Archive for June, 2010

Elizabeth G. (Saturday, 2010 June 12)

June 17th, 2010

Something happened between Claude, who is my host brother and homeboy, and the host family of Elizabeth G. I keep trying to figure it out but every time I ask Claude, he gets loquacious in French that I do not understand about how there are always people who do not like you, and so on. I tried asking Elizabeth but I doubt she understands either, plus she flipped out at me today for talking to Claude about it and told me curtly that she’d appreciate it if I never mentioned it again. She wouldn’t explain why; she said something about keeping in mind potential rifts. She might mean rifts in the community where we’re staying, but one might guess that such a rift already exists.

I spent a minute or two trying to decide whether writing this counts as mentioning it. I’m pretty sure it does. But I’m still doing it because 1. I’m supposed to be learning about cultural norms here and nobody is willing to explain this to me and 2. I really goddamn hate it when someone tells me not to talk about something.

Too tired. That’s all for tonight.


Les jeunes delinquents (Friday, 2010 June 11)

June 17th, 2010

It’s already 10 and I still want to try to shower tonight, so I’ll try to make this quick.

Those of us in the Education program (this includes me) have language classes in a different building than the other program (which I will call Business [since the real name is too googleable]). Ours is in an actual school, in which the final days of class are taking place. The grass is a bit long. Today, during French class, kids came out with machetes and hacked at it. Now the grass is uneven, but I guess it’s cheaper than hiring a gardener.

We should be having classes in a classroom but that would be by the road, which is trafficked by motos and thus loud. Instead we moved the class under a tree. We bring a desk out each lesson and sit there, and afterwards bring it back. Today’s desk had written on it (in addition to the cross-cultural penises) a couple of drawings of faces, apparently conversing. I only copied the response:

"Shut your mouth
can’t you eat those
you fat lips"

(spoken by a face with a fat nose to a face with fat lips [which wanted to eat something]).

At one point in our lesson, something happened, and suddenly a flood of kids, some still carrying machetes, were running past us and shouting. Our trainer explained, "there is a fight". I guess a fight between two kids draws a crowd universally. "With the machetes?" "No, not with the machetes." They just happen to be carrying them, but they fight with their hands, which is laudable, I guess.

There is one very Cameroonian thing I’ve seen, which is to use a particular intonation of "voila" to mean "yes, you get it". You can even overhear it, but I hear it most when I’m trying to make sure I understand what someone has said. I’ve also come across the word "peuge", which is not actually a word but just how you say "peux-je" ("can I").

Something happened with my host brother Claude and Elizabeth G.’s host family, but I don’t have a clear read on it. Claude is my homeboy and he affects a tough-guy image, but he’s really pretty mild. I’m sure it will blow over.

Finally: it was cool today (my watch says 78 right now). I have resigned myself to never feeling clean from a bucket bath. I smell moldy all the time. And I still don’t quite accept that I am here — it seems like something that someone is telling someone else.


“Ça va aller” (Thursday, 2010 June 10)

June 17th, 2010

By far the most interesting thing to happen today was hearing a lecture by the medical officers about "common medical problems". Worms were covered, about which the medical manual says only: "There are many different types and too numerous to go into here." Predictably, we lost our shit. I think I could kind of handle Tumbo flies, or even a little malaria, but worms kind of wig me out.

Tonight it is a brisk 82 degrees Fahrenheit (according to my watch, which is probably a lying piece of shit). I managed to send an email or two at the "cybercafé". Pretty much everyone else there was another trainee. One even asked if there was wireless (and of course there was not). The idea of bringing my own computer and uploading prewritten blog entries is almost laughable [N.B. that is what I am doing now, at the same cybercafé].

OK, I just had an awesome experience. I heard a whining like an insect by my right ear, felt something tickling my neck, freaked out and grabbed it and flung it away from me. It was a lock of my hair, which made a fascinating "rip" noise but basically wasn’t impressed.

