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Souq or shuk (part 1??) (Saturday, 2018 August 25)

September 10th, 2018

This is a long-overdue travel report from our time in the Middle East, which happened in July and I have put off writing about until just now.

Some backstory is required first. You should know by now that our girl and queen of the photobombs Yaya met an Israeli boy after her service. When you COS, you’re given a plane ticket home (meaning, the States). If instead you want to take advantage of your current location, you can instead take what’s called "cash in lieu", where they take the amount of money they would have spent on that plane ticket and give it to you straight. Lots of Volunteers use this to travel around a bit before coming home — I went to Europe, and I happen to know Peter, Allison, and I think Jenny Wang went to see the Middle East, and it turns out Yaya bounced around East Africa for a while. While there, she happened to bump into a group of young Israelis who had finished their tour with the IDF, and apparently have a similar tradition of post-service travel. The rest of the story is super juicy but largely predictable. Anyhow, Yaya and Amit tied the knot this year. For legal reasons that I don’t really understand, they did their legal marriage here in NYC, Capital of the World, which of course we attended. After which, they mentioned offhandedly that they would be doing a follow-up in Israel too, and that we were free to come if we wanted. Well, how often do you get a chance like that?

Of course, if you’re going to Israel already, then it seems a shame not to also go to Jordan. And if you’re going to Israel and Jordan, then Egypt seems like a natural addition as well.

I realize now that I haven’t written here about our major trips in the last couple years, but here’s a capsule summary. In 2016 we went back to Cameroon for a trip, and knowing that the effort in planning such a trip doesn’t really grow if you add another person, I invited my co-worker Matt, who was happy to come along and whose fresh eyes added a new perspective on our trip. In 2017 we went on a sailing trip in France, and knowing that we would have a better experience with an 8-person boat rather than a 4-person boat, we invited Rita’s friend Lisa and a few others, all of whom were lovely even through the seasickness and occasional moments of terror. So when Rita’s friends JC and FDR mentioned how they loved to travel and didn’t have any travel plans lined up, we thought, why not?

The thing about traveling with friends is that it isn’t the same as normal friendship. Things are turned up to an intensity that you may not expect. You’re attached in a way — you can’t just say "OK cool I’ll text you sometime". You have to negotiate the terms of your vacation together. It’s like the difference between liking someone as a friend and liking them as a roommate. Some people are fun to have as friends but no fun to travel with, and vice versa. Getting both at the same time isn’t impossible — I’d say we’re batting better than .500 given our history so far — but every time you travel with someone new, you’re rolling the dice.

Our first bad sign was when JC texted Rita, "Hey, can I bring my mom?" I guess JC had done the same calculus we had, and figured that adding one more person didn’t add too much workload to the trip. OK, cool, but you really want to travel with your friends AND your mom? To the Middle East? Do you bring her to the nightclub too? Aren’t you afraid of subjecting her to the danger or, even worse, the fun, of the Middle East? Apparently not, because a few hours later FDR texted us something like "Oh I’m so glad Jen said that because I would also like to bring my mom!"

OK, cool, so our fun me-and-Rita trip is now a six-person elder hostel. No big deal. There were other red flags having to do with how difficult it was to coordinate with everyone — JC would often text Rita something, who would relay it to me verbally, to which I would respond "Why didn’t she read the Google Doc I sent out via email three weeks ago, which certainly covers this already?" which I assume Rita modulated somewhat before delivering as a response via text back to JC. But basically whatever, people are different and everything is fine.

FDR’s mom (Shirley) is a lovely person, sweet and classy. JC’s mom (Julie) is by contrast what we would call in Cameroon villageois, which literally means "villager" but is usually used to mean "from the village", i.e. a hayseed or country bumpkin, unsophisticated, the opposite of worldly. She was also, well, Chinese, rude and culturally insensitive to an extent that even I as an American found embarrassing. In particular, before we had left Jerusalem (in whose Old City we had stayed), she had already announced that she was not interested in looking at any more "old stuff" and was only interested in new and fancy things. Like, are you sure you’re on the right vacation, lady? Every time JC stopped somewhere to buy souvenirs, Julie complained loudly that she was wasting her money on junk, that the products available here were equally available at any 99-cent store in America, that she was paying too much for everything, etc. We tired of hearing her litany of remarks and cut her loose for the day in Amman while we visited the Roman amphitheater, and when we caught up with her afterwards we discovered that she had taken a taxi to where all the four-star hotels were and found a Burger King and was very pleased because she had had ice cream and it only cost 69 cents!

