This is my first Christmas back in the US since my Peace Corps service. In Togo I attended Christmas parties with other volunteers but our recreations of an American Christmas were always lackluster. Sure, we would play Christmas songs, get ingredients for the classic meals shipped from home, and capitalize on the opportunity to speak lots of English with each other; but it was never quite the same.

We could pretend to have a traditional Christmas party together but a slight glance out the window or one step out the door brought us back to our reality. Our streets were not snow covered. Nor were any Christmas trees in sight. 

Out the windows we could see our streets were not even paved—just the dusty red clay of Africa. We would have to settle for palm trees instead of pines.

Taking a step out the door brought the vision to the rest of our senses. It was hot—not just in the 70’s or 80’s but more like the 100’s at mid-day in December. The sun was so bright I could feel it penetrating my skin.

Outside our lovely Christmas songs played no more. If by chance any music could be heard, it would be in a local language or maybe French. However, it was more likely that the sounds we heard were claps and stomps of kids playing games.

Now, I find myself celebrating Christmas in the US. Here I can glance out the window and spot decorated Christmas trees scattered among the Florida palms. Christmas music plays in English and delicious food is served at every meal.

This time most of the Christmas elements are in place. Granted, Florida is not the traditional Christmas climate, but I’ll take 75 over 100˚.

Yet, something still feels missing. It is not the snowy weather this time either. It is not even the lack of company—I am at a resort with more than 1,000 people from all over the world. Nor are they unhappy. Most of them are quite pleasant and might possibly be having the happiest times of their life here.

But happiness means different things to different people. It can even mean different things to the same person at different points in their life. For me, now, happiness is about being in a place I can call home. It is about feeling loved and loving others—not just eating delicious food. This is what was missing all along.

So, I will echo the Club Med slogan and ask, "what's your idea of happiness?"

Before leaving Togo I applied for exactly one job. Just one. You think I would be ecstatic when, after going through a long application process, I finally got that job offer. Maybe you think I would be overjoyed to know they added a few perks to the original offeradded job duties, a higher pay, and better accommodations. 

But instead of the tears of joy I predicted would start rolling down my cheeks (I am generally happy crier), the tears that came were panic stricken.

Fortunately, I did not have to make any decisions in that moment. After my polite request for more time to think about it, I was granted 24 hours to determine if I wanted this job to be my next big move. Twenty four hours... exactly one day to make this major life decision.


Why not take the job? Well, if traveling taught me nothing else, it is that the world is full of possibilities. So when I finally got settledas much as I could whilst living out of one or two suitcases and staying with friends/familyI started applying for other jobs.

I turned in at least 100 applications to jobs all over the world: France, England, Canada, Spain, China, India, Qatar, Australia, and New Zealand to name a few.

Sometimes I got an almost instantaneous "no" but searching for jobs opened my eyes wider to the realm of possibilities. There are thousands of job listings to do lots of interesting things. Mostly I applied for jobs with resorts/hotels but I also turned in applications with cruise ships, airlines, and even an Australian city council.

With the time lag of my traveling, my earliest job submission was only two weeks before this "need to know" decision came from a position I applied for two months prior. You can never quite plan the future but how would I ever know if there were better things to come if I accepted this particular one so early into my job hunt?

I could not. They say time tells all and something about the timing seemed right. I got the call just days before I was leaving Arkansas to visit my mom in another state. I had plenty of time in my hometown to catch up with friends; now I get to cross the last major "person I need to see" off my list before making the next big move.
Here I come.

Sadly, I am not moving as far as I hoped. The job is in Florida. Not on the other side of the world or in any of the aforementioned places. It is barely on the other side of the United States. It is just Florida. 

Nevertheless, I chose to make my decision based on the belief that it is not just about my next big move. It is about how far it can take me and I plan to go mighty long distances. I am not stopping at Florida. It has just become my jumping off point to the rest of the world.
“It's not about being in the right place, nor are favorable conditions enough. You must be there at the right moment; and tonight you are lucky.” said the guide of my Northern Lights tour. She was speaking to a bus of more than fifty passengers at the time, explicitly referring to the Aurora Borealis, but it felt like her words were directed only to me.

