Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christmas in July!

Today, I was not a kid left out at summer camp! The package mom had sent me a few weeks ago made it to my hands! Many people got packages today and it was literally Christmas in July. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much utter excitement permeating throughout one room. The highlight of my package was all those Chinese ramen that mom had sent! That will keep my tummy filled for quite some time. I also was quite excited over the Snickers bars! It’s rather amazing how excited we all get over little things here. The greatest thing about my package though, was the smell of “America”. Now, this may sound weird, but when I was still living in Taiwan, every time my uncle visits on business, he’d bring with him loads of goodies from the US of A. And in his luggage, along with the goodies, were the smell of America. Today, I was caught by that familiar smell when I found bars of Snickers and Crest toothpaste in my box. Needless to say, the day was full of warm and nostalgic feelings. As strange as it seems, I feel far more in touched with my Taiwanese past now that I am in Cameroon then I ever did in the US. While there are so many drastic differences between Taiwan and Cameroon, I also have found and felt many subtle similarities that brought me back to a place of familiarity. I quite like it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Civilisation Me Manques!

Things have really taken off ever since we returned from our site visits. Language classes and other training sessions continually occupy my days. But more importantly, I am spending all of my free time with fellow stageaires (trainees) before we all go on our separate ways in less than a month. I have really grown to love these people and have felt a real sense of family, especially within the SED group. There are only 15 of us out of the greater group, and I have a greater bond with these few whom I’ve known for 2 months than some friends from the past. When we left Philly, there were 38 of us, unfortunately, two from the education group had ETed and that leaves 36 of us. SED is still going strong, hurray!

This past week was somewhat rough. Being away for site visit made apparent the lack of freedom and many other inconveniences that accompany a homestay experience. Unable to cook for myself and 7pm curfews contribute to some of the frustrations. Also, the fact I was unlucky and placed in a family with no kids to communicate with has become a significant source of frustration as I am preparing for the final language interview.

As I had said before, some days are worse than others. There are days when I wake up and am annoyed with everything in my surrounding: the lingering stink of the bathroom, the dirtiness of my house, the lack of food variety, the ridiculous mud here, the language instructors, the technical sessions, and the constant rain. But despite all of that, I can’t think of a place I would rather be. That’s when I know I have made the right choice. A friend walked me home tonight and he said, “you know, when we go back to the states, we can ask people if they’ve lived abroad, but then we can ask if they’ve lived without civilization.” Civilization. That’s the word that I can best find to sum up all the things that are missing in my life here in Cameroon.

As one volunteer put it, Cameroon for the most part is just developed enough to be extremely frustrating. If I did live in the middle of nowhere, then the lack of modern conveniences would seem natural. But the things here are developed enough to remind you all the things that could be done better and are being done better elsewhere in the world. I find it absurd that my cell phone service is far more reliable than both the power and water supply. I miss lots of things from the “modern world”, and food is probably the most apparent factor. The nostalgic talks of “gosh, I can really go for a XYZ” among trainees have increased its frequency over the past few weeks. 

Many dear family and friends have sent care packages that are currently floating around in the world. Words can’t describe how anxious and excited I am to receive boxes of goodies. I’ve moved a few times in my life, and this is the first time where I have neither been able to find comforting foods/things or discover new comfort foods/things. In au village, there are so many things that money simply can’t buy. Thankfully, people all seem to be receiving their mail without problem, so any day now, and I will have a package wit h my name on it! Oh, we discovered that delivers to Cameroon! Since Amazon ships with insurance, it may be worth investigating!

Finally, Michelle wins the award for sending me the first piece of mail in Cameroon! Thanks, love! 

Sunday, July 20, 2008

In my bubble! What bubble?!

8 adults plus 1 infant on a 4, at most 5, passenger car? pas de probleme! That is how I ended my week-long site visit. The hour-ride back back from the provincial capital consists me twisted like a human pretzel sandwiched between Kat and a big mama holding her infant child. Thank god for all those years of yoga, or else my back would seriously hurt now. Crazy stories aside, this was the best week I have had since boarding that plane in Philadelphia on June 4th. Let me start from the beginning.

