Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Family Time!

As I mentioned earlier, my host family is wonderful! While most volunteers have a host mom and siblings, I have a grandma, mom, sister and lots of kids.  They have been incredibly warm and welcoming, and most of all, worried about my general health and weight- I get enough food at each meal to feed a small army.

It's a very interesting household because from what I've discovered, none of the husbands live in the house.  Even though I've only been with them for two nights (and am writing this from our main training site during a CORE day- once a week all volunteers come from their respective training villages for medical and other group trainings), I think I have a pretty good handle on the family dynamics:

1. Fidele is my grandmother.  She owns the house, is fluent in French and worked as a midwife for 30+ years.  She owns the house that we live in, which I gathered is not uncommon for our commune.  While most volunteers eat their meals in their rooms, I am lucky enough to eat in the sitting room with Fidele, so we can chat while we eat.  She's taken it upon herself to teach me some Fon and the local language and has been absolutely adamant that every visitor only speak to me in French.  She's already taught me how to get water from the well, carry it on my head, and the proper Beninese way to sweep (I sweep my bedroom before bed and after breakfast each day).

2. Constance is Fidele's daughter.  She recently moved to Sé from Cotonou where she was working as a tailor.  She has been cooking all of the meals and spends most of her time in the kitchen, a separate building next to our house.  The food here has been delicious.  On the first night, I received a huge bowl of couscous with fried fish on top, a vat of pate (the traditional Beninese dish composed of water and a starch: pate blanche uses corn flour, pate noir uses yam flour and pate rouge uses tomatoes.  It has the consistency of hardened Cream of Wheat and most Beninese form it into a ball and dip it in some sort of tomato sauce with pima, the traditional spicy sauce.)  Constance has asked me what I want for each meal and on Sunday I got a huge salad topped with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, red onion and pineapple.  She was also very proud of the "American style" vinaigrette she concocted with mayonnaise and fresh lime juice. Constance is married to Eric, who works as a cement mixer (gravier), but does not live in the house with us.  I'm not quite sure where he sleeps, but he eats most meals with us and speaks French very well.

3. Christiane is Constance's eldest daughter.  She is 22 years old and is my go-to for anything in the house.  She has two kids, Edison and Jean- Eudes.  Edison is two years old and adorable! He speaks very little French but has been instructed to only speak French with me.  Most importantly, I've invited him to sit next to me at every meal, so he helps me eat all the bread I'm given (because there's no way I can eat an entire baguette at every meal!).  Jean-Eudes is 9 months old and currently teething.  He is also learning how to walk and is a little monster crawling around the house.  Like all babies here, he doesn't wear a diaper, so he pees right on the floor, or outside if the person holding him is able to get him there fast enough.  It will be interesting to see how "potty-training" happens here in Benin. 

4. Oscar is my 14 year old brother and Constance's second child.  He is currently on vacation from school until September but really helpful when it comes to anything French or Fon.  We spent an entire afternoon going over specific foods in Fon and reading French stories from his Level 2 workbook.  As a older child in Benin, he is often asked to watch over the babies and run to fetch items from a local boutique.  When I first met him, he was hanging around the porch with his friends, eyes glued to a phone screen, watching a movie in English.  I'm not sure where it was streaming from, but it's comforting to know that there is internet access in village.

Speaking of access, we are still working on getting cell phones to communicate in Benin and activating our smart phones for Internet access.  There is decent 3G coverage across the country and I'm hoping to be able to activate a hotspot in village to be able to communicate.  Stay tuned for a whatsapp number!

A PC Welcome!

Just a quick update because after composing the longest post ever, I accidentally clicked delete and lost the whole thing.  I'll work on replicating it for you:

We arrived to Cotonou on Tuesday night to a huge group of enthusiastic volunteers who helped us load our luggage onto a truck and escorted us to a compound called St Jean Eudes where we spent two nights.  During the day on Wednesday and Thursday, we completed language placement  interviews, met the PC Benin staff including the Country Director, received our malaria prophylaxis and several vaccinations from the medical officers and started training with a review of safety protocols. 

