Saturday, July 18, 2009

No One Like U

After two years of documenting my experiences, thought, and opinions in this blog, I believe that this will be my last journal. I noticed that journals were becoming harder and harder to write as my adventures became less novel to me and then after losing Kate, well…it was just hard to find inspiration like I once did. However, I know that months back, after telling my mom a story about how I held and mothered a pair of preemie-twins who in turn spit up on me, she requested that I write a story on taxi rides and the inevitable escapades that occur when traveling by bush taxi in Benin. However, as I wrote, I realized that riding in a taxi is less of a voyage than it is more of a game—if that makes any sense; therefore, I have broken this journal down Milton Bradley style in hopes that I will be able to better illustrate my point.

Taxi Rides

Objective: Travel from point A to point B alive and with your dignity and sanity in tact.

Materials: (all you need to make it a true adventure)
- 4 bald snow tires never meant to experience the sun-soaked African cement
- Wavering patience - 8 hours to spare
- 1984 Peugeot station wagon

Setup: (things to keep in mind before hitting the road)
- Price: Know your price beforehand; there’s nothing worse than finding out you got played by a taximan.
- Time: Never be in a hurry to get anywhere. Taxi rides take time and rushing the experience will only bring about bad karma.
- Lack of door handles: No door handles, no problem! This allows more room for hip space which equals more clients which equals more profit which buys more cola nuts!
- Passengers: When in doubt, add another. Profits are made by overstuffing taxis, so when possible, four in front, four/five in the middle, and three/four in the back. Still room on top, you say?! The more the merrier!
- Luggage: Think vertically. No room for luggage in the trunk? No problem! Taxis can be stacked in equal ratio to their height.
- Animals: Animals are welcome. Any of God’s majestic creatures from cows to goats to pigs to roosters can easily fit in the trunk or be tied on top.
- Starting the Engine: Starting the care can be difficult and not always require a key. Helpful hint: get the car moving to jump start it—either get out and push or start rolling down a hill (backwards and forwards are acceptable)

Guidelines: (as there are no rules, these are only mere guidelines to keep in mind during travel)
- Peuhl: If you see a Peuhl man, pick him up. He has no luggage, never complains, and is stick thin so he can be strategically placed anywhere.
- Marche Mamas: If you see a Marche Mama, beware. Unlike the Peuhl, she will likely delay you at least half an hour to load and unload baggage. She is rarely traveling to a big city and often takes up two spaces though you’ll receive the blame for not “moving over.”
- Car Problems:
-Flat tire? No problem! Most taxi drivers are so accustomed to break downs that they can fix a flat in under 10 minutes.
-No Speedometer? No problem! There are no speed limits and who cares anyway?!
-No Gas? No problem! Any liquid will suffice until you reach the next bootleg gasoline stand.
-No f*ing idea? No problem! Tomato cans, water, and gris-gris items (e.g. skulls, beads, feathers) are all acceptable under the hood if it keeps the car moving.
- Documentation: Paperwork, schmaperwork. You never have to travel with your documents as long as you can pay the bribe.
- Babies: Feel free to hold any baby you want, just make sure to give the baby back when the mom leaves.
- Companionship: Like referees at a sporting event, making fun of other drivers is an easy way to bond with fellow passengers. Helpful phrases include: “He’s crazy!” “He doesn’t have a head!” and “Did you see that!? Really?”

Multiplayer Play:-
- 2 players: Protect your sanity by sitting together and go for the best seat in the house (front passenger’s side)—you’ve earned it!
- 5 or more players: Well played. Now you can rent out the taxi just for you! The chauffeur will stop when you say stop and go when you say go—sanity remains in tact! Good job!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Closer to Fine

