Tuesday, October 28, 2008

5 Months?!

Next week marks 5 months in country. This is the longest I’ve been away from friends and family since round I, where I left Taiwan for 13 months before returning. I don’t feel as though 5 months have been a long time, and really, it’s just the beginning.

I caught a nasty cold a few days ago but am getting over it now. (so mom, don’t freak out.) I do have to say, getting sick in Africa, no matter the level of sickness, is terrible. I’ve never wanted so much my down comforter, a can of chicken noodle soup and a carton of fresh orange juice. 

The upside about being sick when you are a volunteer is that you can more or less drop everything and hang out. After all, I am a volunteer. I parked myself in my bed for the entire day of Sunday, and the entire morning of Monday. When I did finally get myself out of bed to go teach on Monday afternoon, the kids were being used to do manual labor around the school because the delegates of the province were visiting the next day. Lucky for me, I got two hours off. But was annoyed that I got out of bed for that. Though it wasn’t a complete waste since I did teach the first class to the women’s group later. They are hilarious. 

In other news, I’ve gotten surprisingly quick support on funding for projects. Many thanks! Updates to come soon. Also, wanted to thank all the readers out there who are following my adventure. I just found that someone had made a tribune to my “Real Deal” post on his blog and asking people to give me support. It’s those little things that brighten my day. So readers, keep the comments coming!  

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Beauty

It was a beautiful Saturday here in the West Province of Cameroon. One friend of the French came to visit from Douala. Unlike the rest of us, he enjoys the luxury of an expat life and therefore rolling in town with an Isuzu SUV and a driver. Four French, one American and the Cameroonian driver comfortably piled into this luxurious vehicle and set off for a daytrip to Foumban. 

Unlike in the US where SUVs are purely for decorative and gas-wasting purpose, a SUV in Cameroon is quite useful. With wind blowing through my hair, and smell of fresh countryside air rather than the usual smell of exhaust and body odor, I remembered how wonderful a car ride is. Oh, the things we take for granted.

The town of Foumban is vibrant, yet not chaotic like Bafoussam. We had lunch at Café Royal, which had a terrific view and then visited the local market and saw the famous mosque. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the sultan, but it looked grand from the outside. This trip made me realize why people love exotic travel. Because when you have money, you can just stop in and enjoy the exotic culture, and then return to your sweet SUV and luxurious resort hotel for the evening. All without dealing with the grueling daily life.

Anyway, what blew my mind about this trip was the drive back. It was near dusk, and the gorgeous views became infinitely more beautiful with the changing colors of the sky and ever moving clouds. I did my best to capture the scenery, but the views are simply so beautiful that pictures do not do them justice. At that moment, only those around me and myself will ever be able to share that memory to its exact beauty.

I felt free. The kind of freedom I haven’t felt in months. Then I said a meditation, “Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment. This is a wonderful moment.” I repeat that in my mind as I see the views pass before me; I felt calm, in love with the nature, the world, and my life. There I was, in a nice comfortable car with great people whom I just meant not long ago, sharing a moment that we will be able to talk about for years to come. I don’t ever want to stop traveling, because I don’t ever want to stop meeting incredibly interesting and life-loving people.

So it was then I told myself this: always welcome the unexpected, smile away the sadness, and recognize that beauty is all around me. 

Friday, October 24, 2008

Drinking Water Project

I don't know anyone who has running water in my village. Maybe the mansion near my house does, but most do not. During the development meeting last week, the director of the primary school addressed concern with access to drinking water. Currently, there are three great metal barrels in front of the school buildings that collect rain water. To my knowledge, these water aren't treated and students drink from them. Boiling water isn't as easy as it sounds since most people don't have a gas stove. Most families still rely on the wood burning method of cooking. I think even just one of the filters I've been issued by Peace Corps would help the situation immensely. I have emailed the health unit and been told the price ranges from $40-80 depending on size. More research to come. 

Projects! Funding! Help!

Recently, I've came across different projects that require funding. While there are thousands of NGOs and foundations out there waiting to give out money, the process can take forever. Instead, I would like your support. $5 for you is a Starbucks latte, and if 10 people give up one Starbucks latte, I can buy a water filter for the primary school I teach at. That's one simple case, and there are others. You can begin to support my projects by clicking on the Paypal Donation link. Feel free to give your $5 (or more!) and leave me a message if there is a specific project you would like to help, or just for the general fund. 

