To go, or not to go ... Volunteering in Togo ...

The following post is re-blogged from my little cousin's blog. What you won't read in the post is the fact that she's given up all her worldly possessions to pursue her passion for adventure, her need to be free, and her resolve to make a difference.

Those are my words, not hers. I haven't seen my little cousin Katie in over 13 years; anything I say about her is based on nothing more than our occasional Facebook exchanges, sporadic emails, and innate familial gut-feel. 

This girl isn't a back-seat driver. She needs to be at the wheel. She needs to DO. Sitting back and wondering ''What if ...'' isn't what she does.

What she does is runs straight into the fire and shouts ''IMAGINE if I HADN'T!!!!''

You can read more about her adventures here

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Volunteering in Togo

Posted on December 9, 2016 by katie1519

We couldn’t wait for the time to come and finally it’s here.  We had a quick stop over in Morocco exploring markets, crowded streets and what I can only describe as purely beautiful exotic chaos.  The owners of the apartment we rented onlyspoke Arabic which made for some interesting conversations using our hands, bodies and any prop we could get our hands on.  A genuinely caring older couple with loads to tell us.

Our stay was short in Casablanca and are arrival in Lomé felt overdue.  The 4am arrival wasn’t overly welcomed, but it’s all part of the travels.  We slept through our first day, but haven’t wasted a second since. The streets are dusty, except for when it rains of course in which case they just turn muddy – not sure which I dislike the least yet… Pretty much everywhere we go, I feel like I always encounter at least one person (if not much much more) who seemed stunned when they see me.  Some shout “yovo” an apparently non-offensive slang which translates to “white man”, kids usually get quite excited and love giving high-fives, and then there was that one toddler who have just looked and me and cried instantly.  I tried not to take it personally, but could I really be soo ugly as to scare a child??   Which also brings me to the numerous marriage proposals I’ve received in my very first week, and endless request to “be my friend”, or have my number – so take that you scaredy-cat kid, can’t be that ugly after all!

No but really, Lomé is nice.  The Togolese are generally very kind, shy and a little reserved, but once they get more comfortable they can also be quite curious.  Our current accommodation is basic, although very comfortable.  Honestly, as 2 volunteers, I think we are very welltreated and looked after and in comparison to some local accommodation, ours is really nothing to complain about.

We were lucky to find a great little organization called PDH.  They’ve been around a while (17 years now) and seem to have their hand anywhere they can help.  In just our first week we have completed hospital visits, personal home visits, work visits for a young girl trying to start a small business to support her mother dying of AIDS,  several school visits and endless projects and activities here at the center.  We are busy, the work can be very emotionally draining, but the rewards of laughter and joy make it all worth it.  It is mindboggling to see how many people in this country struggle with basic human requirements.  Mothers unable to support their young with just basic needs like food and water, forget schooling.  Children without mothers or fathers, who seem to just be raised by their surrounding communities and extended families. 

At PDH we have regular evenings where we cook food for the kids, I’ve never seen little ones so keen to get their hands on food, but not only does this little gesture make them so happy, they seem to never want to eat it at the centre, for all of them, their number one priority is taking the small bag of food home so they can share with their family.  Take a moment please, allow that to sink in….

PDH functions solely on donations, volunteers and the generosity of others.   It is why we helped them with the creation of a fundraising page for their upcoming Christmas event with the kids and the completion of the roof required on two of their classrooms at the centre.  I am taking this opportunity to reach out to anyone who follows my blog, in hopes that you may make a donation – no matter how big or small – even $5.00 can go a long way here.  Even simply sharing this information with friends and family helps PDH in unimaginable ways.  If you are keen to find out more about them their information is below.

WEB: http://www.pdh-togo.org
FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/PDHTogo
DONATIONS:
Fundraising Page:  http://www.gofundme.com/together-we-can-for-pdh-togo

All the Little Differences ... Contrasts Between Qatar and Canada

A 13-hour flight saw us landing in Montreal, Canada yesterday.  Not quite as simple as click your heels three times and repeat 'there's no place like home', but quite impressive all the same that you can wake up on one side of the globe and go to sleep on the other all in the same day.  

