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How I Managed to Breach Decorum with both the President and his Wife (on Separate Occasions)

We have a new president in Benin. He is a cotton magnate billionaire who inspires very different feelings depending on who you talk to and which part of the country you are in. The elections were overall very calm and orderly, and no one accused anyone of cheating. Good job, Benin! I’m proud of your election conduct!

I never had much contact with the former President, Yayi Boni . Every once in a while he would fly over my house in Bante in his helicopter, inspiring awe in the children. There is, as far as I know, only one helicopter in Benin, and so you always knew it was the president flying over. The helicopter was provided by America’s own Hunt Oil as part of the compensation for conducting oil exploration in Benin. It has since crashed, while it was being used by the incumbent party’s presidential candidate to travel. No one was hurt, except for perhaps Beninese morale, as it is unclear whether there is or will be a replacement helicopter to signal the people of Benin that their president is on the move.

Anyway, I digress. This is a story about me making an ass out of myself, not a story about a helicopter.

In my neighborhood, an army general was running for president. He had no chance of winning, and in fact was defeated in the first round of elections, along with thirty-some other candidates. The vote between the two remaining candidates would be in a couple of weeks. After this first round of elections, I suppose Patrice Talon (at the time one of the remaining candidates, and now the newly installed president) wanted to talk about an alliance (or something) with the General in my neighborhood. I was on the street buying tofu, and all of a sudden, several very nice SUVs leave the General’s house and start passing in front of me.

I’m squinting through the SUV windows, trying to see who is inside. The man in the passenger’s seat of the nicest car smiles and waves at me. Thanks to my many and varied experiences with sexual harassment in Benin, my first instinct when a man waves at me is not to wave back anymore, but to remain stoic. As the car pulls away, and my face unsquinches from trying to look through the glass, my neighbor selling the tofu begins to berate me: “When Patrice Talon waves at you, you wave back!! Don’t you know he is going to be president?”

Well, shoot. What can you do? I would like to remove some of the blame from myself by saying that I think his campaign photos were photoshopped a bit, because his face was plastered everywhere in the city and I didn’t recognize him in person. Oh well.

Then, I found out that Patrice Talon’s wife was going to come to a gender equality event hosted by the Peace Corps at the US Ambassador’s house. How exciting, I thought, to have the first lady come and support such an important cause! I was assigned to be the photographer for the night, and was told that the people at the gate would let us all know when the first lady arrived.

The night of the event, I was in the swing of things, taking photos of all of the guests as they arrived. There was a banner with the Peace Corps and other partner organizations’ logos on it, and I was supposed to try to get a shot of everyone in front of it. I was having fun, joking with the guests, and snapping away.

Two women came in and I said “Oh! Let’s get a picture!” They seemed hesitant, so I said “When you’re as pretty as you are, it would be sad not to take a photo!” while kind of slapping the arm of one of the women in a friendly way. They looked a bit perplexed, but then let me take the picture. Soon after, the Ambassador rushes over and greets the First Lady, asking me if they can get a picture together.

“Of course!” I said, inwardly cringing at the bro-slap on the arm and my jocular tone directly preceding. Luckily, the First Lady didn’t seem to hold a grudge and didn’t complain when I followed her around for much of the night snapping photos.

I don’t think I have much of a future in Beninese politics.

 

 

 

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Things that Made me Laugh (sometimes it took a little while, though)

**I have a favorite moto-taxi driver. He lives in my neighborhood, drives safely, and is nice to me. Whenever I can, I use him to drive me around. Recently, he asked me why I don’t have kids yet. I said “I’m still young and adventuring! I’ve got plenty of time for that!” To which he replied “You’re not young! You are about 45, right?” And, taken aback, I said “NO!!” He was like… “35?” Sputtering, I said “25.” “Oh! Well that is very surprising. I really thought you were about 45 years old. Ok we’re here! See you later!”

**My friend and I were looking for somewhere to eat lunch and decided to try somewhere new. There was a lady on the street selling pate rouge, basically polenta with crushed tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and pepper cooked in. We ordered and my friend asked for a piece of sheep meat to go with hers. When the food came, her sheep meat was mostly skin, and not very appetizing. She asked the lady if she could have a different piece of meat because she didn’t want skin. Now, there is a different food here that is literally cut-up cow skin that people cook in sauce until it floats in translucent squares for people to chew (and chew, and chew.) This is called “skin.”

So when my friend said she didn’t want “skin,” the lady threw a fit and insisted that this was sheep, not skin. We tried explaining that it was the skin of the sheep that didn’t interest us, we knew it wasn’t cow skin. Not understanding, or choosing not to understand, the woman says “If you don’t believe me that this isn’t skin, I will show you the sheep’s ear! I have it right there! Hold on!” Faced with the prospect of having a bloody ear shoved in our faces, we said, “That’s ok! We believe you!” We ended up leaving most of our lunches (including the sheep’s skin) because they weren’t very good. I walked across the street to buy something and on my way back, there were two very pleased moto taxi drivers who were eating the rest of our lunches, happily chewing on the skin.

