Tuesday, August 3, 2010

780 Days of Service

 I've been home only just a little over a week, and already, that life in Cameroon seems like a very long dream. It's surreal. The reverse culture shock has been interesting, but I am adapting quickly into the American way of life, albeit for a short period before I jet off to London for graduate school.

During my last week in village, I created a photo slide show in an attempt to capture various aspects of my life in Cameroon. 780 days of wonderful memories condensed into a short video. I put photos into chronological order and outfitted with music that remind me of various periods. I haven't watched the video since I made it several weeks ago, and last night, I watched it again for the first time, and couldn't be happier that I had spent the time to create this small piece of memento. Perhaps this means more to my friends who were there with me throughout the events, but for what it's worth this is what life was for me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I didn't create it to be any sort of promotional material, this is for me to remember that moment in time when I lived in Cameroon.

Cameroun, tu me manque trop déjà !

Friday, July 23, 2010

Peace Corps Loves

In less than 3 hours, I'll be on my way to the airport and begin the long journey back to the U.S.A.! This is the moment that I've waited for for two years, and as strange and sureal as it is, I am ready to begin the next chapter of my life!

This last week was wonderful. I spent it in Yaounde with the last group of the 2008-2010 SED/ED volunteers. As it stands, Laura and I are the last two still hanging around in the transit house. Last night, we said a big batch of goodbyes. The end of one's Peace Corps service is one of the strangest moments in life. It's incredibly difficult to describe, but I was glad to have 8 other wonderful loves here to experience the end of this journey.

David described our group as "never has there been a group of individuals assembled who has such insatiable appetite for enjoying themselves" during our final ceremony. And how right he was. We like to think of this group as a "work hard, party hard" group. Our APCD graciously said something nice about each one of us during this ceremony - the work we did in the community, the kind of volunteer we were, etc. All of us managed to do a good amount of work but also had a lot of fun! We later were presented with an amazing pin that we've all been waiting for: a pin that has the U.S. & Cameroonian flags and the Peace Corps logo.

Naturally, this week, we indulged in the finer things and frequented the fancy establishements in Yaounde to celebrate the end of our service. The indulgence included Happy Hour at the Hilton, lovely dinner at a fancy French restaurant, a visit to the artisanat market for last minute souvenirs, many many dance parties at the PC transit house and a big celebration for Ehab's birthday! This week happened to also be mid-service week for the volunteers who came a year after us, and we were able to celebrate this ending with some great people. Time spent with Americans during this last week has helped me get into the correct mindset for returning. Two years since I've been on the American soil. I think I'm in for a shock!

I'm scared, excited, sad, nervous and all sorts of other emotions. For the coming weeks and even months, I will likely have crazy anedotes on my readjusment to the US and the "real world" in general. This experience will quickly fade into a dream, but I'm glad this blog was here to capture moments of this dream. Thank you all for following my service these past two years. I will continue to document future adventures on Asian Polyglot and I welcome you to continue sharing your ideas and provide encouragement!

For now, I say: au revoir Cameroun! Hello U.S.A.!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Last Day au village

I woke up after a restful sleep around 8am, without an alarm, of course, and put on my running shoes for one last jog down my favorite path. The crisp air made for a comfortable jog. I took noticed of each house that I ran by and took in each rolling hill that I passed. I will unlikely to have a regular running path this beautiful for years to come. I waved at villagers along the way that I often see; likely the last time I would see those faces again.

Returned home and heated water in the small marmite for one final bucket bath in my latrine. I remember my very first bucket bath - in the same latrine, during site visit two years ago. Back then, I found it to be a treat but slightly awkward. But now, I am so at ease with this process; it had became a basic routine.

Billy, my neighbor boy, came by the house and hung out with me like he always does. But there was a hint of sadness. He helped me wash floors for the last time and counted the money he had earned and saved in his jar. "if it wasn't for you, this money would've been long gone," he said. He had learn the value of saving; that was my small contribution to his life.

I took down the mosquito net and pictures on the wall in my bedroom. Still felt like any other day, but today is the last day.

Headed into town to drop off some things my friend had bought from me, then stopped by the omelet shack for a sandwich. One littler girl was going on about the different patois that she speaks because her parents are from two different towns. She spoke in an adult manner and it made us laughed. I stopped by the phone credit lady to get some MTN credit for my phone before hopping on a moto to come home.

Billy came by again soon after I got home and we hung out more. He kept asking me what I was doing with different things that I am leaving behind, and I got slightly annoyed. He's still a kid after all. I gave him some cookies and he was happy. Liz came by in the afternoon to pick up my fridge with Emmanuel, my moto guy. We chatted. Eman tied the fridge on the back of his moto the way he used to tie my gas bottle. I told Eman to come back and pick me up after dropping Liz off in Baham.

