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Voyage (Saturday, 2011 October 22)

October 22nd, 2011

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first blog post I’ve titled "voyage" but I really have no other idea what to call it. It’s just one of those "day in the life" posts that you write because you don’t know what the hell else to do, to try to give those of you following along at home a sense of what it really is to be a Volunteer.

I slept in this morning till about 9. I just wasn’t motivated to actually do anything except try to recapture a dream I was having, based roughly on the setting of Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, where I and all the other Cameroon volunteers were sitting on a beach, waiting for the beacon to signal the opening of the portal that would take us back to the future. The signal was going to be subtle, because the portal wouldn’t open if people from "the present" were there to watch it, and with the rail line just behind us, just off the beach, there could be people at any time. So we were all sitting and waiting, including some already-returned volunteers like Wendy, when suddenly we saw three flashes reflected in the water, though they didn’t reflect anything I could see. I charged forward, swimming with all my might into the ocean, hoping to make it to the portal, knowing I wouldn’t have a lot of time, but it was all right, and it closed over me in warmth, and it took me…

Back to Cameroon. Fuck this, I’m going back to bed. I didn’t feel guilty about steadfastly refusing to wake up since technically we were on standfast again due to election results being announced yesterday. Allison’s gotcha covered as far as that story goes. Long story short, Biya won and no one’s done anything. But although there was a deuil for the father of another teacher (M. Ignace Simo, the P.E. teacher who is exactly what you expect him to be), I could legitimately not go as long as we were technically on standfast. I could always make excuses later, "Oh sorry, the Organization told us to not go anywhere until XXXX o’clock", and that’s really all I cared about. Ideally I’d blow off everyone and waste the day in Bafoussam kicking around on the Internet and drinking and buying exotic things until nightfall. But around 9:30 M. Teukeu called me and asked me if I was already on my way to Bafoussam or what and I told him I hadn’t left the house yet and had no idea what I was doing. M. Teukeu understood and told me that if I was at Baf by 11:30, to call him, so he could show me the center where the library was that I had sponsored for Books for Cameroon.

I couldn’t kick around my house forever if I wanted some juicy high-speed Boffice Internet, so I tried to get my ass together and when we got the all-clear at 10:30, I headed out right away. Caught a car directly to Bafoussam which dropped me off in front of the bank, where I withdrew 200,000 CFA (about 5-6 weeks worth of salary) because I’m, in the words of my postmate, CFA rich, dollar poor. Called M. Teukeu as the rainstorm started to come down; he utterly insisted on picking me up in his car, and so it was that we made it to CERPIES (which, yes, is pronounced an awful lot like serpillière). He and his colleague showed me around; I popped my head into their Terminale C class which was reviewing Physics and was greeted with the same measure of respect and insolence that older kids normally use to greet a teacher who is also white.

I was surprised to also find M. Noumi, one of the other censeurs at my lycée, there and wearing a suit, but he explained that we were going to the deuil ensemble, weren’t we? So I guess even though I wasn’t dressed for it, I was going after all, which is good because you always want to support your friends when they’re having funerals, and anyhow it’d be a good time. The three of us climbed into M. Teukeu’s car and off we went. This was around 12. Around 12:20 I started to get nervous about the thumping the tire was making, and although I feared the wheel, unnoticed, coming off and condemning us to a messy death, M. Teukeu also noticed it and we pulled over to look at it. It turns out that three of the nuts holding the wheel on had come off and gotten lost. Cameroonians are terribly, terribly clever, so we decided to cope with the rain long enough to take one nut off of each wheel and use them to reattach the wheel that wasn’t staying on. Once we turned off the paved road and onto the mud path, we were going slowly enough that the problem was less the recalcitrant wheel and more the vivid fishtailing, combined with the other cars on the road. The Mercedes ahead of us wasn’t sure what it wanted to do, and then trying to pull around another car we found ourselves stuck. Me and M. Noumi managed to get us out with a little muscle and before too much longer we were at the place.

I’d blown off breakfast figuring I’d be able to grab some beans and beignets while waiting for a car or something delicious in Bafoussam, but this was the fourth or fifth hour I’d gone since waking without really eating anything. But, as my language trainers told me back during stage, in the West people sell stuff everywhere, at any time, even during funerals, so I bought 100 CFA of bananes and snacked. Snacking while I waited outside the house with what felt like almost every other teacher from the lycée for the family to get back from the church, I reflected that back in the States, I would have started to get irritated, waiting for whatever-it-was to start, whereas here I basked in the knowledge that this, standing outside while leaning on a 4×4, eating bananas and talking to other teachers, was the event I had come for, and there was no sense hurrying it; it was going to take as long as it was going to take and I may as well try to enjoy it.

Normally at this kind of event, there’s a kind of buffet-style thing controlled by caterers with angry faces and strict rules, stuff like "at most one piece of a meat, be it fish or be it chicken, per plate", none of which prevent the first people up from taking way too much food and leaving hardly any for the people who go up later. But someone had displayed some kind of critical thinking and food was packed in little aluminum take-away boxes, precisely rationed with one piece of chicken, one of fish, a handful of plantain chips, a bit of cake, and a little packet of piment. Following M. Teukeu I grabbed a little box and a piece of bread and a canned soft drink, labeled in English and Arabic as "Linda" (pomegranate flavor, or grenade in French, whence our word grenadine). Of course, eventually wine came out, first boxes of Peñasol, and then (oddly) bottles of Peñasol, which are higher-class and actually taste different. Around 15h it seemed like it was time to go.