**Horns are used as a form of communication here. You want to pass someone? Honk. You want to say hello? Honk. You want to tell someone to get out of the way? Honk. So if your horn is broken, what do you do? Use your mouth as a horn, of course! This was the delightful solution that my moto taxi driver adopted one night. “BEEP BEEP” he would say, joyfully, as we passed a car “BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEP” he said as a pedestrian tried to cross the street. I don’t know exactly why, but this made me very happy.

**When I was living in Bante, I lost a lot of weight because I was sick all of the time. At one point, I lost 20 pounds in about two weeks (not recommended if at all avoidable.) My new thinness made everyone very unhappy, because it was a visual sign of illness. Although I was still a healthy weight, people were bemoaning how thin I had become.(Sidenote– In fact, I have been here so long that my reaction to extremely thin people has changed—when looking at a fashion magazine from France the other day, I just kept thinking, “Dear God, that poor girl must be sick!” and then realized that they were that thin on purpose. Cultural differences and different standards of beauty, I guess! But also if you see someone that thin here, it really does usually mean they are sick.)

Anyway, when I came back to Bante, I had gained most of that weight back. Everyone was so pleased! “YOU ARE SO FAT! IT IS SO NICE!” said everyone. “JUST LOOK AT THOSE THIGHS! IT IS VERY GOOD!” said one neighbor. Another said “Well, it is very good now, but we all know Evan. She likes to do sports and also eat a lot of vitamins, both of which will make you fat. So be careful Evan! You are fat in a good way now, but if you eat too many vitamins or do too many sports, you will become fatter and fatter and then you won’t be able to walk well.”

Thanks guys.

**This is not actually funny, because it involves loss of life, but it is ridiculous. Recently, in one of my friends’ villages, a man dropped his cell phone down a latrine. Now, I know many people who have dropped their phones in toilets, but this is different. This is a hole that drops several feet down into many years’ worth of shit. You can’t just “fish it out.” Most people I know would have cut their losses and left it. But, for whatever reason, this man decided he needed to retrieve his phone. Using methods that are still unclear, he lowered himself into the latrine (usually the hole isn’t big enough for this.) He immediately died due to some sort of noxious gas poisoning.

Someone finds him in the latrine, and so another man lowers himself down to collect the body (at this point, I assume, not realizing it had been an instant death.) He also instantly dies.

But then this was repeated by two more people. So four people total died in a latrine, one after the other, all because of a cell phone. Finally, the fire department of the next large city was called and they got all of the bodies out.

Book List (81-100)

Here is the continuation of the list of books I have read since I got here, and a couple of notes on each. I’ve underlined the ones that I think you should DEFINITELY READ. I’ve put an asterisk by the ones I wouldn’t spend time on. The rest are somewhere in-between. Obviously this is all completely subjective and based on my own personal taste.

81-100

  • St. Maybe, Anne Tyler
    • If you like Anne Tyler you will probably like this book. Interesting characters, memorable sense of place and tragedy.
  • Pandora’s Star, Peter Hamilton
    • Sci-fi book with a lot of storylines and characters that get a bit hard to keep track of, but I liked it.
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
    • A refreshing collection of short stories revolving around a couple of relatable themes. Highly suggested.
  • Purity, Jonathan Franzen
    • I didn’t like this book much. It left a bad taste in my mouth—because of its cynicism I think. This book has gotten a lot of press, but I don’t agree that it was one of the best of the year.
  • The Harder They Come, T.C. Boyle
    • A book that touches on mental illness and violence in a way not many novels I have read do. Interesting and unsettling.
  • Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer
    • Very interesting, although written with the vestiges of evangelical preachiness (about how “the good old days” used to be, etc.) I suggest it if you are interested in the emergence of the religious right.
  • Welcome to Braggsville****, Geronimo Johnson
    • This book is fiction, but the whole thing was unbelievable to me. I didn’t like the writing style and I didn’t like the plot. I think that it could have been done well, but in my opinion it was a chore to read.
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
    • Toni Morrison has a way with words. I love to read her descriptions of feelings because she always captures the essence of what she is trying to say in an unusual way. I find myself turning her descriptions over in my mind long after the book is finished. I love a book I feel compelled to savor.
  • Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa
    • Surprisingly beautiful, a bit heart wrenching. Tells the very human story of a historic event, which I didn’t know much about beforehand. Highly suggested.
  • Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, The Best of McSweeney’s Humor Category ****
    • I did not like this book. It seemed to be a compilation of things that should have been funny but were not. I think, perhaps, my sense of humor just didn’t mesh with it.
  • Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher
    • An interesting take on fiction, tries out a new style without dragging on for too long. If you are a professor or write a lot of letters of recommendation I think you would like it. I think you would like it even if you don’t fit that description.
  • The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
    • Everyone I know who read this book loved it, and I agree. As someone who loves art history, I particularly enjoyed the premise. The character and story development are spectacular.
  • Honeydew, Edith Pearlman
    • A mediocre collection of short stories, in my opinion. I just read it and nothing stuck with me. I can barely recall any of the storylines other than one particularly good story about an antiques dealer.
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith
    • A very English book, while also managing to be very multi-cultural. It touches on race, beauty, colonialism, science, and socioeconomics while feeling like a novel and not a lecture. Very well-done.
  • The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli
    • I feel like if I read the epilogue of this book before I read the book I would have really liked it. As it was, I wasn’t too impressed. If you read it, skip to the epilogue, then start. You’ll thank me.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
    • A wonderful adventure story about comic books, real life heroes and tragedy, and everyday life in New York City. Read it!
  • Food 52, Genius Recipes, Kristen Miglore
    • Generally I wouldn’t put a recipe book on this list, but I read the thing cover-to-cover. A lot of great ideas that I’ll use even though I haven’t actually made any of the recipes except for some fried eggs.
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
    • A wonderful read that ties together many stories from a momentous day in NYC history. All of the characters feel human, all of the stories are interesting. I highly recommend it.
  • Dietland, Sarai Walker
    • A novel that may be trying a bit too hard to tell the patriarchy to go screw itself (you never feel completely like you are reading a novel, more a piece of propaganda.) That being said, it brings up a lot of serious issues and is pretty empowering.
  • Ghettoside, Jill Leovy
    • A bit dry, but highly informative. If you are interested in gang violence, Los Angeles, policing, or how race plays into our justice system, read it.

