Sunday, October 11, 2015

Differences: Grocery stores

So what was the different between Lome and Dar Es Salaam?  Or Togo and Tanzania? Since they are both on the same continent there had to be ALOT of similarities? Right? WRONG! While there are some similarities these places are very different.

One of the big differences were the Grocery Stores

Our favourite grocery store in Lome down the road gave us access to limited edition Salamis from certain regions in France along with beautiful cheeses. (I still dream about the sandwiches I created there day after day). Baguettes were in abundant supply along with French yoghurt, French jams, French biscuits, French candies, French wine, you get the picture. One of our favourite shopping places was a place called Citi Mart. they imported many things from America and it was where I would stock up on premade brownie mix, rootbeer, gingerale, the occasional mac n' cheese and certain breakfast cereals. We also had a basket of veggies/fruits from a farm co-op delivered to our door every second week full. It was after many failed attempts that we realized sometimes it is impossible to tell the difference between a banana and a plantain until you bite into it.

The first time we walked into what was then Shoprite in Dar Daniel and I marveled at how much stock was on the shelves and how many different brands of items there were. We counted 3 different types of canned peas, 3 different brands of jam with at least 12 different flavours, they also had 5 different brands of dish soap! 5! Then we found out that there are at least 6 well stocked grocery stores 10 minutes down the road from us. As the years passed that number grew and I think now we are at 11 at the very least though we are still waiting for one to open up within walking distance of our house.
Shopping in Champion Supermarche frozen foods/drinks asile in Lome back in 2013
Speaking of grocery stores I have to say that it is one of the biggest highlights for me when I go to a new country to check out what they are selling in the grocery stores. In the developed world I will walk up and down the aisles marveling at how much food they have managed to pack into a store. Sometimes it can be overwhelming especially in the chip asile. In Africa we can get Pringles readily. Now here in Dar we can also get pretend Lays and knock of Lays called Krackles as well as the local street chips. But back home they have at least ten different varieties plus all the knock offs and there are at least 7 different types of taco chips. Here there are two. One from the Mexican restaurant and some weird brand I have never heard of before. They used to have another brand as well but then those chips started making my tongue go numb if I ate too many so we stopped getting those ones.

While grocery stores are something else, one thing that has been lovely is the variety of fresh fruits and veggies you can get for cheap. When you head out to the village prices are even cheaper. That's why when we go to the village we budget at least one extra hour on the way home so we can buy fresh white or yellow pineapples, buckets full of tomatoes or passion fruits, huge bunches of bananas and the list just goes on.
A fruit and veggie vendor that used to be down the road. Two years ago these stands were torn down for violating
some sort of code and they have yet to be built up again. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

And then there were cats...

After saying goodbye to Togo I felt I could really settle into Tanzania.

One thing that helped with the adaptation process was our cat Pumba. She had been left behind by a departing expat family and was the most depressed/fat cat you have ever seen. We took her home three weeks after moving here after rats penetrated our third floor apartment, not once, not twice, but three times. This was done by scaling the side of the building, chewing a hole through the bathroom screen then running into the house to steal garlic, paper or anything else it could get its grubby little paws on. A person can only chase after a rat with a broom attempting to sweep it into a garbage can so many times before you say 'enough is enough' and breakdown and get a cat.

