What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.


Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!


While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link

But Are They Happy?

Since my return, many people have asked me if Cubans are happy.  Some ask without judgment, while others convey that they believe Cubans are silently outraged or depressed, yet others still assume that they live happy, simple, carefree lives.

I have a hard time answering this question.  No, they’re not depressed about being from Cuba.  They’re proud of it, and they’re proud that their country has succeeded, despite America’s best efforts.  They’re proud of Cuba being their own man, so to speak.  They’re proud of the music, artes plasticos, films and athletes that come from their island.

But I don’t want to infantilize them, either.  They’re not living some blissfully ignorant life.  Many people have commented to me flippantly that if only they knew what we have, they would be sad or jealous or want to be Good Capitalists, instead of Good Communists.  But that it isn’t so. They’ve seen House and Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls.  They have the internet, albeit slow, and American radio.  They are not ignorant of our way of life, yet many of them do not covet it. There are many who do, of course.  Some want to not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.  Some want to be able to make a decent living.  These are the ones who I think are the most deluded, the ones who are fooling themselves in thinking they can get these things in America.

I think there’s something to be said for sticking around with your family and friends.  Not that I hold anything against the so-called guzanos or those who want to Jump Ship, I just mean that I respect someone who has seen the “streets paved with gold” and had the intelligence to see past the illusion or the heart not to give up their Home for it.

Cubans are happy: they dance, sing, drink and tell stories.  But they’re not ignorant.  They’re not these sad little simpletons who don’t know they’re poor, or this entire island of people too terrified to speak their mind.  Cubans are pretty opinionated, and definitely long-winded.  I think most of them want more from their government, but who doesn’t?  Even Libertarians want something more, it just happens to be that that something more is for their government to exist less.

I think Cubans are optimists.  I think that they choose not to dwell on the bad parts: to tell you about the domino game on the roof, instead of the valuables lost, when the floods come waist high in their houses.  I think they want the revolution to continue in new, ever-changing, ever-evolving forms–not capitalism.  I think communist values are inherently good and worthwhile, and it would be as hard to remove them from Cubans as it would be to ingrain them in Americans.

So try not to think of a country in such simple, blanket terms.  Are Americans happy?  Are Americans any one thing?  Rarely can you say yes, unless that one thing is “complaining” or “individualistic.”  I think many more Cubans are happy than you think, but I don’t believe it’s for any lack of intelligence or awareness.  I think they actively decide to be happy; I think it’s a cultural value the way we value cynicism and sarcasm.

I think happiness is a state of mind and a decision, and that theirs, which is more or less collective, and is a greater measure of their culture than of their government or GDP.

A Whole New World

Being home is great because America is like this whole new place to me.  I appreciate a lot more, and there’s so much to experience.  I’m not clamoring to speak my mind or exercise the rights we come to think of as synonymous with “America” and the antithesis to a place like Cuba.  I never felt unprivileged in that sense.  Rather, it’s everything that’s transpired here in the last three months.

Reading the Globe on the porch instead of on my laptop, trying on lots of clothes just for fun, trying to cook.  There’s always people to catch up with, television shows to catch up on, the radio dial full of new songs, and movies I haven’t heard of.  Food to re-experience, places to re-visit, and things to get reacquainted with, like going to American bars, ordering takeout or driving again.

And really, nothing can compare to driving again.  I blare the stereo, singing and dancing along (even if I don’t know the words.)  Tonight’s inspiration, if you must know, was Rage Against the Machine.  Because sometimes new is great, but familiar is even better.

Super Market Sweep

Let me say, to begin, that I should’ve known going to Market Basket on Holy Saturday was a bad idea. Weekends are always terrible there, especially holiday weekends.  (That includes the entire Patriots season.)  But less than twenty-four hours after coming home from abroad?  From a poor country?  From Cuba, where there’s no advertising, no options, no variety?

I am a woman with a death wish, apparently.

My mum kept asking me questions: which kind of cheese?  Hot or mild salsa?  I had no clue how to answer these questions.  I am far more indecisive now than I already was.  So I stood there, gripping the handle of the shopping cart (I should not have been steering) while she scouted deals.  My eyes were so wide, and my face so apparently disturbed, that a nice guy who worked there asked if I was okay.  Um, yeah.  I’m just a little overwhelmed.

Everywhere, options.  Why do there need to be so many kinds, so many brands of lettuce?  It’s just leaves, right?

“Wild crispy tango romaine lettuce.”


How is that even a thing?

The waffle aisle was disturbing.  Yes, frozen waffles had their own aisle.  Name brand, store brand, other name brand: whole grain, seven grain, blueberyr, chcolate, cinnamon, homestyle.  and that’s just one brand

I can only imagine the damage a Cuban would do if they were allowed to shop at just one of these aisles.