Book List 60-80

I’ve underlined the books that I think you should DEFINITELY READ. I’ve put an asterisk by the ones I wouldn’t spend time on. The rest are somewhere in-between. If you have an e-reader, can I suggest jumping on your FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY’s e-books? I’ve been able to read a lot of current books on my kindle lately thanks to the support of the American taxpayer and our great public library system.

  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicle,**** Haruki Mrakami
    • I heard a lot of wonderful things about this book, but honestly I was bored for most of it. It was too timid, and there wasn’t enough action for me. It was an interesting look into Japan, however.
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
    • Wonderfully written and thought-provoking. Magical and scary. Read it.
  • All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
    • Full of sensory details that will make you feel like you are fully participating in the book. I’ve never read something about a blind character that was so well written.
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy Smith
    • I didn’t really see what was spectacular about this book. It has gained a lot of attention and accolades, but to me it read like a kind of boring account of growing up—no earth-shattering insights.
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
    • I liked this book because it really let you build your own world in your head, not giving too many details. While at times this could also be a bit annoying, I like books that give you a structure and let you fill in the rest.
  • The Peach Keeper, Sarah Addison Allen
    • Easy, cheesy read. If you’re looking for something quick and fun, go for it, but it isn’t anything special.
  • Gulag, Anne Applebaum
    • Explores the system of concentration camps that I think most of us know very little about. A depressing book, but I think an important one.
  • Refund, Karen Bender
    • A fairly non-memorable collection of short stories, although there were a couple of characters that made an impression. Overall, I’d say it isn’t a waste of time, but also not a priority.
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
    • There has been a lot of chatter around this book, and I understand why. The book concisely lays out a plan for tidying that will (supposedly) last forever because the upkeep will be intuitive. Basically you just have to get rid of all of the possessions that you don’t feel “that connection” with. Sounds easier said than done, but you feel empowered at the end of the book.
  • A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
    • A beautiful, sad book about friendships and resilience and breaking and being picked up again. I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Hustling is not Stealing, John Chernoff
    • Extremely interesting true story of a Ghanaian bar girl (she is effectively a high-class escort/prostitute.) Because there are bar girls (high class and not) all over Benin, it was an extremely interesting book. It is written in her words and dialect so that takes a little bit of time to get used to. Highly suggested.
  • Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,**** Jessica Soffer
    • This was a highly-dramatic young adult novel that I didn’t realize was a young adult novel when I started reading it. Perhaps I came in with the wrong attitude, but I needed it to be a little more subtle to really enjoy it.
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra
    • A delightful collection of short stories set in Russia. Quirky and fun, I highly suggest this book. Ties into the previously mentioned book, Gulag.
  • Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
    • Perhaps if I had been married I would have liked this book more. It examines a marriage in exquisite detail, but I didn’t love it. I got frustrated by the characters at points. That said, this is a well-written book overall.
  • Dream Land, Sam Quinones
    • Extremely interesting look at the opiate epidemic in America. Sam Quinones has laid out the history of opiates in America and how several factors came together to form the explosion of heroin and pain pill use that we have seen in the recent past. I highly suggest reading this book because almost everyone has known someone who has been hooked on opiates.
  • The Turner House, Angela Flourno
    • A very good book about family and home. With just a touch of the metaphysical woven into the story, and a deep look at Detroit after the housing bust, I think you’ll find this a beautiful, poignant read.
  • A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk
    • Sometimes I know a book is good, but I just don’t enjoy it that much. This is one of those books. I liked that it was set in Turkey and that it talked a lot about street vendors (because there are so many street vendors here in Benin.) I think a chunk of pages could have been cut to make the story move a little bit faster.
  • The People in Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
    • This was a little bit of a letdown because I read this after I read A Little Life by the same author. This was not a bad book, but it didn’t hold a candle to A Little Life.
  • Spoiled Brats, **** Simon Rich
    • The author in this book sounds like a spoiled brat. The stories are thinly veiled complaints about millennials. There’s a way to critique and make really good points about the culture of the moment, but he clobbers it over the head. Don’t waste your time.
  • The Wives of Los Alamos, **** Tarashea Nesbit
    • I was really excited about this book. It got glowing reviews and had interesting subject matter. But I was disappointed. The whole book was written in a collective voice, which was grating. I thought the introduction was going to be written that way and then someone’s voice (one particular woman? A narrator?) would pick up the story. Instead, the whole book is told by all of the wives of Los Alamos, and it was extremely annoying and also prevented character development.