Those of you who were looking for differences between Cameroonian French and Parisian French, I pinned down a couple: it’s not possible to use "Salut" to close a conversation here [as it is elsewhere]. But it is possible to say "On se voit" (extremely roughly "be seeing you") or "On est ensemble" ("being together"). Instead of enunciating "maintenant" ("now") you can just say "mainant". Those looking for an example of Camfranglais may be interested in something someone said to Astride: "Je vais back. Je suis comeant." (The -ant is basically the French version of -ing.) Also, someone who drives a moto (the most common form of hired converance) is called a "taximan".

People say "Comment?" here as a short form of "Comment ça va?" ("how’s it going?"), which is pretty cool. But best of all is a phrase I used for the title of this post: "Ça va aller", which means "It’ll do" (literally: "It will go").

Speaking of Astride, I was afraid she, like most Cameroonians, didn’t believe in friendship acfross genders without romance, so I made sure to drop the G-bomb (or in French, perhaps the P-bomb) to maintain a distance. Sweet girl. Her and her mother made a go of cooking lunch for the trainees today. They charged 500 CFA (approx $1). Downtown, a meal may run you as much as 1400 CFA ($2.80). An hour at the cybercafe is 300 CFA, or 1000 CFA for 4 hours.

My host father said he would like to get my real father’s phone number and speak to him in his lumbering English. They are the same age. But: to call the US is 300 CFA a minute. I don’t think he’s serious, or at least not as serious as Astride when she wants me to teach her about webcams and emails.

Lastly: I took a bucket bath in the dark. Yesterday’s breakdown was overcome. I learned how to say "through" (à travers de). Jessica W.’s family is hosting a pig slaughter today. And we are still so, so tired.


Sale et saleté (Wednesday, 2010 June 9)

June 17th, 2010

Today I had my first bucket bath in Cameroon. I also learned how to do laundry and helped fetch water. This is all a big deal for me, because the rules for treatment and handling of water are pretty complicated. I thought my host family took all its water from the well, which means I would have to boil it before drinking, but because the water comes from le forage (in English you would probably call it a "pump" but the literal translation is "borehole"), it is only necessary to filter it (with my Organization-supplied filter). My host family also uses water from le forage for washing clothes or washing oneself [N.B. I later learned they use water from the well for washing themselves and laundry]. With all this concern about potability, it’s easy to fixate on the "cleanliness" of the water, or whether it is dirty (or "sale" en français). One of my colleagues mentioned that she would like her family/friends to visit, but how difficult it would be to try to be responsible for someone else the way the Organization has been responsible for our water, our immunizations, our immigration papers, and so on.

The bucket bath was about as difficult as I expected. Cold water is cold. On the other hand, it was the only time I haven’t felt sweaty here. I’ve had a little experience in this technique because I showered when the power was out last winter. I have a device to warm water (camper’s shower) but it says to wash with warm water and baking soda or something and not only do I not have baking soda, I think I left the instructions in the States. So, screw it. At least I’m clean-ish (although I am feeling an odd tingling in random parts of my body).

Washing clothes was pretty fun. I learned how to agitate, rinse, and wring out (en français: "presser". There’s no special word). Astride helped me by showing what to do. You have to leave to clothes in the soapy water for ten minutes or so until the saleté (dirtness, or dirt) leaves the clothes. I feel less like an idiot child each day. Tomorrow I need to check some emails etc. but maybe I will also learn to cook.

Last night I "ran out of French" after one glass of wine; tonight I went until 9:30ish, before asking Astride to translate some "important stuff" into French for me so I cold talk to my host mother without confusion. While writing this post, I accidentally used the word "bouiller" for the word "boil". I always knew French doesn’t co-exist with the other languages I’ve tried to learn, but it alarms me a bit that it’s beginning to displace my English.

