Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Yin and Yang of Lome

PCV Lounge in Lome
I think being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa helps me understand the concept of yin and yang; that almost everything you experience comes with the good and the bad.  Every day in Togo, and as Peace Corps Volunteer there are highs and lows.  It seems every day I have moments of bliss, and moments of despair.  Every trip I take in a bush taxi or moto has humor and horror, and when I go to Lome I experience energy and exhaustion, light and darkness.  Yin (the good) and yang (the bad).

I recently returned from two days and one night in Lome.  I will be going to Lome at least once a month.  My monthly stipend is deposited into a bank in Lome, so I have a reason to go there at least once a month.

Peace Corps Headquarters - Lome
Yin of Lome:  I look forward to going to Lome because I get to visit the Peace Corps Headquarters, where I meet and socialize with other PCV’s who have come to Lome for a variety of reasons.   There is a lounge at the PC Headquarters where Peace Corps Volunteers gather.  The lounge includes a library where PCV’s exchange books.  The lounge is air-conditioned…woohoooooo!  There are comfortable couches and chairs, and a wireless connection for computers with a much better speed than anywhere else in Togo.  It’s the only place I can open photos that have been emailed to me, or even look at photos on Facebook.  The lounge also has two desktop computers and a printer.  I’ve been there several times now, and I always meet at least one or two PCV’s I haven’t met before.  There is an instant rapport between PCV’s, and usually you end up going to lunch or shopping or sharing a bush taxi home with one of them, and then you have another new friend.  It’s always interesting to hear the stories about their particular experience; why they joined, where their village is, how their French and local language is going, how long they’ve been here, and what they plan on doing when their service is over.

Yang of Lome: I don’t like Lome because it is a dirty, huge, chaotic city, with too many people and lots of ugly crime, like child prostitution and hard drugs, and it’s filled with unsavory characters.  It’s also a couple hours of bush taxi rides to get there and back.

Yin of Rachel:  My ride to Lome in the bush taxi was unrepentantly easy on this weekend.  I got to sit in the front seat, and for the first time, the bush taxi was not packed full.  I also met a lovely woman, Racheal, who lives in Tchekpo.  She spoke good English.  She was accompanying her father and mother to the hospital in Lome.  Her father used a cane, and looked as though he might have suffered a stroke at some time.  When I inquired about him, Rachel said he was having trouble with his eyes.  When she talked about him, there was worry in her voice.  Racheal and I had an hour and half to get to know each other.  She is a nurse.  It was not hard to tell that she is a very good, compassionate nurse.  My daughter Andrea is a very good, compassionate nurse.  It’s easy to spot the good ones.  They speak about their work with passion and compassion.  Racheal and Andrea are the kind of nurse you would want taking care of you if you were sick.  By the time we reached Lome Racheal and I were fast friends.  I told Racheal about Andrea and Andrea’s work as a hospice nurse.  Racheal told me she had been working a long time for very little money, then one day her Director came to her and told her that he thought she did a very good job.  He offered her a big raise and permanent employment.  She was amazed at her good fortune about this.

I in turn explained to her about the Peace Corps and about what I was doing in Tchekpo.  Because she spoke good English and seemed so compassionate and interested, I asked her if she could help me with something.  I wrote in an earlier blog about my translator, Moses.  Moses is a good boy, and he will continue to assist me when he can, but he’s not available enough, especially now that school has started.  What I really need is an adult who wants to get involved in the community, and who also speaks English.  All Togolese think  #1 all Americans have a lot of money, and #2 that you might somehow be able to help them get to America.  Initially that is the reason 98% of them want to assist you with anything they can.  I explained to Racheal for me to be useful to the community, I must find a “partner” who speaks English and French, and can translate Ewe (the local language.)  I explained that I did not have a lot of money, and I couldn’t help anyone get to America.  A partner would need to want to partner with me for one reason and one reason only, and that would be to help the community.  I could see that Racheal completely understood, we exchanged telephone numbers and she promised to find someone to help.  The ironic part of this story was that when I shared this information with Moses, Moses told me that Rachel was his senior sister.  I had not given Rachel the name of the boy who was helping me.  Small World.  I felt even better that Moses sister was also going to help, and Moses liked the idea too.

