Monday, November 24, 2008

First taste of Africa

Bénin 2008

I’m here writing during my sixth day in Bénin. Things have been a bit all over the place but so far the experience has been amazing so far. Having been in Québec beforehand and here now, English is becoming a second language. Day in day out it’s French and when I can I use the few words in Fon (the local language) that I have picked up so far. As for what has gone on I’ll start back at the beginning and move forwards from there. Monday morning, which at this point feels like months ago, we all assembled at the ‘chalet de ski’ to catch the bus and head to the Dorval airport in Montreal. As always we were a few hours late getting going. We spent a little time in Montreal, and went to l’Ile Perrot where we slept the night and continued on to the airport the next afternoon. There was a major tension going on about luggage for this entire period that continued at the airport. Essentially the beninois had bought more than they were allowed to bring back. So, essentially everyone had a little bit of everyone’s stuff so that it could get on the plane. This entire process probably took a good ten hours of un and re-packing. On the plane we had a little over six hours to get to Paris where we had an 8 hour wait. I got through customs and ventured around the airport for a few hours before passing back through. We weren’t allowed to head into town and everything at Charles de Gaule is so expensive that we just sat around for the most part. I did manage to take an hour and a half to two hour nap with pillow and sleeping bag on the ground beside the departure gate. After this we hopped took a bus out to the next plane, embarked and took off for another six hour flight. Due to the fact that my ticket apparently didn’t exist I was far at the front of the plane with everyone else in our group off in the back. It was great though I met ‘Prince’ a Béninois businessman who gave all his contact info. When I’m visiting in Cotonou he said he’d show me around a little bit. Flying over the African continent it was cloudy for the most part but I did catch a few glimpses of the Sahara and a beautiful sunset flying over what at that point must have been Niger. All excited I saw the light of Cotonou when we were preparing for landing. Getting out of the plane I was a little overwhelmed. The rest of the group had stayed behind and I was being urged by airport authorities to get on to the bus going to the aerogare. Finaly I found Jonathan, the Canadian leader. I just remember looking over and asking if we had walked into a country or a sauna.
At 845ish it was probably twenty-five degrees with 80% plus humidity. We all met up hopped on the bus and went to the luggage claim. Some random guy somebody with us knew grabbed all our passports and got s past customs in about ten seconds flat. We then spent a good hour fighting through crowds to get our massive pile of luggage. Everyone had 2 full-size pieces just under 50 pounds and two carry-ons. We finally got out of the airport (without having my passport, luggage, or vaccine booklet checked) and started meeting people and loading the van. At this point I was probably at 30 hours with two hours of sleep. A guy was incessantly trying to sell us flowers (a beautiful bouquet for 2 euros). We met some of the beninois’ family and friend and well as representatives of Syto-Bénin, the organization partnered with Canada World Youth for this program. After another half hour we crammed into the van and headed to the ‘Codiam’ where we were to stay for a few nights. We got there, threw some stuff into our rooms and decided to head into town to see a concert we had driven by on our way. It turned out we were too late and simply checked out a few buildings in the area before heading back in for the night. At one o’clock I got to bed under the mosquito net. At seven am I got out of bed with about three hours of sleep. The rest of the time was spent rolling around because of the heat. Note we had a fan and I’d taken a ‘cold’ shower before going to bed.

The next morning we had breakfast, hung around the compound for a while and continued checking out the town. We wound up heading to the beach, which was a bit of an adventure because we couldn’t find the path, and then went swimming in the Atlantic. The beach was terribly dirty but once we got closer to the water it cleared up. The currents are strong so we didn’t go too deep but did frolic around and gave our best efforts at body-boarding. Later in the evening we went to the music festival we’d seen the day before. It was hilariously bad… It was beninois pop and everyone was lip-syncing, but not well. They’d move the microphones or put it down without any change in sound. Around 11 o’clock I walked back with a couple other guys because at this point I had about 5 hours of sleep in somewhere around 60 hours. That night I slept well, probably because I nearly passed out of fatigue. In the morning we had people come to give lessons about the history of Benin, and its current environmental realities. Both were actually really interesting speakers. In the evening we gave our choices for work projects and later got the answers. I will be working for IAMD a NGO that does rural village planning and resolves land disputes. I still have very little idea of what I’ll get up to day to day. That night we also hung around a gazebo with some guy playing bob Marley among others or guitar and singing along.

