Friday, February 19, 2010

With a little Alps from my friends

Well, I’m back in Togo after a week long trip to France, so this is a good opportunity to sign on again.

Last year when I was hired by my school, I agreed to organize the annual ski trip to Europe (which hadn’t actually happened for a couple of years). After 5 months of logistics, meetings and tons of paperwork, we headed off on Air France to Paris, through to Lyon, then a coach ride to Montgenevre in the French Alps. One of the oldest resorts, it lies on the Italian border and promised plenty of snow.

The process of just getting oneself to an overseas destination for a holiday is not the same as chaperoning 20 teenagers. Actually, some of them were 10 or 11 years old, grade 5 and 6, so not even teens yet.
After collecting at the school on a Saturday evening, we headed in school minibuses to the airport, where we slowly struggled just to be let into the building. Then the airline checkin, one by one. Then the customs booth with disembarkation cards. Then another security check and search of handluggage and our persons before heading out to the plane. More than two hours of continuous tasks with one teacher at the front and one bringing up the rear. The flight went fine, and the second flight to Lyon. Out of the airport into blasting icy winds, it finally struck these young Africans that we were not in Lomé anymore. Everyone was getting pretty tired and hungry by now but we had a 4 hour bus ride up into the Alps. The amazing scenery helped distract from the discomforts and spirits were good. By the time we got to our hotel, Les Rois Mages, they were starving and tired so we had some soup and relaxed.
Monday morning we were up at 7 to get to breakfast in the common dining hall, then head out to lessons at 9. Charlie and Thibaud took great care of our rank amateurs and Aine helped supervise them, as I took the two experienced skiers up the chairlifts. Back for lunch and then out again at 1 for another lesson. By evening they were pretty sore but we had evening entertainment lined up every night with our Equity Ski representative.
A snowmobile ride with crepe and hot chocolate, bumboarding, a disco (with another school group from England; talk about culture clash) and iceskating on the last night.
I was astonished by the amount of junk food these kids could down. With pocket money far beyond most teens (150 euros or more), they went out multiple times a day to the grocery and even came in with Pepsi and chips before breakfast was even served at 8am!
The scenery was spectacular and the weather was decent enough. Couple days of light blowing snow, couple days of sun. Our return was more challenging but ended up flowing pretty flawlessly anyways. Due to late purchase, we had not got a flight back from Lyon to Paris, so we took the TGV high speed train.
It was cheaper and they got to see the French countryside. The only downside was we had to leave the hotel at 3:30am. So they were pretty tired despite sleeping on the bus for a while. I’ll never forget sitting beside the bus driver as we tried to navigate through the streets of Lyon in the early morning darkness, reading a Mapvista printout on how to get to the train station!

The highlight in Charles DeGaulle airport was probably McDonald’s (unavailable in Togo).

When we arrived in Lomé airport, the power went out just as we stepped into the processing building. More than one of us shouted 'Bienvenue à Togo!" After two hours of shuffling along, we walked out into a thundering rainstorm, the first rain in a couple months. Soaked to the skin in a couple minutes, I rode in the bus with the luggage, dodging the waterfalls coming through holes in the roof.
Back in the Caisse, we dropped all the kids off at their houses and I returned home to relax for two whole days before going back to classes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Duking it out in the hills of Kpalimé

The two of us have just returned from the Kpalimé area where we were accompanying a school 'Duke of Edinburh program' expedition. Really called 'The International Award for Young People' or something like that outside of the U.K., it has really taken off this year under the supervision of my colleague Guy Colborne. He had done this in England and brought those skills to BSL, where there are about 45 students enrolled this year. So many that the first (practice) expedition had to be split into 6 groups on 2 separate weekends. So yesterday morning, the last 23 students met at the school at 7:30 am and loaded onto two school buses. Accompanied by Guy's 4X4, we headed north of Lomé for 2 and a half hours and unloaded at the side of a road well up one of the few signicant hills in that region. After a last check over, which revealed several students wearing pull-on Vans-type shoes and what looked like delicate Italian loafers, we headed up the hill, to the probably confused looks of locals. What on earth would you come all the way up here and haul a load in the blazing sun if you didn't have to?? Silly yovos.

As predicted, the going was tough for the students. They are not used to carrying a pack, not used to exertion and not used to moving on uneven terrain. Put it all together and they were struggling early on, looking for any excuse for a stop. I spent a lot of that time adjusting packs that were not set up well or didn't come close to fitting them.