Our journey wasn't done though, and we had no sooner landed than it was time to rent a car and carry the journey forward another 2.5 hours to Ottawa, where we'll be staying for the next few days in anticipation of our nephew's wedding.

We had started our day with a 4 a.m. (Doha time) wake-up call to make it to the airport on time for our 8:30 a.m. flight, and by the time all had been said and done, we would have been awake for 23 hours by the time our heads would finally hit the pillow exhausted at 9:00 p.m. (Ottawa time).  There's no mistake in my math: the 7-hour time shift is always the very first difference we encounter on landing in our homeland.

The second is the presence of a Tim Horton's outlet around virtually EVERY corner.  Case in point, it was our first stop at the airport after making it through Customs.

The weather is always a shock.  Going sleeveless indoors where it's warm and toasty and stepping out into cool, crisp Autumn weather throws you for a loop for the first day or so.

The driving pace is radically different in Canada.  Even making our way out of Montreal at rush hour didn't see us get side-swiped or cut off a single time.  When people use their left signal flasher, they actually follow up by turning left!  Red lights actually get cars to stop.  It's eerie, almost, at how chaos is replaced by ''flow''.  Even pedestrian walkways are marked to keep things moving smoothly.

Our apartment for the week comes not only with a garbage bin, but also with a series of recycling bins under the kitchen sink.  I'm intimidated.  I haven't sorted in years.  I'm not sure I remember how. 

The TV has a 24-hour weather channel.  When I look at the 24-hour forecast, it shows me a range of temps from 11C to 21C, with everything from fog to cloud to shining blue skies to rain.  Canadian weather:  ''if you're not happy with it, just wait 5 minutes''.

It's 6:30 a.m. and sunrise is still at least 30 minutes away.  In Qatar, if we don't make it home from our morning walk by 5:30 a.m. we risk melting in the heat of that blazing orb.  

I'm sitting out here quietly blogging in the dark, as the city only begins to awaken.  Thinking to myself ''Darn, it's good to be home.''

A Whole Lot of Blarney ... (Canadians Driving in Ireland - Part II)

For those of you who have followed our June adventure through Southern England, Wales and Ireland, this is the greatest bit of the tale.  This is the leg of the trip where we met Deirdre from Cork, the Irish character who absolutely made our week.  And to any Irish folk out there reading this, please excuse my poor attempt at Irish phonetics.  I've done my best to recreate bits of conversation as we heard them; I'm sure I'm way off.  

We made sure to take extra long showers (hot water was the one thing we weren't paying extra for at the Westin) on the morning we set off from Dublin to discover Dingle - Smilin' Vic's ancestral ''sleepy fishing village'' and the main objective of this trip.  After a great night's sleep and the one breakfast of the trip I swear I cannot remember, we packed our duffel bags into the trunk (boot, if you're in that part of the world) and headed off on our tour of the Emerald Isle.

 On our way from Dublin to Cork ...

On our way from Dublin to Cork ...

While we had initially intended to take the quicker route due East to the Ring of Kerry via Limerick, a friend's friend from Doha had mentioned in passing that she was from Cork, home of the Blarney Stone.  So it was that we decided to go that roundabout way and discover a bit more of the country in the process.

 Snoozing in the sunshine after lunch ...

Snoozing in the sunshine after lunch ...

 While Smilin' Vic snoozes, Kiddo zip-lines and expends as much energy as possible before heading out for the final leg of the car ride to Cork.

While Smilin' Vic snoozes, Kiddo zip-lines and expends as much energy as possible before heading out for the final leg of the car ride to Cork.

Once again, a pit stop in a little village along the way to stop for lunch and do some Google searching revealed that most hotels and inns at our destination were booked for the night.  But the Imperial Hotel, centrally located in Cork and with good reviews, had a family room left for the night.  We booked the room, and mercifully arrived and checked in without a hitch around 6:00 p.m. 