Around 5pm, we went into town. I waved at kids at the water pump as I do every time I go by. I visited all the usual boutiques that I always visit, but this time, it was to say goodbye. An incredibly strange feeling. People you see everyday, and suddenly, I won't see them for a long long time, or ever. The goodbyes were strange, but weren't particularly sad, until I got to my bar with mama Chantal and my friends were there for one final drink.

I ordered one last poisson braisée with baton de manioc and drank a coke - a typical dinner that I've had numerous times. This was the last. My friends gathered and said great things about me and hope for wonderful things for my future. We made sure to exchange contact information one last time. As people started to leave, I could no longer pull myself together and was a teary mess. Mama Chantal put her arm around me and said to not cry, it's just parting, no one died. But to me, it feels that a part of me is being cut off. Everyone comforted me and said that I go back to school, and in the future, I'll come back. Of course I think that as well, but we all know that life isn't always that straight forward. Despite all my good intention to return, there is no guarantee.

Tomorrow, I will make the trip to Bafoussam as I've done many many times. Except this time, it's for good. Batié has became my home. Each time that I travel,  I am comforted to know that this is the place I can come home to. After each trip, despite of the length of the journey, I am always relieved to be on that moto ride from the carrefour to my house. But tomorrow, this home base will be there no more, and my life as a globetrotter continues.

Passing On the Torch

Tomorrow is my last full day in village. I am nervous and am not sure that I am ready to leave. Though I am realizing that perhaps one is never ready to leave a situation as this. I just simply gotta "pull the band-aid off" so to speak. So many emotions. It has been a wild ride. Try as I may, words are simply insufficient in describing how I feel. Last week, I hosted several volunteers who came through on site visit, one of them was my replacement. Showing them around made me see even more clearly the beauty of my village and life here in general.

I've been waiting to meet my replacement and show her around throughout the better part of my service. So much so that when the idea of canceling site visit for trainees was proposed at our Steering Committee meeting, I fought hard to keep it. I still so vividly remember my own site visit from two years ago and how helpful it was to get into the right mindset for the remaining time in training and have something to look forward to. The biggest problem I see in the work of Peace Corps volunteer is continuity, and I see site visits as an important element for information exchange.

It was exciting to speak in person with the person who will take over my projects, and integrate into a community that I've grown to love so much. Cristina was full of energy and I was excited to introduce her to everyone and show her the ropes. I didn't realize just how many people I know until Cristina was scribbling everything into a notepad, as to not forget. In answering all of her questions, I realized how much I've became an expert with life here in Cameroon. I left her a detailed post book full of tips. Everything from traveling, to shopping, getting water, bathing, using the latrine, finding help, where to buy certain things. All the basic things about life here needs an explanation. Nothing is simple and obvious. There is no one stop shopping and no directory of services. Other volunteers are your directory.

Besides the everyday stuff, I took Cristina to meet many of the work contacts that I've established over these past two years. Who you know always help facilitate things no matter where you are, but here in Cameroon, the difference can be night and day. We met with the mayor and he even took us to lunch. Cristina wanted a social media tutorial from me, so I gave her a quick lesson on blogging and twitter. Hopefully through these different mediums, I'll be able to see the progress of this community.

Even within the past two years, big improvements have already occurred, mostly thanks to the wonderful mayor. I didn't realized this until I was pointing out different things for Cristina. Things that exist now in Batié but didn't exist when I got here: a cyber café, more power lines in farther out neighborhoods, new cobbler at the carrefour, more stable power supply, better MTN réseau - I now can talk on the phone in the  comfort of my own bed and not have to run outside every time the phone rings. All the buildings got a fresh coat of paint this past year. There are now 3 places to make photocopies instead of one. Few more tailors have set up shot and also a new coiffeur at the small carrefour by my house.

Slowly, but surely. As they say in French "petite à petite" or in Pidgin, "small small catch monkey".

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sounds of Cameroon

The great thing about having to uproot your life every few years is that you take things for granted less, and the departure always make you take notice on insignificant details of daily life. The other day, my fellow PCVs were discussing how we wish we can record the sounds of this country. Here are some of mine:

    •    the neighbor's chickens that come to my back yard to eat scrap food
    •    old clunky cars and busses that struggle to make it up the hill
    •    the RFI (Radio France International) sound bite that announces time
    •    sound of Batié, pidgin, and Cameroonian English
    •    merchants yelling prices of different things in the market (cent-cent franc! deux-deux cent!)
    •    rain falling on my tin roof
    •    Nigerian music, specifically P-Square
    •    Cameroonian music of any kind
    •    Cameroonian sayings from Cameroonians: Ouais! tsk tsk. je dis que, tu m'as gardé quoi? patience, ma fille, etc.
    •    ringing tone from MTN when you call someone
    •    the general chaos that occur when many Cameroonians are in the same area
    •    sound of kids saying "bonjour, madame Wendy"

In other random reporting of things I will miss about Cameroon: bar shopping. In case you were wondering what are these big yellow slippers, they are my most prized bar shopping purchase. One Saturday afternoon, while sitting at our bar in Bafoussam, a guy walked buy with several pairs of shoes as they do. Those big yellow duck feet stood out and I immediately thought, "omg those are too funny, I must have them!" It all began as a joke, but now, I think these may come home to the US with me and become the mascot of my service!