The real challenge was the heat. Even without a pack myself and early on in a 3 hour ramble, I was feeling pretty overheated. The ground was not steep, but it did take a little attention to avoid stumbling. We passed by patches of cultivated corn (actually a tougher form of maize), manioc, bananas, yams, coffee bushes and taro root. There's always something to see here, particularly if you are interested in culture or nature. Which we are, being a biologist and an anthropologist by training!

At stages the vegetation got thicker and the trail wound deeper through ravines. Near hilltops and ridges, there was a welcome breeze.

At one point we passed this hillside covered in felled palms.
They are cultivated and harvested for the making of palm wine and sodabey ( a sort of moonshine, brutal stuff which I tried our first couple of days in-country). It is made from the center of the palm trunk and fermented and distilled. Apparently it is usually too concentrated to sell legally.

We took a 15 minute break after about an hour and a half. The students asked for food and I asked if they didn't have lunch supplies with them. A couple said they had something but all the others said they hadn't been given anything. So after eating all the other snacks (mainly junk food like Pringles chips that they bought at the supermarket), we headed on.

Things like crossing a 6-inch-deep stream were a novel experience for these kids, most of whom have spent their entire lives in urban environments, usually insulated through wealth from any sort of struggle or wilderness experience. I had to help out one student who was feeling light-headed and stumbling. After taking her pack and plying her with lots of water, she slowly strengthened and we caught up to the others at a water break. As we approached our real lunchstop, I joked with the students that we had another hour and half to go after lunch. They were horrified but then happy to find I was teasing.

Later, when we stopped in a village for lunch, Guy couldn't believe that they had not pulled out the food that they had been given. Whole loaves of bread, cheese, jam, chocolate, cans of corned beef and tuna. So they pulled all that out and filled themselves.

Then it turned out we DID have another hour plus to go. And this bit was a bit nerve-wracking as we had another medical situation. One boy started having an asthma attack. Which didn't seem to be resolved through use of his inhaler. So I would make him rest for 5 minutes and then head on very slowly, but it would keep coming back. Even had him take a Ventoline pill from the first aid kit. Guy found out later that the boy didn't know how to correctly use his own inhaler so he was getting very little of the drug into his system that way.

As we got back onto a road 5 minutes from the pick-up, a young goat like this one ran out of the bushes in front of us. and dodged into the undergrowth, with what was obviously a leg-hold trap attached to its foot.

It seemed to have just been injured moments before and when I went looking for it, found the goat crouching down beside the road. It made no effort to run from me, and it must have been in terrible agony. I slowly reached underneath it and tried to disengage the two large jaws. Difficult to do under ideal circumstances, but with a terrified animal not clear that I was trying to help and the trap being rusty AND hidden out of sight under the goat... Amazingly I managed to squeeze the mechanism open and release it quite quickly. We debated taking the goat, getting aid for it and keeping it as a pet but Guy pointed out that it belonged to someone local and they would eat it promptly under the circumstances. Not a happy ending but he was right that we didn't really have the right to take someone's 'property', much as I don't like that term applied to sentient creatures. At least we took the trap away so it couldn't be used again, on wild creatures or domesticated.

We then drove on to an old German mission on a hillside, where we set up camp in their clearing. The kids struggled to set up multiple types of tents, some unfamiliar, in the dusk. Then they cooked basic food like ramen noodles on 'Trangier' alcohol stoves.

The night was long, with both of us not sleeping much, Julia because of the very thin foam pads and myself because of the hot humid conditions. Just lying on top of the sheet bag with nothing on was too hot, even with the doors open.

Next morning we all had basic breakfasts and got packed up for the second hike. I quickly collected a huge seedpod from a baobab tree at the site.

As we put sunscreen on, we noticed that we had been bitten dozens of times by tiny black flying insects, not mosquitos. You don't feel them and they don't itch so suddenly you notice tons of big red spots just appearing like this:
Julia had them all over both arms and her neck and face.

Down the hill to the village below, where a replacement van was waiting (one of the school vans died the day before, just as we got to camp). We were run to another village where we hopped out and started another walk along roads, then through fields and forests again for about 2 hours. Past lots of cocoa trees, which are very weird with their big pods growing from any part of the trunk or branches. Even just an inch above the ground.

The countryside is all semi-developed. Even the areas that look like 'jungle' are often semi-cultivated. The original trees are mostly gone, the teak and the mahogany. Replaced with avocados, grapefruit, cocoa and coffee. Not in a totally regimented style that looks like a farm or orchard. The other plants are still there, growing among the planted ones so it looks natural. Unfortunately, there is very little wildlife anywhere. Nothing bigger than a lizard, other than birds. and even they are mainly small flitting birds. The rest has been eaten. Monkeys are known here as bushmeat. I haven't seen any sign of any for sale, but then you can't catch what has been driven to extinction (locally, so yes it's actually 'extirpation'). You DO see kids holding rodents up by their heads at the side of the road, huge cane rats I believe. And skewers of cooked snails, giant land snails covered in local red sauce. Apparently tastes like pieces of rubber with red sauce, not unlike escargot anywhere!

