Monday, December 23, 2013

Everyday Adventures of the Culinary Sort

I'm a big fan of trying new foods everywhere you go. Maybe it's because food is important in my family (when we're all together, we usually are planning the next meal while still eating the current one) or maybe it's just because I like food, but I always feel that you can't even attempt to understand a culture without eating its food. So I try to never say no to trying something new, no matter what.

Here in West Africa, sometimes that attitude ends well for me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Madame Rebecca Talks About Sex

Friday the 13th of December, year 2013, 13 o'clock. Not the most auspicious time or date, but I didn't choose it and I was going to make the most of it.

It was my first sex ed class. Teaching it, not taking it, of course. 

Let me set the scene: I was at Kinder's House Banock (KHB): an elementary school, started by Spaniards, given a German name, and run by and for Cameroonians. KHB is located in Banock, a nearby quartier in my arrondissement, so I took a 15 minute moto ride down to the main road and then strolled for an extra 20 minutes to arrive at the school. The day was cool enough for long sleeves and a long skirt to be not quite warm enough, but still no where near my idea of Christmas weather. The wind was blowing the ubiquitous red dust, dust that was becoming even more ingrained into my sandaled feet with each step and changing my skin to a color I've never seen occur naturally. In other words, it was a normal day. Except that it was Friday the 13th, 2013, 13 o'clock. And my first sex ed class. 

When I arrived at Kinder's House about an hour early, I hung out with the teachers and "helped" (read: sat and watched) them plan the Christmas Party, to be held next Wednesday (December 18th). It was basically an audition, where students aged 3 and up performed dances, songs, skits, and recitals that they had practiced in class. The teachers then decided together which were good enough for the parents to see the day of the fête de Noël. As my watched ticked nearer and nearer to 13:00, I started fidgeting in my seat more than the kids were. I wondered anxiously, Maybe I won't have to teach today. Maybe this will take too long. Maybe Professor André won't need me until next week. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ups & Downs

A lot of times it's fun - or surprising, shocking, laugh-out-loud funny, pleasant, or generally happy - to be here. I'm starting to do some things that are satisfying. For instance, I have a bed and shelves in my bedroom, which means I at least have one room that feels pleasantly like home. Yesterday, my bartender/landlord presented me with a table from the bar downstairs, which I think is entertaining on so many levels but mostly because I had joked with some other volunteers about stealing a bar table as furniture. Today, I went to a school competition and was asked to give an on the spot speech and the one joke I managed to throw in (in French, of course) didn't get so much as a lone laugh, but the story threw my lady neighbors into fits of giggles afterwards. Next week I start teaching sex ed classes at a nearby school. And a school girl where I'll hopefully be re-starting a girl's club after Christmas break brought me a pineapple and three of her younger siblings tonight, for no reason as far as I can tell other than kindness.

But a lot of times it's really tough. I'm the only person who looks, dresses, acts, and speaks likes me in this town, and that gets pretty lonely. Recently, I read The Places In Between, which the author wrote after walking across Afghanistan. (Nonsequitor: I'm currently on my thirteenth and fourteenth books since leaving the U.S. and feeling pretty impressed with myself about it…) At the end of the book, he comments:

"…almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune - often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead, I became aware of the landscape…" (p. 288)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Baby Birds Becky & Danielle Venture from the Nest…

..and after plunging 127 feet from the top of a tall tree with yellow flowers and white bark, realize their wings do in fact work and start soaring!

But in all seriousness, that is what traveling in Cameroon is like - at least for a type-A, plan-ahead-every-tourist-site-and-meal traveller like me. If you have ever traveled with me (shout out to Laura Vossler who has dealt with it more than most of my travel buddies), you know exactly what I’m talking about. In the past, when I travelled to Amsterdam or to Athens, I have walking tours planned and museums scheduled; I can tell you which three foods we have to try; I know where we’re staying and how we get there from the airport and how much it will cost. I’m not psycho, I swear; it just makes me feel comfortable and relaxed to have a plan.

In Cameroon, you don’t have a plan. You have a destination, and you figure it out along the way. At every step of the trip, I wonder how we’re going to manage the next one. And yet, miracle of miracles… it always just works out. You can’t anticipate how, or when, or why. It make take twice as long as you anticipated, or cost a little more. Yet somehow, IT JUST HAPPENS!

Let me explain.

Home Sweet Home

Before I say anything else, I have to beg your forgiveness for not posting sooner. Mother says: “Everyone has been asking about you! You have to update your blog!” And as usual, mother is right. But in my defense, I wanted to wait until I actually had something to say before I said it!