The thing that especially bothered me was essentially that for Julie, every conversation was a form of parallel play — she would say the next thing in "her" conversation regardless of what you say. It goes without saying that she wouldn’t always pay attention to anything that didn’t involve her clearly and directly.

One exciting situation developed in Wadi Musa, which is the town outside Petra. Our second morning there, we were planning our day, which was going to involve spending all day in Petra and then heading to Amman that evening. One option was to take the JETT bus (Jordanian equivalent of Greyhound), but I got stopped by one of the many taxi people who wander the streets and who could get us transportation, even though we were six, by hired car. The price he quoted wasn’t much worse than the cost to take the bus for six people and so I agreed that we would meet his driver at 6pm. Then, before we cut Julie loose for the day and headed back in to Petra, I explicitly told Julie to meet at 5pm, knowing already that I could not rely on her to be punctual.

Of course, regrouping at the hotel a little bit before 6, everyone was still scattered throughout — some finishing up a meal at a restaurant, another getting some water, and Julie somewhere on the mean streets of Wadi Musa, probably in heels, nowhere to be found. "Don’t worry," says Shirley, the cool mom. "I told her that everyone was going to meet here at 6pm." Oh no. You didn’t. "I told her in Chinese so I’m sure she understood." I appreciate your effort but understanding wasn’t the thing I was worried about..

So sure enough Julie rolls in at 6:45ish when the van is completely loaded and we’re all very anxious. No sooner is she in the minivan then (I’m proud to report) Shirley lets loose with both barrels, demanding why she was so late. The argument switched into Cantonese very quickly so I didn’t get the full effect but they really went at it for quite some time, to the point that both JC and FDR got exasperated and tried to shout down their moms to get the argument to stop, but this only had the effect that the moms started shouting at each other in louder Cantonese so that they could make their points heard over the petulant complaints of the daughters. Apparently the dispute centered on what Shirley told Julie (Shirley says 6pm; Julie says she was told 7pm), but branched off rapidly into Julie’s performance as a mother, the way she treated her daughter, Shirley’s honesty, and probably other topics that escape my memory. Shirley, switching into English, told me "Apparently I need to record every conversation I have with her to prove what I said!" I apologized to our driver Ali, but he laughed and said it was OK. Around this time, FDR shouted that maybe Ali could put some music on? Which he proceeded to do, and so it was that we proceeded up the Kings Highway to the strains of the Arabic radio and a Cantonese shouting match.

Eventually the two women gave up in the face of the persistent mechanical song, and eventually we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. During this time I tried to express my appreciation for Shirley’s efforts. I was impressed that Shirley had really given Julie her best efforts. Personally I had already given up on trying to change Julie — I had clearly already given up on her, concluding she was the kind of person you can’t fix, but at most contain. Shirley displayed excellence in the way she dealt fairly with someone who was beyond fairness.

[Edit: argh I just remembered I forgot the best part! Which is the next paragraph:]

Both women stayed civil for the rest of the ride, until we dropped off FDR and Shirley first at their fancy hotel in Amman. But then on the ride to the hostel where we were staying, Julie started to complain again. "Stupid woman! She thinks she is better than me because she is staying in a more expensive hotel!" Wait, what? "Fucking her," she seethed.

In the end, we tipped Ali generously, and we engaged his services the next day to drive us to the Dead Sea, which went well enough.

Morals of the story:

  • Travel with friends, or travel with parents, but never both at once, and certainly never with friends’ parents.
  • Never travel with more than can fit in a cab (i.e. 4 usually).
  • Your entire travel group should share one language, and especially that means that if something is said to the group in this language, everybody is responsible for understanding it.

Today’s word is "souq" (Arabic) or "shuk" (Hebrew), meaning marché, marketplace. Different souqs are different — the one in Jerusalem is fancy, with parts more like a Parisian gallery, and serves as a tourist destination, whereas the one we saw in Ramallah was more like a Cameroonian one (specifically it reminded me of the one in Bazou), with some vendors selling out of concrete buildings and others selling in a covered plaza.

Here are some random photos.

Me, Rita, and Julie. I think this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Some refreshing beverages. Taybeh Beer is made in the West Bank (we’re at a bar in Ramallah). Personally, I’d say it’s the best beer in the Levant.

