Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Something Positive

Okay, so I realize there have been a lot of negative energy lately. I'm hitting the 6-months post-graduation, post-vacation-mode, crisis. The 6 months before graduation went something like this: wake up at 7am, depending on the days, I would have classes until noon-ish, go to manage money for rich people or help StudioSTL win $35,000 or volunteer for refugee children in the city until around 8pm, then I take a dinner break, usually with friends to kill two birds with one stone, and then nurse myself at the library until I get kicked out at 2am. Go home, sleep, repeat. Fun times were had during the weekends, but most daylight hours were also at the library doing ridiculous things like work on my part of the $1 million dollar university endownment or reading law cases and solving it with strange economic theoroems.

I took finals, I graduatd, I hopped on a plane with the family for vacation, hopped back, watched my sister graduate, had a party, and within less than three weeks, I was off to Africa. The three months of training were structured, busy, fun, and mostly pressure-free. I needed that break. First three months at post were exciting, scary, and also fun with meeting new people and getting used to this exotic new place that's suppose to become my home over the next two years. Since I began college, I haven't done anything continuously for 6 months at a time, much less two years. I suppose you can say, I have a commitment issue. And this is my time to prove it wrong and/or correct that issue.

Now, I am off vacation mode and I feel like I need to go back to a life of ridiculous schedule. It doesn't seem right that my life is not run by caffeine and I wake up naturally everyday before my alarm goes off. I suppose over the years I have linked productivity with that hectic, frenzy state of being. What has modern life turned us into? How can I look my fellow simple-living villagers and think, "I must help you improve your life"? They are happy selling their bags of beans and whatnot. They don't need therapists or Xanax. The global financial crisis does not concern them. Why would I change things for them? Why would I want to help them make a sick sum of money so they can have their entire retirement tied up in future derivatives and other asset-backed securities that have failed in modern finance? The sad thing is, I think many people right now don't have a clue why their retirement portfolio is crashing, or why they can't find a job to save themselves. They say, "it's the financial crisis" but have no real understanding of what that means.

Sometimes I wonder if staying at the bottom tiers of Maslows's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid is really that terrible of a thing...

I am teaching a groups of 15 kids in my CM2 class the Star-Spangled Banner for the Bilingual Day where they compete with the other primary school in town. They have to do a song, a poem and a skit. I had a genius idea that they can sing the Cameroonian and US National Anthem in English. Talk about culture exchange. The kids are excited to be in this exclusive group and there is nothing funnier than hearing kids running around the village singing, "oh say can you see..." Originally, I was going to teach the same group of students an funny English poem about homework, but today a girl almost cried because I cut off the singing group at 15. Now, I've decided to pick 15 other kids to do the poem to be fair.

While there are a lot of little jerks in my classes, there are also some cute moments. The CM2 (6th grade) class has about 35 kids and CM1 (5th grade) has about 45. Yesterday some kid asked if Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of my country. So either he thought I'm French or he had no idea Obama is the American president now. It's also cute when the CM1 class asked me to teach them the National Athem that the kids from CM2 got to learn. I didn't have time, so instead all 45 of them sang the Cameroonian National Anthem for me, on top of their lungs, in French and English. I think I may start incorporate funny English songs in the classes. They love singing!

Other good moments include New Years day when I danced with villagers in fantastic Cameroonian pop music, where no one asked me to marry him or take him to America. Also, when I taught Victor and Jean-Paul the simple task of keeping a cash book, recording all their expenses to find out what this "coût divers" actually entail. They are whom I call the "mushroom guys" who are trying to expand the Chinese mushroom production here in village. The ground here is not particular great for agriculture since it's really sandy, but the climate would be great for growing this particular breed of Chinese mushroom. Which, in case you are ignorant like I was, they actually are grown inside, in a building...