Take me Home

I got to the airport in Benin, where I pulled my rolling suitcase through the dust, coating it more thoroughly than it already was, and making it extremely easy to pick out at baggage claim later. The woman at the ticket counter was nice, I was feeling giddy. And then I got to security where I had a fight with the security guard about whether or not it was against the rules for me to bring an empty water bottle in my carry-on. Him: “It is not allowed.” Me: “It is allowed.” Him: “It is not allowed and why would you want to bring an empty water bottle anyway? It is useless. I will throw it away.” Me: “You will not throw it away and you may not understand the pain of paying 3 euro for a water bottle at the Brussels airport, but it is not something I am interested in experiencing today. Please let me speak to your supervisor.” Him: “I guess it is allowed.” Success! (This process was repeated again at the inefficient second security screening before I got on the shuttle to board the airplane. I exited the country with my empty water bottle and paid zero euros for water in Brussles.)

On the plane, I felt that I was entitled to my own cultural norms. Don’t ask me why, but I always assume that once on an airplane, we will be following either European or American norms, especially when on an airline based in one of those places. Imagine my chagrin when I found that I was seated next to a Beninese man in a suit made exclusively of burgundy velvet. This suit signaled to me that my seat-mate would not be following my wished-for Western cultural norms. I was not wrong. This man greeted me kindly and then proceeded to elbow me in the ribs and try to move my feet over with his spindly leg. Although he feigned sleep, after about 20 minutes of this, I had had enough. “Excuse me, sir, there is a line between our seats, which you can see easily by following the trajectory of this armrest. Please do not cross this line. It is not appropriate.” IT WORKED! Well, for the most part. He jabbed me in an exploratory way a couple of times (Surely, she wasn’t serious? I’m obviously older and more important than her so I should get more seat space!) but each time I just looked slowly at him and then at the armrest and he would move back.

Then I got to Brussels. I found a couch, I covered my head with my scarf, and I slept for four blissful hours. Ah, I thought, now I am home free. I boarded my new plane, the one carrying me into the arms of America. Imagine the sinking feeling I experienced when I saw that my row consisted of one obese American man and one huge African man, whose combined bulk was taking up at least half of my seat. GAAAA I thought.

The man sitting next to me greeted me and said that he was a pastor coming from the DRC, where was I coming from? Benin, I said. “AHA! And what church do you go to there?” he asked with an enthusiasm that was really excessive considering how much travel we had both already been through and how much lay ahead of us. “I do not go to a church there.” I said. “Oh! You need a church!” “Well, I haven’t found one that I like and I’m doing ok without one.” “Oh! But you need a church!” “Well, you are a pastor. Thinking people need a church is an occupational hazard for you.” “What is an occupational hazard?” “Well, it means that because of the work you do, you are predisposed to think that people need churches.” “Being a pastor has nothing to do with it!” “Ok.” “Well, you do not go to church, but tell me, DO YOU BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR?”

At this point, I had to make a decision. I was going to have to sit next to this man, literally pressed up against him, for the next eight hours. What would be the best way to react, where he would stop talking to me? I thought for a moment, and settled. “NO.” I said, icily, staring him down. After holding the stare for a couple of seconds, I broke eye contact and wouldn’t look back at him. I was nervous. Would it work?

“You’re a pastor? I’m a pastor too!” Said the  American sitting on the other side of the  pastor.

Well, there is a God. Because neither of them interrupted my alternate dozing/watching really terrible romantic comedies for the next eight hours.

Balls and Balls

A couple of months ago, I participated in two very different examples of events that exemplify a lot about the cultures I am living in at the moment. A world-cup qualifier soccer game between Burkina Faso and Benin and a Marine Ball at the embassy.

THE MATCH

Going to a soccer game in a place that takes soccer very seriously is always a bit stressful. Will I get crushed in the crowd? Pickpocketed? Have to avoid over-enthusiastic fans expressing their feelings in non-positive ways? I once read a book about mob mentality as illustrated by soccer fans in England and it made a lasting, terrifying impression on me.