Piled back into the car, witnessed a little bit of repartée between M. Noumi and M. Diffo (who had chosen to accompany us back) about how M. Diffo graded his papers in the secretary’s office instead of his own, and whether this meant he was trying to flirt with the students. Went to M. Fotso, who’s also a censeur (we have four now for no really good reason) and drank more wine (something something Saint Jean? The light wasn’t very good in his house). We were down to two wheel-nuts again, and M. Teukeu hazarded taking another from one of the front tires. That got us to a crossroads where a bunch of kids were pushing or possibly pulling a bus which was going God-knows-where. While we waited for that little circus to calm down, Teukeu tightened the nuts again, but once we swerved around the bus and plowed on down the road, Teukeu pulled over again and discovered that we’d just lost another one. We walked the few hundred meters we’d just driven, but we couldn’t find it. We decided to just keep going, M. Teukeu saying, "Ça sort où ça sort", something like "It is what it is" but (to me) with overtones of "The tire may leave the car at any point and we may all die".

We managed to make it back to the paved road after some more intense fishtailing, and from there we got to (I think) the ancien péage, the old tollbooth, which is different (of course) from the new tollbooth. There was a bar and we found more of our colleagues still drinking, and I thought we were going to join them but a few minutes later we all climbed back into the car and got to a mechanic. I stayed inside with Mme. Wana and Mama Rose, who were going back to Batié by way of Bafoussam with me, M. Teukeu, M. Noumi, and M. Diffo. Mme. Wana and Mama Rose were talking about how to best organize the réunion, meeting, that one is obliged to throw in honor of newborn grandchildren. It seemed that if possible, you delay the meeting to as late as 9 or 10 AM, which gives you enough time in the morning to make a big batch of couscous and legumes. I decided that if the car was broken I may as well drink one of my "in-case-of-sachet-break-emergency" dealies that I’d brought with me back when I expected a mild day of relaxing in the Boffice. Soccer brand. Don’t buy it. It’s the worst brand of sachet I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something. M. Diffo wanted one and so did Mme. Wana, and I was happy to get rid of them. The technician changed the tire; apparently the fixtures where the wheels ought to screw on had been worn away and so the nuts weren’t holding very well. We continued without incident to Bafoussam, where M. Teukeu dropped me off where cars going to my village are. It was 5:30, and I try to be home by 7, but that still gave me enough time to stop by the supermarket and buy rice or whatever the hell struck my fancy (about 13500 CFA worth of random crap, including rice, more pickles, and a bag of couscous arabe, what we think of as couscous).

Got once more into the car, this time the car that would take me back to village, and was surprised when next to me climbed the carpenter who works in my courtyard. We had a fun discussion about the economics of living in the village vs. in the city, what kinds of materials he buys and where he buys them, and what his plans are for the future (moving to the city because food’s cheaper). I was also immensely gratified when he mentioned that he often wondered if the Boys didn’t bother me, seeing as they spend so much time at my house and as a grown man with a real job, I have need of rest, lesson planning, etc.

So that was Saturday. Tomorrow’s market day and I’m gonna ask all my favorite vendors if they cultivate soybeans, because I think it is legitimately possible to make there be edamame here in this village. I’m also possibly going to buy a fridge from Liz, who’s very near the end of her service, which should open up certain culinary possibilities. Side note, I finished Apocalypse Chow the other week, which is kind of a fun book, but most of the recipes call for things like "precooked polenta" and "15.5-ounce cans of chickpeas", stuff which either isn’t available even in big cities like Bafoussam or is prohibitively priced for a Volunteer (I’ve seen cans of sweet corn and petit peas but never seriously considered buying them). It seems like the kinds of constraints that Jon and Robin Robertson face when they’re facing down a hurricane are just different from the kinds of constraints that you face when the nearest, best market only operates once every 8 days. I’ve learned a lot about living without a fridge, though: tomatoes do go bad but some can stay fresh for a long time, so check all of them daily; string beans can last about a week, and carrots a little less than that, though some will start disintegrating and molding before then; cabbage can stay good for weeks if you just peel off leaves.

No doubt the Robertsons would do a lot better with the vegetables and tubers you find around here (plus maybe they’d buy a fridge and supplement with things from the city), but I’m still kind of feeling it out. Every time I see a spice of any kind at a supermarket, I grab it. (Recent finds include canelle, which is cinnamon, and curry, which is just curry.) I’m starting to mess around with my sesame oil from back home, and mustard can stay fresh for a long time (doesn’t go great with pasta though). I faked a Spanish rice last week using some of those sachets of tomato paste and a lot of wishful thinking. So what if we didn’t get evacuated? There’s only 299 days left for me here, and when I’m back home I’ll start to miss being an instant celebrity and the many fascinating ways people judge me based on my skin color. I’ll have to switch back to the ways I used to use to be weird, like growing my hair out and dressing funny.

I had a handful of pictures and things I wanted to upload when I was in Bafoussam today, but you know how that goes. Guess you’ll have to wait until next time. Now that there was no Cameroonian revolution, expect more of the "fiction" on the same subject, full of effusive retcons and extemporaneous sacrilege..


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