Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shades of Gray

This will be my last blog from Togo. I've spent nearly 18 months here, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer and now I'm ready to go home.  All of my life, I've been a pretty black or white person.  It's either right or wrong, black or white.  No in between and no exceptions.  Eighteen months of being pushed out of my comfort zone have taught me about the shades of gray.  This choice, to leave early, is not right or wrong, nor black or white.  It is gray.

My family was slow to understand this choice.  To quit, that is.  Because the daughter they knew a year and a half a go had never quit anything in her life.  That same girl had never taken a leap quite this big either.  Extreme choices call for extreme measures, or something like that.  I wanted to find out if this was the life I wanted (living/working internationally) and I chose Peace Corps to launch that dream.  If you're going to go, I remember thinking, go big. But being here, so far from the world I know, I realized how much my friends and family mean- and it's those people, not where you are or even the work you're doing that makes life special.

In the months leading up to this heavy decision to go home, I wanted someone to blame: Togo, the Peace Corps-something to explain my discomfort, struggle, and inability to adapt to, make peace with, and find contentment with my life here.  But then I realized, that's not fair. It's no one's fault.  This was a choice I made.  It was my choice to take on this challenge.  Neither Togo nor the Peace Corps asked me to sign up and live here, one of the poorest countries in the world.  So how could I expect anyone to take the blame for the things that irk me about this place? Add that lesson in casting blame to the long list I've gained from this experience.  You see, it's through these struggles, challenges that I've learned and grown so much. Let me explain.

I've learned to live with less (eating cabbage and lentils for dinner) and that'a given me a new respect for nice things.  I've learned that things change; time, circumstances, life changes things.  I've learned to be more okay with the unknown and allowing my goals to shift.  I've learned that a lot of life is a shade of gray.  Before, I dreamt of living all over the world, 'raising my kids in a hut in Africa,' I once said.  Before I really realized how wonderful running water and climate control are.  More than that, how much joy being near the people I love brings me.

Last week, a couple farmers from a neighboring village visited to say goodbye, thank me for my work with them, and buy me a Coke (yes, I drink regular Coke here).  Mario, one of the most motivated people I've met in Togo, asked me as we were nearly through with our sodas, "Aicha, in your time here have you thought about the differences between Togo and chez toi (your house)?"  Wow. What a question.  It was all I could do to not exclaim, "YES! How could I NOT think about the differences?" I suppressed the list I would have liked to ramble off for him and instead collected a more respectful response.

Yes, I said, there are differences.  I explained how the biggest difference for me was the challenging climate.  I've never realized how much more productive one can be when you're not constantly hot, sweaty, and dirty.  Secondly, the Togolese are much more of a community oriented society.  Yes, there is poverty, but poverty is relative (I've learned), and no one here truly goes without. You don't see homeless kids or shelters full of families.  Sure there are beggars and the mentally ill here who wander around, but for the most part, everyone helps everyone out. 

Interestingly enough, I've noticed a lot of Togolese I've met have great hope for a better life, but many are either unwilling to work for it (expecting someone to just give it to them) or that don't believe they could be a part of the solutions to the long list of issues facing Togo. I've realized just how determined and somewhat stubborn Americans are in getting what they want, what they believe is right.  Finally, I told Mario, there is just more in the States.  From big things like a developed infrastructure, transportation and education system with more chances to succeed, to smaller things like dinner options.  "But," I said, "don't forget that also means there are more problems too; drugs, violence, obesity, broken families."

It's fair to say that this experience has been mostly a struggle sprinkled with a few good moments.  And, I realized that most people will probably say this is how life is in general.  It took living in Togo for me to understand this lesson in life. The difference is the lack of comforts to come home to after a tough day; no bubble bath, no best friend to talk about the day over a plate of brownies. Small luxeries and special people I never appreciated so much.  I came to Togo for three reasons: to have an adventure, experience a non '9-5 desk job,' and learn if international development work was what I wanted for a career.  Check, check, check.  I had my 'ah-ha' moment in Togo; realizing the possibility of combining my passion for health and fitness with a new discovered interest in teaching. 

