If you ever make it over to Benin, you’ll be surprised and amazed by the things people put in their stomachs here. The food is different enough, but when you see what we drink, whoa . . .
First of all, coffee isn’t coffee. It’s instant. It’s Nescafe. And it’s almost never drunk black. Take two generous tablespoons of really sweet condensed milk (you know, that stuff you buy in cans). Then put in a few teaspoons of Nescafe or Milo (which is kind of like Nestlé’s Quick). Then fill your mug (or more likely, metal bowl) up with boiling water. Stir and enjoy! If you’re drinking out of a bowl, sip it with a spoon because the bowl will be too hot to pick up. This stuff sounds disgusting, but it’s actually pretty tasty.
If you’re looking for something simpler, like juice, there are four varieties, all of which you can buy cold, in little plastic sachets off of girls’ heads (25CFA a sachet). You just rip a whole in the corner with your teeth and suck. Bisap is hibiscus juice. If you buy it in a sachet, it’s usually frozen. Yay slushee! Citron (the word for a citrus fruit that is kind of like a lemon, kind of like a lime) is just what you think it is. You can buy it sweetened or unsweetened. There’s also a sweetened corn juice that I have no idea what it’s called. It’s kind of like drinking liquid sugar and it’s great for rinsing your palette after some spicy beans and gari. The last kind of juice is pineapple juice. Fresh squeezed and delicious.
You can buy cans of sodas all over the place, but it’s cheaper to just go to your local bar and buy in bottles. You pay for the drinks, go home and drink them, then bring the bottles back the next day. A lot of times the bars require a “bottle deposit,” which you only get back if you bring the bottles back on time. If you’re like me, and the bar owners know you, and also know you’re forgetful, they’ll send their kids over the next day with your change and a basket to retrieve their missing glassware. You generally have a choice of Coke, Sprite, Orange Fanta (okay, sometimes), Moka (which I’m spelling wrong, but it’s like a mix of coffee and Coke and it’s delicious), carbonated grapefruit juice, carbonated fruit cocktail, and a weird kind of tonic (that’s more like soda than tonic, but it’s good!).
And of course, there’s beer. And lots of it. There are a few places in Cotonou where you can get Castel (one of the brews available here in West Africa) on tap, but it’s usually flat and/ or warm. There’s a great place by my house where it’s neither flat NOR warm, but it’s still expensive. Everywhere else, it’s available in bottles. Generally, you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a skunked beer. Lower in Cotonou, higher elsewhere.
I’m not going to go into a ton of detail here, mostly because the beer is so damn inconsistent. La Beninoise is the local brew. Brewed and bottled here in Benin, it’s not too bad. Flag is one step up from that, but I think it tastes like drinking carbonated piss. Castel, as already mentioned, isn’t too bad. It’s the beer-of-choice when you’re going out and trying to make an impression on someone. Awooyu (sp?) is a darker beer, and it’s a damn fine brew. Eku is a lighter beer, supposedly reminiscent of German pilsners, but I’m not convinced. Again, not bad. Pils (pronounced “peessssss”), which I order because I like to say it is a pilsner, and it’s tasty. You can get Guiness about everywhere, but most PCVs say “two thumbs down.” The aftertaste here is like no where else in the world (read: disgusting).
Occasionally, we volunteers go for hard alcohol, but usually mixed with something else. Palatable liquor is too damn expensive, and why waste money on it when you can get decent beer instead? Whiskey, vodka, gin, and sodabe (the local hooch) are our poisons of choice. Good wine can be pricey, but there are occasionally good finds, and those are well worth it.
Besides all that, I’m a tea drinker. I buy tea-bags at the market, then grate ginger for ginger tea, or throw mint leaves in there for mint tea. I try to drink five or six liters of water a day, but usually I max out at four or four-and-a-half. Staying hydrated is a real battle for me, lately, what with the humidity and me sweating my ass off and all.
Oh yeah, and hot chocolate, made from scratch, on a cold morning, is probably the best thing God ever invented. Mmmmm. Wonderful!