Last Saturday, I met my counterpart, Gabriel (the person from MC2 - a microfinance institution that I will be working with). He didn't come to Day One of counterpart workshop, therefore not making the best first impression. He is nice enough though. A pretty quiet guy that asks interesting and sometimes strange questions. I think some of those are attributes of culture differences. On Sunday, the two of us began our journey to my village. This was my first time travel in Cameroon sans the Peace Corps transport. We took the "Jeannot Express", and Agence, to the provincial capital. Now, let's talk about this Agence. It's sort of like a bus. You go to the station to buy "tickets", which is a flimsy piece of paper that no one checks. Then you wait forever. There is no schedule of when the next bus will arrive. So we waited - for 40 minutes - not bad. Except it takes that amount of time to get to the provincial capital. These agences are similar to those old school VW vans. They are designed for 3 to a row, but rest assured that we squeeze 4 to a row to maximize efficiency. To be honest, the agence experience wasn't as bad as I imagined. We arrived without much problem or discomfort.

Once we reached provincial capital, we had to take a "taxi" to our village. The only thing these taxi resembles the same meaning of the word as we know it in the USA is that they are yellow. C'est tout. My counterpart and I were squeezed in the front passenger seat. There were four people squeezed in the back seat, and a goat in the trunk - yes a live one. Let me tell ya, when you take one of these rides, the phrase "click it or ticket" means absolutely nothing. This was
probably a toyota corolla, as most "taxis" here are. They are at least 10 years old. Speedometer, gas gage, and all other important indicators don't work. On this particular ride, the doors don't have the plastic cover, just a sheet of metal. The driver had conveniently made a door handle out of duck-tape. The ride was only a bit longer than half an hour, but I had lost all sense of "personal space". I was way too close for comfort with someone I just met, and my thigh
was up against the shift-gear. Yes, the car is manual and the driver is shifting while my thigh is leaning against it. Oh, did I mention there is no real standard of emission, so I am either getting high or delirious from the exhaust fume while the goat is baaa-ing for background noise.

Anyhow, we made it au village alive and in one piece. Then I take a short motor ride to my future house. I haven't taken a motor ride in 10 years. The minute I put on my helmet and hopped on the back of a moto driver, I felt childhood. *sigh* that was a good feeling.

I am replacing Kirk, a volunteer who is finishing his service next week. I stayed with him for most of the week, getting familiar to the community and him showing me around. My village is tiny! I think population is anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000. Not sure. Things in the village aren't centrally located, so it feels very sparse. From my house, I have to walk 25 minutes to the carrefour to purchase basic essentials. Carrefour here does not refer to the French Target or WalMart equivalent; it's simply the french word for intersection/crossroad. I can get the basics (onion, tomato, fruits in season, Nido (powder milk), etc.) in my village. Everything above the most basic needs, I would need to either wait for Market Day, which happens every 8 days, or to a neighboring town. Luckily, the provincial capital isn't far by car.

My house is really big and the neighborhood is beautiful. The village is sort of in the mountains; lots hills and great air quality. I don't have running water, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I've taken the best showers this week without running water! We boil half of the water to make the shower nice and warm! It's heaven! I have an "outhouse". It's a latrine, but in a house with roof, walls, and a door. I've never actually seen a latrine since all the squat toilets I've experienced had a porcelain pot. This is literally a one foot hole. Fabulous. Like the motor rides, I felt quite at home doing my business in squatting position. I actually quite prefer the latrine over toilet. Most all bathrooms I've visited here are pretty stinky. The plumbing doesn't work quite the same and there is always a lingering stink.

