18 June 2008

take a chance on me, if you need me let me know/ if you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down


I’m really missing everybody tonight.

I finally took out the letters that my mom gave me when I left. I’ve been coming across them and putting them aside, consciously distracting myself from being homesick.

I’ve already done 6 chapters of French exercises since arriving in Agou.

Anyway, so tonight I took out the letters.

My baby sister, who is definitely not a baby anymore, but a bright and wonderful and loving young woman, wrote me a gorgeous little note that makes me feel so happy and loved. And there was a letter from my mom too that not only made me feel loved but also reminded me of why I’m here in Africa – the lofty and righteous hopes and goals.

A trainee from the health program left for home today. It came out of the blue for me, I had no idea he was having trouble, but I’m also not close to him. It’s not unexpected, numbers-wise. Last year’s stage had 3 people leave within the first 3 months of training. Another left just recently. I admire people who have the guts to say ‘I made a mistake, this isn’t for me’ and go home.

I’m determined to stick out the down days (and weeks), find a support structure and use it, and stay here for my two years and a bit. Today was a down day, but mostly I’m just sad because I haven’t had any contact from home in a while. I hope that I will be able to get some internet time soon. I need to be a bit more proactive about it.

I texted a few people tonight, but I haven’t received any replies which makes me wonder if the texts didn’t go through. This is probably more frustrating than simply not having a cell phone to begin with.

Okay – tomorrow I’ll focus on the positive.

x’s and o’s

ABBA – Take a Chance on Me
Book: The Bourne Ultimatum

16 June 2008

Il faut que quelqu’un m’aide, je n’ai qu’une seule vie


Because yesterday’s post was pretty gloomy, I’m going to focus on the amazing things here in this post.

I took some notes...

As I mentioned, my lovely sister did my laundry yesterday. After it had been out drying for several hours, she went to check on it and bring it inside. The clothes that were dry, she folded and put on her head. She created a beautiful little stack on her head as she flitted along the line. It’s the little things, you know?

While we were eating dinner last night, a mango fell from the tree that shades nearly the entire compound. The mango fell right onto the tin roof and bounced along until it fell to the ground. The noise was deafening and frightening – I thought someone was having a temper tantrum and slamming doors or something.

After dinner every night here, I have a lovely cup of hot cocoa. They’ve begun boiling the water with a frond of lemongrass – it sounds strange, but it creates a really lovely citron-choco taste. yum yum

When I went out to the buvette (a little bar called Le Prestige that plays american music and has a couple slot machines) tonight, my two little host children cried and cried that they weren’t allowed to come with me. I really need to take them on a walk sometime soon.

We had our first practical class on the bicycle today. It was really tough. I don’t think I’ve been on a bike since high school. We biked about 4 kilometres, practicing changing between gears. I’ve only ever had to change among 3 gears – these bikes have 3 gears plus in between gear things. It was tough, and I wanted to stop and take a break pretty often, (more than the 3 times the whole group took a break) but I didn’t. I kept going. I can do this :)

De Palmas – Une Seule Vie

13 June 2008


13 June

Today my evening shower was like a Discovery Channel special.
This may not be work safe – how does your boss feel about insect mating habits?

In Togo, where most places do not have running water, I have had to master the ‘bucket shower’. It’s not that hard – big bucket of water (usually cold), little tub with lid to hold soap and your eponge (sponge – it’s string knotted together in such a way that it’s nice and stretchy), and a cup or bowl with a handle. These are the tools of the trade.

Unfortunately as I am not with you, I cannot demonstrate the technique, as the very lovely volunteer, M, did for us at training. (The subsequent item on the agenda was ‘how to use your latrine’ during which the volunteer cheerily told us how fun it was to name your resident cockroaches.)

Back to tonight’s exciting special...

I was heading out, wrapped in a pagne, wearing nothing else but my trusty tapettes (flip-flops) when I noticed a flapping sound resonating in the air. I glanced up at the light and saw hundred of flying insects gathering around the light on the wall (yes, I have electricity – awesome!) My amazement was abruptly cut short when I suddenly had several insects flying toward me, seeking the bright light emanating from my forehead. Oh yes, my trusty headlamp led me into paths of yikes. I successfully refrained from shrieking while I quickly turned off the lamp and skittered away to check on the situation in the ‘shower room’ (which is simply a small cement-enclosed space with two stalls with no doors) Sure enough, my host sister had very kindly turned on the light in the shower and the shower was now serving as a gathering house for the insects.