Me and my community host, Madame
Delphine Nghoko

Never fear, I now have a lot to say.

On Wednesday, we had our big “swearing in” event, when we officially became PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers). Now, no one can sneeringly refer to us as mere brainless, useless trainees who don’t know what it’s really like to be a volunteer. Now we are officially experts. The administration has declared it so.

Anyway, being a PCV also means the rules have all changed. No 7 p.m. curfew, no no-more-than-one-beer-a-day rule. So what do we do? Throw a rager. And what happens? Bad things: one girl experienced her room being snuck into while she was in it by a strange man who had the keys I guess that justifies all those rules in the first place. I think it’s important to remember that bad things happen everywhere in the world, however, and we just have to deal with them as they happen and afterwards in the best way for each of us individually.

Me and PUPPIES! in my pagne (pronounced
"pon-ya") dress

The party also meant that, the following day when we all began traveling to our posts, there were hangovers abounding. Becoming a PCV does not mean becoming wise after all! I rode a bus loaded with the many, many, MANY belongings of some PCVs traveling to the West, North West, and South West regions via Bafoussam (the regional capital of the West, and the city where I do my banking). I have to emphasize the quantity of stuff: I had a trunk, three bags, and a bike. I had no idea how I was going to get from our Bafoussam stop to my apartment. I just closed my eyes and hoped it would work out.

AND IT DID! My community host, Madame Delphine Nghoko, showed up in Bafoussam, found a car to take us right up to the front steps of my apartment, and helped me carry my things up those stairs. Granted, she couldn’t magically clean or furnish my apartment--neither of which have yet been accomplished--but as far as I’m concerned, she worked magic nonetheless.

Friday, October 25, 2013

(Not-so) Rapid Integration Techniques: African Hairstylin'

A solid group of girls cut their hair before they came to Africa, generally for very practical reasons: it's hot, it's humid, hair is a pain to wash via bucket bath, etc.

Then there's the crazy girl (me) who decided, I should make my hair twice as long and twice as thick!! Sound impossible in addition to unwise? You'd be wrong.

This Sunday, I got my hair did, African style. I went over to my friend Calla's house because her home stay mom is a hairstylist. I had warned her ahead of time, so she got my weave at the market before I arrived - blond, brown, and purple weave, to be precise. And it's not even weird here to have purple hair, people do it all time. So I hung out with Calla, and her mom, and her 2 young home stay sisters. Our other PCVolunteer friend, Lauren, even stopped by for a bit. We talked about life, we talked in French and in English, and I even got a late lunch of my favorite Cameroonian meal: couscous and legumes. If you're thinking it sounds like I was there a while, you'd be right. Go ahead, ask me how long! I'll tell you. SEVEN hours. From 11am to 6 pm, I did the equivalent of letting small children pull my hair. Except I did it by choice, and the person pulling my hair was a professional adult. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cameroon: Bigger than Bafia!

Every day of every week, I wake up for training from 8am to 4:30pm. It often feels like high school all over again, with class from morning to evening and no playtime at recess. It is so structured and information-heavy that often it feels like being babysat, but by the not-cool babysitter who makes you do homework instead of playing Candyland or watching movies. 

If that sounds like whiney-whining to you… it absolutely is. BUT, the point is, I ESCAPED! Last Wednesday, all the trainees got to flee Bafia and the repetitive structure of training to go on site visit. We were split up into small groups to stay with volunteers in nearby regions: West, Southwest, Northwest, and Central. 

I travelled with 3 other girls (Anna, Lianna, and Lauren) to Bafang in the Western Region. It was awesome for a multiplicity of reasons:

Mexican Food Night
1) I escaped Bafia.

2) We made tons of food that I will never get in my home stay, namely pizza (I put onions and pineapple and basil on mine, it rocked) and fajitas (including tortillas from scratch, guacamole, pico de gallo, sautéed onions and peppers, and meat). It may not have been gourmet by US standards, but believe me it was heavenly in Cameroon.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Rebecca at the Well

So yeah, that’s a biblical reference. But it’s relevant to my life in Cameroon in not one, but two ways…

(1) It amazes me how often I tell people my name here, and they respond with much excitement: oh, a biblical name! People here are often very religious, and I feel really lucky that I’m not atheist or agnostic; it would just make life here harder. Instead, I love it when people tell me that they like my biblical name, or that it’s their grandmother’s name. I’m like: your grandma has a great name!

