I finally took my first vacation, though I did not go too far. I merely crossed a border to Benin, marking my second visit to the country. My first trip was for a work-related cashew conference but now I was back for pleasure (or torture, depending on who you ask). This time I came for a ten day silent meditation course.

Coming back felt like visiting an old friend… or rather an acquaintance. I recognized places on the road but lacked any context or meaning to associate them with. By the end of my trip this relationship with Benin remained virtually the same. I parted with no real attachment or sadness to be leaving the country.

What I left with was something more valuable. As to be expected, the zero communication rule of the course (no talking, no gestures, no reading, no writing, and no eye contact with others) forced me to do a lot inner study and self-reflection. However, I learned quite a bit outside the meditation hall too. One of the most memorable moments I had during the course happened when I just stopped to observe the world around me.


Meditation hall for the course
One item on the long list of prohibitions during the course was exercise. 

Fortunately, walking was an exception to this rule, so I took advantage of it between most meditation times. Aside from being my only exercise source, I walked to stretch my legs from all the sitting. 

I routinely took strolls up and down the designated paths and on the second day of the course I spotted something odd—a baby snake lying 0n the path.

I assumed it was dead and felt comfortable approaching it. Then, as I came closer I noticed the skin on the end of its tail was peeling. This made me think the snake could be alive, just shedding. Seeking not to interfere with nature, I continued my stroll.

On my way back I was surprised to find the snake still there. I stopped again to inspect it, this time realizing it could be a black mamba—one of the quickest, longest and deadliest snakes in the world. Why was it still lying there?

Then it made its first move. The thin snake jerked its metallic-grey body from the tail upward. It jerked a second time and even harder on the third. Then its predicament became clear—it was stuck.

The part of its tail I thought had been shedding seemed to be the source. I moved closer and saw the snake was recently hatched. Sadly, it could not fit its entire body out of the hole where its egg was laid. It was trying to free itself with every jerk.

I began searching for a solution or something I could do to help. I could try to break the ground around the snake to widen the hole. But what if I did help it escape and the first thing it did was to attack me? Or what if there were more eggs and thus more baby mambas in the hole?

As I contemplated what might be best solution, the snake methodically continued lapses of jerk-jerk-jerk-rest. We both knew time was ticking but I did not know what to do.

The rescue mission
Eventually a few black ants caught my eye. They were shuffling around the hole the snake was stuck in. I watched as the ants lifted rocks—double their size or more—from around the snakes’ tail. In between rock lifts, they pushed and pulled at the snakes’ tail, trying to get it out of the hole. I must have missed them because of their size before; just a few millimeters larger and I would have seen all their brisk movements before noticing the snake.

But why were they helping a black mamba? Maybe it was blocking an important entrance/exit to their home or maybe they just wanted to help a fellow member of the animal kingdom in need. Either way, I was impressed.

Unfortunately, this is where the story ends. I could only stay and watch a few minutes longer before the next meditation session. I was not free again until after dark and I did not muster up the courage to check on the snake during a pitch-black African night.

I waited until the next morning but by then the snake was gone. I can only imagine how the story ended. I replayed it over and over during the course and until now, a few weeks later. One of the most dangerous snakes on the planet was being helped by four tiny ants.

Such an odd situation seemed compounded by silence. Not to mention, I had to keep it to myself for seven more days and did not retell it with any justice the one time I tried. Even now, I struggle to describe my appreciation to have witnessed this otherwise insignificant occurrence of nature.

Thank you for letting me share the story with you.

About once a month my PCV neighbor and I plan an outing or fun activity together. We have gone hiking, made natural beauty products, and often cook fun meals from scratch (which includes doing most of our own food processing).

One time pizza was on our menu. Though we could make the tomato sauce and bread from scratch with no problem, the cheese proved to be a real challenge. Even when we followed the most basic recipes on Google the cheese we produced was mediocre at best.

