Monday, March 31, 2008

Escape from Africa!

The universe tends to unfold as it should. That's kind of been our running slogan for our last couple of weeks in Africa. It's like we've been given one last crash course in African patience and fatalism. You know...just to make sure we got it.

The original plan was something along the lines of getting to Cotonou, Benin on Wednesday night (the 19th of March), go to the Ghanaian Embassy on Thursday and apply for visas hoping to get them either that day or Friday. We were then going to spend a day or two in Grand Popo, Benin before zooming on to Ghana to relax on the beach and eat good food and drink good beer until we fly out of Accra on the 28th. There were also some waterfalls and hikes we wanted to go see on the way. That was the original plan.

So we get on the bus at about 2:30am Wednesday morning and of course it was not the air conditioned one with good shocks but rather a refugee from the seventies. Needless to say the ride was less than enjoyable. There were several roads that were so bad that we were literally tossed out of our seats. Atleast we didn't have to watch the same awful Hausa videos the whole way down. Eventually we made it to Benin, got our hotel, and started to feel better about the trip as we planned to go get our visas for Ghana the next day.

Cue the first SNAFU. Yeah, we kind of forgot about the fact that Ghana is a Christian nation. They actually care about that whole Easter holiday thing. They care about it to the tune of a 4.5 day weekend starting thursday afternoon in fact. So there was no way we could collect our visas until the following Tuesday. This essentially killed Ghana as a site seeing excursion, as our flight was on Friday morning. At best we could get maybe one full day that we could either go to the beach and feel rushed, or just chill in Accra. We were not pleased.

But, when life hands you lemons. We suddenly found ourselves with 4 days to spend in Grand Popo where we could not be productive even if we wanted to. We couldn't do anything until Tuesday. It was like enforced relaxation and I think it was exactly what we needed. Those four days with the A-team and Djimi were probably some of the most enjoyable days I've had in Peace Corps. We celebrated Easter by going to the Lion Bar, which is run by this big happy rasta guy. We showed up and ordered a round of sodabi (distilled palm wine) shots to toast our completed service. When the rasta saw us do our toast he gave us the rest of the sodabi bottle for free. Djimi and I proceeded to get absolutely wrecked. We're convinced the rasta was trying to kill us with sodabi. Luckily we met some friendly Benin volunteers who helped us carry Djimi back to the hotel. I was at-least capable of carrying myself...barely.

Fast forward to Tuesday. The girls left us on Monday to go to Lome, Togo to try to get their Ghana visas. Djimi and I returned to Cotonou on Tues morning hoping to collect our visas and then go to the SNTV bus station and take that night's bus to Accra, getting there sometime the following morning. Well...we get our visas, no problem. But there's no bus on Tuesday night. Learning this, we went and got lunch while we weighed our options.

Here was our situation: It was Tuesday and we were in Cotonou, Benin. We had to be in Accra, Ghana by 4am Friday. The next bus would leave around 11pm wednesday night and get to Accra by around 10am Thursday. Do we wait? Do we ditch the bus and go find bush taxis? We knew the bus line was relatively reliable and it had the advantage of getting us to the SNTV station in Accra where we had some bags waiting for us that we had shipped ahead. If we took the public transportation we would have to find the station once in Accra. Also, when we thought of public transport, the Nigerien bush taxis are what came to mind, which are not at all reliable and it seemed like that would just be a very stressful way to travel. Once on the bus we just let it go and hope it doesn't break down. Even if it did, we still had over 12 hrs worth of delay time before we would miss our flight. So...we chose to wait in Cotonou until Wednesday night and take the bus.

We showed up at the SNTV station in the afternoon after checking out of our hotel, and killed the day doing some laundry and hanging out speaking Zarma with all the Nigeriens there. Around 9:45 the bus shows up from Niamey. Sure enough it's the shitty seventies bus again. Oh well, we can cope with that. Oh yeah, and it's broken. Won't go until the morning. Argh! Well, we were still hopeful that maybe it would be fixed quickly in the morning. Being the hard core PCV's we were we said screw it and just slept at the station. They atleast had mattresses for that purpose. However, it wasn't much of a sleep as there were lights, and people milling about, and we were just sleeping exposed on the ground. So that's where the lack of sleep began.

The next morning, we awoke around 7. The mechanic didn't show up until about 7:45. Now, we thought about going and taking bush taxis...but all of our CFA was tied up in the bus tickets, cause we had changed all our money to pounds and cedis the day before. So we hung around waiting to see if they could get the bus fixed. Around 9am they got it started and told everyone to get on the bus. Excitedly we did so and felt so relieved, knowing we were going to catch our flight.