All of this being said, I love to watch sports with enthusiastic fans, especially sports that are being played at an elite level. I’m partial to yelling at TVs to encourage or berate, even when I’m not emotionally invested in a game. If you know my Mom, you’ll understand this aspect of my personality a bit better.

When I found out that Benin and Burkina were playing a World Cup Qualifier minutes from my house and that I could attend for less than $5, I jumped at the opportunity. After slathering on sunscreen (the worst sunburn of my life happened at a soccer match in Ghana. This is a prime example of me taking the adage “learn from your mistakes” seriously), I set off for the Stadium of Friendship with a small group of friends. After expertly bargaining for tickets with a hawker, we walked into the stadium. I think I was one of four women in attendance who was not selling refreshments.

There was chest paint, there was chanting, there was passion. Benin seemed to be the lesser team, but they pulled ahead and won the game, to everyone’s intense joy. Riot police ringed the field, standing stoically and becoming progressively more damp as people launched plastic bags full of water down from the stands onto the track, singing Benin’s national anthem as they hurled their celebratory water bombs.

The Benin Squirrels won! (Although they lost soon after, unfortunately falling out of the running for the World Cup.) It was a wonderful day with no crowd violence (unless you count the water bombs, which I don’t.) And in case you are wondering, no, I have never seen a single squirrel in Benin.

The Ball

Every year there is a Marine Ball to celebrate the birthday of the Marine Corps anywhere there are Marines. (I think.) Benin just got its first Marines to protect our very fancy new American Embassy. This year in Benin there was actually just a “Cake Cutting Ceremony” and not a ball, but I think that is really a persnickety detail because it seemed plenty fancy to me and I danced a lot. Anyway, I do not own a ball gown and I love cake, so a cake cutting ceremony suited me fine.

Because I live in Cotonou I was invited to participate and be one of the faces of the Peace Corps present at the event. I tried to make myself look a little more presentable and less sweaty than usual, and set off. The event was the most elegant thing I’ve been to in a while. There were a lot of important people in attendance. The level of decorum was difficult to uphold when the DJ couldn’t start the national anthem and accidentally put on some serious dance tunes instead. For probably over a minute and a half, all of the marines and the Ambassador were standing there, in formation, trying to bring the flag in. The DJ fumbled and fumbled. I had a hard time not laughing because 1) of course this happened, even though we are technically on American soil, we are still in Benin, and 2) this mishap was followed by a ceremony where a marine very seriously cut a cake with a saber which was symbolically poignant, I’m sure, but also seemed comedic to me. Luckily, I avoided an embarrassing outbreak of giggles.

We recently got a new ambassador in Benin who I met at the Peace Corps office before the event. 100% recovered from my near-laughing fit, I went over and re-introduced myself. She, in turn, introduced me to a man who I’m pretty sure was the ambassador to Belgium. We were chatting and he looked at my leg, noticing my scar (the one I got from dramatically falling into a manhole.) He said “Is that a mosquito bite?”

No, I explained, I fell into a manhole. My scar is just a reminder that Cotonou can be treacherous. He then told a bilingual dad joke. A dad joke is, according to me, “A joke that is sometimes funny, but mostly corny, one that makes you want to say “Awwww DAD!” the sort which your father probably tells at the dinner table, especially if you have friends over.”

Some background information you need to understand this joke is that the word for hole in French is “trou,” pronounced “true.” So when I said “Cotonou is treacherous,” he said “It isn’t Cotonou, it is Coto-TROU!” Although this took a moment for me to get, due to its bilingual nature, I thought it was absolutely hilarious and dorky.

Later that evening I danced the twist with the two ambassadors. I respect ambassadors who do things like dance to the twist at official events, because I think that shows a level of levity that can be hard to maintain for people in high offices. Anyway, later in the evening, the Belgian Ambassador (WAS HE THE BELGIAN AMBASSADOR? I WILL NEVER KNOW!) brought over a good-looking young man (presumably also Belgian, although who’s to say?) The Ambassador said “I recently met this young woman and she is a good dancer. This man is also a good dancer!”

In this moment, which could have been the start of a whirlwind romance or at least a dance, I reverted to my Beninese instincts. The appropriate thing to do in this situation in Benin is to make a joke. So I said “AH, BON?! (a very Beninese way to say “Oh really?”) I won’t believe you can dance until I see it!” My accent and body language were extremely Beninese, which people here usually find charming.

Instead of finding me charming, the young, handsome Belgian looked at me in horror, turned around, and walked away. Safe to say he didn’t appreciate my Beninese French and mannerisms. Well, I didn’t appreciate his sense of humor. I couldn’t stop laughing.

That night I danced for about eight hours and paid for it with massive blisters on my feet. But it was worth it. I also got to eat a piece of real red velvet cake (cut by sabre) and it was delicious. And although I didn’t start an international love affair, I ended up with a good story. What more can you ask for?

