A Month in Tiny Terrific Togo

Saturday night I dreamt that I rode in the back of a truck to the top of Togo and it was so far north I could wade into the Arctic.

Reality suggests otherwise. They call it ‘Tiny Terrific Togo’ for a reason and the landscape surrounds me in shades of brown, red, and green. Though afternoon downpours produce impressive dumpings of rain, I have seen no bodies of water since glimpsing the Atlantic in Lomé. Before I left Oregon, I waded into the ocean once a month between November and May. Now, I must seek the rejuvenating effects of la mer elsewhere.

Gifted by my host parents

It feels both startling and unremarkable that I have been here a full month. Truly, since moving to a village for Pre-Service Training, time has blurred. We train on language, cross-cultural considerations, teaching technique, health, and endless other preparatory topics for upwards of ten hours a day Monday through Friday, plus four more hours on Saturday. The rest of my weekend belongs to chores (hand-washing clothes, cleaning and organizing my room, helping with meals, washing dishes, etc.), church with my host family, soccer with my host siblings, studying French, spending time with other ‘trainees,’ and, if I can manage, some elusive time to myself.

Favorite corner of my room

Some days depart from the routine. Last Monday, while I washed my breakfast dishes, the goats sniped my lunch off the ground and dashed to the neighboring compound, chased by my heroic host mother who saved the lunch before it was too late. Later that morning, in French class, we learned the vocabulary to discuss health and illness. I boasted that I had not yet been sick in Togo; hours later, I felt nauseous and feverish. Still, I powered through until that afternoon when the smells of the market sent me home early as the strongest downpour yet began. I lay beneath my mosquito net wondering simultaneously if the tin roof would fall in on me from the force of the rain and if my stomach would turn in on itself. Besides a few rough nights, by Friday I returned to santé.

Views on the walk home

Mostly, beyond the general feeling of being over-full of information, things are good. My host family—featuring four siblings between the ages of four and thirteen—provides endless care, support, welcome, and belonging (and the occasional reminder that my pants are dirty and I should wash them) and I am grateful for them every day, whether dancing with my sister, playing soccer ensemble, or chatting with my host dad in French. My early morning runs through the village offer the chance to greet most people I see and always almost a few goats with ‘Bonjour!’ A beer costs a dollar and my deep love for Mamma Mia! is shared among my cohort. I eat fresh mangoes and have soul-enriching conversations often.

In one week, I will know where I will be placed and therefore living for two years starting in August. In the meantime, I will continue my efforts to raise hype about the Women’s World Cup, eat more and more foods with my hands, and accept that les enfants one third my age will always school me in soccer.

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Welcome to Togo

‘Why was I going? For curiosity? For adventureship or friendship? For the sun or for the moon?’ -Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

I ask myself these questions daily. I wonder: what led me here, to Togo, training to be an English teacher, seeking French fluency? Since I applied for Peace Corps over a year ago, I’ve articulated my motivation, my goals, my belief in myself repeatedly. But I still struggle to put into words what core part of me has always wanted to do this.

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The sunset sky in Lomé

Often, I think about Vietnam, where I taught English four years ago. I think about the mistakes I made, the regrets I have, how I learned more in 11 weeks than I thought possible, how that experience prepared me for the challenges inherent to this work. But I also think about how endlessly grateful I was and am to have experienced all of it, how individuals supported, inspired, empowered, grounded, and led me. I think about how I might feel here had I not gone there first, how little I sweat in Togo’s rainy season humidity compared to Vietnam, how the first night a lone lizard on the wall felt familiar to me while it terrified another, how the ubiquitous dirt roads and motorbikes comfort me.

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You may or may not be able to see my house in this picture

I think about Kenya, too, where I tutored students between high school and university on the other side of Africa. I remember my moments of intense loneliness and how suddenly, upon finding connection, I felt happy. How I faced a venomous snake and calmly told my companions it was time to go rather than giving into my fear. Anyone who knows me well knows I faint when needles enter my arm, whether taking blood or providing immunity. My second day here, I pricked my own finger to practice testing for malaria; I have since received five shots on an empty stomach without once reaching lightheadedness. The grit must grow.

Every day, I miss the people I worked with in Portland—adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. I miss the ambiguous goal of supporting them toward living their best lives through art and community. When I interviewed for that job a week before leaving for Kenya and after applying to nearly 30 positions in the nonprofit sector, I could not foresee how much it would mean to me. It was simply a job to fill my time in Portland—then it became the why to my time in Portland.

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Les chèvres

Alas, here I am, for the sun or for the moon, je ne sais pas encore. Despite the mysterious bites dotting my ankles, despite the five hours I spent at church on Sunday (turns out my host family is Pentecostal and Sunday was Pentecost itself), despite knowing how long 27 months will feel across the world from my family and best friends, I trust that my reasons will reveal themselves; that so far I’ve felt a release, at peace, and a resolve to be better; that Togo has a lot to teach me. And for now, in my nightly bucket showers under the stars, I look up to see the same moon as anywhere else in the world.

Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu

Day One

It started with a 5am pick-up. We joined a car with at least fourteen others and drove two hours toward a mountain sunrise to a small town for an overpriced breakfast. There, we met the group: a Belgian couple, two Spanish couples, an Italian family, two German flatmates, three Australians, a Brazilian, an Austrian, a Canadian, a Danish, one other American from Portland, Maine, and our fearless leader Enrique. Once we introduced ourselves, I learned that our group contained three Monicas. I have hardly been in the presence of one other Monica, so two at once felt like fate. We drove another hour on a bumpy, dirt, cliffside road until we reached our starting point. Most people separated their day pack from their bigger pack, which a group of horses would haul ahead of us, but I could not bring myself to contribute to the horses’ discomfort (especially after volunteering at the farm!), so I opted to carry all of my things and mostly convinced Naman to do the same. Of course, this made the five days much harder, but I often make things harder on myself than necessary.

When we started walking, it was immediately uphill and immediately beautiful. In about three hours, we reached our campsite, which was nestled beneath stunning snow-capped mountains. We took the most scenic siesta of my life, and then we had our first provided meal: a satisfying and vegetarian-friendly buffet lunch. Since our afternoon hiking would be from and to our campsite, we began that portion without our backpacks. And it was probably the most difficult portion of the whole trek—straight uphill for an hour and straight down (which is always worse for me because I sprained my ankle twice in the last four months) on the way back. But the payoff was yet another breathtaking view, this time of a turquoise lake. One of our German comrades even took a swim in the glacier-temperature water. Back at the campsite, we enjoyed tea time with popcorn and animal crackers, then an hour later a buffet dinner. By eight, it was freezing and we hurried to our tents to bundle and rest for the most important day ahead.

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Arrival at the entry point.

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My good friends the horses.

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Just your typical view ten minutes into a hike.

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Siesta/sleeping campsite.

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En route to the lake.

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Mmmm, mountains.

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11/10.

Day Two

The most difficult day, the longest day, and my favorite day. The rooster woke us up at 4:30am and the guide at 4:40 with coca tea in our tents. I emerged from complete cover under my sleeping bag, dressed in layers, and joined the group for a sleepy and shivering breakfast. By 6:30am, we were on our way up, my hands got so cold I added a second layer of gloves, and I felt grateful for my ankle brace and the trekking poles my mother strongly encouraged me to get before the trip. Enrique periodically stopped us to share stories of treks prior, like when one man wanted to ride a horse all the way up (which is normal for those struggling with altitude sickness or otherwise) and down (which is not typically allowed because the terrain is dangerous for the horse) and they both slid off a cliff and died. Motivation! By 9, the sun was up and we reached the top of the fabled “siete serpientes,” a series of switchbacks. A short siesta, and then another 40 minutes down a bit and up a bit to a frozen lake, where we took a real siesta and Enrique told us about some Andean history. Then, the final 30 minutes to the “top,” which was not the top of Mount Salkantay but was at 4600m (15,000ft) and did offer panoramic views of the mountain. Worth the price of the whole trek and surreal.

Then, the hard part: descending. We trekked an hour down sliding rock/dirt to yet another siesta, then 40 minutes more to our lunch destination. Easily the best meal of the trek and intensely appreciated after a five-hour morning. After lunch, we witnessed a stunning change in scenery and climate—within an hour, we transitioned from sparse mountain atmosphere to a cloud forest, full of greenery, valleys, and mosquitoes. After three hours of mostly downhill and many blisters forming, we reached our campsite and immediately purchased the most delicious beer of the trip, which prompted just about everyone in the group to follow suit and purchase their own beers. That dinner, we were all in great spirits and bonded over the feat we had collectively accomplished. And we all slept gratefully.

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The mountain glowed all night.

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Early risers.

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First views of the day.

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Past the seven snake switchbacks (look closely and see that Naman broke his backpack!).

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More siestas.

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Next to the peak.

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The highest we’ve been in Peru!

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Casually skating on the rock.

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Impossible to capture.

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Siesta #4328

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Filtering water to save the big $$$

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And suddenly it turned green.

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Even greener.