In recent weeks, while the loss of Kate hasn’t become any more real to me and while I still find myself weakest in my most private moments, I’ve noticed that life has a funny way of moving on whether you’re ready or not. The calendar has now turned to May, and I’ve discovered myself spending more and more time here, there, and everywhere as my service begins its final encore. Camp Success 2009 is steadily gaining steam and with the camp itself taking place during the first week of July, these next two months are sure to be full of careful planning and frantic preparation. With any luck, I hope that this year’s edition of Camp Success will be an even greater achievement than it was last year. For many reasons, this camp has become very personal for me, and I would like to see it reach its full potential. Not only has it felt like the most important project I’ve done thus far in my service, but this year’s camp began as a collaboration and as a union of my girls camp and of Kate’s girls camp. Therefore, more than ever, I feel the weight of this year’s camp on my shoulders; its magnitude is painfully clear. Camp Success 2009 will serve in memoriam of Kate’s dedication and service to the development and equality of females in Benin. In this vain, we have extended the scope of Camp Success to include female students from fifteen secondary schools across the Donga department. The campers will learn about educational opportunities, career development, and reproductive health from sessions facilitated by upstanding female community leaders. These women role models will serve as our Camp Mama and Camp Tantis and will further assist the girls in cultivating strong goal-setting, decision making, and leadership skills as well as developing a greater self-confidence. As in the years previous, the aim of this camp is to educate, motivate, and reward high-achieving female students. I have faith that if our goal is met, we will honor the memory of Kate in one of the best ways possible—by carrying on her work.
In other projects making progress, the manual work on my basketball court has finally drawn to a close thus giving myself, along with two other coaches from the community, the opportunity to have begun working with a boy’s team and a girl’s team three times a week. I’ve been watching this baby grow and grow and grow for a long time now, so it’s been very rewarding on a personal level to finally start practicing and training. The work is very much “petit a petit” as these kids have literally never touched a basketball before, but as of week two, everyone is still very much motivated to learn and get better, so as long as the attitude is there, the skills will follow. In reality, one of the difficult aspects for me has been learning a whole new French schema for basketball. As it is an American sport, much of the main vocabulary remains the same, “dribble, pass, rebound,” but try explaining, for example, how to shoot the basketball—for me, it’s always been BEEF (Balance, Elbow, Eyes, Follow through), when you follow through it’s like “reaching into a cookie jar,” goose neck, etc.—none of these concepts translate, on any level, into French. Truth be told, even the most basic concepts are difficult for me to explain as well; quite simply because I, honestly, don’t think that I’ve ever had to teach someone how to dribble. I’ve taught crossover dribble, spin dribble, speed dribble, hesitation dribble, pound dribble, in-and-out dribble, around-the-back dribble but I don’t think I’ve ever had to start at step one. Most American kids have had some introduction to a bouncing ball before they begin learning basketball, so the concept and the basic fundamentals are already there. These girls and boys are literally blank slates and any athletic adventure they’ve had has been with a ball at their feet—certainly never bouncing or dribbling. In this sense, coaching beginner’s basketball in Benin has been “petit a petit” for me, too.
In terms of immediate gratification, the best thing happening to me at the moment is the culmination of my teaching career here in Manigri. While the current teacher strikes are liable to delay the final exams, the sun is shining and I can see the light! In less than a week, I will have taught my final class (fingers crossed) and in less than two weeks I will have graded my final papers (fingers crossed, again). While my teaching experience has been many things to me, and while I have certainly learned more than I can even begin to express at this moment, I cannot deny that the prospect of never having to design a lesson plan around the present perfect tense again, does not intrigue me in the slightest. I suppose in my current musings of my experience here, I am most proud of the fact that even in these last few draining weeks, I have still come to class fully prepared and fully eager to make every class my best class—I’m still trying to be better and do better. My hope is that in my passionate attempts to make English class interesting, I have lit a spark under those students who would have otherwise apathetically cruised through the school system. I know that I have several bright and extremely motivated students, and I am confident that with or without me they would have found (and will find) a way to succeed. I guess my real wish is that I somehow in someway, I got to those students who hung around the middle or who have in other ways been ignored by their other professors. I hope that in someway, I was different, even if only for four hours-a-week. And the hardest part for me (and the hardest part about being a teacher) is that I won’t really ever know if I made a genuine difference—I just have to hope. Regardless, I’ll be toasting a “Beninoise” to myself come Thursday night!
The rest of the exciting news in country isn’t really mine to share, but I can certainly dance around it a bit! The good news is that two of my best friends in country have been accepted to extend for a third year of teaching in China. The bad news is that they will be leaving in less than a month marking them as the first batch of PSL 20ers to officially COS (close of service), and leaving me more alone than before here in Benin. Truthfully, I’m very happy that I get to share in the excitement, because it’s going to be an amazing opportunity for the both of them, and I’m hoping that if I play my cards right, I could find myself making a visit to the land of noodles and pandas in the near future! Talks from other volunteers have surfaced as well of people extending in all kinds of interesting, new and exotic places in addition to plenty of plans being made for COS trips and post Peace Corps life. I should mention that a fair number of those plans include what his/her first meal back in the States will be—ah yes, the land of ample goodness and fat. At this moment, I, myself, would want to go straight American—a greasy Quarter Pounder with cheese, a side of French fries (with ketchup and mayonnaise, please), and then maybe topped all off with a Dairy Queen blizzard or even caramel Moolatte…yummm. With all the planning and leaving and now, first goodbyes, I find I can’t but help get a little nostalgic. In fact, to mark my time here, I’ve started working on a “Peace Corps by the numbers” list—here is what I have so far:

