Saturday, May 31, 2008

long locks - gone.

This afternoon, I had coffee with Jess, had lunch with Dr. C, had a pedicure with Jess (Chris said, "you will be the only person with pedicured toes in Africa), and had 8 inches of my hair cut off. It is official.

The last time I had hair that short was probably 6th grade? can't remember. This is a big deal. I love my long hair. This may be a bigger deal than moving to Africa. I've moved to different countries more times than I had my hair cut this short. This is for my own good. When I am in the midst of Cameroon heat, I will be glad my bed of hair is gone. The fact I will use less shampoo also ensures my good stuff will last longer in Africa.

Okay, if you know me you know I am not that superficial. But, just because you are serving in the Peace Corps doesn't mean you have to be ugly. That is my philosophy.

I have things all over my bedroom floor, hence not packed. I don't actually know what all the paperwork are that I must complete. I still have to move furniture back home. There are friends I still want to see, things I still want/need to take care of before I leave in ... 4 days. Yet, I am nonchalant 85% of the time. There is one moment per day when I feel like I am going to freak out, but that never lasts long. I have come a long way from the person with anxiety attacks.

One day at a time. Live in the moment. That is all.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Those Hips Don't Lie

In two weeks, I will be either on my way onto the African soil, or already there. That is absolutely nuts.

I'm quite tired from the traveling, but wanted to jot down a few observations.

• Today the family went to the Polynesian tour and I learned that the Samoa people don't allow the women to cook. The men do everything and the women's only job is to make babies and care for them. I kind of love that idea. Kind of, because I would be bored out of my mind. But I do really love the fact that women aren't expect to cook.

• Women from Tahiti have hips that absolutely do not lie. Oh my. I didn't know it was humanly possible for hips to move at such speed! Impressive.

• This trip has put me so in touch with my past and also put other things in perspective. 80% of people in Hawaii is Asian. People are awfully diverse and speak lots of languages. The Chinese people alone have very complex dialects where one cannot understand the other unless you know the specific language. Our family friend whom we are staying with can conversationally speak 6 languages: English, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Hakka, and a bit of Japanese. Even our tour guide today spoke 5: Vietnamnese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese, and another that I don't know the English equivalent (潮洲話). These people totally put my three to shame... It is the most amazing thing to sit at dinner where 5 languages are being thrown around at random.

• I have been exposed to lots of Buddhism teaching during this trip. This religious has always fascinated me since it's heavily practiced in the Taiwanese culture. The ways of life aren't being presented as, "God/Jesus/Buddha/whoever did this, therefore you should". The ideas are rather simple: be kind to others, don't sweat the small things, have a big heart and accept others. This is an area that I may spend time to discover when I have endless amount of free time in Africa.

I embody those million of emotions that my fellow group members who are departing on June 4th also face, but personally, I couldn't be in a better place, time, and state of mind to embark on this journey. I have put behind the anxious mind and accept that having food to eat, water to drink and air to breath is plenty lucky. I'm ready; my mind is, at least.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Who goes to Hawaii before Africa? Me.

I have graduated from college. Those four years went by quickly and is living proof that the next 27 months will go by at an even faster speed. ‘Tis a good thing. Regardless how difficult things may be over the next 27 months, I simply need to think of how quickly the last four years went by, and I shall be okay.

I am in Hawaii with the family. The purpose of this trip is for the family to have one last great gathering before my sister and I both go off next year (Sherry will be attending college in Boston). I am trying my best to relax, but it’s a tad difficult since I am supposed to be in Africa in two weeks. This morning, we visited Pearl Harbor and the sun was out Hawaiian style. I was tired from walking around in the sun (mind you it’s perfect 80 degree here) so in the afternoon I took a long nap. In the midst of it all, I thought to myself, “what the heck will I do in AFRICA? I am going to die.” Then, I freaked out a little.

I go through my days making the best attempts to “live in the moment”. But every now and again a thought crosses my mind and I have a bit of a freak-out inside of my head. Then I resume to not thinking. I somehow feel guilty (or something) that my fellow stagers are busy packing and preparing. If you are one of the 40 staging in Philly on June 4th and you are also vacationing instead of packing, please let me know to ease my anxiousness. :) I have less than one week after I am done vacationing and have to sandwich in a graduation/going away party in the midst of it. This is moving to Africa Wendy-style at its very best!