While the small victories, the happy moments were not balancing out with the boredom and lonliness that filled most days, I can say I'm glad I did it.  I needed to know if there was more out there.  And while I've learned about life's shades of gray, especially towards development work, I wouldn't say I've become apathetic. I still believe in fighting for the underserved and poor, but I've gained a new understanding of the importance of motivation and the desire for change that must exist if development is going to work. Indeed, there are lots of different ways of life in this world; something I was desiring to experience. What I didn't know was how living in one so foreign would make me appreciate the one I'm coming home to.

Friends here have asked what I'll miss about Togo. I'll miss being disconnected from constant news and Internet.  I'll miss cherishing the cool relief and gratitude brought by the rare rainstorm, and collecting its fresh water.  I'll miss fufu and peanut sauce.  More than anything, I'll miss the special people that I had the chance to get know. Both Togolese and PCVs.  Those sweet souls that got me through so much here, who encouraged and shaped me on this adventure, who helped me discover the shades of gray.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


I ran off a mountain this week.  With a parachute and paragliding expert attached behind me, we literally ran off the side of the mountains in the Plateau region of Togo this past Tuesday.  It was surreal.  We were literally floating in the sky with the birds.  The wind was blowing a decent clip so we were able to climb higher and higher.  My guide, a very kind woman from France and flying enthusiast, guided us up and up and the view was incredible.  Unfortunately, I had been having stomach issues a few days prior and after only 15 minutes (felt like an hour) I told her we better head down or I was going to be sick.  I’ve never gotten altitude or motion sickness so I was pretty bummed.  More than that, I felt really bad for my guide who could have spent all day up there.  We landed in an actual mowed grass landing strip next to small elementary school. Even though it was noon and the sun was blazing, I sat there like a child panting and focusing on keeping my breakfast down.  Then school let out and I hid under a tree while the little screamers ran from their classrooms to greet the Frenchwomen.

My friend Kate, a health PCV, lives in these mountains and I was lucky enough to visit her for a few days. The view from this mountain side village had its price: three hours on one of Togo’s worst known roads. Over a dozen bodies smooshed into less than 10 places in a small van that looked like it belonged in a demolition derby at the county fair moved along at about a snails pace (from the road’s extreme potholes or the van’s crappiness-I’m not sure) as we sat in a trance of survival; soaked in sweat (of course traveling at the hottest time of the day) with the only relief a light breeze which happened to be coating us in a layer of the road that resembles the surface of the moon more than any real road. ‘This is physical hell,” I told myself.  One or two travel elements of this kind of travel are bearable- heat and being packed in like a sardine has become normal- but when you add the extreme slow pace, the dirt, and the inability to rest your legs and arms in more than one positions for over three hours, and the result is a lot of mental screaming and trying to find your ‘happy place.’ Planning ahead, this wasn’t my first trip down this infamously bad road, I had my baby wipes handy and Kate and I came back to life after jumping out of the ‘car’ (the side door literally came off its hinges and was only held together with a fat bungee cord during our trip) and wiping the top layer of filth from our faces, necks, and arms.  The craziest part about all this: my friends have to make this trip EVERY TIME they want to leave village to get to a bigger city. INSANE.  There is a reason God put me where he did in Togo; I wouldn’t have lasted a month enduring such repeated torture! 

As we searched for motorcycle taxi’s to take us up the mountain to Kate’s I was wondering what the heck this was all for.   And then, not five minutes into the ride up, I realized why; the view from the road was enough to convince me to do it all over again.  I noticed right away how much cooler the air was, lacking humidity and so very fresh. Plus, her village is quite quaint.  Small enough for everyone to know her and her work there but big enough to get lost on a walk and enjoy plenty of vegetables (not so, chez moi).  I don’t know what I liked better, the cool air, using a BLANKET for the first time ever in Togo on the night it rained, the abundance of green peppers and cabbage available, the mountains and the majestic views, or the fact that a mama was making and selling fufu for lunch everyday! Wow, what a great place…once you pay that entry fee.