Send Off

Few weeks ago, Antoine, a driver for the Peace Corps who happens to be the chief of my quartier threw me a going-away party at his house. True to Cameroonian form, I was unaware of the time and whether I was suppose to invite people myself until the day before the event. I was running all around town on that Friday prior, contacting all my friends and people whom I've worked with and informing them to come for my send off "tomorrow at 2pm". I received a lot of, "that's kind of a late notice, but I'll do my best". Usually, when you hear that in the US, that means, "um yeah, I won't be there". Since there were also lots of funérailles happening and various events on the same day, I was expecting for a small gathering with some villagers, instead, I was faced with a FÊTE!

People trickled in slowly. While not on time, the party was well on its way an hour in - this is amazing for a Cameroonian event. I think my friends have all been well-conditioned to my on-timeness. Those 100 CFA fine for tardiness is paying off!

The mayor and his secretary general presented me with three traditional kabbas. Antoine's family prepared a huge feast. My landlord showered the event with champagne. I was symbolically presented with a set of twins in hope that I will have lots of kids and return for a visit in the future. Friends came in from Yaoundé just for the party. People sang my praises for FIVE hours. If it wasn't for the sporadic jokes about me staying and never going back in between, I don't know how I would have held it together. All of my close friends from the village made it despite the crazy events that were occurring simultaneously that day in village.

I was really touched by the speeches that people gave. They made me realize that people do notice the work that I had done and are incredibly appreciative of it. The positive energy gave me hope again in development work and reassured my decision to pursue graduate studies in international development.

Later in the week, I was in Bafoussam and ran into one of my previous business students that no longer lives in village. I told him about my departure, and few days later, he phoned to tell me that he had left me a gift at the local bar. Today, I picked it up and it was a beautiful wood-carving hanging. As I was packing, gifts of appreciation from my time here filled my bag. They mean so much more to me than any souvenir that I could possibly purchase. I am going to miss this country despite its quirkiness, and there will always be a place in my heart for the village of Batié. I hope to do all that I can to pay a visit in 5 years and see how it has evolved.

The Extreme North

I'm in the process of making a slide show with pictures from my two years in Cameroon. I realized I had never written about my trip to the Extreme North. While looking at these pictures, I was amazed at how surreal that trip now feels. It was nearly a year and a half ago, and the vast differences between the North and the South makes that voyage seems like a dream. Soon, Cameroon as a whole will feel like a dream. In some ways, this is one of the many side effects of globalisation. While it's now much easier to travel and have wild experiences, identity crisis becomes a more common issue among globetrotters.

Anyway, Juliette and I explored the Extreme North region of Cameroon, while cliché, it was an experience of a lifetime. We took Camrail, the one and only rail company run by the government, from Yaoundé to Ngoundéré. I was rather surprised by the comfort of the sleeping carts. Not much different than many of the euro rail. We were quite lucky that the train operation was going through some reform and it was running surprisingly on time. The 12-hour journey went by without much of a problem. Although from what I've heard, that luck is rare.

The train pulled into Ngoundere just before 7am and we bought a bus ticket heading to Maroua right there at the station. Julitte and I were both amazed at the efficient system that the people in the North have. Instead of buying the ticket and running onto the bus to hoard a sit and be hot for the next hour or two, or however long the wait may be. The Northerners actually buy a ticket, and sit in the waiting area. The ticket issuer holds all the ticket until the bus is full and then call the name out in order of purchase. It makes so much sense and makes the wait much nicer. I experienced this system being implemented in Yaoundé once, and it was a complete chaos.

8-hour bus ride later, we arrived at Maroua. A great muslim city that is so clean and no one déranges. No adults yelling at me only little kids calling out "nasara" (white man in fulfuldé). We visited the main market, a leather-producing place, and several artisan places.

Once rejuvenated in the city, we headed to Rumsiki - a pretty famous tourist attract north of Maroua. The only way to get to this village is by taking a two-hour moto ride. I love taking motos, so was excited by this prospect. That ride, I kid you not, made me feel like I was in one of those National Geographic films. Once arrived to village, we decided to go on a hike. One elderly man from our hotel offered to take us as a guide. Juliette turned to me and said, "this old guy wants to take us on a 4-hour hike?" Well, the joke was on us. We walked down the giant valley and then climbed back. I was in my hiking shoes and felt as if I was DYING. This old dude was walking around in his flip flop - no water, nothing.

