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!