The problem was that most of the recipes simply are not applicable to our living context. To make cheese, the popular sites read: “use rennet tablets”, “put it in the microwave” or “measure temperatures with a candy thermometer.” All great ideas for cheese making in The Developed world...

Fulani boys walking us to the road
But cheese exists here too. It is made by one of the world’s largest (some say the largest) nomadic people called the Fulani. They walk throughout West Africa, and while they keep their baggage light, they bring hundreds of cows along with them. Consequently, the towns they pass through get fresh milk and cheese access.

To make cheese here, we knew the Fulani had to use basic, easy to find ingredients. To find out their secrets, we scheduled an outing to where they live. However, because they have so many cows, their camps are in the farthest, most remote locations. To get there involved a 15-20 kilometer motorcycle ride outside the city limits on an extremely bumpy road. Then we walked another 2-3 kilometers so far en brousse, in the bush, that we assumed we were lost.

We were not lost. This is where the Fulani lived.

There were about 50 people at the site, a simple camp area. The space was not cleared—we were still in the middle of nowhere. Yet, it was a great place to be. Aside from being secluded it was well shaded and quite verdant.

The first thing we noticed were their tents. They can be more accurately described as thick black plastics covering a bed. Their bed being a mat elevated by a few logs. That was it. And each person kept their possessions few, with nothing larger than what could fit in their roughly 5’ by 3’ tent.

One of the Fulani tents
This was just my first, quick observation but within minutes I was presented with another. The other PCV and I were approached by the beautiful faces of Fulani men first, then the older children. Their characteristics contrasted many of those in the Togolese. They walked toward us in their slender bodies with pointed features, facial tattoos, and brightly colored clothes and jewelry.

We stayed with the men for a few minutes but quickly ventured off to see the women. There, we found the youngest kids of the group. 

Again, I was stunned by the beauty of this people. They often wear eyeliner (even the kids), keep their hair braided in some funky styles, (though always natural, never adding extensions), and wore brightly colored beaded jewelry. A common feature of all of the people—men, women and children was their set of big, glistening eyes. They shone with what seemed to be deep curiosity and happiness.
A Fulani woman at my local market

This was the Africa and the Peace Corps I was expecting to come to. Being secluded in lands quite literally off the beaten path and surrounded by such an exotic culture and language I did not understand. Being with the Fulani felt like I stepped into an entirely different world.

In this world, living off the land and raising animals was all that concerned them. Yes, they sold cows for upwards of $1400 USD; one was sold $700 USD during our visit but that did not seem to matter much to them. What seemed more important was just living life and being around family. Simply to occupy their free time you might find them milking cows, or making cheese.

Yet, this brings me of one of the battles we fight as PCVs; our push for education. During this trip it dawned on me that not a single one of these people had been to school. Many of the adults and most of the young children have never been exposed to technology outside of a cell phone (they were amazed with our cameras). One young girl was even astonished to see me drink from a plastic sachet of water I brought with me.

When my young translator explained “she’s never seen it before” I stopped to inspect the area. In towns, the plastic water satchets are one of the most common pieces of litter. Here, not a single piece of trash could be found on the ground.

After all, what non-compostable piece of trash would they have? The only thing littering the area were cow patties, something the Fulani seemed to simply disregard. During a conversation I tried to have with some of the kids, they listened to my French (a language they do not speak) while kneeling over cow patties and did not seem fazed by it at all.

This Eden blew my mind. These people seemed to defy all the rules in life and yet they had it all. While not formal, they have a quite rich education. It focuses on the practical, useful everyday necessities of their life. Preferring what plants do what things rather than keeping up with the latest technological trends. 

They also know how to survive with little food or water, and have this innate ability of knowing the right direction after coming to a place just one time.

Plus, they had 100% freedom and more money than they could ever need. They just pick up and go for months, or years at a time. The only things they discover in their paths are willing cow, milk and cheese buyers.

Even at the end of my trip, I never figured out what they do with their money. They make enough from one cow to purchase a motorcycle or cheap used car (and they have herds of 200 cows or more). However, they choose to keep their wants and needs few. After all, who would want to carry any extra stuff for such long treks?

