Monday, July 4, 2011
Culture Talk- with a little bit of Shock
We returned from Lome and Agbodrafo late yesterday afternoon after a particularly long day of traveling. Tomorrow marks the start of my third week here in Kpalime, and after seeing more towns in the region, I think I've had enough time and exposure to reflect on all that I’ve experienced.
One of the more striking things about Togolese culture is that I encounter affability, vitality and openness everywhere I go. Entering a shop or starting a conversation with someone that randomly approaches me in the streets without handshakes and an abundance of smiles seems both inconceivable and offensive. Perhaps this openness is all the more remarkable to me because I just spent 5 months in France with French society and culture. It’s not that the French are rude, for I think that to be an unfair generalization, but I did face certain elements of xenophobia and insularity that are providing a stark contrast with my experiences here. That is not to say that I don’t stick out like a sore thumb, but I am never ignored here in Togo; I say hello 100 times a day. Children come running to the sides of the road as Emily and I pass, waving and singing the “Yobo” or “white person” song. Yet it’s these open interactions, this sense of barriers coming down that assuages the more daily hardships.
For travelling, I am coming to learn, is anything but easy. Road taxis are jam-packed with people and you are forced to either sit on the lap of a complete stranger, or remain upright and motionless with your shoulders and legs squished together for extended periods of time. You are subject to random and mysterious security checkpoints where young women shove loaves of bread into your face through the open crevices of the windows, and god forbid if the driver doesn’t have the right ticket or paperwork or whatever, a prolonged argument ensues and usually ends in a bribe of some sort. You are jolted over potholes, and when it rains, like it frequently has during this rainy season, the roads become absolutely un-traversable, which doesn’t mean that drivers don’t still try and power through.
Furthermore, the utter physicality of living here just doesn’t abate. Hot showers, cleanliness, and caring about my personal appearance are unattainable luxuries. Now I have absolutely no desire to look in a mirror-- in this case ignorance is bliss. But because I’m not as wrapped up in myself means I can take in so much more of the world around me. For Kpalime, if nothing else, is a stimulation of the senses. From the brilliance of the red earth, to the luscious green foliage, and brightly colored houses, the bold and vibrant prints on the clothing, and the lightning that illuminates the sky and operates like a strobe light; taking in my surroundings just got to a whole new level. Then there are the encircling smells of food cooking, of freshly rained on ground, of propane and Moto exhaust. The cacophony of children’s laughter, the clacking of tonal Ewe, the rhythmic beatings of the drums, the street sweeping, the Moto’s honking, the pounding resonance of thunder, the same song repetitiously played on the radio; Togo has it’s own distinct soundtrack. The humidity is palpable, the dust is everywhere, the sun beats down, but every so often the most refreshing wind will blow my hair off my face and tickle my skin, or it will suddenly downpour and soak me through entirely—I never now travel without a rain jacket after that first time.
Yesterday I saw a monkey riding on the back of a motorcycle and I literally jumped up and down because I was so excited. I’m pretty sure Emily thinks of me as a toddler because I experience such joy and wonder at the smallest things, I trip on the roads a lot, I’m easily frightened by huge lizards and charging baby goats, and I don’t know how to sit still and relax for more than 5 minutes. But I can’t help it, this experience is so new and amazing to me that I’m just trying to take it all in before it passes me by.