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Archive for August, 2010

Potpourri (Tuesday, 2010 August 31)

August 31st, 2010

Some random things that you might be interested in:

  • Ripe plantains can be eaten raw. They taste much like bananas.

  • I was in a government building at Bafoussam and wandered into the "computer room". Three or four people were sitting at computers, all of which ran Ubuntu and OpenOffice. That was really nice. I can justify teaching OO.o now, maybe even put Ubuntu on the machines when they get fucked up.

  • Ryan was at the market in Bafoussam and started chatting with one of the market mommies. He attempted to learn a bit about the local language — hello, goodbye, that sort of thing. Then the market mommy says to him: "OK, now your turn. How do you say ‘Bonjour’ in your dialect?"

    Ryan, lost for words says, "Uh, ‘hello’?"

    The mommy replies, "No, that’s English! How do you say it in your dialect?"

    (I think I would have said something like "Sups!" but naturally dialects, as they exist here, don’t exist back home..)

  • Went to Baham to buy some bamboo chairs and stuff. Less expensive than the armchairs — these little stools (tabouret) were 500 CFA each, and the bookcase (armoire) was 15,000, less than half the cost of one chair. The dude who sells the bamboo stuff was a grizzled, bitter old little dude, and I took a liking to him immediately. He didn’t haggle at all: he started the sale at the above prices, and refused to even budge 1,000 CFA. Every time Boris tried, the dude would just say, "No, I said 15,000! .. You’re short 1,000 CFA!" He told us in great deal how much effort he’d put into the bookcase, how it took him 2 months, and the amount of craftsmanship that went into it, including gluing parts together and all kinds of things. Boris was taking a tack that tended to work on other vendors, which was brusque and borderline impolite; I tried awestruck respect and humoring his bitter grizzliness. I end up doing this good-cop-bad-cop thing whenever I go shopping with a Cameroonian.

    The old dude didn’t seem the slightest bit surprised or interested in the fact that I was white; he didn’t charge an outrageous amount; I walked away with a pretty cool piece of furniture. Pretty satisfying.

  • Tried boiling small potatoes in their skins for a "new potatoes" kind of effect. Turned out terribly; most of them were bitter somehow and even burned my throat. I spent a certain amount of time not feeling wonderful but not being actually sick. The hope was that I wouldn’t have to peel the little fuckers, but it seems to have backfired. Would not recommend you do this yourself.

    Today I boiled four or five bigger ones after peeling them, and that worked fine. So it’s either the fact that I left them in their skins, or the fact that they were petit. I foresee a lot of potatoes in my future.

  • Figured out why there were so many ants in my house! They had found the candy in my suitcase. Guess that means I need to be eating this stuff faster.

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Bachelor Pad (Thursday, 2010 August 26)

August 26th, 2010

OK, so since last we’ve spoken, I’ve started cooking. I bought a plaque à gaz ("portable stove"; wc?) pretty much the second day I was here — Ryan made fun of the packaging, which proudly proclaims the "world’s most number of automatic features" — and yesterday I finally got it hooked up to the tank ("bouteille", bottle) of gas (I think it’s propane?). I did this with the help of my new friend Kamgo Boris, who I met in the car to Bafoussam. I’m not sure if it’s just the goodness in his heart or what, but he’s been way more helpful than he has any right to be. He’s a farmer, I guess, and among other things he produces quail eggs.

Boris managed to figure out how to connect everything up, with the negligible assistance of the included "The Using Direction". We immediately cooked a celebratory round of French fries using (a small fraction of) the 1500 CFA of potatoes I bought (7 or 8 pounds?). I want to make salad with the cabbage, but that’ll take some preparation (special precautions are required for food that you aren’t going to cook before eating, and those precautions can be summarized with "bleach").

I also bought a bidon ("jug") for carrying water (20 L) because the nearest source of drinking water is 10 minutes downhill by foot, and carrying water back is approximately 20 minutes of suffering. I made the trip once with both buckets, just to see if it could be done. It can, but it sucks. It’s better to take a moto, and in order to take a moto you need a vessel that closes. The bidon does.

I put too much bleach in my bath water tonight, and I also tried the trick of heating some water first and adding it. It felt tepid to my hand but it was much, much nicer than the cold water I would have had. Actually the result was a little like a hotel swimming pool and I kind of loved it. I guess this means I need to try to set up my solar shower — need to find a place where something is unlikely to get stolen from. The volunteer who used to be here swore by the tepid-water shower; she said it was too cold up here to shower without, and it didn’t make sense to suffer.

