Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bikes and Bibles

Sorry about the post confusion. Here's the proper blog from last week.

Our time in Togo has been filled with mundane activities; class, break, class, lunch, class, dinner, bed. We are in class from 7:30 am to 5:30pm, with a two and a half hour midday break to give us time to go home, eat with our family and get back to school. Classes include local language classes (French and Ewe), safety and security sessions, health sessions, Peace Corps policy and teacher training. Saturdays have morning sessions, but the afternoon is free.

Saturday morning was a good break from routine because one of our classes was our bike class! We talked about shifting gears a bit, donned our helmets and set out for a ride. None of us is Togolese, so we tend to get a lot of attention no matter what, but we got twice as much for being a thirteen helmet wearing bikers. (Note: Not wearing your helmet on your bike, or on a moto gets you sent home from Peace Corps)

I was pretty nervous about the ride, as the roads here basically make all biking the equivalent of off-roading. Despite almost wiping out on the first turn (a big soft sand bank was the turning surface), the rest of the ride went pretty well. That first turn didn't do anything for my confidence for the ride, but still I might give biking a try once I get to post as I'm slightly less intimidated by it now. After getting completely sweaty and covered in dirt from our ride to have lunch with our families.

We decided to make use of our free Saturday afternoon by studying French in a big group together.

Haha, get serious.

We went back to the pool. The sun was out in full force, in contrast to last week which was rather overcast. The afternoon was a lot of fun, and I managed not to get sunburned (haven't yet :). We also met some French volunteers/ interns at the pool which was interesting. Most are only here for three months which is kind of funny, since that's how long it take us to just finish training! They were headed back to the pool on Sunday and wanted us to join them, but family obligations kept us from doing so.

What are those Sunday host family obligations?


My family is a very religious Catholic family. They tried to get me to go to church with them last weekend as well, but I ditched out for the pool. I figured I could make it happen this week (with the caveat that this shouldn't be expected to become routine). While I did mind the 6am start time, I didn't really mind the church service. It was easy enough to follow the general flow of things, as Catholic services around the world have the same format. The downside was that it was all in Ewe. I was able to pick out “Mawu” (God) a few times, but that didn't really help me figure out what the heck was going on. Of course, here in Togo, they didn't stick to the typical hour long format either. The synthesizer and drums started up at every opportunity for another song. Collections were done by everyone dancing up the aisle to give in their money (twice). Fruit baskets were auctioned off as a fund raiser. Everyone shook hands for the “Peace be with you” bit. Really, not that different from church in the USA.

From start to finish, the service took about 2 1/2 hours. At least it wasn't too hot in the building, and the beautiful African print fabrics (“wax” style or more generally “pagne” as they're called here) gave me lots to look at. Afterward, we took a tour of the neighborhood to stop in at houses and say hello to various relatives. They were all a bit surprised to see a white person in tow, but they all were happy to suffer through my crappy Ewe introduction (which Rebecca and Joseph would repeat for them afterward).

An early start to the day, but it justifies a long afternoon nap.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Welcome to the Peace Corps; Here's your chamber pot

It seems fitting that our arrival to the Peace Corps was composed of lost bags, smothering heat and the purchase of chamber pots.

Yes, chamber pots. While our hotel in defcto training center in Lome had running water, showers, toilets, etc (even air conditioning in some rooms!) We were prepared by staff and current volunteers that most host families would have latrines, nd they would likely be locked at night. Thus, the chamber pots.

We have since left Lome and are now at our training sites, a cluster of 3 villages in the Maritime region.

Between Philadelphia roommates, two transcontinental flights, many beers, Lome roommates nd finally separation into our sectors (English- EGE, Health- CHAP and Envirnoment- EAFS) We've had a lot of time to get to know one another.
One of the ways we've gotten to know one another which will surprise no RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) and will likely gross out most other people, is by talking about bathroom habits.

Between travel, stress, new food, filtered and bleached water and latrines, bathroom topics have become the main subject of conversations.

Of course we run mild to gory; from how many days it's been since we've shaved our legs, to who hasn't been able to get up off the toilet. Rumor has it that a previous “stage” group had shirts made that read “Every fart is a gamble.” Chewable Pepto Bismol has become out after dinner mint of choice.

The upside to all of this of cours is that I'm far closer with people I've met only two weeks ago than I ever imagined I could be. It's comforting to know that there are 36 other people going through the same things and that we are here to support one another.
I won't pretend I'm roughing it quite yet though. Tomorrow we are headed to the pool at a hotel in town.

What's my toilet situation? Well, I don't have running water, but I do have my own bathroom, with a real toilet (bucket flush) and shower area. Basically 4 star accommodations as far as I'm concerned.

I hope to move onto more family friendly topics next time, but then again- it's the Peace Corps.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Safe in Togo

After 30 something hours of travel, we have finally arrived in Lomé. With only 5 hours until I need to be up again, I just wanted to let you know I'm safe and I'll update you further later.

