Monday, December 31, 2007

peace out double-o-seven

it’s the last morning of the year. tonight, couples everywhere will look into each other’s eyes with hope and promise as they kiss to seal the end of one year and the start of another, together, with anticipation for the journey ahead. i remember kissing bob last year as the clock struck 12. he had such a sense of purpose about him—not just for himself, but for us. we were both nervous about my move to africa, but i at least had a peace about it. the peace and purpose dissipated in a month’s time when turmoil bigger than africa (in my mind at least) knocked us both off our feet. i’ve been unable to give my heart away since, though i did try recently, albeit with unsure effort… it was, nonetheless, with love.

so here i am, living alone in africa. i say that to myself several times a day, “i live alone in africa.” sometimes i say it almost resentfully, other times with a kinda dizzy contentment, but always i say it with awe. right now i write it in my journal, sipping on my cup of tea, accompanied by the morning sounds that could take pages to describe.

i watched amelie last night—that movie never grows old. i wonder if others relate to amelie as much as i do: wanting to love others, yet afraid to be loved; noticing the small things, yet feeling unnoticed; a wild imagination (carolyn can attest to that!); a quirky misfit. and yet she finds love. someone comes along whose whole life was constructed in such a way that it’s as if every day since the day he was born was leading up to this moment of shared understanding and joy. it gives me hope every time. guess i’m not only a misfit, but a romantic.

so how will this romantic be spending nye? not with tingly kisses and warm embraces, but not alone either. i’ll be cooking dinner with sarah and marianne, making a meal of wagasi, a local cheese made from the nomadic tribe of fulani up north. then we’ll head over to the price’s for a kid-friendly evening of games, snacks and firecrackers.

new years is a big deal in benin. in the states, we approach new years with a look ahead, making resolutions and promises to ourselves about how this year will be different… better. in benin, though, the celebration is more in gratitude for what has passed, for being alive. it is not about storing up wishes for the future, the future is too unsure. it is about celebrating the moment and the life this moment represents. it’s a practice i could learn a lot from. the Lord knows i’d a happier person if i wasn’t constantly asking when i’ll find love or when i’ll get to go home—which both boil down to the most nagging question of all… when will i be understood?

clearly i’m feeling pensive…

happy new year! praise God for 2007, and may He bless you in 2008.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

keegan is born!

i'm finally an auntie! no, stephen and pierce aren't daddies yet... erin and brian gave birth to keegan on december 23 (erin did most of the work) and the baby is finally home! you can see pics of my favorite new baby here.

just call me tata lau.

oh my, i am SO excited!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

merry christmas!

Christmas day!!! I woke up with the rest of the Mitton crowd to open presents and eat cinnamon rolls, just like Christmas back home! The Mitton family spoiled me with tupperware, ice cube trays, candy and Tuareg leather gifts. Tuaregs are a particular tribe of people from Niger that do very nice leather work (frames, boxes, etc.) and jewelry. It’s the quintessential West African gift, so I was excited to finally have some Tuareg items of my own.

We went to our friend Anne’s house for a late lunch/early dinner. What a feast! Salad, bread, turkey, ham, broccoli, macaroni and cheese, “calorie corn,” pumpkin pie, cheese cake, pecan pie, homemade chocolate peanut butter cups (I helped make those), peanut butter cookies, I could go on and on. Lots of these things are hard to come by here (like peanut butter, turkey and broccoli), so it was a real treat to eat so well.

As if we hadn’t done enough singing already, we sang some MORE! I think I’ve sung more Christmas carols this year than ever. I guess you have to sing more to make up for the hot weather. But, oddly enough, today was the coolest day in Benin since I arrived. I hear it dipped below 80 early this morning! And sitting in Anne’s air conditioned living room, I had to sport a hooded sweatshirt to keep from catching a cold. That helped get me in the Christmas spirit!

Monday, December 24, 2007

christmas eve!

Christmas Eve’s Gift!! This marks the first year someone from my mom’s side of the family has NOT called to play the “Christmas Eve’s Gift” prank. Oh well. It was still a lively day.

After running errands all day, most of which didn’t pan out, like going to the bank to find the ATM machine wasn’t working, Josue and I headed over to one of the schools to set up for our Christmas party. The event was supposed to go from 3-6. At 3pm, about 5 of us were gathered to get the party room ready. The boys were cleaning like crazy (things get so dusty during harmattan) while I blew up balloons. We decorated and waited and decorated. People started trickling in around 4pm. At 5pm we started talking and praying and singing. At 6pm Josue started the party, giving me just enough time to sing “Silent Night” with my English students before heading across town to the Mitton’s house for the Expat Christmas gathering. I hope the rest of their party went well. The Mitton’s party was a real treat. We sang carols (thank goodness for Rob’s musical skills), loaded up all the kids in the back of two pick-up trucks for a “hay ride,” and ate lots of goodies. I spent the night at the Mitton’s house, since no one should be alone at Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

christmas eve eve

I celebrated Christmas with my mom tonight, far away from her, and alone in my new home. I know Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be busy, so I wanted some time alone to really think about my family, since that’s usually the focus of this season, along with the birth of Christ, of course. My mom sent some really cool things, but the two that really touched me were a devotional book that belonged to my grandmother and an Episcopal Hymnal and Book of Common Prayer signed by my mother. I cried a little when I opened the first, missing my grandmother and grieving the fact that Alzheimer’s will change her before I get back; and I really cried as I read my mom’s words in the cover of the second, as she described that her mother gave her a copy of the same hymnal and prayer book years ago. Finally! A good cry in Africa! I’ve been stocking up on tears for months now. I wish I could describe how it makes me feel to be connected to women like my mom and grandmother, to think that I’m in that same line of inspiring women, to recognize I come from somewhere, that I have a heritage. And now I have the music to hymns I used to sing every day in chapel, starting at age 4. My mom and I are funny about hymns. We sing them all the time. Sometimes a hymn will get stuck in my head and I’ll email my mom to tell her, knowing she’ll start singing the same one with me, humming it all day on the other side of the world. We might be two of the quirkiest people I know. I love you, Mom.

After the whole sentimental gift opening moment, I got a call from Josue saying he and his wife Prisca and son Isaac were coming over. We had talked the previous day about how I’d like them to come over for dinner, but seeing as he was calling at 8:30pm, I thought surely they would have eaten before arriving. Au contraire. When they walked in at 9:30pm, I panicked to find they’d yet to eat a thing. So I ran into the kitchen and threw a quick salad together. Prisca came in to check out my spices and what not. She opened each one and ventured a guess as to what it was used for. At one point she opened my “Italian Seasoning” and asked, “Is this what white people drink in hot tea at night to be skinny?” I said no, that it was seasoning for food, but that I did have herbal tea if she wanted to try some. she said, “No, you can drink it because you are white.” After eating the salad, she said, “This is how you white people stay skinny,” as she pranced around the kitchen in her best ‘white’ impersonation, “We eat rice and pounded yams, but you eat lettuce.” I think Prisca has an overstated impression of our differences. I hope to bring her to the US someday so she can understand where I come from a bit better.

I also gave Prisca and Josue their Christmas presents. Here, people exchange gifts on New Years. Christmas is a celebration for kids, since it’s celebrating baby Jesus. The New Year is significant though, since it means you have made it through another year safely. But keeping with my traditions, I gave them Christmas gifts anyway. The coolest gift was “tissue,” or fabric. I bought a pattern that I thought was pretty, but more importantly, I bought the brand name “Hi-Target Block,” the best in wax fabric fashion. I ran into some of my students in the market right after purchasing the fabric, and I showed it to them, seeking approval. They totally ignored the pattern and immediately judged by the brand name that I had chosen well. Only problem is, you can only buy “Hi-Target Block” in 12 meters. I needed to buy 15 to 18 meters if Josue, Prisca and Isaac were all going to make clothes out of it (matching family outfits are SO hip here), so I splurged to buy a full 24 meters, telling Josue and Prisca I wanted to keep 6 meters to make my own matching outfit. They were absolutely delighted. They can’t wait to wear our matching outfits and to take a gazillion pictures. Such fun.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

a bit meaty

Today was a full day. I got up and fixed my favorite breakfast here, yogurt on top of cereal and fruit. I don’t know why I crave yogurt so much here, maybe because it’s readily available and I don’t have to argue on the price. It’s also good to eat now that my malaria medication is an antibiotic I have to take daily. Got to replace all the good bacteria to keep my body happy!

I walked over to “Pont Ancient” (the old bridge) and met Madeleine. We had made plans to go shopping together and then make meat sauce. So we set off across the bridge to Ganhi, one of the more manageable markets in Cotonou. Together we bought tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash, lettuce, onions, garlic, bananas, pine apple, and rice. I was a little nervous that I was buying most of my veggies from a stall near all the live chickens, given the recent outbreak of bird flu. Eh, the birds looked healthy enough.