BOOKS 40-60

I’ve underlined the ones that I think you should DEFINITELY READ. I’ve put an asterisk by the ones I wouldn’t spend time on. The rest are somewhere in-between. If you have an e-reader, can I suggest jumping on your FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY’s e-books? I’ve been able to read a lot of current books on my kindle lately thanks to the support of the American taxpayer and our great public library system.

  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
    • If you don’t know much about farming in America and want someone to spell out all of the complex systems for you in a way you can understand, this is your book. If you care about the economic systems you pay into and the way what you put into your body touches the world, get reading!
  • Spinster, Kate Bolice
    • The history in this book was interesting, but frankly I found the memoir side of it quite boring. The place in the world for unmarried women is especially interesting here in Benin, but the book focused very much on white, middle class to rich, American women.
  • Getting Stoned with Savages, Maarten Troost
    • If you like my blog, you will probably like this book. (I think? Really, I have no perspective.)
  • Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose
    • Non-fiction war book that reads exactly like a non-fiction war book. I don’t suggest it if you are looking for a fast-paced war story or deep strategy discussion, but if you like the army or want to learn more about day-to-day war and preparation for war in WWII, go ahead and read it.
  • Rabbit, Run, John Updike
    • Well written, good imagery, but I disliked the main character VERY MUCH so that kind of killed it a little.
  • The Infinite Plan, Isabel Allende
    • Isabel Allende never disappoints. Stunning imagery, characters that are very human, and just a touch of the bizarre. Worth reading.
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
    • I haven’t read a book about India in quite a while and this one made me realize that I need to 1) eat much more Indian food and 2) brush up on my history. Also, read more Salman Rushdie books. This was a great combination of image, magic, and emotion.
  • My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, David Lebovitz
    • The story part of this wasn’t as good as I was hoping, but I liked the recipes. I’m far from most of the foods available in Paris but the techniques and flavor combos are stored away in my head for the future! And I did just make a killer lentil salad inspired by one in this book, albeit with generic lentils and not whatever fancy-shmancy lentils Lebovitz suggested. And no celery. Celery doesn’t exist in Benin.
  • The Goal, Eliyahu Goldratt
    • The most interesting book about business I’ve ever read. Got a little tedious at the end… I GET IT ALREADY! But talked about many things I had never thought of before in an easy-to-read way. Not great literature, but a great business book.
  • Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
    • Upsetting book, but illustrative of the time and place it is set in. I feel like I need to go back and read To Kill a Mockingbird again.
  • The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrent
    • I haven’t read a book about Eastern Europe in too long. This was a beautiful weaving of real life and fairy tale. I also particularly enjoy reading about the cold here in Benin because it makes me feel smug that even though I may be sweating, I am never in danger of frostbite.
  • Sugar Queen, Sarah Addison Allen
    • It was nice to read a book written in the style of magical realism set in the South of the US. This wasn’t a spectacular book, but it made me think of home.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey, L. James***
    • I read this book after I realized that the content was world-wide knowledge (as I saw the movie playing at a restaurant in Benin. See my previous post about that traumatic experience.) Fifty Shades of Grey is Highly Disturbing. This is not the piece of culture I’d like going out to the world. Also, just a reminder, if you are actively afraid of your partner, as the woman protagonist in this book explicitly states several times, you should leave your relationship immediately. That is not sexy. I made myself laugh, though, when in the book the couple turned on the shower and then got distracted and started fooling around outside of the shower. I was horrified—DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH (fictional) WATER YOU ARE WASTING???? So that was my second moment of outrage, after the part where this book normalizes controlling and abusive behavior.
  • Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
    • This book takes a lighthearted but data-driven approach to discussing romance in the modern world. I really enjoyed it—it spelled out some things I knew to be true but wouldn’t have been able to articulate. If you are interested in how romantic relationships (for middle-to-upper class straight people) are evolving, definitely read this book.
  • Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez ****
    • This book didn’t sit well with me. I live in a place where statutory rape is normalized and I don’t need it romanticized in my books as well. Luckily it is a short book.
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • Important book to read, especially today. At times I was uncomfortable reading this book, and I think that was a good thing. It puts a lot of thoughts that are difficult to express into eloquent words. My advice is, read the book. Even if part of it doesn’t sit well with you, keep reading. There were a couple of times where I was like “YOU AREN’T LOOKING AT THE WHOLE PICTURE!” and then whatever I thought was being left out was addressed later on.
  • Candide, Voltaire
    • This book is funny and relevant even though it is hundreds of years old. Proves that satire will never go out of style.
  • Fortune Smiles: Stories, Adam Johnson
    • A really interesting collection of short stories. Acts as a reminder that short fiction offers such refreshing little treats!
  • Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut
    • This book struck me as sad. I understand what it was driving at, but the future was so unimaginative, so sexist, and so far from what I perceive the reality to be today that it felt unnecessary and shallow.
  • The Book Thief, Markus Zuzak
    • This was a quick read that was emotionally stirring (but what holocaust book isn’t?) and full of beautiful prose. It is marketed as a “young adult” book, which tend to spell things out and be overly cheesy, so I almost didn’t read it, but I’m glad I did.

