Monday, June 13, 2011

A Very Special Dinner in Togo

My senior year of college, I worked with a group of grad and undergrad students to go over to Lomé, Togo and partner with a small microfinance institution (MFI) for the summer. Somehow, I was convinced into being a bridesmaid ( in a frilly blue dress) for a friend's wedding, and thus ended up in Togo a few weeks after everyone else. Their misadventures had already resulted in the one guy in our group being attacked by giant mosquitoes, or contracting some weird tropical disease, or having to fight off bearded pirates, or something equally horrible that I can't quite remember. But, in the spirit of exploration, halfway through my stay in Togo, we decided to pack up for a week and hit the road on an escapade up north.

For anyone who has had the...pleasure...of road tripping through a economically developing country, you know each has its own unique set of (often pretend) restrictions. In Togo, soldiers posted throughout the country enjoyed building make-shift barriers on the road, and charging people fees to cross. "Just like a visa," one soldier told me. I asked the soldier if he knew that visas are for people who cross into a different country, which he didn't. I believe he now calls them "regional crossing fees" or something equally meaningless. But no matter, the founder of the MFI/our tour guide successfully got us more than halfway up the country to our first stop.

"La Lutte Traditionnelle" is the national sport of Togo, and is vehemently described as being absolute and unique to the country. I later found out this is also said in Senegal. And Madagascar. And Côte D'Ivoire. And...well, it seems every African country colonized by France, Belgium, or a combination of the two.

La Lutte basically involves two or more men walking into a flattened out field, and trying to wrestle each other to the ground. A referee walks around surveying their progress. Sometimes the ref throws a guy out when his shoulder touches the ground, sometimes the ref throws out a guy when his head touches the ground. Sometimes it's when two men have been deadlocked for 15 minutes, sometimes it's when a guy is wearing blue shorts, and sometimes it's when the ref decides he's hungry and wants to take a break. Though everyone in the audience looks intently in unison, cheers in unison, and says "C'est pas vrai!" (It can't be true!) in unison, to this day, no one can give me a clear set of rules of La Lutte.

Our first stop of the trip coincided with the national championship of the sport. Apparently our visit was big news, so the founder of the MFI/our tour guide scored us prime seats in the blazing hot sun, where we sat for the next two days and watched the matches. Though I was constantly shocked at the peak physical condition of what seemed like every person in the country, the lack of rule knowledge resulted in me falling asleep more than anything else.

Fortunately, there were distractions. The first was around hour two, when a small army of soldiers came rushing out of a van, and for 90 minutes, proceeded to set up a velvet covered umbrella on a giant velvet covered box. A few minutes later, distraction two followed in the form of a helicopter touching down less than 200 feet away from the center of the field, and almost knocking a small contingent of women unconscious. A man in a suit emerged, and everyone began applauding. "It's the president!" Someone shouted. "President of what?" I asked one of the people in our group. "Of the country, you idiot," she replied.

And so the President of Togo sauntered by our group, paused for a few pictures, and eventually working his way on the velvet covered box under the velvet umbrella. After ten minutes of enthusiastic cheering, he fell asleep. So I did.

Typical post-La Lutte celebrations include drinking warm beer, covering players in white powder, singing, and jumping up and down all night. After I woke up, our group thus took the obligatory pictures of said celebration, and even joined in for a little jumping up and down. It appeared the team with the red shorts won. Or maybe they lost. I don't think anyone knew, so everyone just assumed they won, and all was merry. So was I, but I was also starving. It was dinner time.

It was explained that a dinner had been arranged especially for us, as we were the guests of honor (I guess minus the president?) at the championships. Upon hearing this, I imagined we would be escorted to a banquet hall and be seated with high political powers of the country. We were instead escorted to a plastic table with six plastic chairs - just enough for our group. Normally, it was at our discretion to eat whatever we felt comfortable with. Tonight, however, one thing was made clear. Out of respect, we were to eat whatever was given to us.

We poured ourselves glasses of warm beer and warm water, and sat in a half sun-baked silence. Two women came sweeping towards us, each holding three bowls of food. As they put the bowls down in front of us, I was hit with a terrible feeling of repulsive pleasure. Kind of like when you're a hard-core liberal, and you realize the person you've spent all night flirting with is a staunch conservative who thinks "Liberia" means "liberty" in Spanish, and you have to decide whether it's worth sacrificing part of your soul for like five minutes of fun. Like that.

Inside of each bowl was a small, inexplicably gray, cooked animal floating in a pool of broth, onions, peppers and tomato. The problem was that though the meat could not be identified, it smelled delicious. Since it had been made clear that not eating was not an option, we each carefully took a small bite of food. It smelled delicious, and it tasted delicious! For those five minutes of fun, I forgot about the little gray body, and ate in relative happiness. Then it happened.

The guy in our group who had been attacked by poisonous bears or whatever said he knew what the meat was. Out of a morbid curiosity, we asked him to tell us.


He said. That's all I needed to hear. We all knew he was right. The five minutes of fun had been summarily ruined, and I could feel that terrible sensation of total grossness wash over me as though I had been dunked in a pool of paint. Like cockroaches, rats are one of the world's true vermin, in that they eat anything, live in the least hygienic conditions possible, and probably carry every disease known to the human race. And I had just eaten one for dinner. Yum!