We also bought meat. The meat section of the market is, well, meaty. Men stand behind tiled counters and hack away at animals that were alive just hours (or minutes) ago. Flies are everywhere. If you’re not careful, you’ll get hit by a piece of meat or meat juice as a man slams down a cleaver knife or swats at flies. Madeleine asked for a half-kilo of beef. I watched her pick the piece of meat to be cut. The skin of the animal was beside the meat, in case there was any doubt as to how fresh it was. She then asked for it to be ground, a request most Beninoise don’t make. They dumped the ground beef into a black plastic bag and handed it to me. Forget about clear cellophane sealing. Things aren’t usually stored long anyway, so it’s just not necessary.

Madeleine and I headed back to Melissa’s apartment to prepare the meat sauce. Madeleine works for Melissa but has become like a mother/sister to me. I don’t know why she has adopted me the way she has, but all my African mamas (including the yovo mamas) make me feel pretty special. Anyway, we made a delicious sauce, and she reminded me about 6 times before leaving that I must eat very well. “You work hard! You should eat well!”

I got back to my house in time to put the sauce, veggies and fruit away before Yves came by to pick me up. We scooted off to visit two schools on the other side of town. I think YFC has 30 clubs in schools in Cotonou. It’s grown a lot this year already. We stopped by a school in “Godomey” first, as Karim (a student leader) talked to his classmates about rejoicing before the Lord. We then went to a school in “Jericho” where I knew more students, including Rocky, Roslyn, Apolinaire and Augustin. YFC leaders Jucascar, Alexis and Anthelme were all present as well, since this particular meeting was to discuss HIV/AIDS. This was actually the first training I had seen on HIV/AIDS, even though I know it’s something YFC has been actively involved in in the past. Toward the end, Anthelme asked me to say something. I wasn’t really prepared to talk about HIV/AIDS, but I just emphasized the importance of having and sharing good information, knowing there are so many myths to be debunked here.

Yves dropped me back home, where I read my mail (a newsletter from Desiree and Damien and a note with stickers and m&m’s from Christin!) and thought of (and prayed for) peeps back home. Then I packed up my gear and headed to Porto Novo for my Wednesday night class. I graded papers in the car (procrastination works in Africa too), which instantly elevated my status in the bush van. At one point my papers were rattling too much, and my neighbor shut the window a bit to cut back on the wind. I told him not to worry, but he insisted, so the rest of the bush van enjoyed a little less fresh air because of me. After I finished grading, someone behind me said “Teacher, please!” in English. I turned, and he asked to see the red pen I had been grading with. “I like this pen very much, let me have it?” “No, I need it to grade papers,” I responded in French. “But you can buy others?” “No, I bought this in the US.” “Can I have your address?” “No.” This is a pretty typical conversation. No matter where the conversation starts, it always ends in “Can I have your contact?” “No.”

Class in Porto Novo was fun. I told them about my Christmas traditions back home and they told me about their traditions here. We sang two verses of “Silent Night” in English, and they did VERY well! I told them I’d like them to perform for our Christmas party on Monday, and they were excited about the idea.

On the bush ride home, I was overwhelmed by the smell of red meat. You know the smell if you stick your nose right up next to a big piece of meat and breath in? It’s the same smell in the meat market, only more pervasive. But, I wasn’t in a meat market… I was on the road. Tomorrow is Hajj a Muslim holiday. To celebrate, people everywhere purchase goats and kill them. I’ve seen goats on the side of the street, piled in and on top of cars, being carried (live) in the lap of someone on the back of a zemi jan. It’s not unusual to see goats handled so, it’s just unusual to see so many! Even when I walked out of the school in Jericho this afternoon, I saw three goats with slit throats being skinned on the side of the road. I was surprised I didn’t react more strongly, half-expecting to pass out or at least feel dizzy. So with goats being killed everywhere, the whole country smells of a meat market. You smell in the back of your nose with every breath.

Once home, though, I started boiling pasta (I also boiled my toothbrush after noting some bacteria growing between the bristles) to go with the sauce Madeleine and I made earlier in the day. My second official dinner cooked in my newly functioning kitchen. This time I actually put the food on a plate rather than eating out of the pot. So sophisticated. What with seeing all the animals being slaughtered throughout the day, I couldn’t help but thinking, this meat was alive earlier today. It was a good sauce.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the journey north

follow lau and alvin as they drive up one side of benin and down the other. alvin is working on his second book, discussing eagle scouts and adventure… lau is helping him get around while learning more about the country God so seemingly randomly asked her to move to and serve in.


I walked to Hotel du Lac to meet Alvin for breakfast. He was well rested. We met our driver, Carlos (what an odd name for Africa), and then set out on our way to Lokossa. This was Alvin’s first time to see Africa in daylight. He was struck by the amount of street commerce. He said, “It looks like everyone is selling, but who is buying?”

The trip to Lokossa was about 2 hours. We met Paul, an Eagle Scout volunteering in Benin with Peace Corps, at a restaurant called Les Colines. Alvin thought the outdoor set up, eating under payotes, was really cool. I had forgotten that was an unusual setting! We ate pile-pile (pounded yams, pronounced peelay-peelay) with fried cheese in a peanut sauce. It was delicious. I can remember when that was a strange meal.

We had a great discussion with Paul. Alvin loved it. We also got to see where Paul lives and teaches. He’s in his second year of Peace Corps, and you can tell he’s effective in the classroom just by how he describes it. I hope I’m that acclimated after a year!

We came back via Ouida so I could show Alvin the “Point of no Return” slave memorial. It’s really moving. It’s like a doorway to the ocean. You walk to it and through it and think, ‘This is what the slaves saw as they boarded the ships.’ Then you turn around and look back at the land and think, ‘This was their last view of their home, never to return again.’ Give me chill bumps.

After all that, Alvin and I took a quick dip in the hotel pool, cleaned up, and enjoyed a relaxing dinner on the hotel terrace… at which point I learned that Hotel du Lac has the BEST pizza in Cotonou. In all of Benin for that matter! They even have a brick oven. Delicious.


After another breakfast at Hotel du Lac, Alvin and I loaded up the car (a really nice Toyota Landcruiser with air conditioning!) and set out for Natitingou. “Nati” is about 10 hours from Cotonou. We did a lot of sleeping on the way. It was cool to watch the landscape change when I was awake, though. Sandy roads become red dirt roads, “terre rouge.” Rural villages are much greener than the smoggy streets of Cotonou. Huts are made of red clay and thatched roofs. Near Nati, you can see the “tata samba” huts, which look like miniature castles. I hope to go in one someday. Once we arrived in Nati, we decided to push on an hour further to Tanguietta. There we checked in to the Hotel Boaboa and met two SIL missionaries, Carl and Ursula, for a Coke. We then walked to their house, where Ursula gave me doxycyclene tablets. I’ve been taking larium to prevent malaria here, but due to some mild chest pains (occasionally sharp, but mostly just dull pressure) I’ve been having, the Peace Corps doctor (a friend of mine) said to switch to doxy immediately. Ursula has been here for years and no longer takes anything, so I’m glad she had some pills to spare.

After dinner, Alvin and I were both exhausted. We settled into our respective huts. His with A/C, mine with a fan. You can’t expect someone to adjust to Africa in 2 days!


I knocked on Alvin’s door at 6am to get an early start on our day of safari. He said, “go away!” We had a meager breakfast before meeting our guide, Victor Lola. He said we could just call him Lola. L-O-L-A, Lola, haha.

We drove about half an hour before reaching the park entrance. Alvin paid the fees and bought a map and post cards. We loaded up and began our safari, driving all morning. We mostly saw various breeds of Antelope. I think Pendjari Park has 6 different Antelope species. We also saw wart hogs, hippos and birds. We checked into the park hotel and settled in for siesta. Alvin did some writing, but I crashed. We set out again in the afternoon. At one point our guide stopped a man near an office to talk. The man then lifted a metal barrier to a side road, allowing us to pass. The guide then turned to us and said, “We are now in Burkina Faso.” Just like that, I was visiting my 15th country, though my passport bears no proof. We drove less than a mile before spotting elephants. These elephants were different than what I saw in Tanzania. The elephants in Tanzania were smaller and greyer. These elephants were larger and older looking. Alvin and the guide got out of the car and Alvin snapped some shots. The elephant totally could have charged him. I think it was probably one of the coolest moments of Alvin’s life, looking an elephant in the eyes in the wild. He was on cloud nine.

The guide was pretty pleased too. On our way back to the hotel, he said he hoped we could all get together and talk after dinner. That he had stories about safari and wanted to hear our stories about America. We ended up chatting before dinner instead, discussing African politics and economics. I was exhausted after translating back and forth between English and French for the guide and Alvin. It was good practice, though. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do the same two months ago!


We got an early start in the park today. Our guide Lola was really on his game. We saw an elephant and a huge camion that practically charged us (we were outside the car at the time). After exiting the park, we headed to the waterfalls. About 15 boys accompanied us, mostly for entertainment. They climbed up the side of the falls and jumped. Even our guide joined in. I felt a little self conscious stripping down to my swimsuit as the lone girl, but I jumped in fast and was instantly at ease. The water was perfect. Alvin and I swam up to the falls, climbed up the rock face a few feet, swam under the falls, letting the water pound our heads into submission. I floated. Absolutely beautiful. I definitely have to go back to the falls before leaving Benin.