Hawaii is grand. This is my first visit here and it really reminds me of Taiwan. The Asian population here is massive and most of the architecture represents the European housing back in Taiwan. We are staying with a family friend, who lives on the 34th floor and has a fantastic view of the island. We are not as near the ocean as I had anticipated, but hanging out on this balcony is pretty darn awesome. I am writing from it and overlooking the evening skyline of Honolulu, meanwhile enjoying the perfect 70-degree breeze flowing through. In addition to great views, we have been dining superbly - authentic Chinese food galore. This morning, we had Dim Sum in Chinatown that was to die for. I have completely disregarded looking good in my swimsuit. I am eating all that I can to make up for the next 27 months!

More updates to come! Aloha!

Wendy

P.S.-the sailor boys operating our boat to and from the USS Arizona Memorial were quite fine in their uniforms. :P

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Three Weeks!

It is 3am. I have 3 days until I am officially a college graduate, although technically I concluded my undergraduate education at exactly 11:47am, May 12, 2008. I also have three weeks until I embark on an amazing journey to Cameroon!

Today I became slightly overwhelmed with all the things and emotions simultaneously happening in my life. I love the crazy madness even though it seems somewhat out-of-control most of the times. My heart is 120% ready to go. Logistically, I am probably 65% there. I am 75% done with packing, still need to gather paperwork and take care of misc. things. Otherwise, I am ready.

There is irony with the fact I am sitting at work all day, managing money for some of the wealthiest individuals in St. Louis, yet all I want to do is read blogs of other PCVs and think about how I will generate income and savings for some of the poorest individuals in this world. I don't think modern portfolio theory will quite apply, but who knows. Perhaps I'll find an application somehow.

So far, my entire luggage weighs 60lbs. I still have some stuff to add, hopefully no more than 20lbs. worth, since 80 is my limit! I am simply bewildered by the fact everything I need over the next two years weigh less than 80 lbs. I packed nearly twice that amount when I was spending the SUMMER in London. Absurdity! Perhaps I will finally find the true meaning to "live simply". We shall see.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

If you plan to visit, please read!

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.

1. Planning. Start planning at least six months before departure since several things have to be done sequentially which can add up to several weeks/months. Keep in mind that communication takes a long time, so arranging the logistics through the mail will require a lot of lead-time. Make sure that the timing of your visit is convenient for the Volunteer you are visiting. A Volunteer's primary obligation is to his/her assignment, so be sure that your visit will not disrupt any work plans. We recommend visits at some point during the second year.

2. Passport. If you do not already have a passport, obtain a passport application and application instructions from a post office or your travel agent. To apply for a passport, you will need the completed application with two passport photos (with your signature on the back of each photo) and the application fee.

3. Visa. To apply for a visa to Cameroon, obtain two application forms from the Cameroonian embassy, 2349 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 or over the Net; the phone number at the embassy is (202) 265-8790. After completing the applications, send them to the embassy with your passport, two passport photos, W.H.O. records showing the required yellow fever shot (see below), the application fee, and a copy of either your tickets or your detailed flight itinerary, and a bank statement. You may also need to submit a letter of invitation from your Volunteer family member. Peace Corps Cameroon will also provide you with a letter supporting your visa application if your volunteer provides the offices with the details of your visit. You will be issued a single entry visa only, unless you specifically request multiple entry. You must have multiple entry if you plan to leave the country and return during the period of the visa's validity. Be sure to call the Embassy and verify with them that procedures have not changed.

It is our understanding that the Embassy will not return your passport to you unless you send a pre-paid express mail envelope. If you are in the D.C. area, you can pick it up at the embassy.

Separate visas are required for almost all African countries you may plan to visit, except for intermediate stops where you will not go outside the terminal while en route to or from Cameroon. Each embassy requires that you send your passport with the visa application, so you can only apply for one visa at a time.

You can consolidate and expedite your passport and visa applications if necessary by going through a private company that handles it for you for an additional fee of approximately $30 per visa or passport. (Ask a travel agent for details).

