Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Home

Maps convey to the viewer that home is never far. It is always in view no matter where one is on the world. Almost as a reassuring reminder that you're never as far as you think you are. I suppose that this is not too far from the truth.

Home is always there, living inside of you. Either chasing you away or calling you back, driving you to be something or ridiculing you for being nothing.

This vision of what home means has become somewhat foggy since I've been back. I remember how crystalline it was back in Benin, the vision of my people and my home and now that crystallization has flipped back, across the ocean to my village of Aklampa.

I see the people I knew frozen in time, going through their daily activities and it's as if I was never there, just a ghost.

Americans, generally, don't have this connection or rootedness to homes. We live in a mobile society, a pioneer society, ready to be moved at an order. The living and breathing quality of being planted to a place, a particular patch of dirt, is not as common amongst us as in other societies.

It is only when one leaves and sees what goodness this brings to life that this way of living is rightly appreciated. People say that home is where the heart is, perhaps a better way to put it is that home is in the heart, a coal that seldom burns out but always blazes inside one's self. You learn to love at home, to cry, to regret. In short to live. Home is life.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dakar, Or The Car?

Cotonou to Dakar, it turns out, is just as daunting of a voyage as it sounds. Through tropical forests, up and down coffee mountains, through scrub-country and into dry desert, and now bach on the Sahelian coast of Africa. Senegal is the the African mainland's westernmost country, stretching itself out into the great beyond that is the Atlantic Ocean. Dakar is the bee-hive of an African country that has wrapped itself in modern consumerism, with all its perks and pitfalls. The street-hustler here is a breed apart from the ones found in Cotonou, they persist beyond the point of simple annoyance and border on being theives at times. That being said, I myself find Dakar to be a dizzying city, concrete and glass sky-scrappers shoot up into the sky and cars speed down well maintained streets with street caf├ęs that would make the French and Italians jealous. The impact this amazing city has on my senses is compounded by the difficulty it took to get here. A 37 hour bus ride through two countries fueled by instant coffee and cigarettes. This ride felt something akin to being at the bottom of a dirty sock hamper for a football team, hot, humid, hurty. The Bamako-Dakar red-eye we'll call it, as it left the Malian capital at four o'clock in the morning. How do you wake up for a bus that leaves at 4am?, you might ask. Not going to bed is the answer my friends. A nice local bar was very accomadating to us for a few hours as we hobknobbed with local Rastas, Peace Corps Volunteers, ex-pats, and a charming young French journalist who was headed to Dakar with us. This all made the first few hours of our bus-ride all the easier as we all immediately passed out from exhaustion upon arrival. The rest of the trip, not so easy. After having to put up with endless stops and checkpoints and other miscellaneous sheenanigans we managed to arrive in somewhat good spirits. How strange to confront the reality that this will be my last place in Africa before the jump off back into...whatever is waiting. The flight leaves tomorrow night for Istanbul, stay tuned for the next installment. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

No Sleep 'Til Detroit

The last day in Cotonou is upon us, our bags packed and the tropical sun seemingly bursting with an intense desire to smother us all, a fitting au revoir. Our last days in Cotonou were a smorgas-board of michievous machinations with some colorful local liasons. Crazy bar full of local boxers: check. Slot machines that take Lebanese currency: check. A disection of the merits of Nicki Minaj's raps at a sodabi shack: don't mind if I do. But really, this sejour was about soaking up the dirty, rotten air of the sprawling sore of urbanity that is Cotonou, a city at once dear and despicable to me. My Peace Corps service has come and gone and I am decidely grateful to have an adventure around West Africa as my denouement. It should be a good way to slowly begin my reassimilation into Western culture. My "gong" ceremony (our closing ceremony where we officially are released from service) was an emotional event. How strange to think of what I've done here in terms of the past when it still seems like yesterday that I was still looking at everything with wide, wet-behind-the-ears eyes. Before going to bed at the hotel last night, I was able to feed the pet crocadile part of my turkey leg, from now on he'll have to fend for himself in his concrete domicile. Of the many things I've learned here throughout my experience here, I am most grateful for learning how to travel and interact with the locals. This should come in handy as we snake our way through West Africa, a smile on our face and shaking hands quite vigorously, not accepting no for an answer. Our sardine omelette with mayo, a breakfast staple over here, did the job, fortifying me for the coastal ride to Benin's sister country, Togo. Our journey begins, no sleep 'til Detroit!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Blast-Off

Camp GLOW (girls leading our world) has come and gone already, a more amazing feat when one realizes that this was my last Peace Corps project of my service here in Benin. What a ride it has been. I usually like to think of life as one giant trip, with no clearly demarcated lines seperating the chapters, but instead one infinite ball brimming with whats, cans, maybes, and sheer experience. But how can one deny the emotion of leaving a place just recently become home after two years of following the ebb and flow of what is modern life in Africa. Refreshing it is also. Refreshing to be back on the road again carrying home the spoils of friendships forged along the way. It's really hard to digest what this experience has meant to me, its ethos goes to the core of me and in such a way that can only be felt and not justly explained. Perhaps that's what home is, a feeling of grounded-ness, like the trunk of a tree, to an area. I've reached out across the waters and dropped a complimentary anchor on a people I had no idea existed before, I say complimentary because my roots rightly stem from the Midwest where my people are, but being here has opened my eyes to what it means to make a family, to forge one's roots where before there were none. Where before I was just a strange man living in a strange village, I leave feeling like a son leaving home. A place exists in its people. When I think of home, it's the faces that come up, the experiences, good and bad. Those are the places that mean something to me, a place that flows organically from the names and faces of those dear to me, and because of this, is always apart of me. Thursday is the blast-off. Look out, 'cause here I come.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Boys Dance

The dancing was a spontaneous continuation of our evening soccer game. It started on the way back to the NGO center from the field, our first full day of boys camp had just been completed. What had been a tired march back quickly transformed itself into a chanting parade through Ouesse's small streets. This was the scene from boys camp a few days ago and will be the image I take away from the experience, nothing feels better than kicking off the camp season magnificently and we most certainly did just that, summer can begin.