Several very exciting things happened this week. One is the amount of great food that I consumed and also made. I am quite sure that I did more cooking this week than I ever did. The yummy goodness consumed include: starbucks coffee (kirk had his parents send him ground
starbucks coffee. he has a drip filter that I will inherit. Send those coffee, friends. I am in Africa, but all there is to buy is Nescafé!), pancake (twice! Kirk had maple syrup sent from home. yumm!), mexican style lentil & rice, quiche, fried rice, hash-brown, omelets, alfredo pasta, and vegetable stew. I am quite proud of this considering a year ago, I remember writing, "my tortelini was not good, so I ate them really quickly." Mind you, all these cooking are from scratch! Unfortunately the general store on the corner does not sell pie crust or pancake mix.

Another very exciting thing happened when Kirk took me to the Chinese store in the prov. capital. He said he stumbled upon the store last year when he was searching for Christmas lights and he thinks the owners are Chinese. I was excited! Sure enough, the owner and I became instant best friends speaking away in Mandarin! He's from mainland China and has been in Cameroon for 9 years. His wife and him live upstairs from the store and his son works in Douala. We exchanged numbers and he said to call him if I need anything, and if I need food, he'll even have his guys drive it to my village! He asked to make sure I have somewhere to live. I told him I may need some help painting the house. He said, "you need remodeling? no problem!" He wants me to come over sometime so him and his wife can make me a good table of Chinese food! I can't tell you how excited I am at this new connection.

Other exciting things include visiting two other current volunteers who are posted near me. Nora is about 15 min. motor ride away and Emilie is about 15 min. by car. Both of the girls have gorgeous apartments with great decor! I can't wait to start decorating my great house! The thing about taking after a boy is that the house is bare, but that's alright. It's been a while since I could go crazy with my interior design skills. It's a bit more difficult without Target, Pier One, Home Depot and the like. I'll make it work!

Great food and warm bucket baths aside, yesterday I had one of the most relaxing days I've had in YEARS. I don't remember the last time I felt so relaxed. Four other trainees and I were staying with Emilie and we made food and watched movies ALL DAY. The period that come closes to yesterday were probably those glorious movie nights we had in high school. We started with Juno, then episodes of The Simpsons, The West Wing, then Royal Tennanbaum, and finally 4 hours of Sex and the City. Yesterday, I was temporarily in America. I spoke not a single word of French, hung out with all Americans, watched American movies/tv shows, ate alfredo pasta and vegetable stew, all in the comfort of a fabulously decorated 2nd floor apartment with crown molding.

I can't wait for training to be over so I can hit the dirt road running with projects. Mom, Peace Corps is going to teach me/force me to learn all the "wife skills" that I lack. I will come home knowing how to clean, cook, fetch water, and maybe even sew, maybe!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fate in a Hat

I come from two different cultures that share the same attitude towards life – that life is compose by a series of cause and effect and I have a great deal of control over my own future. Yet today was the second time in 6 months where I have absolutely no control over the immediate future, which will consequently affect the rest of my life. The first time was back in February when I received the invitation packet from the Peace Corps informing the country placement. And today we received our post placement in country.
Personally, this second "sentence" was much more nerve wrecking than the first; partly because I am now in country and have a better knowledge of the regions that I could end up. The Post announcement when like this: Our APCD had a chief's hat and inside of it were slips of papers with our names and respective posts. (Those were pre-selected by him; we didn't draw our future out of a hat) Then, one person draws a slip of paper from the hat, announces the person's name and post on the paper. That person then repeats the same process.
My only request for post was a francophone region. Mastering French is a priority, among other things. I also wanted to stay in the West province, since I've really enjoyed the climate here and I'm not too excited by the idea of Cameroonian way of travel. Staying in the West was less of a priority, but luckily, both wishes were met! For safety & security reasons, I can't disclose the name of my town here. If you want to know, send me an email, and I'll let you know. I am staying here in the West province and therefore close to many volunteers. I am also just 40 minutes away from the provincial capital, where there is a supermarket and I can buy sort-of-American things.
My counterpart is a MC2 – a microfinance institution that's a part of a big network here. I will also likely work with the MC2 in the neighboring town. (What's up with the 2-for-1 deals? First the assigned company, now my counterpart!) The town supposedly has a lot of potential for projects and many organized community groups. I am replacing a volunteer who is COSing in August. I'll take his house and hopefully buy things off of him. Next week during site visit, I'll stay there and he'll acquaint me to the community.
Now, here is the catch. Rumor has it I don't have running water! At least there is electricity. I pick electricity over water any day! Also, it's a tiny village. I don't mind the small town so much since the cities here are scary. I like the idea of really integrating into a community, and that's nearly impossibly in a big city. Apart from being close to the provincial capital, there is also a paved road that runs through my village. The road goes to Yaoundé or Douala, making it easier if I need a break!
I am grateful and content with the post and can't wait to visit next week! Each day feels a bit more realistic than before. Days are passing quickly. After site visit, we only have one month left of training, then off to the "real world". Aaack! 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Freezing in Africa

