Thursday, June 28, 2012

First Few Days of Training

Welcome one and all to my first blog post from Benin!  I’m at the Peace Corps workstation in Cotonou.  We arrived Tuesday night, and were met at the airport by a very enthusiastic welcome committee of current volunteers.  For the past two days we’ve been living at a religious retreat center, to have a few days of orientation.  It’s been intense – days packed with information sessions on safety and security, Peace Corps policies, general information about our programs, diversity in Peace Corps, peer support options… it’s all really interesting information, but a lot to absorb.

Today we were issued our mountain bikes and had our zemidjan (motorcycle taxi) lesson.  Zemis are one of the most widespread types of transportation available to volunteers here, so we are one of few countries where volunteers are permitted to ride motorcycles.  We had a group of zemi drivers come to the Peace Corps office, and we had to practice haggling for a good price and then go for a short ride in the streets around the area.  Good fun.  I wore pants; learning how to get on a motorcycle in a skirt without showing my knees is a challenge for another day.   

Tomorrow we leave for Porto Novo, a nearby city where we’ll do the rest of training.  We’ll be living in host families there, and I and another volunteer are giving a speech in French at tomorrow’s ceremony when we meet our host families.  Our training in Porto Novo will involve lots of language training, at least for the first five weeks.  I’ll be taking one of Benin’s local languages since I’ve tested out of French.  We find out which language we’ll be taking later today.  Exciting times!

So... I just spent about one and a half hours trying to upload a pretty picture from the flight over for you.  Lack of success.  So imagine a gorgeous photo of frost on the window, juxtaposed against the sands of the sahara below.  And maybe if I find better internet somewhere sometime you'll get the real photo.  So long! 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tomorrow, I Think I'll Move to Africa

I'm on an Amtrak train right now, headed to Philly for Peace Corps staging.  In an hour, I'll meet with about 60 other volunteers headed to Benin for an afternoon of orientation.  Then tomorrow morning, we board a bus for New York City and a plane for Benin!  Very soon, these blog posts will stop being about me thinking about the Peace Corps and start being about me experiencing it. 

It has been quite a process to get to this point.  I want to give the deepest, sincerest thank you possible to all of you who have supported me and continue to do so. It really makes a huge difference.  I've wanted to do this for as long as I can remember, but it's felt a little overwhelming the past few days.  And often just when I needed it, I've gotten a heartfelt card from a relative or a call or message from a friend that's boosted my confidence.  In the past when my friends have gone off to new adventures, some joining Peace Corps themselves, I used to wonder whether my little "good luck!" or "I know you can do it" was really helpful.  Now I know that the answer is yes, yes, yes.  I feel such a strong network supporting me. 

So now off I go!  In one sense know a lot about what Benin will be like, from other people's blogs and official Peace Corps information.  In another sense, I know absolutely nothing.  Because every experience is different.  Over the past year, I've done a lot of thinking about this coming adventure and what it could lead to in my future.  I was just reading through my journal, and found some thoughts and musings on international development work that I think sum up my perspective pretty well.

From January 3, 2012

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, about Benin, my career, and international development in general.  There have been a lot of questions and debate about the value of the Peace Corps in the news this past year, since its 50th anniversary was in 2011.  I think all the debate is good - it's always good to look deeply at something instead of having an idealized view.  Nothing is idyllic really, it's all nuanced.

There's always an equal or greater amount of questioning and debate about International Development and aid work in general.  This makes me think, since it's a field that really interests me and that I want to be involved with.  This is how I thought about it today: no matter what, international development is going to keep happening.  The US and other countries are not going to stop giving aid.  So it's important to learn as much as we can - about cultures and other factors - to help this activity be as good as possible.  Int'l Development is no silver bullet, and it is not a more illustrious or noble career than any other.  The same could be said about politics, or business, or many other careers; these are all imperfect fields, but they are all here and will continue to be, so anyone who feels an attraction to them should go for it and do their best.  It's not what I do, it's how I do it that matters.

Monday, June 4, 2012

On rabbit hunting with the ladies and other lessons learned at Green String Farm

I'm on a 13-hour train ride down the California Coast, leaving Petaluma after a great 3 months at Green String farm.  Long trips like this are a great opportunity to reflect.  I went to Green String hoping to learn skills that I could contribute to my Peace Corps experience, and I certainly think I have.  But the experience has also been more than that; I've learned a lot about myself and about life that goes beyond technical agricultural skills.  And this brings me to the title of this post.

