The Story of the Spongebob Shirt

The story I’m about to describe to you is how I came across the greatest t-shirt known to man. Alright, maybe its just the greatest shirt in my entire wardrobe. Yeah, alright, true. I do only own like 9 shirts, but thats not the point. Now I could have just come across this gem while digging through any old pile of dead yovo clothes(It’s what all of the donated clothes from the US and Europe are called here) at the market and it still would have been pretty awesome. But a signed Derek Jeter ball you bought in a sports memorabilia shop is not nearly as cool as somehow getting Jeter to sign the game winning home run ball you caught with your own little league mitt. Its the story that makes it.

So, the story starts at this little rooftop bar in my village where another volunteer and I were cooling down and relaxing over a few cold beers. We’ll call the other volunteer…Jack. Anyway, Jack gets a phone call from another volunteer saying that she just arrived at So And So’s birthday party and it was going to be “uhhmAAAziiiing!!!” So OMG we just haaad to come.

We had previously decided that it wasn’t worth the time and money to take the long trip out to the other town where the party was taking place. But we were each a couple of beers deep so lets just say our negotiating skills weren’t quite in tip top shape to be arguing against going to a party at this point. So after carefully weighing the pros and cons and making sure we made the most logical and reasonable decision, about 35 seconds later Jack and I were paying our tab and heading out the door to find a cab.

Now this wasn’t like the kind of ‘oh man, I really don’t feel like taking a half hour cab ride to the other side of town to go to some birthday party’ kind of trip. This ‘long trip’ that our previously completely sober and rational minds had decided wasn’t worth it, was about to take us five and a half hours cramped in a bush taxi with 6 other people (thats a total of 8 people in a small beat up sedan), down a grueling, unbelievably rocky and pothole ridden ‘road’. And all of this was coming together just as the horizon was beginning to take on the pinkish hue of the days setting sun.

After what I can honestly say was the worst traveling experience I had ever had up to that point(It was stripped of its title shortly thereafter by the hungover car ride back up that exact same road the next morning), the car finally stops to let everyone out, only to tell us we still had another 25 miles to go and that he wasn’t taking us any further. So after arguing with half a dozen moto drivers to find a decent price, and being convinced to partake in a round of particularly hellish shots of Togolese moonshine, we hop on the back of a couple of motos to head down the rest of this riverbed they claimed to be a road.

Now the back portion of the seat on my moto had been so worn down that I was literally just sitting on metal bars for the last 40 minute stretch of this trip. Needless to say, by the time we arrived I was less than happy, completely sober, and literally felt like my ass had just been through the scene after the baseball game in Dazed and Confused. Going to a party right now was the last thing I wanted to do.

So I’m standing in the middle of the ‘road’ after stepping off of this moto. It’s pitch black at this point and I’m waiting for Jack to pay the guys, rubbing my ass to make sure its actually still there, and this random guy walks up to me. Now as you can imagine I am in no mood to be getting friendly with strangers. I’m actively avoiding eye contact with this guy in hopes that he’ll just go away. “No, I’m not going to give you money. No, I don’t need a taxi. Just leave me the hell alone man”. Just as I’m thinking this to myself he says to me “I like your shirt, you should give it to me”. This was pretty much my last straw at this point. My usual technique when someone says this kind of thing to me (which is surprisingly often), is to say right back at them that they need to give me their shirt, hat, motorcycle, etc.. Usually that gets them off my back.

So I turn around and say exactly that to this guy. Mind you though, in a much angrier voice than he had said it to me. But mid sentence, as I’m turning to face him, I see this giant Spongebob smile and big bulging white eyes on his obnoxiously bright yellow shirt, and I can’t help but immediately calm down a bit and almost crack a smile at the situation. And rather than the usual confused look and response of ‘what are you talking about, I’m not going to give you my shirt, thats ridiculous.’ He rolls his eyes up and to the side, as if seriously contemplating my proposal. After 3 or 4 seconds he looks me dead in the eyes, shrugs his shoulders a bit, and with his eyebrows cocked up, just says ‘Okay’.

I was so taken aback by the combination of his response and the giant happy spongebob face staring at me, I completely forgot that I was angry. I glanced down at my shirt, then over to spongebob’s obnoxiously large smile, and then kind of just stared at the guy for a few seconds, not really sure how to respond.

“Um…Okay” I said, still a bit confused

“Okay…Um…You, uh, Wanna. Trade. right now?” He was just as puzzled by this situation as I was.