Kate and I had a great time; she is a great cook and has a cute and comfortable house.  I went for a run on the first night, exhilarating up and down the hills in mountain air.  The next day we took moto’s to Kpalime (considered a ‘resort’ town by Togo standards) to enjoy a day at one of three pools in the town.  We bought junk food (Pringles and chocolate chip cookies) and ordered pizza poolside!  It was the perfect place to be in the noon sun!

My last day in Danyi (the village name) I had the chance of a lifetime; to experience flying.  There is a French woman who owns a paragliding company and who spends a few weeks a year flying in Togo- just happening to be Kate’s village.  A group of paragliding enthusiasts from Toulouse, France were visiting and with the right weather and wind conditions in place, they let us tag along that morning.  

It was an unforgettable couple of days on Kate’s mountain. It reminded me of the beauty that exists here in Togo and the vastness and power of nature in its purest form.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

These past two weeks...

I’ve made some good memories the past two weeks.  Taking some free days to visit friends and their villages, I’ve had the chance to see parts of Togo that look completely different than LT.  First up was a visit to my good friend Jenny’s who lives about an hour north on the national road.  Her little village is almost to Kara, the next largest city and set in the heart of the mountains.  Now, I call them mountains, for those who’ve seen the Rockies or the Alps would call them hills; alas, they’re the most elevation Togo’s got.  Anyway, I couldn’t believe the drop in temperature thanks to the slight incline in elevation, and I appreciated it very much!  We spent a morning hiking around some very interesting rock formations and taking in amazing views and enjoying the peacefulness.

Back in LT, we had our first of six PTA meetings for the school trash project.  It was a pretty cool feeling, standing before 100+ Togolese mom’s and dad’s and presenting the project.  Of course it was translated bit by bit into local language, but standing up and speaking off the top of my head in French has been a nice accomplishment.  The parents planned to set a date to construct a dumpster of sorts out of sticks and shrubs.

I spent Saturday morning picking corn, Togo style.  Aposto has a few rows of corn near his house and I offered to help him pick it whenever it was ready.  It took the 4 of us all of 45 minutes to pick what hadn’t been eaten by bugs or taken by neighbors.  I was surprise at the small amount it resulted in and they were disappointed too. Almost every Togolese I know has at least a garden size plot of land for corn of which they use to make their dish of choice: pate (cornmeal mush). A good corn harvest is crucial as it saves families from having to buy corn when it’s at its most expensive and their supply has run out. Last year Aposot and Nima were able to use the crop for 10 months.

Last week kicked off with a meeting with the local middle school director.  My counterpart and I were in the middle of explaining our gender equity club, how it will be intense as we are looking to change attitudes and behaviors when the director stops us, turns to me and essentially says, ‘but when are you going to build us something?’! AH!! Thankfully, this was not my first run in with him and I smiled and carried on explaining until he nodded and waved us off, signaling we had permission to start the club.  “Typical Togo,” as one friend put it when I called later to vent.

My day was improved a few hours later as the PC car that travels the country twice a month picked me up and we headed north.  It was truly unbelievable how quickly and smooth the six hours passed as we arrived in Dapaong, the regional capital of Togo’s northern most region.  A real car reminded me how travel can be enjoyable when the car isn’t over stuffed with hot sweaty bodies, chickens, goats, and running at half speed!

Early the next morning, my host and good friend Sam, and I took a 45 minute motocycle taxi ride to the base of the mountains that lie on the edge of Dapaong.  I immediately noticed how much drier the air was.  Although the sun was blazing by 8 am, we had an exhilarating hike up to the top where the view was absolutely incredible.  I’m not sure how high up we were but you could see for miles and miles.  

