Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Karoling in Kumbo!

I feel I should apologize for my tardy blog posts. Sorry, friends and strangers, readers and skimmers! But I also wonder - does the lateness, the rarity of this blog post make it more valuable? Will it be more popular or less popular? Either way, dear followers, this should be a fun post because it is a post in which I take a trip to Kumbo!

Saturday, 6 September 2014, morning: the beginning, the day of travel, the start of a new adventure - and time to pack. I hate packing, so I have progressively put it off later and later, finally reaching my current point where the moment I finish packing is the moment I bumble out the front door, turning the key twice behind me in the wooden door and securing the heavy padlock on the metal, outer door. I maneuver myself and my bag and my cumbersome motorcycle helmet across the balcony, down the uneven concrete steps, and through the dark and narrow hallway until I emerge, blinking, into the sunlit marketplace in front of my bar.

I carefully tread and thread my way between unhurried shoppers of all ages, bamboo tables piled with produce, carts overflowing with plastic kitchen utensils or used clothing, plastic mats on the ground spread with okra and onions, giant 100-kilo bags of rice or peanuts or red or black or white beans, and rushing vehicles. It's market day, and I will be glad to escape the bustle of today and the work of a few days. I find a bush taxi which will take me out of Bansoa Chefferie and down to the main road, the paved route connecting Dschang and Bafoussam and Bamenda, connecting me to my adventure. The taxi is heading in to Bafoussam, but I get out earlier, at Carrefour Dschang, the three-way intersection between those three cities. Instead of going right towards Bafoussam, I cross the road and turn left, waiting for my opportunity to hitchhike up to Bamenda. It doesn't take too long before a man driving a big, spacious truck pulls over and offers me and three very tall men rides. The three  men, being gentlemen, stuff themselves into the tiny bench of a backseat, long legs and arms held tight to their bodies, and enthusiastically begin conversing in three or four languages: French, English, pidgin, and a local language I don't recognize. I'm silent in the front seat, enjoying a rare moment (and by moment, I mean two hours or so) of traveling in physical comfort. As a light drizzle starts, I do nothing but breathe and let my eyes wander over the beautiful hills and valleys of the borderlands between the grasslands West and mountainous Northwest regions. 

I never travel through Bamenda without stopping to enjoy a frankly luxurious meal - this time, lunch at PressCafé, namely a Greek salad complete with olives and feta cheese (cheese! cheese!) accompanied by a hot coffee and homemade bread. After my satisfying meal, which I shared with Hillary Clinton (by which I mean her book), I take the long taxi ride across the city and then wait for a bush taxi to fill then proceed along the Ring Road to Kumbo. I realize I'm paying for the comfort of my morning's drive with the discomfort of my afternoon's.  With four adults and two young children in the backseat - one screaming six-month old, one calm five year old - I am tilted sideways, have nowhere to put my arms, and am sweating. In other words - a return to normal travel. We bump and thump along the rutted Ring Road, first climbing up out of Bamenda past waterfalls and waterfalls, then rapidly descending down the mountain into a valley. The woman to my left falls asleep; the woman to my right falls ill; my left leg falls asleep. Despite the discomfort - or perhaps because of the discomfort? I have a theory that physical discomfort causes one to appreciate beauty more - the view is stunning. Real mountains, forests and fields, waterfalls and lakes! I can't help but feel my spirits rise with the scenery. As we pass Ndop, the road improves. Jakiri wizzes by, and I know I am close. Then, two hours after leaving Bamenda, I arrive in Kumbo. One more motorcycle ride and there it is, my destination: Shannon Clawson's house! And it is a house with a view: the air is clear and the sun is setting behind majestic Mount Oku, the third highest mountain in Cameroon. Is it American or is it human that any mountain I see, I want to climb? 

I have had enough sitting in cramped places for the day and just want to relax after my voyage, so (after much talking) Shannon and I head to an upstairs bar with a balcony to watch the sun set over the mountains. Unfortunately, we talked too much, so we mostly missed the sunset - but we found a few friends to make up for it. Cait (a new PCV) and Mark (a Cameroonian friend to all PCVs) joined us and we embarked on a wide-ranging conversation about the education system, the plight of the Cameroonian youth, and Mean Girls, the flowing words aided and abetted by flowing beer. So one thing leads to another, so one beer leads to another, so one bar leads to another - and before the night was through, I visited three bars and made many new friends.