On Thursday afternoon, we travelled to Lokossa, three hours northwest of Cotonou, where we will be meeting on a weekly basis for training.  The RCH (rural community health) sector is staying in home stays in a village called Sé, about an hour drive from Lokossa. 

Yesterday (Saturday), we loaded up a caravan of station wagons (imagine luggage for two years plus motto helmets and bags of books tied on the roof) and drove to the school in Sé where we met our families.  We had a short welcoming ceremony where Mark and I gave a short thank you speech en français and then we were sent home with our hosts.

My family is AMAZING!!! I'll write a post all about them, but needless to say, I'm sad that I won't see them for the next two days when I have to go back with the group for training in Lokossa.

Today is local Election Day in Benin, so my grandma, mom and sister all went to vote this morning.  We have been talking in French and Fon all day in addition to learning tradition dancing.  It has been pouring outside, so it's a perfect chance to get to know each other.  I'm shocked that they have electricity and a TV, which has been on nonstop playing music videos and covering the election.  

I'm getting ready to help my mom prepare dinner then pack for the next two days.  

Sending love from inside my mosquito net!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Halfway there!

Our group of 51, escorted by one PC Benin Staff (Go Geraldine!), successfully navigated through Dulles and arrived unscathed in Brussels.  It was an easy flight with short periods of seat buckled turbulence. It's hard to assess what the best way to sleep is as it's now 2 am EST, 7 am in Benin, 8 am in Brussels and we have a 6 hour layover ahead of us.  Luckily we arrive late enough tonight that it will be relatively easy to fall asleep.

I'm so excited about finally getting to Benin after what feels like months (years) of planning.  I think we'll all breath a deep sigh of relieve when we finally touch ground in Africa. 

Now off to find a waffle!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Want Mail from Africa?!

If so, send me a letter!

Carly Mailly, PCT
Corps de la Paix Americain
01 B.P. 971
Cotonou, Benin, Afrique de l'Ouest

Benin or Bust!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Diving in at Staging!

We survived our first full day of staging here in DC! It's been a whirlwind of training exercises, personality evaluations and even an intro to Fon, the local language in most of Benin.  

Staging Welcome Booklet
After landing at National on Friday afternoon, I made it to the hotel in Georgetown and immediately ran into a bunch of PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) in the lobby.  You could sense the excitement and anticipation in the room and I feel like I introduced myself countless times.  Before reporting for registration at 6 pm, a group of us ventured out to grab a bite to eat and found a great little pho place down the road.

What are you looking forward to?
We're excited about being terrible artists!
Rushing back to throw on business casual clothing, we all made our way to the meeting room to sign in and begin the registration process.  We were required to attest that our marital or legal status hadn't changed since we applied and we received our peace corps passports! I was looking forward to something special, but alas, it looks like your standard blue book passport.  Although they took these back for safe keeping, we all were given Visa cards with our staging allowance on them.  While everyone else made their way though the line, a couple of us found a pool table in the hotel bar and passed the next two hours getting to know each other.  When they called us back to the meeting room, they gave us a couple security tips and sent us out to enjoy a night on the town.  A bunch of us found a great little Mexican place and savored what will probably be our last margaritas for a long time.

Three Goals of the Peace Corps
This morning started bright and early with official introductions, sessions covering safety, an excise on cultural adjustment and an overview of the Let Girls Learn campaign.  We were lucky enough to meet the deputy director of the Peace Corps and the program manager for LGL, who was so excited to be presenting on this new initiative at one of the first staging events for new volunteers in the 13 countries with the program.  It's crazy that we will be working to implement this program in a few short months!
Job description in
our own words
Despite the long sessions, our facilitators did a great job engaging us and ensuring that all our questions were answered.  In addition to reviewing the history of the Peace Corps and all the core expectations for volunteers, we learned how to count to 10 in Fon.  Apparently, we will be learning Fon simultaneously with French when we land in country on Tuesday, even though some of us won't end up living in villages where Fon is spoken...