Everyone was acting as though all the other shoppers were there as a personal insult.  Living obstacles to their Easter dinner, and time outside on a rare, gorgeous spring day in Massachusetts.

Bright, psychedelic colours assailed the eyes from all sides.  Where in nature does one find that colour?

Then I got to the condiment aisle–row upon row of mayonnaise–and I felt comfortable.

Every five minutes or so, a man’s voice would crackle and bark onto the intercome.  Always selling more, different, here, new, better!

I should’ve stayed in the car.

The Off-Season

I’m spending the next five weeks in the Greater Boston area, going between my parents’ house, Brookline, Somerville and NU’s campus.  I actually have a cell phone (what’s that?!), so if you’re in the area hit me up.

After five weeks,I’ll be heading to France for a week and then Benin for three.  There will be a lot more info going up about that trip and those two locations during my “break.”  After I come home I hope to start co-op somewhere, but preferably in Massachusetts. That’s about as much as I can definitively say about my future for now.

During the “off season” I’ll definitely keep blogging, as I did in between Egypt and Cuba.  I usually cover similar topics like current events in the countries I have been to, stories I never got the chance to share in country, and of course more Foto Fridays.  Also, blog is often the best way to know when and where I’ll travel next. 

I’m also going to be covering the process of re-entry into normal life.  Travel doesn’t end when you get off the plane-from unpacking and reflecting to reverse culture shock, there’s a lot that changes when you come home.  Not everyone and everything is just how you left them, and most of all, the traveller changes. 

Have any suggestions for good content?  Any questions?  What do you do with a travel blog when you’re not travelling?

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

…except not really on the fish, since that was pretty disgusting.

Cuba wakes up early and slow, and some mornings so do I.

I went for a walk around our little neighborhood to say goodbye early on Friday, and realized how pretty Cuba is in the morning light. Everyone knows Cuba for the blistering, gorgeous midday sun on the beaches, or the nightlife.  I wonder how many people know Cuba for the bright stars you can see so clearly, even in Havana.  But early morning?  Not many people see that side of Cuba.

This morning was strange and quiet.  No party, no music.  No street musicians, no peanut lady yelling, “Mani! Mani!”

I take the long way around the fountain, but the niños aren’t there; they’re in school.  Alex isn’t around either–he’s probably getting Diyani ready for school, or headed out to work.  I head towards the Residencia, walking down the Malecón.  I’m going to miss this place, with its slow pace and full personality.  I look up at that long view of our edificio and the walk to Habana Vieja, and I become vaguely aware that I’m separating from the Americans soon, too.  I know I’ll be back here someday, but without them it won’t be the–


In my reflective reverie, fell flat on my face in some algae and ocean slime. As I struggled to get up, I slid and fell again, sprawled out on hands and knees.

I laugh at myself, amazed I’m alone in that act.

You just couldn’t let me off easy, could you Havana?

‘ta luego, Cuba.

Things I Miss/Crave

I already wrote before I left about the things I thought I would miss, so here is what I cannot WAIT to have when I’m back in Amurica.  I’m sure I’ll be thrilled to have even more things (like a cell phone and the Celtics) that Cuba has just conditioned me out of thinking I need, at the moment.  Don’t worry, I’m sure that later on this week I’ll be posting about all the Cuban stuff I miss.  But for now, all I can think about is home home HOME!

  • honey bbq wings
  • honey mustard wings
  • bbq bacon cheeseburger
  • BMG and DMG
  • My giant family
  • New Baby Alexandra Murphy!  And Coming-Soon Baby Harrington!
  • Andrew Robert Brady
  • Chicken Lou’s TKO
  • cereal
  • milk
  • steak
  • thai food
  • REAL Italian, where the pasta isnt overcooked
  • Mondo buffalo pizza=my life force
  • really any meat that isn’t a mystery
  • hot showers
  • quiznos, $5 foot longs even moreso
  • comfortable beds
  • back rubs (because of the aforementioned lack of comfy beds)
  • American tv, sort of.  But that’s way down on the list.  I’d take the food, showers or bed over television any day
  • It’ll be nice to have more of my closet back, but I was doing just fine with what I packed
  • I WILL love the ease of laundry in the states, however
  • fast walkers
  • rapid restaurants (although I think I’ll be overwhelmed at first)
  • personal space
  • not being harassed by men on the street.  Yeah right, I live in Boston.  But Reading will be nice.

If you spent three months in a developing nation where food was scarce and not many people speak your first language, what would YOU miss?