Wednesday, September 8, 2010

100 Days in Togo

Here at the end of my first 100 days in country I have assembled a few thoughts concerning Togo, the people, and the work at hand.

A photo taken in a taxi: No Money, No Friends

Togo is a country that was dealt a good hand, but quickly had its hand taken, reshuffled, and re-dealt with a lot of the deck missing. If you are not completely familiar with the history of Togo I will highlight the pieces that illustrate my point.

Togo has the only deep water port in West Africa, and previously had the greatest tourist trade (as well as slave trade, but that is for another time) and abundant natural resources as well. With these cards to play it was obvious that Togo would quickly become developed and powerful in the region. All of that changed, then changed again as time went on.

Colonized by the Germans, then re-colonized by the British and French after the war, the boundaries of Togo were redrawn leaving the great majority of its natural resources in what is now Ghana. Declaring independence soon after, Togo’s democracy was overthrown almost immediately in a military coup that after many years left Togo with humanitarian issues that all but ended tourism here. Left with almost no resources and lacking an influx of capital from outside the country Togo found itself undeveloped with little hope of change.

The people here have never stopped living. Even though the outlook of the country has taken turns for the worse, the people here are still industrious and always looking for a way to make ends meet. A lesser people would have given up, but it has made the Togolese strong and resilient.

The core of The Peace Corps mission here is to help people improve their position at a grassroots level placing them in a sustainable and developed state. This is achieved through skills training and education about health and management. The people here are eager to learn, and often believe that with this effort they can change their lives. By helping individuals here, the country itself grows as well. There is no robust solution available at a high level. Infrastructure must be put into place before sweeping changes can be made, so by working with the people themselves Togo becomes prepared for the changes when they happen.

“Life happens every day in Africa.” I say it often and it always holds true. Each day the people here face life-threatening challenges with optimism and strength. Car accidents, Malaria, HIV, and many water-borne diseases are always looming, but the people here continue to live each day without fear. Each community is rocked by changes on a weekly basis, but the people continue pressing forward. I had heard that Togo is the sixth poorest nation on Earth. I have no idea if that is true, but I do know that if you judge a nation by the ethic of its people instead of its GDP, Togo is nowhere near the bottom.

100 Days away from The United States, easily the greatest country on Earth in every sense of the word, and I have learned a lot about how other people live. I have seen that in the absence of riches, the character of the people and the communities they create become the riches in great abundance. The only thing lacking in the US is this pervasive strength of character that can be found in every corner of Togo. I believe this character is not missing from the US, but simply hiding in a haze of consumerism and cheap distractions. My hope that it becomes prevalent again the way it has been in the past, and with that strength we can once again enhance not only our lives as US citizens, but the lives of those around us in places like tiny Togo.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Art and Science of Gifting

To gift or not to gift. People here, like people everywhere, love gifts. They love to receive them, and when they give them it is a very serious gesture not to be taken lightly. Take the following interaction about gift giving:

1) Each day it is inevitable that someone (or ten someones) will say the word cadeau to me. Cadeau means gift in French. The conversation can include ‘hellos’ and ‘how are you’s before the word is said, but many times it is simply “Yovo, cadeau.” I would need to be a billionaire (in francs) to be able to afford to give gifts to everyone that asked. You may be thinking, “No no, maybe being a millionaire would be enough.” I thought the same thing until I tested the theory.

I bought some gum, meaning 50 pieces or so. Within a minute or so a child saw me carrying something and said, “Cadeau.” Note there is no question mark there. It is never really a question; it is more of an instruction. I replied, “Bien sur!” meaning of course. I gave the child a piece of gum. Within 10 seconds there were 7 other children and 3 adults wanting the same thing, and by the time I had given them all a piece of gum, many of them had switched hands for another, and the children even went as far to say that they had not gotten one yet. By this time there were an additional 10 people who had walked upon the scene or came to get whatever was being given when they saw the crowd. It is worthwhile to mention that this crowd was completely age and gender independent. Tiny children and elderly men and women were all interested in having a piece of gum. Needless to say, my bag of gum did not get anywhere near my house.