We capped off the day with a helpful lesson on the DIVE approach (describe, interpret, verify, evaluate) to cultural adaptation.  Living in Benin will certainly involve situations where being able to step back and ask questions before passing judgement will be extremely useful (and for obvious reasons, this is a very important life skill).

Dive in! And don't forget that
you can't see whats under the surface
Our first day finally concluded around 6 and we broke off for dinner.  I was able to go for a quick run before meeting up with friends for Thai food.  We were caught in an extreme downpour walking around Georgetown but hey, PCVs are hardcore (and we're two days away from the African rainy season!)

Christy and I are settling in to finish Season 3 of OITNB (no shame here). Back to another full day tomorrow beginning with a logistics talk for Monday's travel.  One more day to Benin!

Friday, June 19, 2015

The journey begins!

Well, here I am at the airport waiting for my plane to staging in DC.  I'm excited, ecstatic even, about the adventure ahead of me. Tonight I will be meeting the other 56 volunteers for Stage 28 in Benin.  We will be spending the weekend in training for the Let Girls Learn program.  We may even meet Michelle Obama!

The last couple weeks have been full of family time, relaxation and packing.  As some of you know, I was having a hard time deciding what to pack- I mean, how do I know what will actually come in handy in Benin?!? That being said, here are a couple of the random items I deemed necessary for this journey.  I'll post a full packing list later.

- My Boggle Set: hopefully someone will play with me!
- 3 pounds of Swedish Fish and even more fruit snacks. You never know when you'll need a fruity pick me up.
- Lightweight camping hammock
- 2 pillows: I've been warned about pillow quality in Benin
- Lots of matzo ball soup mix.  No explanation necessary. 

Thanks to friends and family who have sent words of encouragement and love over the past couple days.  It means the world to me that I have your support. 

Stay tuned for training updates!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dancing in the Street

If you read other Peace Corps blogs, PCVs advise spending the last couple weeks prior to Staging eating all of your favorite foods and enjoying time with friends and family.  With three weeks between leaving my job and my departure to Africa, I set off to do just that.

Philadelphia's Fitler Square
Last week started with a trip to Philly, where I visited friends, explored the Mutter Museum, ate way more food than I possibly could ever imagine and luckily, walked miles throughout the city.  It was a great little getaway!

Coming back to Boston, I kicked off the weekend at Flatbread Pizza in Somerville.  If you haven’t been yet, drop everything and go now! When I start day dreaming about food in Benin, I imagine flatbreads flying like giant UFOs in and out of my consciousness.  

Saturday was a perfect #exploremore day. After months of walking by it every morning, I ate a late breakfast at Three Little Figs before venturing into Davis.  Having searched for local activities online, I came across a live performance of the Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” where the gender bent cast of Jane T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise encounter the SS Botany Bay and the superhuman foe Khan Singh!  Yes, total nerd alert.  

From Davis, I hopped on the Red Line to Central where the Cambridge River Festival was taking place along Mass Ave.  The streets were mobbed with people gathered around food stalls, exhibit booths and live performance tents.  I was drawn to one tent, where the Benkadi Drum and Dance group was dancing, and immediately brought back to my days in West African Tribal Dance at Smith.  Benkadi, meaning Coming Together Sweetly in Bamanankan, performs traditional dances from Mali, and I knew there was no better way to #countdowntoAfrica than to join in when they invited the audience on stage.  So, for your viewing and comedic pleasure, please enjoy this short clip of me totally embarrassing myself dancing my heart out to the beat of the drum (and thanks Soren for the video editing!!).

Central Square Chalk Walk 2015
From the dance arena, I happened upon the Chalk Walk, a tribute to Sidewalk Sam, a Cambridge icon and famous chalk artist who passed away earlier this year.  I couldn’t resist adding to the colorful collage on the street!