Victor is also the presdient of the development team in my neighborhood. He's great to work with, but always running around managing different things. For New Years, he brought me a bottle of champagne, just to thank me for my work here. Also, every time I visit his farm, I get mushrooms! Other good moments include when I am in the carrefour doing my shopping and people say hello and chat a bit. The good and bad thing about my village is it's really spread out, so I see people just often enough where I only need to stop and chat for a few minutes and never need to actually sit down and "hang out". But that's also bad because I don't think I'll ever make any Cameroonian friends over the age of 10.

Okay, this post got a bit long. But yeah, life here is such. The good moments are really good, the bad ones REALLY bad. I know if I return to "real" life, I will miss having such constant intense emotions. Gotta keep things in perspective. One day at a time, I suppose.

P.S. - I love when long lost friends contact me to say they found my blog and it's interesting to them. Thank you! It makes me feel like I'm here for some reason. Goal 3 of the Peace Corps, if nothing else..

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sunday

Sometimes I am amazed at how my mood can change so rapidly within a single day. This particular Sunday was a perfect example. I woke up at 8am after 7 hours of perfect beauty sleep, in my quiet house, feeling fantastic. Computer works. Internet works. And plenty of yummy goodness from the US of A. Life was good. I am doing whatever on the computer, the radio rambling off world news. Neighbor kids come knocking on the door to fetch water. One even asks if he could deposit some of his own money in his envelope. I am promoting the value of saving, one envelope at a time.

The sun was out. I sat down on the stool and "did laundry". More like soaking my clothes in good-smelling detergent I had splurged on at the "white people store", and scrubbing off visible dirt. I finished laundry without knuckles bleeding and quite proud of myself for this genius way of "doing laundry". I tidied the house a bit until it was time to meet Juliette at the carrefour to go to Baham.

She needed to make copies and being Sunday, the one photocopy place in Batié was guaranteed to be closed. We thought we'd try the luck at Baham, and also make a trip out of it by eating some brochuettes (meat on a skewer) there. I decided to allot myself enough time to make the walk into town instead of taking a moto. I walked and glanced at the amazing view. I forget I really do live in a village, and a mountainous one at that. I am quite sure I will never again live in a place with this many trees. It's funérailles season (people here have funerals long after the deceases has passed. They save until they have money and then throw a big gigantic party) and Sundays are big for that. Lots of cars were driving through the usually empty dirt road. Every time one passes, I am covered with another coat of dust, thanks to the dry season. But no matter. I'm in a jolly good mood.

Once reached the carrefour, I waited for Ju a bit and then got into a taxi heading for Baham. We got there, and the place is so much more livelier, but infinitely more annoying than Batié. I did some shopping for the week, since the more activity also means more stuff to buy. No luck with the photocopy for Ju. We then sat to eat some brochettes and drink our coke. We head to the outdoor bar and there were lots of people drinking, talking loudly, etc. And that also means the minute we walk by, drunk guys are trying to get our attention. My jolly good mood was instantly out of the window. I sat down, some obnoxious drunk guy comes over and ask me something in an indecipherable voice, probably wants me to marry him. Ironic all the marriage proposals I get here, and when it is time for me to get married, watch I can't find anyone... Anyway, a few minutes later, this other guy walks by and says, "ni hao" (hello in Chinese) to me. I ignored him. Then he said, "tu est chinoise?" (are you Chinese?) I nodded. "Pourquoi tu ne comprend pas?" (then why don't you understand?) And I wanted to start cursing him out in Chinese. Then we can see who understands. He sits down and tells us he lived 6 months in Shanghai. He had studied and lived in Germany for a number of years. Ju even made fun of his German accent. He was asking us this and that and pointing at his green Mercedes to show he's a well-to-do guy. But in fact, I find it annoying that people like that instantly think that us "white people" should want to be his best friend because of it. Puh-lease. Later in the conversation, he asked me if there is some way for him to see me again. "rien," (no way) I said. "rien du tout?" (none at all?) "rien du tout," I said. Did he think I was going to give him my contact information and we'll drive off into the sunset in his Mercedes? Seriously.