Before going on to the next example I would like to also mention that I currently cannot walk down that street without people asking for gum.

Here in Togo it is important to always say the right things. Sometimes the words themselves are more important than the meaning behind them or the intention before them. Take the following interaction about gift receiving:

2) It was lunchtime so I made myself a big plate of pasta with some bread. I was just finishing when a friend came by. I suggested we go for a walk and away we went. It wasn’t long before we came across a birthday party. It was twelve or so people dressed well and enjoying lunch together. One of the people I was familiar with and he beckoned me over. He had me introduce myself to the people there, and then I was invited to toast to the gentleman having the birthday. I am not a wine drinker by nature, but there is no harm in toasting to someone’s good health on their birthday.

By the time the toasting was complete chairs had been brought for me and my companion. We sat and enjoyed the conversation for a few minutes when we were presented with plates to take part in the food. The food consisted of a very spicy rice dish and a cold salad. I will not tell you what I did just yet, but think carefully about what you would do. I had just eaten a heavy lunch minutes before, I am not partial to spicy foods and I cannot have cold salads here because the water used to wash the food is not good for me to drink. Would you explain that you cannot eat the food? Would you explain that you had just eaten? Regardless, here is the correct answer, which I will admit I did not use because it simply did not occur to me: Accept the food. Accept all of it. Look it over, poke at it, mention that it is delicious and you are lucky to have it, and then proceed to explain that you are full and satisfied and don’t eat it. Yes, waste the food is the right answer in a country where there it not enough food to eat. I told you, the Togolese are serious about their gift-giving.

I do not yet have the knack of Togo, but I am learning!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One week down...103 to go!

Hello again and welcome back! I have been living at my beach post for a whole week, and let me tell you that life is a little bit different than it used to be.

The wall of children welcome you, too

To get my laptop more acclimated to the environment, I dropped it face down in the sand. The keyboard is just like a Togolese Cyber Cafe keyboard now, meaning it is no longer working as expected.

I am now in a good routine in the mornings. I wake up and immediately pull water from the well for a shower, the kitchen and my toilet. This makes sure that my day can zoom right along uninterrupted. I tend to spill my well water, so I like to get all that out of the way right off the bat. I then shower, sweep my house and do laundry or dishes if need be. I then check my email (cloud cover permitting...cellular Internet is a bit finicky sometimes) and write responses, then finish my previous day's journal entry.

By this time I need a nap, but I push forward with the drive and ambition of a Peace Corps Volunteer and begin to make something to eat. It still amazes me how long simple tasks take here. Back in the USA I would have all this slapped out in an hour, but here it takes me three or more.

The afternoon always has a bike ride along the beach and tasks with my counterpart. I try to talk to people whereever I go so they will get used to me being around. As night falls I have dinner in town at a little restaurant and buy my bread and fruit for the next day. Eating out is an interesting experience. Generally you can get a plentiful pasta or rice dish with a big drink (be it beer or soda) for $2. That's affordable!

I generally go to bed at a very reasonable hour. Not having a TV, radio or refrigerator really changes your routines, but I have no complaints. The people are generally very nice, the food is good, I have the things I need and life is continuing on.

A quick shout-out to all the Volunteers who left this month. Congrats on your service completion and enjoy the crazy variety of things available back home. Don't forget us back here in Togo. You wanted packages, so do we. : )

A note about packages: Please see the updated request list to the right.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bad Support System, BAD!

There are only a few days left in Stage (training). Wednesday we leave for Lomé and Thursday we will all officially be Volunteers. The two-year adventure is about to begin in earnest, and I am very excited about it. Just me, myself and I on the beach of Agbodrafo offering computer assistance to people without computers...or something like that.

That being said, I went ALL of Stage without a single letter or care package. I am disappointed in you all, and don't try to use the old "but I emailed you" excuse. Technology is no good reason to abandon those of us that moved our lives to Africa.