We sorted out some clothes that needed laundering and decided to have a quick bite to eat at the hotel's sidewalk bistro before heading out to discover Cork in the evening.  Smilin' Vic ordered drinks for us all, and went back in to grab a few brochures and some menus.  Kiddo entertained herself by drawing on a small hotel notepad, and I scanned the day's pictures on my i-Pad.

It was while we were both sitting there, heads down and engrossed in our respective thoughts, that I saw a hand reach up quick as lightning and snatch Smilin' Vic's beer glass.

Thoughts racing through my head as they do in moments of complete surprise, I just managed to utter ''What the ...'' as I raised my eyes.  

The ''hell'' stayed stuck on my lips, partly because I was so stunned, partly because I didn't have time to say anything more before my gaze came to rest at the top of the would-be perpetrator's head, standing just barely high enough for her blue eyes to peer over the edge of the table.

''Uhmmmmm, NO!'' is what I eventually managed to sputter.

''Wal, if ya don want people takin' it, ya should na be leavin' it standin' dare all on its own wid no one ta mind it den, should ya?'' 

All Kiddo and I could do was stare ... both of us sitting slack-jawed and dumb in front of this strange 4 ft. 10 in. figure with white hair, a curved back, a glint in her eye, a walker, and the sharpest tongue this side of a pitchfork.  Words. failed. me.

As I struggled to untwist my knotted tongue, she smiled.  ''Na, I'm jus playin' wid ya dearie.  Hav'na touched da stuff since I was forty-odd and still had a shape on me.''

''Sorry, who are you?'' I finally sputtered.  

''I'm Deirdre, dearie.  I'm just out for a bid a craic, havin' me evenin' walk an' all.  I'll leave ya to it.  But mind dat glass when I go, yeah?  Dey'll snatch it right away, some will.''

All of a sudden, it clicked:  the gangsta who had tried to snatch Smilin' Vic's beer was just a harmless, lonely, quirky old lady with the 'gift of gab'.  We were, after all, in Cork, home of the Blarney Stone.  

For a minute I wondered if she was homeless, but her pressed flowered dress, manicured nails, jewellery and neatly styled hair said differently.

 Beautiful Deirdre, aka the ''Potential Pilsner Perpetrator'', aka ''Would-be Beer Thief''.  Her only crime:  stealing our hearts.  Though gifted with gab, she swore up and down she'd never kissed the Blarney Stone.

Beautiful Deirdre, aka the ''Potential Pilsner Perpetrator'', aka ''Would-be Beer Thief''.  Her only crime:  stealing our hearts.  Though gifted with gab, she swore up and down she'd never kissed the Blarney Stone.

''Would you like a beer?'' I asked.

''I wouldna, I havna touched a drop in years I tole ya just now.  Were ya listnin' ta anyting I said just now dearie?''

''Oh, ok.  Would you like something else to drink or to eat then?  Are you hungry?''  Something, I don't know what, was willing me to keep Deirdre here, close to us.  

I wanted to bond.  It was like she had been sent especially to us for some reason; this curious old lady who'd appeared out of nowhere and settled on such a strange way to start up a conversation with absolute strangers.  It was about as un-Doha as you could imagine.  Like Alice down the rabbit hole, all I could think was ''curiouser and curiouser''.

She didn't want anything, and Smilin' Vic came out about this time, a little confused to see this Yoda-sized character standing and gabbing at our table.  I introduced her to him as the lady who tried to steal his beer.  He liked her immediately, and went right back inside to get her a chair, since getting her onto a bistro stool taller than she was would obviously bring with it some challenges.

And so it was that Deirdre came to spend the next 4 hours with us.  The 79-year-old entertained us to no end, regaling us with stories of her youth and her two close calls with marriage.  She told us about working in her father's auto-repair shop, and later in a confectionary and canning factory.  She hinted that her mom might have been a little ''off''.  She marvelled at our i-Pad, and the beautiful pictures it took.  She told Kiddo over and over what a beautiful girl she was, and me what a kind woman I was.  

