The next day I woke up with a touch of a sore throat. This often happens when I fly. Felt a little tired so I took a short nap. It didn’t feel like jet lag, but I was really tired and hoped it wasn’t more than that. I didn’t want to be sick my first few days in Africa.

For those unfamiliar with West Africa, Togo is a former French colony. French remains as the official language today and English is rarely heard —  unlike Ghana, its next door neighbor to the west, a former British colony where English is still the official language. Of course, they speak Ghanaian English, which is quite a bit different from American English, but that’s a story for another day.

There were many terms for which we the Volunteers used the French word instead of the English one, even when we were speaking English amongst ourselves, as in Togo it was more natural. For example, the Peace Corps Office was always referred to as the Bureau, the French word for office. Trainees were always called stagiares, again, the French word.


Bureau de Corps de la Paix in Lomé

Yesterday at the Peace Corps Bureau was our first meeting with Rose, my trainer, whom I liked immediately. I asked her questions about the Lomé grand marché (big market) where I wanted to go today. She said there is a good one in Pagala (PAH-gah-lah), where the stagiares would be spending several weeks in training, and that the Center has an arrangement with the vendors in the market there so that the people don’t rip us off. (Like so many other things the Peace Corps told us, this turned out not to be true.) She said that the women sellers at the Lomé grand marché liked money too much. I remarked that that was true the world over, and she laughed one of her great big laughs.

Almost all of our trainers are Togolese. Rose is one of our French teachers who will be at the Pagala training camp with us. She has a ready smile and a big laugh. She’ll be teaching me Togolese French, as my French was already pretty good. We had our language interviews in the morning to test everyone’s level. They were pleased at my fluency.

After lunch a group of us set off for the grande marché. I was anticipating going alone, then with only one other person. But word got around that I was going, then everyone wanted to tag along. It turned into a group of ten, with several who had minimal French wanting me to bargain for them. I don’t like going out with large groups of people. It complicates everything. I had misgivings from the start about going out with a group that large, and it didn’t take long for me to wish I had gone alone.

The day before I had taken a walk with one of the trainees. I had mentioned to him that I was going out and that I didn’t much care to go places in groups because most people walk too fast. I’ve always been a rather leisurely stroller, even before an injury gave me perpetual ankle problems afterwards. I like to take my time and observe things. Turned out that he did, too, so we had a really nice outing. We checked out the plant life in the city and noticed all the different kinds of birds and lizards. It was a lot of fun. We also found a luxury hotel where we could change money and buy a street map of Lomé.

But today was the complete opposite. The group of ten immediately began outpacing me. I knew if I tried to keep up, I’d be uncomfortable and get overheated. After awhile they would stop and wait for me to catch up. I was uncomfortable holding them all up.

Several people wanted to change money, so I showed them the hotel where I had done it the day before. No one else had time to do it the day before because we had had health and security briefings all day. Someone mentioned that they heard you could get a better rate of exchange at the marché from the money changers. No doubt they had been reading their Lonely Planets, but most of these people were fresh out of college and had not travelled much if at all. I replied that the marché is full of con artists who will rip you off and as for myself, I did not feel comfortable changing money there with my current level of French, not to mention lack of experience in Africa. I added that they should do whatever they felt comfortable with. They all changed their money at the hotel.

I looked for a public restroom while they were doing that, as in an underdeveloped country you weren’t going to find them easily the way you could in the U.S. or Europe. And if you did, they certainly would not be in the condition that you, as an American, were used to. I went back to tell the others in case someone needed to go, but by then they had all gone outside and had sent someone back inside to look for me. I would have liked to have used the restroom but I was hating the feeling of holding everyone up, so I didn’t. As usual, I was again soon lagging behind. The trainee with whom I had gone out the night before was with me, and I told him how I felt. He didn’t say much.

Soon we came to an intersection where I wanted to go in the direction I had seen on the map. Another trainee wanted to go a different way, the way she had gone to the market earlier in the day. It turned into a bit of a power struggle, with her trying to get the group to go her way. This added to my bad mood for being in a group situation that I had wanted to avoid to begin with. She asked someone on the street for directions to support her position. I knew that there was more than one way to get to the marché, but I was also in no mood to play group leader or mother. Despite the fact that I had a map, she insisted that we take her route. I was not in the mood to get into a debate over it. I followed behind, knowing they were taking the longer route, and swore to myself I would never let myself get into a large group situation again.

Soon a blister began to form on the sole of my right foot. Great. Now I would have to walk even slower. Someone asked if I was okay. My face was pretty flushed from the heat, which was normal for me, and I probably looked like I was going to pass out. Except for the blister, though, I felt okay.

