My New Normal

This past July Adam and I moved to Benin to complete our second year of Peace Corps, and for the second summer in a row, life was turned upside down. Truth be told, day-to-day life here in Benin was really mundane at the outset. This is mostly because Peace Corps training filled up six days per week, with the same routine every day from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Being in training also meant I had Peace Corps taking care of all of my needs, and that I interacted mainly with Americans. Still, there have been a few times over the past couple of months that I’ve looked around and realized how truly remarkable my standard has become. For instance, it’s normal for me to…

  • Get from place to place on public transportation that consists of either riding on the back of a dirtbike in traffic where bigger always wins, or cramming into a 16-passenger van—16 being the absolute minimum number of passengers—with street vendors flocking to the open windows at every station, stoplight, or traffic snag to sell snacks, clothing, cosmetics, or plastic baggies full of cold water (5 cents!).
  • See 7-year-old girls walking alone through town with their baby siblings slung on their backs, or transporting 20-liter bowls of water on their heads… or both at once.

A woman with a basket of chickens on her head is a pretty average sight.

  • Purchase two heaping plates of rice, beans, gari (dried and pulverized manioc), and egg with sauce for less than $1.00 (a plate for me and one for Adam). While we sit and eat lunch, it’s normal for an old woman to emerge from her concession (basically, a shared front yard) and totter over with her cane to talk to the lunchstand mama… wearing only a pagne (cloth) wrapped around her waist.
  • Buy a pineapple at streetside stand for 20 cents. It’s also normal for the stand to be staffed by a young kid who will then use a long, sharp knife to peel and chop the fruit.

Benin has it’s own pineapple variety, called pain de sucre (sugar bread).

  • Ride my bike to a colleague’s house for a training activity, and pass through a Beninese funeral celebration on the way. This consists of a tented street party with food, drinks, families in matching outfits, and a DJ making shout-outs to the guests to earn tips.

For funerals, families all get matching outfits.

  • Communicate in French (albeit not very well). This includes communicating in French during classes for a local Beninese language, Gun (pronounced ‘goon’)—my third Peace Corps language.
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2 thoughts on “My New Normal

  1. Mark Epstein

    You and Adam continue to amaze us with your enthusiasm, energy and faith in people regardless of their station in life. We look forward to reading your posts and seeing your pictures. We are beyond being proud of you both.
    We love and miss you, Dad and Ricki

    Reply
  2. Asha

    Jen and Adam –
    The photos and descriptions on your blog are compelling. For a new nonfiction anthology, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, we are currently looking for submissions and would love to invite you to take a look and consider if you might like to participate. A bit of info from the general call for submissions is available at http://www.facebook.com/ThePlaces35. The posted deadline is stated as October 15 – but we have a special invitation/extension through November 15 for invited bloggers.
    Thanks for your consideration, and feel free to be in touch for more information!
    Asha
    editor [a t] theplaces35 [d o t] com

    Reply

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