Sunday, December 5, 2010

Settling In

Hey all, so I’m back in Lome on a quest to create a website for my groupement and get my laptop fixed. Thus far, I have in a way failed to do both those things but hey, that is Togo. The website (google the words ‘GAP Union Fait la Force’ if you want to check it out) has been difficult to organize even with the ‘faster’ connection at the Peace Corps office. My laptop, which managed to break the first week I got here after I bought a new external hard drive and new battery, has now been cleaned up and scoured by the owner of a sketchy looking photocopy booth on the side of a dirt road here in the Kodjavakope quarter of the city. He basically took it all apart, removed all the dirt and hairs (remember when I had long hair?), and called his friend to find out that we wouldn’t be able to get ahold of the random part needed to fix the computer. Sigh… Now the thing works, thanks to his cleaning and tightening of bolts, but I have to be very, very gentle with it. That should get interesting when I climb in the back of a bush taxi to head back to Anfoin this afternoon.
Life is beginning to take on a little more normalcy for me in my village. I’m getting used to not having some of the pleasures of life in the states. No electricity means no lighting and no fridge, which means I either need to get creative at preserving food or lower my quality standards and risk contracting one of the many diseases mentioned in our Safety and Health In Togo book (can you see the acronym…). Friday night getting into the hotel in Lome, which costs only 5000 CFA or $10, I imagined when I stepped under the rusted showerhead to wash all the dirt and grime off that it was a tropical waterfall, kind of like when I try to imagine that I am being buffeted by waves off the shore of the Outer Banks when in reality I am getting bounced around by a bush taxi. However, doing without makes things better when I actually get ahold of them.

I’ve developed a routine for the mornings now. I get up at 5:30AM with the sunrise and take my daily constitutional in the latrine. I bought a toilet seat to set up on the concrete blocks to make the experience less painful, and I have a bag of wood ash from our fire to pour down the hole and cut down on the smell. Afterwards I make my way in my flipflops (we call them tapettes because of the tchwack noise they make when they hit your foot) back to my room while my homologue’s children sweep our dirt courtyard and stare at me like I’m from another planet. I then grab my pagne (the name of cloth here) and my bucket. From our deep well I pull up water filling the bucket and head for the shower. When I first got here I bleached the shower to try and kill the bacteria that grow on the floor, but there is still an interesting looking green algae that manages to survive my continuous antiseptic attacks. The first ladle of cold water wakes me up pretty well, and if the first one doesn’t do the job the second follows close on its heels like an electric shock. I scrub myself with a rough sponge to wipe off the grime from the day before and then hang the pagne on the line to dry. I found that I attract more bugs if I take a shower in the late evening.

I take off to go running after my shower because I’ve found that if I can heat up my body and sweat immediately after cleaning myself my dry skin problems go away! In fact, I haven’t had any problems with my dry skin since I’ve arrived in Togo because the heat kind of assures that I sweat continuously.

During my runs, which at the moment are enormously entertaining for all the people in my village because exercise by a white person is just hilarious, I try to run by the houses of members of our groupement and by the local lycee so I can say hello to the students. When I begin working in the schools, hopefully at the beginning of next semester, I’m going to start at the lycee because the students there have already mastered French. In the elementary schools the local language is a lot more effective. There is a dirt track next to the lycee and I do a few laps before turning around. Some days on my runs I’ll take off on random unexplored dirt roads and surprise people in small villages who have not yet found out that a Yovo (local name for a foreigner) has moved in nearby. I found this great hat to wear at the marche that somehow made it’s way there from the Hard Rock Café in Dubai. On the back it says ‘Love all, Serve all’ which I think is a pretty peaceful slogan.

I’m finally beginning to run again after recovering from my knee injury. The flat dirt paths that wind through the manioc and corn fields and mud hut villages in Maritime are great for this. I’m beginning to consider going to Ghana for the marathon next year if this keeps up. It’s fun to run when everyone say hello to you and there are chickens and goats always scurrying across the paths.

When I get home I usually wipe all the sweat off, hang more clothes on the line to dry (the heat of the sun really helps to get the odor out), and go on my bike into town to buy food for the day. I get bread from a lady behind the thatched wooden shelter where guys with motos hang out waiting to ride people to nearby villages. The word for bread in Mina is ‘kpono’ and I eat it pretty much every morning for breakfast along with citronella tea and hot chocolate. I also eat tons of fruit: papaya, oranges, pineapples, bananas, and the list goes on. However, the other day I bought a couple of apples and they were real expensive because no apples are grown locally. A lot of my fruit is going to eventually come from the trees near our house and from my garden, but that’s a while in coming. I also buy hot peppers, tomatoes, spices, and other things from the ‘marche mommas’ sitting under umbrellas with the vegetables in piles in front of them on little round wooden tables.