“Uuh…Yeah. I guess. Right here?” I mean, we’re kind of standing in the middle of the road, and I’m not exactly sure whats happening right now dude, buuut…..

He shrugs his shoulders at me again and says “Um, Yeah?” Looking back to me for reaffirmation.

We both kind of go back and forth with this little game of ‘Are you sure you’re gonna do it? Cause I don’t wanna do it unless you’re definitely gonna do it. You go first’. ‘No you go first’ Like we’re two 16 year old kids with a bottle of Baily’s sitting in between us that we just stole from Dad’s liquor cabinet.

So we both hesitantly take of our shirts in the middle of this street and slowly hand them over to each other, only releasing our grip on our own shirt once we know we’ve got a firm grip on our newly found attire.

Both of our cautiously perplexed faces slowly give way to smiles once we’ve got our new shirts on our backs. We shake hands, give each other a mutual look of ‘yeah, that definitely was a bit weird, but I’m okay with it’, and go on our separate ways.

Just as I turn back around Jack has just finished paying for the motos. She turns around to look at me. “Wait a minute, were you wearing that shirt the whole time?”

“Nope, just traded some random dude on the street for it” I say back to her with a smile that surely had to rival that of my new shirt. “I’m totally ready to party right now though”

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The First Supper

Alright, so you’ve heard about the greatest coach flight ever experienced, and you know about my newly found creepy habit of playing peek-a-boo with little kids on the subway, but I’ve got a few more little stories about my awkward, culturally inappropriate interactions, and flat out overwhelming culture shock moments from my trip back home to the states, and then I promise I’ll get back to more stories about Togo. Not that any of you are really begging for more stories about me getting crazy illnesses or fighting off nature’s (at least African nature’s) apparent strong desire to make me shit my pants (A fight I am proud to say I’m currently winning, although it might just have to come down to a judges decision by the end), but here goes:

So my first cultural faux pa in the states happened just after I got into NY, while I was out to lunch with my dad and sister. First of all, talk about overwhelming. Holy shit, I felt like I was going to have a panic attack just looking at the menu. I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself there were so many choices. And it’s not even like we were at some fancy 5 star restaurant. I’m pretty sure my one and only requirement for my first meal back was that it took place at an establishment with cold beer on tap. So after I had my fingers (and lips) wrapped around an icy cold IPA, everything else was just icing on the golden pint of hoppy goodness in my hand. I’m not even joking, I literally couldn’t even order I was so overwhelmed. Everything was maple glazed, caramelized, bacon wrapped, blue cheese stuffed, and hickory smoked(and I thought that three cheese was exciting). It was sheer beauty.

I read over the whole menu two or three times and still had no idea what was on it, much less what I was going to order. I just had this giddy, stupid, somewhat confused grin on my face, I was slightly shaking(maybe quivering would be a better fit), I even had a few droplets of sweat beading up on my forehead, and I hadn’t even tasted anything yet. Talk about premature excitement. I came to realize/remember while I was home that every menu is just as over exageratingly descriptive as this, no matter how shitty the food actually is. But when you’ve grown accustomed to ‘big pot of spicy red sauce with mystery bush meat’, or ‘big pot of even spicier green sauce with old fish’ as your menu options, this kind of stuff looks like straight up hardcore food porn.

Anyway, I ended up having to make my sister order for me, which, shortly thereafter resulted in my (I’m sure inappropriately) shoving my face into a giant, greasy, bacon blue cheese burger. (She knows me too well). And helping to polish off her pulled pork amazingness something or other. I honestly don’t even remember most of it. It all got a bit hazy once the food arrived. Toss a few more pints of cold beer somewhere in between the greasy massacre and I was on cloud 9.

All of this lack of table manners and whatnot though, was understandable and excusable to my dad and sister. I think it was once the waitress came back to clear our plates that I really got some weird looks.

Completely unrelated Interjection– Click this little button ———————————> if you want to get an email notification when I post something new. Come on now, you know you want to. All the cool kids are doing it.

Let me explain something to you first though. In Togo, literally nothing goes to waste when it comes to food. People literally crunch down into chicken bones just to get the little bit of bone marrow on the inside. Right after every last remnant of meat or cartilage had been gnawed off the ends. I actively avoided eating hot wings while I was at home for this exact reason(Don’t worry, I’m joking, I haven’t actually picked up on that custom yet). Food, especially meat, is serious business here, and does not go to waste.