I pondered this throughout our visit but most as we were find our way out. How many more of these places exist in the tiny Togo? I wondered.  Then before too long, we arrived at that bumpy road we came in on. 

The midday heat struck me as if to say “welcome back to the real world.”  The only proof I have of seeing the Fulani world with is my new cheese making skill.

Cheese the Fulani made during our trip

In September my calendar was filled with projects and activities. Not to mention, they were scattered all over the place—up and down the country and even across the border to Benin. I was definitely ready to be back “home” after these trips, but my time away from site was extremely valuable. I came back with new work ideas, collaborated with other PCVs, and got a bit of time away to just decompress.

First, I visited the capital city, Lomé, for a meeting with one of the committees I serve on (Gender and Development). This coincided with the swearing-in ceremony, when 39 new Volunteers took their oath of service. It was a particularly special occasion, because 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Togo.

My training host brother, mom, PCV relatives.
The event was held at an event much larger venue than the previous two swear-in’s I’ve been in Togo for (one being my own), and included new spectacles like traditional dancers, videos, and a small trade show. 

This created a great memory for the last swear-in I’ll attend in Togo, unless I end up extending, which I do not foresee.

Next, I visited a neighboring country, Benin, for a cashew conference. The conference was organized by the African Cashew Alliance (ACA) and is considered the largest cashew gathering in the world. 

Three other Togo PCVs were invited to attend, but I was the only one who accepted the invitation. Among the more than 500 other participants, I was joined by three PCV’s from Ghana.

Grafting cashew trees.
We were given free admission to the otherwise $800 event, in exchange for a bit of work. Sometimes this was taking photos or videos; sometimes it was taking notes on sessions, and other times it meant printing name tags or copying files to 500 USB keys.

What I enjoyed most from the conference was attending informational sessions. Experts from different sectors of the cashew industry shared the current information about the economy of the industry, climate change, farming techniques, and health benefits of the nut and cashew apple. I also really enjoyed talking with the other PCVs about their work with cashews in Ghana.

I didn’t have much time during the conference, but I tied to capitalize on every spare moment I had to see Benin. The day before the conference, I went with the Ghana PCVs to a python temple in a nearby city. Early in the morning on the last day, I went to the beach.

At the python temple.
Immediately after the cashew conference, I went back up country for an event with the U.S. Embassy. Since March, they have been working with a group of female university students who serve as mentors in high school girls clubs. To provide 20 of these mentors a platform to share best practices with one another and learn new ideas for their clubs, the Embassy decided to organize a three-day workshop.

However, the Embassy offices are located in the southern-most region of the country, and the mentors reside about seven hours up country. My site is just 20 minutes away from the mentors, so I was asked to help coordinate the event logistics. Basically, this meant keeping both the Embassy and mentors on the same page when decisions were made from either end.

An activity during the workshop.
Both organizing and participating in this event was a great experience for me. I met 20 young, educated Togolese women, which is a rarity at my site. Most of them were my age or close, and are what I consider the best Togolese friends I never had. I definitely have friends in village, but I do not feel as if I can relate to them as much as I did with these girls.

I also really enjoyed meeting and working with the representatives from the Embassy. Aside from the American government agency connection, it usually seems like we have little else in common. 

The Embassy is based in and mainly does work in the capital, which to PCVs is just “that even more foreign place of Togo with things like pizza and ice cream.” Foreign Service officers also have actual salaries and thus higher living standards and their work often includes more funded projects/activities. Conversely, PCVs work in small cities or villages throughout the country, have no individual office space, live on about $200 per month, and generally do small-scale non-funded activities.

While these differences remain, doing the workshop together made me realize the power of cross collaboration between us. It was great to connect our experiences, especially combined with the opinions and ideas of the Togolese mentors. Every decision that was made reflected a wonderful trisect of ideas from the Embassy, PCVs, and the Togolese mentors.

