Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Long Post

Hi Friends! Sorry I have been MIA for a while. These past week and a half has been a crazy whirlwind, and certainly been the best time since I arrived in country. I will do my best to recap and also section off this long entry for easy reading!

Yaounde

View of Yaounde from the top of Hilton


Right before all 36 of us go through the swearing-in ceremony to become real volunteers, we had to make a trip to Yaounde, the capital city, for some administrative businesses. After living in Bangante for months, going to Yaounde was a real treat! I for one, brought every single piece of clothing with me to throw in the one washer and dryer that exists in the volunteer house. The CASE(kaahze), volunteer transit house where we stayed is frat house meets summer camp! It's the first time we could all hang out 24 hours a day without having to go home for curfew. Other than washer and dryer, the CASE has other fabulous amenities such as hot shower, a ridiculous collection of DVDs and books. Yaounde, the capital city offers things like Sneakers/Twix bars, delicious Chinese food, milkshake, hamburgers, gigantic supermarkets and the like.

Girls just want to have fun!


One of my favorite days in Yaounde went like this: We got paid in the morning - three months salary + moving in allowance! Afterwards, David, Ehab and I went to a recommended Chinese restaurant and gorged ourselves in some insane amounts of food, including two desserts for me. The highlight of the meal was after I said, "omg, I really overdid this with two desserts, I can't eat anymore." and then I took another bite. Delicious food aside, the three of us had great conversations about everything. It's rare to hang out in small groups of three and I quite miss it. After the meal, we walked around town and found an Espresso House. We walked in and this place was more or less America, with posh seating and flat screen TVs. We had milkshakes (yes, after two desserts) and watched the Brazil-Argentina Olympic football match. The fabulous day continues when we got to this huge supermarket where I found an isle of Chinese food including Taiwanese ramen, soy sauce, sesame oil and the like!

Another day, a group of us went to the Hilton hotel for its two-for-one happy hour. We all had a bit of culture shock riding the posh elevator and using the bathroom that's completed with toilet paper, soap and paper towel! The boys rocked out there mustache and sunglasses look, and the girls indulge in martinis (not as good, but good enough!). There was a piano there, and after one martini, I was rocking out on the piano with Trevor. I play much better with a little alcohol in my system! It was a lot of fun, and I quite miss the piano!

Siobhan getting very excited about the posh elevator!

How we miss those martinis!



The three days in Yaounde was really good time and a last hurrah for us to all be together before parting our separate ways. For the past week and a half, I've more or less spent all day everyday with people, yet I am not craving alone time. I think all the alone time that is ahead of me makes me cherish time with others as much as possible!

Swearing-in Ceremony

Just two days after we got back from Yaounde, the ceremony took place where we became "real" volunteers! It's a tradition that everyone buys the same pagne and get outfits made out of them. We were all quite happy with the choice of pagne and I got a little Chinese dress made out of it! It looked great on me and is definitely my "skinny dress". I can hardly breathe in that thing, especially after I eat! We all look cute/kind of funny in matching outfits! The ceremony itself was kind of anticlimatic. The actual "swearing-in" part took 5 minutes, and the rest 3 hours and 55 minutes were people speaking and other traditional things. The event went very well overall, except when the power went out and the mic stopped working. The rain also started to fall half way through the ceremony - typical Bangangte in rainy season.

Matching Match!

Me being Chinese


We had a big lunch with our host families after the ceremony and that was the last of it. The rest of the afternoon, we hung out at the SED house per usual. Later in the evening, us free-no-curfew volunteers went into town for dinner and then stopped at a "dance club" in a hotel. That was really pretty hilarious and a good release for us all before we part the next day. That night, a group of us had a slumber party at the SED house. *sigh* good times.

Slumber Party!


Leaving for Post

After the slumber party, we woke up to the harsh reality that we all must part. I am staying here in the West province, so I was the last to go. It was quite emotional saying goodbye to all the wonderful friends I've made over these past few months. I am quite lucky since my good friend Kate is near me, but even then, it was hard to say goodbye to the others.