I also have an armchair! J-C helped me haggle for it; it was 30,000 CFA (which was still too much, according to Boris, and I kind of agree). Getting it home from Bafoussam was a huge pain in the ass; we didn’t pay 600 CFA for a taxi and instead ended up paying 700 CFA for two motos (one to carry the armchair, and one to carry J-C). That was a moto ride I will not soon forget — the road was under construction and traffic was totally fucked, and we ended up merging across a lone or two of traffic. But once we got to the point where we normally take a taxi to Batié, it was pretty late and we had a hard time finding any. We ended up getting in a pickup truck with a bunch of other people and finally hiring it to drop off the chair at my house (2,000 CFA total; normal transport for two would have been about 1,200). I get to repeat the whole process Saturday morning because for some reason I decided I wanted two?

The last step, through the front door, was a fairly serious challenge, since it’s way too narrow and doesn’t open all the way. Somehow I made it through — rotating it this way and that way and finally just using brute force. Today I explained this to J-C and he chuckled lecherously as he is wont to do, and then he says, "So did you sit in it last night?" Well, not all night. "So did you sit in it this morning?" Yeah, I sat in that bitch! Am I right bro??

In other news, I’ve made it through my first week as a real Volunteer. Only 103 left to go?

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Blip Festival news (Tuesday, 2010 August 24)

August 24th, 2010

This just in: Blip Festival was moved from this December (which I had no chance of making) to next spring (which I could potentially make). Rock!

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More purchases (Tuesday, 2010 August 24)

August 24th, 2010

Went shopping again today. Made a friend in the car, named Kamgo Boris — he just started talking to me, I guess he was friends with some previous volunteers — and he looks halfway between Akeem, my old co-worker, and Jelani, friend from high school/college. He volunteered to help me haggle and go shopping, so although I intended to just get one thing, we spent most of the afternoon bouncing around Bafoussam and it was dark by the time I finally got home with my newly-acquired plunder.

Today we bought: the bottle of gas for the stove (bottle 30,000; gas 6,000); the tubing for it (one and a half meters: 3,150); some rags for washing stuff (2700 at the supermarket); some detergent (900?); some flatware (1800 for 12 forks, 12 spoons, and 6 table knives — which I think is a little expensive, weren’t they being sold by the piece at 50 in Bafia?); some eating plates/bowls (1800 for 6); two pots (7500? 8000?); another bucket (1500). In theory I’ve spent about 115,000 of my 200,000 CFA "settling-in" allowance already, but in practice I only have let’s say 64,000 left, which means I’ve spent closer to 136,000. I can account for about a half of the difference by going over my petty-cash transactions. Not sure what that means except that I’m a shitty accountant.

At the supermarche I saw a couple piles of five-CFA and ten-CFA pieces. In Cameroon, the smallest useful coin is 25 CFA, so these are like nega-cash. Cameroonians tend to make jewelry out of them. I guess a supermarket acquires a certain amount of them so exchanged a 50-CFA piece for some. Picture forthcoming.

With my first bucket, I became equipped to take showers, which was a requirement at the time. With a second bucket I am now capable of doing laundry, which is fast becoming a requirement. The pants I wore today are completely muddy, and they’re gonna require some heavy lifting. We’ll see if I get the motivation sometime.

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Progress Report (Sunday, 2010 August 22)

August 22nd, 2010

Some stuff to note after I got to my house:

  • My bleach leaked onto some clothes in the same suitcase. Kind of annoying, but only one shirt I really liked got ruined.

  • When I first got to my house, the bathroom smelled foul. I spent a bit of time last night scrubbing the toilet with bleach. It helped a little, but it’s still a little funky.

  • Went to Bafoussam yesterday to buy shit. A blanket, because it was cold, with a picture of a tiger, for 20,000 CFA. I think I overpaid on that one; similar blankets at the supermarché cost 13-16k. Bought my first bucket for 2k (which may have been a mistake too; the vendor swore it was a high quality, and I talked her down from 2.5k, but I think a fair price for a bucket is less than 1k). This bucket enabled me to take a much-needed bath. Bleached the water first — eight or ten drops in the bucket, to guard against schisto (as though the tumbo flies weren’t bad enough).

  • I bought a "plaque à gas", which is like a portable stovetop, but I don’t yet have the gas in order to use it. That means I can’t boil water, which means I’m drinking bottled for the moment. I’ve also been eating whatever stuff I don’t have to cook. I ate a lot of boiled peanuts from J-C’s family, and I’ve had a couple meals there. I also ate a banana sandwich (a bunch of the little bananas they have here cost me 100 CFA, and bread was 200 CFA).