On the other hand, unlike the French, Cameroonians are totally okay with the nickname Becky. In France, the conversation went like this:
  • Je m’appelle Becky.
  • Becky?
  • Bé-kiii.
  • Becky? C’est quoi, Becky?
  • Rebecca.
  • AHHHHHH! Rébecca! C’est beaucoup plus joli. 
Here, it’s like:
  • C’est Becky.
  • Ah, Becky! C’est très cool! Très Americain!
Personally, I think it’s hilarious when I can fool people into thinking I’m cool. So this is great!

(2) This particular Rebecca IS at the well -- everyday. It’s part of my daily routine to go to the well to get my water for bathing, drinking (after filtering, boiling, or adding bleach), flushing the toilet, cleaning cloths, and all the other things for which we normally just turn on the tap. It’s amazing how much more I find myself appreciating water when I need to throw a three litre plastic bucket into a well, then tow it up with a knotted rope--over and over and over. Honestly, it makes washing hair totally not worth your time and effort… Bye bye vanity!

After I get my day’s water at 6am, I usually go for a little morning walk or run then shower (and by shower, I mean use a bucket and cup to wash myself and ignore my hair) before breakfast. After breakfast, I go to school for a day of training. Training usually involves how to communicate in French, how not to die of malaria (or other health issues), how to stay safe, and how to develop the youth. Most of that is a grind, except the youth develop-y part where we are taught by super cool Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) about community needs assessment, how to teach classes on HIV prevention or other issues, and all sorts of other stuffs!

Post-training usually means integrating…and by integrating, I mean non-integrating with other Americans at a local bar playing college-y games like Never Have I Ever. After speaking French all day, it’s really nice to just speak English, relax, and do something simply because you want to. But other days, I love hanging out with the two host brothers I’ve met and their friends (also at the bar), exploring town, etc. 

Every day ends with family dinner around 7pm, watching the Brazilian soap opera “Clone” dubbed in French (hilarious. epically hilarious) at 8pm, and bed before 9pm (so early!!). 

Samy, Me, Papi & Donald

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The (Literally) Bumpy Road to Bafia

On Wednesday, we left our hotel in the capital, Yaoundé, for our training site in Bafia (or Bokito for the health volunteers). We had lots of time to get excited and/or wet-our-pants nervous during the days leading up to the big event as well as the two hours it took to load our ponderous weight of very important stuff (and ourselves) into a bus and two or three trucks for the drive up. I thought we had a lot of stuff to begin with, but then they added water filters and medical kits into the mix and, let me tell you, we needed all the additional trucks we could get. A significant number of us slept on the ride up, missing views of the biggest river in Cameroon and a body bag from a bad traffic accident. (I think I’m glad I fell asleep.) 

It had taken about as long to pack the trucks as it took to get there. (A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer--RPCV--who is visiting Cameroon thirty years after his time here told us that it took him three days to get from Yaoundé to Bafia in his era. Crossing the river before the big bridge we used, I imagine, was a great source of adventure.) Upon arrival, e all piled into the school rooms which would later serve as our training site, along with all our soon-to-be adoptive families. It was like a middle school dance, where we trainees were all in little groups along the wall, anxiously eyeing the families around us and hoping someone who we would like would ask us to dance. They eyed us right back, toddlers and teens and moms and dads, although I can’t tell you what they were pondering.

Luckily, they were braver than we. Kids started running over, tugging on sleeves and asking: “Kimberly? Kimberly?” trying to find a name without a face and often without a common language. They paired us all up in a big ceremony, with lots of hugs and 1-2-3 alternating cheek kisses and running around finding misplaced med kits. That first hug of a homestay mama and papa made us all breath a huge sigh of relief: we were welcome, we were wanted, it would all work out. 

I am staying here with the Zom A Pon family, a retired couple with seven kids who have all moved out. As I was warned, they feed me well. On my first morning, I was offered for breakfast: two pain-au-chocolat, a loaf of bread, coffee, half a fish, veggie stew, bananas, and I don’t even remember what else, but it was enough for at least seven people my size. I am staying in a big house, complete with 2 bathrooms, 2 kitchens, 3 bedrooms, a tv, a fridge, electricity, and running water. Not what you expected? Me either, but then this isn’t the first time I’ve been left confused by my own stereotypes and misguided expectations since I arrived. As I anticipated, Africa is indeed much more than tv’s images of starving kids. Here, like in the U.S., there’s Fanta and Coke, chicken and beef and fish, annoying 8-year-olds and awesome 8-year-olds, babies and grandmas, electricity and water. And sometimes even wifi. 

