Just another WordPress.com site

Month: November, 2014

I’ll Just Be Here, Dreaming of Melted Cheese

When you are deciding what you want for dinner tonight, think of me. Because I am thinking of some of the same things as you—salad, tacos, indian, grilled cheese and soup, pizza, etc. The problem is, I am only thinking about them. My food reality is:

Vegetables: tomatoes, okra, onions, two types of leafy green, hot peppers, tiny bitter eggplants (when lucky)

Fruits: bananas, oranges, limes. Seasonally; papaya, mango, cashew fruit

Starches: SO MANY CHOICES!! rice, spaghetti, congealed grits (called pate), pounded tubers, boiled tubers, fried tubers, fried dough, millet porridge, corn porridge, oatmeal, sweet bread (like lower-quality Hawaiian rolls,) baguettes, fried plantains, plantain chips, potatoes, popcorn, etc.

Proteins: beans, eggs, laughing cow cheese spreadable triangles, wagashi (a non-melting cheese I can get when lucky,) peanuts and peanut butter, something similar to pumpkin seeds, fried squares of tofu. I could also buy dried fish that smells like death in the market and meat that is probably but not definitely safe to eat in restaurants/roadside stands.

Cold things: soft drinks, beer, frozen plastic bags of chocolate or vanilla milk, hibiscus iced tea or limeade in recycled bottles

Well, there you have it. Those are my ingredients. I can buy lots of other things when in Cotonou or Nattitingou, two bigger cities, but those are 6 hours or so away from me. I also don’t have a refrigerator. Even if I bought one, I couldn’t keep it running on the electrical capacity of my house which sometimes has a hard time with two high efficiency light bulbs depending on the time of day and how many of my neighbors have their TVs on. That means if I buy any vegetables I have to use them within a day for best results (especially the leafy greens which actually last about 2 hours in the heat before they wilt.) I miss lettuce.

But! Here are some things I have learned:

If you do not cut okra up and sauté it whole it is not slimy and actually quite delicious. If you take the seeds that they sell here to grind up and add to sauce and instead toast them in oil, they become exactly like the green inside part of pumpkin seeds. If you crumble up non-melting cheese and add it to sautéed garlic, onions, tomatoes, leafy greens, and curry powder it is really good. If you make spaghetti with the same vegetables, add a scoop of peanut butter, some lime juice and salt, you’ve basically got pad thai! (That is a lie. It is nothing close to pad thai. But it is good.)

My neighbors think I am crazy for cooking the things that I do because they are not in the normal realm of Beninese cuisine. Example of something my neighbors say to me when asked if they would like to try aforementioned pad thai dish: “You are eating spaghetti with greens in it?! Are you crazy?! Don’t you know you only eat greens with congealed grits? Don’t you know you only eat peanut sauce with pounded tubers?! You put lime in your peanut sauce?!  NO I WOULD NOT LIKE TO TRY TO SEE IF I LIKE IT I ALREADY KNOW THAT IT WILL BE GROSS THANK YOU!” When asked if they would like to try the toasted seeds they said “I think that will probably give me diarrhea, so no.”


NOTE: Sorry for the big break between posts. I was sick again and was pretty much exclusively laying in my bed watching episodes of Friends, but am now back to good health/participating in daily life/not weirdly reliving the ‘90s through a tv show. I’m working on some posts about my work here and what I do day-to-day and I’ll try to finish them soon!


Transit: The most terrifying thing in Benin

There are several ways to get around in Benin. Here, I will list the most used and provide helpful commentary.

Walking: Pretty much everyone has access to this method of transportation. If you don’t you probably use crutches or a hand-pedaled bike/wheelchair which your friends or the kids in your family will help you navigate over rough terrain. Walking is generally pretty safe as long as you remember PEDESTRIANS DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. With this simple fact in mind, you should be prepared to actively dodge anything that is coming at you. If you are lucky, you will have an even surface to walk on, but you almost definitely won’t. So also make sure to keep your eyes on the ground or you will trip and fall into an open gutter while everyone around you says “Doucement!!” (“Careful!!”) You are also likely to get very dirty while you are walking because of all the vehicles stirring up red dust. Don’t worry, it should be a pretty even coating so it might even look like a tan.