Day Three

Again, we woke before 5 because Enrique wanted to beat the heat. At breakfast, he told us that by the way, this campsite definitely has tarantulas but he waited to share that until after we slept. We forgave him and continued on by 6, trekking both up and down toward yet another climate, rain forest. We followed a river, picked maracuya (passionfruit), and only hiked for three hours before icing in the river and hopping in a van for another hour of those lovely cliffside dirt roads. We had lunch at our campsite, which was located within a shop/bar, and then a long siesta. At 4, we journeyed to hot springs, which were quite crowded and not hot enough for us spoiled Americans, so we found the vent with the source and stayed there for almost two hours. Back at the campsite, dinner followed by a fiesta! Almost everyone purchased drinks, we all took free shots of “Inca tequila,” they turned on the disco lights and music, built a campfire, and we danced and partied until midnight. A welcome reward after a difficult and sore three days.

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Early morning river.

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Fruit!

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Green!

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Spot Naman on the “mini-zipline.”

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The trail even has shopping centers!

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The parrot that says “hola” and tries to escape.

Day Four

We slept in until 7:30 (!), Naman felt unwell, and we separated into three groups: zipliners, bus-takers, and “super-hikers.” I almost decided to zipline, but I was ultimately too scared and it would cost an extra 100 soles each, so we took the least popular option: walking almost three hours to our meeting place, Hidroelectrica, where the bus-takers would arrive in 20 minutes and the zipliners after several hours. From then on, our bags would be carried by vehicles and not horses, but my stubbornness meant I continued to carry my bag. The walk was along a dusty cliffside (surprise!) road, scenic but not gorgeous, and Naman hated every step. But we made it, waited another hour for lunch, and heard from the zipliners that the experience was mostly average. After lunch, a three-hour walk along shaded train tracks, during which I slightly regretted our non-essential morning trek, until we finally reached Aguas Calientes, the town beneath Machu Picchu and the location of an actual hostel with an actual bed and hot shower. Bliss, dinner, sleep.

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Going the right direction.

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The trains we were not riding.

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Machu Picchu town!

Day Five

This day, we slept in all the way until 2:40 and met in the lobby to leave promptly at 3:30 to walk the 15 minutes in the dark to the checkpoint below Machu Picchu. We started the line waiting for the 5 am opening that grew to include several hundred, if not a thousand, people by the time they checked our tickets and passports at 5. But we still had another 40 minutes and 400 meters straight up a series of staircases in the dark, which I found quite fun (I had nothing to carry! So light!) but everyone else found grueling. Then, we started the line into Machu Picchu, which would not open until 6. The first bus up (there were $12 buses up! But we walked!) arrived around 5:50 and we all silently judged them for not walking like us. Then, the semi-mad dash inside, more stairs (surprise!), and the big reveal, the main event, the glory of the fallen Inca empire: Machu Picchu! It was better than I imagined, more beautiful than all the pictures, and witnessing it before it flooded with tourists was truly special. At 6:30, Enrique gave us a tour, including its history, which he says is 50% speculation and other other 50%…speculation, at 7:00 we watched the sunrise over the surrounding mountains, and by 9 he bid us a bittersweet goodbye, the end of the tour. But most of the group banded together and we visited the Inca bridge, a 30-minute walk alongside the highest and most narrow cliff trail yet to a “bridge” connecting a smaller-than-single-track and unreachable-for-tourists trail through a treeline.

Then, we separated again, because seven of us were cheap when we bought the tour and did not spend the extra 70 or 80 dollars for the train from Aguas Calientes, and instead had to return (via that same three-hour walk along train tracks) to Hidroelectrica to catch a bus. We did not know when we chose the cheaper option that we would have to walk three hours! We just wanted to save a few bucks! But alas, we finished our tour of the ruins and headed down around 10:30, where we traversed the steps in the opposite direction, retrieved our bags from the hostel, and begrudgingly began the grueling and exhausting trek back to Hidroelectrica. We made it in under 2.5 hours and after a quick beer emerged into the chaos that was the “bus station.” Dozens of vans scattered about, the drivers yelled names, tired and angry tourists did not understand why there was no system in place, Naman somehow found us two spots in a van, and 45 minutes later we began the six-hour journey back. The first two hours were (again!) dirt and cliffside (it goes without saying that every single second we drove on these roads terrified me), and when the dirt became real road with lines and sometimes even lights, I felt saved. But we still had four hours, and I spent the entire ride wishing we had purchased the train instead (which would only be one hour on the train and then a three-hour car ride, but would not include any dirt roads and four hours is a lot less than six) and trying to sleep on the impossibly uncomfortable seat two rows up from Naman. We reached Cusco at 10pm, I devoured a salad (vegetables!) and smoothie (fruit!), and we landed in bed fully exhausted, but finally done.

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The line at the entrance.

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First signs of light.

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First look!

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Making friends.

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Enrique!!!

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Sunlit.

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Mountains all around.

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The Inca bridge! Look closely and be afraid.

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Inside the ruins.

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Fabian!

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The Condor Temple (the rocks are the condor).

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Llamas added for effect.

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Posing.

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Dogs sleeping on the steps back down.