Pumba was that cat. Now she would never attack a rat, or anything for that matter. Her favourite thing to do is sleep and eat. She loves being by people and is great with children, adults and enjoys lounging around at parties. Her sheer size terrified the nieces of one of our Tanzanian colleagues because they thought the only way a cat could get so big (think 22 lbs) was by eating small children. The rats were also terrified of Pumba and refused to venture into our apartment ever again. 
Pumba shortly after she came home weighing around 22 lbs.
Pumba had the run of the place until the end of March. It was then I heard mewing sounds around the apartment building. D accused me of having kittens on the brain so I brushed it aside night after night. Until one evening a text message from a friend called my attention to a starving kitten in the dumpster. This kitten was only supposed to be fostered for awhile before it found a home, but the little guy won me over. He was so malnourished and needy, soaking up all the attention with his cries for love and company. The first few nights I slept on the floor beside him so he could stay warm and his health began to improve. It took hours of begging and pleading before D finally relented and Dudu joined our family. 
Nameless black cat a couple days after he first arrived. It was Daniel who
chose the name Dudu which is the Kiswahili word for Insect
While both cats may be black they are opposites in all other areas. Where Pumba has a sleek coat and is gorgeous and plump, Dudu has wiry with coarse short hair and skinny. Where she relaxes in the sun he runs circles around the house and freaking out when he sees his own reflection. While Pumba needs to be near people Dudu must be on them or sitting on Pumba as he has no concept of cat space. Dudu loves socializing with all of the neighbourhood cats and talks to them through the window with his meows where as Pumba will growl and scream at the intruders in her space. Where both are similar is their love of food, certain sun spots in the house or chilling on the balcony watching the children below and their fascination with the sound of their own voices especially nearing meal time.

Both cats keep us entertained for hours. Their antics are hilarious and their cuddles worth every penny of the damage to our rugs or shower curtains. The school has now implemented a pet policy which means we can only ever own two animals at a time. This is for the best as three cats may just push me over the edge of being that crazy cat lady. Although the other day I did spot another cat in the dumpster...

Both cats while opposite in many ways they do enjoy one another's
company and will pine for the other when one is away.
Kind of like siblings...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Goodbye Togo?

The decision to leave Togo was a difficult one for me. I knew it was something I needed to do as the job I was doing was not sustainable. A ten hour work day is not something one should have to do in order to keep their head above water. The pressure came more from myself then others but in order to do my job well something had to give.  And they did give. My health was suffering as were my relationships. Not to mention the strain on my love/passion for teaching and music.

But saying goodbye was hard. I cried a few times on the way back home on the airplane. Many of my students were some of the most amazing individuals many of whom will go on to do great things. We said a lot of goodbyes in Togo to good friends as many people wouldn't stay too long. In fact now three years later if we went back, many of our friends are in second or even third postings. Some have even returned back home after years of being overseas. 

Since I was not very happy with our placement in Tanzania for the first year it made things that much harder. Human memory is funny that way. The longer we were in Dar the more the difficulties of Togo melted away. It got to the point where I could not remember the difficult parts of Togo. In fact all I could remember were the amazing parts, people, food and great times. I couldn't remember the frustration, the sadness or even the exhaustion. 

To help me my memory D encouraged me to take a trip back. So in March I returned. Along with visiting friends, eating fufu, speaking French and going fabric shopping, I also went back to the school. I met with my old students, walked through familiar hallways and visited my old classrooms. 

It was an amazing trip. As a teacher I was uplifted. As a person I felt affirmed. When it came time to leave this time I was ready. There were no rivers of tears or anguish and disappointment, just a peaceful calm that yes indeed I had made the right decision. The right decision to teach and invest my life in my students. The right decision to go to Togo right after university. The right decision to leave before burning out. The right decision to go back.

Togo will always hold a special part in my mind as well as my heart. It was the first place we lived. It was Africa as it may have existed fifty years ago and a part of Africa that may not exist again. Would I go back? Most definitely. Will I? Probably not but at least now I am ok with that. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Years of Silence

So it has been two years since I last published a blog post. During that time I have written entries on my iPad to be published later, but just never got around to publishing them. I would reread what I had written later and decide I had not accurately articulated what was going on around me, in my head and how I felt about it all.

It took a year to process Togo and during that time I wasn't even sure I wanted to stay in Tanzania. The first year in Dar was awful for a multitude of reasons and while there were glimmers of sunshine, the gray clouds weighed heavily on my mind. Year two was significantly better and year three is shaping up to be the best year yet.

So here is to breaking silence and starting afresh. But one can not start afresh without reflecting back. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Life now, version two

Well, life now has taken a bit of a turn toward the east.