After I get done with that I bike back to the house for breakfast and I have time to work in the garden or do something else productive. My homologue, who is my connection to the community and who I live right next to, goes on weekdays to the mud walled school he helped to create over the course of the last 10 years in a nearby village. They are now in the process of finding funding to construct a real building for the school. I’ve been welcomed by the directors at every school I’ve gone to so far except his, where the director insists that I need official papers even to introduce myself to the students or sit in on classes. This is pretty frustrating because I’ve been there twice now and want to get to better understand how teachers teach in this country, but I will get these papers and everything will smooth over.

During the middle of the day, from about 11AM till 3PM, everyone lies on straw mats in the shade and tries not to move in order to escape the heat. Right now we are just beginning the dry season (la saison seche) which people also refer to as the dead season (la saison morte) because it is hard to do anything. Without rain and water cultivating crops is very difficult. For the garden we are going to do only 2 sunken beds for the dry season because to water them I will have to pull water up the same long well I get my shower water from. I’m beginning to get more used to the heat, but I still sometimes have trouble sleeping at night and am always, always drinking water.

We also have started a compost beside the garden, and whenever anyone will listen I explain the structure of compost and its benefits to soil and crops. People in my town spend a large portion of their income buying chemical fertilizer for their fields, and if I could help them find a way to not buy so much they would have more money to spend on things like sending their kids to school. When we finish the fence for the garden, I am planning to start growing basil and tomatoes in one bed (oh Italy) and peppers and onions in the second one. We’ll see how it goes since I have never had my own garden and have thus far little experience with agriculture in general (except for the end part, eating).

Other than that, I study the local language by candle light at night, sleep at night under my mosquito net on a hard cot called a ‘lit picot,’ and am trying to cook more things other than just spaghetti or rice and red sauce for every meal. I have been talking with one of our trainers from my formation in Gbatope about a big reforestation project for the region, and I am pretty excited about starting on that. Every day the women from the groupement pass by on their way to or from town, take whatever they are carrying down from their heads, and say ‘woezoo’ to me, which means welcome. Their smiling faces give me hope for my service and for the future.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gback in Gbatopé

So I made two presentations this week, one teaching people Italian and another detailing a huge reforestation project that one of our trainers wants to start in my region. I also took a French test and wrote a short speech in Mina that I will be giving at our swearing in ceremony in less than a week when I become a volunteer! My host parents have bought me a sweet outfit made from African cloth called pagne and I plan to sport it at the ceremony and during the dancing that will follow.

Things are awesome in Togo. I play all kinds of made up games with my awesome 2 year old host brother Godwin who takes a shower in a bucket. There isnt a lot of rain these days so I have been taking showers with about half the water I was at the beginning. It is super hot at night and I cant get to sleep cause I sweat so much under my mosquito net but I think I will begin sleeping on the floor with the spiders and cockroaches to at least cool off. We have no electricity in gbatope, so we are going to light some candles or lanterns tonight and sing songs or play musical chairs or something.

PLEASE send me mail! My address is on my blog. Even if it is just a postcard with 'Ben, I know you exist' I will super appreciate it and respond to you immediately. Please! Miss you all, hope all is well overseas.

Ciao a tutti! Sto per devenire volontario fra meno d'una settimana! Fa troppo caldo qui e é difficile per me a dormire la notte. Questa settimana ho fatto una presentazione sulla lingua italiana per i miei amici e insegnanti! Loro sono molto interessato ma io sto dimenticando la lingua. Per favore, mi scrivete qualche lettera. Il mio indirizzo é sul mio blog. Ciao!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Trainee

Bonjour tout le monde! I am entering the 8th week of training here in Togo and I'm beginning to feel a little more prepared for the next two years. Yesterday we learned how to make improved cook stoves out of clay, sand, and dried grass followed by a session on the ethnodiversity of Togo. There are over 50 main ethnic groups in this tiny country and hundreds of subethnicities. The main ethnic group at my post in Anfoin is Mina, and the language is very close to Ewe but just different enough to make things frustrating. Since I am leaving soon, I treated my host family in Gbatope to breakfast yesterday: french toast, which was still incredibly easy even though I cooked it over a wood fire in a mud hut. My little 2 year old host brother Godwin ate it up real fast and gave some to his friend, but when I tried to give some to his friend he got scared of me and ran away. Its so easy to scare kids here not trying because many of them have never seen a white person before.

I am looking forward to our swearing in ceremony and to becoming a real volunteer. I have so many plans for projects to help with or start at my post: permagarden and composting, a tree nursery to begin a regional reforestation project, doing agroforestry in the field that my groupment has recently acquired, helping to install a well in a nearby town where the water is 54 meters underground, and souping up my two small rooms with a lippico and a gas stove. Let's hope this all happens! I'm really looking forward to cooking for myself with vegetables I grow, but it's hard to do as one person with a wood stove. Tonight I am going to be spending some quality time with the other volunteers before preparing for a presentation on compost next week. Pretty much everything is in French now, and I feel like I've made some progress in these weeks on talking faster. My grammar could still use some polishing and my American/African accent is not too romantic, but I'm working on it. Write me! I miss you all a lot!