After the hike and a nice shower, our guide took us to see the crab sorcerer - a traditional fortune teller. According to this crab sorcerer, he told me that I will have 4 children, and marry a rich man that my mother would not approve of. My husband supposedly will want me to have babies all day but I will put my foot down at 4. I paid 1,000 CFA ($2) for this information. We shall return to this in the future to verify its validity.

Our next destination was Maga & Pouce. These two small villages were pretty off the beaten paths. When Ju & I arrived to Maga, we weren't even really sure that there would be a hotel/guesthouse. Luckily, there was one! The next day, we headed out on a pirogue, a motorized wooden canoe, for a 4-hour ride to see hippos! In retrospective, that was probably a really stupid idea. But it was AMAZING. We saw these huts in the middle of nowhere that people live in. Our guide told us those are likely lived by families of fishermen. We did eventually see hippos, but didn't get too close, for obvious reasons.

After being baked under the sun, we headed to the nearby village of Pouce for its market day. It was a huge market with people from all the surrounding villages. We saw many of the Bororo people who are the nomads in this region of Africa. People rode donkeys. The culture was so immensely different from anything I've ever experienced. I was touched.

Seeing pictures of these voyages remind me of why I am a traveler. I am, after all, a small, insignificant individual in this universe. Seeing other cultures and ways of life give the kind of perspective that I think many need in modern societies, especially those who are often surround by stress!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The End Is Near

Earlier this evening, I was working on my post book for my replacement. This is a document filled with a wealth of information about my village and life in general in Cameroon - anything from the minor kinks of the house to where to buy grocery, my favorite bar lady, moto guy, etc. Life here isn't so obvious, and it has taken me two years to really get the hang of it. As I was compiling this document, I became really, really sad - tears falling sad.

I am 23 years old, turning 24 in a few months. By the time I leave Cameroon, I will have spent approximately 10% of my life here. That's not a small amount. These past two years were the longest time I have resided in one single place since high school. This wasn't just some adventure to a foreign land for a few months, this was my life, for two years.

The key element that makes this ending so much more difficult than the rest is that I likely won't be returning to this country for many many years. Most people in this village can barely operate a cell phone. Needless to say, I won't be emailing with them or skype-ing any time soon, or ever. The neighbor kids have been coming by everyday and asking how much longer I will be here. They have a sad look on their faces and it breaks my heart.

The sadness is two-fold. Besides my village, wonderful people have came into my life - other Peace Corps volunteers, French volunteers, my Chinese family that have so graciously welcomed me into their home. While keeping in touch with these people will be easier than villagers, when I leave Cameroon, this chapter of our friendship will also end. We will go on our separate ways, and life will never again be the same.

This morning, Emmanuel, my moto guy and I got trapped by the rain at the lycée. It reminded me of last year when the exact same thing happened. And like the last time, I also forgot a book (I never learn my lesson). We were trapped there for over an hour, but this time, I embraced it. This would likely be the last time I will ever be trapped somewhere and unable to leave due to rain.

My life has been changed in a deep and profound way from these two years. I see humanity differently, appreciate everyday for simply being alive, and thankful for the simple things in life. When things get rough in the future, I hope to always think back on this period of my life when I was happy when I get the chance to take a hot shower or even just having running water. The excitement and relief when power finally comes back on after a long outage.

Life is short. Time flies. May events in life continue to shake and change me as they did these past two years.

World Cup Frenzy

This year is the first time that an Africa nation has hosted the world cup. I am sure you are all well aware of the significance. Being in Cameroon, one of the 7 African countries that had advanced to the World Cup, is quite exciting. I have never watched so many World Cup games as I am right now. I'm sure the fact I don't have much on my schedule helps.

Unfortunately, Cameroon didn't do so hot and was eliminated from the tournament just after the second game. Nevertheless, the two games they did play, I watched them at bars with fellow volunteers and it was quite the event. Sure there are sports bars in the US, but there is something quite intoxicating about watching the games at semi outdoor bars on not so fancy televisions. People crowding around, sitting in plastic chairs or benches. When the game begins, the streets were completely quiet. Everyone stopped what they were doing and crowded around the nearest television to observe the game.

MTN is the the official sponsor of this year's world cup, and they happen to be my cell phone provider here in Cameroon. During the Cameroon - Denmark game, MTN had promotional activities in major cities where big projectors were set up in the streets, they gave out noise makers, wrist and head bends, etc. The pre-game festivity was much like any tailgate in the US, but the national unity and energy level was outstanding. Just few minutes into the game, Cameroon scored its first goal and the excitement was indescribable. You really just needed to be here. I've never seen anything quite like it!

Watching the U.S. games here is equally exciting. For the U.S.-England game, we brought the U.S. flag to the bar. Cameroonians were rooting for us. The ambiance is so incredible! Although, I have a feeling people won't be cheering for the U.S. during tomorrow night's game of U.S. vs. Ghana. After all, Africans have to unite and support the last remaining African remaining team in the World Cup.