She chastised me on the one occasion I referred to Smilin' Vic as 'him'.  ''You'll na be geddin' any loov dat way Dearie; dan't call 'im by 'is given name neider,  yel be given 'im a pet name if ya wan 'is heart.'' 

When Smilin' Vic's eyes settled on a group of very attractive and giggling women heading down the street Deirdre slapped him on the arm and scolded him sharply.  ''Young 'Smilin Vic', don ya be lookin' down da street at dat when you've a perfectly fine lass sittin' right in front o' ya.  I'll be after shown' ya a real tump if ya dan't set your eyes straight.''

Then she looked at me and said ''See wad I tol' ya?  Sweet words from ya is wa dis man needs.''

 Smilin' Vic and Kiddo walking Deirdre to the waiting cab at the end of a great night in Cork.

Smilin' Vic and Kiddo walking Deirdre to the waiting cab at the end of a great night in Cork.

Eventually she had to go.  It was nearing 11 p.m., she was growing tired, and she'd long since missed her bus, but Smilin' Vic had assured her we'd get her home safe in a cab.  So engaging was she that Smilin' Vic made a lunch date with her for the next day.  Our stay in Cork would be extended by a day to allow us the chance to spend a little more time with Deirdre.  We got her address and phone number, and promised to pass by at noon the next day to collect her.  Kiddo and Smilin' Vic got her into the cab, and we all waved goodbye as she drove off into the night.

It was the last time we would see Deirdre.  

 Some Irish folk intent on helping us find sweet Deirdre with the white hair ...

Some Irish folk intent on helping us find sweet Deirdre with the white hair ...

The next morning we had breakfast, walked around Cork a bit, and then headed off to our lunch date.  We dialled the number she'd given us, but it wouldn't connect.  Undeterred, we set the GPS to her address, and arrived at a row of flats near Albert Quay.  We knocked, but no answer was forthcoming.

 

We stopped at a nearby petrol station, and Smilin' Vic showed the attendant the address.  He told us we needed to head out to old BlackRock Road, but he didn't recognise the exact street address.  We drove a ways, and stopped several times to ask directions.

Never, ever, in a million years could I have imagined strangers so friendly as in Ireland.  People who saw us, standing by the side of the road with the map laid out on the car's hood (bonnet, if you're from these parts), stopped without fail to ask if we needed help.  Two old ladies called some friends to see if they knew anyone named Deirdre in town.  A young man on crutches stopped to dial Deirdre's number on his mobile, and though it rang and rang, she never answered.

And so it was that we headed back to Cork, and on to Blarney Castle for the afternoon, all three of us with the image of a little old lady looking sadly out her living room window, wondering why we never came as promised.  Smilin' Vic was the first to put it into words, but after almost two hours searching, we knew the time had come to carry on.

 Our first view of Blarney Castle.

Our first view of Blarney Castle.

We did make it to Blarney Castle though, and Kiddo and I took advantage of some shade to sleep off a bit of the previous night's revelry with Deirdre and Dirty Pete (this is another story altogether; of a potty-mouthed yet oddly charming Irish clothing salesman in town for the night who took over Deirdre's seat once she'd left).

 Entry to the Dungeon ....

Entry to the Dungeon ....

 I'm imagining the sentries of yore would have been startled by today's twist on perimeter control ...

I'm imagining the sentries of yore would have been startled by today's twist on perimeter control ...

 Kiddo braved the slippery wet stone and ventured deep into the dungeon passageways ...

Kiddo braved the slippery wet stone and ventured deep into the dungeon passageways ...

I hadn't realised that the Blarney Stone actually sits at the top of Blarney Castle, and that to kiss it and be instantaneously gifted with a silver tongue you actually have to lie on your back over the parapet, only two steel rods separating your head from the ground 40 feet (137 steps) below.  Undeterred by my acrophobia, I set out to lay my irrational fear of heights to rest for good.  I was going to climb those steps and kiss the Blarney Stone!

 View of the parapet from below ...

View of the parapet from below ...

Unfortunately, my will did not carry me as far as my intentions.  I made it up the spiral stone staircase to the first landing.  We stepped into a room and marvelled at a whole lot of stone ... Kiddo and Smilin' Vic proceeded back to the spiral staircase and up to the parapet.  And as I headed for the staircase I ...

