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.