I turned around and headed back to my room, having decided to check again in half an hour to see if the situation had improved or else forego a shower entirely. My sister saw me turning away and asked what was wrong. So I waddled about more nearly naked showing her the beaucoup beaucoup insects and she brought out a candle for me to use instead of the light, in the hope that the candle would be less attractive. As she was sweeping out the shower of the multitudes of bugs, I noticed that she was only sweeping up the wings – the insects had shed their wings in the midst of mating and were now only crawling along the ground, attached to one another in quintessential Discovery Channel copulation.

12 June 2008

huzzah for internets!!!!

nb: these are all backdated

12 June 2008

It is my second night with my host family in Abou. They are very nice and very surprised that I already speak pretty good French. Ma maman is very patient and creative with my vegetarian demands, although my friend said she heard her maman and my maman worrying about feeding a vegetarian enough good food. “What do I feed someone who doesn’t eat meat?”

There are two young children – Belle and Fiere* are 4 and 6 years old respectively. They were both shy yesterday although Belle was comfortable enough to hold my hand and sit on my lap for the ride home with all the luggage. Fiere spent about half an hour reading to me from his French alphabet book – whole sentences. This is particularly impressive because children here do not learn any French until they go to school. For the most part, they speak Ewe (pronounced ey-vey) at home.

This morning at class I was told that I will be learning Ewe instead of French as my French level is sufficiently proficient that French classes would probably bore me. I am a little worried about this as the other two people chosen for Ewe are both essentially native speakers: one is from Lebanon, and the other has French grandparents who insisted that he speak French with them. I am far behind them in speaking naturally. I still have to think to form phrases and I still make bad choices in conjugation and vocabulary. It just means I’ll have to work on my own to further improve my French.

In the meantime – I get to start Ewe!!! Awesome! I’m really excited about this, although it’s pretty intimidating. I think we are going to learn primarily by oral repetition and that doesn’t work nearly as well for me as visual learning. I’ve never before done a language that is entirely outside of my language base knowledge – Spanish, French and German are all somewhat related to English, therefore I could use my English to better understand the learning process. I am afraid this is going to be so different that I will get really frustrated and impatient with myself.

* not their real names, of course – as I don’t use them on this journal, merci.

11 June 2008

Out of the big city into the village

Heading off to Agou today to our training sites.

I'm really sad to be leaving behind so many lovely CHAP (Community Health and AIDS Prevention) volunteers. But the SED (Small Enterprise Development) kids are pretty awesome too, so I imagine I'll eke out a wee bit of happiness. Apparently there's a slot machine in the bar in our SED village. Rock.

10 June 2008

I've been waiting for this moment all my life, oh Lord

9 June 2008

I’m allergic to the insect repellent.

Yup, that’s right. Wherever I put on the repellent – which comes in this fabulous little stick that resembles a push-pop – I get red patches of skin. It’s not sore or even itchy, but it’s still worrying. A fellow volunteer experienced the same thing and was given an alternative. She was very gracious and let me try some to see if that would be better.

Nope, still red patches

I’ll have a chat with the medical officer tomorrow and try to sort it out. Hopefully they have a third alternative or she’ll be able to reassure me that it’s not a severe allergy and therefore I don’t have to worry.

Today we had a big long training chat on malaria during which I was bitten on the ankle twice. Inside! air-conditioned! during the day!

Our Medical Officer, P, is fabulous. She has so many anecdotes about serving Peace Corps volunteers all over the world – eastern europe, a couple tours in Africa, etc. Plus she’s charmingly self-deprecating: “Sometimes a fever can feel really good. Once I had a fever of 104 degrees. I was up all night being productive, writing notes, listening to music, having amazing breakthroughs in my work. I was completely off my rocker”

I’m impressed with how much she believes in the anti-malarial medication. After speaking with her, I was moved over to the once-weekly medicine Larium. (Apparently there’s a website called ‘The Larium Files’ where people have written up their ‘hallucinations’ and vivid dreams while taking Larium. I’m torn between wanting to read it and not wanting to give myself nightmares because I’ve read it. hah) It is easier to remember and she seemed to imply that it is more effective than the doxycycline, if only because doxy moves through the body in about 23 hours – so there’s no leniency if you forget one day to take it. If you get just a couple bites in those few hours in between, you could have malaria.