Froze.

 Winding stone staircase leading up to the top of Blarney Castle ... signs everywhere to proceed at your peril ... fun times ...

Winding stone staircase leading up to the top of Blarney Castle ... signs everywhere to proceed at your peril ... fun times ...

As Smilin' Vic and Kiddo called down to me, I struggled to find my voice.  ''Are you ok, Maman?'' came Kiddo's sweet voice from the top of the tower.  And I couldn't answer.  I stood at the entrance to the staircase literally weak in the knees, trembling and terrified that opening my mouth would surely cause enough vibration in the air to send me tumbling down that stone-encased coffin.  ''Do you want me to come back down and get you, Maman?''

It's not logic or courage that willed me back into the stairwell and up to the parapet.  It was the ten American tourists laughing openly at my obvious terror that set motion to my wobbly legs.  I crawled up the remaining stairs, my legs practically liquefying as Smilin' Vic called down, ''When you get up here, look to your left.  Whatever you do, don't look to your right.''

 So when Smilin' Vic says ''Don't look to your right'', what do you imagine I do next?

So when Smilin' Vic says ''Don't look to your right'', what do you imagine I do next?

It goes fuzzy about this time, but I do recall getting up there, lulled somewhat trancelike up the stairs by a droning voice repeating ''Lie back, grab hold of the bar, both of 'em, kiss the stone, get up.  Lie back, grab hold of the bar, both of 'em, kiss the stone, get up. Lie back, grab hold .......''  

I looked up to see Smilin' Vic laughing and snapping pictures of my abject terror as I made my way onto the top landing on hands and knees, and glanced ahead to see a zombie-like old man staring off into the distance, chanting his instructions mindlessly as people lay down on the parapet to partake in the ritual.  Another guy stood by taking pictures of these fools who chose to dangle perilously on this ledge all for the sake of a bucket list item.

 Me, emerging at the top of the stairwell.

Me, emerging at the top of the stairwell.

 I stayed stuck here for a bit, trying to clear my mind and allowing myself to breathe for the first time in 24 minutes.

I stayed stuck here for a bit, trying to clear my mind and allowing myself to breathe for the first time in 24 minutes.

 Finally making it to my feet as I stand on wobbly knees atop the castle roof.

Finally making it to my feet as I stand on wobbly knees atop the castle roof.

 View from the rooftop ...

View from the rooftop ...

 This is the last thing you see as you lean back to lay your lips where so many have slobbered before ...

This is the last thing you see as you lean back to lay your lips where so many have slobbered before ...

Kiddo was determined to do it, and I was determined to encourage her and not let my insanity quash her enthusiasm.  But it's logic that stopped her from doing it in the end, not fear.  Even at her tender young age, she realised that the old fart sitting at the top of the parapet wasn't going to be any help should she by any chance start to slip down through those bars.  So she sat out the opportunity, but Smilin' Vic couldn't resist.  He leaned back and smacked his lips right onto that spittle-covered stone, not stopping long enough to think of the slobbering tourist mouths that had passed over this stone before his.  Had he done so, it would have surely stopped him in his tracks.

Bucket list item accomplished, we proceeded back down the spiral staircase, with me still trembling in fear but hopeful that I would soon again be setting foot on terra firma.

We took advantage of the beautiful day to stroll the gardens and enjoy the warm sunshine and fresh air.  Only Smilin' Vic's newfound silver-tongue occasionally broke the silence, waxing lyrical as we all drank in the beauty and serenity of our surroundings.

Eventually even Smilin' Vic's celebrated eloquence was quieted by the wonder of the day and the nature around us, and we walked along in silence, drinking in as much green and oxygen as we could in the hopes that we could commit it to memory long enough to carry us through to our imminent return to the desert.  

 Curious friend we met along the way ...

Curious friend we met along the way ...

 And a buddy ...

And a buddy ...

 Peaceful days ...

Peaceful days ...

 THIS ....

THIS ....