Get on the ball! Go buy a pen, and some paper, too. I want to see some snail mail! Oh, and um, sorry that sending me mail is wildly expensive. I cannot really control that. I still recommend sending the cheapest air mail padded envelope possible for sending stuff. I think that might be as cheap as ten bucks. Some families are sending Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes and the prices are $30-$50. That is just out of hand. By the time it gets here you will have sent the most expensive beef jerky (or whatever was in the box) ever!

A reminder that a letter in a normal envelope is only a dollar or so. Later, gators!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Shiny Food

When I lived in Vegas there was a little diner that the people I worked with liked to eat breakfast at once in awhile. I think it was called Skinny Dugans. I didn't eat there a lot because they served shiny food.

Shiny Food - noun - food that is shiny. Okay, a bit more defining may be needed. Some restaurants serve many dishes, and every single one of them is shiny. Denny's has perfected this. Shiny eggs, shiny bread, shiny hanburgers, very very very shiny French Fries, and so forth. When people tell me they ate at a 'greasy spoon' I automatically think shiny food.

Here in Togo shiny food is king. Last night I had a plate of shiny spaghetti, with a shiny tomato sauce that was enough oil that it started to separate, with shiny yam fries on top. (A note on yam fries - if you like french fries, you would REALLY like yam fries, Superior in every way.) I am growing more accumstomed to shiny food, but the next time I am in Vegas, I will not be going to Skinny Dugans.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How well do you wash clothes?

I can tell you this: there is a country here in Africa filled with children ages 7-17 that can wash a circle around you, wash you in the circle, then wash everything else approximately three times better than you did. Now I am not saying that to discourage you, I am just saying that if you come to I did...and you think you are going to wash your clothes, be prepared to get schooled.

Everything Americans do here is funny. I mean everything. I can walk out my door and saunter over to some kids, teenagers or adults and then proceed to do or say anything, and I can expect laughter in response. I can get a laugh climbing onto my bike or peeling a banana. I can get a laugh trying to greet someone or when I get frustrated with the red sand that is constantly staining my shoes.

Now imagine how many laughs I generated when I was hand-washing clothes in front of the hands-down World Champions of Clothes Washing. Yeah, even more than that. But I did learn how you can get out any stain or dirt with a bucket, some water and a bar of soap, and how my clothes are more resilient than I ever thought possible.

Needless to say I am happy to pay a local teen to wash my clothes. They are simply the right person for the right job. Well, that and if they see me doing it myself they are just going to come over and re-do everything I did whilst shaking their head in disbelief for no pay at all. If I pay them I can sleep at night and I don't get nearly as depressed with my dramatic lack of skills.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Beach House

Well, I've spent a week at my new post and I have to tell you it is definitely a change in the norm. You can hear the ocean all the time, the beach is under a minute away and the people were very nice. Just sitting watching the waves has not yet lost interest for me, and I did it a lot. For someone who has lived near the mountains his whole life this is a whole different altitude. I would mention it is also humid, but I think it goes without saying. It will be hard to go back to training for the next three weeks knowing what I am missing, but I am sure it will all pass quickly and I will be back before I know it.

Ziploc bags. That is the answer. I asked everyone and their brother what they were most happy they brought before I shipped out and didn't get many definitely answers. Here is mine. Ziploc bags come in handy all the time. I brought bunches, and thank goodness I did. If you are reading this and wondering what to get the picture. Oh, also bring dish towels. Very very useful in so many situations. In fact, bring all the towels you can. It just makes you feel good. Maybe this is why the towel was so important in Hitchhikers Guide...

Another Stagiare went home, but this time by choice. I really do feel that this experience is not for everyone, and when you get to your post by yourself the rubber really hits the road. I wish her the best and will miss her. On the bright side tomorrow a Stagiare returns, bring our total back up to 27.

