Thursday, June 20, 2013

Last Post in Togo: The Lists

For my last post in Togo, I figured why not end on a happy note as I’m sure my trip home will be a doozy. My site-mate Katy Todd and I worked on two lists before we left Dapaong: Things we’ll miss about Togo and things we’re looking forward to in the U.S. So if you notice that I smile over the little things, please don’t find me odd…just content to be home.

Things we’ll miss about Togo:

  • An excuse to repos/take a siesta
  • Drinking (tchakpa) in the morning
  • Kids excited to see you
  • The simple life
  • Muslim call to prayer
  • No one is afraid to break out in a dance no matter how bad he or she is and if you wiggle your butt a little it’s like you’re the coolest person in the room
  • Children yelling your local name from corn fields as you walk down streets
  • Motorcycle taxis
  • Relatively inexpensive means of transportation
  • Frequency of bars/buvettes (although I don’t think that’ll be a problem for me in NYC)
  • Togolese food—it really is quite good
  • Open air buses :)
  • Playing with stranger’s kids without asking—yep, it’s not creepy here

Things we’re looking forward to in the grand ‘ol USA:

  • Customer service
  • Using debit cards
  • Change of climate
  • Stores having change ($$)
  • Trying on clothes before buying them
  • Reliable menus
  • Varied meals—(If you make me pasta or rice within the first three weeks that I’m home, don’t be surprised if I sigh and/or shed a tear.)
  • Sleeping on a real bed and not a cot
  • Fixed prices
  • Having something to do other than eat and drink
  • Not sleeping under a mosquito net/applying insect repellant
  • Posted hours of operation
  • Monthly cell phone plans/no worry about buying phone credit
  • Reliable electricity
  • Reliable wifi
  • Anonymity/not having to say hi to everyone on the street
  • Cheese/milk/rice and almond milk

Well, there you have it. This soon-to-be Returned Peace Corps Volunteer is signing off of this African adventure and ready for the next adventure stateside.

Much love and perhaps I’ll see you soon,

Friday, April 19, 2013

Peace Corps Volunteers: We are ideal guinea pigs

Before Peace Corps, soon-to-be volunteers often purchase safari-like attire and equipment such as solar chargers, Swiss Army knives and heavy-duty travel packs for whatever adventure lay ahead. And no matter how well volunteers take care of that which they bring for the two-year service, some items last but many do not.

In West Africa, we become experts on items that persevere the African sun and unpredictable climates. For this post, I gathered incite from several Northern-Togo volunteers for their opinion on products: good vs. bad.

Additionally, I include some toiletries to both lists as we receive and test many products within two years.

So here goes:


Kelty 6000

Two Patagonia bags I brought to Togo--still in excellent condition.
Computers and electronics
Macs (others do not survive electrical outages and reboots)
Kindles are nice, but not the knock-off brands
iPods are great, though buy a protective case

Bras and underwear
American Apparel
Victoria Secret

Birkenstock (lives up to the hype)

Patagonia blue jeans
Skirts from Eastern Mountain Sports or Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI)
Colombia outerwear
Foot Locker T-shirts
Lightweight pants from Eastern Mountain Sports (easily washable and still no holes after almost two years!)

Foot Locker Women's t-shirts. 
ENVIROSAX foldable, reusable bags (one of the best items I brought to Togo)

Gaiam Yoga mats

Camelbak water pack

Female feminine products
Diva Cup (no wrapping, no fuss)
O.b. (I stocked up on whatever O.b. tampons I could find in department stores since they are no longer manufactured, but there are other products similar to O.b. that work just the same.)

Bathroom supplies
Soleil razors (razors are terrible here)
US toothbrushes
Coppertone Ultraguard sunscreen

American pens!!!


Fruit of the Loom underwear (cannot stand hand washing)
Cheap T-shirts from H&M

Computers and electronics
Touch-screen cameras
$200 notebook computers
Inexpensive solar chargers (spend money on better quality)
Apple earbuds do not last, on my third pair (but climate is a factor)
Batteries found in Africa are terrible, rechargeable batteries are great

My second pair of earbuds. Notice the electrical tape!
*Although I have been very lucky with my Chaco sandles, almost every volunteer who owns a pair in Togo has complained about the soles completely falling apart—this happened twice for a friend of mine. Perhaps they just can’t stand the heat. Sad.