We finally finished that last part of the hike and got out to the vehicles on the other side. Celebrated our accomplishment with cookies and banana bread, courtesy of Auntie Comfort in the school kitchen. Back into the vans and headed for Lomé, stopping for a cold soft drink in one of the roadside bars. Within 15 minutes the students were almost all dozing, wrung out from 2 days of heat and carrying packs.

Back in town, we stopped at school where the students had to finish sorting and returning all the gear. Which Julia and I were excused from. We rushed home to cold showers and fresh clothes.
Then I tended the garden a bit and cut down the last of one of the bunches of bananas.

The adventure doesn't quite end there because, being Togo, the power had been going out throughout the day. We decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Le Lotus, the Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant in our neighbourhood. The power went out again as we arrived, and then went on and off 3 or 4 times during our 20 minute wait for take-out. Back at home we had power but the water pump seems to have gone on the blink so we can't get any water, flush a toilet etc. BUT... during dinner a heavy rainshower started, complete with thunder, so we are catching some rainwater in a tub in the garden. The same tub we usually use to catch our shower water and use to water plants in the garden. Ironic.
Time to Skype family and do marking. Then early to bed, I think.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I'm just Singing (and running) in the Rain!

This past Saturday, Oct. 24th, I got up before dawn to take part in the local 'Marathon Climatique', one of at least 4000 events on Climate Change that took place that day around the world. This one was under the auspices of which hopes to move the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere back under 350ppm where it will hopefully stabilize.
There not being any real public transit in Lomé, I hiked out to a main boulevard and then paid a guy to carry me on the back of his motorcycle to the Tokoin-Casablanca neighbourhood. This is a big part of the transit 'system'.

There, a big crowd was already forming outside the offices of JVE, Jeunes Volontaires pour l'Environnement.
Seven guys stripped off their shirts and got painted up on their chests to spread the word about that CO2 concentration goal.

This is a small portion of the crowd, lined up in the JVE courtyard to get their Tshirts.

After they all got organized, we headed out to the main road and just headed downtown, blocking the road and pissing off the traffic, with no apparent police assistance. This being Togo, JVE had worked hard to get this put together but the powers that be apparently thought that 2 firefighters and about 4-6 police was enough for hundreds of people in the streets.

We jogged slowly but continuously down to the beach, along and then up again to the university. Only 20 minutes into the run we were hit by heavier and heavier rain, eventually of monsoon proportions. I chatted with several other participants, desperately trying to understand their French (no fault of theirs, my comprehension skills are terrible). I felt a bit odd at times, being one of only three non-blacks in the crowd of hundreds. The others were a French volunteer riding in a truck of camera crews and her friend who also ran.

Along the way I saw this banner from local disciples of the Supreme Master Ching Hai, who advocates a vegan diet to save the planet. I've been interviewed for their Suprememaster TV channel and eaten at their restaurants back home, near San Francisco and recently in Paris. They're everywhere!

Eventually we got to the University of Lomé campus where a PA system was waiting, as well as water and sandwiches. Unfortunately, the rain didn't let up and there was little shelter. Lines formed for the drinks and sandwiches but people started to push a little and the police or soldiers (I don't know, they were in fatigues and boots) took off their big belts, folded them over and started swinging at anyone who didn't back off.

If you look carefully at this guy's right hand, you can see his black belt ready for action.

I was asked to pose for a photo with a group of other participants, none of whom I had met at all, presumably because of my novelty value.

After about 30-45 minutes, I was getting cold and very hungry, not having eaten for about 5 hours, so I walked the 1o minutes into my neighbourhood just outside the university gates.

Overall, it was a good experience. A very public environmental event took place, although I don't know the level of awareness of Climate Change among many of the participants and whether they are interested in taking actions to keep emissions down (like not running a smoking scooter). The energy was great, with lots of singing, chanting, and dancing, despite the rain and the long slog. The organizers estimated that 3000 people participated in several locations across Togo. It's hard to say, but certainly several hundred people were here in Lomé. If that was happening all over the world, then maybe this Copenhagen summit will be the one to lead,finally, to real binding action.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I love the smell of diesel generators in the evening

Our humble house from the intersection; behind the camera is our neighbour the United Nations.

The dining room: lots of natural light everywhere, we don't use any lights all day.