Someone had a tiny breakdown today in our French class. She was having a bit of a problem with understanding what the instructor wanted, and the other people in the class weren’t, and she’d had a long day and was probably pretty hungry. We got over it pretty quickly, but after class, the instructor walked back with her alone. I hope she is OK. I had been showing off a little bit, and I feel a little guilty.

I’m feeling a lot better about my host family than I was last night. I got them to smile a bit, and Astride’s English is pretty good if I speak slowly and carefully. I kinda like these guys. Last night Mr. Alemi told me that one of his sons is studying pharmacology at Birmingham, and that he used to have a map of the States but that his kids lost it, which made him sad (please send help). I’m still a little uneasy with the father, who seems to make everyone else on edge, but all the kids and the mother are sweet.

Finally: I spent about an hour with my host family brokering a translation (we settled on "il y a des choses laquels parlent sans langage" for "there are some things that cross all languages"). I also learned the words "déranger" (bother/inconvenience), "medicament" (medecine/drugs), "cinture" (hanger), and "abîmer" (damage/spoil). Jacqueline says if I haven’t had culture shock yet, I’m probably fine. And the last pre-volunteer arrives tomorrow after her delay in the hospital.


“OK — who else is more than a little bit nervous right now?” (Tuesday, 2010 June 8)

June 17th, 2010

Nous sommes arrivés au stage (we have arrived at pre-service training). That means I have met my host family, from whose house I am typing this. I am staying with the Alemis, who are: Mr. Alemi, Mrs. Alemi, Hyacinthe (their son), Astride (their daughter), Vladimi (Astride’s one-and-a-half year old son), Nadege (their daughter), Claude (a visiting student?), Petit (a visiting student), Christelle (daughter) and Sandrene (also a daughter.. Or possibly a visiting student). Mr. Alemi has some other sons who are at various universities, including one in Birmingham. (Are you out there, Todd?) Some of the people living here currently are just attending the local lycées, and are not directly related to the Alemis.

When we were drivihg here, one of the trainees asked the above question. Yes, I was really nervous. I’m still a little bit.

I and Mr. Alemi spent a little while walking around the neighborhood. I am given to understand that the city where we are has 50,000-100,000 people, but they are very far spread out. To me, it seems like the suburbs.

I guess this is where the field trip ends. It is at least 90 here, there is no AC, I am sweating like a pig, and I am very tired. They wanted to know what religion I was, which I answered honestly, first in halting French and then in English when they asked me to try again. That’s more or less the pattern — Mr. Alemi studied English up through university, and Astride is studying English in high school, so it’s French when I can and English when I want/need to be understood. There is electricity, but no running water (there is a well, with water from which I expect to bathe tomorrow. I am supposed to boil well water before using it to cook or drink).

Elizabeth A. is supposed to arrive tomorrow, and catch up in one day what took us 6. Perhaps that will be hard; but since so much was just waiting, I’m not worried.

Lastly: on our walk, I saw someone who looked a little fascinating only for Mr. Alemi to point out that it was another stagiere (trainee). It was Allison, whose French is a little worse than mine. We introduced each other to our host families (famillies d’acceuil?), And when I asked in French if her family, like mine, had better English than our French, she froze up. I joked, "I guess so" which was probably uncalled for. But before I left, I asked: "Having fun?" To which she replied, simply, "Yes".

Addendum. Eventually it rained, and then it became cool enough for me to sleep. I dreamt weird dreams about having sex with a fellow Organization pre-volunteer while another did the same to my girlfriend. Eventually I had dreams about roosters crowing because that was what was happening outside. I woke up crosswise on the bed (which is too small). On the weirdness scale of dreams I have had, that was pretty normal, if unsettling.


