On November 13, I passed through (and attempted to sleep in) five countries and thus survived the most extensive solo travel experience of my life! At about 10:45 PM the night before, I took a moto to the tiny international airport in Kigali, Rwanda. The "system was down," so they couldn't confirm my booking -- but no problem, they just issued me a handwritten ticket. Seat number: "FREE." Awesome. We took off half an hour ahead of schedule, at 1:30 AM. Good thing, because after less than an hour in the air we had a surprise unscheduled stop to board passengers in Entebbe, Uganda. But we made it to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in plenty of time for my next flight. The Addis airport is a great place for people-watching, as it's a hub for much of Africa and also the Middle East. And I would like to go on record as saying that Ethiopian women are stunning!
I found my connecting terminal, where we boarded an hour late for the flight to Lomé, Togo (with onward service to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire -- you're forgiven if you've never heard of these places!). Fun fact: I was literally the only white person on the entire Boeing 757. These aren't hot spots on the tourist circuit, I guess. We landed around 1 PM local time, and as I stepped off the plane in exhausted excitement, a brick wall of heat rocked me. I had been mentally preparing myself for the fact that West Africa is considerably hotter than eternal-spring Rwanda, but it still just takes the breath out of you.
All things considered, my arrival in Togo went pretty smoothly. At the airport I needed to purchase an entrance visa... which had to be paid for in West African CFA francs... which cannot be obtained outside of West Africa... and yet there is no place to exchange money before the immigration checkpoint. (In moments like this, you just think, surely I am not the first person who has ever had this issue in the history of this airport.) The immigration official was a little testy with me, but fortunately he allowed a guard to escort me out into the lobby where I could change my money. I got my visa without too much hassle, as well as my one checked bag that had arrived safe and sound.
I found a local cab to take me to the bush taxi park, which was little more than a deserted dirt lot with a few broken-down vehicles on offer. I found one headed to Cotonou, Bénin, and we were on our way immediately, picking up other passengers along the way. The border crossing was painless, and even after hitting some traffic and rain (plus losing an hour due to a time difference), by about 8:30 PM I made it to the Cotonou Peace Corps office where I was warmly received by my friend Dave.
Dave and I went to Boston University together and met in our a cappella group, In Achord. He has been a PCV in Bénin since July 2009. For his first year he was posted to a tiny village where he had no electricity or running water and was the only foreigner around. But now he's moved up in the world, assuming the big bad position of "PCVL" (Peace Corps Volunteer-Leader). My PC programs did not have this role in Mauritania or Rwanda, but here in Bénin it's a pretty sweet deal for Dave. He lives at and maintains a regional "workstation" for other PCVs, and he serves as a community liaison in Parakou, the departmental capital of about 200,000 people. I can attest that Dave works really hard and is kept quite busy! And since he did put in the time roughing it last year, I don't begrudge him that he now lives in a gorgeous palace (okay, Peace Corps-grade palace) and has the highest-speed wireless internet I've ever encountered in Africa.
So what have I been up to here? Became well-acquainted with the delicious, abundant, and cheap street food. Celebrated the Muslim holiday Tabaski (Eid al-Adha) with some Beninese friends. Sat in on a Bariba language lesson and a meeting at the UN Population Fund. Got a private guided tour of an up-and-coming local music history museum. Visited another PCV in a more remote post (and felt some oddly fond nostalgia for the familiar blistering heat of an African day without electricity). Went for bike rides around town, and in related news remembered how sadly out of shape I am. Spent a lovely Thanksgiving with the greater PC family, about 15 of us together.
Don't want to ramble, so I'll let some pictures do the talking...