It was a long session and full of bits of information. I was not feeling very well. This may be an understatement. Last night we had a welcome party at a local bar. I have decided that drinking in a climate that already severely dehydrates me is an extremely bad idea. oops.
But, it was nice to have my inhibitions loosened a bit and I was able to chat a lot with current volunteers. And dance. a lot.
For those of you who have gone out dancing with me, you know how much I love it. There was a live band playing West African versions of American pop songs. (Phil Collins!!! hellzyeah!) Lots of bouncing and a few attempts at couple dances. There’s a married couple (there are actually two married couples in my stage) who met doing ballroom dance at their university. I danced a lovely little latin thing with the husband, L. It was so much fun and really restored my confidence in being able to follow a free-form ballroom dance style. Huzzah.

The bar closed at midnight – it felt like 3 am, but I guess that makes sense since we get up around 6am every day. We all paraded home in a slightly weaving group, attempting to avoid the huge puddles from the fantastic storm earlier in the day that had rocked the hotel with thunderclaps. I collapsed into my bed and dragged myself out just a few hours later to learn about the various symptoms of malaria. yuck yuck.

09 June 2008

je suis arrivee


8 June 2008

I’m here.

Here is a cute little hotel run by a sweet Asian lady in Lomé. I’m in a room with a double bed and a single bed, sharing with R. R is the person you picture when you think of a Peace Corps volunteer – blond and blue-eyed champion of the oppressed and the environment, a yoga devotee and has a great wardrobe of appropriate outdoor-wear. She’s a great roommate :)

I’ve got the double, which is nice, but not much bigger than the single when you take into account the huge lump of wood in the middle of the bed where the mattress is worn through enough that it might as well not be there. I successfully wrapped myself around the obstruction last night and had a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

I’ve started my anti-malarial drugs – they assigned me the daily dose of light antibiotics. It makes one really sensitive to the sun and apparently makes yeast infections common in women. But every drug has its side effects – the weekly one gives one nightmares and some people even experience hallucinations.

The weather currently is brilliant. There’s a slight haze over everything due to the humidity, but there is a lovely cool breeze and the heat is only sweat-inducing, not brain-frying.

A bunch of current volunteers – representatives from each region, some diversity committee members, etc – met us when we arrived at the hotel and we had a light meal. I was assured by M (a current health volunteer) that being vegetarian (well, pescetarian, anyway) is not a problem. She’s just really careful to get protein whenever it’s available in the form of eggs, soy, cheese.

I was surprised by the availability of cheese at our evening meal as my Tea-obsessed former flatmate explained that there won’t be much cow or cow-products available in West Africa due to the tse-tse fly. This is generally fine by me as I’m not a beef-eater and I do my best to avoid milk products, but I would have missed cheese for the protein as well as for the taste.

Today we are doing general orientation stuff, including an oral assessment of our French abilities. I’m worried about it. I’m sure everyone is. Even though I’ve got experience with French and I understand pretty much everything I hear and read, I am rather weak at expressing myself. Mostly this is due to fear of embarrassment by getting it wrong. And there’s not really a way of conquering this. All I can do is repeatedly tell myself to get over it.

Ooh... almost forgot! There’s a piano here at the hotel. So I sat down at it and fumbled a little until I noticed that there were books of sheet music on the piano. Score!!! A book full of Chopin’s waltzes! It was so amazing to be able to sit down and play pieces that have kept me going for years. The piano was ruined by the humidity – many of the keys simply didn’t work and those that did were only vaguely the correct note, but the melody was still there. My fingers are unpracticed and I’ve let my nails grow too long – but my hands still knew the sweeping phrases once I could give them the first few lines.

So I’m settling in and things have started off harmoniously.

06 June 2008

Leaving on a jet plane

I'm about to hand my baggage over and officially end my stay in Philadelphia.
I really need to get some food before heading over to the clinic to get all sorts of vaccinations, but I'm pretty slow this morning and I'm finding it hard to finish packing all the little tidbits.

Wow I'm going to Africa today.

Last night I went to an Irish pub with a fellow volunteer and I impressed the bartender with my exciting prospective adventure. Also the notre dame alma mater thing, of course.

Well, off to make my dream a reality.

Love to all.