Meanwhile, there is some other ridiculously drunk guy who is talking to me, but really more like talking to himself 20 feet away for the entire duration that we were at the bar. On the other side, two big mamas were yelling at each other and the guys were all yelling, too.

What time of the day do you think these events took place? Take a guess. Must be at least 5 or 6pm, right? WRONG. 14:00 - 2pm in the afternoon and all these people were plastered. And they wonder why Cameroon has a problem with alcohol...

On the taxi ride back, I was stuck in the front passenger seat with some big dude. The driver was trying to talk to me, asking me what I do. I said I work in Microfinance at the MC2 in Batié. "Oh, the house of money! You must have money then." "Not at all," I replied. Then he said, "oh yes, yes you do." I was not at all in the mood to give the, "I work for free for the good of you people" speech. And then he proceeds to hit on me and asking me if I'm married. Quite the common pattern: First assume I have money, then see if I'd marry him and share some of that money I supposedly have. And then take him to America. When we got to Batié, the driver guy then tried to rip me off and charge me more for the ride. Thankfully I had exact change and I gave him that and left. You've got to be kidding me!

The walk home calmed me, and I so needed it.

I realize that "white people" can be quite the fascination. I grew up in a place where "white people" are so amazing. In Taiwan, we love Americans and everything America. But we would never see an American and yell obnoxious thing. We'd never blatantly ask for money or things because there are "faces" to be saved. But here, the mentality is, "the worst that can happen is they say no". Juliette says in a way, it's simpler. They ask when they want something. Point blank. There is nothing hidden about it and no need to interpret things. Quite the stark opposite of the large part of the Chinese culture where no means yes and yes means no. "No, I can't take the gift" sometimes really means, "no, you gotta offer it to me three more times and then I can take it." "Yeah I ate already." means, "yeah, ask me three more times and then I can feel okay eating your food." Cultures are that way. No better, no worse. But when you aren't used to it, it will drive you UP THE WALL.

Thoughts

During the two-ish weeks that I was without a computer, I did a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, and a lot of being completely alone. It's quite refreshing but at the same time gave me a chance to re-evaluate my life here in Cameroon, and my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I had the chance to sit down and read through all the old issues of The Economist that Steve had generously sent me. There were two defining moments during these reads: one - I got way too overly excited at the mention of P/E ratios and evaluation of a firm's worth. Two - I realized I now live in a place where the Big Mac Index (a simplified way to gage purchasing power parity) doesn't even apply. There isn't a McDonald's in the entire country of Cameroon...

I realized how much I miss using my brain in an intellectual way. While life here is fill with its fair share of utter annoyance that requires problem-solving skills, it doesn't take much brain power for the most part. Speaking French takes the most brain power on any given day, but the simple daily conversations I have with the kids that stop by or the villagers on the streets don't exactly get the wheels turning. I downloaded French literature online. I listen to RFI around the clock. But language, at the end of the day, is just another way of saying something. Unless I start figuring out the Pareto optimality of something in French, my brain isn't being used the way I am used to. So, to improve this situation, I am researching iTunes University in French, and have offered to do some research assistant with one of my economics professor from here. I need to fill my brain with ridiculous things I'll never use, like I did for so many years of my life.

These self-improvement tricks are another way for me to feel some sort of self-worth. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer isn't quite like other job in the world. A fellow volunteer compares our experiences with life in college, but to me, it's rather apples and oranges. In college, the efforts put into your studies likely results a higher GPA and higher employability. Or so it was in my case. Now, since each volunteer's experience is vastly different, there is no real gage of success or failure. One can build a hospital and a school, and the other can sit around all day and "exchange cultures" with other Cameroonians. Both are fulfilling the goals of Peace Corps, so who is to say one is a more exemplary volunteer than the other? At the end of two years, both volunteers will have great stories at their respective interview. One will embellish on the triumphant road that was to build the school and hospital, the other will pick apart the numerous conversations and all the difficult culture situations encountered and discuss how they made for a better person. Both will impress future employers. So, what motivates me to get out there and begin projects with little to no guidance? I am not sure.

