Friday, May 29, 2009

Thoughts After 48hrs of Plane Ride

Time continues to fly by. My 3 weeks of vacation came swiftly to an end. For the first time in a month, I am sitting in complete solitude, reflecting upon the events of the past few weeks. I am back in Cameroon, a place that felt like a distant dream while I was on vacation. Now, it's my vacation that feels like a surreal happening. Below are some of my thoughts and observations from these past two weeks, traversing half way across the world.
  • When I landed in Hong Kong to take the connecting flight to Taipei, I was overwhelmed with all the Taiwanese people. It's been years since I've been around this many Taiwanese, and there are certain nuances of this culture that I had to readjust. They were loud; within 5 minutes of sitting next to a tour group, I knew exactly who bought what for whom. However, there is a very comforting familiarity listening to Taiwanese being spoken among the women and the Chinese with a Taiwanese accent. Also, Chinese/Taiwanese people are so scared of the Swine Flu. I heard it on the news a lot, but I saw no signs of face mask until in Hong Kong. It was almost funny how many people were wearing it, and not just the passengers, but also flight attendants. When I landed in Taipei, even the people working customs were wearing it. I suppose they are scared by the scar left by SARS a few years ago.

  • Since we have families all over the island of Taiwan, each year during our childhood, we had to do a tour of Taiwan over Chinese New Year. And now, each time we come back for a visit, the same process takes place. For two weeks, we visited 5 cities and made our best attempt to see all the families and family friends. The Chinese culture is all about taking your guests our to dinner when they are in town for a visit. So, for two weeks, our itinerary was, "who are we having lunch or dinner with today?" The feasting was non-stop. While the meals in restaurants are fantastic, my sister and I prefer the street food. So in between meals at the restaurant, we would find opportunities to run to the market and have snacks. The food is so cheap and so good; especially when thinking in US dollars. 10lbs. and two weeks later, I have to say the food scene in Taiwan is unlike anywhere else I've visited in the world thus far.

  • I found more difficulty to say goodbye to the families during this visit. My cousins' kids are so cute and I'm quite sad I can't see them more often. The next time I see them, they will be quite big, and it won't be the same. On the other spectrum, I wish I can visit my 91-year old grandmother more frequently. She is an amazing woman. At 91, still in great health. Her eyes are sharper than my parents. I showed her a group picture of me and fellow Peace Corps volunteers and she found me without using glasses. While my parents are discussing with my aunts and uncles about the meds they take for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc., the only meds my grandmother takes is some vitamins. Besides not able to hear very well and bad teeth that prevent her from eating everything, my grandmother still knows exactly what's going on with everyone and everything. Here's the kicker: she still runs her little grocery store. The store isn't profitable by any means, and her kids advise her to give it up. She said, "so I can sit in my chair, fall asleep all day and become dumb? no." Also, this 91-year-old lady is still trilingual. Grandma is Hakka and that's her mother tongue. But since she had Japanese education during the occupation, she speaks Japanese quite well. Later, because of business, she learned Taiwanese. Since my mother and us don't speak Hakka, we communicate with her in Taiwanese. At first we thought she had lost her Taiwanese, but within a day, she had it back. Also, my sister wrote some Japanese phrases she had learned in school to Grandma, and Grandma wrote in return "thank you" in Japanese. I hope I had inherited this superwoman gene and can live well into my 90's and capable of so much.

  • During this visit, I really noticed the power of family. I was amazed how easily the conversations flow with families that I haven't seen in 4 years and have had minimal contact. Families are like great friends. We can pick up things exactly where they had left off because of the blood connection, and the history of the past. I read somewhere once that traveling/moving abroad is a very selfish endeavor. You have this idea that people are staying the same living their "mundane" life while you are out there discovering the world. Yet the truth is, while we are out there, people are changing, kids are growing up. We miss out on a part of something. That's the tradeoff we must take as travelers. But in the end, it's still comforting to know that families are families; they are there in one form or another, no matter where you've been.

  • While it was good to visit the land where I grew up, I realize I'm quite far removed from this culture. For two weeks, people insulted me for being too dark or too big (both fat and too athletic). My sister said, "this is how they are all so skinny, because if you aren't, they tell it to your face without hesitating." Aside from standard of beauty, my values are now very different. My ideologies and values on life are shaped by my experiences, and suddenly, I felt that moving around the world has now made me not fit in - anywhere-. I suppose I just need to find another lost soul to wander the world together.