In addition, if you know of any foundations/NGOs that are seeking projects to fund, please let me know! I will dedicate a part of my blog to my projects, update pictures and status as they roll along! Check back often for progress! Many thanks in advance. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bonjour, Madame!

Time goes by quickly now that I am keeping busy with teaching, spending some time at the bank and continually looking for new work opportunities in the village. Teaching continues to be interesting and challenging. How do I teach these kids to follow the curriculum given to me when they can’t read the alphabet in English and only 4 out of a class of 30-40 have books? I do my best and make up lessons each time, and have asked my mom to send me the English grammar book I had from my time of learning English in Taiwan. I wonder if I ever thought I’d be on the other end of the picture 10 years ago sitting in those English classes in Taiwan… Anyway, one of the greatest things about teaching is that now when I walk down the street, kids greet me with, “Bonjour, Madame.” So freaking cute!

I met with a women’s GIC on Monday and they’d like me to also teach them English. While I have other projects in mind that I’d like to implement with the GICs, teaching English is a good avenue to start. So my days are now filled with healthy dose of work. I fill the rest of the time doing daily things at home: laundry, dishes, fetching water, etc., also reading and coming up with different ideas for projects; oh and of course, cooking and entertaining the Frenchies. Last night, we made pizza and it was o-so-fantastic!

There has been an interesting phenomenon with entertainment at my house. The screensaver of my computer is a slideshow of all of my pictures, and anyone who hangs out at my house is continually entertained by this slideshow. Myself included. Just earlier, I was eating lunch and looking at these pictures; suddenly, I was hit by a wave of missing those o-so-familiar things. I miss coffee dates, happy hours, wearing heels, dishwasher, landscaping, one-stop-shopping, Sunday lunch at my parents, high-speed Internet, 20 kinds of everything at the store, cereal, Thai food, sushi, Vietnamese food, bubble tea, Forest Park, people watching at a café, and more. But these things also remind me of things I don’t miss: rush-hour traffic, the boredom with the mundane daily life, the need to get out (of the US), paying bills, earning money, petty stress, uninteresting conversations, not able to decide what to eat for dinner (too many choices), not able to decide what to do for the evening (what do you want to do? I don’t know, what do YOU want to do? Ugh.), getting mad about stupid things (omg, my broadband Internet is down for 2 hours!), excessive consumerism (agonizing whether to buy this pair of shoes I don’t need), etc. etc. 

This is only month 2 at post. I can’t even begin to imagine how I will be in 22 months!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Progress

Today, I received my first traditional ovation from the villagers. These past two days, I’ve been attending a development meeting in my cartier (neighborhood). My village is made up of 10 separate cartiers and the meeting I participated last Friday was the cartier in the center of town, separate from mine. I was really glad to be at these meetings this week. The people conducting the meeting aren’t from the village. I believe they are sent here by the government, or along the lines of that. It has been immensely helpful for me to be there as the villagers brainstorm and flesh out problems they face. Not only does it help me become acquainted with the people, it also gives me ideas for projects.

Anyhow, I had to leave the meeting early today to go teach at the school. In the morning, I asked the guy conducting the meeting to give me a few minutes to talk before I leave. So, there I was, in front of over 100 villagers, I talked to them about my role as a volunteer in the village, in French. Just four months ago, I dreaded giving presentations in English in front of no more than 20 people. The guy in charge reiterated what I said to ensure full understanding. When I was finished, the villagers gave me their traditional ovation consists of different clapping rhythms and sayings in patois. It’s so cute!

A guy told me he wants to talk to me about a NGO next week. I met with the lady who’s involved with both of the women’s GICs in village, and is the president of one of them. She showed me where the meeting takes place, and I’ll be there Monday morning! At the school today, I talked to the principal and there is a need for drinking water for the kids and a library. Mission this weekend is to research how I can get those two projects going! Hopefully my eternal amount of free time is coming to an end! Thank heavens!