I managed to contain myself for approximately 60 seconds before making a mad dash from the table and relieving my body of its despicable contents. Somehow the rest of the group managed to eat their way through the beast of vermin, but I'm pretty sure at least one other group member broke later that night.

The next morning, the founder of the MFI/our tour guide asked how dinner went. I quite literally couldn't stomach a response, and instead took my seat to watch day two of La Lutte. It turns out that the unregulated repetitive motions of the sport are the perfect cure to a getting over the fact that you just ate rat. I say this because, well, I fell asleep. In fact, I very fortunately maintained a semi-conscious state for the rest of the trip. I only truly processed the fact that I ate rat after coming back to the States, and tried to eat a slightly gray hamburger in the JFK airport. It cost $16 + tax and tip.

And that, my friends, was a very special dinner in Togo.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Berlin, Meet Virginia

By February of 2008, my living situation in France had gotten a bit out of control, as two of my French roommates, officially known as the "Couple from Hell," had made it a point in their lives to drive me insane. A woman I had been tutoring for a few months told me that the French police don't get involved in a crime until someone is killed, so lease or no lease, I should get the hell out of that apartment.

Since I had one of my five, two week vacations (Hallelujah French work schedule!) coming up, I decided to reconnect with Luis, whom I had met in the epitome of geek land: a Model UN Conference. Luis was doing some kind of Masters that involved speaking every romance language and living all over Western Europe. At the time, he was in Berlin, a city I always wanted to visit, so I figured a quick trip to finish off my last days in the apartment of crazy was in order. (After I got back from Berlin, I literally ran out of the apartment holding all of my stuff, not telling my roommates where I was going or that I wouldn't be coming back. But that's another story.)

Despite my ability to utter random German words out of context, such as Schwein, I possess little to no ability to speak the German language, and was thus very relieved to find out that every single one of Luis's friends I met in Berlin could speak perfect English. In fact, I thought about asking them a few lingering English grammar questions I had, like where, to use commas and, stuff.

One of the nights I was there, Luis had a party to go to, so I tagged along. Unfortunately, it involved karaoke, which is both a word I can never remember how to spell (thank you Google dictionary) and an activity I will forever suck at doing. Nevertheless, I grabbed a beer and made the sad discovery that despite being the only person in the room who was born and raised in America, I have the American song repertoire of a Tibetan monk. And no, I'm not talking about your Uncle Joe who ran off to join the cause because New Jersey "just wasn't doing it." I'm talking about an actual Tibetan monk.

One of Luis's friends, however, had a seemingly thorough knowledge of bad American pop good, in fact, that she seemed oddly familiar. On top of her knowledge of bad American pop songs, she had that vaguely goth style of dress about her. Strangely, it's this vaguely goth style of dress that seems to be the only style of clothing I have seen everywhere from Hicksville Virginia, to big city Europe, to scared tourist in Indian airport terminal. She was somewhere in between this and this. That's not very useful, is it?

Anyway, the point is that I was thoroughly confused about where this girl was from. At this point in my life, I had already been through the wine tasting fiasco, so I stayed easy on the alcohol, and approached with caution. As I was carefully inching up to her karoake karaoke area, another girl came up to me and asked where I'm from. I started in on explaining the patterns of Indian immigration and the evils of imperialism, when when the other other girl put up her hand and said, "No no, not your ethnic origin," (Go German girl! Perfectly phrased!), "I meant where in the States did you grow up?" Want to know my amazingly articulate response? It went like this: "Oh. Virginia."

Thankfully, that was enough. The vaguely goth girl turned around and said to me, "Oh! I went to Virginia once." Still not useful. Maybe she was from Connecticut and was making a swipe at Virginia. To signal I needed more information, I proceeded to awkwardly stare at the TV for 30 seconds. Finally, the vaguely goth girl elaborated, "I had a boyfriend from the States a few years ago, when he studied abroad here in Berlin. He went to William and Mary. I visited him once there...only place I've seen in the States."

Then I spit out my drink. Seriously. Do not give me liquid substances in public. For those of you who do not know, and I imagine that's 99% of you, William and Mary is a small liberal arts college in Williamsburg, VA. Jon Stewart went there to explore what he called "The Jewish mecca of Eastern Virginia." Suddenly, the poor choice of pop songs, vaguely goth dress, and impeccable mid-Atlantic US accent became clear: this girl was part German, part college freshman.

William and Mary isn't your typical state school. If this girl had visited my Alma mater, Virginia Tech, I would have told you this is exactly what she saw, and be done with it. But I guess even the social misfits of William and Mary are capable of saying stupid crap, so here is a selection of quotes she told me she heard during her two week stay:

1. "Like ooooh my 11 AM class! Who gets UP that early?"
2. "Where's the party? Who's the party!? Can anyone find me the paaaarty!?" ::Boy collapses::
3. Boy 1: "Come on, let's go watch the soccer game." Boy 2: "Is that the one with sticks?"
4. "So I was like, I know I'm like hot, but like I don't know why I keep gaining weight!" ::Turns to cashier:: "Yeah, I'd like double whopper with a large order of fries and a chocolate milkshake. No wait, Diet Coke."

In conclusion: higher education, lowered expectations.