  • This trip also makes me realize that I enjoy luxury much more than ever. I see my two years in Africa purely as an experience, not a lifestyle that I can endure forever. I am willing to take luxury and the stupid problems that people have in modern life and trade the simple life with not much of anything, but also not much of any stupid problems. What can I say. I am simply not saintly enough to give up the material goods of everyday life to help people. I want my cake and eat it, too. I want to be able to have the luxury, and also have the means to help people. Is that bad? Thanks to a discount from a friend, I was able to stay at a really fancy hotel at the airport in Paris. I splurged a bit under the name of my "last night in civilization." And my god, I felt so at home. I like to think I am a girl who can rough it without running water, and having to crap in a hole, but also one that feels right at home with a down comforter bedding and a marble bathroom that has both a shower AND a bath tub.

  • When I got into Paris after Taiwan, the passport line was ridiculous at the Paris CDG airport. At one point, the airport authority came out and mobs of angry, impatient French were yelling at the authorities, causing quite a scene. I secretly laughed and thought that only if these people ever had to live in Cameroon, where waiting for something is half of anyone's life. Cameroon had certainly trained me well for such situations. The next day, when I was walking to the gate for my plane back to Cameroon, I heard some guy yelling loudly, and everyone was looking toward the direction of my gate. I approached and saw a Cameroonian guy yelling on top of his lung at someone about something, he didn't have a shirt on, and was being escorted out by airport police. I thought, "welcome back to Cameroon, and I haven't even boarded the plane."
So now that I am back, and recharged (I think). Bring on the adventures, Cameroon. I can take you for another year. Aucun problème.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Returning to the Motherland

After four years away from Taiwan, I returned to this homeland at last. This family reunion was quite international. I flew from Cameroon via Paris, my sister Sherry flew from Boston where she is going to school, and my parents came from St. Louis where they live. We all met up in the airport in Taipei. I was first to arrive, then few hours later my sister, and finally my parents. It's been nearly a year since I've seen my immediate family, making this meeting in Taipei extra special.

Once out of the airport, we took a car directly back to the city where I grew up – Taichung. Since we sold our old house to my cousin, we were able to go back to our childhood house for a few nights. Once dropping off our luggage at midnight, we headed down the street for some late night snack before going to bed. Late night snack in Taiwan is a legit meal of its own. And this very meal began my streak of stuffing my face all day long with amazingly good food. It is no longer about whether I am hungry but rather whether I can eat more without getting sick.

For the next few days, we stayed in Taichung. While my parents took care of some business, my sister and I roamed around the city. Since I left Taiwan when I was somewhat older, I still had rather clear memory of the roads. In fact, it's amazing how much I remember. I suppose you never quite forget where you grew up. Many things have changed from just four years ago, much less from the time I was a kid. Every inch of the road has been built up with high rises. The few block of rice field during my childhood has long been extinct.

Sherry and I traced the road to our old school and even climbed the overpass for old time's sake. For the most part, 80% of our time in Taiwan consist of eating. The food scene in Taiwan is just downright ridiculous; ridiculously awesome. I can't even describe it; you simply need to be there. For 3 US dollar, Sherry and I can both have a delicious meal. The choices are endless and for 24 hours a day, there are delicious food to be found.

The one thing I don't understand is how people are, for the most part, so freaking skinny here. The girls are all pale and fragile as if a strong wind will blow them away. Coming from Africa, I am super dark and athletic looking – the exact opposite of their standard of beauty. The last time I was in Taiwan, I had just finished freshman year in Uni. and naturally suffering from the Freshman 15 or thereabouts. People told me I was fat last time, and this time, after going through the “Africa Diet” I am now too dark and apparently still too big. People, give me a break. If I ever plan to settle in Asian, I have got to find myself a man before I return to this continent!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

American Girl in Paris – Part II

My first activity in civilization aside from my latte at Starbucks was a movie in a cinema. The documentary "Lets Make Money" featured quite a few scenes in West Africa and thus provided an interesting contrast and transition for me.

After the movie, Gary took me to Le Pain Quotidian for a very Frenchy lunch completed with salad, soup, sandwich, cheese plate and of course, a carafe of wine; and to top it off – dessert and espresso. I drank three coffee during my very first day in Paris not because I needed it, but because they are simply so delicious.