Another dollar (Monday, 2010 Jun 7)

June 17th, 2010

Today we got our phones. I’m debating whether or not to use the handset provided or just use the sim card in my "old" phone, which is significantly nicer. Reasons against: the battery life in my "real" phone is much better when it’s in offline mode and not great when it’s connected; if my phone gets stolen, it’s a big problem. Reasons for: all my contacts are there already; saving a record of texts received would be a lot easier (unless, I guess, my phone gets stolen). I don’t have the numbers in front of me but my recollection is that property theft is pretty common here, or at least we can expect to be stolen from. (One person had her camera stolen already, actually.) But that said, I’m still likely to have my "real phone" on hand to take notes.. Right? Well, maybe I should rethink that too. I’ve been taking notes "by hand" so far.

I don’t have a lot of money on my phone (it’s prepaid) so I can’t really afford to call anyone. Texts are cheap-ish (150 CFA or 30 cents to the States; 50 CFA within country) but what is even cheaper is receiving calls (free). Unfortunately I have to be up early tomorrow, and an OK time for someone to call me would probably not be "free nights and weekends". I’ll get a message out before Friday so you can call me on Sunday (we have it off while in training).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. Top right, my cellphone dilemma. Center: the medical kit. Not shown: all my newly-invalid purchasing decisions.

Also today we had some introductory "sessions" (lectures). At the health one, we got our cool Organization Medical Kit (see picture). A lot of things are included here that I didn’t think we’d be getting (and so brought) — including bug spray and sunscreen. We also had a lecture on homestay (our "host families") and got to find out who we’ll be staying with. Today’s topic for smalltalk has therefore been "What’s your host family like?" even though we haven’t met them yet. We just have these slips of paper naming the host parents, their jobs, and the number of people in the family. Mine are a Civil Engineering Technician (which I think probably means "road construction") and Housewife, and I have one of the biggest host families (11 people). We’re all excited to meet our host families (even though I think I should have brought more gifts).

We also got more local currency (those of us who brought extra money USD were able to exchange it, but it took a few days). For fashion’s sake, I took a picture of that too (fig. 2). The smallest note is 500 CFA (about $1); I had about $20 after the phone etc. so got a 10,000 CFA note (about $20).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: some bills. I haven’t received any change yet so I couldn’t show coins. No idea what happened to the 2,000 note (pretty sure it was like that when I got it).

We also had a safety lecture with some dudes from the American embassy. It turns out there is a 1000 CFA fee for filing a police report (in order to get a "stamp" which is apparently the essence of bureaucracy here) but we are not under any circumstances supposed to give the police or the Gendarmes anything more than that. It damages the whole American mission here when we do that — it invalidates our attempts to push them to be more tramsparent and democratic. Apparently officials will try such gambits as "I don’t have any paper and need to buy some" or "I need to hire means of transportation to look for the criminal". In such situations it seems the thing to do is to tell them to call the Organization or the Embassy.

Lastly: it seems "the Organization doesn’t let me do that" is a pretty good gambit to get out of stuff, even though it’s not strictly honest. The country code here is 011 (and the area code for our phones is 237, and phone numbers have 8 digits) Trainees have a 7PM curfew (right now we’re like pre-trainees and we sit in the hotel courtyard and drink). Apparently lemon eucalyptus IS effective against mosquitoes (or, effective enough). And although you can say "Bonjour" or "Bonsoir", you cannot say "Bon matin".


Bringing sexy back (Sunday, 2010 Jun 6)

June 17th, 2010

More hangouts, but today we got to walk around Yaoundé a bit in groups of 4. Saw a bunch of wildlife, including a lizard apparently indigenous to Cameroon. My group got hassled by some little girls looking for change, who enjoyed stroking my hair, and a gentleman who wanted to take our picture (and presumably exhort money from us for it later). It was pretty funny, but perhaps only because we were in a group of 4.

We’ve still been playing games (although mostly only us nerds who are teaching computers). Today we played Phase 10, and Jenny wanted to borrow my copy of Set while I showered for tonight’s soiree. She (and Peter, who broke out a suit) had already cleaned up real nice. The codephrase is "getting sexy". We had to look our best because an ambassador is going to be at the dinner, which is at the house of one of the Organization’s significant people.