I never came into the Peace Corps service thinking I would make some monumental changes to the lives of people, and now after 7 months of living here, I really don't think that at all. As an enterprise development volunteer, I walk around seeing a million ways things can be run more efficiently and more profitable. But to achieve such things require a change in culture mentality and also a non-super-corrupted government. When people purposely make their storefront look dingy to avoid the taxman, there isn't only so much one can do to improve things.

This is not to say Peace Corps isn't a fantastic experience and one that I would not trade for the world. It's just one has to accept that this experience is more about the development of self than the development of the people and their lives. If one can get over that hurdle, then life is good. After all, when again in my life can I sit around all day and no one would say a thing to me? Striking that fine balance, is the challenge.

Computer Mayhem

So continuing from the previous entry, I will relate the process of getting my computer fixed here au Cameroun. In the US, this is what I would've done: Get in car. Drive to the Mall. Drop it off at the Apple Store Genius Bar. Get a latte at the Starbucks while waiting. Return to the Genius Bar. Drive home. Voilà. And below is what happened here (graphic flow-chart to come):

After working out the USPS Global Express Guarantee to Cameroon as mentioned in the previous entry, and realizing the Guarantee did not indeed guaranty delivery. I decided it was time to raise some hell at the Bafoussam post office.

Friday morning - post office package lady says trucks come in on Fridays, to come back on Monday.

Friday afternoon - went back to hound the post office. Package lady had gone and took the only existing key to the package room with her. I begged the other workers to call her. (When asked, what happens if the lady looses the key, the worker responded, "I guess we'd knock down the door and then get the lock changed." That makes all kinds of sense...) No luck - come back tomorrow, the worker says.

Saturday morning - went back to the office. They supposedly searched the place - nothing. I left them my phone number and said to call if they have something. Meanwhile, one guy said, "oh, if it's Express, it may be in the other office." The other one that isn't open on Saturdays and he failed to tell me about it yesterday when it was open.

Monday afternoon - I get a call that they have something for me. So I booked it from Batié to Bafoussam. As quickly as one can go in "public transport" here. I get to the package lady. She goes to search, comes back with a package my aunt had sent me. Not what I was looking for. Disappointed. Then I made the worker who told me about the "express office" to walk there with me. We get there, and finally my little Express Mail Extremely Urgent envelope was there. And it had been sitting there for five days. The guy even yelled at me for not having a "notice slip". I checked the freaking mailbox on Friday and there wasn't a freaking notice slip. Incompetency. But I got my mail at last, so I said nothing.

Late Monday afternoon - the real problem began when I attempted to fix the computer and it wouldn't work with the disc. I thought I would start crying. Thankfully, Thryn came to the rescue and said I can bring the computer over and she'll find a way.

Wednesday - brought the computer to Thryn and began the 12-hour long computer revival. First she booted the machine in Target mode - no go. Then she used DiskWarrior and it doesn't even see a hard drive. Then she had the genius idea that we'll just move my computer to an external hard drive. Found ways to reformat my hard drive so we can install Mac OS X on it. But then my optical drive was sketchy and won't install. Many ridiculous solution solving loops later, Gabe's 2nd generation firewire iPod saved the day and worked as an installer drive.

Thursday - after getting the Macbook to boot from my external, the next hurdle was getting Internet working. I was nervous about installing windows on my computer, because that crashed the thing last time. (I need Windows to run the Camtel Internet system. Not cool enough for Macs yet, I guess...) I worked out how to turn a Mac disk image for Windows XP Thryn had given me into a workable one. Then I researched and figured out how to work the hurdle so VMware would let me run windows from an external.

After three weeks and too many geeky moments later, I am back in business, and back in Posh Corps. ;)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Seriously? Seriously.