350 approximate number of students taught

60 number of times I’ve played “Cross of Flowers”

59 number of original volunteers in PSL 20

35 number of current volunteers in PSL 20

22 books read

21 months of living in Benin

10 most impressive number of grown adults smashed into a 5-passenger car

7 pounds gained in Benin

6 people in village who can properly pronounce my name

5 new countries visited

4 number of “Oh My God” diseases or injuries I’ve had

2 number of times I’ve seriously considered going home

Thursday, April 30, 2009

World Spins Madly On

When I started this journal, my intention was to focus on my Peace Corps experience; I vowed to keep all the personal details out of it. However, I think I would be remiss if I did not say something of the events that have passed as of late.

Written March 28th.

I remember one time Kate asked me to describe her in one word. I told her that I would think about it and get back to her. Kate, my answer is this, there is absolutely no one word to describe you. Twenty-nine is the best I can do.

Sincere. Kind. Radiant. Brilliant. Sweet. Gorgeous. Understanding. Peaceful. Friend.

Passionate. Motivated. Unfaltering. Strong. Smiley. Intoxicating. Comfortable. Patient. Donga Woman.

Trust-worthy. Shining. Happy. Petite. Centered. Grounded. Honest. Joyous. Undeniably Kate.

I imagine that it’s taken me until now to write something about Kate because I, in some way, think that if I will it to be so, I can just undo all the events of the past two weeks—rewinding life to a time when I could hear her laughing and see her smiling. The truth of the matter is that I still can’t really comprehend how someone so full of life and love and beauty could have possibly left us here alone. And so, I am forced to believe in the righteousness of the world. I’m forced to believe that Kate isn’t truly gone. I forced to believe that because we knew Kate, even if only for the briefest of moments, we will live life a little better and love a little harder and see beauty more often because we were touched by her—and in this sense, Kate is never gone.

I miss you.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


“Do you have Jack Bauer's address?”

This is the question that one my neighbors asked me. I guess that the national television station has been playing episodes of 24 every Tuesday night, and he's been watching and has become quite a fan Jack Bauer—episodes of 24 also explain why everyone is terrified of an assassination plot against Barack Obama. Anyway, I felt like if I told him that Jack Bauer wasn't real it would be like telling a little kid that Santa Claus didn't exist. Instead of crushing his hopes, I just told him I didn't have the address because Jack Bauer wasn't a personal friend of mine, but that I would ask around regardless. This still seemed to be less than satisfactory; so please, if anyone is a personal friend of Jack Bauer and could give me his mailing address, that would make one little kid very happy.