Dinner itself was really fun. It’s the first time I really felt proud or happy to be in the Organization instead of merely anxious or ambivalent. Maybe we really are doing something that matters. Maybe we really are making a difference. I’ll have to keep that in mind when nothing ever changes and the two years just fly by.

The ambassador was pretty awesome. She said something like this: "When you think about it, Cameroon has every reason to be at the top of the list. It has a ton of smart people, it has a beautiful climate and it has lots of natural resources. But it seems happy with just being a C+/B- country, and our job is to push them a little harder, like ‘C’mon guys, you should really be B+/A-.’" She also suggested that one of the reasons the people here don’t push harder is because they value stability at all costs — and considering some of the neighboring countries, I’m not sure I disagree with them (let’s leave aside for now the discussion about whether our country is changing too fast, the singularity, etc.). She also said that they don’t love our diplomats encouraging them to be more democratic etc. but that they cope, like with a pushy friend, because they like us; that they say stuff like "You Americans have to say that sort of thing"; and that the Americans, the British, and the Dutch have the diplomats the most willing to speak their mind on these scores.

Lastly: Realized today that Allison presents an awful lot like KC (explaining another vague similarity). Drank some local drinks, including a soda called Femto or something. Failed completely out of a French conversation. And apparently the one thing ex-Organization travellers all say to bring is porn (please send help).


Meals (Saturday, 2010 Jun 5)

June 17th, 2010

We’re still in Yaoundé. We go to another region for pre-service training proper on Tuesday. Every meal is cooked by the hotel chef, who is marvelous. We sit in the dining room and hang out and eat and talk, or sit in the bar and watch soccer and play games. Or, you can think of it as a class of 45 who is living in the dorms and eating in the dining hall. I think people are getting bored — they’re making noises that mirror the way I felt at the start of my last job, like "I’m ready to get to work". Conversely, our colleagues who are running this event, who are basically the same as us only a year later, say "Tomorrow we’ll try to get you some free time." There is a little paperwork but that is all.

We went to see a "concert" today. Tickets were 1000 CFA, about $2, and came with two drinks (a local beer called 33, I think). The concert was a dance performance of Baka tribal drumwork/dancing. Fun stuff, and plenty of audience participation. It was encouraged that attendees get onstage and dance, and when something impressive happened, notably when the female dancers jiggled really hard, people would go up and press CFA to their sweaty foreheads (some of which would stick, but mostly would fall).

I rode up front on the van ride back with the driver and Rose. (The van seated 15 "comfortably".) I asked her if things felt real to her or like a museum to her too, and she said "Or like a movie. Maybe things will be different when we move in with our host families."

People still look like other people. We ran into some colleagues going to Sierra Leon in Brussels and one of them looked utterly familiar (I finally placed her as looking a little like Gus’s roommate Katie). Elizabeth G. here looks vaguely like VY, particularly with particular facial expressions, and Martin looks a whole lot like David from IB’s circle. Jessica W. reminds me of Terry from upstate. A few others look familiar too, but I can’t place ’em.

Lastly: no culture shock yet. I couldn’t decode the majority of the things said by the emcees. Treehouse is pretty goddamned playable. Still running out of shirts; think I’ll have to repeat on Tuesday. Woke up in the middle of the night with a leg cramp. And apparently it’s pretty common in the Organization for people to feel like they "aren’t suffering enough".


Touchdown (Friday, 2010 Jun 4)

June 17th, 2010

The flights were fairly uneventful; I got a couple of hours of sleep, which is apparently enough to keep my brain from trying to process the last 48 hours as one day. The airport if Yaoundé is fairly small, not ACed, and smelled fairly strongly of sweaty bodies. There was also a little bit of blood in a puddle on the floor, which Julia described as "questionable".