Amici, adesso ho passato otto settimane in Togo! Sto per finire la formazione fra 2 settimane e apre saro' volentario davvero! Maintenant mi sto divertendo molto con gli altri volentieri, e questa sera guarderemo un video insieme a Tsevie dove c'è l'electricità. Africa è tres differente, ma mi sto abituando un po. Tutte le macchine sono in mal condizione, e come in Italia la gente va spesso in moto (ma le moto sono anche in mal condizione). In Italia abbiamo l'olio d'olivo, ma ici usiamo piu spesso l'olio di palma e l'olio d'olivo è troppo costoso a comprare. Non ho ancora cucinato per se stesso ma quando comincio il mio servizio à Anfoin, la mia posta futura, spero di cucinare molto e di avere un giardino con le tomate e il basilico! Oh pesto, oh pizza, oh lasagna! Ricodatevi i giorni quando ho cucinato gli gnocchi per tutti voi! Non piu :( Ma ici il cibo è anche buono ma solo differente. Mon indirizzo è scritto sul mio blog: per favore mi scrivete delle lettere e io faro una risposta perchè vorrei continuare di praticare l'italiano. Mi manca la lingua di Dante! Alla prossima!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sunny Anfoin

I just spent a week visiting my future post in Anfoin and it is way awesome! I'm the only white person in a town of 10000 and that means a lot of attention. I visited a lot of schools and introduced myself to a lot of students, and I think I will be doing a lot in the two years to come. I live in a compound with my homologue, the guy who is helping me integrate into the community, and I will be working with a groupment of women and men most of whom don't speak French. This means I get to learn another language... YAY!!! There is already a really cool project there doing animal husbandry with agoutis, which are crazy looking bush rat things, and there are manioc and corn fields everywhere and coconut trees swaying overhead. Coconuts are awesome! I get up each morning to take a bucket shower with the rising sun, then I go run along a dirt path to run around a dirt track at the lycee. I get lots of looks and there are lots of bugs like BIG spiders and tons of flies but there is also papaya and I eat with my hand and ride around on the back of my homologue's moto out in the bush with the huge helmet the Peace Corps gave me strapped to my head. Three more weeks of training in Gbatope and then I start my service in Anfoin! Miss everybody in the states! Please send candy or pictures or cool articles from the Independant or the Smoky Mountain Times!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I have arrived!!!

Hey everyone, I am in Togo and the internet is not soo great but the country is awesome! I am completing training for natural resource management in Gbatopé north of Lomé with 14 other amazing volunteers. I take a shower with a bucket under a banana tree, live with a Togolese family who feed me pate and fou fou and papayas, and take language lessons in French and the local language Ewe. I miss my family and friends and the 4th grade class I will write letters to while I'm here, but I write you all by candlelight each night while the goats bleet and the roosters crow. Cheers from Togo!

Ciao a tutti! Sono arrivato in Togo e ho cominciato la formazione per il mio programma con il Corpo del Pace: Gestione delle Risorse Naturali. Faccio una doccia ogni mattina sotto un albero con le banane, mangio tantissimi cibi differenti come papaya pate e fou fou, e sto imparando la lingua locale Ewe al nord di Lome a Gbatope! Mi mancate tutti voi: coinquillini, studenti, americani; tutti! Spero che tutto va bene in bella Italia!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Things left behind

There are some things that you never can fully appreciate until they are gone.

Camping with my best friend in Great Smoky Mountain National Park last weekend, I began to realize what some of those things are. As we hiked through the woods at Deep Creek and took a long walk along Sukota ridge, I began to really see the flowers and trees that make up the beautiful forest in the Appalachian Mountains of our state. How beautiful the flowers are, how the light that filters through the forest trees makes a kaleidoscope of the ground so that strolling along the trail feels like I’m turning that kaleidoscope and its crystals are changing shape and size. During our time in the woods I began to really want to know the names of trees and flowers and learn more about them, something which I have never felt previously in all my time living in those mountains and hiking along those trails.

For the second time in my life, just like last year when I was in Italy, I won’t have the opportunity to see the leaves change color over the ridges and down in the valleys this fall. I won’t get to hike and see the reds and yellows and oranges float down in the air around me. I won’t feel the first cool drafts of fall after the hot summer, and I won’t get to go to the music festival near Asheville that I miss so much.

My best friend Alex next to our campfire.

Some things seem to last forever until they are over, but when they are over it seems like they flew past.

Things like my college career, the last week with my parents in our small but cozy house, my year in Italy, the hikes my friend and I took in the woods last weekend, my final travels through Europe to Paris and Amsterdam, a few glorious days on the Outer Banks soaking in the sunshine, a train ride along a river flanked by red tile roofed houses and dolomite cliff faces. I really felt like I had all the time in the world to do everything in college and put it off, I felt like I could travel everywhere I wanted to with a year in Italy no problem and put off going to Assisi, Sicily and Sardinia. I felt like I would have plenty of time in the last month and a half in NC to hang out with my parents and friends. But no, time slips away from me, and I feel now like I do after a long train ride: astonished to have arrived in this spot at this time.