We've moved from Togo to Tanzania!

So, from now on this blog will be all about our life and experiences in Dar es Salaam.

First impressions? Tanzania and it's people are lovely -- Dar is a big city which is a huge change from sleepy Lome.  There are shopping centres, plenty of huge grocery stores stocking most everything one could want. There is a huge variety of restaurants, way, way more expats than Togo and real, proper mind-numbing traffic jams.

We'll keep this blog going with the occasional tip for those moving to Tanzania.

First tip: If you're getting your visa at Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, be prepared to wait for several hours in a poorly air-conditioned arrivals hall with no access to water or food. There are bathrooms.

There is a person, usually a uniformed police or customs official, wandering around taking cash and passports. He will deliver it to the customs officials doing the actual visa processing, you just need to find him in the crowd of people and shove them into his hands.

Hours later, once processed, a timid voice (usually of a very short and quiet) customs official will squeak out a name. This causes a crush of people to run forward, each thinking they heard their name. If unfunny things make you laugh when you're tired, hungry and overheated, it's hilarious.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Grocery shopping in Togo

Before we came to Togo we were not sure what to expect in terms of grocery shopping options.

Since we had been to Uganda before we assumed there would be some similarities. There would be a few shopping malls, supermarkets and roadside stalls. Well after doing a little reserach we found out there were no shopping malls. And the largest supermarket was, at the time of our arrival in 2011, the size of a small-town grocery store. Supermarché le Champion stocked food stuffs as well as TVs, freezer chests, a few home appliances and a surprisingly thorough selection of Belgian beer. Most of which had gone bad, unfortunately.

The alternative is Ramco, which has one large store downtown and several satellite locations including one in la Caisse, within walking distance from our home. Given the proximity, the small Ramco became the go-to shop, despite having a very, very limited selection of quite expensive food stuffs in their 5 aisles. But they made up for it by having the very best (and safest) selection of cold cuts, meat and cheese.

Since Togo was a French colony, the cheese, meat and wine were all delicious and somewhat reasonably priced. Ramco stocked some salami's I had to google to figure out which small rural valley in France it came from. Tasty, tasty.

Because it was so close to home, we could walk to get our deli goods fresh as needed.  
Occasionally there would be shortages of deli supplies, but most often the shortages applied to non-perishable food stuffs, which would be hoarded by people like us.

Maple syrup -- 100% Quebec -- was cheaper than in Canada and flew off the shelves. I think we bought 6 jars.

Special varieties of soda, like root beer, were bought by the shopping cart full and carefully rationed. It may be 6 months, if ever, before it would re-appear in the grocery store.

There was also a small (think corner store sized) shop downtown, Citimart, which stocked food imported from America. Flats of soda, the ones which say not for individual resale, were parted out and sold for 350 CFA ($.72) per can.  But for Dr. Pepper and A&W Root Beer, it was worth it. They also stocked Betty Crocker brownie mix, Oreos and American toiletry products.

Prices do vary between stores, so some planning is required to get the best deals. For example, pasta and tomato paste were cheaper at Champion, while Concorde supermarket in Klikame had the best prices on instant oatmeal, juice and coffee.

In early 2013, the landscape of grocery stores changed again when Supermarché le Champion expanded. Already quite expensive, they jacked their prices again, but we went anyways because now they had all the home appliances we only dreamed of having. Immersion blenders, electric coffee grinders, espresso makers and waffle makers could all be had. (Up till this point, we had to shop for these things at Game in Accra or order them off Amazon.)

They also expanded their wine cellar and began stocking frozen foods and microwave meals, definitely a sign of a middle class!

Lastly, while most every local fresh vegetable and fruit can be found at your local street vendor we have found that the Mytro Nunya cultural centre offers a very tasty organic fresh basket with a good variety of fruits and veggies delivered to your door.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cultural differences: House-help (Part 2)

So. You're looking for house-help.