04 June 2008

philly cheesesteak

No, i have not eaten one.

Nor do I plan to.

But I am in Philly. huzzah. This is a minor miracle due to my inability to leave on time for the airport when I'm flying away from California. Last summer I had to beg the flight attendants with tears streaming down my face to let me onto a flight to get back to Scotland, as I'd arrived only 45 minutes before departure and check-in closes an hour before (international flight)

Anyway, I arrived at the airport yesterday with my two huge bags - at least 35 pounds each, plus a carry-on that it about 30 pounds and a laptop bag. My dad dropped me at the curb, expecting that I would be able to hand over my big bags to the curbside check-in and then hoof it to security. But no. My airline has just begun charging $25 for a second piece of baggage. So I checked in the first bag outside so I wouldn't have to lug all of my bags inside. Then I had to stand around and finally wave someone over to get them to take my money and my bag.
And then there was security. bah.

By the time I made it to the gate, they had already called for final boarding. So I hugged my dad goodbye and ran inside, only succumbing to the burgeoning sobs once I'd hit the jetway.

The flight was uneventful but a bit bumpy. I finished reading my book (Lord of Chaos - yes this is probably the fourth time I've read it, okay I'm a geek) and left it on the plane. It's a paperback and I couldn't just leave it at home with only 100 pages to go!

Lots of frustration at the airport trying to figure out how to get to the hotel. I was told to wait for a shuttle and then told that there was no shuttle, so I dragged my bags around and around in circles a few times before deciding to just go for the darn taxi. It was such a relief to get into the taxi and let the driver take over that I hardly minded at all the sketchy seatbelts and smell of old socks.

The hotel is lovely and I have a really nice roommate - from the Bay Area (in California). We went out and grabbed some sandwiches for lunch with a couple other 'trainees'. I had this really yummy thing called a 'Godmother' - parmesan, eggplant, red peppers, bunch of other veggies. ooh yeah.

Finally I contacted my friend who is in med/phd school in Philadelphia and we went to a gorgeous little wine restaurant called vintage where we shared a satisfying bottle of red wine and a titillating slew of gossip and general catching up. Doc To-Be and I haven't seen each other in several years so we had lots of talking to do to set the world to right and advance our ambitions (in and out of our careers).

After we emptied the last drop Doc-To-Be introduced me to her apartment and her adorable cats and then the most fabulous thing of the evening: Workout.
A completely ridiculous and horrendously compelling show, I have to admit. I didn't make it back to the hotel until 1am.

I carefully crept in and got in my pajamas, setting my alarm for 6.45 am.

You may ask 'Why 6.45 when Peace Corps stuff doesn't start until 2?'

That's because my other Philly-based feminist physicist friend had invited me to a 9 am yoga class out in the suburbs. Awesome. I have never sweated so much in an hour. I felt completely drained by the end. It was so tough - I think that three 5-hour flights in a week really messes up my hips; I was ridiculously weak and couldn't hold Warrior 1 and 2 at all. That was frustrating, but I'm really glad I had the chance to wake up my hips before heading out for the 23 hour monstrous flight to Togo.

Science Grrl and I spent a lot of time setting the world right; exhorting the wonder and beauty of green things and young people and all who are straight but not narrow. It was a fantastic morning.

And how's my Peace Corps training going? Well, I'm tuckered out so I'll blog about that demain.

01 June 2008

the devil is in the details

On Tuesday I leave for Philadelphia. Wow.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been too busy packing and listing and saying goodbye to actually update this blog.

A lot has happened that I might eventually talk about, but for now, I’m going to post my packing list.

This is the result of months of wondering and planning – not knowing whether I would have electricity or running water. So many possibilities and so few answers at this stage in the game. I could be living with a family in a big city or in a small village primarily on my own. I could have electricity, hot water and frequent internet access or I could be relying entirely on my solar-powered battery charger, gathering my water from a well and a 10 mile cycle from an internet cafe. The uncertainty is pretty scary for someone like me who likes to be able to plan for everything.

So I may have overdone the solar power stuff. And you may notice REI is my new favorite shop.

This list is largely inspired by a compilation of recommendations from returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).

Where possible, I’ve included links to product examples for your illustrative enjoyment :)

Note for soon-to-be volunteers: This is an extremely comprehensive list and should really only be used as a guideline.