    They have big heads of cabbage available at the other end of town, but I’m just not yet equipped to do anything with them. When I wandered past I saw some avocados which looked appealing, but the vendor warned me that they weren’t ripe. They tried to push the cabbage, but when I explained that I couldn’t yet cook them, they said "Take some passion fruit." I ended up in front of a bucket of what I thought were passion fruit, and bought one for 300 CFA. Turns out it’s a squash. I’ve been eating it raw anyhow, even the strings and the seeds, cutting it open with the serrated blade on my Leatherman and scraping the flesh with my teeth (trying to avoid the skin since I didn’t really wash it well). Beggars can’t be choosers.

  • So far I have spent this money on actual housewares:

Item Cost Notes
Stove 20000 May have overpaid by 5k?
Kettle 3000 Aluminum. He asked 5k. Not sure I’m actually going to use this to boil water.
Bucket 2000 "good quality" — talked down from 2.5k (a good price may be 800)
Clothes hangars 1300 From the supermarché — set of 10
Blanket 20000 Tiger design. Fair price: 15k? She asked 35k.
Water x3 1000 Split a "palette" with Lindsay
Chocolate 550 A thank you for J-C’s family
Cutting boards 5000 Set of 3; plastic
Broom 2800 Because dirt underfoot makes me crazy
Lock 1200 It goes on a chain that closes the front door

Total: 56850. Plus a couple thousand to bounce back and forth to Bafoussam, and a well-earned lunch. Still want to buy some chairs.. I’ve just been sitting on my air-mattress.

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Grass (Saturday, 2010 August 21)

August 21st, 2010

As Claire writes, it turns out that putting clumps of dirt/grass in the road is a signal to drive slowly here. I got to see it in action on the bus ride out of town when we drove past a few such clumps in the road, marking the site of a fascinating accident where two trucks apparently careened off the road and flipped over. Lots of people were hanging out and trying to salvage the contents.

At other times we passed buses that had suffered other bizarre fates. Some had run off the road, one looked shredded. One looked like it had been stripped and then set on fire. Kind of ominous. But don’t worry, guys, there’s cheerful Nigerian pop playing!

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Smell you later (Saturday, 2010 August 21)

August 21st, 2010

Lots happened in the last few days, the conclusion of which is my installation here at my post. We’re all officially Volunteers (with a capital V). Let’s try to break it down a bit.

One: the impending.

Somehow, and I have no idea how really, I went from "fucking tired of these stagiaires" to "I am about to lose these people who are fairly important to me". This made the final few days before swearing-in/departure fairly ominous and morose. The only real obligations I had were packing and trying to hang out, when possible, with the stagiaires I liked the best. I had mixed sccess with the latter, but I guess the truth is there never are enough last days. Jenny writes, "I can honestly say that if we were stranded on an island I would not vote anyone off."

It’s strange indeed that I had such a change of heart, but I guess I should have seen it coming. I didn’t think I had space in my heart for 43 strangers, so now I’m left wondering who got bumped off the list.

Two: the ceremoning.

Swearing-in happened Thursday morning "as planned", with the following notable exceptions.

  1. The DJ had a set of electronic sounds that he liked to add at random to the event. Did you ever have a toy gun with 7 firing noises? Those were the sounds. So, for example: someone would be making a speech into the mike. "Long live the cooperation between Cameroon and the United States of America!" "[Whistling noise. Explosion.]" It was like fireworks I guess?
  2. Jenny was selected to give a speech in French. She did excellently, thanking the families for having taught us how to cook, to eat, to do laundry, but unfortunately, they didn’t teach us to carry things on our heads. She ended with advice to us: "Be courageous, be adaptive, and [puts on sunglasses] be superstars."
  3. My host family wasn’t at the swearing-in that I could tell. They got to the follow-up luncheon late (so, much like my real family). Claude later apologized profusely, possibly because Lindsay chewed him the fuck out.

The morning of, I got to watch my host father back a pickup into the wall surrounding my host family’s house, which is made of cinder blocks. Francis found this pretty amusing, but for fear that the cinder blocks would fall, decided to push the ones that looked impending.. which caused a large section of wall to fall and shatter. As they were falling, Francis turned to me and said, "Fuck!" in English. Good times.

After the ceremonies, I spent a little time with my family, but not too much, because there was:

Three: the partyening.