The journey to post started with the people heading to the West plus Lee, who is heading up North, but must come through Bafoussam. Kate's house isn't ready, so she stayed with me for a few days. Lee was going to stay in a hotel, so I told him to also come along. I am so glad those two were with me during our first few nights. I got to my house and it was a disaster. The walls were getting painted, and it was no where near done. Paint was everywhere and my house was an utter mess. Later in the afternoon, around 5pm, two guys showed up at my house to paint. But the electricity was out and it go dark relatively soon. Of course it would have made way too much sense for them to come earlier in the day to paint. Anyhow, it was the two of them painting under the candle light while the three of us sitting awkwardly in the chaotic living room!

This was the state of my living room


The good thing that came out of that day was that I called the Chinese guy I had met a month ago, Mr. Zhang. He was so excited to hear from me and invited us over for lunch the next day. I must say, that lunch was one of the best meals I've had in quite some time. We got to his place and hung out in his big living room. He invited over another Chinee couple who were closer to our age. I did some mad translating that day between the three Chinese people and two Americans. The lunch was phenomenal - Mr. Zhang had hand made these delicious dumplings. He's from the North of China, where that dish originates! In addition, there were ducks, soup, vegetables. I dare say that meal was far better than the Chinese restaurant where I gorged myself in Yaounde!

Mr. Zhang and the Chinese couple are extremely hospitable and excited to have me around. There are only 8 Chinese people in Bafoussam, so I am adding new blood into the mix! Already, I feel like an adopted daughter into this community. Mr. Zhang has been here for 9 years and knows all kinds of people. In these past few days, he's introduced me to some big shot in my village, got two gas stoves delivered from Yaounde for Kate and Lee, making plans to come inspect me and Kate's house and making more delicious food for us! I am very excited about this new suppor network, and already, this is making my life so much easier! (As we speak, I am using the couple's faster Internet to make this post!)

Other things about first week at post - I haven't been alone yet. Kate's house still isn't ready (no water and electricity), so she is staying with me until further notice. Our first three months at post are intended for us to become integrated into the community and setting up our house. I didn't understand how it's possible to take three months to set up our house and the like until yesterday, when it took us three hours to open a bank account. Yes, three hours. Everything here takes forever. It's near impossible to budget your time and expect to get things done in certain time frames. This should be an interesting next few months!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Expectations

The rain continues to fall; the rainy season persists. Next week this time, I will officially be a volunteer for the Peace Corps and celebrating the last night with fellow trainees and then off to my village. Time has flown by quickly, and despite annoyances relating to training, I’ve enjoyed getting to know many wonderful people. I am especially proud of the SED group and today was a living proof of how wonderful we are together.

The SED program officially ended their training yesterday when we turned in our company reports to the entrepreneurs yesterday. With the day off, we decided to throw a party with the savings accumulated in our mock-VSLA (Village Savings & Loans Association). The day began with triple Bs (Beans, Beignet, Beer), follow by a delicious feast entailing spaghetti & meatballs, garlic bread, guacamole, tomato & basil salad and vegetable tray with ranch dip. This may not seem like such a big deal, but for us, who have been eating mushy Cameroonian food drenched in palm oil, the feast was heaven on earth.


What was more impressive was how smoothly the entire operation took place. We’ve had many fêtes before this, but none ran as flawlessly as today. We sent two boys on meat duty at the market. The girls cleaned the kitchen early in the morning and created workstations. Laura was on garlic duty, dicing up garlic and other things for everyone. Michelle took charge of the ranch dip and tomato basil salad. Siobhan was the head chef, in charging of the spaghetti. Joe called his Italian grandmother yesterday to make sure we have the proper steps for making sauce from scratch. I was in charge of guacamole and meatballs. I am proud to say that I made 4kg worth of meatballs today and some killer guac. Laura’s exact words were, “Wendy, would you come to my post and make guac for me?” People were asking me for my “secret ingredient”. I never thought the day would happen where people would ask me for cooking tips!

We set the table out on the balcony and had a lovely meal together. I felt a real sense of family with these 14 other people. We’ve seen each other more or less every single day for the past 10 weeks. Yet, we aren’t sick of one another yet. At any given social gathering, there are almost always at least 10 out of 15 of us present. It’s rather impressive how well we all get along. In a week, gatherings such as today will be so difficult to come by. How I will miss these good times! Hopefully our solid bonds will get us through the difficult first three months at post, and we will all meet again at IST in December!