So when the waitress came to clear the table and asked my dad if he wanted the other half of his juicy grilled sirloin steak sandwich topped with caramelized onions and peppers, and melted gruyere cheese (My hands are quivering just writing about it as I sit here belly full of pounded yams, spicy sauce, and some sort of mystery bushmeat), I was quickly snapped out of my food coma when my dad politely told her that we were all set. No boxes needed. Im pretty sure I looked over at him like he had three heads. ‘Are you joking right now? Seriously? That was a joke right?’ I shot the waitress a look as if to say ‘Hold on just a second, my father clearly has a screw loose’. Glancing over at my sister as if to get someone else with their head on straight to back me up. I’m sitting completely straight up at this point, chin stretched up in the air, eyebrows raised, looking down my nose at the plate as it passed by my face to get a reaffirming look at the glorious half of a sandwich sitting there pristinely uneaten, “Uh. Um. Nuh, no. Yeah… we… we’ll.. we’ll take a box for that guy.’ Seriously, I thought that was a rhetorical question at first.

I think my father was so taken aback by my reaction he didn’t even bother saying anything. He just looked at me, eyebrows slightly cocked, like ‘Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?’

So to make a long story just a little bit longer, I have absolutely no idea where the contents of that little square styrofoam box actually ended up. They certainly didn’t end up in my belly, because right after that we went to Yankee Stadium to watch the game with my little brother, and was immediately brought to a whole other level of culture shock surrounded by burgers, hot dogs, brat worst, onion rings, and a plethora of cold beers on tap. Needless to say, that little white box had long ago faded from my memory.

I guess this is the point where I should toss in my 2 cents about how we Americans waste too much food and take it all for granted and blah blah blah. But I’m way too busy thinking about what sort of fatty, bacon wrapped, smothered in cheese, heavenly concoction I’m going to eat next time I’m home. So ‘Insert meaningful message here’ and then go eat a half of a steak sandwich in my honor.

-Sitting middle seat in coach for a 14 hour flight back to the states is apparently not the five star, luxurious experience, filled with gourmet food I initially thought it was

Seriously though, I felt like a king on my flight back to New York. If you’ve read my posts about transportation in Togo you’ll sort of understand why. I couldn’t believe it. I had a big soft cushiony seat. All to my self. There weren’t 6 people within 5 square feet of me. No crying children on my lap, nor women breastfeeding their babies right next to me (I’m not joking, I wrote this post a few days ago and just went over it before officially posting it, and had to add this little tidbit in cause that literally just happened to me 5 hours ago. Talk about awkward. Apparently she’s seen the latest issue of TIME). The lady next to me didn’t have 4 live chickens in her hand bag, and I didn’t feel like the vehicle I was in was going to fall apart and crash into a tree at any moment. So, for me, this ‘lowly’ coach seat was far from uncomfortable, I was in travel heaven.

There were beautiful women waiting on me hand and foot (Seriously, British Airways has some hot flight attendants. And they were just as good looking on my flight back to Togo after a month in America, so you can’t just blame it on the fact that I had only seen 6 American girls total in the year before that). They were giving me free booze and asking me if I wanted three cheese ravioli or beef over brown rice with vegetables. I realize that most of you are reading this thinking, ‘Eww, airplane food is terrible, I wouldn’t serve that shit to my dog.’ I mean thats pretty much a universal truth right? Right next to death, taxes, and that a trip to the DMV is sure to make you want to shoot yourself in the face. I now realize this after spending a month in the ‘real world’, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. But at this point, after eating a diet consisting of nothing but rice, beans, pounded yams, and thick, gooey, flavorless grits, with the occasional treat of dried fish or chunk of mystery bush meat, I felt like I was eating at a Michelin starred restaurant. Seriously? Three cheese ravioli? Thats two and a half more cheeses than I’ve had in the past year. I sat there trying as hard as I could to not just scarf it all down like a gluttonous madman. But you bet your ass I practically licked those little plastic and tin containers clean. Peeking my head over to the people sitting next to me, eyes wide and hopeful, and probably just a bit crazed looking, like ‘Hey man… you gonna use that butter packet?’

And it didn’t end there. I had my own personal TV? With direct TV and movies? Shiiiiit, if I walked down the street in Togo and some roadside shack was playing a dubbed in French version of Godzilla from the 70’s on a TV that was even older(Stop laughing, I’ve actually done that. Multiple times. Give me a break, its apparently the only movie they have there), I was fucking enthralled by it. So having my own personal ‘entertainment system’ was pretty awesome.