The departure date on which I will take off for Togo from my home in the U.S. draws closer with the passing minutes, and while I know that I will be leaving many things behind over here I try to think of what I will gain when I get across the Atlantic. Instead of thinking of getting on the plane as a stopping point like I did when I left for Italy, I’m trying to think of it as a starting point, a beginning instead of an end.

I will miss people: I will miss my mom and dad so, so much. I will miss my best friends and all the friends who have moved on to careers or jobs or across the country or across the world. I will miss food: oreos, kung pow tofu my dad makes, tomatoes from my mom’s garden, pizza at IP3’s, peanut butter, bagels, granola, pancakes, apple cobbler, BLUEBERRIESSSS, pesto, and the list goes on. Perhaps a lot of this will be in Togo, but it will all be more difficult to make or take longer to find the ingredients and it won’t be the same as eating it with the people I love. I will miss air conditioning and electricity and the green futon that I bury myself in every night at my parent’s house.

But maybe I will find more people to share time with, laugh with, eat and drink with when I get over there, people from a different place who speak yet another language. Maybe I will find food that tastes awful at first but will learn to love by the end. Maybe I will learn to not only cope with the loss of immediate access to the internet or a light switch but learn to enjoy getting up with the sun and going to sleep when it sets. Maybe after a few months of sweating all over myself every night I’ll get used to sleeping with the heat.

Thing is, I don’t know, and I’m not gonna know till I get there.

I’ve got a great job description that goes along with my assignment as a Natural Resource Management volunteer, but apparently all that’s expected of me could change while I’m overseas. I feel like I’m passable at French, but there is no telling until I sit down to dinner with a Togolese family. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in an out of the classroom over my college career, but this is a bit further out of the classroom than I’ve been before.

The fact of the matter is, I’m going. I’ve made up my mind, and yes I can turn back but by jove I’m not going to. I’ve got this vision of my mind of doing research on water purification methods in the developing world in the future, and going to work in one seems like the best next step to take. Most of my friends have graduated now and are beginning to teach children or start jobs or other great things. This is where I’m going, and as far as I can tell it’s the right path for me.

Un po’ in italiano:
Ciao a tutti! Sto per partire per Africa: vado in Togo il 17 settembre. Sono un po’ triste xhe’ mi mancheranno molto i miei genitori e i miei amici negli Stati Uniti, ma vorrei fare bene per il mondo e questa opportunita’ in Africa e’ la prossima cosa da fare.
Sono appena tornado da casa mia nelle montagne di North Carolina e adesso sto festeggiando molto con i miei amici alla mia universita’! La mia vita e’ piu’ facile in questi giorni xche’ posso capire quando altre persone parlano e loro possono capire me, ma mi manca molto la lingua italiana. In Togo dovro imparare parlare francese con i togolesi e un altra lingua locale che non ho mai studiato. Francese, la lingua d’amore, e un po’ differente in Africa, ma dai provero di parlare in modo amoroso dopo il mio soggiorno in Africa.
Ho passato due settimane con i miei genitori nelle montagne di North Carolina, e mentre ho mangiato bene in Italia mangio meglio a casa mia che ho mai mangiato in Europa. Mia madre ha un bellissimo giardino con pomodori magnifici e dei pepi deliziosi (non ho mai imparato pronunciare delizioso). Ho fatto trekking molte volte con mio padre. A lui piace molto guardare gli uccelli e io sto imparando, ma bisogna molto pazienza per farlo.
Il weekend scorso ho fatto campeggio con il mio amico caro a questo posto nel ‘Great Smoky Mountains National Park’ (Il Parco Grande delle Montagne di Fumo???). Abbiamo provato di pescare ma abbiamo fallito! A un certo punto abbiamo visto i pesci nel stagno sotto un ponte. I pesci hanno nuotato vicino la verme alla fine della fila, hanno guardato la verme, e poi hanno girato in modo arrogante e non hanno mangiato la verme! Merda!!! Gli altri pescatori hanno preso moltissimi pesci, ma noi no. Dai, ogni notte abbiamo bevuto moltissima birra e abbiamo cantato alcune canzone americani.
Mi sono laureato adesso dalla Universita’ di North Carolina nel campo delle scienze ambientali. Oggi ho fatto un discorso con molti student del primo anno per dare consiglio di andarci a Bologna, e parto fra quasi una settimana. Ho molto paura e sono triste, ma sono felice di cominciare finalmente il mio soggiorno in Italia.
Per favore, leggete il mio blog! Mi mancate tutti voi, e spero che tutto va bene in Italia!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back in the U.S. of A.