Business called, so we ate lunch, bought some souvenirs for Alvin, and hit the road again. We dropped Lola off in Tanguietta before making our way to Kouande, a village two hours away, to pick up Dutch. Dutch is in his second year of Peace Corps, volunteering to help with the town’s environment and agriculture projects. He’s also an Eagle Scout, which is why we visited him. Alvin is working on his second book regarding Eagle Scouts. His first one discussed scouts that are have been successful in various walks of life, and this one will discuss scouts who continue to capture a sense of adventure in their careers. Turns out there are five Eagle Scout Peace Corps Volunteers living adventurous lives in Benin, so Alvin has come to interview for of them.

Anyway, with Dutch in tow, we headed to the village of Sinende to meet ES PCV Collin. The two hour drive provided ample time to get to know Dutch a little better. He is totally cool. In Sinende, I smiled as Collin rode up to meet us on his bike. He is SO much like my little brother Pierce. Tall, short hair and beard, big smile, and enough intelligence and personality to make a brick wall laugh. The four of us (Collin, Dutch, Alvin and me) headed back to Collin’s concession. He is in his first year and has only lived in Sinende for three months, volunteering to help develop businesses, so his furniture consists of two “pagne” chairs and a mattress on the floor. We all headed to dinner at the only “restaurant” in town, where we met Collin’s post mate, Aaron. The five of us enjoyed a lovely meal of yam ragu and chicken. Alvin then headed back to the concession with Collin and Dutch for his first experience of village living, while I headed to the “Auberge” in town, where a bed and bucket shower costs 5 bucks.


Well Alvin survived his first night in the village. Collin even heated his bucket shower on the stove. I think the three boys had a good time together.

We drove over to the secondary school (Where PCV Aaron teaches) to check out their library. It’s pretty unusual to have a library at a school here, so I was very intrigued. All the books have been donated, so it’s quite a hodgepodge of titles, but the students love it. We then hit the road to Gogonou with Collin and Dutch in tow. There we met Alex, a very tall ES PCV, who unfortunately lives in a house with very low door frames. He has to stoop down every time he enters or exits any room in his place. Alex teaches English, so we walked over to his school to check it out. We then walked over to a restaurant to meet Alex’s post mate, Emily, for a drink. Emily has more furniture (most of which she inherited from the previous PCV) than Alex, so we all headed to her house to chat away the afternoon. The conversation was all over the place. We then headed back to the same restaurant for another drink while we waited for some man on the street to cook some meet for us over an open flame. When if finally came, there was too little to really serve as a meal, and it was too rare, but we were ravenous, so we ate it anyway. I’m not feeling sick yet!

One of the village boys was playing with a stick and a wheel, like in the Norman Rockwell paintings. This is a favorite pastime for kids in Benin, so I wanted to give it a shot. But when I started walking toward the boy, he screamed and ran off. This started a routine of gradually getting closer to the “baturi” (Bariba for white person, or Northern speak for “yovo”) and then running away once I looked in the children’s direction. Each time they got a little closer, though, and finally we had ourselves a dance party. Emily and I got up to dance like idiots for the kids, encouraging them to show us the Bariba dance, which differs from the traditional dances in the South. After much coaxing and cheering, several young girls finally showed us the moves, which we then poorly imitated. Alvin then thought we should show them the “shag,” so he and I started dancing and turning together. We started with just a few young bystanders, but soon a whole crowd of adults had formed to watched the crazy Americans. We bowed to their applause and went back to our seats. I was thrilled Alvin could have such a cool village moment. Those are the things that stick with you.

Still hungry, we went to visit one of Emily’s “mamas” to get some pounded yams and fried cheese. The sauce was spicy and really really delicious. The PCVs and I couldn’t stop talking about the sauce, it was so good, but Alvin said, “So you eat food like this often?” “All the time!” He thought that would get pretty old. And sometimes it does, I guess.

The four boys went back to Alex’s place to have their Eagle Scout moments while I went back to Emily’s to crash. I like the North a lot.


We visited Alex’s classroom this morning. Alvin got lots of pictures. Alex is a great teacher. It has been so encouraging to see all these Peace Corps volunteers thriving in their work and environments, even though they face all of the same challenges and disappointments I’ve been struggling with over the past few months. It’s good to be around people that understand when you vent, but don’t let you feel sorry for yourself either.

We said our goodbyes to Alex and Emily, then Alvin, Dutch, Collin and I made our way to Parakou. There we stopped for lunch and then checked out the Peace Corps station there. They have a whole compound, complete with a living room, library, kitchen, bathroom, office, first aid and bunk beds! If I were a PCV, and want to chill in Parakou all the time! Or better yet, manage the station. It’s like being a dorm counselor in Africa!

The drive from Parakou to Cotonou is about 6 hours, if you’re lucky, and I needed to be back in time for Book Club at 8, so we said our goodbyes and hit the road once again. I slept most of the way back.

All in all, I feel like I have a much better understanding of the country, the people, and where I do and don’t fit in here. The hardest thing about the trip was seeing Benin through Alvin’s eyes, remembering how difficult things are here compared to home. He didn’t complain, it just wasn’t natural to him, which means it’s really not that natural to me either. The best part about the trip was seeing someone from home and feeling connected to my “other” life while simultaneously forming a more complete context for my current life. Alvin also did a great job of playing Santa Claus, letting me reach into a Christmas stocking every day to reveal another present from the distant land of America. Things like Oreos never tasted so good!

Monday, December 17, 2007

what's an ekg like in benin?

oh, i'm so glad you asked.

well, i had to lay on a table in a room. there was a divider between me and some man laying on another table, which was a little uncomfortable for me (seeing as you have to take your shirt off), but i just closed my eyes and pretended he wasn't there.

on the table was a long piece of pink paper. if you've traveled to the developing world, you know toilet paper is always hot pink. this was the exact same stuff, only wider.

so i'm laying on this gigantic piece of toilet paper, and a woman puts these colored clamps on my ankles and wrists. green for my left foot, black for my right foot, red for my right hand, yellow for my left hand. then she put these suction cups on my chest... not like what you see on tv in the states... where you basically have tape with little wires coming out... but suction cups (5 or 6 of them) with big blue bulbs on top and thick wires coming out. i basically looked like i had been abducted by aliens. the wires were hanging off a big wooden post. anyway... they pressed a button, i heard two beeps, and it was over in 1 minute. whew! i didn't know what to expect, so i was just glad it didn't shock me.

this whole time i was actually kinda scared, and really wanted to cry, but i've been unable to cry in months, so i seemed much braver than i actually was.

then i went into the doctor's office with my friend kim (brian and kim were SO awesome to go with me!) and he checked a few more things, asked me a few questions, and gave me a clean bill of health! he said my recent chest pains are likely just anxiety, and that i should either lighten up or go home. me? lighten up? does he expect me to float? oh well. i'm going back for a check up in a month.

brian and kim took me out for a cup of tea afterward. and now it's back to my day! running errands, setting up my kitchen, and teaching tonight!

in lighter news, the english fellowship crowd had a wonderful time singing Christmas carols and eating Christmas cookies yesterday. in true lau fashion, i sang the descant so loudly on every song, no one near me could sing the melody. such fun.

still working on my description of travels north... stay tuned...

Friday, December 14, 2007

elfed up

this is a shout out to my old school b'more girls, but for everyone's viewing pleasure. TOO funny.
if only there could be more than 4 heads!

back from the bush

lots of great stories to tell from this past week, but no time to tell them. just know i'm back in the booming metropolis of cotonou, and all is well! i did have to switch anti-malarial medications while i was away. that was fun. we're hoping that fixes the minor chest pains :) i'm going to see the doc next week just in case... more to put everyone else's minds at ease than anything.

northern benin is beautiful! hills and green trees and red dirt! the people are also very different. new languages and different dress. it'll be fun to write about next week.

bon weekend...