Well, the power just went out again at 7pm, after coming back on only 10 minutes ago. This happens relatively rarely, less than once a week. For the developing world, that's not outrageous. We're talking a capital city where the tap water passes NO tests for water safety, even in the rich enclave.

Oh, and the lights just came back on again.

It's interesting to walk down the streets during a blackout and see who has a generator. Pretty easy, the rest of the houses are pitchblack. Not even any streetlamps on.

You can see who are the haves and the have-nots in this elite neighbourhood, the Caisse (the cash register or cash box). One house with huge walls and big metal garage doors will have lights everywhere, and you can hear the generator running. Perhaps for security purposes, many houses even have normal fluorescent tubes mounted on the outside of the walls, without any protection from the weather.

Strangely, the UN compound kittycorner to us does NOT have a generator which seems odd. They seem to have money for lots of guards, and more than one big black shiny SUV. Maybe it's just the business tycoons who can fork out for that. No, wait, I saw today that my school's headteacher (principal) has a generator in the carport.

I imagine that the more typical homes outside are in a way better prepared. They would be used to this and have candles and kerosene lanterns. That was the case in the one Togolese house I've been in when the power went out.

This is the last evening of the midterm break and I can't believe it's over. We rested lots and recuperated from various ailments, but didn't do anything big. Today we babysat for our headteacher again, who has been laid up with sciatica for two weeks. The two kids, adopted in Swaziland, are 4 and 2. Very nice and easy to handle, although the boy tends to be quite bossy sometimes. We all went to the school club swimming pool where we got royally sunburned, then to the poolside restaurant for a lunch of either crepes or frites (French fries).

Then back to the house where the boy and I did a bit of gardening. Well, mainly harassing ant colonies that are eating all our efforts to grow sunflowers and zuccini squash.

And the headteacher was treated with 'pranic healing' a sort of aura-cleansing process, which she admitted has seemed to help her twice now despite enormous skepticism.

On the way home we ran into about 10 of the senior girls who had arrived back from Nigeria. they were excited to see us, but I think it was mainly to play with the cute little boy (the littler one, not me).

Well, must go make dinner, which will likely be mashed potatos and some sort of squash dish.

Bonne nuit

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Down to Aneho for the day

I went with two colleagues today east of Lomé to an old colonial town, Aného, dating back to when the Portuguese called it Anecho and shipped slaves out of it. Then the Germans came in late in the 19th century, made an agreement with one local chief and used it as a pretext to take over the whole region. German Togoland!Anyways, not much to see these days. The colonial buildings are almost all in terrible repair with roofs missing. So much poverty, orphanages everywhere, homes for AIDS kids, deaf kids, etc. I'm reminded of my time in India by the mud streets, shacks, infrastructure breaking down and no money to repair it. As people drive around the potholes in Mercedes, BMWs and Land Rovers.

At Chez Alice, a restaurant and bar with traditional dancing and singing, they had two leashed monkeys pacing back and forth in a clearing, obviously miserable. And at another bar-restaurant, they had two crocodiles living out their 40-60 year lives in a concrete pit about the size of a walk-in closet.

I watched a huge team pull a net out of the surf there, and the hole catch would fill half a garbage bag. Only one fish that I could see was of a size that we would normally see for sale. Everything else was tiny. But there are big fish in the markets, I suppose one has to go offshore to get much of that. I heard a CBC radio documentary just before leaving Canada, about child trafficking in this region. It turns out fisherman buy child slaves because as the fish are depleted in Lake Volta and related rivers, in Ghana and across the region, they need little fingers to pry the smaller and smaller fish out of the nets. All of the injustice is inter-related.

Sorry there's nothing cheery today!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bonjour, les blancs!

...est-ce que vous avez du travail pour nous?"

"Hey, whites, do you have any work for us?"

This was how we were greeted by two women standing alongside the quiet avenue in our Lomé neighbourhood. Granted anyone who doesn't look like a domestic worker in this enclave is a likely employer, so I guess it was worth a shot. But calling us 'whites' instead of Monsieur et Madame seems like a poor opening gambit. A bit offensive.

Not that it made any difference, we already have someone working for us. And we can't even find 2 days of work per week for her! Even if we improve her productivity by acting as babysitters for her 2 year old son Daniel who she brings to our place.

He seemed bored so I pulled out a big mac computer box that we used to ship cargo here from Canada, cut a couple windows in it and showed him how great it would be to get inside it. This seemed less appealing than pushing it noisily around the house, Especially with my flashing bike safety light on it.

Here is Brigitte, our 'houselady', coming back with produce in our Canadian 'Planet Organics' bag.

