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.