Looking Back. Looking Forward

Before the summer of 2005, I spent 5 years in St. Charles, Missouri. The biggest trips I took were family road trips to Colorado, Chicago and Nashville. Oh, and a week in New York City with the high school choir (we did sing in Carnegie Hall!). The summer of 2005 marked the beginning of my around the world travel and it’s been an addiction ever since, as if I am making up for lost time. Tonight, I watched all of my pictures since 2005 in a slideshow and my life literally flashed before my eyes.

I love my life.

Since 2005, I’ve lived a life without regrets and a life full of incredible experiences. Starting with an around the island tour of Taiwan, seeing old friends and families and eating amazing Taiwanese cuisines. Then, three weeks in Angers, France, soaking up the great French culture for the first time, and becoming a real wino. Roaming through the streets of Angers and danced with the French during its annual Fête de la Musique! Celebrating 4th of July in a French bar with Australian, Chinese, Mexican, Slovenian, French and American friends! Spending Sundays touring the châteaux of the Loire valley, soaking up the sun in Mont-Saint-Michael, St. Malo, and freezing my butt off in Normandy. Week in Brussels hanging with the EU MPs, eating delicious Belgium waffles, and basking in the diverse cultures this EU capital had to offer. Week in Paris – spending quality time alone discovering Picasso, the Louvre, and saw Paris from the top of l’Arc de Triomphe. Amazed at the Bastille Day firework with millions of Parisians, dabbled in the glamour of Champs-Elysées and getting lost in the garden of Versailles. Oh, can’t forget about crowding with tourists from around the world for 8 hours to see Lance Armstrong taking 10 seconds to cross the finish line of the 2005 Tour de France. Finally, accidentally ended up in London after being brought to the wrong airport by Jess, and thus began my love for London.

Returned to London in the fall of 2006 and had the best 4 months of my life. Explored the English countryside each week: Windsor, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Shakespeare’s house, Cantebury, palace after palace, fun after fun. Weekend trips to Berlin and Dublin with Ashley. 10-day excursion alone to Salzburg, Vienna and Venice. Ballets and operas at the Royal Opera House. Symphonies at the Royal Albert Hall. Birthday spent at the BBC Proms concert in Hyde Park. Daily breakfast in the embassy cafeteria with Jacquelyn. Weekly tea at the Ambassador’s house with Mrs. Ambassador. Endless number of Christmas party hosted by each department in the Embassy. Trade shows in the Docklands. Dinner next to the Thames. Personal late night tour of the City of London during the holiday season by Yuri. Tea with Jacquelyn at the French café in Kensington and roaming through the British Museum. Countless pints of ciders and pies had across bars of Greater London.

I couldn’t get enough of London and visited again during spring break 2007 and returned for the summer. Met Sarah during BUNAC orientation and began our travels through Brighton with the Swedish guy, around London, visiting her village of Aldberry and a rainy day in Oxford. My tiny but wonderful flat in Swiss Cottage with Dave. Our picnics on Primrose Hill and many nights spent after work near Liverpool Street. Charming Sunday roasts in the suburbs of London with Dave’s family. Summer movie at the Somnerset House with Yuri, dinner in Hampstead Heath and Little Venice. The jobs I had at Channel 4, at Euromoney, at Thompson Scientific, etc. Meeting Lisa for dinner near Bond Street and telling her about my constantly changed plan for life. Weekend in Ghent, Belgium with Dave right before returning to the US. That summer, I met great people who are just like me, with a wandering spirit and always ready to share travel stories and be instant best friends.

The travel didn’t stop after returning to the US. Long weekends in D.C. reuniting with Jacquelyn and Steve. Weeklong trip to Boston and New York City with my sister, visiting schools and Laura. Roadtrips to Mizzou to have toffee nut latte and blueberry muffin with Ashley one last time before we both move. Whirlwind trip to Hawaii with the family before heading to Philadelphia and then Cameroon.

Since summer of 2005, I have spent 150 hours on the airplane, and I loved every minute of it. I’ve felt in love, shed tears over the eternal bad timing, made lifelong friends across the globe, and life decisions that led to even crazier life decisions. My mother would say that 150 hours of airplane all came from money, and I would say that 150 hours gave me a lifetime of experience that money simply cannot buy. I look forward to another 150 hours on the airplane that’ll bring me to corners of the world yet visited and people yet met.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Intellectual Stimulation

The past few entries have indeed been a crazy mood swing. Thank you for your kind words and thoughts from around the globe. Sometimes, when things get rough, the loneliness is so severe that it prevents me from feeling and remembering the love and thoughts from far away. 