Soccer is very big in Africa...and every of the part of the world that is not the United States. This year's World Cup was extra huge because Africa was hosting. The people of my quartier of the village gathered in the street and watched the final game together on a big projected screen. I was seated with a few notables and my counterparts in the center of it all and had a great time. On a soccer note, what a game! Wow.

My sense of direction here is still a mess, but I think I am catching on. Having the ocean by South all the time will help, too.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A few notes...

I have been pretty awful at mentioning what it's like here. I was reading the blog of another trainee, and she is doing a fantastic job. Here it is:

We have had 2 people go home already out of 29. Well, technically 3 out of 30 if you count the one person that did not show up at all. One girl got hurt playing soccer and was sent to the US for repairs. She will likely not be back this time, but can come back later and do it all again. The other trainee had his dad pass away suddenly and flew back. He is returning, I believe, but I cannot imagine how hard that must be. I suppose that life goes on while we are in Togo, and I think it is quite rude that you all are not simply putting everything on hold to wait for us. Sheesh.

This coming weekend I will get to see my post up close and personal for one week. That is awesome, and I am excited for the change. I hear that you can see the ocean from my roof. I hope that's true.

I bought a marmite (look it up, I'm not translating. I like the word marmite better)and a sauce pot, and some other things, too. I own buckets (literally...three of them) here in Togo. I am amassing a small empire. I am haggling the price of this empire with great success (read limited success) and expect that soon I will have to be taxed as a separate country.

What do we do in training:
We study language (French or local dialect) two hours at a time. We learn how to take care of ourselves past the normal 'get a band-aid' answers. We learn about Togo, it's economics and it's people. We learn cultural differences so we won't be nearly as offensive as we guaranteed to be. We learn how to fix almost anything on our bikes. We visit local shops to see if we can do simple tasks like ordering clothing at a tailor. We practice our French on the poor unsuspecting Togolese people who put up with us each day. We wash our own clothes by hand. We bathe using a bucket. We eat wonderful food in large quantities. We think about home and what might be going on there. That's not really a training thing. I assume that may happen after training as well.

The time has come for care packages. Go buy a 5x7 padded envelope, throw a few rolls of Mentos in it with a few real deal Q-Tips, then maybe pen a few words and add anything else that you might think I would need...that won't melt. : )

Okay, bye.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Baby Goat - 6 Bucks

Tiny goats are all over the place. Even full grown they are only three feet tall, so these baby goats are puppy-sized. Don't act like you don't want to buy one. I am going to have an attack goat to guard the house, and a lap goat for petting, and even a domestic goat for things like laundry and dishes. At six bucks each how can I not?!?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ici et La Bas: Where are you?

Do you know where you are? I do. Since coming to Togo I know where everyone and everything is…all the time. In Togo, there are only two places you will find anything: ici (ee-see) and la bas (lah bah). This translates to here and over there. I have tested this theory often which a great variety of people, and without fail whenever I want to know where something or someone is, I get one of those two answers. I had no idea life could be this simple. I have thrown away my maps.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What's It Like???

There is no way to tell you. You just have to come do it. I can, however, tell you what I'm doing...

Let’s discuss bucket baths. So you get a bucket of water, maybe a sponge, your soap and shampoo…yeah, it’s not that hard a concept. The thing is that a bucket bath can be a quick rinse that dramatically cools you off, and it’s really nice under the stars and the palms. I was surprised about two things. First, the well water here is not freezing. It is a reasonable temperature even in the morning, although pouring it over your head will definitely get your attention. Secondly, you really can get completely clean without using a lot of water. Not to get all Greenpeacy, but in America we really do waste a lot of water, and it isn’t necessary. I still stand by the idea that if that’s what you want to spend your money on then so be it.

Time to talk about media. The media in my Host Family is mostly religious in nature. I did not know there were so many Togolese Christian Music Videos, and some of them go on for 15 minutes! The World Cup has started and that seems to be on every channel as well. Surprisingly quite a few Stagiares care about that. I do not. Such is life.

Did you know that there are seven categories of things that fall out of your butt? Yeah, I didn't either, but I do now. I knew they'd end up teaching me things.