Ten minutes later everyone is getting off the bus. Something went wrong and now they needed to wait for the mechanic to go buy a new part or something. What made the whole morning really hard was that at no point did it not seem like they were on the verge of fixing the bus. So we were never able to convince ourselves to go ask for a refund and run to the bush taxis. Also, the bus had inevitability on it's side. We had no clue really about the bush taxis in this country, but if we waited long enough, the bus would get us there.

So we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, after some cheap lunch across the street, someone finally told us that the bus was not going to run that day, but that we could wait until the next one came from Niamey that night. Sorry, that just wasn't going to work, we had a flight to catch. But we were already pretty sure it was too late to catch a car that would get us to Accra in time. At this point we were resigned to the fact that we would miss our flight have to eat the cost of another ticket. Or so I thought, until I'm coming out of the toilet and Djimi flags me over. Apparently this big Nigerien guy who lives in Ghana is going to go get a bush taxi, cause he doesn't want to wait either. Turns out if we left right then (aobut 2pm) we would get to Accra around 8 or 9. Brilliant! Let's go!

So we follow our new friends to the bush taxi post, and they hire a car for only 4 of us (yes! extra comfort!) that will take us to the Togo, Ghana border. On the other side we'd have to find another car to get us to Accra. Suddenly we went from absolutely missing our flight to having a comfortable ride, and a guide to get us through the borders and hopefully find the bus station at the other end. The universe...

So began our mad dash through 3 countries to catch our flight. The ride through Benin and Togo was actually quite nice and largely uneventful. Almost relaxing even. The Ghanaian border, however was less nice. It was easily the most complex, bureaucratically to get through. Also, the Ghanaian side was awful. It was like the worst market in Niger, except that we were not familiar with it. We lost our friend going through, and so had to find a car on our own, loaded with all our stuff, while people constantly came up to us and harassed us about their car, or grabbed at us. Mostly it sucked because it was impossible to stop and collect ourselves and figure out what we needed to do.

There was one guy who we sort of ended up following. One of the unpleasant side effects of being a PCV in Niger is that it makes you, by default, untrusting of anyone trying to help you. Or at least that's what it's done to me and Djimi. Invariably, once they finish helping you they will demand compensation. It doesn't matter that you didn't ask for their help. So we were loath to actually commit to letting this guy lead us around. But after turning down several offers for bush taxis at prices we knew to be inflated (Genghis had warned us of what it should cost), the guy asked us how much we wanted to pay and then he found us a car for that price. He even asked us where in Accra we wanted to go and seemed to be setting us up to end up near the SNTV station. Once he turned out to be trust worthy we gave him some of our remaining CFA (we needed our cedis now that we were in Ghana) and felt bad for not trusting him.

Ghanaian bush taxis, way nicer than Nigerien ones. For one, they actually enforce the 4 person per seat standard. They are also in much better repair than the ones we were used to. The roads however, were about on par with Niger. So it was not the most relaxing ride, but it was going to get us there. We didn't get to see much of the Ghanaian country side as at this point we were traveling after dark (something we were not supposed to do as a PCV, heh). Though we did get stopped many times by police. At one stop they actually pulled us out and checked our passports. Turned out they just wanted to document us passing through. The guy was also very friendly and nice. Again...the universe tends to I figured I'd give something a try. I asked the guy if he knew where in Accra we could find the SNTV bus station. He told us that if we just stayed on our bush taxi until the last stop we would be in the neighborhood and should be able to ask the locals. Fantastic! I knew we had been pulled out at that stop for a reason.

Accra is rediculous. As we road through we could not help but look with dropped jaws. It is a real city. I can't even really begin to describe how much it is not like Niamey. It had highways, and overpasses, and pizza places, and a mall! We saw an add for an honest to god shopping mall! Irikoy Bere!

Anyway, eventually we go through all the nice built up districts and end up in a quarter that looks a little more like what we were expecting. Still nicer than Niger, but looking more like an African town with street sellers and people carrying stuff on their heads and lots of taxis trying to get us to take them. We oddly felt more comfortable. was also 10:30 at night and we had to find a Nigerien bus line in a town we didn't know. So we started asking. Eventually, despite our best efforts we picked up a guide who wanted us to follow him.