The Good Things in my Life

The past couple of months have not been all sunshine. They’ve actually been quite tough for various reasons, mostly having to do with transition to living in the big city, culture shock, etc. etc. After deciding that wallowing in a mixture of non-desirable emotions is not how I choose to spend my time, I’ve started my PROGRAM FOR REINSTATEMENT OF GENERAL SUNNY DISPOSITION AND RESTORATION OF MARGINAL FEELINGS OF PRODUCTIVITY AND CONTROL OVER MY LIFE which includes a daily gratitude doodle journal, poetry, tiny plants, and exercise videos, along with an attitude adjustment. I’ve been on the program for two weeks now and it is working. On that note, see the positive things listed below.

  1. I have a new house with a kitschy chandelier and two pink toilets. That’s two more pink toilets than I thought I would ever own, except for the one in my Grandpa’s house with the poodle painted on the inside of the lid, which I coveted for a little while when I was about 6 years old. But my two pink toilets also mean I have running water!
  2. The rainy season is almost over which means less mosquitos and less mold on my clothes. No one likes to sit by you if you smell like mildew!
  3. I now spend literally no time on hair care because I cut all of my hair off. And when I bring the hair that I cut off back to the States and sell it on the internet I’m gonna be RICH$$$$$$ (or I will have more money than before I did it.) And then maybe I’ll buy something ridiculous and luxurious. (Like this super-cool watch designed for blind people?!?! https://www.dezeenwatchstore.com/shop/all/bradley-mesh/)
  4. I’ve begun teaching art one day a week at a Montessori school! I really enjoy it. So far, we have drawn family portraits and thumbprint flowers. Soon, we will make Halloween cat masks. I am very glad that none of the parents know me because the kids usually get paint on their uniforms. No mess no fun!
  5. I just started a bunch of seedlings and I’m about to go crazy with a container garden. I have managed to coordinate the transport of two 100 lb bags of soil from their nursery origin point all the way to my courtyard which involves navigating five flights of stairs. NO BARRIERS WILL STAND BETWEEN ME AND MY SWISS CHARD!
  6. A grocery store within a 10 minute walk of my house. I mean, it has everything from a deli counter to a vegetable stand outside. I’ll be eating well. With the aid of my…
  7. Refrigerator! Which I recently acquired very cheaply. Now I can cook things and save them! Game changer! It sits well in my spacious kitchen (also tiled pink.) I have been drinking an impressive amount of iced tea BECAUSE I CAN.
  8. Cute neighbor kids who call me Tata Yvan (big sister Evan.) They get really excited when I get home and we talk about everything they’ve learned at school. Then, I go into my locked apartment building which means that they can no longer get close enough to come to my screen door and lick it the way the kiddos did in Bante. There’s a happy medium. I’m planning on doing some of those fun melty beads with them (you know, the ones where you make a pattern on a little plastic disk with small spikes and then you iron the back?) when I’m a little more settled in. Very excited.
  9. A woman who sells beans and bread with a smile right outside of my door. I never have to worry about breakfast again. Who doesn’t love beans on a baguette?
  10. I’m coming home for Christmas/New Years! WAHOOOOO! Can’t wait to see everyone!

In the next week or so, be on the lookout for a ******SPECIAL PHOTO POST******

Senegal and One Year to Go!

Recently, I spent two weeks living a whirlwind life in Senegal. Basically all we thought about was malaria. And I really loved it.

Now, I’ve never been a person with a lot of interest in health. I turned down a health volunteer position with Peace Corps in Ghana, and stopped visiting my local hospital in Bante after I saw too many burned babies and compound fractures. My stomach is not strong.

There is a lot of malaria in Benin. Almost everyone I know in Benin has symptomatic malaria at least once a year, and probably has the parasite in their blood most of the time. I’ve seen the repercussions of malaria firsthand—from kids having convulsions in my concession (they have all recovered) to the people in my current office who come in lethargic and complaining of body aches. Malaria treatment and prevention (but mostly treatment) accounts for ¼ of most families’ annual income here. Imagine if you spent ¼ of your income on one illness.

Malaria, while terrible, is also terribly cool. The parasite is extremely well adapted to wreak havoc on the human population. The lifecycle is so complex that it is hard to stop. Malaria has been around for thousands of years but everyone agrees that it is on its way out! Hopefully in our lifetimes it will be pretty much eradicated. There is a lot of work to do, but leaders in the field think it is feasible, so I’ll go ahead and trust them on that.