At the start of my recent travels, I wrote that I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I was having a great time seeing unique parts of the world; essentially finding myself in the right places with favorable conditions. It was not until Iceland that I understood how crucial it is to find the right moment. Rarely does serendipity present itself in life but when it does, true luck begins.

Now that I am back in the US and my traveling is done for now, I can easily connect the dots of luck from my trip. As if written for Hollywood scripts, often if just one minuscule detail had been altered, I might never have met the perfect strangers; people who popped up in exactly the right moments.
Perfect strangers.

There are so many examples I could provide. They range from meeting people with uncannily common backgrounds/interests to people pursuing similar goals as me. 

One was a Canadian Ph.D. student who is researching the reasons behind long-term volunteerism abroad (with a focus in Africa). I also met an American on the train in Paris who like me lived in West Africa and is entering graduate school for international affairs, something I plan to do.

Would I have met that Canadian if she would not have offered to take my photo when she saw me standing alone? And what if I had taken a different train or decided to walk (as I usually do) on the day I ran into that American?


By far the luckiest series of events was related to my volunteer experience in France. When I began to discover things were not working at my host, I met another traveler who helped me escape.

Our encounter was hinged on so many of those minute details. I met him two days before his scheduled departure date. Prior to the trip I even contacted and was ready to volunteer with his host but decided to go with the other one at the last minute. Otherwise, we would have been volunteering together. Weirder still, both hosts knew each other and lived just 30 minutes apart. All these “perfect moments” combined to make our paths cross.

That is not all. I was accepted to a second host the volunteer recommended to me at a perfect moment too; just before they had a prospective buyer coming to look at their house. If that were not the case, they would not have needed a volunteer and might not have let me come. Instead, I got to have an amazing experience with them, ending my time in France on a positive note.

Maybe all these moments seem perfect in hindsight. Maybe it is in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, I choose to believe in the perfect moment. I am in the right place, with favorable conditions; I am lucky.


I lost 200 Euros (275 USD) in my first 24 hours in France. The money did not just fall out of my pocket, nor did I leave my wallet out in the open somewhere. I handed it over willing. You could even say I gambled it away.

The thing is, I did not know what I was doing. I was wandering the streets around the city and ran across one of the "find the card"-type game tables. Here they use circle disks instead of cards but the concept was the same as it is played in other major cities.

Basically, there are three objects on a table and passer-bys must keep their eye on a specific one as a dealer moves them around the table. As he deals, people can bet that they will find the agreed upon object, potentially doubling their money.

I stood around one of these tables, watching others at first and found myself getting the objects' location right every time. A man next to me (probably in cahoots with the dealer) took notice of my accuracy and started egging me on.

I pointed to one of the disks, and the dealer revealed it was the right one.

"You're good, do you see where it's going now?" he said. "Give the dealer your money" he said, "Then he'll double it."

Thinking I won the game, I handed over 50 Euros. Then other people in the crowd said to add more and each time I grabbed another 50 they said I could go as far as I wanted.

I hesitated but was egged on until the 200 Euros I had in my wallet was in the hand of the dealer. Then he pointed back to the disks and said "pick one."

I haphazardly chose another, and that is where I went wrong. He was not doubling my money for the round I just guessed correctly. He played a round while I was pulling the money from my wallet and wanted me to guess where the disk had gone.

Needless to say, I was wrong and in just those few minutes, I lost the equivalent of 275 USD.

As it hit me I started to tear up. I did not cry just yet but I wanted to get away before the tears really came. The man who had been egging me on before followed behind me for a while, saying he could get me back the money if I had more to bet with.

I opened my wallet to show only the 5 Euro bill I had remaining, tears welling in my eyes. The man looked sympathetic. I think he followed just to swindle me again but when he looked at me I believe he felt the impact of what he just helped do.

"I'll help you get the money back" he said to me; but I could not keep standing there. The tears were coming out and I did not want him or anyone else to see me crying. I walked down the closest street I could find, cried for a minute, and went back to my hostel.