Yin of Ashley and Cat:  When I arrived in Lome, I went directly to the Peace Corps Headquarters.  I had arranged to meet Ashley and Cat there.  I hadn’t seen Ashley since our swearing in, though we had texted each other a couple times a week.  Cat has been here about nine months, and she is a spirited, lively young woman.  I met her at the swearing in party.  Ashley and Cat live in a different region than I do, but they have been brainstorming some women’s programs they want to start, and they want me to partner with them.  I like both of them a lot and am excited and pleased they want to work with me even though I’m in a different region of the country.  I spent most of Friday in the PC lounge with Ashley and Cat, visiting and laughing and catching up on everything.  They had been in Lome since Thursday, and were going home on that Friday afternoon, so I only had that day with them, but we packed a lot in; a little shopping in the marche, lunch, internet and visiting with other PCV’s who came in and out of the lounge…OH, also we had all received care packages, so we were sharing luxurious items such as bite size snickers, and M&M’s!  It was my intention to just spend Friday in Lome and go home late afternoon the same day, but because I spent so much time visiting with Ashley and Cat, I still had a lot to do.  I decided to spend the night in Lome.  I stayed in the same hotel that Ashley and Cat had stayed in the night before, and the same hotel that I stayed in during the swearing in ceremony.   The Gallion Hotel is within walking distance of the Peace Corps Headquarters.

Friday night jazz at the Gallion
Yin of the Gallion:  The Gallion is a typical third world hotel for travelers who are on a budget.  The rooms are similar to a really bad hotel in the States, maybe worse, but the food and service is good, and it’s fairly clean.   Fairly clean might be a relative statement.  Ashely woke up with a nasty spider bite after her stay there, and several of the PCV’s woke up with welts (from bed bugs) during swearing in.   The great thing about this hotel is that it has free wireless availability.  My room was on the second floor.  I shared a balcony with other rooms, however I was the only person who used the balcony that night.  The balcony overlooked the courtyard and this was a Friday night.  I had no idea that Friday night is jazz night at this hotel.  They had a fabulous four-piece band playin exceptionally good music all night.  So…Friday night I sat on my balcony, overlooking the courtyard, eating snickers, and listening to great live music.  Pay Dirt!!!  The real topper was that I was able to video Skype with Andrea, Emily and Kittie on Friday night and then Eric, E.J. and Dorothy on Saturday morning.  Again…Pay Dirt!!  I got to chat on Facebook with my goddaughter Jessica, and my friend Pam.  I had just received a care package from Pam and her husband Richard that very day, so it was really fun to be able to chat with her.  It was a great night, and I thought life was especially good!  That was the Yin.
My room at the Gallion.

Yang of Gallion:  I finally ended my Skype marathon at about 2am and I went to sleep curled up in a little ball in the middle of the bed, hoping that I would not wake up with a spider bite or welts from bed bugs.  At the time it seemed like a reasonable tactic.  It worked!  No bed bug bites, and no spider bites.   So maybe that was a yin/yang.

Yin of the morning:  The next morning I went down to the courtyard, set my computer up again, had the most delicious espresso, and egg omelet while leisurely working on my blog and waiting for the time that had been pre-set to video Skype with Eric, E.J. and Dorothy.  It made me so happy to see Eric and E.J. and my beautiful granddaughter Dorothy.  I had not laid eyes on any of them for almost four months.  We had a great visit, and it was almost, almost like being in the same room with them, though I longed to hug Dorothy.

Yang of the morning: OK…I might have taken notice at this point that Yin and Yang were seriously out of balance.  The Yin was greatly overshadowing the Yang.  I didn’t notice until I saw the ominous clouds forming (symbolically and in reality) just as I was getting ready to leave Lome.

Yin of the trip home:  After my too wonderful for words video Skype conversation with Eric, E.J. and Dorothy, I walked back to the Peace Corps Headquarters to spend a few hours.  I had met Becca, a PCV the day before.  She had to travel through Tesvie to get back home.  We decided to share a cab to the Bush Taxi stand and then share a bush taxi to Tesvie.  It would save money, and we could get to know each other.  She had been in and out of the PC lounge on Saturday, but we hadn’t had time to talk.  She had told me her village is in the Kara region, which is where my friend Dillon lives.  Becca has been a PCV for about a year, and she had met Dillon and loved him like we all do.  Becca was great.  We had fun traveling to Tesvie together - much better than going it alone.  Because I had received a couple care packages from home and went grocery shopping at the Yo-vo store while in Lome, I had a lot to carry back.  Becca helped me…as far as Tesvie anyway.  On the trip home I told Becca I was really feeling my age.  I’d only had a few hours sleep for the previous two nights, and I had all this stuff to carry, including my backpack with my heavy computer.  The trip from Lome to Tchekpo is arduous all by itself, without these added elements.   When we got to Tesvie, Becca and I parted.  I promised to come up to the Kara region soon to see her and Dillon, and to see the most northern part of Togo they both talk so fondly about.   We both got in different bush taxis at that point, and both had another hour or so to go.

Big yang of the trip home: The clouds were now impossible to ignore; it looked like rain.  When it rains here, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.  The bush taxi I was in was bursting at the seams with people, cargo, babies and animals.  It was humid.  The taxi stunk.  It got very dark outside, and it started to rain about half way to Tchekpo.