So I have finally returned to my home state of North Carolina, and my experience of reverse culture shock has been just AWESOME! When I first landed at the airport and was riding in Martin's car back to Chapel Hill, I was absolutely astounded at the size of the vehicles. On the highway I would consistently spot giant Suburbans and even Hummers with the only occupant sitting in the driver's seat. The first time I stepped back into the grocery store I wondered where the pasta aisle had gone and why there were not enormous salamis and hams hanging everywhere in the butcher's corner. Finally, when I went to Elmo's diner last week my friends were wondering when we left the restaurant why I hadn't tipped (tipping is very uncommon in Italy except among tourists)! Where is my mind?

As far as my knee goes, I feel like I am well on the road to recovery. After getting back to Chapel Hill and meeting with my study abroad advisor, I went to my parents house in the mountains of Western Carolina for an appointment with the orthopedic, a meeting with a physical therapist, and a week in which I devoted myself to nothing but getting this knee better. Basically what I have is a bruise and some scar tissue right under my patella, and the therapist gave me some great exercises and advise. I went all the way trying to get it better and bought orthotics, started taking anti-inflamattories and fish oil (like my dad, so I guess I am getting old like him :) ), and began writing romantic sonnets and whispering secrets to my knee in this hope that this influx of positive energy will heal it completely.

The knee was a great excuse to rest and kick back to enjoy some of the amazing fruit and vegetables that are in season right now in Cullowhee, where my mom teaches nutrition at Western. There were homegrown tomatoes, homemade pesto, beets, and blueberries gathered from a farm right near our house where there is a bumper crop and plenty left over even for the bears! When I get settled in Togo I am going to start a garden to grow some fresh fruit so I don't have to bike a long ways to the market as often, but I doubt it will ever get near the beautiful garden my mom has going or the organic garden that our friend has by the stream down the road. Honestly, despite all of the dishes I tried travelling through Italy, Spain, Germany, and the rest of Europe, the food I eat at my house is still the best. Period.

Right now I have come back to Chapel Hill and am trying to get graduation worked out. Transferring courses from Bologna to UNC has become (of course) more difficult than I thought, but at least I have orthopedics to go on as I skip merrily from office to office to meet with advisers and professors. I really enjoyed meeting with my Italian adviser the other day because we had our whole meeting in Italian! Abbiamo fatto tutto il nostro incontro in italiano! Most nights I have been hanging out with friends that I haven't seen for a long time past and will not see for a long time hence. I am trying to connect with them but some have moved on to other states or countries and others are constantly 'impegnato.'

As far as preparing for the Corps (that's right, I'm usin' the slang word like a cool cat), I am planning on making several big purchases (an external hard drive, hiking back pack, new perscription glasses and perscription sunglasses) that are promising to further put to the test the decrepit state of my already withering bank accounts and a million smaller purchases, like massive amounts of ziplock bags or duct tape or spices, dishtowels, seeds. The list is growing, and there are probably more forms to get done for the Corps which I have forgotten in this jumbled mess.

My plan was first, take care of knee, second, get graduated, third, prepare to go to Togo. Plans are made to go astray, but I always feel better when there is a plan. Some of the other volunteers have started finding me on email and facebook, and it is nice to read that they are having many of the same problems I had (when I was in Italy) so that I don't feel like I'm charging into this solo.

Time is flying by, and the day I take off for Togo is getting closer and closer. My mind keeps repeating 'I am going to go to Togo' until I can't say it any longer (it is also a tongue twister). But thinking about it is far different from the real thing. For now, I look at what the next step is to get accomplished and try to head for that.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Coming Home