Friday, December 07, 2007

harmattan is here!

yep. temps this week have been consistently below 90 degrees! i thought it was just a fluke, but no, it's harmattan. i'll let rob tell you about it so i can finish moving into my house...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

movin' on up

well... i've moved! mostly. brian, kim, marianne and matt were all very helpful in moving all the furniture i bought a month ago from storage to my "compound." see, my new home is actually 3 separate buildings... the main house (bedroom, bathroom, living room), the kitchen and the guest house (bedroom and bathroom). click here to see the virtual tour.

pictured are josue's "mama," me and isaac. we're all pretty happy i finally have a place of my own!

it's not yet a fully functioning home. i still need to get fans, a gas stove and gas tank, and a voltage stabilizer. tonight i'm staying at my friend melissa's place one last time (thanks melissa!) i have LOVED staying here. great view and free internet! but tomorrow i'll stay at my place, and yes, i have a guard, so don't you worry!

so tomorrow will be a big day. lau's first night staying in the compound. woohoo!

tomorrow is ALSO a big day because ALVIN is coming to town! YAY! alvin is working on his second book on eagle scouts and is traveling to benin to interview 4 scouts working for peace corps now. (more importantly, he is bringing my Christmas presents from my parents!) i'm very excited to see a friend from home. we'll be traveling to the northernmost part of benin. it's pretty much a symbiotic voyage. i'll help alvin communicate and survive, while he'll help me to see the rest of the country and potential ministry opportunities. please pray for our safety :)

okay, maybe a few too many exclamation marks in this post, but you'll need the excitement to hold you over while i'm away this next week...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

from lau-mad to lau-cal

lau: [pronounced- loh] noun. a nickname given to lauren while living in argentina. most english speaking people mispronounce the name, making it rhyme with "now" instead of "know."

lau-mad: brian came up with this word in my first post about my nomad status back in june. my nomad days are nearly over! i move tomorrow!

lau-cal: the new state of lau... see below.

another wednesday night journey to and from porto novo... so many potential stories to tell... i'll just highlight two.

so i'm sitting in the back of the "bush van" when we stop to pick up another traveler. the only "empty" seat is next to me in the very back, so we open the trunk, and an old man climbs in. yes, i really mean the trunk... and yes, he really had to climb. now, we were already pretty crowded back there, since two big "mamas" were sitting on the other side of me. the lady in front of me laughed and asked if i was okay. typically, people try to let the "yovo" sit near the front. i smiled and nodded. the old man next to me said something along the lines of, "she's in africa. she can be like the africans." i nodded again, "c'est vrai..." 10 minutes later, the old man was asleep on my shoulder.

fast forward 3 hours...

i'm back in cotonou, just jumped out of the bush van, and i'm flagging down a zemi jan. you should remember zemi jans are a form of taxi... you climb onto the back of a motor bike with a man wearing a yellow shirt and tell him where you want to go. "zemi jan" is fon (local language) for "take me fast!" anyway, i'm telling my "zem" where i want to go, when another zem pulls up to ask for directions. the guy on the back of his bike wants to get to "senede." the poor zem driver must have just moved here from the bush, he had no idea where he was going. and the guy on the back of the bike was nigerian, he also had no clue. so local lau gave them directions. mmm hmm!

to give you a better idea of the zemi jan experience, i'll post a picture.

my dad and i were talking about zem rides over the phone last week. our conversation went something like this...

dad: so you just hold on to some stranger on a bike? (laughing)
lau: of course not! you can't hold on to them!
dad: well then how do you stay on? you must hold on to something?
lau: well you can hold on to the seat, but it's actually easier to just relax and go with the flow.
dad: kinda like riding a horse?
lau: kinda.
dad: and i guess you can squeeze the seat with your legs too?
lau: definitely not! the guy on the bike is likely to be wider than the seat, so you'd be squeezing him with your legs instead of the seat! not a good idea.

note to people traveling to benin: when a zemi driver asks if you're married, the answer is ALWAYS yes!!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

this broken record is hot

we had the most unusual weather in cotonou today... i think it must have been below 80 degrees! breezy and cloudy... i thought maybe if i sat on the deck with earphones, my eyes closed, and a shawl wrapped around me, maybe i could pretend i was sitting in the mountains on an autumn day. eh, no. couldn't escape reality, despite my wild imagination. still, it was a welcome change in temperatures, which made me realize that part of my mind is convinced it's still august.

since the weather has been consistently hot from the first day i arrived, it's kinda like that movie "groundhog day," i wake up to the same thing over and over. but as i was skyping with one of my friends this morning (skype lets you talk and see each other over the internet for free), i could see that he was wearing warm clothes. even the contents of his room gave evidence of cold weather. at which point i realized life goes on without me. part of me subconsciously has believed these past few months that my life is in "repeat play" (you know, when the same song plays over and over and over again) while everyone else's lives are in "pause." like people back home are just sitting still, waiting for me to get back. or maybe they're watching my life on a movie, sometimes biting their nails and whispering, "no! don't do that!" or "gosh, how'd she come out of that alive?" (like today when i got hit by a zemi jan (moped) while crossing the street... but it only barely brushed me!)

but, as it turns out, life goes on with and without me. the weather changes in other places, even if it stays the same here. and peeps back home aren't waiting on standby, watching me live life... they're living life too. of course i've known this all along, it just doesn't feel that way.

speaking of skype, if you don't have it, you should consider getting it. it's free and easy. but friday is the last time i'll have consistent internet access for a while. i'm moving to my new house, and it could take months to get internet set up!

Monday, December 03, 2007

one laptop per child

i've been able to talk (i love skype) to a few of you about the desperate need for access to information here. really, if i could name one thing that holds people back in benin (or any developing nation, for that matter) it would be the limited accessibility to internet. yes, you can get on the internet. i wouldn't be blogging otherwise. there are internet cafes, etc. but they cost money to use, and if you have the choice of buying an hour of internet or buying a meal, obviously food wins! and even if you did have money to spare on internet, because computers are so sparse, people don't really know how to use them. at least not efficiently. i helped one of my students to a search for education opportunities the other night (universities, scholarships, etc) and it took me 5 minutes to do what could have taken him 2 hours, simply because i've grown up in a digital world.

if i only had 6 months to be here, and $6,000 to work with... i would secure office space, get a table and 7 laptops, a projector and internet access... then i would teach my students how to get all the information that's essentially free back home. i think it's truly the most effective way to teach people to help themselves. it's the quickest way to level the playing field. i mean, my kids are smart! and creative! they just lack information.

well, this program has a similar idea. they're doing what they can to get technology in the hands of kids that need it the most. like i said in my last post, knowledge truly is power. this is essentially giving knowledge.

through december 31, you can buy one of these innovative laptops for yourself (ingeniously designed to be used in developing nations) and give one simultaneously. for $399, one computer will be sent to a child in need, and one sent to you.

if you're really fired up, and think you could raise the $30,000 needed to do so... you could buy 100 computers at $299 to be sent to the specific location of your choice... like... jeunesse pour christ benin!

check it out.

Friday, November 30, 2007

world AIDS day

tomorrow, december 1, is world AIDS day. according to the world health organization, in the parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is most prevalent, only one in ten people with HIV know they're infected. knowledge is power. no, really, it is. you know about AIDS, so you have the power to do something to make a difference. what will you do?

i'll be praying with a LOT of people from 7:00 to 17:00 (1-11 AM EST). you can join us if you want. don't think prayer can make a difference? agree to disagree... then do something else. visit to learn more about what you can do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

my life is a musical

tonight i took a bush van to porto novo (by myself! at night!) for class. i find that listening to my ipod shuffle on bush rides really helps to put things in perspective. odd. i know. but it's like i have to have a backdrop of familiar music to remember just how unfamiliar my surroundings are. watching a woman walk down the road with a huge load on her head and a baby on her back... common enough... watching that same woman while listening to coldplay? or robert earl keen? or ani difranco? exotic and surreal.

so as i got comfy in my 6 inches of space this evening, i pressed play, wondering what the musical genius that is my shuffle would select for my listening pleasure. "all the trees of the field will clap their hands" by sufjan stevens. i closed my eyes, exhaled and smiled. here are the lyrics...

If I am alive this time next year,
will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far.
And I'm still applied to what you are.
And I am joining all my thoughts to you.
And I'm preparing every part for you.

And I heard from the trees a great parade.
And I heard from the hills a band was made.
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you've made?
And I am throwing all my thoughts away.
And I'm destroying every bet I've made.
And I am joining all my thoughts to you.
And I'm preparing every part for you.

in the same way that the music colors my surroundings, my surroundings filter the music. words take on different or deeper meanings, songs become new again. i would discuss just how this song became new to me tonight, but i can't write well enough to do so. and it wouldn't mean the same to you anyhow. i mean, the lyrics are just one part of the entire experience. how can i possibly describe the effect of pitches, sound color, syncopation and repetition? and then all the memories that come with it... early mornings alone at MEA, contemplating preceptorial papers and fund raising while closing out grants... who was i then? who am i now? okay, enough already...

i've blogged about sufjan before. if you're not already a fan, check him out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

chez MOI!

one thing you learn quickly in africa, is that if someone asks how you’re doing, you always respond asking about their family…
“ça va?”
“oui, ça va. chez toi?”
literally, it’s asking about your home… up till now, i’ve felt silly saying “my home goes well.” i mean… what home?
until today.
today i can say, “chez moi va tres bien!!!!!!”
yes, after nearly 6 months of being a nomad (4 months in benin and 2 months in the states), i have found a home. and it’s perfect. it’s the best place ever, and no one can convince me otherwise.
i mean, it has a YARD! do you know how rare that is? very. in the smoggy city that is cotonou, i, lauren, will have trees. TREES! palm trees and banana trees!!!!!
it’s like my whole life just changed! TREES!