The World Cup, more than other sporting events, seem to have this unifying effect for the world. That feeling of togetherness is so contagious. After all, as they say in Cameroon: On est ensemble! (We are together)!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Realities of Development

Yesterday, a former student from my business class called and wanted to set up a meeting. I happily agreed, only to realize that he probably is trying to get me to do something. It's rare that people in this village are that motivated.

I was right. Him and another guy also from the business class wanted me to help them with a project. But by help, they mean, they want me to write their project proposal so they can get funding from the Italians, or some other European country.

Needless to say, I was annoyed. They took my business class months ago and during our 6-week long classes, they learned all the steps of writing a business plan and/or project proposal. Yet, they came to me with nothing written except for a few measly pages of information they scrambled together. They said, "we hired someone to help us but she's going on vacation. We thought we can sit down with you and do this." I said, "writing a project proposal isn't something you sit down and do within an hour. We had the course for 6 weeks for a reason." In the end. I told them I was sorry that I couldn't help them and explained that had already written a proposal, I could have given suggestions. But since nothing has been done, and my time is limited, that I was not able to offer help.

This, along with my library check ups this morning left me feel drained. Why do they think I am god and am here to solve all problems? Why do they never make any initiative and why do I feel like working with villagers in some ways is like babysitting? I gave them books. I gave them training on library management. Yet, unless there is a plan for someone to constantly go check up on them and bug them, then it's very likely that all will be for naut. I gave you the food and the spoon to eat it, do I really need to feed it to you, too?

Two years may feel like a long time for most of us in the fast-paced world. But here in a village of Cameroon, where everything takes F.O.R.E.V.E.R., two years is a very short time. It took me my entire service to get books here and to teach a few rounds of business classes. Despite our best efforts to drawn up follow-up plans and passing the projects to new volunteers, there is no guarantee that these Cameroonians will use the knowledge that were taught or resources given.

The problem, I think, is mentality. They look to foreigners as some sort of fix-all solution. Somehow, they think we have all the money, skills, and knowledge in the world to make their lives better. Kate once told a story that illustrates this. For two years, people always bugged her about teaching them how to use the computer and the Internet. Cameroonians who run cyber cafés could easily teach them, but they never think to ask them for help. In the same light, I attempted to train Cameroonians who can give the same business classes that I taught to others, but they tell me that people won't listen to them. The same information coming from a "white" person's mouth apparently is worth more. How will a country ever grow and develop if its people are constantly relying on "white" people and not themselves? Changing that mentality could be the key, but how to do that is the big question.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sandwich Art

We Peace Corps Volunteers get very creative in our leisure activities and are very easily amused people. Few weeks ago, David and Jim decided to make sandwiches. That sounds like a pretty ordinary activity, n'est-ce pas? mais non, not in Peace Corps land. We didn't just make sandwiches, we replicated Noah's Ark.

What is Noah's Ark, the sandwich? Well, it's a sandwich filled with all kinds of meat that we can think of. Basically, the definition of over-indulgence and simple ridiculousness.

We took a BIG baguette - the 500cfa worth from Casino, the fancy supermarket in Yaoundé. We cut it up in three and took the end piece, hollowed out the middle and begin the stuffing. First, cover the edges with guacamole, then filled the sandwich with the following: sauté eggs, onion and sausage, french fries, onion rings, slices of turkey meat, a chicken sandwich from the Kaelly Hotel (next to the PC house) and the Peace Corps Burger from Chez Francesco (that's David's invention - triple cheeseburger), and slices of pizza. After all that, layer on slices of cheddar cheese, send it to the oven for a quick toast, and you have yourself a sandwich.

You place all these ingredients in different places so that every bite is a surprise. It's epic. 

A sandwich inside of another sandwich

This is also what happens when you keep a bunch of twenty-something people with too much energy in a country where leisure activities are very limited. Just another one of many crazy and strange things we do here in the Peace Corps.

Traveling Blahs

Bientôt, I'll be in Cameroon for two years. I've seen and experienced so much over the past two years that it now takes a lot for me to freak out about something - mice, bugs, obnoxiousness, strange animals being held on the road for sale - you name it, I've probably seen it. The one thing, however, that still gets my blood pressure up through the roof is traveling in Cameroon. The bush taxi and bus rides somehow still make me want to punch people in the faces. What are the problems exactly? On a recent trip home from Yaoundé, I decided to document this.

Overcrowding: In Cameroon, the number of passengers is always the suggested number plus 1. A row for 4 people, there will be 5. That's not too much of a problem until when you get two or three largely built Bamiléké mamas that are twice as big as me in there. On top of that, when the weather is hot, everyone is sweating on top of each other. Imagine the comfort.

State of Vehicle: Being crowded in a plush vehicle may not be so bad, but when the buses or cars have been mended in all the ways imaginable, and the seats are paper thin, the metal bars are digging into whatever body part is now twisted to be in contact, having that one extra person makes all the difference. I have to give it to the Cameroonian mechanics though, they make the most impossible cars run.

