Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back in the US

We are back in the US via a safe border crossing from Benin to Nigeria, a couple nights stay in Lagos, and an eleven hour lay over in London.

I am starting grad school at Notre Dame on Aug 16 (masters in International Peace Studies) and Ray will start his internship year in Maryland on Sept 1.

Im hoping to get photos from the trip up in the next couple of weeks. So please check back in!


crazy rides

Mounting on the back of a moto taxi you are not only trusting your safe arrival to this single driver, but to the thousands of others who will criss cross your path enroute. Cheap motorcycles have taken over the roads of Cotonou, providing the most convenient way to move around the city. You would be hard pressed to find a traditional car taxi- they have all taken on set routes as shared taxis (a car for 4 passengers, magically holds 6).

The moto taxi drivers are distinguished by their yellow shirts, and swarm the streets of Cotonou before day break and speed on into the evening hours (though prices are of course higher). Locally known as zemi-johns, these taxi motos along with thousands of private motos determine the flow of traffic. At a red light they fill up every gap between cars, and rev their engines as the light turns green- all instantly taking off at the same moment, and trusting that the moto in front of them is taking off just as quickly.

But, there are only a few working traffic lights in Cotonou, which means that most intersections are a free for all. And, by the way, the traffic is heavy. Traffic flows down the main streets practically uninterrupted- so, intersecting streets have to work to make their way through the intersection. They wait (not very long) to build up enough mass, see a gap, and as one unit move into the intersection to open up their path.

There is a constant flow entering, circling, and exiting a roundabout, and there arent really regulated turns per say. Motos and cars come at you in practically every direction, all at varying speeds. And, just yesterday our moto taxis found a short cut to our destination by entering the roundabout in one of the exiting lanes. Brilliant.

Safety doesn't seem to be a huge concern. They speed, and even a promise to go slowly proves that their understanding of slow must be different then mine. Nobody wears a helmet, well, except for me and a handful of others. And, gasoline is sold on the curb side in glass jars and bottles of different sizes. The moto pulls up, the attendant places a 'filter' over the gas tank, and pours a bottle or two of gas into the tank, swirling the bottle as it gurgles down. The government has tried to shut these rudimentary curb side gas stations down, but with such high demand, regular gas stations charging an inflated price, and no real way to enforce it, they persist on every street corner.

While I have had enough trouble (or rather, concern) about keeping myself balanced on the back of a moto with their abrupt stops in traffic and bounces when hitting a pothole, most balance much more than just themselves on a moto. Most often you will see a moto driver with a large piece of luggage wedged between himself and his handlebars, and the passenger behind (if a woman she likely has a baby strapped across her back). Ive seen complete families on a moto (2 adults and 3 children), often 3 adults share the moto, and once I even saw 5 adults on a single moto!

Among the items Ive seen transported on a moto, these stand out: a tray of pineapples balanced on the passengers head, a ladder (sideways), several 12 foot long pipes, a door, a full length mirror, a desk, a car bumper, 6 sacks of rice, 3 goats, 1 fridge, 2 fridges (!), 30 10-gallon jugs of gasoline (empty, thankfully). Ive got a good photo of that last one.


Friday, August 7, 2009

"Our President"

Walking around, it is not unusual to see American flags hanging everywhere- on buildings, on the side of the road, and in thewind shields of cars all around this part of West Africa. We have also seen a number of Barak Obama t-shirts, even in remote villages inBurkina Faso! Almost overnight, America and Americans have again become the best friends of Africans.

Granted, I doubt most people here could tell you one thing about Obama and his policies, other than the fact that his father is from Kenya. But, as many people have told us here, 'Obama is our president'. People here even knew about Obama's recent visit to Ghana before we did. I was told that people here stayed up until early in the morning on election night, watching the results come in. When Obama was declared President, people told us, they danced in the streets.

In any case, the world is watching and again, supporting America. Hopefully we, as a country, can use this goodwill to bring about positive things for all people everywhere.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Balancing Goods

In the village and city alike a dominant means of transporting and selling goods is on top of the head. The bowl or basket is filled far beyond the rim, and may be directly balanced on the head, or a scarf is wrapped in such a way to provide a bit of cushioning.

In the village bundles of firewood (far beyond what Id ever imagined could be carried by one person for a distance), metalic basins filled with potable water from a local well, and bags of sand for construction are a routine sight. Some walk holding one side of the bowl, while others walk with yet more in their hands, and often a baby strapped securely with a scarf to their back.

Most carrying goods on their heads are women, though in the city I have seen men selling goods from their head- though quite light weight goods such as sunglasses, pens, remote controls, or fabric. Women bear the heavier loads, including trays of fruit, either pinneapple, coconuts, banannas, or apples (and they dont go light on how many they pile on). Some carry complete meals on their head, and even tote along a stool to set down their tray on while they prepare your bowl of rice and sauce.

Baskets with a diameter of 2 feet are packed full of baguettes standing on end, while others precariously hold fried fish in a variety of sizes- the key being that the product is visible to the passerby, the potential client. Following just behind a women selling fried fish might be a young girl selling balls of pate (made of corn flour and water, eaten as a staple starch). I met one such 8 year old, Jeremie, whose father died and mother abandonned her. Without anyone to pay for her schooling, she walks the streets for 7 hours a day selling pate that her grandmother makes.

Many of the vendors have a set route and regular clients, who expect the mobile sale of cleaning or beauty care products. Last night the lady that we buy water from was having her nails done by a woman who arrived with all of her supplies on her head. Some sell clothes on hangers that dangle from a tray on their head, quite an impressive way to display a number of outfits all at once.

When traveling, our bus or taxi-van would stop in a random town and immediately our vehicle would be surrounded by women selling goods in baskets on their heads- bread, fried dough balls, cookies, banannas, fish, crabs... and it was all easily within arms reach from our windows. And at times their were men too, their products were normally cold drinks or grilled meat on a tray that they would plop down and swiftly cut up into bite size pieces in a matter of seconds. Cant say we tried the last one (the swarm of flies was a deterent).

Basically, anything you can imagine might be sold by a mobile vendor.