Monday, November 26, 2007

get down on it

saturday’s english class was in porto novo, the political capital of benin. i teach in porto novo every wednesday night and every other saturday. to get there, i flag a “bush van” (as i like to call them… like a bush taxi, but bigger), which is essentially an astro van that has been equipped with 4 bench seats. 20 people (and their stuff) fit in a bush van. this is the standard number. there are no seat belts. it’s at least an hour’s ride each way, which costs about $2 roundtrip.

though bush vans are exceedingly hot, windy and cramped, they are fun. especially if you enjoy people watching. i would describe it, but fear some of my observations would seem irreverent to someone on the outside looking in… so ask me about it next time you see me.

anyway, the school where i teach in porto novo is partly a boarding school for girls. anyone can come to my classes, it’s just that we meet at the boarding school to accommodate the girls that board and are not allowed to leave. this technicality makes it difficult to do the fun things i get to do with the students in cotonou, but we make do…

so saturday we had a dance party in class. we talked about dance vocabulary (including body parts and movements… shake, twist, etc) and listened to african music. they tried to teach me african moves. then it was time for some american dance moves… my friend sarah was visiting, and we chose the tune “get down on it.” easy enough lyrics to teach the students, catchy tune, one of the best dance songs of all times. sarah and i totally “cut a rug” (that was a difficult expression to teach), and the students mimicked our every move… meaning they looked absolutely ridiculous. it was awesome.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

best thanksgiving ever

okay... maybe that seems like an overstatement. i mean, i am millions (it feels like) miles away from my friends and family. i have even been admittedly miserable this entire week, wanting to cry about everything, and yet finding no tears.

and perhaps that is why today was the best thanksgiving ever.

just when i thought thanksgiving was going to be dreadful, it was awesome. just when i thought i'd have to make do with chicken, a platter of TURKEY and stuffing and gravy appears! and mashed potatoes! and pumpkin pie!

the only food items missing were pecan pie and duke of windsor sandwiches (made from leftover turkey, cheddar cheese and chutney... yum).

and while there's no substitute for my family back home (i love you guys!) i did get to dine with a room full of really bright, really caring, really interesting people... including my adopted family.

and speaking of my adopted family... in true american fashion (even though my fam here is canadian), i went shopping this morning with kim. and bought Christmas presents. and wrapped them in Christmas paper. and listened to Christmas music.

AND my real family sent me a paper "Christmas tree in a box" that now stands about 2 feet tall in my borrowed apartment!

see... best thanksgiving ever. for real.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

we all scream for...

ice cream!

saturday english classes are supposed to be especially fun. my goal is to get the students out of the classroom and into various settings to practice different kinds of vocabulary. i plan to take them to the market one day, to the beach, to my house (once i have one) etc. this past saturday in cotonou, i had a small group, only 8 students. so i "splurged" and took them to the ice cream shop around the corner.

we looked at the menu and discussed different items in english. we went to the ice cream counter to say all the different flavors in english. we discussed how we don't "put" water in a glass, but "pour" it. i told the students they could each order one scoop of ice cream (800 cfa, or about $1.75 a pop), my treat. half the kids wanted to be like me, and ordered the exact same thing.

for the last 30 minutes of class i asked the "kids" to take 3 minutes to reflect on how God had blessed them in the past week, something they could share (in english) with the rest of the group. one student said, "God has blessed me this week with the opportunity to go where i have never gone and to eat what i have never eaten." he had never had ice cream. wow.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

tanzania: zanzibar

and now for a summary of sights in zanzibar. i've been to beaches all over the world, and this one stands out for sure. click here to see the complete album.

November 11, 2007

Breakfast is served on the top floor and terrace of our hotel. The eggs in Tanzania have yokes so pale that you’d think they have no yokes at all. Skye thinks this is because the chickens are fed fish. The view at breakfast was beautiful. I felt the constant urge to pinch myself, Zanzibar is just that lovely! It’s actually a very romantic place, and it’s funny to be someplace so romantic with two platonic friends. Very cool, though.

Raph went scuba diving for the morning (I really should get certified to do the same sometime) while Skye and I visited the Anglican Cathedral that sits atop a former slave market. It was the last open slave market in Africa before the English purchased the land, tore down the market, and built this church. Skye and I arrived in the middle of the Holy Communion service. It was fun to listen to familiar tunes sung in Swahili language. We hummed along. After the service I got pics of the church, a cross made of wood from the tree Dr. Livingston’s heart was buried under in Zambia, and a slave memorial outside the church.

While eating lunch, we saw some guy wearing a shirt that said, “you looked better on myspace!” He was selling cashews. I doubt he knows what “myspace” is… really wish I had a picture!

After Raph returned from his dive, the three of us took one of those old-style “dhow” sailboats out to “Prison Island.” A prison was built on the island, which then was used to quarantine the sick, and now it’s just a run-down hotel with a beautiful tiny beach and lots of giant tortoises. Tortoises make really weird noises. We sailed back to Stone Town at sunset. Beautiful. Then cleaned up for dinner with typical Zanzibar seasoning at a restaurant on the water. Really, the trip was over the top.

November 10, 2007

After some tea and breakfast, Skye, Raph and I piled into Frank’s taxi (Frank is one of Skye’s favorite taxi drivers, so we call him to take us just about anywhere… he’s nice) and made our way to the airport. Dar Es Salaam is such an interesting mix of cultures. On the one hand, it seems much more cosmopolitan than anything I’ve seen since moving to Africa. On the other hand, you see Maasai men walking around with traditional clothes and spears… and cell phones.

At the airport, we boarded a little plane for a 15 minute flight over to Zanzibar. You can also take the ferry to Zanzibar, but it takes 3 hrs and is only $10 cheaper than flying (that’s only true if you have a “local” like Skye with you, though). The flight was beautiful! It was like being in a car with wings. We got some great pics. The water was so clear, I’m pretty sure I was able to see schools of fish from way up in the air!

Once we landed, we checked into our super cool hotel in Stone Town, with Arab influenced architecture and design everywhere. It reminded me of how much I like the Arabesque parts of Spain. Anyway, just beautiful. I had a yummy cold squid salad for lunch before taking a dip in the pool. I was enjoying a peaceful float all by myself till Raph and Skye did cannon balls on either side of me. I squealed. Like a girl.

Before sunset we went to the “Africa House” which used to be the English Club. It was so cool to watch the sun go down over the ocean behind old-style sail boats called “dhows.” I snapped sooo many pictures. Then we went to an Amore Mio for an Italian dinner, recommended by my Italian friend Erin! Again, yum.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

tanzania: safari

here's an account (in reverse order) of two days' safari in tanzania... if only words could truly describe! click here to see all the pics.

November 9, 2007

Raph and I went back to Mikumi National Park today after an “English” breakfast of eggs, beans, a weenie, fruit, toast, tea and passion fruit juice. It’s funny how we sit still when we see animals from far off instead of jumping up to take pictures. We’ve accumulated so many close-ups already. So today’s tour is more relaxing, but still awe inspiring. Raph likes to sit on the luggage rack above the hood of the car. Our vehicle is a pop-top 4x4… safari sun-roof.

We saw another group of lions today, off the legal trail again. This time we spotted a male as well. Incredible.

The only disappointment of the day is that we missed the visit to the snake park that was included in our safari package. No biggie. I’ve seen plenty of snakes before. I was hoping I would get my picture taken with one around my neck, though! Maybe next time…

We got back to Dar Es Salaam in time for dinner with Skye. We decided to go to a restaurant typical of Tanzania, in part so Raph could try the maize paste that we also eat here in Benin. From there we went to a bar with live music. The sets mixed American, African and Reggae. We danced a lot. I can’t remember the last time I got to dance at a bar to “brown eyed girl” or “wonderful tonight!” It was so much fun. We kinda tried to set Skye up with a cute Fulbright student working on her PhD, but I was a little skeptical of her motives. Raph got her number just in case.

November 8, 2007

I tried Ethiopian food for the first time last night. Skye took Raph and me to an awesome retaurant with great ambiance. They basically bring out a sheet of thin, pancakey bread and then dump small bowls of various savory meats and veggies (or pumpkin) in yummy sauces onto the extra large pancake thing. They then give you a plate full of what look like rolled up hand towels, but they’re actually more of this pancakey bread stuff. You tear off some bread and then use it to pinch off a mouthful of meat or veggies. It was absolutely delicious! And great food for socializing. I’m surprised this hasn’t caught on all over the US… I might venture to say it’s better than tapas!

Raph and I left Dar Es Salaam early this morning with our driver and safari guide, Abel. We drove 5 hours, half of which we slept, the other half we caught up on each others lives and the lives of our mutual friends. It feels good to talk about folks from home.

We dropped our bags at our room and had a quick lunch and siesta at our hotel outside the Mikumi National Park. Abel picked us back up for a “three hour tour” (it really was a three hour tour, and I kept singing the Giligan’s Island song in my head). We saw so many animals! At first we were taking pictures of anything, even if from a distance. Giraffes, baboons, wildebeests, pumbas, impalas, zebras, elephants, bush bucks, lions, hippos, buffalo and various birds. The lions were hard to find, and we had to go off the “legal” trail. Abel kept saying, “Quick! Take your pictures! We are not allowed to be here, and can only stay a minute.” The lions were just resting and panting, too relaxed or tired to mind our presence.

We were pretty much on top of the world.

We ended the tour at one of the watering holes at the park. As the sun began to set, all the various animals came together for a drink: animals’ happy hour. I felt the constant need to pinch myself or break out into song… “in the circle of life!” To see all the animals all at once in perfect harmony beneath the orange sky… I have no words.