In other news, there has been a change in my access to the Internet. Without going to boring details, I no longer have as much free access to the world as before. I think the phone company upgraded its system. Anyhow, it’s amazing how disconnected I suddenly feel. It’s another living proof that how we react to things in life depend largely on our expectation. Daily life can be extremely frustrating here due to our expectations. You get used to having fairly regular electricity, but then it goes out during your favorite Olympic sporting event. Worse yet, you get used to living in your community and not expecting much safety issues, and then someone breaks into your house while you are away for a few days and clean your house, taking everything including the mattress (this happened recently to a volunteer). It’s perhaps best to always expect the worst, but that’s a difficult mindset to have when things aren’t always so bad. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and can cause a lot of frustration in everyday life. Among us, we have a popular phrase for this, “just when you thought things aren’t that bad, you are reminded that this is Africa.”

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympic Spirit

With the opening of the summer Olympic games in Beijing, the talk of China has permeated my life. I love the Olympics! I remember watching the games intently as a young girl in Taiwan and becoming very excited when one of our few athletes does well. Olympic games represent a chance for all countries to shine, even the little island of Taiwan. Not sure when this started, but last night I noticed that Taiwan is now China Taipei and the flag isn’t the Republic of China flag. Intéressant.

Ever since meeting the Chinese merchant a few weeks ago, I’ve felt a strong tie back to my Chinese heritage. When watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I was proud of what the Chinese people have done. Political divides aside, I am Chinese - the same as those in the mainland. I think this unity has made more apparent when I am abroad (outside of the US). When people comment on the grandiose of those fireworks, I said, “Well, we DID invent those!” Among Cameroonians, I have sense and been a part of many conversations discussing the affordability of Chinese goods, though of inferior quality. Also, discussions pertaining to China’s presence in the world have taken place. It’s hard to recognize these changes when insulated in the US, but here in Cameroon, I sense focus shifting from US/Europe to China.

I’ve been asked to compare China’s growth to Cameroon, or Africa in general. The comparison is bizarre to me. Africa is a continent, colonized by many countries over the centuries. China is a country and a thriving civilization for the past 5,000 years. It’s comparing apples to oranges! Yes China was poor for the better part of the 20th century, but it was rich for 5,000 years before that. In the grand scheme of things, the 20th century was merely a slight downward trend now making a comeback. Apart from Hong Kong being colonized by the United Kingdom for 100 years, China was never colonized. Yes, power shifted among tribes of people, but all in all, the traditions evolved and contained within the region.

Beijing hosting this year’s Olympic games has caused a great deal of contention, but I see them as healthy and necessary. The Chinese people didn’t invent fireworks, paper, the compass and other important things to modern life for nothing.

I find myself in an interesting place in life juggling many identities. Yesterday, we watched Love Actually and I became extremely “London-sick”. I identify myself very well with London and feel very at home there. But I am also Taiwanese with rich Chinese heritage. It’s been 3 years since I’ve been back to Taiwan. I miss it. And finally, I am American. I did spend the better part of my adult life in the US of A. And now, I am living in Cameroon. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever find someone who will be able to understand all the aspects of my identity. ‘Tis the challenge.

I miss everyone dearly, and I’m so fortunate to have figured out access to the Internet and able to kept in touch with most everyone. Every time I chat with someone online, or receive an email or package, the meaning is indescribable. Each linkage keeps me sane, and for that, I am forever grateful.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Things We Do