This is NOT to say that everything is the same as in the US. The neighborhood roads, for example, can be potholed to such an extent that I wonder how the suspension system still functions on any car here. Like in Italy or Egypt, I’ve seen an awe-inspiring variety of objects of the back of motos, from families of five to mountains of bread ready for delivery. (The smell of fresh-baked bread and gas those particular motos leave behind makes an odd combination on my morning meanderings.) I see children playing soccer with completely flat balls, perhaps because they’re better than no ball at all. Yesterday, on of the other volunteers named Erich learned to slaughter a chicken. There’s no system of trash collection to speak of. And, of course, the culture is different; for example, Americans think of “clean” as no dirt anywhere, whereas Cameroonians seem to think of “clean” as no mess anywhere. 

Despite the language and culture differences, I’m not at all uncomfortable here. For starters, unlike some other trainees, my GI system is still intact and I haven’t had an allergic reaction to the food, laundry detergent, or water. (One trainee spent the first two days with the skin on his face and neck burning from a reaction to his pillow. He did not have the best first few days.) I can communicate fine with my family, with Mama Giselle who sells avocado sandwiches and phone credit near the training site, and with women on the street who call me “ma fille” (my daughter). In fact, I’m not only not uncomfortable, but I’m also HAPPY. I’m already learning: how to do dishes or flush the toilet (!!) or bathe when the water stops running, how to get water from the well, how ot do laundry by hand, how to cook like a Cameroonian (think absurd amounts of palm oil, high in saturated fat), how to use a mosquito net. I’m already changing too: I get up at quarter to six. In the morning. And I’m usually in bed by 8:30 and asleep by 9:30, lulled by the pounding of rain on the aluminum roof. (You’re probably wondering, is this the same girl I knew?! The one who always said the only reason she would get up before 7 was to catch an international flight?! But yes. It’s true. Also, I live with retired folks, who are not so different from retired grandparents at home, so take that into consideration.) 

Then again, some things don’t change… My family had discovered my love of chocolate and fruit, and makes sure I have something vaguely equivalent to Nutella every morning with my coffee and breakfast. 

One last-minute addition to this post… My roommate is a mouse and I saw a spider THIS BIG (ball your right hand into a fist and stare at it with disgust) this morning. My homestay mom found my reaction hilarious. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Not Afraid to Dance

There are only 13 minutes until dinner is served, and the wifi takes about 3 minutes to load anything (but there’s wifi!!), so I’ll ask you in advance to please forgive the shortness and mistakes of this post.

I left for Cameroon on Sept 12 and arrived at 1am on Sept 13. Granted, there is a big time change, but man was that trip long. Luckily, I had 54 new friends to share it with. Yes, there are 55 of us beginning our journey of Peace Corps-ing, in Youth Development (like me) or Health or Agroforestry/Environment. We’re a diverse group, representing different states, races, educational backgrounds, religions, and ideals. Kind of like America, which I suppose is the point. 

Drummers and a dancer
Other than doing our Orientation here in the capital of Yaoundé (which, similar to college or summer camp orientation, involves many ice breakers, late nights, and paperworks), we’ve had several adventures. The powers that be worry about us getting hurt/mugged by being generally stupid, so they don’t really let us leave the hotel without accompaniment.

Luckily, they have accompanied us to leave! We’ve attended a Cameroonian drum/dance performance in which participation was encouraged (see title for questions about whether or not I got up and did some body-shakin’). Several of us went to a Catholic mass, where the chorus involved marimbas and drums and dancing in robes decorated with white Marys. And we attended dinner at our Country Director’s house, along with the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon and several Cameroonian journalists, ministry workers, and NGO employees.

It’s certainly been an adventure so far! And I assure you, this place is not what you’d expect from the ‘poor African children’ commercials.

View from hotel porch.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Selfish Years

With one week left until I depart for Cameroon, I've been fielding questions about my (possibly questionable) decision more than ever. Questions about questionable decisions are to be expected, so it doesn't faze me. Probably the fourth most common question (right on the tail of "Where is that?" "For how long?" and "How many languages?") is...

Now why are you doing this? 

An excellent question. The flippant reply would be: why not?! After all, I'm 22, with no responsibility, nothing and no one to hold me back!