Later that afternoon I visited a group of women and young girls who run a weaving program and store where my friend Katy helps out.  The program gives girls free apprenticeships (rare in Togo) where after they’re taught to weave on giant looms, they pay for their own materials and then when their creations sell in the store they receive the profits directly.  Pretty cool program.

I enjoyed some new tastes of the north; a frozen yogurt time treat only found in Dapaong, Moringa juice made by Sam who’s passionate about nutrition, and we shared a few calabashes of tchakpa, the North’s version of tchouk. More than anything, it was a great couple days hanging out with some of my best friends here in Togo, eating some tasty stuff and seeing the sights of Dapaong! 

Monday, October 8, 2012

To Ghana and back

After a fantastic vacation in Accra, Ghana, I’m back to village.  Some of my best friends in country and I spent 4 days in the capital of Ghana and were quite delighted with the cities advanced development.  We ate sushi one night, and had fresh fruit smoothies, croissants and real coffee every morning for breakfast.  Delicious pasta and salads, and ice cream was a priority too!  It was so nice. I didn’t feel as if I were in Africa.  Spending an afternoon at the mall for the first time in almost a year didn’t hurt either.  We even went to a movie—in a theatre!

On Sunday, Sept 30, the reason for our visit arrived as we rose early- around 4 am- to head to the marathon/half marathon course.  After hearing race horror stories from PCV’s the year before, our small but mighty team of 3 was well prepared for difficult conditions.  Thankfully, the race only started 15 minutes late and thus we escaped the worse of the day’s heat.  Running west along the coast for part of the time, the sun was at our back with the ocean breeze in our face.  The challenge was the lack of mile or route markers as we ran a lot through random traffic and neighborhoods, trying to keep the next race participant in front of you. I was expecting worse- at least the half marathon didn’t run out of water!  No designed as a loop course, so we were bused out to the starting line. We only had a few minutes to use the bathroom before we started and I chose to follow some women into an off the path park to make things quicker.  Unfortunately, I was walking back to the road alone, holding my friends Ipod, and was disturbed by a Rasta guy.  Thankfully, he was a crappy thief and only broke the headphones cord.  What an adrenaline rush to get a race started! I finished in one of my slowest times, but I felt strong the entire way, so I was happy just to not be overheated or dying of thirst! 

The race ended at a beautiful 5 star (at least that’s what I would consider it!) hotel right on the beach.  While they wouldn’t let us on the beach because we weren’t staying there, we did make friends with a woman on the bus who was and she invited us to cool down in the gorgeous pool anyway. It was lovely!

On our way out of Accra we had amazing gelato for lunch… you could say it was tough returning to Togo.

In the next few weeks I’ll be preparing for the new school year that is just now starting due to a two week delay. Planning my girls club with a couple of the girls I sponsored for the Vacation Enterprise program and who attended a PCV camp “Take Our Daughters To Work” this summer. They will be my left and right hands; trying to slowly turn the club over to them. In addition, I’m going to try to get a MAP (men as partners—gender equality) club for the top boys in each middle school class, off the ground. Finally, a new trash collection project at the schools within LT will hopefully get going soon with local volunteers and my English Club. Lots to do… we’ll see how it goes! 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thoughts on Togo -by Mike Wilmoth

Hello, everyone… This week Tay asked me to write her blog for you guys to get my Togo experience since my twelve days of being here.  Well like three days into it I started this blog, and had a lot of it written, and it felt like I was writing about some neat and nifty summer camp experience, with exclamation marks and quips, the whole nine yards….but after being here, going back and reading it….it just didn’t reflect my trip, and my feelings towards it. 

You know when you go to do something that you know will be hard, but you have never done it, you have this ignorance about you, which for the most part isn’t all that bad, because how could you ever do something if you really knew what you were doing.  That’s how I felt before I left- people kept asking me “What are you going to do?”….I replied “Survive, I guess…” I didn’t’ actually believe that really, but to be honest, that was a big part of it, sometimes just getting to the next day.

