Welcome back to our blog post series! Now that you’ve heard about the overall impact of the trip, the next few posts will take a deeper dive into each of the days as there is a lot of detail to share.
What can I say about the plane ride that those of you who’ve already traveled internationally don’t already know? Not much – as typical, it was very long. Babies were crying, the food was bad, but the sunrise through the window was gorgeous. Our layover in Addis Ababa was short, but showed us an airport very much under construction and crowded with fellow travelers. This was our first glimpse away from North America, and the differences were already apparent. The airport was climate controlled, but not air-conditioned to the 70 degrees that we’re accustomed to in the US. The terminal that our flight was leaving from was packed – literally standing room only – with travelers waiting for flights.
When we arrived in the sole airport of Benin (Cotonou Cadjehoun Airport – our travels through there were brief but not unpleasant), Philemon was waiting for us with his rental car. Philemon grew up in Cotonou & visits frequently – his mom still lives in the city (for more info about Phil’s story, Johnson & Johnson employees can watch his TEDx talk here or everyone can read this article).
Stepping out of the airport, the culture shock started. Worry not, there will be a whole separate blog post on USA vs Benin: Is One Better Than The Other? (Spoiler alert: no! Comparison of the two countries will be included) but suffice to say that it was hot, dusty & different than where we’d come from. Of course all of us had seen photos from previous team members’ trips, but to live it was a whole new experience.
We arrived at the hotel in Cotonou, which is a loose term for where we were staying. There certainly are hotels in the traditional sense (front desk, one or two main entrances, several floors of individual rooms with a bathroom and bedroom in each), but that’s not where we stayed. Primarily for budget reasons but with a huge positive of experiencing more of the culture, we stayed in apartments in the middle of the Akpakpa neighborhood.
(Editor’s note: the name Akpakpa is NOT pronounced as you would expect. The k’s are almost silent. Our inability to pronounce this word correctly as Americans was a source of comedy that was brought up AT LEAST once a day. Every single local we encountered laughed when we attempted its pronunciation.)
We stopped by a grocery store for some snacks, which was where we first learned how traffic works in Cotonou. In the US, even in states known for bad drivers, people generally drive in their lane, park in proper parking spots, and yield to those who have the right of way. And when this doesn’t happen, it’s often accompanied by a lot of swearing and occasionally some angry honking. Based on our experience in Cotonou, this is very different. Lanes are flexible, motorcycles swerve in and out of traffic, and parking on the sidewalk and median is often the only option. Blowing the horn is common, but often more of a friendly “I’m here” than an angry honk.
The grocery store itself was pretty comparable to those in cities in the US – set prices, packed shelves, and a variety of food from junk to fresh food. We had an early dinner & then we all passed out for the night to recharge before a busy Tuesday.
A few things to level-set expectations:
- Our apartments were spacious by Benin standards, but smaller than those in the US. We all had AC since we weren’t used to the heat, but only had it on when we were in the apartments to save on electricity.
- Throughout the duration of the trip we drank solely bottled water & ate at the nicer restaurants in town. This wasn’t to keep us happy, but rather to keep our stomachs happy – getting sick from food prepared in a way that our stomachs weren’t used to was NOT on our list of things to do.
- More info about our feelings of living like “big shots” (Phil’s term) in the coming posts!
Our trip was a volunteer one, not a touristic adventure – in the coming posts you’ll hear about some of the tourist activities that we did, but we’ll dive into the importance of understanding the culture where we are involved in another blog post.
Since this was still our first day in the country, it was pretty low-key and featured very little CodeToHope work. In the coming posts I’ll go into detail about how we furthered the mission of CodeToHope during our trip, but for the sake of this blog post I’ll end the story on Monday night. Stay tuned to hear more!