One of our number apparently had the great idea to book a bunch of rooms at the local hotel to enable us to celebrate in style, not have to go back home to our host families, and possibly hook up without going into a cornfield. I left my host family early to see how things went, and though they took a while to get started, ended up being a pretty good time. Highlights include:

  1. Significant amounts of delicious gossip about who was likely to hook up with who, who was dancing scandalously with which host sister, etc. This is not interesting at all unless you’re in the social group so I’ll spare you. However, if you’re my stagemate and you hook up with someone, feel free to tell me via email.
  2. Serious Man-Chat with Timothy about our respective memberships in the Lonely Hearts Club. Our last conversations with our respective significant others were a little stilted and I think we’re taking it a little too seriously. Jessica W. says "Don’t borrow trouble" and also "Don’t act like douchebags, because you guys aren’t." I think part of the anxiety was caused by the impending move, feeling stressed, wanting to be comforted. But now we’re here at post, there are no threats to our relationships for hours around so I guess we win by default?
  3. Dancing. The song "Fuck the Pain Away" by the Peaches came up about thirty times. Subtle reference to the film "Lost in Translation" or a simple lack of musical taste? You be the judge. What else is in the teaches of Peaches?
  4. A certain amount of chauvinism.
  1. "Poisson brassé" or grilled fish with Jenny and Allison.
  2. Some rooms even had air conditioning or running water. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the AC so I just sweat bullets for the few hours I actually tried to sleep.

Sadly, someone’s camera got stolen during all the fun times. Possibly also a wallet, although I think not?

Four: the departening.

And so it came to pass that we dragged our asses out of bed and got everything together to depart. Group 1 to the East and the Far North left first, heading for Yaounde to crash for the night. Group 2 (the rest of us) hung out for a few hours until the bus showed up, and then piled in with all our stuff and headed for the West. My family came to see me off; Claude cried a little bit when he hugged me, but then he and Lindsay started smooching. Being a privileged third party in a relationship makes me think of Jenn and Johnny back home (naturally, there are differences).

As the bus started to ply its way along the road West, with the peppy local pop music or whatever blaring out of the speakers, someone said "So long Bafia!" Timothy: "Yeah, smell ya later."

Something about these bus rides with their terribly cheerful music and the rolling green hills always makes me think of movie montages. This time, though, the music changed to a tape of 80s classics, and then after that it became Michael Jackson. Riding in a coach bus to a soundtrack like that makes it easy to forget you’re in Africa for minutes at a time.

Eventually got to my post with only a little heartache and with a certain amount of money in my pocket. House is still totally empty. I’m going shopping today for a start — hopefully get some buckets and some chairs up in this joint. Internet is feeble but workable. Waking up cold is a welcome change of pace, but maybe I’ll get a blanket too.

I feel like there’s a lot more I wanted to say when this was all happening, but I didn’t get time and now I’m running late so I guess it’ll have to do. Wish you were here, etc.

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Leaving the nest (Tuesday, 2010 August 17)

August 17th, 2010

Getting ready to head out. Packing up everything. This reveals a certain amount of "What do I do with this?" — for example, house keys for back home. Bittersweet.

Last Saturday wasn’t so bad. Allison’s birthday. I left before people went to the nightclub, figuring I didn’t have enough money to participate. Jenny reports that Jeneca apparently came to the bar and said "I’m marrying the bouncer, so you all get in free". That’s pretty typical in many respects for our experience here. (I don’t think she’s actually going to marry the bouncer.)

Dance party at Ryan’s today, which I crashed. Every time we get together and I listen to American music with Americans and try to do American dances, I just remember the times back home, the Pulsewaves, the Blip Festival, Gus, etc. Also bittersweet.

It’s our "last night in Bafia", but next night we’re celebrating at a hotel until all hours, and then crashing there before finally departing Thursday. So tonight at the bar was the "last night at the bar". Also bittersweet. I didn’t think it would happen, but I’m going to miss (some of these fucking) stagiaires.

Power finally came back on today (it’s been off since Sunday). All my equipment is charged, I think.

Packing is a lot easier this time, as compared with being at home, trying to decide what to buy, what to bring, etc. Everything in your room is either coming with you or being thrown away. The real mystery is how we could have accumulated so much crap that we can no longer fit everything into the suitcases we brought, or even in the additional trunk many of us are bringing. It’s not really a mystery: helmets, textbooks, baking soda. Hope I can keep track of all this shit until I get to my house. I hope my "counterpart" at post has the keys. I hope I can get into my house. Sigh.

My host brothers seem pretty torn up about my packing up and getting ready to move out. Can’t say I’m completely clear-of-heart either.