Some clothing in a random stall in Jerusalem. Note the "Pika-Jew", which got a lot of laughs.

Another similar article of clothing.

Fresh produce in Ramallah.

Olives at the shuk in Jerusalem.

One of several spice merchants scattered throughout Jerusalem.

A restaurant we ate at on our first night in Jerusalem’s Old City.

A Bedouin tent in Wadi Rum, complete with some articles for sale.

The shuk in Jerusalem. JC is on the right, FDR is center and her mom between them.

Of course, there are also normal sorts of markets in Jerusalem. Here’s one of the several products we found at a "bodega".

Here’s another shot of FDR and Shirley at a bar in Amman.

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Alternance codique (Wednesday, 2017 February 8)

February 9th, 2017

I was briefly in Europe for FOSDEM and to see some of my French coworkers. We flew into Charles de Gaulle and drove up to Brussels, where FOSDEM is, and then drove back for a few days in Paris. I’m flying back now.

I’ve been working now for Mozilla for 9 or 10 months. It’s an interesting place, and it has some similarities to being a Volunteer. The first, of course, is that it’s a company with a public mission and a global scope. There’s also the fact that some 40% of its employees are "remote", meaning not working in an office but rather embedded in some community, and working for its good in a way that feels subversive. In Cameroon, my post was in Batié, but now it’s in New York. When it doesn’t feel like being a Volunteer, it feels like joining a secret society, one with a proud history and rich traditions. Looking at me, you’d think I’m just some guy working on a laptop, but actually I’m part of a global network of operatives, communicating over the Internet on a frequency that nobody hears, even though anyone can listen to it.

Being in Europe brings out a lot of the same interesting linguistic situations that I was familiar with from my time as a Volunteer. The choice of language felt itself like a logistical concern. Most Cameroonians are Francophone, of course, but the Anglophones feel like an oppressed minority, and so speaking French to one could be seen as an insult. Sometimes people would want to speak English with me because they wanted to practice English, or to show off, and I didn’t mind either. When with Americans, we’d normally speak English, but we might drop into French if it was the only language that all participants could understand. Over time I tended to keep my mouth shut until someone addressed me, and then follow them in whatever language they were using. I began to sense a power in that first moment, when the first word comes out. Until you spoke, you might be Dutch, British, French, American. Afterwards, all possibilities were removed but one. I often tried to delay that revelation as long as possible using expedients like non-verbal noises, or the use of brand names (which were the same in both languages).

Belgium at a tech conference is even more complicated, linguistically, than being in Cameroon. Belgium’s official languages are Dutch (and/or Flemish), French, and German in some parts. Brussels, being the capital, is a linguistic no-man’s-land. But English is the language of tech, and thus of FOSDEM. Still, I found myself switching into a Volunteer "natives speak French, friends speak English" mindset when I ordered at the cafeteria, even though it was staffed by FOSDEM. At the restaurant in Paris where we ate last night, one server overheard our mixed group talking English (the only language everyone supported) and would address us in English, while the other one hadn’t noticed and continued to address us in French. In case it wasn’t obvious, the title of this blog post is alternance codique, which means "code switching".

FOSDEM itself was a pretty good conference. It’s interesting in a lot of ways — it’s free, and registration isn’t required; you just show up. It’s held on a college campus and staffed entirely by volunteers (with a little v). One thing that makes FOSDEM unusual for a tech conference is that they set up "bars" on campus which sell a variety of Belgian beers. Of course I tried almost all of them during the weekend. If I had to select a favorite, I think it might be the cherry lambic that I had, the Kriek.

Brussels is relatively affordable for Europe. Belgian beers in most places were only a few Euro. Like everywhere else in Europe, tax is included in all listed prices, and there’s no such thing as a tip. Buses have displays showing the next few stops, and there’s also a tram system, and I think a subway as well. Everything is cute and everyone we met was polite.

By contrast, Paris was not what I was expecting from Europe at all. If Brussels is a pleasant but stiff bureaucrat who maintains a formal distance, Paris is an old lady who lives in a corner house and chain-smokes aggressively. She can be mean, but she’s had a rich and colorful life and if she invites you to dinner, it’s always fascinating. The City of Lights is full of gilding and filigrees and beautiful historical buildings. The place we were staying dates from 1725 or so, but locks on the front door were much more modern and quite substantial, apparently because Paris had a serious burglary problem for a while. While we were waiting for one of our group to pick up a few things in the supermarket, someone shoplifted and the guard chased him down the street. Nothing violent happened per se, but it definitely felt less safe than Brussels.

