Monday, September 15, 2008

Two for One

8 September
I’ve decided to start writing more updates. This means writing more frequently at home than only on the night before I leave for an internet-equipped destination. The updates won’t be more frequent, just longer. Skimming is totally acceptable. I never read those long, chunky emails from my overseas friends, either.

I’m very slowly getting back into work. A week after leaving the States, I got back to village. The ride from Lomé took two days, in a Peace Corps car. As we fishtailed through stretches of mud on the Kpalimé road, I was genuinely nervous, especially since there was an overturned truck in the middle of one stretch.

I stayed in village three days, long enough to give out gifts. Then I went to Kara for our one-year party and to Dapaong for a goodbye party. Then I came back and did some work.

Work means I had a peer educator meeting, where we decided we should have a second meeting the following week. Meetings would be so much more interesting if anyone else SPOKE. I was nervous about having two grown men (my male “apprentices,” a tailor and an elementary school teacher) in a group of teenagers. Now I’m relieved they’re there, because they are the only contributors. This must be payback for all the staring I did at my teachers when they asked us questions in class.

To get me through my first month back, I’m looking forward to the marathon and my parents’ visit. More accurately, I’m looking forward to my parents’ visit and dreading the marathon. Sixteen miles was challenging, but I felt good about it (maybe because I ran it in the States). I finished 18 miles, but I walked. On Sunday, I ran to Mango, hoping to do at least 18 again, maybe even 20. Right… I walked early on and maybe covered 16 miles, mostly trudging. There are three of us in the north running the full marathon, and we’ve all acknowledged that it’s going to destroy us, but we’re not backing out now. I’m going to run – or trudge, walk and crawl – this thing and then never run more than 13 miles again.

11 September
Now let’s talk about street food.

Everyone has been to a fair – state fairs, renaissance festivals, international festivals, street fairs – whatever, you’ve been to one. And every one of those fairs has food booths. After an hour of looking at livestock or crafts or riding rides, you take your tickets to a booth and make the exchange. Tickets for corn on the cob, corn dogs, popcorn, or non-corn delectables: turkey legs, funnel cake, Lemon Chills, cotton candy. Then it’s back to the rides.

Life in Togo is like the fair, minus the midway (bush taxi rides do not count), quilts and butter sculptures. That leave the food booths, or what we call street food. Food you buy – with money, not tickets – on the side of the road or in the market. It’s cheap and easy and when it’s finished, because this is Togo, you can throw the corncob on the ground.

You can easily make a meal of street food. For instance, today for lunch I had 100 CFA (about 25 cents, which is enough) of rice and sauce. In Sagbiebou, there’s always a woman selling rice with tomato or peanut sauce. Sometimes it’s rice pâte, which is rice reshaped into balls. Soja, fried pieces of tofu in tomato sauce, is also readily available year-round. Now there’s also fufu.

None of this food is that interesting, and after three fufu dinners in a week, I’m already sick of it. The street food I dream about is in Lomé. In the Kodjoviakope neighborhood, by the Texaco station, the avocado-bean sandwich lady serves a delicious breakfast. Little white beans in sauce, avocado mashed with onions, oil and salt, spread on a piece of baguette, all for less than a dollar. I can also usually find fried plantains in Lomé. If you mix those with black-eyed peas and sauce, you get another bizarrely tasty meal. And you always have the option of eating at the stand, or taking it to go in a black plastic bag.

The real beauty of street food, however, is snacking. From Lomé to Cinkassé, you can buy food along the highway, although it’s a good idea to also bring your own snacks. The bush taxi driver only stops briefly when you want to buy bread. But when he stops, even briefly, vendors ambush the car. People of all shapes, sizes and ages shout into the car window, selling their food. Fried plantain chips, kebabs, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, bread, lime or hibiscus juice. I know I can always get dates in Mango and fried bean cakes at the Atakpamé stop. With luck, a Fan Milk man will cycle by, selling ice cream that you suck out of a plastic package. With even more luck, my vanilla Fan Ice will still be frozen. When I feel like indulging in village, I buy beignets made from corn flour. Then I take them home, dip them in sugar and pretend I’m in New Orleans.

Then there is seasonal street food. Right now we’re in corn season, and I can have corn on the cob, grilled or boiled, every day (both are extra chewy, sometimes so much so that I have to give my jaw a break). Starting in late November, it’s watermelon season in Sagbiebou, available whole or by the slice. There are carrots, which only qualify as street food if you’re willing to eat them unwashed off the street. Same for mangoes.

And all of it’s cheap. Even if your corn isn’t sweet, it only cost about five cents, not five tickets (you know that fair food is overpriced. The tickets are supposed to make you forget). I still miss pizza, but I’ll also miss the acceptability of walking around eating beans out of a plastic bag by hand.