                I have to admit I’m looking forward to the challenge of cultural readjustment. After being in Italy for almost a year, I have found startling differences between this country and the US. It will be strange to come back to a place where there is not a train station right in the center of every town. Everyone talks English! What, you understand me the first time I say something, no way!?!  Not having gelato, bread, and groceries less than 2 minutes from my front door will also be hard to adjust to, since my happiness is correlated with the distance between me and food. Harder still will be readjusting to the distances between places and having to take a car or a bus to get just about everywhere.
                However there are also things that are, at the bottom, the same in the US and Italy. In Italy there are still giant supermarkets where you can buy products from around the world. There are still nice people and mean people, good professors and poor ones, slow food and fast food. Underneath the shiny cover of red tiled houses and narrow streets that has come to be known as Bologna there are a lot of similar economic and personal desires driving what goes on in people’s lives.
                I have just completed my last trip through Europe with my best friend Martin and am flying home to the States for the first time in a year. I remember the long flight over 12 months ago, the emotional stress and the final decision to jump on the plane, the tired arrival in Bologna and immediate onset of confusion and the struggle to do ten million things at the same time. Now, however, I feel amazingly at peace, like returning to the United States is going to bed after being awake for a long, long time. I know that I will be working a ton when I get back and have a long (very, very long) list of things I need to get done to finally graduate (about that…) and to prepare myself for the Peace Corps. But now I can think.
                The biggest thing I think about is my knee. Now I have had this knee problem for over 7 months and when I arrive in the US I am going to really have to get it taken care of. It will mean a lot of time, money, and patience, but I am only 22 for crying out loud and I refuse to believe my knee will be like this forever. Problem is, I am supposed to leave for Togo in the middle of September, and if my knee does not get it’s act together by then my departure will be delayed and worst case my service will be cancelled. I informed the Peace Corps about my knee problem a month ago because I would hate to fly to Africa and then find out that I can’t help because this one small part of my body is hurt. My body is a lot like trying to get anything done in Italy: one part breaks down and nothing moves forward. I have an appointment with an orthopedic on Aug. 4 that will decide my fate, and I am feeling pretty scared.
                Despite the physical pain in my knee and the emotional stress from leaving behind the only country in the world that talks Italian, my last tromp through Europe was amazing. My friend Martin and I spent 5 days in Paris, 1 in Belgium, and 5 in Amsterdam. Paris was full of beautiful views, enormous dinners, and endless hallways packed with art. In Belgium I managed to get my point across in French while tasting some traditional sausage. And in Amsterdam I rode around on the back of a bike while Martin pedaled (with great strength, I might add) and got a moving tour of the buildings lining the canals. All in all, it was fantastic and would take me at least a hundred years to fully describe, so let me just go ahead and give the highlights.
                Last thing first: Guiness. Last night we were in a hostel in Dublin on a lay over before heading back to the states, and while we were there we went to a 500 year old joint called ‘The Temple Bar’ to have the greatest, best, most astounding, most amazing, proud supporter of the Irish Rugby Team, basically liquid butter beer that I have ever, ever, ever tasted. The swill in the bottle does not even come close to the real Guiness. Martin and I sat down at the bar and the barrista brought over a pint for each of us. After the first sip, which went down like melted sugar mixed with butter and irish whisky and manna that falls from the sky and I don’t know what, I promptly decided to empty my wallet and fill my belly with deliciousness. I then realized that my wallet was already empty and soundly resolved to devote my life to the amassing of great amounts of money with which I will buy great amounts of Guiness. I sipped the beer slowly while me and Martin recounted our trip to each other and listened to the Irish with really red faces talk in an English accent that I did not understand. It thought that only happened with Italian! But oh my goodness that beer was… you really need to find out for yourself. I will have daydreams for the rest of my life about that beer.
                Other than that Dublin was pretty much a mixing pot for tourists and a wasteland for the locals. Amsterdam, however, was fantastically organized in every way, shape, and form. The apartment where we stayed with one of my Dutch friends was actually an old red shipping container stacked on the bottom of a stack of shipping containers set next to other piles of shipping containers, each outfitted with bathroom and kitchen. While these apartments were a tad small, the advantage was that all the students were set close together. This was nice when, for example, we threw an enormous barbecue party which brought people out of their respective shipping containers and into mad disco craziness

                That barbecue was epic in every sense of the world. I danced and talked and cooked and ate until the wee hours of the morning. To ward off the rain we slung enormous tarps over the green area between the shipping container buildings and when the rain poured down it added a nice rhythmic background to the music. One of the guys brought his dj set down from his shipping container and spun mad records with his friend. We all ate good Dutch sausage while the night wore on and we put up outdoor lights from another shipping container. There is a word in Dutch, ‘hezzeluh’ pronounced his- zeh-luh and untranslatable in english, that describes the cozy, comfortable, happy atmosphere of the party. Unforgettable.
                Then there was Paris, where I saw the Code of Hammaurabi in the Louvre, Sacre Couer from the Eiffel Tower, and an exhibit at Pompadou, the modern-art museum, on artwork made from the visualization of fantasy worlds. We walked around a lot and drank wine with our French hosts and spent at least half the time on the metro or in a supermarket. The last night we went with this amazing girl Nina and her friends and had a real French dinner over the course of 3 hours and I had: coffee, beer, escargot (snails with some kind of sauce), wine, various cheeses, tartar (raw meat with all kinds of sauces on salad), dessert, more wine and more coffee. Afterward we moved (I don’t know how) to a terrace overlooking the Eiffel tower and at the stroke of midnight all the lights on the tower sparkled like fireflies in the clear night sky. That night we talked until 4 in the morning (a pretty European thing to do) and finally collapsed into bed.
                It was an amazing trip, but  now I feel the need to return to my patria (something Dante was never able to do).I now have an idea of what I should be doing and when after this plane lands in known territory:
July 31 - Return to Chapel Hill, NC
Aug. 3 – Go to Cullowhee, NC for orthopedic appointment
Aug. 8 – Return to Chapel Hill
Aug. 11, 12, or 13 – Return to Cullowhee
Aug. 20-24 – Beach with Alex
Sep. 11 – In Chapel Hill for Carolina Navigators presenter training
Sep. 16 – Leave for pre-service orientation in D.C. (?)
Sep. 17 – Take the plane to Togo (?)
Send me a message at if you would like to meet up when I get back. I will be quite busy getting my courses straightened out to graduate and working to heal my knee but I hope to stay in contact with previous friends and professors. Now I have finished my vacation and I am ready to step out into the daylight.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Last Day in Europe