The walking tour of this romantic city began after lunch. I was glad Gary was there to be my tour guide since I was absolutely not in the mood to use a map to find my way around. A funny thing happened on the way to the métro. I was stopped by a camera crew from some people who was doing an interview on shoe fashion. Since I had no idea it'd be cold, I was sporting my Cameroonian sandal and apparently that was of interest. They asked me where I am from and why I was wearing the shoes, etc. It was really hilarious that I was getting on TV after being in Paris for less than 24 hours. I told them I just got in from the airport that morning and I had no idea it's this cold in Paris... Gary helped me out when my French was getting stuck et voilà, there is my 3 minutes of fame. I even signed a waiver and all!

We continued the stroll through Paris making our way to a great park in La Republique with an amazing view overseeing the city, then the Canal St. Martin that's featured in Amélie and of course along the River Seine. I'm quite lucky to have befriended this group of Frenchies and was able to experience Paris from a non-touristy perspective.

The next day I met up with Jerome, who is still a volunteer in Cameroon but also on vacation. Since he's also French and also had lived in Paris, I got another tour from a local. We had a lot of fun comparing life between Cameroon and France and how we will react after this grand vacation. I can already tell that after my time in Cameroon, finding people who can relate to this period of my life will be very important and perhaps challenging.

That evening, I experienced another side of Parisian culture. A football match was on - Barcelona vs. Chelsea. Sebastian and Aurelian - my hosts - had a little football gathering at the flat. I'm not a big football fan, but I am a fan of watching boys watching football. That, I tell you, is entertainment in and of itself. I've seen English football fans go mad, but seeing a bunch of French boys going nuts at the TV screen in French is a whole other hilarious story.

My layover in Paris was very low key. I didn't deviate from from where I was staying and mostly stayed within the 1st and 2nd arrondissement. Since I've been to Paris before and had done all that touristy stuff, I took it easy and did a lot of strolling around the streets and people watching. One afternoon I found a delightful café in some little alley. Don't ask me where it is because there is no way I can relocate it. It was perfect - quiet and charming. Some nice jazz music were playing and just one old couple eating their light lunch. I found a perfect place by the big open doorway for people watching. Then the lovely middle-age lady owner came and suggested a refreshing salad combine with some cheese and deli. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay with it. For the next 4 hours, I spent reading my Vogue, eating my cheese, drinking my wine and watching people coming and going. Rambunctious school ages boys would walk by and say bon appetite to me. Cute old couples would walk by as if on their way for an afternoon drink. Perky young girls would excitedly saw friends on the street, give each other bisous and catch up a bit.

I do miss life in the modern world. Later in the day, I bought some ice cream and sat at Centre Pompidou for a while. It was a gorgeous late afternoon and lots of people about; perfect for people watching. After a while, an older age guy was asking me for the time, and then started talking to me, and then obviously hitting on me. After a while it did get annoying, but I still put up with him for a good 20 minutes, half an hour. After all, the dude did play me songs on the guitar for quite a while and was not being obnoxious asking me if I am married and telling me that he loves me.

I soaked up every bit of Paris that I could for the last few hours before I took the 21:30 RER back to the airport for my flight to Taiwan. I love Paris a lot more this second time around and the fact Parisians understood my French for the most part, and didn't look at me as if I came from Mars instilled quite a bit of confidence. I quite welcome the opportunity to spend some time in France after Cameroon to absorb more of the French culture while polishing up my French. We shall see how life unfolds and if such opportunities present themselves.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

American Girl in Paris – Part I

Due to flight schedule to reunite with my family in Taipei, I ended up with a three-day layover in Paris. I know, life is tough. Thanks to my French connection, Gary arranged for me to stay with his friends in the center of Paris for the two nights that I was passing through. When he said the center of Paris, I thought it would simply be Paris proper. But center is quite literally the center. His friends live in a fabulous top floor flat in the 1st arrondissement next to the métro station Les Halles.

Since the flight arrives at some absurd hour of 6am, I told Gary that I'll just find my own way into Paris and I'll call him to meet up when I arrive. I took my time going through customs, picking up the luggage, and finally bought a RER métro ticket into Paris. I was really nervous and greatly overwhelmed when I was on the train. While looking out of the window, I was unknowingly digging my nail into my hand with nervous force. I didn't realize I was doing this until I looked down on my hand and saw fingernail print all over the hand from my thumb.

The buildings overwhelmed me, all the white people, and my heart would jump a bit when a train would pass from the opposite direction – I forget it does that. When I got off the train, the busy Parisians were rushing to work. Since it's a busy station, people were coming and going from all directions. I was walking at turtle speed and with a big bag on the back, I was quite like a turtle. Relieved to get out of the busy station, and then I was hit by a bigger shock – the shopping mall connected to the station; shiny marble floors, merchandises galore, etc. Since the time was still early, there were only a few people meandering about the space.