Now, we knew full well that we were blatant targets. Two white guys with lots of bags, clearly not knowledgeable about the area. Totally dependent on someone helping us. But we didn't really have any other option. It was in Allah's hands at this point. And we started to get worried when our guide started leading us into what was clearly a market that was closed up for the night. As a rule, a market after dark is probably one of the least safe places you can go in an African capital city. But...again we were out of options and running out of time. So we swallowed the lumps in our throats and carried on.

Our guide stopped to ask a bunch of guys sitting around eating dinner if they knew where the SNTV station was. What was that greeting I heard? Was that a fofo? Ha! They were Zarmas! As soon as Djimi and I were speaking Zarma with these guys we felt one hundred percent safe. We had instant friends and they would take care of us. I love that about West Africa. Even though the station would be closed for the night they knew the guy who could open it. When we got to the station, it turned out they were actually open cause they were waiting for the same bus that we had been waiting for that morning (was that really the same day, insane). We told them our situation, that we needed our bags that night, and they called the boss with the key to the office and he came and let us in. There was a brief moment off panic as our bags were not in the office, but then they took us to another room and we found them. Alhumdulilahi!

After further chatting with the Zarmas they asked us how we were getting to the airport. We said by taxi. They told us we should not do that because a lot of the taxis on the road at that hour would just take us to their friends and clean us out. So they found one of their friends with a car and arranged to take us and our bags to the airport for 10 cedis (about 10 dollars). Done and done! We made it to the airport by around 11pm. We were gold. So we sat in the airport cafe and had an the best sandwiches ever and beer and fries. We had made it.

We spent the next couple hours washing the road off ourselves in the bathroom and changing some clothes and just relaxing. We had intended to sleep, but it didn't happen. But we got our flight to Morocco and that's all that mattered. We were getting off the continent and now it was just up to the airlines to not screw us up.

Now, we're in London, staying with my cousins and generally being overwhelmed, but in a good way. We've pretty much spent the weekend just recovering from our mad dash out of Africa. It's been nice, and now we're ready to go really explore the city.

Friday, March 28, 2008


5 countries in 27 hours.

7 hours of sleep in the last 72.

Finally in London. About to get the best sleep of my life. Details to come.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

And We're Off!

Djimi and I are leaving tonight around 2am. We'll be heading through Benin, Togo, and Ghana for the first leg of our journey. Not quite two weeks. We'll then fly out of Accra, Ghana to London and mooch off some of my relatives and friends we've met for two weeks. After that, a brief sojourn in Dublin before flying back stateside.

I'll try and make some posts along the way when I find internet access. But if all goes well we should be stateside again by April 15. The A-team will also be traveling on a parallel itinerary so we'll probably meet up with them here and there.

Catch you on the flip side.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Gimme an R!

I'm done! I just finished my COS interview and am now officially a Returned PCV, though I haven't returned to anywhere but the hostel yet. It feels good to no longer be a volunteer actually. I wasn't sure at first but yeah... it's a good feeling. I no longer have to answer to the bureau! It's like suddenly I feel like an adult again.

The exit interview went really well. It was nice to be able to air some of my grievances and offer some constructive suggestions and actually feel like my opinion was being respected. Even still, I don't know that I'm ready to leave. I suddenly feel so free...and I'm just going to go back home?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

After the Village

Limbo. That's where I'm at. Though it's easily the busiest, noisiest, most frenetic limbo I've ever conceived of.

I'm out of the village. Leaving was kind of a non-event. I guess I've spent so much time preparing to leave, and with my villagers knowing it was coming, that when it happened it was like, ok bye. The morning the car was coming I just kind of sat there waiting. Everyone else had stuff to do, so there wasn't really anyone around, until the car actually showed up. Then there was lots of goodbyes with the villagers closest to me and a few gifts to hand out. Otherwise, not terribly exciting or emotionally jarring. Also we gave my school director and village chief a lift into Niamey, which made the whole thing seem that much less final.

That said, as our passengers were getting out in Niamey, Boubacar (the school director) was reluctant to shake my hand, as if that declared our parting final. There's been a few times in the last month that he seemed like he would cry when we talked about my leaving. That's a huge thing for a Nigerien. They don't do public crying. If he had cried, I would have lost it. But knowing that I'm just hanging out in Niamey for a while makes it hard to really feel the finality of it all. I suspect when I'm crossing the bridge into Benin I'll finally break down.