4. Health. A yellow fever vaccination is required. This immunization must be logged in a World Health Organization (W. H. O.) International Certificate of Vaccination. For more information on what additional vaccines, antimalarials or medications are required or recommended, contact your local health board or the Division of Immunization at the Centers for Disease in Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 639-1870, or on the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/cafrica.html

You should also plan to take anti-malarial prophylactic drugs prior to departure from USA and during your stay in Cameroon. Contact the Malaria Hotline at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, (404)639-1610 for information on what drug(s) to take and where you can get them.

While in Cameroon, precautions must be taken with food preparation and water treatment. Drink only bottled water in sealed bottles or water that has been filtered and chlorinated or boiled. Vegetables must also be soaked in chlorine if they are not being cooked or peeled.

There are health risks, and the medical facilities in Cameroon are not comparable to facilities in the United States. Peace Corps medical Staff cannot provide care for family members or friends who require medical attention while in Cameroon. We strongly suggest that you consider extra insurance with emergency evacuation coverage from a company such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. (P.O. Box 11568, Philadelphia, PA 19116, 1-800-523-8930 or 215-244-1500 in PA).

5. Money. The currency used in Cameroon is called franc CFA. The franc CFA is fixed to the Euro (656 CFA = 1 Euro; 1 USD is about 400 CFA.) Travelers’ checks are safe, but incur exceedingly high commission rates and other charges (up to 25%). Travelers’ checks in dollars have also become increasingly difficult to change. You may want to take at least some travelers checks in Euros, since switching dollars to CFA in Yaoundé is usually more expensive than switching dollars to Euros in U.S. and then Euros to CFA in Yaoundé. Some of the big (and expensive) hotels in Yaoundé will accept an American Express or Visa credit card (caution advised). ATMs on the “Plus” system are increasingly available around the country. The best person to answer questions about money (and how much to take) is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit.

6. Baggage. Have all your suitcases locked. On most airlines, you are allowed 2 pieces of baggage (not to exceed 50 lbs. each) per passenger for trips from the United States to Europe, but only 20 kg (44 lbs.) total for intra-European or African flights. Therefore, you may be charged an excess baggage fee for anything over 44 lbs. from Europe to Africa unless you check your baggage through to Africa directly from the U.S. (If you check baggage all the way through, be sure the baggage ticket has all appropriate code letters for the trip; the code for the airport in Douala is DLA, the Yaoundé airport is NSI, and the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is CDG). Consult your airline or travel agent for further information.

7. Flight Check-In. If you fly through Paris, arrive at the check-in counter for the flight to Douala or Yaoundé two hours before take off. They start checking passengers in then and you cannot get a seat assignment until this check-in. The check-in process goes very slowly, so plan to stand in line a long time. They will not allow large carry-on bags.

8. Arrival in Douala / Yaoundé. You must have both your passport and W.H.O. card for immigration when arriving at the airports in Cameroon. French and some English are spoken at the airport, but it would be best to ask the Volunteer you are visiting to have someone meet you at the airport. You will have to open all bags for inspection. Try to keep all your bags in sight once they come into the baggage area. There will be men vying to carry your bags for payment. Carry your bags yourself if you can. If not, negotiate a price with one person before allowing anyone to take your bags (about 1$ per bag.) If no one is going to meet you at the airport, get instructions ahead of time from the Volunteer on how to take a taxi to your next destination.

9. Accommodations. Your best source of information about where to stay is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit. The Yaoundé Hilton presently has a special rate for families and friends of Peace Corps and is recommended by Peace Corps staff, and the Akwa Palace Hotel in Douala gives a Peace Corps discount as does the Parfait Garden.

10. Photos. Picture taking is fine, in general, but you should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph. Photos are never allowed at the airport or any military installation, so please keep your camera concealed when near these locations.

11. Identification. During the course of your stay in Cameroon, you will have to show your passport to the police several times, so you must carry it with you in a safe place at all times. It is sometimes convenient to have a certified photocopy of your passport to present to officials. Your volunteer will know how to do this.

12. Departure. Presently, you must pay a departure tax of 10,000 CFA at the Douala or Yaoundé airport before boarding. Check ahead of time, as this tax needs to be paid in local currency, and most likely you would need the exact amount.