A Year Later, Je Suis Là

I was quiet, but I was not blind. ~Jane Austen

It’s not quite a year later. I am three days short of the day I left Morgantown on a bus headed to DC, and 6 days short of the day I got on a plane in NYC. But nonetheless, it’s time to reminisce about my journey thus far and how I’ve grown. They’re right folks, living abroad changes you. No doubts from me. I won’t refuse all the mushy, yucky stuff about changing to be a better person, growing stronger, becoming a pro at maneuvering culture shock, because yeah — all that’s true too. But this is about me! So here are some ways that I’ve changed personally during my past year in Togo.

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My sense of time. 

This is by far the most bizarre change I’ve made. In the States, it was all about the hours or the days for me. I rarely ever got stressed about a deadline more than a week away! It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind, to be honest. But here, woah. I can feel so busy because I have a few events coming up in the next three months. That’s right, three months away and it’s on my mind already. My to-do lists used to have at least ten tasks per day to accomplish. Here, I’m on cloud nine if I can do two things a day. Three things a day and we are really pushing it… There are days that I grade a handful of papers and do my laundry by 9 a.m. and I’m so proud of myself. I think, yeah man, you’re doing great! (I actually do think this from time to time). I don’t think I’d put this change into a category of good or bad — I’m just thankful I have time to appreciate my hammock.

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Creepy crawlies 

Oh, there’s a spider running across my bedroom floor, let me crush it with my big toe! Nbd. The number of crawlies that gross my out has gone from a lot to almost none at all (barring snakes, those are never ok). I wake up in the morning, start brewing my coffee, and sit out on my porch. I have zero qualms these days about smushing unwanted bugs with my toes. In fact, I don’t even think twice about it.

Even the lizards. I hate how many lizards I have in/around my house. Can you imagine how embarrassing it is to wake up from a nap, throw on a shirt hanging in the closet, head out to the market only to find THERE’S A FREAKING LIZARD IN YOUR SHIRT THAT WANTS TO START CRAWLING ALL OVER YOUR BODY. I’m not proud, but this has happened so many times. I think, keep calm, your in public, don’t strip, don’t strip, DONT’ STRIP! Luckily my friend Benoît isn’t shy about helping me evict unwanted shirt guests nonchalantly. Let’s be real, I don’t exact blend in at the market, so freaking out about a lizard in my shirt would be quite the spectacle.

While we are talking about lizards, let me bring up the fellow lizard that lives in my latrine. My latrine is basically a fancy cement outhouse. I keep the seat covered, but somehow, this lizard just doesn’t want to leave. So after my morning coffee, when I go to the throne and sit down, he just gives me a few taps on the bum as if to say : hey, I don’t wanna be in here right now. Lemme out. I stand up, he runs out, I finish my business, and we see each other the next morning. #RealMVP

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Health above all. 

We have a handy little saying in Togo: Santé avant tous. Health above all. If this past year has brought any changes for the better, it’s how I see my health. I live close to the Burkina Faso border; it’s hot, it’s dry, it’s dusty! I have never had to drink so much water in my life. But if I didn’t, it would be a serious issue for me. Not only have I started focusing every single day on staying hydrated, I’ve been really finding the importance of eating good foods to stay on my game. My life here is the exact opposite of sedimentary. I walk to school, I walk to the market, I walk up mountains, I walk to get water, I walk to see friends… get the picture? After all, my body is a temple, right?! I want my temple to be golden with wall curtains, and lots of wine!

Let’s not forget about mental health. I consider myself lucky that I have had a really amazing experience thus far. Forgetting month 5, I’ve been so happy with my life in service. But every now and again, I can feel myself slipping into a rut that we all know. It is easy to feel isolated while serving abroad. Think about it, we left all our friends, all our family members, our native language, everything we are comfortable with back home. This past year has taught me ways to stay out of the rut and in a place where every day can be joyful. I’ve learned how closely linked my mental health is with my physical health. And I’ve been practicing being mindful. Living each second in the Present — not worrying about the future but enjoying the Now.