Window Closing: I don't live in a very hot region of Cameroon and the weather for the most part are pretty mild. However, there are still hot days and usually when there are 8 people in a small car, the body heat increases the temperature. The same applies in all vehicles. The easiest way to resolve this problem is simply let the windows open in a moving vehicle. However, Cameroonians have some serious issue against opened windows. There have been times when a baby is dripping in sweat and the mother is wiping it off with cloth, yet the window is STILL closed. They tell me it's the dust. But that logic makes no sense on a paved road. 

The Medicine Man: On bigger buses, there are also men who are medicine sellers that are giving their speech about the miracle drugs that they are selling. This can go on forever - hours upon hours. Think infomercial, but forced upon you while you are sitting in the aforementioned conditions. I learned my lesson the hard way by sitting in the front of the bus once. Now I always sit toward the back of the bus, and when the medicine man starts yapping, I turn up the iPod and do my best to ignore it.

The Waiting: This, above all else, is what drives me mad every time. When you need to be somewhere at a certain time, this aspect of Cameroonian travel is extremely frustrating. With the exception of a few bus companies, most of the time, the system is "first come first serve" and "we go when it's full". If I need a car to Bafoussam from my village, I simply wait by the side of the road until a taxi comes by. If I'm lucky, there could be a taxi there already, but I have waited up to an hour for a taxi to come by. The trip to Bafoussam only takes 45 minutes. Longer travel works the same, you get to the bus station whenever and it's all luck. The bus leaves when there are enough passenger to fill all the seats - filled in their definition, meaning when all the rows of 4 people are filled with 5 passengers each. Depending on the time of the day and the day of the week, this can take HOURS. I'd love to see a study on the amount of time an average Cameroonian spend just waiting. What a waste of productivity.

 Important to always having reading materials to pass the waiting!

The Stopping:  Taxis stop often to let people off and picking people up, that's understandable. But when it's a bus full of people, and when nearing destination, everyone wants to get off at a place more convenient for them, you have the situation of the bus stopping every 5 minutes. Or, people want to stop to buy food, go to the bathroom, etc. All of these stops add to the travel time.

Every time the bus stops, vendors crowd to the window

For two years, I've told myself that at least traveling here is cheap. Yes, I may have to put up with these conditions, but an one-way ticket to Yaoundé, that's a 5 hour trip, only costs $5. This has eased putting up with Cameroonian travel until a few weeks ago when I was planning summer travel in the US with my sister. I was booking bus tickets with MegaBus and realized that if you book well in advance, it's possible to have tickets for $1 - that's 500 CFA!

This fact blew my mind. Yes, there are certain stipulations to this fare and tickets get more expensive as the time gets closer. However, the fact that this option is available at all is incredible. The three bus tickets I booked for my East Coast travel this summer didn't exceed $5 each and that guarantees me a bus that leaves on time, a whole seat to myself in an air-conditioned bus that won't stop all the time, and get this - Wifi Internet connection on the bus!!! This is blowing my mind and I am an American, imagine letting a Cameroonian experience this. Wild.

Monday, May 3, 2010

81 Days & Counting

It's been pretty quiet around here au village these days. With my projects mostly wrapped up and not enough time to really do much else, I am relishing in these last 81 days of freedom and embracing every bit of boredom that I may feel. Chances are, my life will not move at such a leisurely pace ever again until my retirement.

Today, I received a call from Sally, the lovely travel planner for Peace Corps, to confirm my flight home. This is real now. On July 24th, I will finally be back on American soil. Confirming the flight means this is real. I am finally going to leave Cameroon. That song lyric, "Leaving on the jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again." is going to become very real. My feelings are split between excitement and extreme freight. 

81 days is still a little over two months, and I am filling my days with books, French magazines, a lot of TV Series (been on a serious West Wing kick), some movies, etc. Of course in between, I go out and hang out with my bar lady, neighborhood kids, and just passing time with people in village. Even so, my mind is pretty bored and I'm getting antsy. I've thus taken up learning Spanish and Russian and try to read some economics textbooks in an attempt to prep for grad school. However, that has made me realize that my attention span is very low now and I'm looking at a very grueling few months of adjustment in the fall...

Finding a way to preserve the present moments and striking a balance between the antsy feelings and looming sadness that accompanies with the upcoming departure is not easy, but I'm trying to stay grounded through the last 81 days, not rushing through the experience and taking it in for all its worth.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Understanding Big Chairs

Laura:  What are we going to do when it's not socially acceptable to drink a cold Castel on the beach at 10 in the morning?