We do not get up early the next morning. But when we do get up, we feast on pancakes and locally grown coffee. (I learned that Starbucks sometimes sells coffee grown in Cameroon, right next door to Kumbo - keep an eye out, readers!) Shannon has work to do, so I traipse off to find Lianna, another PCV from my staging group. Her house is also beautiful, with more stunning scenery. I know I keep using the word "stunning," and I will try to show you with the pictures, but really they do not do it justice! I stand on her balcony, and I breathe the almost-cold air (we're at pretty high altitude), and I feel like I cannot look enough. But it would be awkward if I just stood on Lianna's balcony for hours, so instead I walk inside and try to hold that feeling of seeing something unexpectedly beautiful inside, like a warm secret. For lunch, we make… more pancakes! And then we go meandering to find a waterfall. Our path leads us - down from her house to the road - up to the market - down to the creek - up the hill - down through a bamboo forest - until we arrive below the waterfall. Kumbo is not particularly flat. Is it American or is it human nature that any waterfall pool I see, I want to climb into? 

After enjoying nature for a time, we meet Kat and Shannon at the cafe (where I cannot resist the temptation to order a hot chocolate) and then go out to dinner. When I say "go out to dinner," I don't mean that we go to a restaurant with menus, sit down and order, sip wine and water out of clean glasses… In fact, just erase all your ideas of going out to dinner. We go find their favorite mama who sells exactly three things out of three different plastic containers: beans, rice, and cabbage. We tell her we want cent franc of each, and go sit down. "Cabbage mama" slops them onto four battered metal plate, and then deposits said plates onto an uneven wooden table covered in a white-and-pink-flowered fabric, located in a dark and dingy hole in the wall. It is the second most delicious beans and cabbage I have ever tasted. Due to our late hours the night before, Shannon and I do not stay out late tonight.Instead, we retire at her home for some Anchorman giggles. 

The sun rises on the my third day in Kumbo. I meet Lianna in the Café (which I manage to find all on my own, with the help of a painted concrete statue depicting some religious leader; I found it rather frightening the first time I saw it and so it stuck in my mind) and we relax. I sip ginger tea - it makes my tongue tingle! - and read some more Hillary book. I'm on the (very short) chapter about Africa, and the oversimplification makes me mildly angry. When we get bored, Lianna and I being wandering. We visit a library-slash-jewelry shop and become overly excited by ALL THE BOOKS!!! We visit the market and I buy absurd quantities of pagne. We buy foodstuffs for our dinner plans: vegetarian sushi and egg rolls. Shortly thereafter, we climb some stairs to a balcony restaurant. This experience is somewhere between "going out to eat" of the night before and "going out to eat" in America. Still no menu, but a nice table with beautiful pagne table cloths and a fairly friendly server - and the most delicious chicken I have eaten in country. Nom nom nom! 

Am I sick of eating yet? Not even close! For dinner, Lianna teaches me to make egg rolls entirely from scratch at her house, while Shannon and Cait and Kat make vegetarian sushi and spring rolls at Kat's house. We join forces (Lianna and I walk over while singing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs, because, why not? We're weird already, might as well be really weird. Plus - we came bearing gifts!) for a feast of asian-inspired food. By the time we are ready to leave, everyone is full and happy - but then the rain starts. Rain, rain, go away… But no rain song-and-dance helps. Like an unwelcome guest, the rain is staying the night. But we still have to get home. So we wander out, the lucky ones (me) huddled under rain jackets. The roads - no, paths - are steep and slippery, and I'm not used to navigating them. Shannon can't help but crack up as she watches me trudge up the hill after her. 

Picture this: I'm wearing light blue jeans, already marked by mud and rain, and green Chacos that don't give me any traction in the slick dirt. On top, a shiny greyish-purple rain jacket, with my purse and my purchases shoved underneath so I have a huge, fluffy belly. My hood is pulled up, and my red moto helmet is perched on top of that, so in the dim light I appear to have two heads. I'm walking up the hill, not on the track, but next to it in the knee high grasses, lifting my knees high and wide, placing my feet verrrry carefully. I'm muttering something along the lines of, "The grasses are less slip-y but significantly damper." Cue the belly-laughter from above. 