Apart from a couple bad apples, the Parisians have been lovely. I had a charming if somewhat challenging conversation in French with the check-in counter for Air France about why I didn’t have long hair any more like in my passport. (I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to understand the accents of the people in Europe, but I was gratified to find that I have largely been able to get by.) The food has been quite good when I’ve been able to get it without milk. Paris is nice, but in the (admittedly short) time I spent there, I didn’t really see how people can fall in love with the place, unless you’re already powerfully in love with the idea of France or the French.

Some photos:

The place where we stayed in Brussels had some cool nerd junk.


Beer list. For a conference, this is quite a selection!

The PostgreSQL elephant was in attendance. Can MySQL do this??

Vending machine waffle. There were fresh ones being made too, but these were only 0.50€ and didn’t have milk.


One of the passages/galleries in Paris. These are actually pretty cool; they’re not exactly closed to the outdoors, and they have a skylight, so you can feel like you’re getting some fresh air, but at the same time it’s enclosed enough to be pleasant, even during the winter.

Notre Dame de Lorette, a fancy church in Paris. Also depicted are my teammate Rémy and our intern Mansimar.

My intern Gabi and the adorable Firefox stuffed animal at the Paris office.

Airplane cognac. Only on Air France…

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Accueil (Thursday, 2015 November 26)

November 29th, 2015

Starting about a month or so ago, I got a series of increasingly frantic emails, texts, and phone calls from Julie, one of the returned Volunteers that still lives in NYC. Apparently one of her friends from village, a young lady named Annette, won the Diversity Visa lottery and was coming here, to New York, and Julie had no idea what to do with her. What kind of paperwork was going to be necessary? Where was she going to sleep? What kind of work could she do?

Although the government issues visas, those visas aren’t backstopped by programs, services, or resources, even for fundamentals like learning English. You’re on your own for all of the above. Hopefully you have family or friends who know the lay of the land and can help you along. And if those friends or family are, like Julie, in the middle of moving house, then things become a bit more difficult. Julie apparently spoke to some of her "civilian" friends, and they discouraged her from all of this — she’ll take advantage of you, they said, or she’ll never leave. Maybe so. But we’re still Volunteers, and this is some prime Goal 3 kind of work. And if you think about it, Annette is kind of a Volunteer now too for some reverse-bizarro nega-Organization that lets people into the States. That means she’s family. We have to take care of her.

A plan has slowly coalesced around some of the returned Volunteers in the New York area. Julie (or maybe it was someone else?) found a Cameroonian woman who lives in the Bronx who came over just a few years ago with nobody here to help her but some other returned Volunteers. She now lives in an apartment with enough room to take in a few other Cameroonians. Julie’s trying to arrange for Annette to move there as of December 1st. In the meantime, she’s staying with us, sleeping on our couch and borrowing Rita’s old computer.

It’s been a weird experience so far having Annette — sort of like inheriting a slightly clueless 23-year-old daughter. I picked her up at the airport on Friday and it was the first time she’d ever been on an airplane. We’ve had to explain everything to her — how to ride the subway, how to buy vegetables at the supermarket, even how to flush the toilet. She’s an intelligent enough girl — she finished lycée and got her Bac, and even has a couple years of university under her belt — but is missing a lot of context. And then there is the occasional unfortunate incident like her not remembering how to work the intercom to let someone into the apartment, so going downstairs to let them in and thereby locking herself out.

It’s almost like she’s doing a reverse stage, and we’re (all of us in NYC) her famille d’accueil, her host family. (Accueillir means to welcome.) One fascinating thing has been to watch people come out of the woodwork — in just a week in America, Annette has had more guests at her parties than I have had at mine. Between this, and the above observation that she’s a reverse Volunteer, I keep leaping to conclusions that aren’t 100% correct. The main one recently has been about her maturity. Volunteers are always college graduates; Annette, though 23, hasn’t finished any degree. Indeed, I think of her as a good kid, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of us, who are generally hot messes. Nevertheless she’s seemed pretty cool for a Cameroonian, young and idealistic and essentially open to new ideas in a way that I can’t remember even in myself. (About homosexuality, which is illegal in Cameroon, she just said "Well, it’s up to them to manage their lives, and it’s up to me to manage mine.")