Today was also the day to go back to the dentist again. Two weeks ago I came down with an infected tooth (under my one gold crown) and when he couldn't get the crown off, he drilled a hole right through it to dig around in the root canal. Mmm-mmm! What fun for my vacation week. Three visits in a week and another in two weeks. Togo wasn't my first choice for major dental work. Perhaps choice number 180 of the world's countries, but it turns out that there are some very well-trained medical folks here and at least it's a lot cheaper than in Canada or Europe. Well, ignoring the fact that I would have been covered by a good dental plan back home.

Last night we had another Sri Lankan 'Green Banana Curry in coconut gravy', with bananas straight off our tree. Well, not quite straight. The tree with the huge bunch in this photo is gone. The school gardener who comes by every week to massacre things chopped it down. Why? That's the normal way of harvesting bananas apparently. Not necessary and the tree would have continued growing but hey, it's easier than getting a ladder. Kind of like the typical way of managing plastic garbage: burn it, right outside your house, with the acrid fumes drifting through your neighbours' houses.

Don't get me started on plastic!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Ice Cream Parlour from Hell

My school from the road. My classroom is at the bottom right and the open-air dining room is on the second floor.

It is Sunday afternoon, and we are hiding indoors. The equatorial sun hangs overhead making any time outside a challenge. I will do some more gardening after 6 when it darkens and cools. Likely by headlamp. I'm trying to get a coconut palm sapling from a colleague's garden and I wanted to get some other edible stuff going. My sunflowers started coming up a few days ago and then a gardener from our school came and ran over most of them with a lawnmower, as well as a coffee seedling and another tree seedling. I'm tempted to tell the school to not send the guys, they are masters of destruction and that's about it. The cocoa tree was missed. Hopefully by the time we leave here, it will be a garden of eatin'!

There are many mango trees around, including the school grounds, and I can see the strings of red mangos hanging on some of them. Can't wait for the crop to start ripening. I'm going to go out and cut some green bananas for a Sri Lankan coconut curry in a while.

My classroom with huge windows and tons of natural light. And AC to keep it bearable. This is almost my whole grade 7 class!

Every week here has been busy and tiring, but I like it. Thursday is a pretty busy day for me, and then I had a request to take a PE class last block (to the swimming pool across the street). Which sucked because I had rockclimbing to set up for and supervise after school from 3-4:30. And after doing that in the sun, I had to rush to a meeting with a parent who had flown in from Nigeria to see his 3 children's teachers. And then back to sort out gear and classroom materials before heading home.

Here is the view from my classroom

Friday there was a buffet and drinks for the staff, courtesy of the Board of Governors of the school, and we took a break in the middle of that to use the pool, something we try to do 3 times a week.
Then Saturday morning I was at school at 9:45 to teach 'Capture the Flag' as of the activity options for the boarding students. They took to it well, and really gave it their all, which is amazing when it is about 27 degrees and humid. Then a break indoors to cool down and learn a board game called 'bagh chal',basically Nepalese chess. Half played that while the others played Twister. Then outside again to learn 'Kick the Can' which they liked even more.
After that, home for a break and then back to school at 6pm to chaperone a 2-bus trip to a downtown ice cream parlour called 'Festival des Glaces'. Fancy place but they isolated us upstairs in a little-used party room and the kids all looked miserable for a while. Ate dinner and then the disaster began. They had a very poor system of writing the bills, so they remade a list of prices, then crossed them off as the kids came up to pay. Forty-five minutes later we were still paying. And at the end, the owner and a waiter were angrily accusing us of not paying for everything, but they couldn't even tell us what wasn't paid for! So when I asked for a list of dishes and drinks that weren't yet paid for, the owner angrily gave up and asked us to leave. I was sorry that we had already handed over a cumulative tip that was more than the supposed outstanding debt. We won't go back there again! In the end we got home after 10pm, so a long day for me.
Sunday was a lie-in, with pain perdu (French Toast) in bed with fresh pineapple and papaya, and coffee. So nice!
One of our main forms of entertainment is watching films on the computer. Just saw 'Smart People', borrowed from our school office, where they have a pile of DVDs. Ellen Page (Juno), Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker. Quite funny and touching. About a family of basically damaged people trying to get through life.
Also watched some episodes of the British series Cracker, with Robbie Coltrane as a forensic psychologist. Good stuff but brutal. Lots of sick killers.

Almost finished my marking. Grade 6, Grade 8 and Grade 10s tests.
Next Friday is parent night, then a week off at midterm. No plans yet for sure, but might try to go into either Benin or Ghana with a colleague who bought a 4X4.

Never a dull moment.