In the way of actual events, I just returned from a vacation to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to see the African Film Festival “FESPACO.” It takes place every year, but is only held in Ouagadougou every odd year, so I'm thrilled that the timing worked out for me to travel. I went with a fellow female TEFL volunteer from down south and besides all the wonderful sights and sounds of the trip, it was interesting for me to make my first trip without a male. Actually, I shouldn't say first. Earlier in the week, myself and several other female volunteers did a day trip into Togo for lunch and shopping—it's the life of the rich and famous here in Peace Corps. My experience crossing the border into Togo and my experience at the Film Festival would lead me to conclude that without another alpha male around to “regulate” the situation, most Beninese men (or Togolese) feel obliged to behave as despicable as they can. While crossing the border, we had to marry ourselves off to the military men at the border just to get across and then we were slipped the dreadful dirty finger as we entered our taxi—all of this goes without a word from us, of course, because in this instance the men definitely held the power (most literally in form of guns strapped to their backs). While in Burkina, I think that myself and my fellow traveler could have made a pretty penny if we were given money every time some guy tried to get our attention with “Ma cherie” “Mes filles” “Bebe” “Jolie Fille” “Ma blanche” or “Belle fille.” Lesson learned: When traveling in a group of only females, assume that every single guy is out to take advantage of you in whatever way possible, and therefore, always be on your guard. This last part, always be on your guard, would have been more exhausting if I had not already spent the last twenty months of my life living in Benin and perfecting the art of “being on my guard.” Thus, it would seem that no amount of “Pretty Baby”'s could ruin my time in Ouagadougou.

Visiting Ouagadougou itself is wonderful, but visiting Ouagadougou in February during FESPACO is the stuff that dreams of made of (all relatively speaking of course). Our time in Ouagadougou was brief—only four full days and only one actual full day of films, but in the short period, we saw five full lengths features and just over a half dozen short films covering everything from the apartheid in South Africa to female genital mutilation in West Africa to an entire film highlighting female artists in Africa. In addition, we soaked up the festival atmosphere by attending the opening ceremony (think pint-sized Olympics), dining on fresh strawberries and dates, sipping on cold beverages under giant tents while live music played and meat sizzled on the grill, shopping in seemingly endless rows of artisan booths carry everything from welded metal figurines to hand-dyed fabric to homemade jewelry—all of this hailing from just about every country in West Africa. Truly, this was an amazing experiencing and I would be happy to one day find myself back in Ouagadougou eating strawberries, seeing African films and getting hit on by Nigerian men.

After all the fun and excitement, it's always a nice slap of reality to go back to school where I have kids constantly picking their noses in desperate attempts to find the answer, boys zoning out in class as they become mesmerized by their newly developed muscles, and an administration that threatens to beat and fail kids who can't afford to pay their school tuition.

Actually on a lighter note, as I walk to school, I've been reminded of late, by the students whizzing past me with a fleeting and breathless “Good Morning, Teacher,” of my brother and me trying to catch the bus on cold Michigan mornings. My Mom would calmly sit by the living room window reading a book or watching some good morning TV show and keep watch while my brother and I frantically ran around the house trying to gather all of our stuff last minute. A loud, “BUUUS!,” bellowed from our mom would indicate to us that big yellow beauty had pulled up onto our street and consequently, gave us approximately thirty seconds to grab our things and dash out the door and across the lawn to the neighbor's driveway where the bus stopped. Rarely did we ever make it on time and on more than one occasion the poor bus would have to patiently wait for my brother and I as we trekked through the snow with big gym bags, instrument cases, backpacks, and posters in tote. I suppose it may be no surprise with this method of catching the bus that it also wasn't unusual for my mom to make a special trip to school just to drop of my permission slip or my essay or my basketball shoes or whatever the particular forgotten item happened to be. Thank goodness for Moms.

Monday, February 23, 2009

I realize that this is a tad unusual, but a few weeks back I received an email from an organization asking me to post something on this journal. After personally checking out their website, I feel that this a good organization doing good things for kids, and so I've agreed to post their information here as a type of advertisement. The basic scoop is that they are a non-profit organization called Fresh Air Fund working out of New York and are looking for college-aged men and women to work their 2009 summer camp. In addition, they are always looking for summer homes to host a child. I realize this is quite brief and vague, but if this sounds like something interesting to you, here is a social media news release which explains in greater detail: fresh air fund

As for an actual post, I promise I'm working on something--something where the first line is, "Do you have Jack Bauer's address?"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Look For Me As You Go By

This is the story of the mouse that wouldn't die.