There’s a lot more to say about her stay with us, or indeed about the last year or two, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

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Cyclone (Tuesday, 2014 June 17)

June 18th, 2014

Last year Timothy came to visit me because his girlfriend was in the Mermaid Parade down on Coney Island. I am thinking now of standing on the fire escape here at Woodcrest and him telling me that I had quite an appetite for strong drink. Then, maybe the next day, we’re all standing outside in the sun and heat, running out of nigori sake or whatever we were drinking that morning, and watching the parade go by. In particular there’s a parade of muscle cars, some of which are fancy-looking antiques and one of which is just a loud car driven by the kind of person who knows how to make his tires squeal. After that car drives by, revving the engine like a beast only to stop short behind the next car, a guy in front of us says "Ha, and they have New Jersey plates, that’s perfect." Timothy, if you’re reading this, you asked if I "heard banjos" when I was in Brighton Beach. To answer your question, Brighton Beach is still civilization. For banjos, you have to go to Jersey, or at least Staten Island.

I’m getting off topic. Not too long after the cars go by, the parade starts, and before Jackie gets to go, the Brooklyn Cyclones mascot goes by. (He looks like a baseball with a duckbill and a baseball cap.) Timothy’s from out of town, so I’m explaining to him, "The Cyclones aren’t major league. They’re just below major leagues. Is there a name for that?" And the guy who made the quip about Jersey turns around and says "Triple A." So maybe the Cyclones are Triple A. (Although now that I’m looking it up, it seems like they’re Class A — Short Season.)

They don’t play at Barclay’s Stadium, in downtown Brooklyn, named after a major bank — they play at MCU Park, named after the Municipal Credit Union, open to all former employees of the City of New York. The park is in Coney Island, which, while once the gold standard for American amusement parks, is now one of the seediest neighborhoods in New York. So it’s a triple-A team playing at a triple-A stadium in a triple-A neighborhood. And when they sent me an email saying that they were observing Peace Corps Day with special seating available for anyone who used the discount code PEACE, I knew I had to go. Finally I would be able to relate to my father and his sister talking about the team’s dancing girls, the Beach Bums, walking around and shaking their bottoms. Best of all, I’d be able to heckle the Hudson Valley Renegades (?) while getting sufficiently drunk and being surrounded by other Volunteers.

We rolled up late, having had a chili dog and a Coney Island Lager at nearby Nathan’s, but as soon as I got there I knew I had made the right decision. The whole place reeked of Brooklyn spirit. Instead of ads for companies best described as "brands", the place was festooned with decorations for places like Astoria Federal Savings, New York Methodist Hospital, Midwood Ambulance Service, and Peter’s personal favorite, Send In The Clowns Entertainment Corp. A trained eye could look at the Beach Bums and easily discern the swarthy attitude of Canarsie, the tawny pride of Flatbush, or the self-important swagger of Midwood. There was a table for Peace Corps where they gave Volunteers a t-shirt with the Peace Corps logo on the front so you could broadcast your affiliation to the larger community, and it was easy to spot the section where your ticket was, even if you didn’t know exactly where to sit. Of course, PCVs don’t hurry right over to their assigned seats — instead we stood around the table and gossiped with the other (more experienced) Volunteers manning the table.

Apparently they’ve recently changed the application process? What used to take 8 hours to fill out now only takes 1, and instead of expressing a vague preference about where you want to go, you get to apply to an individual country. ("How can they do that?" Peter asked. "That’s not — they can’t do that! That’s not what Peace Corps is about! It’s about the cold hand of bureaucracy telling you what to do, and you doing it. With a smile.") Apparently if your application for a particular country isn’t competitive enough, they tell you to apply again when your application is more competitive.

To be honest, I’m with Peter on this one — if you know enough about a country or about Peace Corps to know where you want to go, you’re losing out on an opportunity for some serious cultural exchange. I had essentially no idea about anything about Cameroon before I landed there. My country selection process was almost exactly like my college selection process — random and undirected, just the way I like it. For some reason I think that worked out really well for me, although all evidence does seem to point to the contrary. It certainly does seem, though, like you’ll just get a bunch of people aiming for Beach Corps/Posh Corps posts like Jamaica or Ethiopia. But maybe it’ll sort itself out the way college seems to for so many Americans, or maybe they’ll recoup those frustrated failed volunteers and send them to slightly less posh places like Haiti and Mongolia.