Time for a few food notes. It was expressed to me more than once that people felt the food would be a great challenge for me. I admit that I had this same thought. I am not sure that I am eating common Togolese dishes at this point, but from what I have had with my host family the food is turning out to be more of a non-issue. Rice dishes, pasta dishes and fruit dishes. All of the dishes have sauces of some sort and most have meat. I have not been served anything that I did not enjoy, although it was a weird meal to have only plantains or only tapioca. My family has been kind enough to respect my dislike for breakfast and each morning serves me bread and water. Water is another thing…when they serve me water it is heated water with a lemony tasting herb in it. That is the norm in Togo.

I am in French class. There is a professor...and me. Try falling asleep in THAT class.

I recently learned how to wash clothes Togo-style. Three buckets, a giant bar of soap and plenty of insanity. The information that I was going to wash clothes had spread and I had more than a few onlookers. The resident expert (who incidentally is 12) showed me how to wash the clothes. Basically you rub soap on the piece of clothing you are working on, then rub sections of the fabric together roughly. No less than six people felt the need to re-show me how to do this right off the bat. It would seem that I was not rubbing them with enough force to be useful. You wash each piece three times in different buckets, rinse them and then hang them to dry. The drying has taken two days so far. It is very humid here.

Bye bye bye. Later!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A few days in...

Well, here I am with a few minutes to myself for the first time, or at least a few minutes that I have taken away from the trainee group. Tonight was a dinner with the Peace Corps Togo Country Director and the Assistant Director of Mission from the American Embassy. So much French being spoken. I'm barely keeping up, but that should change after Wednesday when we move out to our training sites and start launguage and culture training. We have some trainees with some very strong language skills, and even more trainees with extensive previous overseas travel and volunteer credentials. Just a really good group overall.

The food: Nothing really hot or weird yet at all. They have been babying us with wonderful and recognizable dishes. Pastas, Chicken, Pancakes, you name it.

The drinks: Coke here tastes different, we have been soooo lucky to have endless bottled water so far, and if you get a chance to pick up a bottle of Cocktail de Fruits do so.

The weather: Hot, humid and rainy. It is the rainy season afterall. It has been mostly dry, though, but I always feel sticky.

The volunteers: The current volunteers have been really awesome to us trainees. We had a party last night and I swear there were more of them than us. Remember that there are 29 of us, and maybe 90 of them total in the whole country. They came in from far and wide. Made us feel special.

I do not have malaria yet. Go me! I do, however, have lots of vaccinations and such to lessen the potential impact of what I may inflict upon myself when I inevitably forget to wash my hands before a meal. So much diligence is required to keep from getting sick.

The city: Lome is a real deal city with lots of familiar amenities...along with an endless parade of motorcycles on every road and baby goats on the sidewalks. When we ship out to our training sites in a few days things will get a bit more rural...and by a bit I mean possible lack of running water and electricity for many weeks. Ever used a latrine? Me neither.

The electricity. Hit or miss. It missed last night when my roommate was in the shower. Oops. That's what flashlights are for.

The few days so far:
Washington Day 1: Land in DC. Cab driver explains that he was in the War Corps in Afghanistan and that the Peace Corps does not pay enough. Meet another early arrival, have dinner, go to bed.
Washington Day 2: All day training, dinner with the trainees at PF Changs (still convinced it stands for Pretty Foul), go to bed.
Washington Day 3: Vaccinations, airport, off to Paris, then Togo
The flights were long but we were well taken care of. International amenities are plentiful and awesome. Movie, games, charge!
Togo Day 1: Arrive, Welcoming party for new trainees, deer-in-the-headights looks all around, settle into hostel. Hostel amenities meager, toilets look different, shower head uninterested in cleaning you, but definitely sufficient. Go to bed.
Togo Day 2: Training, vaccinations, French test akin to dental work, party with the volunteers, cloudburst, go to bed.
Togo Day 3: Training, vaccinations, dinner with the Country CD, head to local bar with wifi...soon to go to bed.