In total, I (along with my mouse-catching guru, Alex) have killed 20 mice in the past two weeks. Nineteen of the deaths have been quick, as they should be—a rapid snapping of the neck and the mouse feels relatively little pain. One of those deaths, however, is a painful and tragic tale of a mouse who refused to go step into the light. His tale is a tale I will tell his honor.

I first heard the snap of the trap in the morning right before I was getting ready to go to school. Thinking nothing of it, I went to school, promising myself to check the trap when I returned home. Two hours later, I get out my headlamp and walk innocently into the kitchen ready to dispose of another peanut-butter loving mouse. Instead of finding a neatly killed mouse frozen by rigormortis, I find an empty trap on my kitchen counter top and a barely breathing, little mouse on my cement floor, surrounded in his own blood after both eyes exploded following the apparent impact of falling from ceiling to counter top to floor. Horrified by the sight, it's now me who is the frozen one. I can't move or think of a solution on how to rectify the situation in front of me. After several minutes, I conclude that it's been at least two hours since he's been like this and that he probably doesn't have much longer to live the way he's bleeding, so I'll just leave him and let him die in peace. As it turns out, his survival of the fall was only the first of many miraculous escapes from death because when I walked back into the kitchen an hour later, not only was he still alive, but now he was slowly and cautiously walking around my floor. “Okay. Okay. I'll just put another trap down. He'll have a good last meal of peanut butter, and we'll get this thing over with,” I think to myself as I put down another loaded mouse trap. The mouse, however, had different plans—plans of survival. He knew! The little guy knew! As soon as he sniffed the peanut butter that second time he walked straight away from it. My mouse-catching guru never told me what to do in this situation. Figuring that there wasn't really anything I could do to make it better, and knowing that I didn't want a blind mouse running around my house, I decide to scoop up the little guy in a bag and let good old Mother Nature take care of things outside. So, after gently relocating him in a nice grassy spot behind my house, I walk back, sit down, and call it a day...except it wasn't over; it so wasn't over at all. Two hours later when I go back to take a shower, what do I see but a little mouse, his face covered in blood, cowering in fear against my back wall. Somehow he managed to make his way out of the brush and through my shower drain just to end right back up where he started. It's at this point that I start to feel like some sort of terrible serial killer where my victims keep trying to get away but no matter what turns they take, they just end right back up in my murderous hands. It's also at this point that I start to feel so badly for this little mouse, and I start to feel a sense of admiration for his strength to have survived through some much...well, torture...up to this point. He is truly a survivor by any definition. However, the fact that he's a clear survivor isn't working in my favor, and I know that somehow I have to put an end to this little guy's life or he's just going to suffer. As before, I bring the loaded mouse trap to my back area and hope that maybe this time he'll take the bait, and end it all. But, just like the first time, he conscientiously steers clear of it. And so, I watch him. I just watch him for a good half hour as he bravely navigates the foreign land with only his nose as his compass. I sit there and admire him and wish that I didn't have to kill him. I sit there and wish that he had never gotten caught up in my stupid mouse hunt. I feel complete compassion for this little, surviving-against-the-odds mouse. I respect that even when he can't see any light at the end of the tunnel (literally in his case), he just keeps going because his instinct to survive, to live, is so strong. I start to think that this little guy is some sort of great metaphor for life: that no matter how rough things get sometimes, we've got to keep going, we've got to keep moving because there's always hope, there's always a light, even if it's so dark sometimes we can't see it. And, instead of thinking how I can end the mouse's life, I go back into the house and start looking around to see if there is a way I can help him survive. *Snap*. Not ten seconds into my brainstorming did I hear it. I turned on the spot, walked back out, and sure enough, there was my little inspirational mouse dead by the snap of my trap. I'm not sure if he finally got hungry and lost his caution, if he just accidentally wandered upon it as the loss of his senses undoubtedly began to fail, or if this was some sort of mouse suicide. Nevertheless, I was strangely overwhelmed with emotions from happiness to sadness. I hope that he is in mousey heaven now. I hope that I never have to deal with another tale like this. I hope that people understand the gamut of emotions that got all tied up with this little mouse. I hope that people don't think I'm too crazy.