Bathroom supplies
Vanicream Sunscreen
PACKTOWL PERSONAL (microfiber towels start to smell bad quickly no matter how many times they are washed)
Regular Band-Aids (they don’t stick in extreme humidity)

I hope readers find this post useful. This is merely a mini list to help future volunteers or even people who intend to backpack in Nevada or make a trip to Kenya. No doubt, more can be added to this list, so feel free to comment for interested readers.

Thank you.

Until next time… 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Are You Wearing?

Women and men spend years experimenting with many fashion styles (e.g. preppy, sporty, goth, emu, classy, classy-chic, hipster, etc) and many even spend years wishing they could erase certain trends from their memory. I, for instance, like to imagine I never wore bell-bottoms or neon colors. Neon with pale skin never seems to work for me.

In New York City, I found a style that suited me: classy-chic. I felt comfortable in the clothes I wore. I felt beautiful, sophisticated and confident. Then two years later, I moved to West Africa.

Pre-Peace Corps
Undoubtedly with Peace Corps set in stone, the classy-chic clothes I loved so much were metaphorically tossed out of the window. But really, even if they were dated upon my return, there’s no way I’d throw some clothes out. And no doubt my big sister, Kathrine, still profits from a few items. But what did it leave me? The clothes I bought for the Peace Corps remind me of young adults going to camp. Have I been in camp for almost two years?! No, but how there is no way to know for sure until the very moment comes when the plane has landed. Needless to say, pre-volunteers pack their African safari-like clothes in their suitcases and wear them throughout pre-service training until they arrive at post. And from that moment…there are no rules. And for many...western clothes are history.

Most volunteers wear what locals want/like us to wear: pagne. Pagne is fabric with innumerable patterns, bright colors and different qualities. Only the experienced know good versus bad quality pagne. After volunteers buy pagne, they then take it to a tailor or a seamstress for the next work of art.

There really are no rules. Former northern volunteers attend a farewell party for a COSing volunteer.
Me as a counselor for Camp Eco-Action 2012.
Me again in Datcha for Camp Eco-Action.
Along with bagels and cream cheese, fresh mozzarella pizza and pre-made smoothies, I miss clothing stores. You know, those remarkable stores you can enter, browse latest trends, try clothes on, buy, and're done. There are perhaps two stores in Dapaong that have ready-to-wear clothes, but no dressing rooms. Thus trying on clothes in a community where it is respectful for females to have their knees covered makes it difficult to de-dress and test clothes.

In regards to pagne, I’ve had several items made in Dapaong. Some designs are great accomplishments, but most are disasters. Togolese do know how to sew…they just don’t understand what we [Westerners] want.

One benefit to pagne is the pagne wrap. This pagne style is comfortable and people often wear it as a skirt, as a bathroom towel, and/or as a harness for babies. I love to use it as a bathroom towel and will continue once stateside. I am addicted. It is lighter than a towel, yet more fashionable. At least in West Africa, it is perfectly acceptable to answer the door wearing this pagne wrap—that is of course if the pagne has a hem. If not, shame on her.

Me wearing a pagne-wrap skirt at Club Espoir in Dapaong.
Although I look forward to having more 15 outfits from which to choose over the course of a year, I am quite concerned that I have lost my classy-chic style and it will take a bit of time to get it back again. Shamefully there are fabrics I never thought were beautiful at the beginning of my service, which now I find to be the most beautiful in all of Togo. Have I completely lost it?! Perhaps this is the re-culture shock people often warn me about. Oh my dear siblings and friends in NYC, be kind to me. It may take me a while to veer back into the fashionable lane.

Until next time…J

Monday, April 15, 2013

The US is Calling

The countdown to stateside has official begun. 

Dick Day, regional director of Peace Corps West Africa, approved my request to leave Togo June 25, 2013. 

In these last couple of months, I have and will continue to tie up loose ends (work-related), eat as much Togolese food as possible, and enjoy the company of my closest friends in Dapaong.