View of Istanbul, Shot by yours truly, July 2013

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Over-Supplied & Under-Prepared

I heard that line recently while listening to The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht on CD with my mom, as we drove back from taking Elise back to Ohio State. The speaker was talking about the young lusty aristocrats who, holding onto their birthright, hire someone to take them out bear hunting; they rarely succeed at shooting anything, much less bears, but the speaker comments that they are always changed by that experience. I immediately latched onto it, of all the many many lines in that book, because it made me think of... myself.

I have all this stuff. Stuff which I will be bringing with me to Cameroon, stuff to comfort me when I miss home, stuff to keep me entertained on down days, stuff to protect me from a difficult life for which I simply have no way to mentally prepare. So, rather than mentally preparing, I prepare by buying all this stuff that makes me feel more prepared, more comforted now. 

At least my books tell me I'm not the only one. In The Poisonwood Bible, the Price family packs up to go to the Congo:

"...our mother went about laying out in the spare bedroom all the worldly things she thought we'd need in the Congo just to scrape by. 'The bare minimum, for my children,' she'd declare under her breath, all the livelong day. In addition to the cake mixes, she piled up a dozen cans of Underwood deviled ham; Rachel's ivory plastic hand mirror with powdered-wig ladies on the back; a stainless-steel thimble; a good pair of scissors; a dozen number-2 pencils; a world of Band-Aids, Anacin, Absorbine Jr.; and a fever thermometer." It wasn't until they got there that they realized they brought all the wrong things.

Of course, I'm not going to the Congo during Ike's presidency, I'm going to Cameroon during Obama's. And I won't be able to tell you what I packed all wrong until later. So what, you might wonder, does one American need (read: think she needs) to survive in Cameroon? 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Want to Visit Me?

Or to visit Cameroon but not me?

(This is taken directly from information sent to me by the Peace Corps.)

Information for Family & Friends Visiting Volunteers in Cameroon
The following points of information and advice have been compiled from various sources (previous visitors, former Volunteers, staff, etc.) for people planning to visit Peace Corps Volunteers in Cameroon. Visitors and Volunteers have learned that advance planning, communication between the volunteer and visitor, and flexibility are very important aspects of a successful and satisfying trip. We hope that the suggestions and information below will be helpful. You may also wish to consult various travel books such as the Lonely Planet's Africa on a Shoestring and West Africa on a Shoestring or the Rough guide. 

Remember: Visitors are not permitted during a Volunteer's pre-service training or during the first three months at post. The best time for visits are after a Volunteer has spent at least six months at post. They have established themselves in their community and have honed their language skills. Thus they are better able to host visitors. They also have a better understanding of Cameroon and have a clear idea of what sights they would like to show you! Note that Volunteers' supervisors discourage them from receiving visitors during peak periods of work.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mail in Cameroon is Particularly Snail-like...

...and requires special instructions. So here goes! Rumor has it that making packages/letters with red pen, religious markings (crosses etc.), and insuring them makes them more likely to arrive. Since I'm rather dubious about superstition (though it's not my opinion that matters is it?), I'd push the insurance option. It doesn't cost much, and some volunteers have said it doubles their chance of receiving whatever you send. Some have also said that flat rate boxes are the cheaper option and are just as likely to arrive.

The estimated amount of time to arrive is something crazy like 6 weeks to 3 months. Until I start receiving stuff, I won't know how long it actually takes. Apparently patience is key (and we all know how good at that Patience thing I am).

Friday, August 2, 2013

Time to Blastoff: T-1 Month

Just over two months ago, I graduated from college.

I thought in this summer time, I'd get bored of home.

Instead, I rode camels in Egypt, found myself in the middle of protests in Turkey, went to my first ever wedding near Pittsburgh, visited NYC and DC with friends from USC, explored Boston...

...and generally did not get bored of home.

It's hard to get bored when you cannot manage to sit still!

Besides which, it seems when you haven't lived at home for an extended period of time in three years, you don't get bored of home anymore. It's suddenly more like a vacation.

Whether or not I'm bored, in just under 2 months, I fly to Cameroon to begin my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. (On September 11th. People gasp when I say that. But I've decided its auspicious.)

It's a grand adventure.

It's a scary challenge.

And it's a whole lot of other things too.  

Since I know my mother will ask me what the title means, and why I chose it (I can hear it already: "Do you think your home is a cage!?"), I will preemptively answer her. By quoting Lord of the Rings, in proper nerd fashion. 

Aragorn: What do you fear, my lady?

Eowyn: A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.