Africa is huge, and it would seem that it would eat you up quick and spit you out even faster, but here, it’s a small and slow grinding process that is the thing that makes it hardest.  Me and Tay sometimes would say….”Togo won today….” And on my trip, we won most the days, but even as a team, Togo had some victories.

In general, the idea of planning in this country is just more of a calculated hope. Which couldn’t be more evident than in the start of my trip, when I found myself stuck in DC for two days due to a weather delay. It’s just how you can adapt and roll with it that makes or breaks the day.  We had things we wanted to do that we couldn’t; the one I most remember was the waterfalls in Badou.  It is the rainy season, and it had turned streams to raging rivers, making the journey impassable.  But the way we adapted, and rolled with the circumstance made that day the best, playing cards in some small village in the middle of the jungle hills, then finding out our hotel had hamburgers….rolling with the punches and making it your day. That, to me is how trips are made, with some “planning” mixed in there for good measure.

I have some thoughts that I had wrote down since being here, so I think just listing them will be the way to do it. Here we go:

Lome, the capital city is not segregated at all in the class of people.  There are awesome eateries and hotels, and most will be right next to dumps.

If I lived here I would need:

1.       Dehumidifier
2.       Something like a cat litter box to dust the sand off my feet
3.       A make shift urinal in my house, so I wouldn’t have to walk outside to go to the bathroom.
4.       A refrigerator, for sure.
5.       AC is too unrealistic
6.       4 burners instead of standard 2, I would plan my day around cooking to pass time

Being n Tay’s house I was trying to hang something in her concrete wall, and it kept chipping.  I felt like Andy Dufrian in Shawshank Redemption: all the time in the world, concrete walls with bars, and all alone in your thoughts.

We visited the hospital in her village.  I don’t’ know how they could call it that, it’s just a building with beds.  I saw a couple of charts, and some forceps, that’s about it.  Note to self, DO NOT GET SICK! AH!

Probably the scariest thing in this country is traveling the road.  With no traffic laws, it’s a rhythmic insanity.  At first I was about ready to freak out and called riding in a my first bush taxi “ A hot day in hell”, but by the end I wasn’t noticing the chaos as much. However, the road to Badou can absolutely drive a man insane.  Imagine, well honestly there isn’t the right imagery bad enough for you to imagine it.  Let’s just say livestock on a country road in the States, travel better than we did that day. PCV’s here have a tough choice, be alone in village, or face the chaos to get to social settings.  So, if the road doesn’t kill you, the loneliness might….I would need a dog.

I was grabbed a couple times by the “crazy” people here, don’t know what it is about me, but I attracted ‘em. Taylor smacked the first one, and we just walked really fast around the others.
Tay’s local contact, Aposto, that guy is awesome. He is a genuine soul, who looks out for her, and is a true friend of hers and now of mine.  I had such a great time with him and his wife, Nima.  I truly hope I get to see them sometime in the future….bless you Aposto!

I want to reiterate again the grinding process of Togo: every single meeting or event we went to was late to start. You think you would get over this after a few times, but our culture has engrained punctuality in so much that I don’t know if it is possible, especially for type A personalities like me.
It was really tough for me not to speak French on this trip. I thrive on being able to communicate, and to not do that was taking away a huge ability for me, and honestly, that just plain sucked.
I  almost got robbed in the grand market in Lome. Two guys tried to get my cash but I figured it out quick enough, thank goodness, but really ruined that afternoon.

I was really interested in how things were made in this country.  All legit buildings are concrete, I think because of the humidity.  I watched a kid spread concrete one morning, it was interesting and I thought about what it would take to build this country, the infrastructure.  The thought itself is exhausting, let alone actually orchestrating it!

The landscape is a lot like Florida, low land shrubs, swampy…and hotter and more humid than anything right now with rainy season.

This place is simple and complex at the same time. I am ready to get back to America, but some of me wouldn’t mind being here either. I know I will be thinking about Togo long after I get back to the States, and hopefully bringing some of it back to Iowa with me.