The game itself was pretty forgettable, although we did beat the Renegades 5-1. More important were all the other bread and circuses that seem to surround a baseball game, even a triple-A one. For example, towards the middle of the game, a woman wearing what looked like business-casual went out and sang God Bless America, and then a little girl went out and sang Take Me Out To the Ball Game. They had a race with three hot dogs, Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish, and Ketchup won but only by playing dirty (he pushed Mustard over). The scoreboard was lit up with numbers (most of them zeroes), but I wasn’t wearing my glasses and really had no idea what most of them meant. Periodically the announcer would mention that such-and-such an event was sponsored by Kings Plaza Shopping Center, and then play a sound which was presumably meant to be some kind of theme music for Kings Plaza but was actually the Law and Order sound. Everything was chaotic and ridiculous but essentially harmless.

Everyone there seemed really cool and I had a really great time. I did not have a great $7 beer in the stadium. Instead I planned ahead and had an even better flask of Absolut Vodka (this is not a product endorsement — it’s just what I had in the house). Afterwards, there was a fireworks show (which, like the man says, wipes my brain slate clean — it strikes me silent), and then we got to run the bases. And the best part was that it was only 20 minutes from home. Go Cyclones!

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Véhiculé (Saturday, 2013 August 10)

August 10th, 2013

Greetings from scenic Albany, where I find myself for a friend’s wedding. I went to college not too far from here and hated it. I figured Cameroon would soften my disgust for the place, because at least here there is running water and reliable power/Internet. It remains to be seen how I feel about it long-term, but when I got off the MegaBus and found my way to the once-hourly local bus, it seemed sufficiently fine.

Aside: When I was back in Bafia, having just received our bicycles, my host brother Hyacenthe remarked, "Woah, Ethan, you’re already vehiculated (véhiculé)?" The CDTA bus is what you take when you are not vehiculated. I guess I wasn’t in a great position to evaluate them when I was going to school, because there was only one or two such buses that I ever took, but this time I got on a bus at 10 PM and it was pretty much on time. I think they renumbered some or all of the routes, which is encouraging — it suggests someone at CDTA headquarters is thinking.

The bus dropped me off at Walmart Plaza. Walmart was still open, but the liquor store wasn’t. The hotel was a half hour or so away by foot. This part of the country isn’t designed so much for pedestrians. Sidewalks are often absent, and overall the whole place is a lumpy, rustic place, blue collar in ways that New York isn’t.

This morning I splashed around a little bit in the hotel pool (which is just large enough for me to traverse in five strokes), and tried some of the complementary breakfast — the scrambled eggs had butter, but I had some bacon, and they had hardboiled eggs, but no piment. Still, running water, right?


Rêve (Monday, 2013 June 17)

June 18th, 2013

I had a dream last night that I was getting ready to start the school year all over again. Now that I’d sucked as a volunteer/teacher for two years, I was ready to buckle down and I was going to magically be better at it. I was going to concentrate on the things that mattered to me and I was going to do a good job. Most of all, I was convinced that now that the Terminale students had bombed the Bac last year, they were also going to be way more serious and interested in the things I was trying to get into their heads. I was excited, the same sort of excited optimism that I had at the beginning of my second year.

I woke up almost a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to be teaching again. But then I started to think about it and all the other more plausible disappointments came trickling back in…

Peace Corps volunteers have become a major linchpin in my life lately. Yaya blew through a couple months ago, and Charmayne a couple months before that. One is coming to visit this week, and Jenny "Spaghetti Omelette" Wang is coming to NY in July and we’re going to take a road trip to visit some others in Middle America. Maybe that’s why I had a Cameroonian dream. It’s not the first time — I had a confusing one with a Cameroonian saying something like "Pardon monsieur pour ne pas te donner du food" and me correcting him that "food" in French is "la nourriture" — and I’ve given up on trying to make sense of them. My life here has its own challenges, but at least it makes sense.


Continuer (Sunday, 2013 March 17)

March 17th, 2013

A few months passed. Late October my parents started remodeling the bathroom. At first I was like, "Finally! I can show off my bucket bathing skills, since we won’t have a shower." But then I realized our backyard doesn’t have any place where you can bathe without being seen (no outdoor latrine), and that I had no desire to shower outside in NYC in late October. Just goes to show, even the "roughing it" skills we learn in Peace Corps don’t always translate well to a culture where the infrastructure doesn’t support them.