I have been back in village for a week now after the whirlwind of COS conference, and I have never missed Americans this much in my entire life. My fortunate circumstances that have allowed me to live in different places also at times gives me severe identity crisis. The first 12 years of my life, I was a Taiwanese. No doubt about it. The 6 years that followed, I successfully transformed myself into an American. I did such a stellar job that in college, my Asian friends were surprised when they found out I spoke fluent Chinese and grew up in Taiwan. Talk about being bien intégré. For the past 6 years, however, I've traveled. I've utilized that integration skills to put myself in the life of an English, a Cameroonian, a French. I avoided hanging out with Americans too much to get the full experience. However, my time with my fellow volunteers last week made me realize that I am in fact, American, and I miss them.

After our conference in Yaoundé, a group of us took vacation and went to Kribi, one of the popular beach towns. One evening, we were out in a very chic pizzeria that is designed for expats. The restaurant had these really wide and comfortable chairs. Being the luxury starved volunteers that we are, a conversation went on for a good 10-15 minutes about how big and comfortable those chairs were. Then it occurred to us that once back in the States, people will look at us strangely if we ever went on a rant about how big chairs are.

Several times throughout the week, we went dancing in clubs and had a fantastic time when American music came on. That kind of bond and excitement won't exist Stateside when all the music played are, well, American. I will miss a group of 15 Americans going bunkers on the dance floor to Lady Gaga's Bad Romance while Cameroonians are trying to figure out what is going on with us.

Our bus ride back from Kribi was bizarrely hot. All of us were packed in a bus like sardines, which is normal, but the humidity was unusually high that all of us were literally sweating bullets. I did not know my body was capable of sweating this way. We would all sit in the most relaxed manner possible, and there would be sweat dripping down our bodies as if someone was spreading water on us. It was pretty disgusting. To make matters worse, Cameroonians hate having wind blowing on them during bus rides, so even though we are all dying of heat, they would try to close the windows. You throw in the crying babies, or loud mamas who break out in songs because they wanted, then you have yourself a fantastic ride. I decided in that moment in time, amidst all the sweat, that I will NEED people in my life who can understand this.

During our COS conference, we had a RPCV panel who talked to us about life after the Peace Corps. The recurring theme was that people will not really be interested in your experience. They won't care. I got a glimpse of that this summer while I traveled back to Taiwan. I carried a photo album with me to show people my life here, and with few exceptions, most people really just aren't that interested. I am terrified of going back to a place where no one can understand the intense two years that I've just experienced. But when I looked around my beloved friends who were on that hot bus, I felt more at ease. At least, they will.

Over the week, there were several conversations among us discussing our plans for the summer and trying to find a way to meet up. We then pointed out how we are so eager to see each other Stateside even though we have all just spend two years together. We came to the conclusion that we need to talk to each other about the big chairs that we will be sitting in, and freak out about other minute details of American life together. I will miss these amazing people who are likely to be lifelong friends. Nothing bonds you more than being tossed in a strange place together for two years.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Beginning of an End

After the successful distribution of books, I headed to Yaoundé for Close-of-Service (COS) conference with my fellow '08-'10 SED/ED volunteers. To celebrate having endured Cameroon for nearly two years, Peace Corps put us up in a nice hotel in Yaoundé. While one of the nicest hotels in Cameroon, in comparison to the US standard, Mont Fébé is nothing but a high-end Holiday Inn. However, for us luxury-starved volunteers, any lodging equipped with hot shower, air-conditioning, swimming pool and food that includes chicken is five-star rating!

Our first night, we were invited to the Country Director's house for dinner. LaHoma is our newly-arrived country director who is incredibly smart and full of energy. I can already tell that Peace Corps Cameroon will go places under her leadership. The first night after we arrived to Cameroon as a group, we also were invited to the previous Country Director's house for dinner. That was back in June, 2008. Two years later, we are so much more comfortable with each other and it felt like a big family dinner. Also, as a group, this might have been the most clean we have all been. The girls all took the occasion to put on nice dresses, did our make up and hair. Boys were looking sharp, some even put on a suit! The whole process felt a bit like prom!

The week was filled with paperwork and explanation of the process to end our service. I received the COS date of July 23rd. It's later than I had hoped, but so many people were trying to Early COS that I simply didn't want to hassle to fight for an earlier date. Besides, I am not sure if I am really ready to leave any earlier. I have moved around the world a great deal, but this is the first time that I am truly sad about leaving a place. Likely because the chance of me ever returning is slim.

One of the events for the week included a trip to the US Embassy. Now, I worked at the US Embassy in London, and the Embassy in Yaoundé totally kicks London's butt. It is HUGE. I suppose land in Yaoundé is slightly cheaper than that of London. I was also extremely impressed with the selection of American food. We all gorged ourselves on burgers, chicken salad sandwich, tostata, meatball, philly cheese steak, etc. After the delicious meal, we had several talks from RPCVs about career option. One of them talked a great deal about a career in the Foreign Service, which piqued my interest a bit. Something I'll think about, but I'm not jumping up and down about that career just yet.