Well, finally I just want to say to Taylor, I’m so proud of you. You have made the days yours and have accomplished things of true value to this country. I can’t say it enough, I’m proud of you. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rain running under rainbows

Say that three times fast. Lately, that’s been the story here; nearly all of my runs have been accompanied by at least some form of precipitation. But is this girl complaining? NO WAY! The harder it pours, the happier I am.  In training for the upcoming half marathon in Accra, Ghana at the end of September, and I did my first ten-miler in Togo last week in Pagala after my final week of Camp Espoir.  It poured all day and drizzled throughout the whole run but I was pleasantly greeted by a full rainbow as I turned around and made my way back. I ran backwards for a while to take in the awesome golden and fuchsia sunset. I literally ran under the rainbow and back to the center. 

Enough about weather and exercise.  I spent the last three weeks in Pagala, again, as we finished up the last weeks of Camp Espoir and I helped out as a counselor for another camp Peace Corps sponsors.  A camp based on creating young leaders for Togo, Camp UNITE brings some of Togo’s top students to the center in Pagala and loads them up with information and enthusiasm to take back to their communities.  It was a moving week for me as well as I had the chance to lead sessions on the importance of girls education and time management.  It was really neat to watch the participants realize that their entire future will be better if their sisters, wives, and daughters are educated right alongside them.  And teaching about planning – if you know me at all, you know I can get pretty fired up about this one!  Even more, I had the chance to be with three boys from Lama-Tessi who were invited to participate. To be able to watch them experience something so new and exciting was really cool. What’s more, they’re fired up and ready to spread the knowledge here in LT.

The second week was a blur – what’s with this exhaustion? Not used to FULL days without long hours of reading at home, I struggled throughout my time at camp with questions like, “Why can’t I get through a day of camp without needing a nap, sugar, caffeine?” and “Will I be able to make it in America?” Scarfing down my lunch, I practically ran back to my bunk each afternoon, coveting every precious minute of rest hour.  By the end of the week I realized why my mom valued my nap time so much when I was little!

The third and final week in Pagala, was the last week of Camp Espoir and I had the pleasure of being a staff member (rather than an organizer as I was for the other 3 weeks) and be right among the little monsters for the week.  I was assigned to a ‘medium’ aged cabin of seven boys from the southern regions of Togo.  This means it was my turn to be energetic, silly and fun. Yes, I know some of you are thinking about how that must have been a stretch for me. However, my good (and smart) friend Connor kept the office stocked in sugar and caffeine and the week went really well and I found my laid-back camp mode and had a great time!

Some highlights: In the talent show the group of PCV’s on staff that week did a ‘circus’ act complete with a clown (Connor), a gymnast and ribbon dancer (Alex and Lauren), a peanut catching/animal caller (Ryan), and a bad mime (me).  I don’t think the kids got it at all. But we sure had fun! The next night the kids had time to share stories of the challenges they’ve experience in being infected or affected by HIV/AIDs. Almost all seven of my boys opened up about losing one or both parents and friends to AIDS.  It was an up close and personal reminder of why this week of fun and encouragement is so important. As we sent the boys home and began cleaning up the center, I stopped to read the some of the camper evaluations the PCV’s collected.  “Why do you like Camp Espoir,” we asked.  “I like camp because I don’t get hit and we get to eat lots of food,” one responded. Wow.  Sharing with the other volunteers we all realized how easy it is to forget that these kids are seen as outcasts- lepers to their friends and family members who have been obligated to take them in.

It was interesting to have the perspective on these different camps. UNITE gives hope for the future of Togo- empowering the country’s young people to stand up, take responsibility and make change for themselves. ESPOIR provides a safe environment where for one week vulnerable kids impacted by HIV aren’t seen as different but can play and have fun as well as enjoying some positive love and 
attention from PCV’s. Different, but both important for Togo.