Friday, November 09, 2007


i’m not sure why, but africans often put on very serious faces when having their picture taken. so i decided to introduce my students to the concept of saying “cheese!” and it worked! except for one student that had a really hard time with the “ch” sound, scrunching his face in a not-so-happy look.

see, each student got to choose an “english” name to be used in class. my students in porto novo mostly chose the english equivalent of their own name, but my students in cotonou chose names like “jesus” and “king.” one student chose the name “bill” (we had to practice NOT saying “beel”), one chose “matthew” (we had to practice NOT saying “maTTew”), and one student chose “stephen” (knowing it was the name of my dad and brother, he wanted to be in my family). after going around the room practicing, “what’s up, dave? what’s up, joe?” while i took pictures of “dave” or “joe” saying, “cheese,” the students decided it was time to name me. they chose a name in fon: jesuwamè, which means “in the hand of Jesus.” that was enough to put a smile on my face.

click here to see the pictures (and names) of some of my beautiful students!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

vraiment beninoise

i went to church sunday wearing one of my beninese outfits. one of my students chose the fabric, and another chose the style of dress. this type of outfit is called a “modelle” which basically means it’s fitted instead of a loose pagne. and boy, do i mean fitted! to get on the back of a moto, you have to pull the tightest part of your skirt up over your hips… necessitating some kind of shimmy-shake in the middle of the street. ridiculous. but fun nonetheless!

and yay! now you can look at the picture sideways!! gotta keep things interesting...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

on va partir!!!

sorry blokes, the internet connection is down at the cyber cafe... oh, the irony. tia. so i have three lovely blog postings i'll have to put up at a later time, and LOTS of pictures of my beautiful students. stay tuned!

in the mean time, i'm borrowing a friend's computer to say "peace out" before i head to tanzania tonight. will be there for a week with college buddies raph and skye. SO excited.

and if you haven't tried pringles spicy guacamole chips, you should. they're delicious!

Saturday, November 03, 2007


i had to say goodbye to one of my friends this week. while i partly benefited from her departure (i bought her bed, 2 mattresses, a desk and chair, bookcases, a couch, coffee table, chairs and ottoman, a refrigerator and kitchen stuff… all of which is in storage now… not to mention hand-me-down clothes she just gave me!) i had a really hard time not crawling into her suitcase to get back to the US. relationships here are so transient, at least in the expat circles. i’ll have to say more goodbyes in frebruary, march, may, june and july. every single missionary family is going home (ie: leaving cotonou) in the next year! that, combined with the upcoming thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, is enough to make anyone homesick.

but i’m TOTALLY excited to see my college buddies, raph and skye, in tanzania this week! that should distract me out of homesickness for a bit.

and i’m SO grateful to rob and brian for lending their wheels and man-power to operation-move-lauren-to-nowhere!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


last night was my first english class with the volunteers. it was awesome. it was supposed to start at 7:30 pm, but in typical fashion, people were wondering in around 8:00. i told them there are three rules: 1) respect yourself, your classmates and me; 2) no french, only english; 3) try your best. at the end of class, once everyone had arrived, i explained that showing up late was NOT respecting me or the other students. i also told them that they shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes in english because they hear me making mistakes in french ALL the time. they laughed. they know it’s true.

i asked them if they wanted to have english names just to use in class to practice pronunciation, and they said yes, so i need to come up with a list before the next class.

we talked about why english is important, what they find most difficult, and what they hope to achieve in class… but then we spent the bulk of the time learning american phrases like, “what’s up? dude. yo. chillin’. cool. for real?” and of course, because it’s my class… “y’all.” they loved it. i explained that these are not phrases they will learn in class, and not phrases to use with their teachers or a boss, but phrases youth use with each other… and since our ministry is geared towards youth, it’s important to understand their language.

i wish you could have heard them, “what’s up, dude?” we were all beaming by the time class ended, and everyone promised they’d be on time next time. we’ll see :)

Monday, October 29, 2007


recently, i was stuffing my face at a birthday party for a missionary friend. the restaurant owner didn't seem to think i was eating enough (and you know i can eat... especially my peeps back at MEA who watched me scarf down donuts at every staff meeting, or my victory in the chicken sandwich eating contest... anything to win, right?) anyway, i decided to prove to the owner, and table of 20 something expats, that indeed, i had eaten my fill. here's me, the owner, and rob showing off our well fed bellies. starving in africa? not this girl!

this and that

don't have much time to update, so here are a few snippets:

1. i'm pink. had a great sunday in the sun with some girlfriends at what is likely benin's nicest beach. i felt like i was in a different world! but alas, putting on sunscreen once just isn't enough here. guess it beats the farmer's tan i've been sporting for months!

2. today is my first day of teaching. i just taught a class at the english international school (just a one time deal on how to take notes and study, random) and my english language classes start tonight! i'm very excited to be back in the classroom.

3. still no apartment, but i'm buying furniture from one of my girlfriends moving back to the states this week... so i'll be fully loaded once the apartment becomes a reality!

really, these could be 3 prayer requests... that i won't peel, that class will go well tonight (and this week) and that i'll have an apartment soooooooon!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

quazi-bush impressions

After running some errands on Monday with my Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) friend Sarah (including a stop at the local market and then the PC office, which has a great collection of used books to borrow), we set off for Sarah’s home, the village of Lobogo.

Lobogo is northwest of Cotonou, on the way to Lokossa. To get there from Cotonou, you take a bush taxi for a couple hours (depending on the road conditions) and then a 20 minute zemi into the quazi bush. Riding a zemi on a narrow red dirt road through stalks of corn is much more refreshing than riding through the smog of Cotonou.

Sarah lives in a concession (a group of rooms around an open space) with a man and his two wives and two kids, goats and chickens. Her house consists of a front room (which serves as a living room, dining room and office), a back room (which serves as her bedroom and kitchen) and then the latrine is behind the house beneath a banana tree. There is no running water, but you can collect rain water or have well water brought to you. Once you get used to the routine of filtering and boiling water for cooking and cleaning, it’s really not so bad. We actually cooked up a storm, making no-bake cookies and banana cake the first night (Sarah has a camp stove, but no oven, so I finally learned the art of creating your own dutch oven when making the banana cake). The second night we made a peanut sauce with tomatoes, onion and grated eggplant to go over lots more veggies (carrots, green beans, squash, more eggplant and green peppers… all purchased from the local market) and some kind of wheat pilaf stuff similar to rice. We also made a delicious salad and some orange oatmeal bread. PCVs in Benin have written a cookbook which is awesome to experiment with. I think I could really develop a love of cooking here. You have to love it because everything take so long to make! Cooking also requires a lot of creativity. Like when making the orange oatmeal bread, after cracking 3 rotten eggs (one exploded all over me) we finally gave up and substituted 1 tablespoon of corn starch. Worked great, though the rotten egg smell did linger in the house a bit longer than I would have liked. Gross. Anyway, being in the village is a great break from the city. I actually felt pretty darn pampered this morning. Sarah heated up my bucket shower water over the stove, so I had a warm “shower” in the crisp morning air under a banana tree. Who wouldn’t love that?

Sarah works as an English teacher in Lobogo. She has 4 classes of about 60 kids each, and each class lasts 2 hours. I fielded questions for 2 of her classes on Tuesday. Are you married? How old are you? How many children do you have? How many children does your father have? Do you have an identity card? Where are you from? Where do you live? Are you a teacher? Will you marry me? Sarah is a great teacher. She has the softest voice in the world, but it somehow carries over the 60 kids in her classroom (or more than 60 kids, if you count the kids that stand just outside and watch, which is easy enough when your classroom has only one wall).

After school on Tuesday, we met up with some people working with Population Services International (PSI) for an HIV/AIDS workshop hosted by two peer educators that have just been trained. They are a young man and young woman from the village who have agreed to be trained and to volunteer their time. The workshop they led was supposed to be for all the hairdressers of the village, but lots of other people came by to learn as well. At least 40 people were present. I was pretty impressed until the end of the workshop, when everyone ran up to grab fistfuls of free condoms, then ran off triumphant into the street. It made me wonder if that was the only reason they sat through the training, just to get free condoms. You’d guess by how quickly they ran off that the condoms wouldn’t last through the afternoon. But this was the first time the volunteers had completed a workshop, so they learned from the experience, and will handle condoms a bit differently next time. I learned a lot from the experience too.

Only other exciting village news to report is that I bought 4 meters of fabric at the market on Monday. It’s totally simple and my favorite colors (blue and brown), but completely comical, since the print on the fabric is of large electric fans. You can find the funniest fabrics here, decorated with the most common household items… toothpaste, tea cups, rolls of toilet paper. I’ve contemplated buying several, and finally settled on electric fans. It’ll make a lovely pagne!