I intend to leave Dapaong on June 18. Administration requires three full days in Lomé to complete official paperwork, do a final physical examination, and return government property (i.e. bike, water filter, medical kit, etc).

Once I return to the U.S., I will spend roughly four days in New York City until I head to Florida for a family reunion (and a great welcome home!) around Independence Day. Then…it is NEW YORK CITY again, Baby!

Look forward to seeing friends and family soon!! It has been too long.

Lots of love!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Where There Is No Dog Food

I’ve been watching my site mate’s dog, Lux, off and on for a while now. Lux, meaning light in Latin, is well behaved and I thoroughly enjoy my status as the Aunt Spoiler. PCV Katy Todd intends to bring Lux stateside when she returns in June, but for the month of April, Katy will be in Italy visiting family and friends. This of course means Lux will be with me and I couldn’t be happier. It’ll be nice to have a little company mid hot season. At the same time, Lux is getting older and Katy and I are doing are best to stop Lux from getting pregnant before she leaves Togo so I’ll be on her like a mother on a teenage daughter.

For roughly a month, Lux will stay chez moi and I asked Katy to educate me on how to prepare her meals. And unfortunately in Togo, it means more than grabbing a bag of Kibbles 'n Bits and filling a bowl. There’s no dog food in Dapaong. It exists in Lomé, but the capital is also 12-13 hours away.

In Togo, most dogs eat pâte like Togolese because it’s inexpensive and it’s everywhere. Few Togolese take into account the nutrients needed to keep a healthy domestic animal, thus many throughout the country are very malnourished.  It’s often painful to see them searching for food in villages and even in cities.

Katy, on the other hand, did her research and found ingredients needed for Lux to be happy and healthy.

And this is how she does it:

Ademé, a common leafy green in Togo that’s often cooked with a sauce.

Katy saves and washes her eggshells for Lux, which are then crushed and added to boiling water.

A little oil added to boiling water and crushed eggshells.

Dried fish for protein that is also crushed.

Ground dried corn that is mixed with water to acquire pâte.

 Boom. Dog food.

And there you have it: dog food in Dapaong. This will be part of my daily routine for almost a month and it’ll be a nice change to cook for two—even if it’s not the same meal.

Until next time… J

PS – Did you know onions, like chocolate, are not good for dogs?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pure Water Sachets

In Togo, I’ve had to slightly suppress my pro-environment personality. You’d think it would be the opposite, being in Africa and all. But trash on the ground of every corner, deforestation near villages, and trash burning says otherwise.

There aren’t recycle bins in offices separating plastics from paper. There aren’t really trash bins at all throughout most villages and small towns. After almost 20 months, it’s no surprise to me when someone throws his trash on the ground wherever and whenever he pleases. And admittedly, I’ve done it too a bit—though I aim for the already-started trash piles.

For years I separated glass bottles, plastic and paper. I also composted and never burned my trash. So you can imagine how difficult it was for me to change such a lifestyle in Togo—a country where the concept of reusable bags has yet to reach the masses.

Even though respecting and protecting the environment is at the bottom of the must-do checklist, Togolese are learning. And PCVs educate them.

Since purified water is scarce, in addition to bleaching and filtering, people buy small bags filled with water (500ml) for 25CFA (approximately $0.05). Volunteers and locals call them "pure water sachets" and they are a bargain. Nevertheless when someone drinks a small bag of water, a question surfaces: What does one do with the leftover bag? The answer: Bags are often tossed on the ground with everything else, adding to pollution.

Thankfully, an organization called Zameke found a solution. They collect the pure water sachets, wash them, dry them, and reuse them. Following the well-known “REDUCE RECYCLE REUSE”, they’ve made wallets, purses, school bags, trashcans and pencil holders out of these bags. Phenomenal! This organization, however, exists in Lomé, 12 hours from the northern-most capital. Additionally, there’s no office or store that sells its merchandise in Dapaong.

Soon I hope that will change.

I just started to work with my site-mate’s work partner (who is an upholster) and we plan to make several wallets and bags for students in Dapaong. We’ve been practicing with pure water sachets I collected since I moved to post, which amounted to more than 250. But I knew it wasn’t enough to start. So I created a little competition with elementary students in my art class. Last week I told them a prize would be given to the top five students to bring me old pure water sachets from the streets of Dapaong. Today, they made my day. Several kids handed me large bags filled with pure water sachets!!! One student who forgot her bag of sachets even cried and begged for me to give her a chance to retrieve it from her house. It was priceless.