Around the same time, I was due to start my job, so I really wanted to have regular access to a shower for the week or so that my parents were due to not have a bathroom. Accordingly, I started putting in motion the move to a new apartment. I thought I had timed everything correctly, with me moving in at the beginning of November, and the management company telling me I could pick up the keys a few days early, but hadn’t counted on the super needing more time to change the locks. Oh, and then there was Hurricane Sandy. We lost power (and therefore heat, which has an electric ignition) at my parents’ house for a couple of days (long enough to run out of charge on all my electronics), which I definitely hadn’t expected to happen in the First World. Me and Rita played cards by candlelight. My first day of work, our new office was still nonfunctional, so our office manager had people over in her apartment and we worked there. Subway service was inoperative, and buses were swamped. Flatbush Avenue has this longstanding phenomenon of "dollar vans", which are sort of analagous to taxis in Cameroon. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to take them. They were doing a brisk business. I decided to walk it, which was tiring but not unreasonable. Thenceforth I took my bike.

And then things settled down, slowly but surely. Mass transit started working again normally. The subtle terror of lines at gas stations and what that might portend faded gradually as gas started flowing back into Greater New York. I started a job that I’m good at. Eventually I went on isoniazid for my tuberculosis, then off it again when there was a national shortage, but now I’m back on it. There’s the occasional oddity here in "White Man Country" (to use the Anglophone phrase), like discovering that traffic buttons don’t really do anything and neither do elevator "door close" buttons in normal operation, but by and large I am living the good life. I eat a lot of meat — in Cameroonian terms, I’ve become even more "healthy" — and I drink a fair amount of delicious things (at least, when I’m not on my isoniazid). I play board games (of which I now have almost 100) and I see my friends and even other Volunteers like Peter Paskowsky pretty regularly.

I always strive to be not like other people, but of course (as previously) I’m not too far off from Volunteer-normal. I’ve had to struggle to understand and accept that things that don’t matter to me are nevertheless taken quite seriously by people I care about, and that I need to respect that. A good example is wearing shoes — it feels like most everyone I know has a standing policy that you take your shoes off immediately as soon as you have one foot inside the door, despite the fact that nobody’s gonna track any mud in from their apartment building corridor. It isn’t rainy season, after all! I guess I’ve made a peace with it because I know I’ve got my own quirky neuroses too (like the occasional French word or "When I was in Africa…" story), and I figure if people can put up with mine, I ought to put up with theirs too. None of us are really objectively right — we’re all just screwed up in slightly different ways.

Lately I’ve read The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which I enjoyed, but not as much as the original The Magicians, partly because of some of the deeply disturbing scenes at the end, Bone Dance by Emma Bull, which I loved, and Redshirts by John Scalzi which was also quite enjoyable.


Suite (Wednesday, 2012 September 18)

September 19th, 2012

[This one goes out to all the UPS drivers out there that are not delivering my computers. It’d be nice if you guys could, you know, deliver them. Sure, it’s an unreal wish-fulfillment fantasy, but hey! Speaking of unreal wish-fulfillment fantasies, here’s the last installment of the fiction.]

I know I didn’t talk much about the Mission’s evacuation program but I really don’t know much about how it worked. They had picked us up and now we were heading back to Capital City in a wheeled ground transport that I didn’t know the Sumi name for. It was squat but high up, and wide and long like someone had put couches on stilts and wheels. I was sitting in the back on one side of two Missionaries. They looked shell-shocked, like I did. One was crying. Utkeu’s laser pistol was stowed — the drivers hadn’t asked about personal armaments so I wasn’t saying anything.

As far as I could tell from the curt answers the Zhenae drivers gave me, the revolution started in a city near Sunken Grace (one of the major economic centers of Zhen). Word had gotten out that Planetary Counsel had written their report on the election results, which the local population found objectionable on the grounds that the votes hadn’t been counted. These townsfolk proceeded to their local Town Counsel to express their disappointment. Local authorities, including the local branch of the Arms, rebutted their views with rigor and force. Of the townsfolk who survived, some were wearing black armbands. Riots spread from there to the equatorial regions, and by personal communication to the Plateau and the Outer Islands. All government establishments were at risk. Most Missionaries worked at government establishments. You get the idea.

I had a lot of time, because our transport was taking us all the way back to the Mission in Capital City. This let me start to process what I’d seen happen to Utkeu, one of my closest friends on Zhen. I know he had been disappointed in me. In a sense, I’d killed him. He’d given me the benefit of his wisdom, tried to dissuade me from the course I’d already been on, and I’d blown him off. My hubris had gotten him killed. I’d made a mistake. He’d paid for it. I had survived, through no fault of my own. He was gone and he was never coming back.