At the farm, we had lessons every afternoon on a variety of topics.  These could range from classroom lectures on soil science, to hands-on lessons on how to use a scythe or sharpen pruning shears.  About two weeks ago, we had a gun lesson, using 22s for some target practice.  The next day, we learned that the farmer who runs the internship program was losing the land that he has worked on cultivating and restoring for the past 30 years.  It was difficult for us to see him loosing a significant portion of his life's work, and several of us wanted to show him our support and appreciation for how much he had given and taught us.  One of the other two girls in the group came up with the idea of the three of us applying what we'd learned in gun lesson to catch and prepare a rabbit stew for him.  He'd talked often about how he hopes that we all develop confidence during this internship, and we thought doing this might illustrate that we had.

A few days and a little additional target practice later, we headed out to the artichoke patch at sunset with one pellet gun between the three of us.  Two of us, ironically the two vegetarians, each shot a rabbit before it was too dark to hunt any more.  Then we took them back to the house to skin and process them, removing the innards and preparing the meat to be cooked.  The stew was cooked and served a few days later.  The three of us had been talking about doing a "girl's night" for most of the internship, and we laughed about how when we finally did do something together it was a hunting trip - more of a typical "guy's night" activity than the massages and girl talk we'd originally talked about.

As my brother said when I told him I went rabbit hunting, "That's pretty much the least Bethany thing you could do!"  It's true that I never expected I would go hunting.  But the whole process felt right - like it was in fact a "Bethany thing."  Why?  Even though I am vegetarian, I do occasionally eat meat.  And I will be eating quite a bit of it in Benin.  More than that, I would happily cook a meat-based meal for a friend.  So I feel like I should be willing to kill animals if I'm willing to eat them or cook them for others.  It seems like we are so separated from our food, and our meat arrives in neat little plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays.  Getting it to that point is an involved process, starting with the animal living their life, then being killed, skinned, gutted, prepared, and cooked.  I think it's important to understand and take responsibility for the whole process if I'm going to eat the results, or share them with someone else.

When I was a kid, we didn't know anyone who hunted.  I thought that hunting was wrong, but ok if someone really needed to do it to feed themself or their family.  Subconsciously, I saw purchasing meat as more right than killing a wild animal.  Now I think the opposite; it seems more right to eat an animal that lived a natural life than one that was raised for meat in a small cage.  It wasn't necessarily an easy experience, especially since the rabbit I shot ended up being younger than I would have chosen.  But it was an experience that made me think and grow.  I'm glad I did it.

Not everything I learned during this internship was quite as weighty or thought-provoking; some of it was just new skills or experiences.  Who knows which ones will end up being important in Benin.  Here's a list of some of the things I did at Green String that I'd never done before:

1. Made a wooden plate on a lathe
2. Milked a cow
3. Built a canoe paddle
4. Made a leaf-shaped copper plate
5. Grown and harvested my own potatoes
6. Cut grass with a scythe
7. Driven a tractor and ATV
8. Collected fresh eggs that are still warm for my breakfast
9. Helped skin a sheep
10. Plucked and prepared a rooster for stew
11. Sharpened knives and pruning shears with a whetstone
12. Made compost tea
13. Bottle-fed baby sheep and goats
14. Regularly used a pickaxe for various tasks (removing root suckers from fruit trees, digging holes in concrete-like soil for transplanting, etc)
15. Bud-grafted citrus trees
16. Pruned an apple tree
17. Transplanted tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and other plants, both in the greenhouse and outside in the field
18. Spoke spanish on a regular basis ("we need to harvest chard" is something like "necessitamos piscar acelga.")
19. Made paneer and ricotta cheese from scratch
20. Poached an egg
21. Regularly cooked food that I harvested moments before
22. Gave cooking demonstrations in front of an audience
23. Chased over 50 renegade chickens down and tossed them back into their pen by moonlight (and did the same thing with smaller numbers of chickens multiple times by daylight)
24. Knit a hat that involved a cable pattern (and three that did not)
19. Made jam out of green plums
20. Turned a compost pile
21. Made and attached a new handle for a shovel
23. Caught a swarm of bees, put them in a box, and transported them to a new hive
24. Eaten honey straight from the honeycomb

The list could be much longer.  If there's one thing I've gained from this experience, it is a greater confidence in my ability to figure things out that relate to farming, to fix things that are broken, and to jump into whatever needs to be done.  And I've had a great time as well!  Now, on to the next.

 Me with the bee swarm