When we got to the market area, I knew if I stayed with the group I’d have a horrible time. I wouldn’t feel free to look what whatever I wanted without holding everyone up. The group was about to disappear in the crowd. I looked at my companion and asked which way he wanted to go. We took off in another direction and ditched the group.

I loved the marché. It was jam packed. You couldn’t get through it without brushing up against people. It was noisy, smelly, dirty, lively, exotic and colorful. I bought a pair of rubber-soled sandals that were heaven on my sore feet. I also needed a towel for the training center at Pagala (PAH-gah-lah). The Peace Corps had advised us that that was one of the things we should pack and bring with us, but I figured I’d save the room in my suitcase for something more critical. After talking to three towel vendors, it was clear that no one would budge on the price. They weren’t too expensive, but in Africa it’s customary to bargain. You won’t be respected if you pay the first price. I bought my towel from the last vendor, who told me she thought I was going to say it was too expensive.

By now I noticed that my face really was frying. When we left for the marché, it was a little cloudy, so I didn’t take my hat. What a mistake! I never again went anywhere the whole time I was in Africa without taking a hat. Fortunately, this time I had sunblock with me.

Thought I’d be exhausted from the long walk, the sun and the din of the market, but after returning to Mamy’s, I still had energy. I washed my clothes by hand, as there was no laundry service available at Mamy’s. Did I tell you that Mamy’s was not a four-star hotel? Draped my wet clothes over a pole and went up to the roof.

There were several trainees up there sitting under the thatched hut. Music was blasting from speakers two back yards away where there were some adults and children having some sort of festivity. It was great music, so I started dancing, which immediately caught their attention. The adults laughed delightedly, and the kids waved and went nuts. I like it here.

After dinner my throat was feeling worse, so I asked the Martin, the Peace Corps chef who was cooking for us at Mamy’s, to call Veronica, the Ghanaian nurse who worked for the Peace Corps Medical Bureau and who would be taking care of us during training. Turns out I had bronchitis, and it was definitely from the plane ride with all its lovely recycled air.

One of the employees at Mamy’s was a young woman named Kuburra, who took a particular liking to me. If I had a question or needed anything, Kuburra was pleased to answer or help me out. She was extremely worried about me, particularly as the bronchitis got worse. When my voice got hoarse and she heard me speak, or rather croak, she urged me to go see Veronica again. She was really, really worried and came to visit me in the evening when I had gone to bed just to see if there was anything I needed.


Kuburra, one of the staff at Mamy’s “Hotel”

Kuburra was so very kind to me that when we left Mamy’s several days later to go to Pagala, I gave her a pair of rhinestone earrings that I had brought with me as a goodbye gift. From her reaction, you’d have thought I had given her the crown jewels. Much later, she even came to visit me when I was living in Blitta. But I’m getting far ahead of myself.


View from the rooftop at Mamy’s. The dirt road leads to the Peace Corps office.

The next day I noticed that my legs were looking ravaged. I hadn’t noticed before, but the African bugs were finding me delicious. I would have to start remembering to put on insect repellent daily. Many months later, I would become aware that Mamy’s had a problem with bedbugs. That was why my legs were looking like an attack of chicken pox. The bedbugs found me very tasty. Did I mention that Mamy’s isn’t even a three-star hotel?


Another view from the rooftop at Mamy’s. The paved road leads to downtown Lomé.

I also woke up with my eyes feeling a bit sticky, as if I were coming down with conjunctivitis. I remembered that I had accidentally splashed some water into my eyes. At the health briefing we were told to use filtered and boiled water for this. So much to remember, so much we take for granted.

There were no mirrors anywhere at Mamy’s. Not in the bathrooms, not in the hall, not anywhere. Have you gotten an inkling that Mamy’s wouldn’t qualify even as a two-star hotel? I hadn’t worn makeup since we arrived in Africa (pointless, since you sweated it off in short order) and hadn’t seen myself in a mirror for four days. With my eyes a bit sticky, I wanted to see if I was getting conjunctivitis. With some trepidation, I fished my hand mirror, whose plastic handle had broken off during transport, out of my suitcase and took a look. Not too bad. My eyes looked okay. I had a little more color on my face than usual, but the sunblock had saved me.

There are no towels in the bathrooms at Mamy’s. Not to dry your hands on after washing them and not to dry yourself with after showering. Surely by now you may have deduced that Mamy’s couldn’t in all fairness be awarded even one star. It’s actually closer to a youth hostel. But if you’re budget travelling, you can’t beat the price at $3 a night, and as it turns out there were many much worse places to stay. Anyway, I’ve gotten used to letting my hands air dry after washing or just wiping them on my shorts.

I’m really tired today and my sore throat is worse. Veronica took me to the clinic and gave me antibiotics and calamine lotion for my bug bites, chiding me for not using the insect repellent. Its application is going to become part of my daily routine. Bug repellent, hat, sunblock. Every day.