Anyway, that is the story of the mouse that wouldn't die. The End.

Chinese Translation

Full of hope and promise, full of new beginnings and fresh ideas, full of awakening and inspiration. I love the New Year. I love that once every 365 days we get the chance to wipe the slate clean and start again. I love the prospect of learning new things, righting wrongs of the past year, and in turn, bettering myself as a person. With that being said, 2008 was, undeniably, one hell of a year and certainly ended with a bang, so 2009...well “Qui Vivra Verra”

The year of 2008 was capped off in spectacular fashion with a trip to Dogon country in Mali. Stretching for miles, a 300-meter escarpment rises up into the sun laying the base for hours of breath-taking views while hiking into the small villages nestled into the side of the cliff and through the Dogon communities who make their home at the base or on top of the escarpment. Like a fresh coast of paint, I felt like my time in Dogon re-energized me and cleansed me as I turned my head towards the new year.

The trip began with surprising effortlessness. We left Benin with not much of an itinerary, with not much of a plan, all we really knew was our intended destination and yet, without much hesitation from one taxi switch to another we suddenly found ourselves at our intended destination, in a random hotel in the center Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and talking to a random Peace Corps volunteer who was leaving that very night to go back to the States. He recommended a delicious Lebanese restaurant within walking distance of our hotel and off we went with dreams of falafel. Our walk took us down the main strip of Ouagadougou and what a beautiful sight it was. Seemingly built with a little more foresight than the crowded streets of Cotonou, Benin, Ouagadougou was lit up with Christmas lights stretched out over large canopies covering outdoor terraces of one restaurant after another. The usual vendors walked the streets selling everything from flashlights and phone credit to the more seasonal items like inflatable Santas and tacky garlands, but something about the large sidewalks, holiday lit streets, multiple-story buildings, and outdoor eateries, I was reminded of home.

We actually spent the next day in Ouagadougou as well, as part cautionary measure to make sure our feet were under us before we began our Mali adventure and as part of an indulgence into our curiosities of what other West African cities are like. While we did do our fair share of exploring and buying—bumper stickers to place on our helmets (myself, a Zinedine Zidane sticker and Alex, a sexy lady sticker) and Jesus salami (it was on sale at Christmas...go figure)—a large majority of our time was spent just relaxing on the balcony of our hotel with a beer in hand as we watched the hustle and bustle of the city on the street below—an equally interesting way to absorb the energy of the city, in my opinion.

The next day was just another day of travel and overshadowed immensely by the following day which began with a horse cart ride into the mouth of Dogon country. We had met our guide the night before and after a immediate connection with him (more so on the part of Alex for whom all African men have hearts in their eyes) I could tell that we were going to have a fantastic and intimate Dogon experience—relatively speaking. The Rough Guide to West Africa reads, “[Dogon] can be swarming with travelers, especially over Christmas.” As we descended our horse cart, we began perfectly aware of this fact, immediately joining hiking teams with another group of fifteen or so Dutch and German tourists. This would be indicative of the rest of our time in Dogon—constantly sharing sleeping camps, restaurants, and trails with other eager voyagers. The influx of tourist only strengthened the paradox that I came to see Dogon as—a place desperate to hold on to the foundation of their culture; the language, the art, the traditions and yet, a place forced to adapt to the ever-changing environment around them. A westernized environment that damages the traditionalism but that creates a stable economy on which the Dogon people can continue.

The following day, Christmas Eve, climaxed after a day of hiking with a elegant night sky where the stars twinkled like diamonds above us—a view we were only privy to because of the bold decision to sleep outside under the sky. I watched for hours as Orion's belt moved steadily across the sky and no, not because of the beauty of it, but because it was so absolutely freezing with the blowing night wind that it took me several hours for my body to finally give up and fall asleep. Despite the allure of the sparkling night sky, that would be the last night that we decided to sleep under the stars as sleep tends to trump all; nevertheless, a Christmas Eve to remember.

