Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Unexpectedly Expected

Or, Why Our Stereotypes Are Dumb and We Should Open Our Minds

It seems like everyone wants to write the blog Ten Things You'd Never Do In the U.S. And there's nothing wrong with that post, with admiring what is exotic. It's impossible not to notice what is so different from what we're used to!

But I want us to remember, too, that not everything is the "exotic," different, black to our white. Nothing is that simple. So here's a list of seven stereotypes, many of which I held and which are commonly held, but which are simply not true. 

1. Weather

Stereotype: Sub-Saharan Africa is hot and dry. There are huge savannas with blowing golden grasses, parted by the long legs of giraffes as they pass baobab tress on their route to the watering hole. The sun beats relentlessly.

Reality: In the West Region of Cameroon, there's a rainy season and a dry season - and in rainy season (March to October) it gets COLD. I mean, it's not winter. (To my students, I explain winter in the U.S. as being like living in the freezer for three months. They are mind-blown by this idea.) But I head to buy long sleeves and sweaters and jeans because I didn't pack them! I have even been known to wear a *borrowed* airplane blanket like a wrap skirt over leggings. And yes, I have gotten compliments on that wrap skirt…
...turns to the red mud of rainy season.
The red dust of dry season...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Life Lessons Learned, Year 1

The road less traveled?

As I'm listening to Aya by Davido for possibly the hundredth time since 7am, I'm contemplating this place where I find myself. In my house with no sound proofing and all of the noises come in from the market: children's antics on the way to school, moto engines revving (it sounds like a dirt bike competition out there), horns honking, Market DJ's beats vibrating over everything.

December 11th marks Month 15 of my Peace Corps service. While I'm online, I read about adventures that I'm not having and people I admire and sometimes Melancholy threatens. But then I remember: I am having an amazing adventure. The adventure of a lifetime. (Though I hope to have many more adventures before I get fat from making cookies for my grandchildren. That way my stories - which are of course the price of eating the aforementioned cookies - don't always start with "When I was in the Peace Corps…")

I suppose it is inevitable that while on this escapade, I learn a thing or two.
Cameroon is full of love and rainbows and unicorns. Or something.
"Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life - and travel - leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks - on your body or on your heart - are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." - Anthony Bourdain

Some of the things I've learned have been practical… Always check your pants for live spiders before putting them on. Check the beans for rocks and the tomatoes for worms. Don't respond "yes" to a question in the local language that you don't understand, because you might be agreeing to a shotgun wedding. Greet everyone, because that way no one can be insulted. Always carry clean water and tissues or toilet paper with you, because you never know. These are the things that get you through the days unscathed.

Enjoying the scenery
But many of the things I've learned have been more philosophical.

I have spent a year full of downtime (is that an oxymoron?), a lot of time hanging out with me, myself, and I. In college, I spent all my time with friends or classmates or boyfriend or books. Here, not so much. And that was really rough at first. How to fill all that time? But somewhere along the way I became more comfortable with solitude, and sometimes I even crave it. And I have become intimately acquainted with me. When talking about Peace Corps, people almost inevitable toss out clichés like "discovering oneself" blah blah blah. But maybe there's some truth in that overused phrase. It's an unfinished process, but learning how to deal with solitude and learning the necessity of self-reflection has definitely been - healthy? fulfilling? At the very least, good.

Admiring the tree I call "fire tree" for its bright orange flowers
Here's a short list of "how to be happy life lessons" I've learned during my Peace Corps service:

Physical comforts (like running water or consistent electricity) are some of the least important requirements for being happy.

Time is money, but sometimes slowing down is worth it.

Sometimes you have to stop and appreciate the little things...
...little things like preparing & eating nkwi.
So much is possible with a lot of stubborn persistence and a little creativity. Set little goals and work towards a big one, celebrating the little successes along the way. But also never do yourself what you can get someone else to do. It's good for development, it's good for you, and that's a win-win situation!

"Unplugging" - partially removing myself from Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube - is great for one's mental health. It encourages me to pursue complexity rather than simplicity, to seek out relationships with physical proximity rather than Likes.

The value of human relationships is immeasurable. Not only for work (why do we spend so much time discussing this "networking" thing?) but also for the simple reasons: friendship, solidarity, happiness in each other's company.

We're all connected.
And last but not least, when you're down and everything feels wrong, a dance party with P Square is always right. #testimony #tastedamoney

Dance partayyyy

All night looong

And all day looong.
Dear friends: What "life lessons" have you learned from traveling or living abroad (or just living haha)?