In the mean time, I'm here in Niamey, along with probably 80% of PC Niger. Swear-In is coming up on Friday so it's pretty much party party party until then. It's an odd situation in that there are so many demands on my attention, since I'm leaving and all, and yet I'm having a really hard time feeling keen on getting into all the large crowds and parties. I'd kinda rather just spend some quiet nights with my closer friends until it's time to leave. Unfortunately, that's hard to do when all of your possible places to go are full of PCV's in celebration mode.

Still, I've found a couple of escapes. Last week I went and visited Brittany's village. It's funny that even though I hadn't been there in a year (when I did Brittany's live-in) a large number of them remembered me. I guess they had been clamoring for me to come visit for quite some time. I'm sure visiting the village for three days means Boo and I are married now, in their eyes. Still, it was a nice last bush experience where it wasn't all overshadowed with my imminent departure. It was just a nice visit.

During that visit, I also went and saw a Xima (sorcerer) in Gotheye. Alison is pretty good friends with him apparently and so took Boo and I to see his stuff. He immediately took us into his little shrine(?) and showed us all the garments and props used in possession dances. He also had a large assortment of perfumes, animal parts, and plant powders used to make various traditional medicines. He actually showed us the preparation of a love potion which involved taking various powders (all different plants and colors) and floating them carefully on the surface of water in a calabash. He made a really beautiful pattern on the surface with the powders. Apparently you are then supposed to drink 4 times from the clear center and then bath with the water. It blows my mind that I was almost in this country for over two years and never saw that!

So yeah, I'm mostly just killing time and spending time with those dearest to me before I get to get on the bus to Benin. Also wrapping up the various bureaucratic loose ends needed to actually close my service. But come Friday, I will finally be an RPCV!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Here we go.

Whelp, here we go. I'm about to head back to the village for, in theory, the last time. Tomorrow my move out car will come to get me and my stuff. I feel strangely calm at the moment. I'm sure that'll pass.

This past week was live in, when all the current trainees go out to their villages for a week before going back to Hamdy to wrap up their training. A current volunteer usually spends the first night with them in the village just to make sure everything is ok before abandoning the newbie. I've done a few of these live in things over the last couple years, but doing one in my own village with Liz (my replacement) was very strange. One of the major differences is that in another village, I'm just as out of place as the new volunteer, so I can share in their apprehension and excitement. The only difference is that I have more language and comfort in the culture. In my village, on the other hand, I'm so comfortable and confident that it's hard to think of all the questions and fears the new volunteer might have, but be too overwhelmed to be worrying about just yet. I know where the well, or the best families to eat with, or the nicest villagers all are, but it doesn't always occur to me to show them to the newbie. Though it is also kind of fun to watch Liz and be reminded of what it was like when the village was new to me.

Also, because it's my house and my life for the past two years, and I'm handing it over to her, I can't help but be afraid of how everything reflects on me. Is my house to messy? Do I treat my cats poorly? Is it bad that I can't remember every villagers name (they often go by five different names)? I know she has other things on her mind, but I get really self conscious about things like that. Djimi put it really well when he pointed out that it's kind of like if, in the states, when someone was moving into your old apartment, you not only handed them the keys and maybe a couple pieces of furniture you don't want anymore, you also give them your job, your pets, your friends, your life. I know everyone does things differently but I just can't help but thinking of it as "this is my life and now she's gonna do everything differently and mess it all up!" I know it's not true, but it's hard.

I know Liz will be a great fit in my village. That doesn't make handing over the keys, so to speak, any easier. Most of the time I was there with her, the villagers all just wanted to talk about how awesome I am and how their going to miss me. While this was flattering, and makes me realize how much tomorrow is really going to hurt, it was not good for Liz. So I made a more dedicated than usual effort to only stay the one night. I knew she and the village would get adjusted to eachother much better/faster if I wasn't there. Part of that is that being a female volunteer, she will form some completely different relationships with everyone, and I can't even begin to know how to help her integrate that way. I don't hang out with the women much, so I really don't have and friendships to hand over to her. Meanwhile, I know that my male friends will not all see her as a new me, but rather as a potential girlfriend, which is not ok.

After talking to Liz yesterday, when she passed through on her way back to Hamdy, I know she will be happy there. It already sounds like she's more outgoing than I was, which makes me feel some regret that I wasn't the best volunteer I could have been. Hearing all the little things that she found intimidating, or hilarious, or just amusing really makes me sad that I'm leaving. I don't know what I'm gonna do. But I'll let you all know how it goes.