Things are a lot better today, as I knew they would be. I began teaching this week in the primary school just near my house. Although just the second day, the experience has already been immensely rewarding. I’ve worked alone and in small group setting with kids starting back in my piano-teaching days, then later tutoring and working with inner-city students in St. Louis. This is, however, my first time teaching in a classroom setting. I didn’t think I would like it, but I really quite enjoy the experience. I teach three classes, Form 4 through 6. Each class ranges from 30-40 kids. It reminds me of my primary school days in Taiwan; though the learning condition was much better, the open classroom, wooden furniture and the amazing obedience coming from the children remind me of those strict days of elementary school in Taiwan.

One thing much different from my education in Taiwan is the quality. I am not all that surprised by the students’ level here. The more appalling element is the quality of the teachers. The first day I arrived, I walked around and I am 95% sure I saw a teacher sitting at her desk with her head down, probably sleeping. Today, one of the teachers wasn’t there, so her students just sat there all day. Substitute teachers? What?

I had quite the conversation with the only male teacher there. He repeatedly tells me how difficult it is to teach these students, because it’s a village school. He speaks as though if this were a city school, it would be significantly better. Today, I told him it’s a mentality issue and that if he keeps saying the students here are poor (performance), they’ll never get better. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, the same problem that exists in inner-city schools across the US. He asked me about schools in the US and I told him that poor education quality also exists. I thought of the kids I worked with in St. Louis; the 8th graders that didn’t know their timetable and 6th grader who couldn’t read a storybook with pictures. I only get 30 minutes for each class a day and I will be teaching 3 days a week. The time is so short and really feels like baby steps. I am glad I am getting to know the kids in the neighborhood; they inspire me to come up with new projects, and they are also making me reconsider a PhD – teaching may not be so bad after all.

Aside from teaching, I still have a lot of free time in my hands. This morning, I thought I was suppose to be going to a development meeting in town, but there were some major miscommunication. I never really know what’s going on. Before, I thought it’s the language, but now, I am beginning to think the people here themselves don’t know what’s going on half the time. So with all my free time, I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts. Today I listened to an econ one about externality and subsidies. I never felt like a bigger nerd when Coase and Pigovian theory drew my attention and I laughed out loud at the following joke, “When you walk through the revolving door, are you one who never pushes and instead waiting for the others to push, because you are reaping the positive externality? I know all the economists do.”

In addition, I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts in French just to practice listening. Often, I put them on as background noise even though I don’t understand a thing. I think I am hoping by idling listening to it, I’ll suddenly understand it all one day. The Yale World Fellow stories have been a source of inspiration as well. If you know other good ones, let me know! Suggestions for books, podcasts, etc. are always welcomed! 

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Real Deal

Last night marked one of the worst nights of my Peace Corps service yet. The day started with a group of us going to some lake outside of Bafoussam for picnic. It was the Frenchies, me, Kate and a few Cameroonians. Picnic, sounds idyllic, n’est-ce pas? I thought so, too. Let’s just say it wasn’t quite picnic basket with blanket in Forest Park next to the Grand Basin.

The day started with us meeting at the supermarché in Baf. Eric, one of our Cameroonian friends had arranged for one of his friends to drive us. We waited and waited for almost an hour before the car showed up and we hit the road. Once hitting the road, it is no road-trip, Route 66 style trip to the lake. Instead, it’s a bumpy ride, going through the worst road in Bafoussam and then into the countryside where the roads were so bad we had to get out of the car several times, and the boys had to push the car to get it going. Finally, the roads got so bad that we parked the car and walked for 15 minutes to get to this small pavilion someone had built. It’s obvious that someone had taken the time of day to try to organize this scenic site, but didn’t quite complete the job.

To see the lake, we had to walk down this hill, which was nicely paved complete with steps and rails. Once we get down there, there were some people fishing, and the rain started to come, so we went back up to the pavilion for the picnic. The whole thing was slightly awkward with the strong afternoon rain pouring. Shortly after we started eating, the locals who were fishing or around, started to come in waves to avoid the rain. So we ate, and they watched in this small pavilion. Awkward much? Yes.