So, so much for posh corps. Finally, after two and a half years of possessing my beloved macbook, it crashed on me two weeks ago. And I think it's because I installed windows on it and maybe it had an allergic reaction. Anyhow, so since I had such a smooth run with my macbook, I failed to bring the installation CD. I don't think the problem is major, just need the disc to fix it. Lesson learned. I had a minor panic until I talked to my sister who said she'd send it to me via USPS Global Express Guarantee. The information online says 3-4 business days. I thought, "okay, I can handle this. I'll have it by the end of the week." Then when she actually went to the post office on Monday, they apparently could only guarantee delivery to my particular address in 8 business days. I then thought, "okay, I can deal with that. As long as it's guaranteed." 8 business days means the thing would've been here yesterday. I went to the post office - nothing. I had even befriended the ladies at the post office. They know me by name and said the truck comes in on Fridays and to return on Monday to check. Why I had such faith in the "guarantee", I don't know. Nothing is guaranteed in this place.

After my minor panic two weeks ago, I decided to embrace the solitude and returned to post. For the past 3 months or possibly longer, I have spent every single weekend, and some weekdays either hosting a dinner party, going to a dinner party, or traveling somewhere. It was time for some "wendy time". I started reading - one book after another, alternating between Chinese, English and French. For 72 hours, I did not leave my house - a self-imposed house arrest. It was also during this period when I realized just how difficult it is to be left alone in this village. Each night, I couldn't wait until the sun sets so the kids would stop coming by to bug me. I realized that I had somehow turned my house into a daycare/after-school activity center with kids coming by constantly either wanting to color, to "read" the magazines (look at the pictures), or to play ball, etc. Lately, I also started a savings club thing with the neighbor kids who come to fetch water for me willingly. I made an envelop for each of them and give them a small bit of change every time they get water for me. They have to keep the money in the envelope at my house, and in the future, they'll see how much they've saved. It's good for them and good for me, because now, I never have to worry about water supply. But I also have kids at my door every half an hour...

Life without computer was refreshing at first. I did a lot of reading, listened to a lot of low quality RFI (Radio France Internationl) through my cheap radio and music on iPod. Few days later, it was numbing. I still did my usual work and so forth. After a week, I started to get antsy. I started to have things I wanted to get done on the computer and research to do on the Internet. It was all bearable with a deadline in mind. But now, that deadline has vanished into mere nothingness, I am about to flip out. I suppose if I just remember that I am, afterall, a volunteer, and whatever pertinent work I have to get done can simply wait, then I would be okay. But, it's oh-so-difficult.

Living life here puts a new meaning on the phrase "everything happens for a reason." In the world where things can get done in a snap, where you are the boss of your own life, that phrase can seem a bit... philosophical and hippy-esque. But here, man is that phrase true. And it also keeps my sanity. If this was in the US, even small town US, I can either drive to an apple store, or have the disc UPS to me in a day. My computer would be fixed, et voila, life is back to normal. Here, there is absolutely not a single thing I can do except for WAIT. I just keep telling myself this is happening to me because I am to learned a lesson - always bring your installation CD -, to read more books, to have time to ponder on life, and to realize what life is like without computer, and how my fellow villagers are living without it. One life pondering thought leads to another, and before you know it I feel like some sort of zen-goddess crossing my legs and humming in peace.

But this whole thing could be a lot worse. Someone could've stolen my computer, and then I'd be really screwed. Or, I could not have had friends in Bafoussam who has a mailbox, and then it'd really take eternity for that disc to get to me. Or, all my electronics including speakers could be broken (like poor Juliette over there), and that'd really suck. This is merely some sort of twisted rite of passage where Juliette and Kate both went through it. When I started to freak out in the beginning, it was natural to them - it's merely my turn.

Let's just pray to all the gods in the world that I'll get that disc in the very near future and my computer will work with that disc. To all the PCVs who served in the age before computers, or who opted to not bring one: you have my utmost respect.