Other exciting things from this week include the prospect of a new project with a Togolese volunteer (think AmeriCorps) here in Lama-Tessi who has his medical degree and would like to improve the hygiene situation. He drew up a plan to put in trash cans at each of the schools and we met with the chiefs this morning to win their support.  Also, I was encouraged yesterday with a trip to Yao Kope, the small village to the north of LT where there is a group building a new hog enclosure with the help from a grant from the US Embassy. I was impressed to see their progress and foresight for the project.  Always nice to be around motivated, hard working people!

Finally, four days. My sweet boyfriend will be landing in this hot little country in less than a handful of days. After absorbing lots of vaccinations and buying random things for my friends here he is taking the leap across the Atlantic to come sweat with me for ten days. I’m a lucky girl. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Le Champ

I went to the champ (farm) this week.  Or rather, a few hours Wednesday morning.  My good friend here in LT, Hortense, was just given a small piece of land (about the size of a basketball court) and she needed help tilling the weeds so she could plant beans.  Sure, I’ll help, I said, disregarding the hour of pilates I had just done and was already beginning to feel in my shoulders and back.  I’ve helped dig yam piles, but I’ve never really ‘gone to the champ,’ as does every single person here this time of year.  I wanted to be like everyone else; I wanted to prove a white girl could work too. 

We marched off from my house around 8 that morning (Hortense let me sleep in) machete’s in hand.  
My pride was big enough to float us to the farm, wherever it was.  As we passed village people they not only gave Hortense a hard time for going to the farm (remember, everyone knows where everyone goes here – imagining telling all the neighbors on your street every time you leave to go somewhere, and then them asking how the store or wherever was, every.single.time.) as a girl but then they really had a laugh when they saw me trailing behind. A WHITE GIRL is going to work in the farm? Hortense laughs this off, she’s used to it.  I unfortunately was much more defensive. 

Hortense led the way through random yards and fields of corn a good two feet taller than me.  I called up to her that my dad always told us never to walk into a field of corn for fear of getting lost; she thought that was funny. (The corn doesn’t get as tall here, nor is it as compact). After twenty minutes we came to this overgrown chunk of land, filled with weeds and wild grasses.  Hortense took off with her machete, making it look so easy, swinging and clearing a path in a matter of minutes.  No problem I thought.  

Twenty minutes later I looked up realize I had covered about a third of the ground Hortense had in the same amount of time.  As we both stood to take a breather, she smiled at me, and I glanced down at my hands, screaming as blisters had formed in several spots and popped at the same time.  What’s worse, she hadn’t even broken a sweat.  I continued on, switching to my left hand and thinking about all those batting lessons my parents paid for in high school were really coming in handy.  I pushed on, insisting I was fine as my left hand started to follow my right in its screaming for a pair of gloves.  As Hortense made her way back over to my section, cleaning up what I missed, I was flooded with childhood memories of mom vacuuming the same spot I had just attempted on our Saturday morning house cleanings.  So interesting that while I’ve come to this place to teach them new things, more often than not, I find myself doing most of the learning.  And usually it’s simple skills young children pick up like learning to walk.

An hour had passed and we had cleared about a third of the plot.  I could go all day, I thought, if it weren’t for these blisters, and the sweat dripping in a constant flow from my every point on my face, and my arms scratching incessantly from those few minutes among the corn rows. Yet again, a new level of being humbled. After two hours, Hortense said we could be done. This is how farm work is done here; little by little.  On the way back, Hortense asked if we even had machines for planting and cultivating our farms.   As I nodded, almost embarrassed, I didn’t have the heart (or the French) to explain the latest GPS technology that guides a lot of farmers’ tractors back home. We walked in silence and I thought about what a contrast our lives were; both young twenty-somethings, but living entirely different lives. I once again gave my silent prayer of thanks to God for being born and raised where I was in the world.

Back home I tended it my wounds, showered and collapsed in my hammock. Who needs pilates anyway?