It's hotter than heck and it's 1:30am.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ready. Set. (To)Go.

With less than 12 hours left before I have to leave the house, I still have odds and ends (ok, maybe a whole frying pan) sticking out of my suitcases, waiting to be tucked in and zippers closed.

In the 5 weeks I've been in the states, I've had an absolutely fantastic time. My goal was nothing more than to see great friends and family and to eat and drink well (which the 7lbs I gained can attest to!).

However in the 5 weeks that I've been back, I haven't really had time to slow down and take in the fact that I'm about to leave for Togo. I'm happy for my host family in Senegal, the crappy first year I had in France, going back to France and trying to all again (and succeeding!). I'm not totally prepared for what's about to come, but I'm not sure that anyone is.

There's been a lot of twists and turns, but I'm really happy about the path I took to get here. My original plan had been to join Peace Corps directly out of school. I wasn't ready for it then. I probably would have gotten through alright, but maybe not have taken advantage of all the opportunities, letting myself shy away and get closed in.

I don't have the same stomach turning fright that I had before I left for Senegal (a big thank you to Rebecca who talked me through all of it) but I can help but be a bit anxious.

With that, I need a good night's rest (ok, I still have stuff to cram into suitcases). Hopefully my next update will be from an airport or, even better, Togo!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guest Post! It's a family affair

We can't ignore the fact that my family already has a Peace Corps history. My parents are RPCVs and were in Tunisia from 1975-77. They took away a lot from their experience, but most of all- my sister! My sister was born at the end of their service, and all of us grew up hearing about their time in the Peace Corps.

I asked my mom to write a bit about here experience, but gave no further direction than that. So here's what she has to say:

Anna invited me to write her first guest posting as we let her loose on the world of Peace Corps Togo in less than 48 hours. I have been rather tearful this week thinking of her leaving for over two years with slim possibilities of seeing her during this time. Yet she has managed to live in far off corners of the world in Senegal and two parts of France, navigating the culture and the bureaucracy just fine. She is fluent in French and has a good head on her shoulders and I am sure she will not only do just fine, she will thrive and be an asset to whatever community and family she finds herself in. All the same, it is still hard to say goodbye to my youngest child.

But I did the same thing to my mother in June of l975 when Bill and I left for possibly the same staging hotel in Philadelphia in order to venture off as Peace Corps English teachers in Tunisia. I had trepidations and hesitations, but I always knew it was the right step for us to take. And it was as that step to join the Peace Corps led to all sorts of opportunities and experiences in our lives. But I also remember being dreadfully jet lagged, and tired of living out of a suitcase by the end of training.  We ended up in southern Tunisia teaching English at the high school and night school in Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia.  We called home after an appointment and hours of waiting at the post office only a few times-for Christmas and to tell the family that I was pregnant and when I had baby Kate (July 4 of course) We received sporadic letters and a few care packages and that was it.  I still feel a gap in family relationships in that I do not remember or know what other family members were really doing during those years. On the other hand I developed a closer relationship to a cousin who was living in Japan teaching English too. Even though communication will be difficult in Togo, I still look forward to knowing more of what is going on in Togo through emails, blog postings and maybe a cell phone Skype call every now and then. A lot depends on where Anna is stationed and that is still a mystery. I think it would help in packing, planning, settling in and adjusting to know where you will be beforehand, but not knowing still remains a hallmark of Peace Corps organization.

I told Anna to look for the line of weirdoes at the hotel and she would see her fellow PCVs. Really that wasn’t fair to the volunteers, but in our group there were a wide variety of people who had their quirks. However, many of these people who I thought I would never see nor hear from again when we left, have become lifelong friends. At our 25-year reunion in Washington, D.C., I was so impressed by the atmosphere of gentle, contented, competence and satisfaction that the group exhibited. These were people who had found peace in their life and souls and could live in peace with themselves. There was a real aura of specialness about these former volunteers in the way they greeted each other and shared the lives they now lived. I didn’t sense this during out training or the few times we were all together, but I have to credit the Peace Corps experience for helping we ordinary Americans with an abnormal wanderlust to become such peaceful souls with an appreciation of the vagaries and ironies of the world.

Do I have any advice for this new group of volunteers? After recently reading Cheryl Sandberg’s book Leaning In. I would suggest doing just that. Grab every opportunity you have, create new opportunities when one door shuts, remember that life becomes of value because of who you are, not just what you do, laugh often, embrace the absurd, endure the necessary and don’t forget to write your mother.

To Anna and this new Peace Corps Togo group, I salute you who are let loose on the world and wish you the best adventure and the deepest insights Your life will forever more be a global one if only in your mind and outlook and you too will someday see that the value of your Peace Corps experience wasn’t just what you did, but who you became.

Friday, June 7, 2013


I sent out an email containing some FAQs and basic information, but I'm sure I missed some people. Here it is again, slightly edited.