I'm at a hostel in Dublin right now with my best friend Martin and feeling very nostalgic about my time in Europe. This is my last day on this continent and tomorrow I am flying back across the Atantic to North Carolina. Martin and I have had an amazing trip, but all I can think about is how it feels like forever and no tome at all have passed at the same time. During the plane ride I will try to write and epic story about my last Eurotrip through Paris, Belgium, and Amsterdam, but I just really, really miss Italy right now.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I kneed this knee to heal!

I’m sitting in my Italian apartment two days before beginning my final European jaunt to Paris and Amsterdam with my best friend Martin. Outside the weather is boiling hot, but I know that it will be this hot all the time when I get to Togo. I probably won’t have electricity to run a fan, or a freezer to make ice to chill down the water in my hand. While my departure date is set for the middle of September, Togo still seems a long way off.
I’ve gotten a bunch of materials from the Peace Corps explaining the various crises that will befall me right after I start service. I am personally trying to look at them all as cheerful ways to build character J but this is difficult when I am going to have to reroute my entire life again. The manuals I have received clearly delineate many of the problems I am likely to have, such as difficulty to communicate, a high degree of alienation from Togolese society, living out in the bush with no electricity or running water, the weather and food and mosquitos, getting sick, having to bike a long way to get to town, spending long days working in harsh conditions, bearing the failure of many projects I have attempted to start, and the list goes on.
However, one thing I didn’t count on was that the problems would begin before I even left Italy. Since last December, I have had a problem with my knee after banging it against the angle of a seat while cooking. Despite many attempts large and small to heal it while I have been in Bologna the problem has not been resolved, and I have decided that it will be much easier to take care of once I am back in the States. I thought it would go away, but it hasn’t and I don’t want to go to Africa if I will simply be useless. I’ve tried resting, a lot, knee braces, seeing an orthopedic, a special laser surgery, stretches, special exercises, the list goes on, but still nothing. Soon after my triumphant return to my patria I will be having a meeting the orthopedic to determine my fate, but until then I can only wait.
I feel confident that I can get this knee better by the middle of September and head off for Africa. I am gradually getting used to the fact that unexpected events and problems constantly happen not only in science and in the Peace Corps but life in general. Just yesterday I went to the post office in Bologna’s city center to send a very heavy backpack of books to my home in NC and discovered that they had to be specially wrapped and addressed and weighed with labels in certain places and closed in a certain way so they could be reopened and on and on. Rather than being angry about this, I had been expecting it, and was immediately resolved to the fact that sending these books would be an all-day task. This kind of acceptance would never have happened before Italy! Maybe now I won’t be so surprised when I spend months creating a Natural Resource Management plan for farmers in the semi-arid Northern region of Togo and they simply ignore all my advice.
On a more lighter note, I am having a little going-away party tonight with some Italian friends in Piazza Santo Stefano. They will help me finish the beer remaining in my fridge (it usually sits there a long time because my roommates and I always drink only water for meals) and we will talk a little more in the language that I have tried for 11 months to adsorb.  I really think that it is too bad Italy did not have more colonies in Africa, South America, or the Orient back in the day so that my language skills would have some benefit outside this country. I heard recently that Eritrea was an Italian colony, but I doubt they speak the language there.
Heading off to Paris in a couple days, I will have the opportunity to practice some of my French. Or should I say, j’avrai l’opportunite’ de practicer mon francais! Or is that wrong… ANYWAY, Martin and I will be staying with some French people and hopefully strolling down the Champs Elysees while I say something close to grammatically correct to our hosts. I am excited!
There is a lot coming up in my life. Leaving Bologna is the next big event, and while I will be sad to leave the city many of my friends, foreign and Italian, have already taken off for the summer. My plan to take this final trip, graduate in August, and take off in September seemed spectacular, but as I know plans inevitably change or transform or metamophosize into something else completely. All this preparation for the Peace Corps, from big things like taking most of the semester to learn French to small things like setting myself up with a teacher and class to write to while I’m in Africa, seem to mean nothing if this knee does not get better. But I will thwart it out, for mine is a heart made of iron!
Can’t wait to return to the U.S. and see what reverse-culture shock is like. Should be interesting…

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Italy to Togo

While here in Italy, I have been accepted to the U.S. Peace Corps and will be leaving a short time after returning from Italy. I will be flying out of Bologna on July 19 to join my best friend Martin in Paris for one last trip around Europe. We will spend five days 'dans les rue de Paris', then head to Amsterdam to bike along canals under trees swaying in the breeze, and finally take a plane back across the Atlantic to the States, which at the moment feels like a foreign country to me. I will arrive on August 1 and be in NC for six weeks. In that time I will graduate from college, fill out all kinds of forms, get equipped in preparation for service, and say goodbye to friends and family before going to serve in Africa for 27 months. This is the biggest and most important decision I have made in my entire life, and while here in Italy I have thought considerably about why I want to go, what I want to accomplish with this experience, and where it might take me in the future.