We make it home without incident, my last night in Kumbo. The next morning, I re-pack (it's always easier to re-pack than it is to pack the first time; you don't have to make any decisions, just shove everything in!). Shannon has just two more sights to show me before I leave. First, the grocery store stocked with cocoa powder. I can't find it in Bafoussam, so I buy a full kilo and weigh my travel bag down a bit more. Second, the home and workshop of Cameroonian artist Jean Samuels. His paintings are so beautiful, i want to buy all of them, but I'm afraid to ask the price because I know I can't afford it. Cringing, I do anyway. Because how often do I have the opportunity to meet the artist, buy Cameroonian paintings that I love? I buy two and clutch them all the way home - down the mountain to Ndop, up the mountain to the outskirts of Bamenda, down the mountain into the city, back up the other side, down into the West, all the way home. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Day in the PCVLife (Part II), in which we go on a scavenger hunt.

Do you ever have those days where you think of so many witty Facebook statuses but then remember that you are a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and you don't have an iPhone or a tablet or wifi or internet at all for that matter? Of course you don't. But that's why I'm here - to tell you what it's like and regale you with tales of the absurdity that is my life on the daily. 

A new day begins. 

It had only stopped raining two hours ago, but at 7am the world was already noisy. The market DJ was out and so were the piggies and my window was open to let in the light. So I got up. The first two hours of my day, as usual, were spent diddling about: doing little work-related tasks, eating oatmeal, drinking Nescafé laden with sweetened condensed milk (Is there any other way to drink it?), washing and dressing and brushing for the day, NOT forgetting my malaria prophylaxis and my daily vitamin. Around 8:30am I called the Censeur at the nearest high school to verify that we were in fact meeting at 9 as we planned the week before. Miracle of miracles, not only had he not forgotten but he was almost there already! 

I felt dubious about this "almost" - because that can mean, "I'm getting dressed now and almost ready to leave so I'll be there in an hour," or it can mean, "I'll show up when I'm done this beer or maybe the one after," or it can mean, "I see you from where I am standing and will be there in thirty seconds." So 15 minutes later I began wandering over. On the 15 minute walk I saw: innumerable chickens, 3 goats, 2 turkeys, and a man skinning a cane rat. So, a typical 15 minute walk to school. I happily observed that I am much more comfortable greeting every. single. person. on the way than I used to be when I began making this walk ten months ago. Progress! 

True to his word, Monsieur le Censeur was there when I arrived! I had to wait only 5 minutes before being allowed into his office and beginning our meeting with a discussion of summer break, vacations, families, life in general. Once we got all that out of the way, we could get down to business, and we spent about 40 minutes discussing A2Empowerment, Club FORTES, rising pregnancy rates, and orphans. It was all in all a very productive and satisfying meeting. Until it ended with: "One more thing. Has anyone told you how beautiful you are?" (Keep in mind that, while I thought I would wash my hair more with the new cut, that has turned out to be false.) I chucked good-naturedly and said "Yes" with a tone I have perfected, indicating that the conversation is closed. But he had to have the last word, him being a grand and all, and he insisted on it in more ways than one: "Let me be the last." Time to go.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

American Becky =/= Cameroonian Becky

When I was considering Peace Corps and talking to a lot of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), I heard pretty often that Peace Corps was life-changing, that one would come back to the same place and find oneself indelibly different. 

In the 11 (almost 12!) months I have been here, I have watched many changes occur in my PCV friends. Most people pick up Cameroonian habits - they begin to talk like Cameroonians ("C'est quoi ça?!" or "On va faire comment?"), or use gestures like Cameroonians (the clap followed by spread hands and raised eyebrows to indicate innocence or helplessness in a situation), or drink like Cameroonians ("Vin de palm at 9am? Well it is a Wednesday.")… 

Watching these changes in others, I realized I must be changing too. So, in honor of self-reflection and my new hair cut, I decided to compile a list with the help of my lovely postmate Danielle, and with inspiration from Sarah Mae's very entertaining blog post. 

The most obvious is my name:  In America, I am Becky. And that means I have the same name as a lot of white girls in rapper songs.  But in Cameroon, I am Rebecca. And that means I have the same name as a lot of people's grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, etc, making me instantly part of the family. ("Ma grandmère! Tu es là? C'est comment, non?")