We walked back down to the lake and took some pictures, watch people fish for a while, and left. I was in somewhat of a funky mood to begin with, and that whole thing didn’t help. But the best is yet to come. We got back up and started walking since the road was much worse after the rain. We walked perhaps a good 30-40 minutes until we got to a better part of the road to get on the car. But, the car didn’t last more than 10-15 minutes before we were broke down on the side of the road in a small village.

We sat on the side of the road and waited for our taxi and help to come. Then the rain started to come again, so people started getting into the car. Gregoire and I sat in trunk , just like in the movies. But there was nothing amusing about it. My bad mood had worsened and everything felt just a bit off.

The car finally came after god knows how long and we all piled into this tiny taxi and got back to Baf. Then, those of us going back to Batié piled into another car and headed home. I was so ready to come home, take a hot bucket bath, listen to music, get online and talk to friends from home in an attempt to temporarily forget I’m in Africa. However, no such luck. I got home and it was getting dark. The power, of course, was out. And this time, it was out for the entire night. I took a bucket bath using a lamp in my latrine. Then I turned on the computer, and it only had 30 min left of battery power. So after 30 min., I was cut off; in the worst mood ever, and completely alone. All of my electronics except for my telephone, which has little credit left, were dead. I’ve yet been so cut off from technology. I had no idea what to do with myself. Finally, I lit a candle, wrote in my paper journal, which I haven’t written in since arriving in country, in an attempt to write away this bad day, and went to sleep by 8pm.

Last night, I got the real deal, and I really don’t think I could’ve survived Peace Corps back in the days. I love solitude, but not that much.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Unexpected

The events that took place today made my existential crisis of yesterday horribly unnecessary. However, those crises are part of this whole experience. The ability to endure those hard times, having faith the better days will come, is what helps one get through these two years.

I met the agro volunteer in the village near me along with a few other Americans. I haven’t hung out with Americans in a big group in quite some time. Kate has been the only American I’ve spent extended amount of time with, but the dynamic is much different in a group. Besides, the people I saw yesterday are all seasoned volunteers who have been here for a year or more. They instilled a lot of confidence in me, and made me realize that having crisis is natural and it takes time, at least a good 6 months before things feel right. I also met two of their Cameroonian friends who are musicians playing in an event in the village today. I had a nice music chat with them, and they made me feel much better by complementing on my good French (good for being here 4 months). Megan, I got your music hookups in Cameroon when you visit!

When I got back to my village, Antoine paid a visit. He’s the chief of my cartier (neighborhood) but works for Peace Corps in Yaoundé. He’s in town for the long weekend and invited me over tomorrow with the other volunteers, and told me he will take me to a few development meetings in town and introduce me to a few groups. That’s exactly the kind of introduction I need! Really looking forward to it.

After the talk, I walked into town for lunch. It was around the time when kids were getting off school. The young kids only have half day on Fridays. I walked and talked with 4 or 5 little kids who are hilarious. They asked me question after question about random things. So cute. Just right before I reached town, two teachers from the school that I visited this week approached me. I had talked to the principal of the school about teaching English classes in the afternoons a few times a week there. The guy whom approached me must be the guy in charge, and he told me I can start on Monday! That should be interesting!

Anyway, back to lunch. I was hoping the Frenchies would be free to meet for lunch, but they were both busy, so I went alone. I sat at the omelet shack and ordered my usual – two-egg spaghetti omelet with demi-pain (half of a baguette). Just as I was waiting for my order, this guy came up and started talking to me. Turns out, he is a part of the development team who is going around the villages in the area, working with locals to carry out development plans. Fabulous! My French kind of stuck when we started talking technical, so he switched to English. We exchanged contact information and then he invited me for the afternoon meeting. I showed up and saw many familiar faces that I run into frequently in town. It was fascinating to see the meeting. This has been the 5th day that they meetings have gone on. I read the charts that are pasted all around the wall, and it looks exactly like the PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) tool I have learned in training. The more exciting thing is that now I know who are the motivated individuals in town! The meetings will continue next week, and I will partake in part of it!