Well, this has been random. I think I am getting tired. Later, gators. My love to all. I apologize in advance, but things will get sappier as the days go by. This experience is really helping me to find perspective and value in my life. I wish all of you were here to share in this. It's only been 48 hours, but it feels like at least a week. If Lisa were here I would have her quote those lines from The Jerk. She always could.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

And so it begins!

Well, here I am in DC at the hotel and tomorrow starts the whole ball rolling. It's like this...

Finished the house and got to Denver and flew out to Vegas. I was lucky enough to have really good company on the day I left so it wasn't nearly as depressing (but still stressful from all the dealines) as I thought it would be.

Got to Vegas and spent a few days with Ryan and the family and they helped me to start and finish all my packing. I am 20 pounds underweight, and so is my luggage. HAHAHAHAHA! Oh stop, you know it's true. I have no idea where I went wrong, but I packed everything I thought I would need and still had room to spare. The final buying spree was way too expensive, but I will make up for it by living on a very meager income for the next 27 months.

Here are my packing tips for staying under the weight limit: Do not bring anything that you will run out of in a month or two. If you don't need it after that, then you don't need it now. Don't bring things that you will re-supply in country. Just buy them there to start with. Bring a bunch of camping junk so you will feel more prepared. There.

Boarded a plane today and here I am in DC. I have already seen the Washington Monument and the Pentagon...although only from the air and the back of a taxicab. My taxi driver had a LOT to say about US politics and how he thinks the Peace Corps does not pay enough to be worthwhile. He was in the army in Afghanistan. I guess their army pays pretty good, or at least good enough to make you want to come here and pursue a lucrative career driving a taxi. :P

Had dinner tonight with a fellow trainee and our pre-staging rep. This is going to be awesome. I can tell already!

Here is my story of woe, just so you won't think everything is roses: My lamp didn't work in my hotel room, so I swapped the lightbulbs with another lamp in the room. In doing so I broke the bulb in my hand and cut myself pretty good. I think I may die. Wouldn't you know it.

Here is my story of un-woe: My laptop hooks up to the LCD TV in the room so I can write this without looking at a tiny screen. Yea!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Time's Up

Well, today is the day I leave Colorado. This past month has been frustratingly complex, and frankly I am glad it's over. Everthing I own is packed into a storage unit with the exception of a few pounds (I packed my scale before I could check) of junk that I am taking with me. This isn't even the right junk, but it's my first attempt at what I think I need. I will make additional attempts in Vegas as I purchase the things that are more likely that I would need, then upon arrival in Togo I will immediately realize what was needed. This test seems quite unpassable, but I am choosing long-term items over short-term, and things that would be really tough to get there over things that should be available (like shoelaces). To be honest, 80 pounds of Mentos is sounding like the smartest idea, and would save me a lot of hassle.

I am beat. Every day for the last two weeks has been pack pack pack. I have not had time to make a list of things for Togo, review all the pre-departure material, or study my French. I feel like I will be playing catch-up for the first little while, or a great while. I did, however, see some friends and eat a burrito. My going away party was great fun. We shot some pool and hung out and generally had a good time.

Next post Las Vegas...or maybe DC...or maybe Togo if I am really lazy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Less Than A Month Remains...

A roommate I had once asked me this question: "Have you thought of possibly throwing something away at some point?" Was it a comment on the fact that I keep a lot of things? Was it a heartfelt question asked from a place of pure benevolence after seeing that my room was 80% boxes and 20% bed? Was he saying I was a slob? It had better not be the third one, because seriously, I'm in a fightin' mood and I still know where he lives. I have less than a month to get everything I own into a storage unit. This question was asked 20 years ago. Guess how much stuff I have now...