One of the best ways to get a reliable house-helper is by inheritance. Find someone who is leaving the country and is passing on their house help, or someone can recommend past employees. Embassy and international school staff would be good people to ask.

Hiring friends of friends or someone with no recent references almost always ends badly. We're speaking from experience here.

Make sure your house help knows how to properly wash and dry clothes. You may have to remind them to only wash similar colours at once (The purple -- formerly white -- shirt incident of 2012 taught us this) and to be vigilant about ironing everything, especially if you are in areas prone to mango flies. 
Also speaking from experience: once you've found someone, make it very clear that their first week is a trial week. IN WRITING, spell out all expectations and make it abundantly clear that it is a trial week only. If the trial week doesn't work out, culture in Togo dictates that you can not tell them what they did wrong, but only that it won't work out.

It is also standard practice to change the all locks on your house when an employee is terminated. We know several people who have been burgled days after firing an employee. Revenge is very much alive in Togolese culture.

Going back to keeping things in writing: You need to do this to protect yourself, as laws in Togo favour the worker and not the employee. You can be sued for firing someone for not doing their job, as it is your job as the employer to help them become less incompetent. If you have them sign a contract that states they are on a trial period, and on a subsequent month-to-month contract which can be terminated by either party, that helps balance the scales. (do make sure your contract still falls within the parameters of Togolese labour laws.)

In the contact you should also write down a basic idea of expectations: laundry and dishes daily, wash floor twice a week, wash windows once a week, pick up groceries on Wednesday, etc. Do make sure you go through the house with them, showing them the ropes, where things are stored, how you like your bed made, how you prefer your towels hung, etc.

Make sure the contract spells out working hours, salary, holidays and leave and miscellaneous clarifications such as whether or not loans will be provided.

Lastly, make sure your house help are able and feel comfortable asking you questions about their duties and work. They're not mind readers.

As mentioned above, make sure your expectations fall in line with the law. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rugged Luggage

Generally, we're firm believers in travelling light and living with what can be found in local shops. 

However, there are still things that can't be found -- or are of poor quality and high price-- that are more easily bought abroad. 

The main concern for me has always been: "OK, so you bought that new slow cooker crock pot. How are you going to get it to Togo in one piece?" 

Well, I think I've finally found the solution. 

On the way to Heathrow with our new hard-sided 'tool boxes' -- which make great rugged luggage. 

Travelling with soft-sided suitcases is good and blends in well -- but leaves breakables vulnerable to crushing. And those hard-sided plastic suitcases still flex too much for my liking.

The ultimate in protection would be a Pelican Case, but they weigh too much and cost way, way too much. I don't need it to withstand a bulldozer and be completely waterproof. Just a hard-sided, rugged airline OK sized box to put my stuff in.

While on a recent trip to the UK, I began searching for such a box. Which led to some difficulties with the English language. (Do I call it a plastic footlocker, a trunk, a case, a bin -- definitely not!)

After days of looking at and for a Gorilla Box (Chimp size, to meet airline size regulations) and googling for distributors of Contico and Sterilite containers, I nearly gave up.  I even started looking at hard-sided suitcases again.

And then, with time running out, I decided to look at tool boxes. Shortly into my search I came across a polypropylene tool box with wheels and multiple carrying points and handles. 

The best thing? A shop a few miles outside of London had them in stock. So off I went to find the Multi Utility Box (MUB) by GT Line. 

It's rugged, light-weight (6.3kg empty) and holds a lot of stuff (89 L.)

It even has 4 padlock holes, so you can lock it up (or zip-tie as I prefer) for the flight. 

The dimensions are just a tiny bit over most airline regulations of 62 linear inches, but I've travelled with mine and have had no problems.

Other than that, I don't know what else to say. It works for travel to Africa. And makes a great storage container on arrival. 

A small note: when travelling to Africa, we've found that customs officials are attracted to shiny new luggage. Make yours look old with some scuffs and duct tape before your journey. The same goes for whatever appliances or goods are inside. Leave nothing new in the box and remove all price tags