After spending the rest of the afternoon listening to several different bands, people watching and soaking in the sunshine, I wandered back home to get ready for my last night on the town and Jenn’s birthday extravaganza at Empire.  I’ll spare you all the details of the evening, but just leave by saying that I have been so lucky to have met and lived with these amazing women— you guys are all so wonderful and I can’t wait for #nailpolishcafe17 updates!

Although moving and packing still looms ahead of me (can you tell that I'm totally procrastinating?!), I am getting more and more excited about the adventure that awaits.  Ten days to staging!

So thankful for these wonderful ladies!!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Serendipitous Seating

With the two week countdown approaching, I decided to take a short trip to Philly, and ultimately further delay the inevitable packing.  Since I had time to kill, I opted to take the bus from South Station, a mere 7 hour trip down to the city of Brotherly love.  If anything, there was no way this bus trip was going to be as bad, or absurd, as my last double decker experience in Xieng Khouang (in case you want to read about that, check out that post here: http://laolandia.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-night-bus.html), and let’s be honest: who’s doesn’t love a trip down the Jersey turnpike?

Being a bus newbie, I decided to reserve a seat on the top floor, hoping that would alleviate any issues with getting a more desirable location (again, photo documenting the NJ turnpike is only fun from a window seat.)  Of course, my seat was occupied when I boarded, but since the bus was half empty, I let the man stay there.  He insisted on moving and hopped across the aisle to the other side’s window seat.  For the first 5 hours of the trip, we sat in silence.  He flipped through the WSJ and onto the NYT, while I plugged away at “Cider House Rules” and drifted in and out of sleep.  After our obligatory rest stop in Jersey, we started talking- not anything exciting, just the unseasonably cold and rainy weather in New England.

His name was Myron and he was traveling down the East Coast visiting old friends.  Originally from Chicago, Myron now lived in Houston, after spending a forty year career in public policy at the Department of Labor in DC.  When he asked what I was doing, I responded that I was making my rounds to see friends before leaving for the Peace Corps in two weeks.  To my disbelief, Myron had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in the 1960’s.  In the years before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he worked to improve sanitation (some things never change) and focused on building schools.  His most memorable moment came in 1969, when, huddled around his small crank radio, he listened to the broadcast as the first men landed on the moon.  In broken French, he tried to explain how monumental this was for the history of the world, but in reality, he only left his villagers more confused (They probably thought he came from the moon too; in some ways we’re all just aliens in this world, right?)  When he entered the service, they spent their training period in the US. Virgin Islands, the idea being that the volunteers could acclimate to the climate for a couple months before shipping off to Africa.  Alas, we’re going into Benin head first.

After expressing his utmost appreciation for his own Peace Corps experience and wishing me luck on my own, the conversation turned to my years in Boston.  When I told him I just left a job at a genetics lab in Boston, he started throwing out names of Geneticists, many of whom I’ve gotten to know.  Apparently, Myron was diagnosed with Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy  (HCM) several years ago and, while living in Boston getting one of his several advanced degrees, turned to the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine for HCM Panel testing.  When the testing returned no identifiable genetic causes for his disease, he started looking for research studies and ultimately enrolled in the MedSeq project.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, MedSeq is a randomized trial studying the integration of whole genome sequencing (WGS) into clinical practice.  While the trial was not specifically set up for discovering HCM variants, Myron joined for the possibility to undergo WGS and share his data with the research community.  Unfortunately he was not selected for the sequencing arm of the trial, but we talked for the remaining bus ride about how participating in the study opened him up to the field of genetics and made him hopeful for eventually finding a cure for the disease.  In addition to being shocked by how serendipitous it was that Myron had “stolen” my seat on the bus, I was increasingly thankful for my time in Boston and the wonderful things that the medical community I got to work with is striving to accomplish.  Keep Calm and MedSeq on :)

So, while this post isn’t necessarily about the Peace Corps or even getting ready to leave, I think it illustrates a really valuable lesson that will be essential to my success overseas:  A stranger is just a friend waiting to happen.