Wanna know one of my secrets to staying on the up & up? I sing to myself, all the time. I’m totally not shy about singing in my house when my host family is home anymore. Every once in a while, I’ll catch myself telling myself how funny I am… then I stop to think about if I just crossed a line or not. HA! Crazy is the new sane.

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Okay okay, so I only have three personal changes I’ve made in the past year. I hope you weren’t expecting a top ten! Let’s not forget about time in Togo, it takes a while to do a little. I’m certainly happy with these three changes, and I hope you’ll stay with me for the year to come. Please, share my blog, write love letters to me via snail mail (the thought makes me swoon) — keep me in your loops too!

As always my friends, stay savvy!

With much love,

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Our Night Among the Dunes

I’ve done many amazing things in my life, but this was definitely a first for me. Let’s start by giving a piece of advice. Never plan on sleeping in the car while traveling through Morocco. It just won’t happen. The roads here are far beyond the curves of the West Virginian mountains. I remember thinking to myself: Okay! Lesson learned — you can’t sleep in the car.

I just finished up a week of traveling and I am exhausted. We arrived at the university around 4 am this morning, and I have been fighting a wicked cold.

Nonetheless, I didn’t let a cold get in my way of having a good time.

Peggy and I.
Peggy and I.

If you’ve ever been on a camel, the first thing that you notice is that they are really tall! I was cautious snapping pictures because one fall could surely be a broken bone. As we approached the desert, you start to see little sand dunes. Then, almost out of nowhere, you see huge dunes — comparable to mountains in the distance. Luckily for us, it wasn’t hot at all. I am not even sure that I broke a sweat. So, if you’re planning a trip, go towards the end of summer.

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In fact, about an hour into our ride, I decided to take off the turban and just wear it as a scarf. By the way, this turban is one of my favorite things I have purchased while abroad. I bought it from a Woman’s Cooperative somewhere in the mountains of the south. The family I bought it from were half nomads. That means that they live half of the year in the mountains and the other half in a little town. I bought it for 80 DHS = 8 USD. It served me well when the wind picked up and along with it came some of the sand.

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I would consider my friends and I extremely lucky. On the way into the camp, we got to stop and watch the sunset over the dunes. By this time, the city where we left our luggage was far out-of-sight, so it was just us, the camels, the dunes and the sun. We laughed on the way in, joking about our camels’ names but we also took a few minutes of pure silence to take in everything that we could. It was magical — heart warming.

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After about two hours of riding, Peggy and I successfully arrived at the campsite. Behind our tents — which were huge and gorgeous by the way — there was a huge dune. It was comparable to a mountain. The dune was at a 45-degree angle too, so it was so steep. Many of my friends climbed to the top. I made it about halfway and couldn’t go any further. It was the hardest climb I have ever attempted. I made it up to where my friends Jordan and Kathryn were sitting then took a few minutes to catch my breath. Climbing up sand that steep is very difficult. Climbing sand alone is hard. You take one step then slide down further than where you began.

Soon dinner was ready. The nomad guides made us the most delicious chicken and vegetable tajine. A tajine is a dish cooked over the fire in a huge clay pot. It is often cooked for many, many hours. My table finished ours in no time then scavenged for more. It was the best meal I have had since arriving. After dinner, the guys broke out the drums and all listened to them play and then danced some around the fire.

After my stomach was full and I had time to digest, I decided that I would never be here again — so I needed to make it to the top of that sand dune. After about two hours of climbing on my hands and feet, I made it to the top. My shirt was twisted on me and I have pockets full of sand. Once I reached the top, I realized that it wasn’t the highest dune. So, I climbed solo for another hour along the ridge line of the dune. It was so peaceful. I was so high up that my campsite looked like tiny little specs. Hearing the sand shift was scary — but I felt totally safe, so I continued. I looked out over everything as far as the eye could see. I felt so close to the stars and the moon. About twenty miles out, I watched a lightning storm roll over a sea of light from a far off city. I could also see the Algerian border from my sanctuary in the sky. My heart was so full up on the dune. I sent messages up to the sky to my family and friends back home. Peaceful is an utter understatement.