Big, big, yang of the trip home:  I wondered and worried about how I was going to get to my home from the main road in Tchekpo and hoped the rain would be manageable for just another half hour.    It started pouring buckets, monsoon like rain as we drove into Tcheckpo.  The bush taxi stopped at the entrance to my little road and let me out. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I was carryin over fifty pounds.

The Big Yang: As I stepped out of the bush taxi into the pouring rain, some neighbors who live on the main road waved me over.  They wanted me to take shelter on their covered porch until the rain stopped.  At that point I didn’t care how treacherous or hard it was going to be, I just wanted to get home, so I hoped they saw me wave through the downpour and I went on my way.   I don’t think I can accurately describe my walk home that day, but I’ll try.

One of the many garbage piles
along the road
I started to walk the road to my house.  It goes slightly uphill all the way, and it is a red, clay dirt rutted road.  On either side of the road there are piles of trash, some piles have been burned, and many times it’s just piles of trash, garbage, lots of discarded black plastic bags.  On a normal day I regularly see remnants of shoes/flip flops, pieces of torn clothing, cans, corncobs etc.  The chickens, goats and baby chicks feed off of this garbage daily.  The rain was so hard, that the middle of the road, which has many gullies, was flooded and the water was flowing very, very fast.  I was never in danger of being swept away as you are in a flash flood.  I don’t know why, but I knew that drowning was not going to be my demise.  I had about a half mile to trudge, and trudge I did.  There was no one else on the road because of course they knew better.  They also knew that the rain would soon stop and that the roads would dry up as quickly as they had flooded.  I, however, thought I needed to get home now…while I still could, lest I be stranded in some villagers hut for the rest of the night.  I thought it might rain forever.

So with my heavy backpack filled with my heavy computer and electronics, and my arms full of cumbersome sacks, I pushed through the fast flowing current and swirling, rapid, dark red water.  I could see shoes and clothing and unidentifiable items swirling on top of the water.  I cringed at the thought of what I was walking through, which was water filled with garbage and trash mixed with human and animal waste.  I could only concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, not the diseases I was surely exposing myself too.  When my feet sunk through the squishy consistence, I wondered if it was mud, or something else!   I happened to have on my favorite pair of Banana Republic short khakis.  I could see that the red clay was splattering all over them.   I had experience with wet red clay on my clothes before.  I had a passing thought that my slacks would be ruined forever. (Well I’m only human…come on, they were Banana Republic khakis!) Because I couldn’t see through the red dark water, I also couldn’t see where the ruts were.  I stepped in many of them.  Sometimes the ruts I stepped in made the water go up as high as my thighs.  Dense, red water, swirling with garbage and shit (to put it bluntly) up to my thighs, but I was almost home, I could see the yellow tint of my house in the distance, just maybe a block away, and then the rain started to slow down.  I saw three young boys walking towards me.  Now I was just dealing with mud.   My shoes became heavy from the mud that was accumulating.   I could now at least see my feet, but the sacks I carried were still painfully heavy.  My arms ached; my back ached.

If I’d had time, I would have cried, but I didn’t have time for that.  When I met up with the boys who were walking towards me, I shoved the two sacks into one boy’s arms.  I asked him if he would help me the rest of the way home.  "S’il vous plait," I said, "to the jeune maison!"  He took the sacks, but started jabbering something to me.  I thought he was asking me how much I would pay him.  I really don’t know what he said, but that’s what I thought, and I was in no mood for someone to be asking me for money, so I grabbed the sacks back from him and trudged the rest of the way by myself.  The boys stood there, and watched me, all the way home.  I could hear them jabbering, but it was unintelligible.  Who knows what they were saying?!   Maybe they were just trying to figure out what I wanted?  They were probably saying, “you stupid YoVo!  What the hell are you doing?”   I don’t’ know.

I made it to my house and immediately took my favorite khakis off, filled up a pail of water and soaked them.  I scrubbed and soaked and washed, and scrubbed and soaked and washed for what seemed like an hour.  I then filled another pail, boiled some water and took a warm shower, scrubbing my feet and my legs until they were raw.

Home at last!
Yin of home and a friend: I’m so glad this exhausting day ended with a Yin!  I had just literally collapsed in a chair when the telephone rang.  It was my friend, of over forty years, Pat.  There was never a better moment to get a phone call from home.  It was so good to hear her voice.  The previous two hours melted away as we caught up with each others Yin and Yang; on what had been happening in both of our lives since the last time we talked.  Pat was recuperating from hip replacement surgery the week prior, and the death of two beloved family members just months before.  She was doing well, despite all of her pain and loss. Talking to her put everything in perspective, and while listening to her my day became a distant memory, a minor annoyance, well maybe (smile).

Yin and Yang.

No comments:

Post a Comment