With a bit of luck and hard work, this project will go well and students will purchase these bags for about 200CFA (less than $0.41). The purpose of this project isn’t to increase income, but to reduce waste and make the streets of Dapaong a bit greener.

We’ll soon see. But for now, it’s time for me to start counting for I have prizes to pass out.

Until next time…

PS – I counted. 980 sachets. Today.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Inevitable Return Flight Back to Togo

At the Airport

I do my best to maintain airport etiquette but sometimes it’s hard to surpass ill-mannered, apathetic and tired staff. My conversation with a certain gentleman at the check-in counter quickly reminded of what little desire I have to ever work in an airport—such pleasant co-workers I would have indeed.

The security checkpoint at Orly Airport in Paris had no surprises. Still people forgot to pack their large containers of shampoo in their check-in bags along with their Swiss Army knives and disposable plastic “shoes” (or bags) are offered as a courtesy for passengers. I was, however, surprised by an officer’s suspicion of my Lowepro camera case—which is always a carry-on. For the number travelers and tourists who pass through the airport I was shocked by his question, “What is this?” I bit my lip to avoid answering with, “a bag,” and told him it was my camera case. Stupefied, he then requested I pull out both my cameras. With all that I stuffed in my backpack I was surprised he didn’t pull me into an interrogation room. But alas, a few moments of unpleasantries with staff members and several moments of peace with a book as I waited to board the plane.

In the Plane

What’s worse? Being in economy class where passengers are at the back of the plane with crying babies or being two rows behind first class where the benefits of a couple hundred extra dollars are just within reach? Tough call. Before both of our flights out of Paris, my sister and I spoke of our temptation to give into first class and bask in the glory of comfortable seats, and no children allowed. I don’t mind that first class (or business for the suits) exists but I don’t want to see it! I prefer ignorance. If I can’t see it, perhaps it’s yet another figment of my imagination.

But no. Instead, for my return flight to Togo, I saw everything from pre-departure juice (which could very well be freshly squeezed) to linen napkins to tickets to the premier of Iron Man 3—which premiers May 3rd but one never knows. Surely I exaggerated on the benefits of first class—they would never offer tickets to a premier—but it’s quite luxurious. I experienced first class once in my 26 years and it was blissful. A complete surprise. The story entails innumerable details for which I can sum up to Air India fucked up, and my sister and I benefited. Score.

But not this time. Royal Air Morac didn’t fuck up, and it was T-Rex style dining with babies unable to pop their ears and the predictable sick person next to me who frequently coughed in my direction. The poor woman coughed just enough for me to wish I was a paranoid hypochondriac with my own white travel mask.

Oh snap! Big events happened in the air. Passengers of flight AT 771 had the pleasure of enjoying Dora the Explorer in both first and economy class. If I was in first class I’d be LIVID. Where’s my Iron Man 3, damn it?! But since I wasn’t in first class, I just smiled and continued to listen to my iPod. Ha. Suckers.

Even though I love music, across the aisle, a man hadn’t quite finished one of the original Star Wars on his iPad. Nice! Clearly people haven’t yet forgotten great films. Times like those, I wish I had had the courage to ask if movie sharing was likely or socially unacceptable (aka get your own iPad). But even if courage wasn’t a variable in this equation, I still had knocking-on-death’s-door French woman attempting a nap and I’d surely go to Hell if she awoke because the young American just had to watch Star Wars. Return of the Jedi!! Fuck. Have strength McCullough!

And I did. Thank you, Katy Todd, for your iPod!

Overall the flight from Paris to Lomé was tolerable, nothing out of the ordinary. Except when I landed. My intention was to take the Post Office bus up to Dapaong the following morning but it, along with several other services, was full the entire weekend. Thus 72 hours after I left Paris…I arrived in Dapaong. Home at last.

Again, I am home at last, and no doubt ready to tackle these last six months of my Peace Corps service.

Until next time… J