Oh, funny side note. The toilets in the Embassy had automatic flush, and it scared the crap out of me - not literally though. But seriously, I was amazed that there was even a clean toilet, and now one that flushes by itself?! Also, people pointed out those fancy shades on the big windows. Two kind of shades that you pull on depending on how much light you want in. WHAT? Most of us just have fabric nailed over our windows for curtains. If you are really lazy like me, you just let the sun shine as it pleases.

Anyway, the week was wonderful and it was so good to be with all of my PC friends who have become my family here over the past two years. Siobhan once described the relationship between Peace Corps volunteers as second cousins. We may not all know each other, but if we are traveling and need somewhere to stay, it's safe to say that there is another PCV who will lodge us and feed us. PCVs are second cousins to one another, but those who are in the same stage (training group) have status of first cousin or even immediate family. As I sat during the conference and looked at the faces around me, I was comforted to know that after this experience, I am just one video chat or a phone call away from one of my loves to reminiscent on details of life here.

PS - Lady Gaga's Bad Romance somehow turned into the theme song for our COS week. Also, we watched Trace TV around the clock and now I am playing Trace's top 15 on repeat! I am already having severe nostalgia over the week.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Celebration

After weeks of banging my head against a wall, cursing at inefficiency, and later moving 23,000 books around, we were able to see the appetizer portion of the fruits of our labor on Friday, March 19th when a small ceremony of book distribution took place in Bafoussam.

The Books For Cameroon team - Kate, Siobhan, Connie, Laura and myself - was present at once finally. Prior to this, we've been working largely through email or meeting separately. It was great to have all of us in one space and witnessing the books going out to recipients.

The ceremony took place at the conference hall in the governor's office building. Over 100 people were present - principals of schools, community leaders, traditional chiefs, journalists, government officials, etc. I was pleased with the turnout and was incredibly touched during the moment when everyone stood to sing the Cameroonian national anthem.

The event was short and sweet. I made a speech (in French!) on the project. Théo gave a speech on behalf of RIDEV. Peace Corps Staff who failed to inform us of the Embassy policy changed was also present and made a speech on behalf of Peace Corps. The Secretary-General made a speech on behalf of the Governor (after a million meetings, I still have no idea who this guy is). Representative from each establishment came forward and we ceremoniously gave them a book.

After the speeches, pictures were taken, food was served (can't have a ceremony without feeding people in the country!) and then finally, everyone made their way to the warehouse and books were distributed. I was incredibly impressed at this process; it was nearly flawless. Most schools and communities came with trucks to carry their books back. It was amazing to see principals and community leaders in suits carrying boxes of books on their head and loading them unto their trucks. Within two hours, we successfully distributed books for nearly all 35 establishments. I was extremely proud of Batié, where the mayor sent a dump truck to pick up ALL the books that were going to the village. The efficiency during this process was mind blowing compare to the ridiculousness we went through to get to that point.

The books are out, but the real work of following up with these libraries, training librarians and making sure these resources are putting to good use is just the beginning. I held a pre-training meeting a few days ago and today I made a tour of the 10 establishments around my village. I already see the obstacles with this part of work brewing. Development work is a process, and two years is only the beginning of it. As much as I hope that my replacement will continue with these follow-ups, there is no guarantee, and that, is truly unfortunate.

However, a good part of the books went to the Limbé City Library - a well established library in the anglophone region. Resource libraries are being established at RIDEV & RELUFA , so I know those books will go to good use. I suppose even only half of the 35 establishments end up function flawlessly, then our efforts aren't for nothing.

Finally, I wanted to give thanks to everyone who made this project possible. Kate has been my rock through this and carrying me through when I wanted to punch people in the faces, which was often. She is also the mastermind behind the library management training design that are taking place and most importantly, she kept me sane and conducted phone calls and made things work when I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. Today happens to be her birthday, and I want to just take this opportunity to acknowledge her amazing ways of putting up with me through this process!

Next, Théo, the incredible man who carries the hope in Cameroon, and also the guy that made it possible for our container to finally made its way out of customs. Théo's positive energy is what we all hope for in Cameroonians and there is nothing more encouraging to see people in this country taking measures to develop their own society. Bravo Théo!

Besides these two key figures, there are naturally a million people who were there for us in one way or another. (I feel like I am giving an Oscars acceptance speech right now) Thanks again for all who contributed to make the $11,500 fund raising possible, to MTN Foundation and Books For Africa for the financial support. Also thanks to volunteers who had came to help us sort books, those who had left us encouraging messages on our Facebook Page and much more.

The success of this project will take time to measure, but I am glad we are at this stage where we will be able to take such measurements!

PS-Apparently my interview with the journalists were aired on Canal 2 last night (twice!). Unfortunately, I don't have a TV at home to witness my 15 minutes of Cameroonian fame. Today, people in village talked about it, and they were proud of me. That was fun! :)