Friday, January 30, 2015

What's On Our Minds

On the radio. On the television. On weather websites.

 At home and at the office, too.

It's what we talk about, think about, speculate about.

Maybe it will happen. Maybe it won't.

I'm leaning toward the latter these days.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Step Lively

When bitter winds howl in from the west, when temperatures dip into the teens, when the sidewalk harbors little patches of black ice and there's a quarter-mile of pavement between me and the next warm building, this is what I do. Step lively.

It's what some Metro conductors suggest. "Step lively," they say. "Doors closing."

It's what race-walkers do, with a bounce in their gait and a swivel of their hips.

Step lively, with its whiff of the nautical, its sprightliness and energy and pep.

Step lively. It's more hop than saunter, more snap than sizzle. It's quaint and practical and fun.

Step lively. It's a good way to get through winter.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Chutes, No Ladders

Metro delays this morning, temperature in the teens.  Time for a virtual vacation. Today's trip is to  Tanougou Falls, which the locals (and all French-speaking, I believe) call chutes.

We pulled up tired, dusty, minds still reeling from Parc Pendjari and the close-up view of baboons, elephants and what turns out to have been a young cheetah. Our van was almost snagged on the rutted, rocky road to the small restaurant and souvenir stand that guards the entrance to the falls.

We were immediately surrounded by a staff of willing guides. It was a short walk to the first falls, picturesque but small. Many eager hands to lead the way. But no, said the guides, this was just the beginning. There's another chute ahead, up and over those boulders.

One of our party said no go, her knees were sore. I waited a bit, sized up the endeavor. There was a scramble over rocks that were under water, but the more I looked the more I thought I could do it. "Tres facile," said one guide. "Be careful," said another.

When I nodded yes, Mr. "Tres Facile" took one hand and Mr. "Be Careful" took another. It was perfect. The push toward adventure, cautiously approached. Each step was carefully chosen and pointed out: "Ici ... ici ... tres facile ... be careful."

And before long we were there, Tanougou Falls. A perfect bowl of a setting, water deep enough to swim in. Gorgeous chute, angling, spilling, gleaming. Idyllic, except for one problem — I had to get back.

But I did, of course, thanks to Mr. Tres Facile and Mr. Be Careful, who were rightly rewarded for their toil.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Suburban Still Life

It could have been an easier office re-entry day. Twenty-seven degrees, snow falling. Schools closed and the parking lot half empty. I realized too late that I left my Metro card at home, and after buying a paper card to get me through the day, I rushed down the escalator only to find a train just closing its doors.

No matter. The world is white and still, a study in snow and steel. I pretend to be a tourist, take photos of Tysons Corner out the window.

It looks almost picturesque. The cars aligned and tracked, the sky mottled and gray. Remove the blue Honda sign -- or keep it, if you like, it adds a spot of color. A suburban still life.

It's almost like I'm on vacation.

Almost. Not quite.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Big House

Suburban roads and American cars aren't the only things looking big to me these days. There's the house. With Celia back in college the place has grown overnight.

As the youngest and last child in residence — and in love with clothes and shoes — she had spilled out of her bedroom and turned her sister's room into a big walk-in closet. So two rooms are emptied, not just one.

And then there was her habit of falling asleep in the office — enough so that I would automatically tiptoe when I came downstairs early in the morning.

In other words, she was here, even when she wasn't (which was often). But now she is most assuredly not here. No music pulsing out of the bathroom as she gets ready for work. No Chanel perfume trailing in her wake.

She's fine, she's happy, she's where she should be.

The house is too big. That's all.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Altered Eyes

Yesterday, when the late light was slanting and the air was still, I went out for a quick stroll. We passed the steep driveway, the signpost Copper always has to sniff.  We turned left, toward Fox Mill Road. I had barely reached the corner when the differences overwhelmed me.

The roads are wide, the cars have too few passengers. All around me is space, order. There is no trash, no fine red dust between my toes. No woodsmoke, no hazy sun low on the horizon.

Instead there is this world I know. At once the same and different — because I see with altered eyes.


Thursday, January 22, 2015


For the third day in a row I woke up with no voice. Not just hoarse and croaking. No voice.

I've been making do with whispers and gestures. I say very little. People answer me with whispers, too. It's a silent world I'm inhabiting, full of cotton batting.

It's a strange time to be voiceless. Here I am with all these stories to tell and no way to tell them. I could, of course, write them down. And the magical-thinking part of me, which was heightened in Africa, says but of course.

Returning home after a long trip abroad is a time to set goals, resolutions. Saying less and writing more is certainly a good one.

So maybe being speechless has a purpose. C'est bon! I feel better already.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

Now that I've visited Suzanne in Africa I can attest to this slogan. Peace Corps volunteers do not live lives of luxury. Many of them settle in villages without running water or electricity; they get around on foot, bike, moto or bush taxi;  they eat a lot of rice and beans.

But their lives are rich in time and, surprisingly, in books. I visited two Peace Corps work stations with libraries to die for. One even had a ladder to reach the topmost shelves. There was a sizable collection of fiction (I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and was plunged into the world of a young Nigerian girl), a rich travel section (I picked up a crazy little book called The Emperor of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin and devoured it a few days before we visited Ouidah ourselves), even non-fiction and memoir (I read Infidel and Nomad, both by Ayaan Hirsi Ali).

I already knew from Suzanne's experience how much she's read the last two and a half years, and other volunteers said the same. But the greatest proof is this: I read eight books in less than three weeks. It would take me three months to read that many books at home.

Of course, I was on vacation, I took long bus rides. All of this is true. But something else is true, too. I had scant Internet access. And books, shelves and shelves of books, flowed in to take its place.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Living on GMT

There's a reason why I'm eating a turkey sandwich at 6 a.m. It's lunchtime in Benin!