After a few unsuccessful try of finding a reloadable SIM card for my phone, I saw a Starbucks and it was quite like seeing a refuge. I decided to go in and order my Grande Skim Caramel Macchiato before thinking of the next step. Once I sat down, with latte in hand, I decided to try calling from the Cameroonian MTN phone. Miraculously, it worked and Gary said he would come find me. Just as I was trying to digest all the strangeness, I get a call from a villager. I didn't answer at first out of sheer weirdness, but then he called again. I answered, and he wanted to drop off some proposal for me to look at, and I had to explain that I am in France but that he can drop it off at the Bank and I'll look at it upon my return. That few minutes of conversation took the idea strange and weird to a whole other level. The mixture of the two worlds was too much.

After meeting up with Gary for a while, we stepped out into the streets and I was faced with another shock. WHY IS IT SO COLD IN PARIS IN MAY?! I was absolutely not prepared and was sporting my sandal and light jacket. On top of the cold, I was still freaking out by the modern world. Thankfully Gary had also spent time in Cameroon and therefore did not look at me as though I was crazy when I commented on all the clean people and such! The transition into the "real world", albeit temporarily, was certainly made easier with someone who "gets it".

Airport Delight

A little over a week back in the "real world" and already, life in Cameroon feels like a dream, and not even a vivid one. This trip so far has helped me realize the incredible ability to compartmentalize life according to its experiences. This is not to say I did not experience all kinds of culture shock trotting the globe between three countries in less than one week.

I have a sick liking for airports and airplanes. World travelers are common in today's ever-shrinking world, but most people I know still hate the part of reaching the destination – the grueling process of getting to the airport, check-in, waiting, boarding, being squeezed in a tiny economy class seat, eating not-so-stellar food and breathing pressurized air for hours, etc. I, on the other hand, enjoy putting a different spin on the process.

When was standing in line to check in for my flight out of Cameroon, which by the way, I don't remember the last time I ever had to stand in line for check in, I almost cried from excitement. Boarding for a flight poses all sorts of interesting possibilities. I love people watching in an airport: the excited vacationer, the stressed business traveler, those excited to return to familiarity, and those nervous to embark upon new possibility.

Boarding the plane a week or so ago was my first flight in nearly one year. That's the longest consecutive period I had gone without flying since after high school. Having lived without high technology for so long, I was quite out of practice with airport procedures. Thankfully, the Yaoundé airport in Cameroon is not at all complicated. It was the only flight leaving the airport at the time of departure or thereabouts, thus posing no risk of going to the wrong place.
Once I got to my seat, many little things surprised me. The seats were so clean, and I get my very own. Then I remembered the wonder that is individual screens in front of the seats. But I was reminded being still kind of in Cameroon when the Air France magazine in the seat in front of me is old and the movies in the back did not correspond to the movies showing. :) However, minor detail and I was very okay with it. I must also note how wonderful that airplane meal tasted. I ate every block of that Camembert cheese and every bite of everything else included. I am also embarrassed to admit that I had a little trouble releasing the tray table… I forgot how it's done. Let's just say, all in all, I was way more villageoise than the Cameroonian gentleman sitting next to me.

Petit à petit, I was finding my way back into the real world.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

We Got French Books!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a lady who work with l'AESCO, a French NGO whom I've contacted about book donation for our library project. She said would be in Yaounde for a few days around the 15th and wanted to meet with me. Just so happen that I was suppose to attend a meeting in the Capital on the 15th with the umbrella organization of my microfinance institution. I wasn't going to attend because it was the last week of my business class, and I wanted to be there for the "graduation". But everything eventually worked out because my students protested to have the graduation moved when I announced my pending absense. So, I got to go to my meetings, and still take part in handing out the certificates for my students!

Anyway, back to the meeting. Monday of the week I was traveling to the Capital, I emailed the lady with my contact information and the exact time that I would be free. Still nothing. I became rather disappointed thinking perhaps the meeting won't take place after all. Then, 6:30am on the day of the meeting, I got a call from her. Still asleep, I jumped out of bed and took the call, mustering what French I could during my half asleep mode. She wanted to meet that day. So we arranged a time to meet at the University of Yaounde. I couldn't tell before if she is Cameroonian or French, but after a 6:30am call, it was clear - definitely a Cameroonian! It still amazes me that I get calls at 6am and they think it's perfectly normal, because they've already been up for at least an hour, if not more!