Q: What the best way to contact you?
A: Snail mail is best. It's the most fun to recieve and reasonably reliable. It's good to number your letters, so that way I know if one has gone missing. Post cards are good if they are in an envelope, otherwise they might become decoration on the Post Office wall ;) I'd love photos in the letters as well. Once I get a cell phone number there, I'll update you all.
Q: What is your address?
A: Anna Williams, PCV
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 3194
Lomé, Togo
West Africa
Q: Will you send a letter back?
A: Of COURSE! If you mail me a letter, I will always write you one back. It may take a bit of time to arrive, but I will be a great pen pal (to those who were France penpals, I promise to do better)

Q: Should I email you my snail mail address? 
A: Only if you want me to write you letters! (and you'll write them back ;)
Q: How much does it cost to mail a letter to Togo?
A: About a dollar. You can buy international  "forever" stamps at the post office, and that way you don't have to worry about the postage price changing.
Q: What if I want to send you a package?
A: You can use the address above. Getting packages can be a little difficult, but padded or tyvek envelopes are recommended by current volunteers. There are fewer taxes to be paid on them, and tend to have a better track record in arriving in the intended hands.
Q: Will you have internet?
A: Yes and no. During training I should have some access to internet through cyber cafes, but it is not guaranteed or very good (think dial up speeds). I might be able to get email access on my phone, depending on what is available there. Email communication will be possible, but not often. So get that pen out and send me some snail mail.
Q: What about skype?
A: Because of poor connectivity skype isn't really an option, at least until training has finished. That being said, once I have a cell phone skype out credit is a great way to make lower cost international phone calls.
General Peace Corps FAQs
Q: What are you doing exactly?
A: I'll be teaching English and runing girls' empowerment clubs.
Q: Why do they want to learn English?
A: From west to east we have; Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Togo and Benin are Francophone and Ghana and Nigeria are Anglophone. There are lots of people who come from Ghana and more who do trade from Ghana to Nigeria, so there are a lot more jobs available to those who speak English. In today's market, English is necessary to be competitive in any job- even at the local market!

Q: How long are you gone for?
A: A little longer than two years. I leave June 10th, 2013 and if everything goes correctly, I go from trainee to volunteer in August in 2013 and finish my service in August 2015.
Q: Soooooo, what is Togo like?
A: I'm not really sure- I don't know much more than the wikipedia article!
Q: What language do they speak?
A: They speak French there, which helps to unify the country as there are about 12 main different languages there. I'll learn a local language during training.

Q: Do you get paid?
A: Peace Corps is a volunteer organization. I am a volunteer though I receive a monthly living stipend to live at the same level as the locals, complete medical care and some readjustment money upon my return to the USA. 
Q: How can I contribute to what you are doing? 
A: Hold off on monetary donations for now, later there may be an opportunity to contribute once I have discovered what my community needs. 

Q: Are you excited?!!? Nervous? Scared? Happy?
A: Yes!
Q: Are you insane?!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Togo Geography

If you skimmed the Wiki articles, but all of those town names seem to have too many consonants and keep blurring in your head, this is for you. Let's do some basics.

Togo is in West Africa. 

It is sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. 

There are five departments (like counties). From north to south we have; Savanes, Kara, Centrale, Plateaux and Maritime.

The Route Nationale (RN) is the main road that runs north/south along the entire country. If you are on the route it's easy to travel, if not, well, your journey will take even longer. 

And obviously, there are many towns and villages all over the country.  

Togo is about the size of West Virginia, or 2.5 times the size of New Jersey. 

And here's the flag of Togo. I think it's pretty :) 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I hate packing.

You would think that after living on three continents, traveling to 10 countries and visiting 8 cities in 3 weeks I might be decent at packing by now, but nope, still a struggle.

With Peace Corps paying for two 50lbs bags to Togo I don't have the same incentive to cut things down to the bare minimum either. I think I fed my bags water after midnight because my stuff is taking over the guest room.

Why the heck am I even bringing? Well, way too many shoes (Tom's don't count as real shoes anyway, right?) lots of undies and bras, toiletries, an American flag, 3 books, water bottles, headlamp/flashlight, a solar charger and solar shower, kitchen knives, boxed latke mix, markers and colored pencils.

Though let's be serious, the way things are overflowing, it's doubtful it's all making it to Togo. 4 days left to see what makes the cut!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Running of the Bulls

Despite 3 months of not training, (I've gone on three runs since the Paris Half Marathon 1. Where I really hurt my knee 2. The Kalamazoo Half Marathon and 3. The Flashback 5k) Kate and I still tackled the hilly "Running of the Bulls 8K" in Durham today.

It was one of the worst races I've done. My calves were super tight the first two miles, and I was overheating the last three, but most of all my heart wasn't in it. I didn't have my head in the game and my results suffered.

That being said, it was a good reminder of why I need to keep active. The finish line is an active healthy life.

The Kate and I went to the farmers market and got donuts. Oops.