So things on the work front seem to be turning around. Life is such in the Peace Corps. There are days when I feel like I am purely wasting time here and then there are days where I made many connections in one day. Patience. It takes a lot of it here. Now I need to channel that same energy into dealing with vast amount of free time. Today, I craved calling people up and meet for coffee at Starbucks. The closest thing to that is calling the French and asks them over, but they were busy today. What limited option. And there I was thinking calling my list of people in my phone book for coffee and no one answers was limited option.

Emily, the agro volunteer whom I visited, said to me about her visit home this summer. She said that it wasn’t hard to come back because she realized nothing had changed over a year. People may have changed jobs, but they were more or less doing the exact same things that they were doing before she left. That in and of itself, made me glad to be where I am, regardless how hard things can be and how much I miss a non-fat, extra-foam, toffee-nut latte from Starbucks with a blueberry muffin. That latte and muffin will still be there (hopefully) in two years, but I can't just live in Cameroon when I want.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Globalisation 3.0

What do you do when you are having a bad day? Some go out partying, drink their souls away. Some sits at home with a tub of ice cream and watches sappy movies all day. Me? I came home and watched an hour and 15 minutes of MIT lecture that I had downloaded from ITunes University a while ago, where Thomas Friedman gave a lecture about his book, The World is Flat.

I am ashamed to admit that I have yet read the book, though it is currently sitting on my bookshelf and I hope to get to it within the next few days. I feel where I am right now helped me to relate and understand this lecture much more than I would have just 4 months ago as an undergraduate student in St. Louis. Friedman talked about the three period of globalization and that we are now in Globalization 3.0 where the individuals, not countries or companies, are becoming global. I very much relate to that just by my own experiences; places I’ve visited, people I’ve encountered, etc.

Friedman went on talking about the 10 flatteners that cause the world to be flat; those include outsourcing, insourcing, steroids (wireless technology), offshoring, supply chaining, etc. He talked about the phenomenon during the Dot.com era, when Lucent, Nortel and other companies that pumped in over $1 trillion investment in fiber optic cable, which are “the gift that keeps on giving”. I especially love when he said his parents always told him, “finish your dinner, kids in China and India are starving” but now he tells his kids, “finish your homework, kids in China and India are starving for your jobs.”

All the while, I found how ironic and how little any of this “flatness” related to my life here in Cameroon, West Africa. Just before I got home, I was visiting another GIC in the neighboring village. Visiting GICs essentially consists of going into the fields and make sure the farmers who are requesting credits from the bank have a legit crop-earning farm. Going on these trips always feels like some sort of extreme-sport. Today, I didn’t know we were going on a visit, so I wore a skirt, totally ill prepared. I side-saddled on a moto as we were going up and down these ridiculous bumpy and narrow hills where grass and other plants were hitting my legs. We got to this house that sits on top of the hill after winding through many narrow paths. The house is made of brick and mud and hasn’t been cemented. There were corn on the ground and kids around the age of 3 or 4 running around, along with the chickens. There were faint smells of wood burning coming from the kitchen. I was amazed both at the simplicity of this house/family and the breathtaking view just behind the house.

Coming back from that, listening to a lecture about globalization and fiber optic cables, I wondered, why didn’t those cables made its way here? The question of how Africa plays into this picture of the flatten world was on my mind during the entire lecture. Thankfully, during the Q&A session, one of the MIT students asked just that. While there is no crazy information sharing, wireless technology, etc, globalization does exist here in Africa. All the motos that I ride everyday are Chinese. I’ve yet seen a non-Chinese moto. The fridge I bought last week is Chinese. All the cars that exist here in Cameroon are imported. In fact, most things here are imported because they don’t manufacture anything here. Globalization is happening even in Africa, just not to the extent that it is occurring elsewhere in the world. Friedman talked about an interesting point regarding anti-poverty. He said that governance is the key to any anti-poverty programs, which makes me think about how difficult my job is as a development worker in a country that is so corrupted. I had a discussion with someone once about why Cameroon doesn’t manufacture its own things. The answer given was that the government gives investors so much trouble about opening up factories that it’s just easier to import. It’s hard to carry out bottom-up approach work when the problem is top-down.