Biking: This is my primary method of transportation. It is as fast as I need it to be for short to mid-range distances, and I can steer myself instead of trusting some stranger to drive me. I have two saddle bags that make it easy to bring whatever I need with me and I can stop to say hi to friends and neighbors that I see along the way if I want to. My bike (Peace Corps issued, thank you dear taxpayers) is extremely nice and extremely new. It screams “I AM AN AMERICAN WITH ACCESS TO RESOURCES YOU DON’T HAVE.” That’s ok because let’s be real, everyone is aware of my privilege whether I have my bike with me or not. If you ride right after it rains, beware. Your legs will soon be covered in splashes of mud. Everyone will kindly point this out to you when you get wherever you are going.

A small slice of the Beninese population also rides bikes. There are two primary demographics of pedalers—young boys between ages 8-15 who are too young or poor to have a moto and old men in hats. Do not ask me why wearing a hat is a prerequisite for an old man to ride a bike, but it is. Usually people do not carry much on their bikes but often the old men have something small with them, like a plastic bag full of bananas on the handle bar or one large can of tomato paste strapped to the back rack.

Motos: This is the most used method of transportation. It is wonderful and it is terrifying. Wonderful because it gives you an adrenaline rush and you look really cool while you are riding a moto (note: not a motorcycle. Think dinkier.) Terrifying because the roads are bad and you are the smallest motorized form of transit. This means you can go fast but also you are most likely to die in a crash. Most people do not wear helmets but do not worry I DO!! There are moto taxis called zems that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. The problem is you have to bargain for the price every time which can get annoying. Often people will try to triple the price on you because they know you are a foreigner. Tonight I took a moto-taxi and was very proud because he gave me the right price immediately. He said it was because I was obviously “Beninoise American” meaning I live here and am not a tourist. Wahhoooo!

Important tip: do not hold on to the taxi driver while you are riding. He will think you want to marry him. Simply hold onto the bar of the seat behind you and you will avoid sending sexual messages.

Side note: You can carry anything on a moto. I am not exaggerating. I have seen on separate occasions: a cow, 4 goats, a mattress, twenty 25 liter jerry cans, and 6 people being transported on a single zem.

Taxis: Taxis are for mid-distance trips. Generally old station wagons from the 80s, taxis are not reliable and they never have any shocks. You also have to sit 2 to the front passenger seat and 4 adults plus however many children in the back. After 15 minutes you will want to cry. Taxis can attach pretty much anything to the roof and often ride very low to the ground because there are 8 people and 6 huge cement bags full of yams being carried on 4 semi-inflated tires. Do not worry, you will feel every pothole.

Tro-Tros: 15 person vans with bench seats. I have not yet taken this form of transit in this country. Like a bus, you can travel far, but you can stop to get off wherever you want. Likely to break down, not highly recommended.

Buses: Think of your worst public bus experience. It is probably not as bad as the last time I took a bus in Benin, when I sat next to a man with serious body odor and a 12 year old “lap child” who did not fit on his lap. I had to loudly and desperately ask for an “arret pee pee” or a pee stop. Then I had to pee by the side of the road with only a swath of cloth around me for privacy and I got pee splatters all over my feet which is gross but also seemingly unavoidable. (Any serious female campers or masterful public pee-ers with helpful outdoor peeing tips? Let me know. Rest stops do not exist here and even when you are at a restaurant you often have to pee in a concrete stall with a drain on the floor.) Nevertheless, this is the best form of transit for going any great distance. You at least have your own seat and if you get on the right company’s bus, you’ll also have air conditioning (LUX!) Since I live on one of two major north/south roads in the country, I can flag down a bus with an open seat as they are passing through—this is highly convenient and something that other volunteers are jealous of.