The country is in many ways beautiful. Even the parts that aren’t beautiful are sill fairly interesting. Buildings run the gamut in terms of materials but all look a little worn. Most roads appear not to be paved. The hotel I am in tonight has a shower and even AC (in which I am luxuriating now). But I am getting a little anxious that I’m about to have a massive dose of culture shock and be one of the ten percent who bail over the course of training. Mostly, though, I think I’m too stubborn to quit.

In many ways I feel like I haven’t seen real poverty here yet — just amazing amounts of entrepreneurialism and resourcefulness. And so far it feels almost entirely unreal, like a trip through a museum. When it sets in that I’m going to be here for twenty-seven months, then maybe I’ll really freak out.

We got a welcome pack which included a manifest explaining the function of such items as the pencil, eraser, and sharpener.

Lastly: I’m taking doxycycline (every night at 8PM) instead of mefloquine, so no crazy dreams for me. My Europlug adapter is working great. And I’m really excited to brush my teeth for the first time since Wednesday.


Flying the friendly skies (somewhere between Thursday, 2010 Jun 4, and Friday, 2010 Jun 5)

June 17th, 2010

Currently en route to Cameroon — this is the first leg of the 18-hour trip, which is American Airlines to Brussels with a three-hour layover before a Belgium Air flight to Yaoundé. Readers are encouraged to price these flights (Thursday overnight into Friday; Friday morning) and report their findings. All comments will be lovingly read but sorry, we can’t write personal responses to each letter.

I currently hypothesize that part of the reason we got up at 6am was so we could sleep on the flight, to try to helpfully transition us around jet lag. But I think I’m so exhausted that it doesn’t really much matter. Naturally, I can’t sleep. On the upside, I’m vaccinated against yellow fever. (Expect my taste in women to change.) I was reading for a while Gus’s copy of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" (which, hey! I also spilled water on), but now the lights are off and I don’t want to disturb anyone. For a while I was keeping myself amused, or at least confused, by trying to translate GMT offsets and landing times in my head (we set our watches to in-country time before we left). So now I’m writing this on my phone (which seems to have a much better battery life in offline mode). It’s currently 10:14PM EDT, and 3:14AM in Brussels.

Another reason we had so much time was to handle crises like Elizabeth A. getting sick at the airport. Current thinking is that it’s a reaction to her vaccination. A hospital came to get her. She is staying at Jamaica Hospital overnight and hopefully the Organization will be shipping her out tomorrow. So now our travel group of 43 is only 42. More about them: our group is maybe 30% male, mostly Education with some Small Enterprise Development, and has at least 6 Computer Literacy assignees with varying skills (including one EE). My favorites so far are the older ones. I ate lunch with ladies who are 32 and 36, plus there’s the married one I mentioned last time. One co-worker brought a guitar, though he doesn’t know how to play, saying "I’ll have plenty of time to practice!" (I have LSDJ on my DS, of course.) At least two are fairly openly homosexual (including the one with the guitar, which he says he borrowed from his boyfriend), and one other has a rainbow on her luggage.

I didn’t even try to get a non-dairy meal on the airplane, choosing instead to pick out bits of one of the options. I think I need to speak with the Organization’s travel agency and ask them to make this work better for me in the future.

From time to time I get a shot of terror, that I’m completely unprepared or lost, but I control these by telling myself that I’m flying in a plane, which I’ve done before, and that an experience only has as much meaning as you allow it to have. I learned from college that I don’t have a lot of allowance that way. Take that, cultural relativism.

Lastly: at least three other people here have read "And You Fall Down". I played tour guide on the bus through Brooklyn. It makes sense that we fly out of JFK because he founded the Organization. I found a grommet on the airport floor, but it wasn’t mine. Perhaps Gus will be pleased to know that one of our 43 is named Janelle. And a no-fee passport looks exactly the same as a normal "feed" one, just with a sticker on the front.

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