The world may be flat in most part of this planet, but it is not quite as flat here in Cameroon and I imagine other African nations as well. The rapid flatness of the world elsewhere, I think, is brining greater disparity between developing nations like Cameroon and the developed world. Take volunteers for example, I grew up in the world of technology. I barely remember life before the Internet, before having all the information in the world at my fingertip. And I have no idea what it’s like to never meet a person of different ethnic or national origin than me. I come here and I am supposed to transfer these so called skills of mine to people here. But my skills really consist of going to Google and look things up when I don’t know something. My SKILLS are the ability to look things up on Google, on Wikipedia, and the World Wide Web. How in the world am I supposed to transfer that when people barely have electricity, much less a computer or even Internet? I would imagine it’s slightly easier for volunteers to relate even just 10 years ago, where Internet and information sharing was not an integral part of life.

For example, I want to start a library club, but I honestly can’t tell you exactly how a library runs before the age of computer. I think it involves cards and stamps? I just remember looking things up on the library intra-web when I need a book or article. The disconnect is much greater and more rapid as the developed world gets more flattened and the rest not. I am pretty sure the family I visited today is still in Globalization 1.0, where the country is trading with other countries, but they as a family is not even slightly affected by the flat world out there.

Existential Crisis

Recently, I went through old journal entries to recall my thoughts and feelings before coming into the Peace Corps. I had repeatedly worried that I would wake up one day in July and ask myself just exactly what the heck I am doing in Africa. That day never came, at least not until today, nearly middle of October.

I’ve been hanging out with the two French volunteers and their Cameroonian friends quite a bit recently. They’ve become my new support network. And then it daunt on me today. In a few months, they will be gone, and I am left alone and will need to start over and build a new network of support. In the past few months, life has been nonstop excitement with meeting new people, experiencing new things, and living each day not knowing what’ll happen. While the unknown is exciting, and I’ve become quite accustom to dealing with rapid changes, I also see all these to be horribly exhausting in a few months’ time.

Thoughts as such tend to have a sort of domino effect. I worry about having to make new friends and build new support, and then I start to worry about what if I can’t make any Cameroonian friends whom can understand me. Let’s face it, the culture difference is so vast that even the Frenchies and I have conversations about the “great mystery of Cameroonians” that we’ll never understand. Then I worry what if my French never improve to the standards that I hope. To be honest, I may be holding my standards a bit too high. It’s probably unrealistic to hope that I will be able to speak French the way I speak English. In relation to language, I worry about if I’ll ever be able to get real projects off the ground. I flip through my toolkit everyday that encloses a great deal of information, but most of them involve being able to speak French rather well.

Time passes quickly. It’s already middle of October. What if I wave through the next two years as I did the past few months? What will I tell people in my next job interview just exactly what I did for two years in Cameroon? These concerns may be premature, but they are very real. No two Peace Corps experiences are the same. That’s marvelous, but also frightening. I am beginning to feel that lost sense of direction. I don’t have a syllabus to follow. I can sit in my house all day and read English novels, eat American food and listen to western music without stepping into reality, and no one would say a thing. It’s liberating, and scary.

I live amidst such dichotomy. On the one hand, I absolutely love the freedom to enjoy life as I please; but on the other, my workaholic nature is driving me up the wall. Yesterday, Juliete said, “you need to learn to do nothing, like me.” That’s when I realize where all the antsy feelings are stemming from. I can’t just “do nothing”. I’ve been running everyday, baking, cooking, cleaning, reading, etc. But I still feel restless. Then I realized that all these things that I do to fill up my time were considered “time fillers” in my life in the US. I did all those things when I wanted to procrastinate from real work. I cooked and went to the gym so I could delay an hour at the library. I did laundry so I could put off figuring out the capital structure of a firm or learning the Pigovian theory. But now, time fillers have become my life; I have no substantial work to speak of. And it is weird.

I am in no means regretting or think this is a colossal mistake. I just need to find balance and well, chill out. Two years is a long time; but it’s not. I only have 22 months left. That’s just a little over 5 times what I’ve done. Again, that contrast between having too much time to do nothing and not having enough to get work done is causing substantial stress. And thus, begins my quarter-life crisis (3 years too early).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Efficiency? Quoi?