Christmas day was, perhaps appropriately, the most beautiful day of hiking. Our path to the top of the escarpment took us across the cliff side and into tiny coves where lush greenery covered the rocky terrain. Views only an artist could imagine were plentiful and as we hiked and awed over the scenery, donkeys continually gave us accusing stares as if we were wrongfully intruding on their little paradise (come to think of it, I would probably stare accusingly, too, if tourists were treading all over my green fields). The night of the 25th we joyfully merged groups with two other fellow Peace Corps Benin volunteers and seven other Peace Corps Burkina Faso volunteers; together we watched the sun set through the dusty December air after which we happily toasted one another with several rounds of local millet beer.“God Bless Us, Everyone.”

The following morning, our large conglomeration of a group took off a steady pace hoping to make it back down the cliff side in time to see the annual Christmas celebration marked with traditional dancing and dress. Another beautiful hike down the escarpment was only slightly marred by the formation of a couple nasty blisters on my feet in addition to the embarrassingly painful problem of an allergic reaction to a “toilet paper” leaf in the bush. Nevertheless, we reached our destination before noon and after a brief lunch and repos we were back out and ushered into bleacher-esque seating to watch the festival take place. Again, in accordance to the very nature of Dogon country, the ceremony was wonderful but a bit odd. It was a tradition, no doubt, started ages ago by the ancestors of the Dogon people and yet, at present, I couldn't help feel like the age old traditions of yesteryear had been somewhat altered so as to please all the foreigners hoping to videotape a piece of ancient history. Additionally, it seemed apparent to me that most of the Westerners who were happy to sit back and respectfully watch from a distance were the ones being pushed forward through the crowds of on-looking villagers while the eagerest eyes in the crowd, those of the Dogon children, were the ones being continually pushed further and further back from the excitement of the activities. Is there a point when sharing your culture becomes harmful if you start to lose sight of where your customs came from and if you start to push away all those wide-eyed children who will grow to carry on such customs? I don't think there can be an easy answer to that question.

The final day of hiking was only a half day and after a brief moment of “Where the hell are we?” (our guide's apprentice got us lost on the escarpment) we were back down where we started and looking back over our shoulders at Dogon country as we headed out just as we came in, on a horse cart. That night we finally laid our tired heads down at a hooker-friendly, filth-friendly, overcharging hotel near the border of Burkina Faso.

If getting to Dogon country was one of the easiest and most pleasant travel experiences I have ever had in West Africa, trying to get out was unfortunately it's antithesis. After buying tickets the night before and being ensured an early morning taxi ride back into Burkina Faso, it wasn't until after about six hours of waiting that we actually left...and not with the company from whom we had purchased the tickets. We were the thankful recipients of some very kind Italian travelers who stopped when they saw Alex waving them down on the side of the road and agreed to take us all the way to Ouagadougou. After bonding during the nine or ten hour trip to Ouagadougou—most intimately when one of the guys fell asleep on my shoulder—we met up later that night for dinner and drinks. God Bless Italians who turned around what could have been a very bad day of traveling into a very interesting and pleasant one.

Because of our late arrival into Ouagadougou the night before, we decided to sleep in the next day and make a late departure out of the city in our return to Benin. This decision, while good at the time, was probably not that great in retrospect when we would be losing an hour in time difference between Burkina and Benin and when we weren't really accounting for all the unexpected travel variables that you suddenly have when moving around in a developing bandits at night. Whether a little Christmas kindness from the man in the red suit or just a couple of twenty-something idealists having dumb luck on their side, we made it back to Benin just after 11 o'clock at night exhausted, hungry, and happy to be back in a country we can call home. The following days were spent unwinding and relaxing and not-so-ceremoniously celebrating the transition into a new year.

Carly (cleaning dishes): Oh, hey. It's 12:05. Happy New Year!
Alex (setting mouse traps): Oh, yeah. So it is. Guess it's 2009. Happy New Year.

And so, 2009. I hope that it will be full of new adventures and new stories. I promise that I will be equally excited to open my mind to the unknown and that in doing so I will only broaden my own narrow horizons. I will begin this year with the idea that nothing is impossible or unattainable and will do my best to live 2009 as a better me. My wish for 2009 is that in my final months here in Benin I will find a way to leave behind as much inspiration as I have gained over the past year.

Happy New Year!