I have to admit, I was and still am quite devastated by this. That was literally all the money I planned to spend for these three weeks.

I am all the more wiser because of it (I must trust my instincts), and I am grateful it was just money. Yes, it was a big chunk of change for me but it could have been so much worse. With all things considered, I would rather it be something quite easy to replace--even if it will take a while before I will earn that sum back.

I share this story only because I realize how naïve I was. I grew up a lot in Togo but all the things I learned about life, people, and even trickery there do not equate to the Western world. This was my slap in the face--I officially jumped into the water and am ready to swim.
I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Since embarking on my post-Peace Corps adventure, each day of my first week has been marked with unforgettable experiences:

Day 1- Got lost in Madrid
Day 2- Attended a traditional Moroccan wedding
Day 3- Got lost in Marrakech
Day 4- Rode a camel in the desert
Day 5-Visited a town from movie scenes
Day 6- Went to Morocco's largest waterfall
Day 7- Spoke French in France

I did it all quite frugally but felt like a VIP. After Togo, small luxuries like hot showers feel more valuable than ever before.

Aside from indulging in these simple pleasures, in Spain I wandered around Madrid, reacquainting myself with the Western world until I got lost. 

No more street food, no clapping before opening a doors, and no more statements of 'bon digestion' after meals.

If you put my lousy sense of direction aside, the labyrinthine streets in the Medina (old city) are hard to keep anyone on track. 

Fortunately, I constantly stumbled upon delicious goodies: dates, almonds, dried apricots, and other fresh foods to keep me fueled along the way. For being on the same continent, Morocco seems oceans away from the life I knew in Togo.

In Morocco I got to experience a completely different part of Africa -- one mixed with Mediterranean delights, European customs, and a familiar Togolese-type hospitality. 

I jumped right in and spent hours discovering new things until I got lost there too. I enjoyed every minute of it but getting lost in Marrakech was nothing like getting lost in Madrid.

I tried to capture my experiences with photos, which you can check out here

Still, some of the best moments remain only in my memory---the golden hues of Madrid's Park del Retiro at sunset, the dense star-filled desert sky, and stripping down with Moroccan women in a traditional bath house.


I just hope to have as many great experiences in the next portion of my trip. The next, and longest stop is three weeks in France. Here's to practicing French!

À la prochaine
My service is officially over. Today I finished the formalities with the Peace Corps and added an R to the front of my previous label as PCV. Now, I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. 

Rather than returning home directly though, I will be making a few stopovers along the way. My itinerary includes Spain, Morocco, France, and Iceland before I return to the US in October. I will post more about those interim travels as they happen but in this post I decided to take a look back and reflect on my service.

The past two years seems to have passed in a dream. It is just hard to tell if I was taking a cat nap or was trapped in a decade long coma. It is impossible to decipher everything that happened here. In the past two years I experienced some of my highest highs and equally my lowest lows.

Moreover, I did things I did not know I could and others I never imagined. Not only did I travel abroad for the first time; I learned a new language, gained lots of personal and professional skills and even got into the best shape of my life.

I do not think there is a good way to qualify it all. Instead, I opted to quantify my time in Togo by following the model of Matador U’s “by the numbers” articles. Here are the highlights:


Amount of time in Togo
27 months, 20 days
Vacations taken
3
# of sick days spent in Med-Unit
0
Care packages received
≈ 10
Average amount spent per week
< $5
Togolese currency (fCFA) to USD
≈ 500
Wild/exotic animals seen in Togo
0 ; farm animals do not count
# of incoming PCVs in August 2011
21
# of outgoing PCVs from the same group
12
Time to travel from my site to the capital
10 hours
Distance from my site to the capital
254 miles
# of cities visited in Togo (overnight trips)
> 12
# of overnight PCV visitors to my house
> 16
Average daily # of visits from community members
3
Marriage proposals
Countless
# of photos taken
> 5,000
Books read
29
Weight lost
40 pounds


Of all the topics I wrote about the past two years, I have not said much about the Togolese school system.  Now that the school year has finished this post is a bit passé; but no conversation about Togo can be complete without it.