Education volunteers, like myself, have a built in vacation period when the school season ends. This does not mean we just run off to town and leave our communities. Rather, we continue what we know how to do, teach kids. This past weekend was Camp Espoir in Ouesse, a good size town north of my community, Aklampa. Six teams were present at this camp, Aklampa, Tchaourou, Challa-Ogoi, Kemon, Ouesse 1 and Ouesse 2.

Camp, for Beninese children, is really a novel idea. For most children, no school means more work. More going to the fields to help their parents, more going to the well to fetch water. Our goal was to reward our best students from our respective communities and to so them how to continue their education in new creative ways.

Just a quick sampling of our presentations for you; model parliamentary session, sexual health education, nutrition and health, and drug abuse and addiction. What camp would be complete without a movie night, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, en francais, Indiana Jones et La Derniere Croisade. C'est bon!

The camp really serves to bring us closer to our kids, the people we're most connected with at our jobs. Each member also brought a teaching pal with them from their community making it that much more of a bonding experience. It was more poingent for me and a few other volunteers present as we will be leaving soon. To see the children you've been trying to impact bloom around other students also working with volunteers, just to see them interact and share their experiences in a fun atmosphere meant the world to us.

And so we danced. We danced because we knew we were doing great things. We knew these kids would grow up and make this country better. And we knew, and know, that little time is left. Americans are generally embarrassed to dance, as if they are showing a part of them that is meant for them and them alone. It wasn't worth being afraid to dance on this day.

Monday, May 23, 2011

COS

The realization that I'll be leaving soon has been pushed to the front of my head dramatically by the recent completion of the Close Of Service (COS) conference. Questions such as what has my service meant to me, what have I accomplished, and what do I wish I had accomplished, instead of floating around in my head, have been brought forward and, although the conference is over, remain out in the open, teasing my brain to come up with multiple answers for them. I suppose that is the purpose of the conference, to crack through the hard shell that we've constructed around us so as to not think about the next step, and to force us to face the truth that home is still over the water. Not to say that we've forgotten, but it is often told to us that it's impossible to straddle the Atlantic, one must pick a side, and in order to live on a day to day basis without much mental strain, our America is pushed to the back of our consciousness. We know it's there but feel more comfortable focusing on the task at hand, living in the moment, and what have you. A wealth of information and forms were provided to us to show us that, indeed, there is life after Peace Corps. Most of us were quite glad that we still have a few months to get our act in gear before we shove off for the western land. It's strange to think that the image of my village where I've been living for the past two years is already begginning to crystallize in my mind. Hearing former volunteers speak of their experiences and how they viewed their villages was like hearing an echo from the future, of what we might say twenty years from now about the people we knew au village, the experiences we cherished, and something that will always be with us lying as we continue on our journey. Our hotel, full of modern amenities and conveniences that are now somewhat foreign to many of our thoughts, loomed a giant dock, Benin's window to the world. The cranes moved giant boxes containing goods which continue to slowly weave the small country's economy into the giant global machine that is the world-wide economy. How fitting that this global window, symbolic of where we came from and what development, at times, represents, towers over us at this conference.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Beach and Back

The ocean does something to everyone. In my case it not only has left me with a plethora of philosophical thoughts and metaphysical conundrums but also with a wicked reminder of my skin's incompatability with the sun in this part of the world. Pain aside, Grand Popo is a beautiful place, with a relaxed atmosphere (somewhat rare in the south) and history that can howl, so to speak, giving its proximity to the remnants of the colonial societies of Portugal and France and, in a more contemparary sense, vodoun culture. That's not to say that the only people one sees on the beach there are either wearing a frock coat or cowrie shells, Grand Popo is Benin's most tourist focused city, bringing people here from all over West Africa to get a piece of the tourist pie. We stayed at Lion Bar, home to a charming rasta man by the name of, you guessed it, Lion. The rooms are named after famous reggae singers and reggae permeates one's eardrums all night, a nice duet with the crashing waves a few hundred meters down the beach. It amazes me that the ocean, in all of its epic enormity can seemingly be hidden when one walks 200 meters away from the beach. Looking at it's size one would think that its presence would be felt for miles inland, and indeed its smell is somewhat trickier to get rid of but that does not convey the earth-shattering hugeness that is transmitted from one's eyes down to his fingertips and , if you're lucky enough, down into the depths of the soul upon viewing the great big sea. Most of the time was spent on the beach pondering this great nothing and what it all means and the rest of the time was spent recovering from spending too much time in the sun. The sultry beach air of Grand Popo, named apparently because the Portugese thought the people here had big behinds, did give me good fodder for the Earth Day, Passover, and Easter weekend. The relative coolness of the north, which I have since returned to, is quite refreshing and while the ocean never ceases to amaze my trip has reinforced my belief that I am a landlubber who needs green fields to run around in with hills full of trees as my background, and maybe a good dog to run after me.