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Soirée Culturelle (Thursday, 2010 August 12)

August 12th, 2010

Presentation went well. I could give you notes if you wanted, but they’re in French and they basically just boil down to "languages with tones" and "noun classes".

Instead I want to talk about the "soirée culturelle", which is an event in which all the students show what they’ve been working on the entire "semester" (or 4 weeks or whatever in our "model school"). "Soirée" in this context means "afternoon"; we started around 2 PM, because though scheduled time to start was 1 PM, it had been raining around noon and Cameroonians don’t believe it’s possible to travel in the rain.

The club that I run with Peter, "Computer Science Club", didn’t have anything in particular to show. Some students created posters to advertise the soirée ("Ça sera chaud", "It’s gonna be hot"), and a couple wanted to "animer", or DJ the event. So we did that. Gaston was clear that we had to use our own computers if we wanted the students to be able to play with them, so I volunteered mine. At first it was a little bit of a disaster, because Ubuntu, plus foreign language (English), plus false keyboard layout (Dvorak). Me and Peter, naturally, were pretty checked out at this point, and to us this whole thing was disaster, but somehow we got it together, although that led to the fuckup that when the microphone was on, it cut out the music from the computer, so you couldn’t sing "with" the song on the computer. Additionally, the first group that sang was pretty not-good at singing. But they showed good humor and everyone got through that.

As the soirée went on, it became clear that there was actually a lot of really cool stuff going on here. Art Club presented a piece of "grid art" where each student had drawn on a sheet of paper and put it all together at the end. Girls Club sang too (by this point we’d worked out the technical fuckery, but stay tuned).

And then it started to rain. All the students naturally took shelter on the veranda of the school, which had been our impromptu "stage" (the field in the center of the school is a few feet lower).

Poetry Club read two poems in French, one about HIV/AIDS (!) and another directed towards us volunteers and the Organization. Dance Club’s number was pretty damn awesome. It was raining hard at this point. Everyone was under the roof on the veranda. And I realized: this was really cool.

Then something happened. The microphone stopped working. Someone smelled something burning. Power to the mixer wasn’t working. Apparently a speaker was emitting the burning smell. Fun times. It wasn’t coming back, so we hung out for a bit, trying to see if the rain would stop. It wouldn’t. I watched a guy use a "raquelet", which is essentially a giant squeegee, to push dirty water off the veranda. It was mesmerizing.

Then the Chorale Club decided to move indoors and do their performance in a classroom. Holy wow. They were amazing. It’s nominally Jenny’s club, but according to her they just completely self-organized, completely without her doing.

And then we called it a day and went to the bar.

Jessica’s been running around telling everyone the good things she wrote about them at the beginning of stage. Example: I am "inclusive, individual, and delights in his girlfriend". Then she took the quote I printed out from a Gus email down from the wall and showed it to me as evidence of something she had been trying to say a few days ago. She hadn’t realized I’d put it there three weeks ago. Damn right I delight in my girlfriend: because she’s awesome.

Timothy wore a delightful boubou in green. Andrew R. has a vest made out of our stage pagne. Katelin was wearing a beautiful dress she had made. I picked up my shirt today and it was way short, belt line and no further. What do you do about something like that? Not much, I guess. It’s a far cry from the fitted shirt Timothy wore last Friday which looked like pimp doused in baller. Guess I have to work on how to direct tailors.

It’s still raining on and off, and the power’s off now, so I’m gonna cut this short, take a shower and go to bed. Tomorrow’s closing ceremonies for model school and there’s really not a lot left.

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Vladimir (Wednesday, 2010 August 11)

August 12th, 2010

Spent a little time talking with my host family. Relaxed conversation. Christelle asked how I will feel after I leave next week. I said I’m ready to be independent, but a little scared, and a little sad to go.

Vladimir is rambunctious as always. Today we started chastising him, and he responded by throwing a tantrum. Astride finally got fed up, plucked him off the floor and plopped him onto the couch. "Go to bed, why don’t you," or words to that effect. Vladimir responded by peeing on her, and then, as we watched in startled-but-amused awe, peed on her again.

Oh, I guess he was running around pantsless. I guess some things have ceased surprising me.

I have a presentation tomorrow, which I chose to do on the local language, and in general the manner in which you can learn a little about a language. Things like tones, noun classes, stuff you might encounter. I’m so far beyond caring whether it’s a good presentation; the bare minimum is 15 minutes. I have 15 slides. Talk slowly.

In the meantime I’m feeling pretty good. It’s raining right now. Today I downloaded some albums by she and filed a bug report.

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