I am 22 years old. I have up to this point been very, very fortunate in all the opportunities that life has given to me, starting from when I had food to eat as a baby to the chance to spend an amazing year in Italy. I have not gone a day without eating in my life and have always had medical care for me when I was sick or injured. In all this I am very, very lucky. I am going to Togo to help teach farmers and associations implement sustainable agriculture practices and help develop a natural resource management plan for my assigned community. In Togo, the people have been cutting down the forest so that they can cook food so that they can eat it. Here in Italy I easily turn on my stove with a lighter to make my moka in the morning. I want to take part in addressing these problems with deforestation so that the future generation of Togo will be better off. In short, I will be going to a very far away place to help with a cause I believe in, and I am ready to go.

Togo is located on the West coast of Africa. It is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east, and Burkina Faso to the north. The coastal region on the southern end of the country is quite humid, but the land gets drier as one goes north towards the Sahara Desert. The biggest city is called Lome', and that is where I will fly into in the middle of September for a three month pre-service training. From talking with previous volunteers, I know that Lome' is quite developed and almost cosmopolitan, but farther afield things start to change.

For most of my time in Togo, I will be living in a hut with no running water or electricity. I will have to learn a local language in addition to the French I am studying now in order to successfully communicate with the people in my village. I will have to get myself to the nearest large town to buy supplies, and I will have internet access less than once a week.

Italy is different, Togo is REALLY different. I may be the only white person in my village, and at the start my lack of abilities with the local language will make communication difficult. Things are going to proceed a lot slower than anything has in Italy or North Carolina, and many of the various agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, or environmental education projects I take part in will go at a snail's pace. Many will fail. Here in Italy, I feel like I stand out like a sore thumb when Italians ask me where I am from and why I came to their country. In Togo this gut feeling will be a hundred times worse.

But I know that all of these things take time. It is not possible to run into these country towns with a million suggestions and expect immediate change inside or out. I hope in the Peace Corps I will be able to develop the patience that it takes to work in a developing country so that when I pursue a career in water sanitation and purification in the future I will be able to successfully conduct research in the parts of the world where I feel it can help the most.

Ironically, food tends to occupy my thoughts these days. Nearing the end of my stay here in Italy, I realize how delicious the food has been not only here but also for all of my life growing up in the United States. When I take off for Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer on September 17 there will be a million other things on my mind, but for now, but right now visions of different plates and drinks I have tried in the last year are parading past my eyes.

I came to Italy over ten months ago, and since then I have made a tour not only of the country but of the cuisine. Lasagna, gnocchi, passatelli, pasta, wine, cheese, bread, coffee, it just does not stop. There seems to be such an endless supply of ingredients in the country that at times it can be hard to imagine that there are people that don't have a super market near them, that don't have an enormous supply of vegetables or a panetteria right outside the front door. Over my stove there is an army of spices like curry, oregano, and garlic that I use to make the food taste even more delicious

In Togo, the typical meal is called 'pate.' It is basically a corn paste, and often a hot spicy sauce is poured over it. Another common dish is rice and beans. Vegetables and fruits are seasonal and can be bought at local markets, but are likely more difficult to get than in Bologna. I am truly going to miss the wine and cheese I have had here in Bologna. It is hard to realize how much something means to you until it is gone.

The Peace Corps gives me a monthly stipend that will be enough to live safely and with proper sanitation in the town where I will be sent after the three-month pre-service training. It will give me a mountain bike so that I can get to and from the community where I will be, and there are going to be many other volunteers in the country for support. Peace Corps has been working with the Togolese people since the 1960's, so it really isn't as if I'm headed out into a wilderness with no path or guidance.

I've talked with previous volunteers and now have a wealth of information about what life might be like for me in Togo. Many of the inhabitants are poorer, and I will have to watch my back whenever I am traveling or working to not get my stuff stolen. Transportation across the country is often by bush taxi or bus, and while many of the main roads are navigable the smaller roads are riddled with potholes and insane during the rainy season. In my community I hope to live with a host family to help me learn the language and better adjust to the culture, and I am going to have a garden to begin growing plants and to help me connect with the people around me.

Last week I finished my last exam here in Bologna of my entire college career, (French) and I am hanging out for two weeks and thinking about my future before taking a final jaunt across Europe. While from the writing above it may seem like I have a wealth of knowledge about what I am getting myself into, I have not seen anything yet. It is one thing to write about it and quite another thing to do it. For my whole life I have been writing in application and scholarship essays about how I want to go to help developing countries using my education and experience in environmental science, and I believe going to Togo is the first step towards doing that.