I got two more packages yesterday! Katie and Emma both rock for sending me goodies! Since they both sent the goods in bubbled envelopes, the chocolate bars were rather smashed. In the States, I would never eat a smashed, melted Reese's Peanut Butter cup, but here; I opened that sucker and licked it clean. It was quite a sight to see 4 girls, eating the remnants of smashed chocolate bars and practically licking all the wrappers clean. Also, copies of People, Marie Claire, The Economist, and GOOD (awesome magazine) never got read with such excitement in the US of A. Furthermore, you will never find three girls sniffing the Georgio Armani ad in Men's Health and giggling like they are in the sixth grade. Yes, Siobhan, Kate and I are guilty of that. We can't help it. Georgio Armani represents all the clean-shaving, good-smelling guys that are so difficult to come by here.
This morning, while walking into town to the omelet shack (spaghetti omelets are amazing!) for lunch, I had a moment while noticing the beautiful rolling hills mixing with red mud and trees sprawling through. I took in the 90's music coming out of the bad quality speaker on the street, the smell of the market, and the sound of the village. I am exactly where I need to be (Africa, not training, I can't wait for that to be over), and exciting things are and will be happening.
Despite the annoying bureaucratic stuff in training, I am excited to begin my service. Today, the country director visited and played a video made by the Peace Corp agency. I felt the level of excitement and fervor as I did when first deciding to take on this journey. Bureaucracy is annoying, but that's the nature of working for a governmental agency. Luckily, as a SED volunteer, I have a lot of freedom in the spectrum of my work. I can potentially work around all the bureaucracy and corruption if I choose to. If I feel like working only with women and children, I can. That's the beauty of this. I paint my own canvas. If I want to chillax and make this next two years one grand vacation, I can also do that. But for my sanity's sake, I will be doing more than that.
What an exciting time! Can't wait to start doing something useful!

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Grocery Shopping"

This morning, I visited the meat market for the first time in Cameroon. David and I went to the market to buy beef for our party tomorrow. Each weekend, we find an excuse to party and get our curfew extended from 7pm to 9pm. This week, it’s Joe’s birthday! In his honor, we will make burgers and sangria. Making burgers in the US of A may not seem such a big deal. You go to the gigantic grocery store and swing by the refrigerated meat section, browse through 20 types of ground beef and finally pick up a pack or two of perfectly wrapped ground beef with grade level, precise weight and price. Then you go home, fire up the gas grill, slap on the meat and some seasoning – voila, you have a burger.

Now, this is how you do it in Cameroon. First, you decide you will make burgers, and then go to the market early in the morning. The meat market has stalls of vendors selling more or less the same thing – slaps of meat. Now, I came from Taiwan. We have meat markets there where parts of animals are hung and people cutting up pieces of raw, bloody meat in a non-refrigerated environment. However, Cameroon takes the meat market to a whole new level. Not only there are slaps of raw meat hanging randomly; these chunks of meat were more or less the size of a cow. Picture a cow, dead, sans skin. I am quite positive that 95% of my friends from the US would become a vegetarian should they see what I saw today. For me though, it was kind of familiar in a twisted sort of way.

Anyway, so once you identify the vendor from whom you’d like to buy the meat, you then have to get someone to cut the big chunks of meat into little chunks. Then, you take the little chunks to the guy who grinds them. I have never seen a more primitive meat grinding technique than what I witnessed today. Remember when you were kids and there were those Play-doh thingy where you can squeeze through and make noodle shapes? Imagine that but maybe 5 times bigger? That’s how they grind the meat. There are guys who take turns standing and turning the grinder, and out come the ground beef. To add flavor to the meat, David and I bought a bag of garlic and a few onions, sat outside of the market to peal them so the grinder can grind them with the meat. Finally, the meat is finely ground, then we (or rather David) hauls that 9 kg of meat all the way back to the SED house (along with a big jug of wine for the sangria). Meanwhile, I carried 500CFA worth of bananas (a big bunch filling up my backpack) and two pineapples, one in each hand.

I will never again complain about grocery shopping. Right now, the thought of getting into a car, drive to Dierberg’s or Trader Joe’s, pushing around a shopping cart and taking items off those nicely organized shelves is a pure luxury. Even when I was living in London, I thought it was chore to have to walk 5 minutes to Waitrose for groceries and carry them by hand. Even that’s a luxury to me now.

In other news, I was doing some research on China’s relationship with Africa and I asked myself why I am in the Peace Corps when there are serious money to be made while improving the African infrastructure. Although I suppose I wouldn’t have known about these opportunities had I not been sent to Africa in the first place. I haven’t even really begun my service, yet already, I see the long term benefit that will come with my two years here.