About thirty minutes later, Jordan and Geoff caught up to me and we continued to scale the ridgeline until we were the highest thing in the desert. It was interesting because the side of the dune our camp would have been on was so warm, but you could lie back on the other side and the sand was cool to the touch. It was exactly like the cool, other side of the pillow. We sat on top of the world for at least an hour. We sat in silence some, and then told some jokes. Before we started our decent, we collected some sand in an empty water bottle we had. This sand is so fine and soft. It holds so many wonderful, wonderful memories for me. I’ll treasure it for a lifetime.

That night, I decided to sleep outside of the tent — under the stars. It was partly cloudy, but the stars we could see and the moon were so bright that it cast shadows of everything. You could see perfectly well without a flashlight, even at 1 AM. I awoke the next morning by one of the nomads walking through the tents saying, “Hello! Hello!” haha! Some took camels back, but a few of us stayed behind to sit on a dune and enjoy the sunrise.

I took this as soon as I woke up.
I took this as soon as I woke up.
A few minutes later...
A few minutes later…
And a few more...
And a few more…
And finally the sun completely above the horizon.
Almost completely above the horizon…
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Voila! Completely above the horizon.

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This was the view to our backs as we watched the sunrise. The dark spot that looks like shrubbery on the bottom right at the base of the dune is a camp. That is also the giant dune I climbed to the top of.
This was the view to our backs as we watched the sunrise. The dark spot that looks like shrubbery on the bottom right at the base of the dune is a camp. That is also the giant dune I climbed to the top of.
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My friends and I enjoying the view.

After the sun was up, we loaded our stuff in a jeep, the climbed on top of the roof and zipped back to the city where we left our things. Going up and down big dunes on the roof of a jeep is just like riding a roller coaster.

The Sahara Desert is a dream for me — a dream that I’ve lived.

With much love,

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Volunteering Abroad

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This weekend is so packed with homework, essays, and readings. In fact, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. I will be leaving soon to trek in the Sahara Desert, visit Marrakech and make some more great memories. That’s the true reason I am so booked — I have to stay caught up around my travels.

Nonetheless, today I had the beautiful opportunity to volunteer at an orphanage in Azrou. One of the things that I promised myself I would do is find time to volunteer to be able to see some of the real Morocco. I have yet to make a better decision on this trip than to visit those kids today.

Volunteers don’t always have the time to do things like this, but we make the time because it is more than worthwhile. Today, I helped with English lessons during study hours, got completely SCHOOL’D by some incredibly talented eight-year-old soccer players, and helped straighten up a cramped storage room.

Cue the shameless plug:

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If you are not already aware, there’s an amazing campaign going on at WVU right now called the Million Hour Match. In an effort to show residents of WV how Mountaineers embody the Mountaineer Spirit, the student body is inviting WV residents to complete one million hours of service my 2018! Volunteering is an amazing way to leave your mark on the community. Every hour of service is an hour of learning. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Volunteering Abroad

  1. DO match your skills to the need. You want to be productive while volunteering. Pick something that you’re good at so that you can help in the best way — while having fun!
  2. DON’T pick a service project that will take away a job from someone in that country. While our intentions are good, this one can sneak up on us without knowing it. Be mindful that your project might actually be a source of income for someone else.
  3. DO choose a project that will help a local endeavor. No matter how big or small, do something that will impact the residents in that particular community. Always support local! (;
  4. DON’T wait for the right moment to volunteer. We will always be busy — it’s in our nature. Especially for study abroad students, finding time to rest is rare. However, this is what being abroad is about. Meeting new people. Learning as much as possible. Making a positive impact. As my dear friend Esmerelda told me before I left the States: “Do everything! Even if you don’t feel like it. Try it all.”

With much love,

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