I only spent a few days at site before heading to my next activity, editing articles one of the Volunteer created Peace Corps publications. However, September has been what I consider the greatest period of my service to date. I felt productive, learned new things for myself and my community, and made lots of great connections. I hope things only go up from here!

At the top of a mountain we hiked on the last day--success!

As the circle of time completes another loop, I have again found myself amidst the hustle and bustle that comes with the end of Ramadan celebrations. Last year, I tried integrating into my community by joining in the month-long fasting of daylight hours. I suffered through about two weeks then but this year I did not even attempt.  
Whether it be the one year of experience under my belt or simply my outside looking in view, this year I noticed the otherwise indiscernible changes of Ramadans' progression.
The empty street outside my house

Street food options vary by region of the country and seasonally available produce. In my neck of the woods, this usually includes watché (essentially a black-eyed pea and rice mix), salads, fried tofu or fried dough. You can never guarantee the sanitation of the any street food purchases though, so I have to take it to-go (in a plastic bag). Then re-cook or bleach the ingredients.

During the fast, there are fewer options, and they are only available after sunset each day (around 6pm). In of my predominately Muslim community, I just happen to be part of the five percent minority not fasting, and do not like to waiting that long to eat. 

During the three days following Ramadans’ end, the hustle and bustle continues. With their holiday makeovers, families feast throughout the day. Many often make the splurge to buy rice over the cheaper corn/ yam pâte commonly made for meals. They also go door-to-door exchanging meals with neighbors. In a fashion similar to trick-or-treating, when kids visit each house to deliver the food, they ask for money (rather than candy as in trick-or-treating).

As Ramadan ends, the city livens back up. About a week before, tailors can be seen working day and night to fill the orders for new clothes. For some, especially children, this could be the one time they are guaranteed to get a new outfit until the next year.
It all started with the dwindling “street food” options. Similar to a U.S. lemonade stand, women or children sit along roadsides or walk the streets selling prepared food. 
Normally I can find several places to get street food within a one block radius of my house. However, as Ramadan draws near, street food begins to vanish. 
The streets also become more deserted during the fast because people tend to work less and sleep more. That means it is harder to find shop owners—even to purchase their goods—if it is during the day. In the market, the normal fruits and vegetables are still available, but often with increased prices. For example, both oranges and bananas became three for 100 Fcfa rather than four just days before the fast (a penny pinch, but significant difference for a PCV budget). 
The last market day before the end Ramadan
On the contrary, the normally unavailable salt bread arrives during Ramadan. The fasters in my community tend to eat more bread during Ramadan, so the bread makers are able to sell the quick-to-spoil salt bread faster.
If none of the more subtle changes signal Ramadan has arrived, the lengthier calls to prayer do. Most noticeably, the 4 a.m. call to prayer feels like it is extended an hour.
Then, as the last day approaches, hair dressers can be seen braiding, weaving or dying hair all day. Even the non-professional mother/sister/friend is easily spotted outside their house braiding away.  The same goes for men, though for it is usually as simple as a beard trimming for them.
Finally, when the last pre-celebration market day arrives, it is clear to see what’s next. Our normal market day is Saturday, but the Friday before was almost as full. On Saturday, the area remained jam-packed even as rain clouds hovered for a majority of the day.
Just like pre-holiday shopping in the States, buying ordinary foodstuffs becomes difficult. Many places are sold out, and there are crowds to fight along the way. Fortunately, in the last market day before the celebrations, life begins to reverse again. Daylight street food reappeared, boutiques were open, and fruit prices dropped. My beloved salt bread was nowhere to be found. 
Though I did not take part in the fast, I still took part in the celebrating. I had a pizza making party at my house with a few kids in one of the clubs I work with. I was worried they would not like this bizarre change to their cuisine, but instead they loved it! Everyone present also took home seconds to share with their families.
It is sad to realize I probably will not be here to celebrate Ramadan with my community, but I am glad got to experience it one more time. I was much more aware of and prepared for all the activities this time around.