Friday, October 19, 2007


the constant state of itching somewhere between where your feet stop and legs start.

why, oh WHY do mosquitos like my ankles so?

prayer in benin

prayer is something that really differs in benin. for one, people pray ALL the time. so much so, that is someone (seemingly randomly) exclaims, “Jesus!” you know they’re actually being reverent, not using the Lord’s name in vain. before pelagie and i leave the house to go to the market, we pray. before josue takes prisca to work in the morning, they pray. before we all go to bed at night, we pray, together, for each other. today i’m supposed to have a prayer meeting at the school we use for most of our meetings (i say supposed to because it’s been raining all day, which, quite literally, puts a damper on most plans). i’m told this will be a short meeting, since we’ve just be asked to come in and pray for the teachers as they start the school year. short means… maybe one hour. the prayer meeting (and i don’t mean church, this really was a meeting) i went to on sunday was five hours. different people take turns leading the prayer, but no one is ever praying alone. everyone prays their prayers aloud all at once. it can get pretty noisy, especially if the prayers are for protection against spiritual warfare, a constant concern to the beninoise Christian. everything is in the “blood of Jesus.” “dans la sang de Jesus! amen!!” it can be very exciting. and moving. you definitely don’t have to worry about falling asleep!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

my walk to the cyber

first off, it’s strange for me to walk to the cyber cafe. yes, people walk everywhere, but lots would take a zemi jan (moto taxi) rather than walk 10 minutes in the heat, and yovos are even less likely to walk. still, i like to compare it to my walks through federal hill from home to metro (oh, how i miss metro!) the roads are dirt/sand. palm trees are scattered about, but it’s not quite the same effect as the palm lined streets of CA, FL or SC. in fact, the palm trees are so unglamorous, that i didn’t even notice them for sight (maybe because there are so many other cool things to look at), but for sound. the leaves make this clapping sound in the wind. palm leaves are woven together to form walls, roofs, shade, floor mats, hats, anything. so i walk along this dirt road, side stepping piles of trash and standing water. in one spot, the water covers the whole of the road, so i have to walk on a low wall to keep from stepping in it. it’s not that i mind getting wet. i almost prefer to walk in the rain. it’s just that sitting water is a sure way to get sick or get worms… so i walk on the wall. my carpenter and his kids always smile and wave, which makes my day. other kids sing the yovo song, which is known throughout all of cotonou, “yovo, yovo, bon soir! cava bien, merci! yovo, yovo, bon soir! cava bien, merci!” sometimes i smile, sometimes i ignore them (really, the song does get annoying after you hear it for several months), and sometimes i sing with them… which really throws them for a loop. i wait for a few goats and chickens walk past, i try not to get hit by zemi’s, and then i arrive at the cyber café, where edmund (the owner) greets me with a huge smile. he thinks it’s funny that i walk, and offers me a ride back to my home-stay, but i tell him honestly that i like the walk.
this morning a zemi tried to take me to the cyber. i responded (no) in fon, “eh-o.” he laughed. there’s nothing funnier than a yovo speaking fon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

here's an idea

so, back when i was working in the renewable energy world (i do miss that job and my peeps), someone mentioned the idea of a solar backpack. now that i'm here, i'm going to go ahead and say that this would be VERY useful. especially for trips to the village! which i plan to start next week. that should provide some great blogging material...


i was thinking that i'd write a quaint little post about how enchanting my walk to the cyber is, and all the interesting things i see... but then anne marie emailed me this absolutely hilarious video:

and i decided to share it instead. what former spanish teacher wouldn't appreciate such nonsense?!

Monday, October 15, 2007

where in the world?

so... my visa states that i have to leave the country every 3 months, meaning i have to leave benin by november 8. granted, i could just drive to togo, and i might, but i was really hoping to visit friends that happen to be in tanzania at that time. interestingly enough... it cost about twice as much to travel IN africa as it does to travel OUT of africa. shoot. paris would be cheapest, but who do i know in paris? so, i'm wondering... anyone have friends i can visit in paris or elsewhere?

Friday, October 12, 2007

new pic

ron and ruth just sent me some pics from their visit last month. here we are enjoying a coke at a bar on stilts in ganvie (benin's venice), the village on a lake. you can see appliqué hangings that are typical of benin hanging behind us.

pictured are ron, ruth, alexis and me. alexis is one of the peeps i work with here. he does all our bookkeeping and he speaks english pretty well too! he's a ray of sunshine in my life.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

pride is cool

the past couple nights i've gone out with some girlfriends to a little patio bar around the corner from where i'm dog sitting. a lovely beninoise woman just opened the place, and i think we may have been her first customers. i keep going back because i love the sense of pride she exudes. at one point she asked me to follow her to "regardez" look at something, she was so excited, and led me to the bathroom. i wasn't sure what she meant at first, but then realized she was just glowing with pride at how nice and clean it was, and she wanted me to tell her so. so i gave her as many compliments on the bathroom (which really was nice and clean) as i could think of. each time i go to the bar, she gives me a "cadeau" or gift... last night it was an apple. i shouldn't have eaten it, since the yovo are supposed to soak their fruits and veggies in bleach water before eating them (unless they're cooked) to ward of parasites our bodies aren't used to, but i ate it anyway. it was a cadeau! my stomach seems just fine so far...

Monday, October 08, 2007

beheading in benin

so this actually happened about 2 weeks ago, and i didn't mention it because i didn't want to alarm anyone, but i hear it made the news back in the states, so here's a link to the story. there has only been one beheading in benin, but it happened to be in the village where my friend sarah lives. she's a peace corps volunteer. luckily, she was visiting cotonou, safe and sound... but she is back there now, so please pray for sarah's peace of mind. and safety. and a good start to the school year.

on the bright side, it's a very beautiful day in benin today!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

bath tubs

i just discovered a bath tub in the house where i'm dog sitting. WOW!

and i'm using a much more posh internet cafe for the next 10 days than i usually get to enjoy, complete with a much faster connection... so i have successfully uploaded a few new pics to my photo gallery. i'll highlight a few now...

this is one of my many roommates. he's about 3 inches, in case you can't tell. i call him gregor (i hope some of you can figure out why.)

this is my carpenter who works in a shack down the road. he was making my bed in this picture, which is waiting in storage for a home.

this is a navy guy and the benin flag on the navy boat that took us out "whale watching" (if you can call it that). you can see the city of cotonou in the background.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

benin in action

i've pointed you to rob's blog a few times before, because really, there' s just too much here for one girl to cover. it helps to have blogging friends. but rob also has a series of videos on youtube that will give you an even better idea of life in benin, as well as life with the baker family, if you're interested... it is one of my homes away from home!

click here to see rob's videos.

i'll try to upload some of my own one day... i'm also thinking of podcasting. wouldn't that be fun? but first things first. the apartment hunt continues. and school starts tomorrow!! (we think...)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

apartments and body odor

apartment update... i looked at one yesterday that was great, but too big and too expensive. 3 bedrooms, living room, huge kitchen, huge terrace, 2 bathrooms... $275. i know. you think it's a steal, but it's over my budget. plus, 3 bedrooms is really more responsibility than i need! i saw two over the weekend that were waaaay to dark and dreary.

the good news is that starting tomorrow, i get to dog sit for some friends, AND stay in their house with hot running water! not that i'd want a hot shower at this point. the temperatures are climbing here, and i'm waiting for my body to adjust.

which reminds me... something weird about this place... while i basically sweat all the time, i find there is no such thing as BO. i guess when you sweat enough, it just stops smelling? an odd discovery, i know, but intriguing enough to share with the broader public, i think.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

christmas in october

i've been told the mail situation gets a little crazy(er) in december, so anyone wishing to send christmas cards or gifts should do so now. not that i'm expecting anything, but i was relaying this message to my mom yesterday and thought i might is well just share the news with the world. so here are some mailing do's and dont's:

do send mail to my po box
Lauren Robbins, JPC-Benin
06 BP 2250
Cotonou, Benin

envelopes (and padded envelopes) should go straight to my po, but boxes will go to the airport, where i'll have to go through customs, which is fine, just take note of the following...

don't include receipts or any price tags
do write "donation" clearly
do low-ball the value of contents
do realize it may never reach me :)
don't let that discourage you!! :)
don't giftwrap items

it may also be good to include a letter saying the contents of the box are a donation and not for re-sale, but only if you're sending lots of stuff.

if what you send is intended for christmas, just write "xmas" somewhere on the box, and i'll do my best not to see what's in it while customs people sort through the contents, k?

again, envelopes avoid all this mess, so good gift ideas could include pictures or a mix cd of all the new music i'm missing!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


i did something cool today, and thought about posting it here, but then decided it was more appropriate for my other blog, phos.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

i love my life

sitting in the hot sun, working on my permanent farmer’s tan, sweating up a storm… i look out at the thousands of faces in the market and think, ‘this is the life.’ not forever, but for now, for sure.

the dantokpa market is the busiest in cotonou. it’s not a place the yovo frequent. but today i went with pelagie and juliette to shop for fabric. i bought 6 meters of two different wax colored cloths. i picked one and juliette chose the other. i wish i could take pictures of the market so you could see what i see, but carrying a camera is asking to be mugged. i could sit for hours and people watch, though. i did sit on a stool for about half an hour to do just that. i bought “fan milk” (frozen yogurt in a pouch) for $0.20 and sucked on the cold vanilla flavor while feasting my eyes on the sites and colors.

after the market, i went to juliette’s house. like most people here, juliette lives in a concession, which are little rooms off a central open space, sharing water and bathrooms. they’re like miniature villages. augustinne, living in the same concession, makes clothes. she took my measurements and my fabric. i’ll have two new african outfits in a week’s time. while visiting chez juliette and augustinne, i was offered lunch. i can never get used to taking food from people who have so little, but they see it as a blessing, so i accept… it’s a good thing i like food so much! the kids living in the concession thought it was so funny to see a yovo in their house. they were shocked when i sat on the floor, but pelagie explained, “she is a missionary, she will accept anything.” i laughed and said, “c’est vrai! it’s true!”

the kids wanted to touch my skin, my nails, my hair. i smiled as one of them counted to see if i too had 5 toes on each foot. i mean really, what could be better? these are the moments i have to hold in my heart when i feel discouraged.