Clothing Hint: think durable, but also you will want to look nice. Because you are a foreigner, you can get away with a lot, but when you look around at your coworkers, usually you will see that they dress really well.
1. Shoes/Hiking boots
Trail running
• Green sneakers
Chaco sandals - my favorite shoes already, I've been wearing them every day
Teva sandals
• Dress shoes – low heel with ankle strap
2. Pants - women do not normally wear pants in Togo, so kept to a minimum
• Khakis bought from Target
• Yoga pants
• Pajama pants
• Thai farmers trousers
3. Underwear
• about 18 pairs
• plus 3 pairs of boxers
4. Socks
• about 14 pairs
• including 3 pair of special ‘wicking’ sports socks
5. Hats
Tilley Hat
• Soft trail hat
• Notre Dame cap
6. Skirts - "Long" skirts should fall below the knee
Global Traveler
Blue/green elastic
• Elephant wrap
• Black office skirt
7. Dress
• Brown checked dress
8. Tops
• 2 t-shirts: blue car one, Topanga Days shirt
• Dry-fit long-sleeved shirt
• 2 x White long-sleeved shirt
• Blue short sleeve shirt
• 2 x Blue 3⁄4 sleeve
• 4 x Spaghetti strap tanks
9. Several good sturdy bras (that might be the toughest thing to find there)
• 3 Vickies’ bras
• 3 sports bras
10. Other
• 2 x sunglasses
• 2 x glasses
• 2 x black belts
• Nightgown
• 2 x scarves
• Rain jacket
• Bathing suit

Electronic stuff
1. Flashlights
• Head torch
Crankable torch
• Compass with flashlight
• Crank radio with shortwave bands and emergency light
• Travel book light
2. Computer
• Portable battery-powered speaker - really good quality sound and totally tiny. awesome.
Car power adapter - this is to hook up laptop to solar charger
• Laptop
• iPod shuffle and powercord
3. Power sources
AA and AAA battery charger
Solar panel
• 16 rechargeable AAs
• 8 rechargeable AAAs
4. Other
• Card reader and cord
• Camera
• 2 x headphones
• Attack alarm
• Phone cord for modem
• Camera to USB cord
• USB flash drive
• Camera tripod

1. Journal
2. Reading book for plane – Bourne Ultimatum
3. Reference books
• Light on Yoga
• French/English dictionary
• 501 French Verbs
• Lonely Planet West Africa
4. Photo album to share with Togolese
5. Packet of letters from friends and family
6. 2 x California photo book to give as gifts

Bathroom stuff
1. Cleaning products
• 2 solid shampoos from Lush - 10 oz vs. 2 lbs of bottled shampoo. like, duh!
• 1 solid conditioner from Lush
• Solid henna bar for fun :)
• 3 x toothpastes
• 4 x toothbrushes
• Fluoride rinse
• Floss
• Face wash
2. Skin stuff
• Cocoa butter
• Skin so soft Lotion
• Small lotion for carry-on
• 3 bottles of sunscreen
• Antiperspirants
3. Feminine hygiene
• bunch of tampons in all sizes
• Divawash soap
• Razor and blades
• Leg wax and muslin strips
4. Other
• Vitamins – B, echinacea, charcoal
• Ankle support
• Antibacterial ointment, Ibuprofen gel
Repel bug lotion (without DEET!)
• Jungle juice bug lotion
• First Aid kit
• Tweezers, nail clipper
• Some makeup

1. Spices – black pepper, basil leaves, Taco seasoning mix, thyme, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon
2. Garden
• Biosnacky sprouting seeds
• various seeds for growing
• Mini-greenhouse
3. Equipment
• Campware Mess Kit – frying pan and pot
• 3 knives
• Kitchen scissors
• Sporks – serving and normal
4. Other
• Nalgene bottle filled with Greens 2 Go packets
• Parmesan cheese
• Drink mixes – lemonade, peach tea, raspberry tea
• Two packets of brownie mix

1. Utilities
• Solar shower
• Mesh bag
Camelbak backpack
• Camelbak cleaning kit, with lots of cleaning tabs
• Rucksack
• Work gloves
• Pocketknife
• Hair claws for keeping mosquito net closed
Sleep sheet
• Padlock
• Money pouch
2. Diversions
• yoga mat
• playing cards
• stamps
• star stickers
• boxes of crayons for gifts
• Poster tack n’ stick