I taste the tart lemonade I found at one of the local supermarches along the drowsy lanes of Haie Vive. I hear the revved motors of the zemidjahns as they halt at Place des Martyrs. I see Suzanne dashing out to buy beans and rice.

She will have been up six hours already, have walked 45 minutes to her office near Etoile Rouge, have made phone calls and finalized arrangements for an upcoming business trip; she will have spoken with at least several friends who beeped her to say good morning, in the Beninese style.

Travel gives us many gifts, and one of the best is perspective, shaking us out of routines and habits, reminding us it's a big old world. In this regard jet lag is a willing accomplice. It's a souvenir of our wanderings, our body's way of saying not so fast — you were really there, you know, living on Greenwich Mean Time, just six degrees above the equator.

(Street meat in Cotonou. No thanks!)

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Bye-bye, Benin!

Most people in Benin speak a couple of languages, but whether they're saying farewell in Bariba or Fon or French they usually add an Americanism at the end. "Bye-bye!" they say, with a funny little vocal uptick at the end.

I started this post a couple of days ago, but the Internet key wasn't working and for a while I wasn't working very well either (the country requires an iron stomach!) and then ... it was time to go.

But not without a final adventure. The zem drivers that took Suzanne and me to the airport decided to take a dirt road. Yes, a dirt road, in the city, to the airport. They were bumping and skidding and sliding so much that I gave up saying "doucement" and started exclaiming "Oh, my God!"

"What if we'd had an accident my last few hours in the country?" I said to Suzanne as we dismounted the bikes and took off our helmets.

"People here say that Benin doesn't want to let you go," she explained, only partially in jest. And yes, I could see that. It is a place of magic and chaos and unruly good cheer.

But I did leave — boarded the big silver bird, flew back to this clean, orderly place, where there are cars and hot showers and flush toilets.  

I won't stop thinking about Benin, of course, and I"ll write about it plenty. But for today, for now, it's bye-bye, Benin.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Sur La Plage

For the most part, Benin turns its back on the beach. Many Beninese can't swim, and few people fish. There are a few hotels along the coastline in Cotonou but for much of Benin's oceanfront, beaches are trash-strewn and deserted. What a marvelous natural resource untapped and unclaimed!

As my visit here winds to a close I wanted to spend a couple days at a real beach resort, so we came to the Auberge de Grand Popo, which is sur la plage (on the beach) and within spitting distance of Togo.

The trash, it will always be with us. But it doesn't matter much here. The natural beauty of the place overwhelms it. We went to sleep last night to the sound of surf, and I'm listening to the waves as I write this post. It's palmy and shady and gorgeous. But don't take my word for it. See for yourself!


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Under the Net

It's like sleeping inside a cloud, all this mosquito net business. Sometimes the nets are suspended from hooks in the ceiling or walls, turning the bed into a circus tent. Other times, they are draped over four posters reminding me of the canopy bed I slept in as a girl — only with gauzy netting instead of a frilly top.

Though I'm visiting Benin in the dry season, I've used a net most every night. It keeps other bugs away, too, especially those three-inch roaches that thrive here.

Besides, the mosquito net is evocative; it's humid tropical nights, Graham Greene novels and ceiling fans. It's far more than a way to keep the bugs away.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

View From a Zemidjan

When it's too far or too dangerous to walk there's always a zemidjan, a word that is not only onomatopoeic (zoom zoom = zem zem) but poetic in other ways. Its literal translation is "get me there fast."

And get you there fast it does. My first zem ride was at night in Cotonou, which is a bit like diving into the deep end before you can swim.  Suzanne had chosen what appeared to be a steady, safe driver and had admonished him with "C'est ma mama" and "Doucement!" (be careful). And I guess in a way he was. But careening into a roundabout on a peppy motorcycle while scores of other aggressive drivers jockey for position, darting in and out between the cars, is enough to take your breath away.

Yesterday's zem ride was one of the longest. I do what I always do now. I cast my fate to the winds and to this complete stranger. I take a deep breath, hop on the rear of the moto, place my feet carefully on the rests (avoiding the exhaust pipe!) and hang on for dear life.

And before I know it ... we've reached our destination. I've gotten there ... fast!


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Walker in Haie Vive

Cotonou is a lively, bustling metropolis. It has paved roads and unpaved roads, roundabouts and all manner of alleys, cul-de-sacs and more. It is a little skimpy on sidewalks, though.

Half of each narrow walkway consists of stone blocks straddling a public sewer. About one of every twenty blocks is cracked or missing, so you must step carefully to avoid falling into the muck and twisting your ankle. The other half of the sidewalk is commandeered by merchants hawking pineapples, fried plantains, gasoline, soap powder, grilled meat, beignets (a Cotonou specialty) — most anything you can imagine (including coffins!) in a cacophonous jumble. 

All of which is to say that my primary means of urban discovery has been difficult to practice. Suzanne has definitely tried to get me out. We've walked around her neighborhood enough that I could find my way there and back. We've trekked to the beach (less than three miles from her house) and made the much shorter trip to church and various markets.

But these are not ruminative rambles. They're more like panicked scrambles as I try to avoid the zems, which may decide to use the sidewalk, too, and the unwanted attention of school children, who chant "yovo" (foreigner) and are not afraid to pull your hair.

So imagine my delight at being parked here in Haie Vive, a quiet neighborhood of wider walks, calmer traffic, cafes, markets, even a bakery.  I can look around as I stroll, instead of watching every step. I can snap photos of streetscapes and hidden balconies. I can imagine what it would be like to live in this place.


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