Sooooo...I'm just a little panicked this evening realizing that it is getting so close and I am completely not ready and there is so much to do and it's already the 6th of May and I have to be done by the 29th of May and I can't get an extension and the magnitude of this move is 3 degrees past impossible plus I have to get rid of so much and who is going to buy my cars and is now really the right time to be seeing so many friends and if not now when and of course obviously now because next month they would have to come all the way to Togo and most of them won't even come to the forest and I don't know what to bring because I am used to having everything right nearby and when I leave who is going to send me what I forgot and aren't I supposed to think up someplace clever to leave important things so someone as yet unnamed can get to them when I need them and how come Lizzy is already getting vaccinated when I have not even thought of getting that done and with Survivor ending will I find out who won and why is it that certain parts of my room will not look less cluttered no matter how many things I put in boxes and will my French really come back or will I be 'that volunteer' who needs 100 extra hours of tutoring to the point where they are ready to give up and I have bonded with no one because I am always trying to speak French because no one thought to teach the whole country of Togo English and when it comes time to take a vacation over there I will likely still not have thought of where I would want to go because I never go anyplace but I don't want to not go someplace I just forgot to decide where to go like that dream you have where you are always late for something and can't find the right door but it's not that I'm not trying it's more that I've simply worked too hard on the wrong thing instead of working equally mediocre on everything which is against my nature because I don't leave things unfinished but that's no excuse for not doing something at all so here I am back feeling like I did when I first got my packet and it said Danger Danger do these things right away or else and we really mean or else so take this seriously and I did them but before I did I had a mini meltdown...

Didn't a current PCV advise to not get so wrapped up in what to bring and instead see friends and have a burrito? Does anyone else find it odd that so many PCVs are reporting that their cat died? Other people, when life is calling, say take a message. It would seem that my answering machine was broken, so it's time to get back to packing.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

But Aren't You Afraid Of...

After speaking with a great number of people who have not been to Africa, but have been able to correctly identify it on a map, I have learned that Africa is exceptionally scary. No one said Togo itself was specifically scary, but that's because no one had ever heard of Togo until I told them it was my new home. I will address these fears because we have nothing to fear except things that are truly scary like Spider Bears and simultaneous Global Warming and Global Cooling thus confusing you on whether to buy more Winter clothes or just scrap your Winter wardrobe altogether.

What about the super-spicy food?
I do admit that I have never been known to have an iron stomach or the ability to handle Taco Bell Mild Sauce. I am not worried about this. I am eating more spicy foods in preparation and am 65% positive that no one has ever died of spicy food. I also once ate a piece of molded bread by mistake, and I think that says a lot about why you should look at your food before you eat it.

What about the rumors that drinking is more prevalent in their culture?
Once again this problem is solved before I get there. I saw an episode of Happy Days where Richie drank a bottle of Olive Oil. I think that says it all.

Running Water? Electricity?
It is true that parts of Togo do not have these things. Ever been camping? Me neither, but I have heard of camping and plan on asking about it at The Sports Authority before I go. My title is Information and Communications Technology Advisor. That has to indicate electricity at some point doesn't it?

What about jokes?
I am glad you asked. Here's one: What do you call a blind dinosaur? A DoYouThinkHeSaurus. HAHAHAHAHA!

Isn't that joke from Jurassic Park?
Next question.

What about giant spiders?
My assumption is that I will encounter wildlife and insect populations that I am unfamiliar with. Unless one of these is Spider Bears, or worse... Robot Spider Bears, I think I will live through it. But seriously, if there are Middle-Eastern Desert-Style giant know, the ones that are 8 inches across...yeah, that will take a little getting used to.

Won't it be a challenge to not speak the language?
Yes. Yes it will. I mean Oui. C'est vrai. I am hoping that learning French will be like falling off a bicycle. That's probably not the saying, and if it is, then it's a dumb saying. Not speaking the language well will give me an opportunity to listen more closely to what people say. I know, crazy, but I'm going to try it.

...and what about having your support system missing?
I have not personally confirmed this, but I think there are people over there. In the unlikely event that everyone in the whole country does not want to be my friend, then I will make shadow puppets who I am hoping will like me very much. Secondarily, the mail is slow, not missing. My old home is a letter away.