Saturday morning we were supposed to be gone at 9am, which, as always, means we left around 11:30. I’ll give a couple notes about Cotonou here. The afternoons hover around 30-34 degrees with high but not brutal humidity. There are motorcycles everywhere! About thirty per car. And the taxis are motos know as Zamidjans, which literally means ‘Take me fast’ in the local language. Oh right we also went to exchange our euros into Francs CFAs (about 420 Francs CFAs to a Canadian dollar). With everyone in the group exchanging money we walked out of the bank millionaires, about 1,040,000 francs to be specific. What else… oh right the kids all yell Yovo Yovo when a white person walks by or the full chant seems to be “Yovo Yovo bonsoir comment sa vas merci” which means white man white man good night, how are you, thank you. Oh right and 90% of advertising in town is for the different cell phone networks. It’s a huge industry here since bandits often steal the cables for the landlines. Also, it costs up to four times as much to call another network so businessmen often have two or three cells. I actually bought a cellphone (I know how African of an experience) but we have no landline at my house and there really is no other way to talk to people. From Canada my number is 00229 96 08 21 23. I am nine hours ahead of Vancouver time but please feel free to call if anyone would like to get a hold of me.
Anyways we headed around Cotonou a little bit and then headed on to the country’s main highway to get to Allada. During the drive which would normally take a bit over an hour our van broke down five times (the radiator was shot and the engine kept overheating, in 35 degree heat). We’d get out at random spots on the road, have people try to sell us things, as always, wait a while and keep going. Finally we gave up on that van, piled into the other, bigger, van with way to many people hailed a couple cabs and went the rest of the way. At a certain hill there were 16 wheelers on their sides or in corn fields because there is no charge limit here and some trucks just can’t get up the hill. We got into town and were met by our host moms or in some cases host families. I met my host mom, madame Akiyo. We hung around a little while and had a pop. I then hoped on to the back of her moto and got a ride to see the house I’ll be in for the next few months. It’s a lot more than I was expecting. We have a tv, toilet, and functional shower. I’m in a room with proper to sleep. That evening we mostly just hung around and met the family. We went for a walk too but given we had no idea where we were going, didn’t see a whole lot of the town. There were goats, and pigs, and chickens, and random kids yelling yovo yovo around every corner. Oh right and I jumped into a van for a little toor around at some point as well. The next morning I finally got a full 7 hours of sleep in one night (still my record so far). We essentially hung around the house and were at the neighbour’s, who are also a host family for the program. Around four o’clock we decided to walk the 500ish meters to the market. We checked out the food and cloth and random animal skulls and endless sunglasses. After leaving the market we decided to continue our walk around town. I saw a really cool tree a few streets away and decided to check it out. As we were walking from there back to the main road we came across a bunch of people singing and dancing. They asked us to dance, so I put down my water bottle and did. I’m pretty sure the song at one point became “white man dance” but it was pretty funny. One of the women then asked us to join in on their ceremony, which I later found out was a woman’s funeral. So we joined in and walked through the town a bit into a field where they started a fire and burned some of her belongings. Some things were said and rituals done and then we headed back to where we had began. Getting home became pretty complicated since it was now pitch black and I didn’t really know where I lived, but after getting my feet covered in mud and a little uneasy we found our way and I headed in for the night. Ps, walking down dirt roads in the dark, with motos and bikes everywhere, and stores lit by candlelight is quite the experience. This morning I was woken up at 6:45 for my host mom to say I had to be ready by 7. I got out of bed and headed to the neighbor’s (where my supervisor is currently living). We met up a few hundred meters past the market and waited, in the heat, for about an hour, for everyone to show up. People then left of Zems and the rest of us walked around to check some of the work projects. I had a snack similar to porridge but corn based with peanuts for 25 francs, or about 8 cents, and lunch was beans and gari (a flourish substance derived from manioc, a local crop similar to a potate) for 100 francs or just under 25 cents.
I also took a zem for the first time today and went about a kilometer for 100 francs. Past that we had some meetings this afternoon and grabbed a couple pineapples (three huge ones for about 1,20$) and sat around and ate them. To give you a closer glimpse into a moment I’m currently laying on my bed sweating unbelievably with a rooster yelling right beside my room, birds chirping in the background, three men manually making bricks right beside the house and its about thirty degrees in my room (metal ceilings are hot under the sun). This hopefully gives a glimpse into my life for the last few days but in reality doesn’t do my experience so far justice. I’ll update gain when I can and hope to hear from you all soon.



Ridge Forster said...

Marc it is great to read about your adventures in Africa. Is it possible for you to post pictures on the Blog? Take care and have fun.
Ridge Forster

Alyse said...

Marc...Your stories are already so, so unbelievable. I am so stoked for you and your African adventures and I will be reading every single one of your blogs, I guarantee it.

Stay safe and have tons of fun!

I'm envious of you my friend!


Sahar said...

Sounds like you're already fully integrated!! Funny you should mentions beans and gari- that quickly became my favorite street food! Everything you mentioned takes me back- the porridge type stuff with peanuts, the candlelight shops, the dancing, the cars spending more time on the side of the road than on it, riding the motos....all of it.

Take care,
The former yovo.

Suzi said...

Hello my wee brother!

Well there you are, in Africa. I loved your entry - it brought me home. I can relate to most of what you write about, and I'm so excited for you to be having these and even crazier experiences!

Have you begun to appreciate your loofah yet? With the dust and your pores open from sweating so much, you just never can seem to get all the dirt out. Africa really does get under your skin - literally.

Now would be an appropriate time to appreciate why Jon and I made you lug baby powder all the way across the globe: throw some on and I guarantee you'll sweat less. Good in your sandals too, makes them stink less.

Continue having an amazing time and keep letting us know what's going on!

All our love,
Jon and Suzi