Siobhan, fellow volunteer working on the project, went to this meeting with me. We were perfectly content expecting it to last forever, as most Cameroonian meetings are. But, to our surprise, this lady had spent enough time in France and has adopted to the efficiency. We were in and out of the meeting in 15 minutes. We talked more about our project, who it will benefit, where it will be, etc. She asked some questions, took notes, and said, "we'll supply the books you need if you can find a way to pay for the transportation. We've stopped the book drive operation, but we are starting it back up for you. I am in the country until May 1st, and I will go back to France and discuss the details with the President. We'll be in contact." Just like that. Clear. Simple. To the point.

I was in shock leaving this meeting. This lady even drove me and Siobhan to where we were headed next, saving us a trip in the taxi. I could not believe how easy it was. And just like that, we have a promise of French book supplies for 25 village schools! Before I left the village for vacation, I had gone around to delivering project applications to most of the schools in my village and a few nearby. I've also selected the schools who will participate in the project, keep those who weren't selected on the backburner, in case we have more books than we can manage, then they'll benefit as well.

The project is growing with a snowball effect. For the first 8 months of my time in Cameroon, everything I did felt like pulling teeth. Everything took forever and never works. Suddenly, things are falling into places and working, and I can't be more satisfied!

Business Class Success!

My first series of business classes came and gone. Thus far, this marks the most concrete and rewarding project I have completed during my service. Since it was the first time for me, it was immensely helpful having Nura, who have taught the class many times, teaching it with me. She guided me through logistics and tips about managing the class.

I am very pleased with both the turnout of the students and the motivation demonstrated. We taught at the makeshift community center in town and students came from not only Batie, but also neighboring villages. Teaching the class has helped gaining confidence both in my French, and my ability to manage projects and working closely with villagers. Students are very patient with my French and would help me explain concepts or find the words I am searching for. After all, I am (supposedly) the expert in business knowledge, not French.

Through this class, I've also put on my business advising hat and giving some ideas about better improving business/projects, or even at the most basic level, determining whether an idea can work. I studied finance and economics in university, and when I left last May, I didn't think I would ever create financial models again on Excel for a very long time. But surprisingly, I found myself downloading the final exam from my financial modeling course and creating models for village entrepreneurs to determine their break-even points. Now, this may sound pretty simple, but quite the contrary. In school, no one taught me how to determine the expected growth rate or such other factors; they were always given! Also, MACRS depreciation schedule doesn't quite apply au village. Changes are thus adapted to these models. If nothing else, I am glad I am finding a way to apply knowledge from that very expensive and overpriced university education to help some villages in the middle of nowhere Africa.

Overall, quite the success with first series of business class and I look forward to hosting many more and seeking many more motivated individuals to work with!

PS-I shall post pictures in the near future on our "graduation". The students organize a little party with food and everything. Naturally, I had to get my picture taken with every single student and their certificates. They love those certificates!!

Les nouvelles du village

Hello world! Yes, I am still alive and sincere apologies for the lack of updates this past month. The first part of April was occupied with business classes and other projects; the past two weeks, I was in solitude because I had to give the ghetto charger back to Nura (see previous post) and therefore no working computer, thus disconnected from the world.

Life au village continues to treat me quite nicely, although two weeks of solitude made me rather stir crazy and I am glad to finally be in the capital, making my way slowly onto the long-awaited vacation. Last week, my mother reminded me to not go to the wrong airport when I'm in Paris boarding for my flight to Taipei. It occurred to me that it has been exactly four years since I began my travel frenzy; it all began the summer after freshman year in college when I spent the summer in Taiwan/France/Belgium.

If you don't know the infamous wrong-airport story, it goes something like this in summary: I let my dear friend Jess planned our extra stay in Europe after France. She took care of everything, including taking us to the wrong airport (Orly instead of Beauvais where Ryanair flies). Then told me the train to London is overnight and we wouldn't need to find a hostel for that night - we got to London at 10pm and right after the '05 bombing so the transport was chaos. Needless to say, it was quite an adventure, and made a great story to tell. Jess remains a dear friend of mine to this day, and we retell the story every chance we get.

I titled this blog Round II for I felt somehow this experience in the Peace Corps will connect me back to my past. This trip back to the motherland is unexpected, but I think will attribute to me making the linkage between my past, present, and future. Stay tuned to see how the connection unravels!