I am currently sitting on my bed, wearing the only light hootie i brought and sweatpants, my feet are placed under my laptop for warmth. I am in Africa, and I am freezing. This is a perfect example how one should not generalize Africa, the continent. After all, Africa is a ginormous place. If the US has varying climates, why shouldn't Africa? a place that is at least twice as big. Lately, I am more wary when people, myself included, refer to Africa as one place. "Hi Wendy, how's it going in Africa?" - that's a common greeting I get. (FYI, I just killed a weird looking spider that appeared out of the corner of my eye at mid-sentence.) When was the last time someone asked, "hey, how's it going in North America?" Even people who study abroad in Europe, when was the last time you ask someone who's in London or Madrid, "hey, how's it going in Europe?"

Things are going well here otherwise. As predicted, the rain felt unforgivingly and my clothes that were still on the line are soaked. Beginning this week, I am adding force to my french learning, reverting back to the Chinese way of learning languages. I had depended mostly on immersion, which I am not getting enough since there aren't any kids to talk to at my house. I've started reading grammar books and French Verbs 501 religiously. I am analyzing the heck out of grammar points and giving logic to everything. I am digging my brain for the ways I was taught to learn English back in Taiwan, and applying it to the French language. The American way of
learning language is completely ridiculous and inefficient. I absolutely disagree with "French only" way of learning French. Last semester at SLU, I took French 115 and the professor refused to explain anything in English. People didn't have a clue what he's saying and he didn't get what we were asking. The same thing is happening here in the Peace Corps. We rotate language trainers and I am on my third one. While all the trainers are Cameroonian, the first two taught in that same manner. We wasted more time trying to understand each other than learning anything productive. My trainer this week has a master's degree in English and French. I learned more in today alone than I did in the last two weeks. She explains things in English when needed, and can adequately translate many of the idiomatic expressions. Just because you speak a language doesn't make you a good language teacher. In Taiwan, my language school paired a
Taiwanese teacher with a native English speaker. That's the way it should be!

Alright, end soap box. I find out my post in two days! Stayed tuned! Let's hope I don't end up in an Anglophone province!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lesson of the Week

Do Laundry Every Weekend.

I learned this the hard way today. Last weekend, I was lazy and didn't do laundry since I still had enough clothes to last through this week. The consequence of that behavior was me spending more than 3 hours washing my clothes by hand and having slightly bloody
knuckles. Did you know your knuckles are very sensitive and they are constantly used? It hurts to do everything tonight. I've put off shower until the morning because I refuse to deal with this in cold water. Washing my feet was painful enough. I am so glad I brought that tube of hemp cream.

I also think I will be very sore tomorrow due to this laundry business. Who needs a gym when you have to do laundry by hand. I realize the reason I was so sore after my first run two weeks ago was not because I was out of shape from running, but because I did laundry. Last week, I ran but did no laundry, and wasn't sore.

The third component of this lesson is that water may run out. I waited until 11am to begin because water was out. This result in my laundry not going on the line until nearly 2pm. My clothes aren't anywhere near dry. It's rainy season, so it'll probably rain unforgivingly tomorrow and I'll have to rewash my clothes. blast!