Isn't it dangerous to assume so much before you go?
Nope, it will make for hilarious reading a year from now when I find out how wrong I was. If I knew any less about what I would be doing day to day, then I would literally have a knowledge-sucking black hole in my head.

I am not a traveler by nature. I feel that you really can make a home anyplace and enjoy what is around you. Togo will be my home for 27 months or more. It will be different than I am used to, and in the end I will be, too. When people point out all the worries I could have, I think of this quote: "Fact. Bears eat beets. Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica." What does that have to do with it? Exactly.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Was It Tough To Get In?

The Peace Corps application process is rough. It's similar to fighting off a crocodile in a swimming pool filled with tapioca the dark.

So you go to an Information Session and hear how The Peace Corps is super hard and super awesome at the same time. Returned volunteers tell stories about what their time was like. The stories are amazing. You imagine yourself in these stories. The people in the room with you have one of two looks... They are excited and inspired, or they are completely glazed over. It doesn't take long to realize when Peace Corps service is not for you.

Next you go online and fill out an application. The application is very long, and covers everything you've done professionally, as a volunteer, in school, you name it. Filling out the application has the side-effect of pointing out that you may not be as qualified as you had hoped. Unlike most job applications this one comes with mandatory essays, so get your reasons for wanting to go and start writing.

Within a few weeks a Peace Corps representative contacts you for a face-to-face interview. This interview covers all the things on your application. The representative helps you to consider everything you've ever done as additional experience. This is probably the first time you start to see yourself actually making this journey successfully, and it's exciting! Which is a bummer, because getting excited at this point is a wee bit counter-productive, because...

...then comes the medical, the legal, and the waiting. SOOOO much waiting. To help you to get a feeling for the waiting period I will now paste the entire text of War and Peace backwards for you to read. Consider that wait month one and get ready for month two, three, four, etc. Oh drat, my copy and paster is broken. I knew once Google owned BlogSpot things wouldn't work right anymore...

So you've waited by your mailbox for month after month. You've been patient. You've lost patience. You feel like you are going to be someone's patient if it goes on much longer....then it arrives!!! A letter asking for more information. Rinse and repeat a few times.

Each year 12,000 or so people apply. 95% have college degrees (yours truly is not one of those...) Nearly everyone has lots of experience volunteering to go with their smarts. 4,000 or so people get in. Not everyone that ships out stays shipped out, but the ones that do end up with the best stories, the widest horizons and the experience of a lifetime. That's going to be me. You can hold me to that.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

So When Did This Happen?

To the people around me it came as a bit of a surprise that I had joined The Peace Corps. (I didn't tell almost anyone that I had applied.) It was more of a surprise that I was accepted, but most of them were nice enough to not mention that. I suppose people had gotten used to having the same old "Wanna know why a Brazil Nut is better than a Three-Toed Sloth" conversations with me and hadn't considered I may have had global volunteering aspirations simmering under the surface. Well, it went like this...

At the end of September 2009 I was looking hither and thither for jobs outside of the United States. I had never been outside the US and was ready for a break from the norm. I looked at government positions, private sector positions and non-profit as well. There was a Peace Corps Information Session at Colorado College and I figured that would be a fine place to spend the afternoon. Speaking to the returned Volunteers (RPCVs) I could see that "Life Was Calling" and maybe it was time to see how far it would take me. I started the application process soon after, and March arrived with a letter in my mailbox. The adventure had started.

More tomorrow...

Monday, April 19, 2010

It's Time To Go! To Togo.

I think you can't help it. When you are assigned to Togo you just have to make some lame comment with the words to go and Togo in it. It's genetic. Wait, did I really mean genetic? Probably not.

I applied so many months ago, and as any volunteer can tell you, the process was hilarious fun. Sarcasm? Yeah. Sooooo, last month I got my assignment and it's been a whirlwind since then.

More to come...of course. Quick shout out to all my new best friends leaving this Summer for Togo!!!