What about everyone else? I didn’t know what had happened to my friend who had tried to seduce me at the club. Was she OK? I’m glad she hadn’t been there with me when I’d had to leave. She would have been on her own.

As for Jamie, I hadn’t heard from her, but I was willing to bet that she was someplace safe, maybe even already at the Mission, or even off-planet already after finding a way to get out early. I worried, in a completely platonic way, about Morgan.

We trickled in over the next day or so. The last Missionaries pulled into the secure compound in the early afternoon, and we all shuffled to the biggest conference room we could find for a debriefing. The logistics were pretty straightforward; we were going to private shuttle to the Starport in groups and from there lift off back home. Anyone could ask for a transfer to a different planet, but me, Jamie, and Morgan, making eye contact in the back, would not be exercising that option. Our possessions would eventually be dug out of our residences and sent to us.

Missionaries who were evacuated were considered to have finished their service, like an honorable discharge. We’d gotten, therefore, the best of both worlds. We’d finished our service, but without having to actually finish our service. It was all playing out like Jamie had planned. We’d hit the jackpot.

We weren’t allowed out of the compound to go drinking; some Missionaries were staying at the hotel next door, but they were only allowed to go in groups of four. I was alone in a corner behind one of the administrative buildings when Morgan found me.

"We did it," she said.

"Yeah, we’re regular heroes."

She smiled vaguely, choosing not to be drawn in. Instead she sat next to me.

"I wanted," I said. And then I had to stop for a second. "I’m having buyer’s regret. I’m not sure this is the right revolution."

She gave a quiet laugh, almost a sigh. "We did our best. I think time will tell."

"Did they attack your school?"

"No, things are different on the Islands… a little more respect for teachers or something. They just took the Arms House and more or less left us alone."

"That’s good."

"Where are you gonna go next?"

"Not sure yet. You?"

"Back to school, I think. Maybe I’ll really learn how to teach."

"Listen," I said. "I guess I’m still learning how to grow up, how to put other people’s feelings into consideration. I’m sorry about everything."

"It’s fine. Now I can finally get away from you." She smiled and stood up, stretched. "Maybe I’ll see you on Earth."

"Maybe," I said. But as she walked away, I thought, maybe not.

A plan was already forming in my head. I’d gotten this whole planet into a mess because I wanted to go home. I’d thought I knew what God had wanted, and one of my closest friends was dead because of it. Maybe I could turn this around, try to act selflessly for once.

My bag was already packed. I left a note, then climbed over the wall.


Correction (Sunday, 2012 September 9)

September 10th, 2012

Here are updated versions of the books I wrote incorporating typo fixes and minor grammatical changes that were in the printed version.

Uploaded: html.html (XML document text, 153.0 KiB)
Uploaded: html.rst (HTML document, UTF-8 Unicode text, with very long lines, 118.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.odt (OpenDocument Text, 48.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.doc (Composite Document File V2 Document, Little Endian, Os: Windows, Version 1.0, Code page: -535, Revision Number: 44, Total Editing Time: 02:59:00, Create Time/Date: Sun Jul 15 19:09:44 2012, Last Saved Time/Date: Wed Sep 5 14:33:19 2012, 277.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.pdf (PDF document, version 1.4, 173.0 KiB)


En partant (Friday, 2012 August 24)

August 24th, 2012

En partant is something like "in leaving", used to describe the context of an action, like "In leaving Cameroon, I stopped and visited my host family in Bafia". I found some random crap I wrote after we got home from the bar. I originally intended to clean it up and post it as a full blog post but I think it’s kind of nice in its abbreviated scatteredness. Here it is:


I’m in Bafia right now, drunk as I normally am. Got home with Astride, who was an annoying disruption in stage but is now a valuable ally, having demonstrated her value as a Volunteer-monger.

Being here in the Alemi’s house is nice to an extent but also a little weird — there are echoes of that same strange terror that came from being here two years ago, thousands of miles from home.

I’m here with Boris, of course; that changes things to some extent.

Power’s out.

Nobody’s hitting on me, to my everlasting disappointment.

I’m no longer a volunteer, so I didn’t wear my moto helmet, but I brushed my teeth and took my Doxy, so one for one?


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