Time flies when you are having fun! Can’t believe it’s already October! I continue to love my village, meeting new people every day, getting wonderful support from my Chinese and French friends, meanwhile learning to tame my temper with quirky Cameroonian behaviors.

The latest of my bad temper towards Cameroonians occurred a few days ago when I was at the bank attempting to withdraw cash. I don’t recall the last time I had put so much energy into getting $80 out of my checking account. Usually, it doesn’t ever phase me to drive-thru the ATM and withdraw the money with a nice little plastic VISA check card. The whole process takes 5 minutes and I do it on my way to things. Here though, taking $80 out took up my entire day.

I got to the bank at 2pm and it closes at 3. I though, an hour is plenty of time even if there is a line – WRONG. I got there and there was a line probably 15 people deep, which, in US standards, would still move relatively fast. However, not only is there only one cashier working, the system of “standing-in-line” apparently works very differently. I was not informed that it is okay to leave the line for 20 minutes or even longer, and then can still come back and reclaim your spot. The line was moving slow as it was, and at 2:45, at least 5 people somehow came in various spots of the line in front of me. At this point, I attempted to argue with guy who came right in front of me to “reclaim his spot”. Then I realize it’s useless to explain logic and try to correct this social norm. Instead, I turned around, outraged, and left the bank.

When there is a roomful of Cameroonians, it’s not too difficult to draw attention when the only white girl (I know I am Asian, but they think I am white) gets mad and leaves. I get a call 5 minutes later from a bank employee whom had opened my account for me (one that took 3 hours). He said to come back in the morning and go see him. I did just that, and this time, I got my money in 15 minutes. The guy filled out a form and then took me down to the vault and I got my money, just like that. I am pretty sure this smooth process occurred because a.) I am white/Asian, b.) I am with Peace Corps and they get plenty of PCVs who bank there and c.) I am American. While it was great for me that I cut through at least 30 people and got my money, it made me realized just how much the phrase “life is unfair” means in this country. It’s a sad reality.

My frustrations with Cameroonian ways of things usually seize to exist when I return to my village. Last night, I held a multi-national fête at my house. My French friends had found someone who will be gardening for me. So we decided to invite them for BBQ. At the party, there were 3 Cameroonians, 2 Americans, and 3 French. Good times. Cameroonians love to dance and will dance to any upbeat music. When you are with Cameroonians, there is no need for a dance club; my living room is a dance club!

Other great things about Cameroonians is that while they love to ask you if you’ve kept something for them from your trip, even if it’s to the provincial capital, they also love to share. Immanuel, the teacher who invited me to the ceremony a few weeks ago, stopped by my house yesterday and gave me a big bag of yam and prunes, just because.

In other news, my house is slowly turning into posh corps. This past week, I made several major purchases, including a HP printer! I am tired of sacrificing the superb designs/fonts of my Mac when printing out flyers or other materials on an old PC computer. This little dandy printer should increase my efficiency as a volunteer! While a printer is somewhat legit, the fridge, blender and coffee maker were definite luxury purchases. I bought a small fridge that’s much similar to the fridge I had in college, maybe slightly larger. When I fridge shopped in college, I simply went to Target, put one in the shopping cart, paid with my credit card, wheeled it to my car, loaded in the trunk, and went home. Here, I walked through a street that sells appliances. Open and check out various fridges, then haggle for the prices. When I finally found one that’s new and decently priced, I then had to plug it in, try it out first in the store. Then, I paid for the fridge, hired a guy who would wheeled the fridge to my Chinese friend’s house, and then had someone drive it to my village. Seriously? Seriously.


Getting used to life here is a process. Just when I feel like this life seems to be very comfortable as though I’ve been living it all along, things happen that are so foreign remind me that I am indeed new to this life. I may go through this next two years and still at the end of it find things that knock the wind out of me with its foreigness. On the other hand, there are definite perks about this life. Today, I sat in my living room and listened to an entire Beethoven sonata, with all of the movements. During this half an hour, I listened without distraction; I listened intently thinking of all the musical qualities I onced learned in music theory classes. The only other thing I was doing besides listening was drinking tea. I don't recall the last time I had the luxury of doing that. If I did, it was probably either high school or freshman year of college when I was listening so I could play better. Life here allows me to indulge such simple life pleasures.