Next time you whine about having to "do laundry", just think about the non-bloody knuckles and get on with life. Also, I have yet written about this: I have to iron everything (yes, including underwear) after they off the line. (Dave: are you proud? I iron constantly now!) Reason? to avoid mango flies from laying eggs and living under my skin. There, another reason for you to love doing laundry. You can do laundry in a machine, protecting your knuckles, having definitely clean clothes that are dry and soft, and bugs free.


Where there is low, there is high.

Last night, we were invited to the Lady Lord Mayor's house for dinner. She's the Mayor of Bangangté and married to a French man. The entire city didn't have power or water, making it a perfect night to hang out at the Mayor's pad. Rest assured, there was water AND electricity; also booze and food. Food. I have never in my life been so excited to see cucumber, lettuce, and solid chucks of meat that were not drenched in sauces. Also plain chocolate cake never tasted so good. The meal was probably average by US standards, but for all 38 of us, that was heaven. 

Meat is not a big part of the diet here. Fish is, but quality meat is not. Many of us have been eating way too many eggs as source of protein. Joe was rattling off the stats that he's eaten 68 eggs (or there abouts) since arrival. That's an average of 2+ eggs a day. We are all going to have cholesterol through the roof at mid service health exams. 

Last night was the perfect example of high to contract the low of previous night. The meal was fantabulous and when I got home, I had great conversations online with Michelle and Katie. You realize the true power of friendship when you are in Africa. 

Anyway, changing topic. I am currently reading The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan. It's her memoir and I just finished a chapter on the English language that hit very close to home. This past week, we were learning idioms in my French class. I was getting so incredibly frustrated, because I don't know them in ENGLISH. The following passage from the book regarding standardized tests and language in immigrant families particularly stood out for me:

"...Sociologists and linguists probably will tell you that a person's developing language skills are more influenced by peers than by family. But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child. And I believe that it affected my results on achievement tests, IQ tests, and the SAT...Those tests were constructed around items like fill-in-the-blank sentence completion, such as 'Even though Tom was ___ Mary thought he was ___.' And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations, for example, 'Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming,' with the grammatical structure 'even though' limiting the correct answer to some sort of semantic opposites, so you wouldn't get answers like 'Even thought Tom was foolish, Mary thought he was hilarious.' Well, according to my mother, there were very few limitations as to what Tom could have been and what Mary might have thought of him. So I never did well on tests like that... Asian-American students as a whole, do significantly better on math achievement tests than on English tests, And this makes me think that there are other Asian-American students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as 'broken' or 'limited.'..." 

I think Amy Tan has solved my inferiority issue with my low(er) performing scores on all the verbal section of standardized tests. If Amy Tan, a widely celebrated Asian-American writer, can blame her less than stellar performance on verbal sections of the SAT on her family's English, so can I.  

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The American Party

I spent yet another 4th of July holiday abroad; at least I remembered
this year, that's more than last year. How could I forget this year?
I am surrounded by Americans! In celebration, we got some ground beef
and made burgers. Siobhan made mine but she was impatient, so ours
weren't cooked all the way. Luckily, I am not sick, yet.

The Peace Corps experience is a roller-coaster ride, and everyone
goes through crazy mood swings. Yesterday was a perfect example of
that. I was incredibly happy at the party. Great conversations took
place and I felt a true sense of community. I even found great
amusement when the power went our while we were sitting at Chez
Pierre's and 20 of us were sitting at a "bar" with candle/flashlight.
Somehow, the mood took a drastic deep as I was walking home in the
dark with friends. When I got home, I sat in darkness and silence,
never felt so alone. When the power came back, there was a giant
cockroach crawling around my room. Luckily, I had bought some Raid
when I was at the supermarket and I fought with that sucker for a
while and killed it. For no apparent reason, my irritation
exacerbated. That little stinker aggravated me far more than the dead
mouse I found on my desk a few mornings ago. For the first time since
arrival, I dread the ice cold shower.

A friend told me that in his emails home, he always ends them by
saying, "if you think you know, you don't know." The stories I tell
here are words on a page. The incidents are minute part of this
experience. Words cannot accurately capture the feelings, the smell,
the scenery, and the night sky. If I get nothing else out of this
experience, at least now, I know.