Monday, September 24, 2007

“tia” concert

i went to a concert friday night with some friends. benin’s president sponsored the event and the proceeds from ticket sales went to the president’s anti-corruption efforts. the singer, tiken jah fakoly, is a reggae artist from cote d’ivoire. the concert was supposed to start at 8pm. in typically african fashion, peeps started wondering into the concert hall around 11pm as the opening acts got started a mere 3 hours late. never before has the term “acts” been taken so literally, as each artist lip-synched to his own music. it wasn’t even discreet! but finally, at midnight, the real show began, and tiken jah fakoly was not one to lip-synch. from what i could tell, he was a pretty talented lyricist and musician. the crowd loved him, though i was pretty pooped when he finished at 2am. anyway, it was a good experience, and i’m glad to do my part to fight corruption here in benin… hmm… i wonder how that money will be spent?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

jenga champs

perhaps you've played jenga. perhaps you've even ventured to play ultimate jenga. but have you mastered the game? to be a "jenga expert," one must achieve a whopping 30 levels of jenga blocks, which nicholas and i surpassed today, setting a new cotonou record of 34 levels. if you think your jenga skills are superior to ours, we invite you to cotonou to challenge us. game on.

Friday, September 21, 2007


so this week was a special treat for a number of reasons, ron & ruth chief among them. r&r work for yfc, and their job is to provide pastoral care to all the missionaries. they email me regularly, asking how they can pray and offering encouraging words, they send me cards, and once a year they visit me for some face-to-face time. i’m sure it’s no coincidence that their visit came the day after my semi-mental-breakdown sunday. it was a quick visit, but we accomplished quite a bit. the three of us spent 2 nights at the baptist guesthouse, where i enjoyed laundry machines and hot showers, we ate some delicious meals, and we even traveled a bit. there is a village in benin in the middle of a lake, not on an island, but on stilts. they call it “africa’s venice” though it’s completely different. once i get some pictures, i’ll tell you the full history of ganvie. it’s pretty amazing. r&r, who have visited 60 different countries, had never seen anything like it. anyway, ganvie was cool, but the most amazing part of the trip was just the blessing of r&r’s presence. i cried when they left, but i feel more refreshed than i do sad.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

dancin' machine

tonight i had "tea" with madelaine, ruth and micah (kids of rob and lois). good times, good times. these are their dance moves.

clean clothes!

if you're ever in cotonou and desperate to get clean clothes, you'll be happy to know that the baptist guest house has a FULL size washer and dryer, which you can use for $3 a load. i feel like a new woman.

Monday, September 17, 2007

the good, the bad, the ugly

writing in reverse order…

the ugly: i hesitate in writing about when i’m down for several reasons… i don’t want to whine, i’d rather focus on the positive (after all, this is “lauren LAUGHS”), and i don’t want folks back home to worry. but for the sake of keeping things real, and in hopes that peeps will better know how to pray for me, i’m going to be honest and say that i broke down yesterday. 10:30 AM i was sobbing and, for the first time since i arrived, considered the possibility of coming home. i don’t know what brought this on. i’m certainly surrounded by amazing people here and becoming more and more acclimated with each passing day. but yesterday morning i just felt extremely alone, which was then exacerbated by the fact that it was 5:30 AM back home, so no one was awake to talk to. it’s not that i’m lonely. i have lots of friends, and i’m making more all the time. really, my social calendar is quite full. it’s just that most people come here with their families, or come to an existing network of people to hold their hand and show them the ropes. i, however, have to ask for help. if i need support, i have to call someone up or (more likely, for fear of being an imposition) hope they’ll call me. this makes the smallest thing seem huge. when trying to figure out what exactly was getting me down yesterday, i came up with 3 things. 1) i have no clean clothes (except underwear, so you’re not overly concerned) and i’ve worn each of my shirts probably 4 times already. i’d explain why, but really it’s a boring explanation. bottom line is, it makes me feel bleh and helpless. 2) my room is full of cockroaches. i thought this was normal at first, so i ignored it, but now i’m thinking i’ve got an over-abundance of bugs b/c i’m staying in the spare room that is also used for storage… including food storage. one night i opened my bag of toiletries and a ginormous roach scurried out. how did it get in there? they get in all my bags. i’m afraid to stick my hand into my backpack just to grab a book. 3) i noticed bacteria growing on my toothbrush last week. perhaps this is because of the constant moisture here, perhaps it’s because i use bucket water that’s been sitting for hours, perhaps it’s because roaches can get into my bags. whatever the reason, it really does just make me feel like i can’t do the simplest things correctly. helpless indeed. so i cried a lot. but it’s the first time i’ve cried in a month, so i figure that’s not too bad.

the bad: i went whale watching with friends on saturday, which wasn’t so bad for me, but my friends were pretty much sick the whole time. rob blogged about it… poor guy was throwing up for like 3 hours straight, and he was in the majority. we didn’t see any whales, and it wasn’t till the end of the trip that anyone noticed that the guy who was supposed to be on the lookout for whales was actually sleeping on the deck next to my friend joanna. oh well. i enjoyed being out on this side of the ocean and checking out benin’s coast.

the good: oh, there’s lots of good to report! friday i got a random phone call from my friend sean, who i haven’t seen in over a year since we were in class together at st. john’s. that made me feel pretty special. i didn’t throw up saturday like everyone else, which was good. sunday i caught up with theresa, a former peace corps volunteer, over lunch. we were walking around the market when i got a call from assaba, one of “my freshmen” from wlu (i was her dorm counselor) who was visiting her uncle in cotonou. we only got to see each other for half an hour before she had to go back to togo, but it sure did help to bring me out of the depths of despair. then i went to english fellowship with all the other missionaries and expats, where many friends came to my rescue. rob invited me to drop in for dinner any night, kim said i could use her washing machine this week, joanna and i made tentative plans for a slumber party and pedicures… not to mention familiar songs, supportive prayer, and affirmation that everything i’m feeling is normal. whew. breathe in, breathe out.

the next few days will be busy, as i have visitors from the US. ron and ruth work for YFC, providing pastoral care to all the missionaries. they’re supposed to visit me 6 months and 18 months into my stay, but they’re in africa visiting other missionaries anyway, so my 6 month visit comes 4.5 months early. though it will be kinda difficult to play hostess when i’ve yet to make a home, it will be really nice to pray with familiar faces that know me a bit more deeply than my new friends here.

so that’s the scoop.

Friday, September 14, 2007

(not your aunt) flo

a whole new part of cotonou’s multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, multi-purpose, multi-national world was opened to me today… flo’s fitness.

kim and brian, canadian missionaries in benin for 18 years (they were here to see the first democtratic election) invited me to join them for dinner last night, along with their two sons and their friend jasmine, a recent georgetown grad teaching art and english at the english international school here. kim was not only thoughtful enough to pair jasmine and me up, but she even made TACOS for dinner! she saw my eyes light up when someone mentioned mexican food at the softball game last saturday, so she had her cook, jean, make homemade tortillas ground beef. oh, delicious. it was also very cool to meet jasmine, who felt like a kindred spirit from the east coast. i crashed at chez kim & brian, avoiding night travel as usual, and then joined kim this morning for yet another adventure… her exercise class. flo’s fitness is a gym for women (not like curves in the US) in the international part of town. the first class is free, so i gave it a trial run this morning. she (flo) speaks french french (not beninoise french), so it was a bit hard to follow, but fun nonetheless. farhan would have died laughing, since the shirt kim let me borrow for class was pale yellow, as if i wasn’t pale enough already, ha. anyway, it was the first time i’d seen myself in a full length mirror, at which point i discovered i’m definitely not starving in africa. it was also my second hot shower since the US… glorious.

last night as we were walking jasmine home (you can actually walk at night in the international part of town!) i started to think that maybe i should at least look at apartments in that part of town. i came here determined to steer clear of the international scene, but maybe that was a bit snobby of me, considering all the good that could come from partnering with others in the work we’re doing here. when i tell josue about the people i’m meeting, he’s always saying, “this is an answer to prayer!” because they are often working with organizations he’s been wanting to contact for years. maybe i should accept the fact that i’m “yovo” and let God use that, rather than trying to shake my yovo-ness off.

or maybe not. maybe i should be fully integrated. the local scene is more and more comfortable. i’m finding that i’m learning something new about myself every day, so i guess i should just be patient, enjoy the lessons, and know that time will tell where i’m supposed to end up.