretty excited to start riding on motorcycle taxis again. It’s such a fun way to get around! I also feel like it’s quite a bit safer in Benin than it was in Uganda, because here the zem drivers all wear a distinctive jersey so you can distinguish the official zemis from other people with motorcycles who try to pick you up to make a little extra money. Also, Cotonou seems quite a bit more calm than Kampala, and though traffic is still pretty heavy at rush hours, people seem to drive with less abandon in general and traffic laws seem to exist slightly more. (They drive on the right side of the street here, by the way.)
Though it’s still three months out, I’m getting pretty excited for the work that I’ll be doing after training. We all had individual meetings with the head of our “sector” today (my sector is Rural Community Health (RCH), and the others we have are English Education, Small Enterprise Development, and Environmental Action) to discuss our skills, background, and preferences for our post. For RCH, it’s pretty much a given that I will be placed somewhere rural, without running water, and likely without electricity. That’s what I had prepared myself for, so I feel fine about that prospect (of course, it’s comfortably distant right now too). As the discussion was taking place, I was glad to hear positive feedback about a lot of my ideas for the work, and to hear that my superiors thought I had relevant skills and experience. As it turns out, even though the work I did in Uganda was not at all what I was aiming to do, it will probably be quite useful in the next couple of years, because nutrition is a big priority here right now. But I have far more training and language learning to do before I get to do all this fun stuff.
In the meantime, I’m getting used to cold showers again (it’s actually warm and humid enough here that by the end of the day, a cold shower feels great, though it’s always a bit of a shock), remembering to take my anti-malaria drugs every day, attempting to anticipate torrential downpours and plan my whereabouts accordingly, and generally trying to soak in the feel of this new country. Like I said, tomorrow we are moving to a new city to live with our host families, so I expect to have significantly less frequent internet access. But perhaps I’ll have some interesting stories next time I post! Take care:)