Here are some interesting facts:
1. Children generally start school between age 5 and 6. However, there is no upper age limit so some begin as late as 14, 15, or even as an adult (though less common).

2. All schools, public and private, have attendance fees. They are generally around $5-10 per student though some private schools reach $50-100 annually or more—a lot for a Togolese budget and with a large family.

3. Boys are usually given the preference of being sent to school; especially when money is tight.

4. School uniforms are required in all public institutions. This means khaki clothing and shaved heads for boys and girls alike.

5. Teachers might have the only copy of a textbook for their classes. Students make photocopies of the book if needed and make sure to note almost every word the teacher says during classes.

Once students graduate they leave quite knowledgeable and loaded with information, maybe more so than the Americans. However, even with this immense knowledge base, sometimes the most well educated adults must be hard pressed to think outside the box and form new ideas.

In general, the school curriculum is quite standardized and leaves little room for critical thinking and creativity. Instead, students learn through memorization and repetition. It is not surprising that after being instructed for years with this system, a similar way of thinking seeps into Togo’s daily life.

Therefore, the work many of Togo Peace Corps Volunteers is to encourage creative thinking. We form clubs, teach English classes and simply challenge students to think outside the box through interactions with them and simple conversations.

Of all my activities, I think my work with students is most likely to continue past my two years of service…potentially lifetime. With any luck, our small conversations will be the foundation for many more.

If you are curious about the Togolese grade level equivalents, below you’ll find a chart that explains it all. At the end you will see that rather than counting grade levels in ascending order; beginning in middle school, grade levels descend to indicate how many years are left.

Grade Level (American)
Togo Equivalent
Notes
Pre-School
Maternelle/Jardin d’enfants

Kindergarten
Cours Préparatoire 1ere (CP 1)

1
Cours Elémentaire 1ere (CE 1)

2
Cours Préparatoire 2eme (CP 2)

3
Cours Elémentaire 2eme (CE 2)
First level in elementary school or Ecole Publique Primaire (EPP)
4
Cours Moyen 1ere (CM 1)

5
Cours Moyen 2eme (CM 2)*

6
Sixième (6eme)
First level in middle school or Collège d’Enseignement Général (CEG)
7
Cinquième (5eme)

8
Quatrième (4eme)

9
Troisième (3eme)*

10
Seconde (2nde)
First level of high school or lycée
11
Premiere (1ere)*

12
Terminale*


*At the end of the indicated year, students must pass a national examination before continuing to the next level.


Rainy days in Togo are rarely light enough to just grab an umbrella or throw on a rain jacket and boots then continue the day. Rains in the Tropics are akin to torrential downpours. Often, they come with the feeling of being thrust into a thunderstorm, hurricane and flood combined.

This brings everything to a halt. As the rain rolls in, common practice is for everyone to run back home or find a nearby shelter until it is over. A sometimes good, sometimes bad effect is that all meetings and other obligations outside of home are canceled.

The one exception of this rule applies to travel. Amidst heavy tropical rains, even the most ill-prepared cars—those with broken windshield wipers, windows that no longer roll up, or leaks throughout the frame—continue on toward their destination.

I found myself in this situation a handful of times during my service and each time was quite traumatizing. Every second of even the shortest distances driven at slow speeds felt like death was coming. The rain makes it almost impossible to get a clear picture of the road ahead. Like mosaic paintings, windshield vision is blurred to barely recognizable outlines.
View from the front windshield

There would normally be a few seconds of relief when the windshield wipers swoop down. In a car with broken wipers the driver must reach his hand outside his window (thus one less hand on the steering wheel) and manually bring the adjacent wiper down.

Yet the drivers manage to keep their composure. They do not seem fazed by occasional skids off the road or bangs into potholes. They even maintain conversations with passengers and never lose eye contact, even if that means diverting attention away from the road.

The fact that Togo has one of the worst roads in West Africa is only compounded on rainy days. Fortunately, I always arrived safely at my destination.