At the conference I was introduced to an app building platform called CommCare and I’m really excited about it. I’ve never been one that is much for technology, but I do love tools that make things easier and more effective for people, and this technology gives you that capability. I’m in the process of getting certified to build the apps and then hopefully will build some for my organization as well as for other volunteers who can use them. The apps are interactive and can collect pretty much any data you might need. I’m going to make one for my organization to track our client demographics. In the future I might make one to track bed net distributions or farmers’ use of compost, for example. Wahoo!

This past week, we had a conference with all of the volunteers who came to Benin at the same time I did. We had some sessions about life after peace corps, grant writing, etc. We also lounged by the hotel pool a lot. It was refreshing to see everyone and also to realize we have one year left before we head back to the US! It is crazy to me that I’ve already been here 15 months. I have also just moved into my new house which I’ll do a post about soon. My life has become much less stressful with a space of my own.

I’ll leave you with this: Recently I was at a restaurant eating dinner. The TV was on, which I didn’t pay much attention to—there’s always a TV on. As my friends and I sat there, we found ourselves listening to disturbingly intimate noises emanating from the television. At first we thought we had stumbled upon a public screening of bad porn, but then it became clear that we were, in fact, watching 50 Shades of Grey. It is quite the experience to try to avert your eyes from a centrally-placed screen showing an “R” rated film involving a lot of bondage in a restaurant surrounded by men of another culture who are all staring at you like “PROBABLY THIS IS NORMAL FOR ALL AMERICANS.” I had to ask the waitress for the check four times before she could tear herself away from the action. Gotta love those moments of cultural exchange!

Time for SUMMER CAMP

Setting off for Camp BRO in Ouidah!

Setting off for Camp BRO in Ouidah!

Simeon (right) and a friend seeing the ocean for the first time

Simeon (right) and a friend seeing the ocean for the first time

The peace corps volunteer-run Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others) took place this year in Ouidah, a city known for being the site of the major slave port in Benin as well as the world capitol of Voodoo (Vodun.) This year, there were about 60 boys from the ages of 12 to 16 or so. I took two boys from Bante to the camp—they had a rollicking good time.

Simeon, one of the boys I brought, was a star. He could not just wear his camp t-shirt—it was not stylish enough. Every day he added a vest, a hat, or some other high-fashion accessory. Although he looked really good, he didn’t look quite as good as the boy who wore a Hello Kitty hat all day every day (gender norms are obviously different here…imagine an American boy wearing a pink Hello Kitty hat to a camp with 60 of his peers.)

One day, after talking about school and the difficulties some boys have staying in the education system, Simeon made a speech. He paced back and forth in front of a large group of boys saying “My friends… My friends, the roots of education are bitter! But we are not here only to taste the bitter roots! We look forward to the sweet harvest.” Although I think that his words went over most people’s heads, he sounded really good. Later, at the end of camp, he made another speech, this time in English, commencing with “I have a Dream.” I was pleased because he obviously read the Martin Luther Kind Jr. document I gave him! Although his I have a dream speech was a bit naïve—that all of Africa would be one country with no more war, where everyone treated each other as brothers—I was still impressed.

My favorite activity with the kids was watching them see the ocean for the first time. Just imagine; 60 boys who have never seen the ocean all arriving over a dune and being met by the sight of waves. It was a magical moment. Some boys were worried that the water was boiling and wouldn’t touch it until they were sure that the other’s feet weren’t cooked. Some who were more bold immediately stripped down to their boxer-briefs and rolled around in the surf.

Less fun was the experience with our sleeping quarters. The dormitory was nice, except for one thing. There were many, many rats. People found bites taken out of their travel snacks, as well as bites taken out of their underwear. WHY?

One night, I woke up at about 3 am with what was definitely a rat right under my bed near my head. Staying calm and collected, I did what was most logical; pretended to be an enormous snake. My sleepy thought process went something like: rats are scary, but they are scared of predators, snakes eat rats, so I should be a snake. Obviously. Hissing vehemently, I pictured myself as a large python. The rat, thankfully, bought it (or became bored) and left the vicinity of my bed. I was very pleased with the result, and drifted back to sleep.

During the day, the camp was full of important sessions about health, gender vs sex (gender being the roles given by society to a person of a particular sex,) conflict resolution, leadership, and other topics. The boys did art projects, learned the basics of karate, and studied what makes up a nutritional meal. But the most poignant moment that I witnessed happened after camp. Four boys and another volunteer stayed at my house for a night before heading back to their homes up north. We were sitting around the breakfast table talking about racism.  We asked them—Why is it that many Beninese people treat white people with more respect than their fellow countrymen? Why are white people often afforded special privileges?

One of the boys said that it was a way to show respect because whites do things like invent technology, build airplanes, etc. while he had never seen a black person do those things. Before the other volunteer or I could respond, Simeon said, “Yes, but is this a case of gender or sex? By this I mean, is it a result of circumstance, resources, and culture, or is it inherent?”

And with that, this 13 year old kid made me so proud and so full of hope. Because I think he will be a leader in his community one day. And if everything goes right, he will remember the lessons about how to realize equality, about how to respect others, and about how to have confidence in himself. Camp was a success.