And the bathrooms? Don’t even get me started on the bathrooms. Actual flushing toilets with working sinks, fully equipped with soap, toilet paper, and paper towels? After spending a solid 30% of the past year… moving my bowels, in Togolese ‘bathrooms’ I was pretty goddam excited by this. Yes. I know. I warned you at the beginning of this that Togo has made me weird and culturally inappropriate. And if you’ve read anything else that I’ve written, you know that pooping, shitting, diarrhea, toilets etc. is a big part of my life here, and therefore a big part of what you get to read about when you ask me for any ‘exciting and crazy stories about Africa’. So shut up and deal with my shit or stop reading(bad pun intended). Seriously though, at that point, those little airplane bathrooms were glorious.

At first I think I was just in my own little world, soaking in every little bit of this awesome high class experience as I could, but by the second leg of the trip I started to catch onto the fact that I was pretty much the only one enjoying the trip and little airplane meals as much as I was. I quickly realized that everyone else was cautiously and very apprehensively picking around at their little tin containers of food. More so just pushing things back and forth with scrunched up noses, and looks of expected disappointment on their faces than actually consuming anything. And honestly, I kind of felt bad for them, aaaand kind of wanted to ask them if I could have their leftovers.

But fast-forward about a month and I was one of them. After being pampered half to death by the glory that is America; Cold micro-brews, bacon cheese burgers, sushi, air conditioning, maple syrup, pizza, bacon, paved roads, bloody marys, real Mexican food, bacon, italian delis, bacon (I kind of have an obsession with food if you haven’t caught on to that yet, I actually gained like 15 lbs. during the month that I was home, and I genuinely thank all who had a part in that). Back to the story though, my flight back was nowhere near as great and luxurious as the flight from Africa. It was still British Airways (and yes, the air hostesses were still really hot), but that extra something, that sense of wide eyed wonderment and blissful excitment was long gone. And it made me realize something, those flights were pretty much identical, they didn’t have shittier bathrooms on the way back, the food was of the exact same quality, and the seats definitely hadn’t shrunk in size, but my experience couldn’t have been more different. On the way back I felt like I had been downgraded to a dark musty third class interior room at the bottom of the Titanic.

What I realized though, was that sometimes, it has nothing to do with what you have or don’t have, but your ability to appreciate what you have when you have it, rather than constantly comparing it to something better. After all, chances are that your seemingly inadequate situation, is actually someone else’s idea of first class.

Be grateful for what you have, and just maybe you’ll get the chance do a little tapdancing on tabletops while you’re at it.

It’s not ok to smile at and play peek-a-boo with every little kid you see on the street. In america, thats called being a pedophile.

So it’s been a long time since I last posted anything, but as many of you probably know, I just got back from a trip home to the States. Along with that came quite a few entertaining instances of reverse culture shock as I tried to quickly readjust to the pace of living back in the US and did my best to leave behind some of the strange cultural habits I’ve picked up living in Togo for the past year. I’ve split them into a few smaller, more manageably posts, and I’ll post them over the next few days to a week. So here’s a little insight into my overwhelming, awkward, weird, often culturally inappropriate, trip back to America and some of the things I learned along the way:

It’s not ok to smile at and play peek-a-boo with every little kid you see on the street. In america, thats called being a pedophile.

       Walking down the street in my village in Togo, being the only white person within 25 miles, every little kid either repeatedly yells at me to get my attention, runs up to me to give me a hug, or at the very least stares at me in shock and awe till I make some silly face to make them laugh(That is of course if they don’t scream bloody murder like they’ve literally just stared into the eyes of the devil and run as fast as they possibly can in the other direction). As I’m doing my best to fully integrate myself into the community, Its almost rude of me to not acknowledge and/or entertain them. And pretty much every time I walk through my village theres a mother literally pushing her small child or baby at me and telling me to hold them and/or take them home with me to America. So interacting and playing with random little kids on the streets of my village is a completely normal activity for me in Togo. Not to mention that being the only red bearded white dude in a little village in West Africa might as well make me the equivalent in rarity of a giant purple singing dinosaur here. That being said though, making a funny face and smiling at a random little kid at a restaurant or in the subway in the states can pull a bit of a different reaction. They more so just look at me with a stare of ‘Who the fuck are you creepy dude?’ and then turn to their parents as if to say ‘So this is the kind of guy you always tell me not to take candy from, right ma?’.