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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.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180702_123606167_LL-scale0.25.jpg

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

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_3069-scale0.25.jpg

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.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180702_1913299162-scale0.25.jpg

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

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180702_190452834-scale0.25.jpg

Another similar article of clothing.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180701_111658760-scale0.25.jpg

Fresh produce in Ramallah.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180701_191723961_HDR-scale0.25.jpg

Olives at the shuk in Jerusalem.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180702_165922855_HDR-scale0.25.jpg

One of several spice merchants scattered throughout Jerusalem.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180630_220457078_HDR-scale0.25.jpg

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

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_3257-scale0.25.jpg

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

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_3078-scale0.25.jpg

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

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180702_001206-scale0.25.jpg

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

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/IMG_20180710_201622-scale0.25.jpg

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

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Prix (Thursday, 2012 July 26)

July 26th, 2012

So, maybe it was stupid, but I said what I really thought about Marie-Cha on that stupid video that the kids took of me with my camera. (7 minutes. 474 MB. Thanks.) I was diplomatic, maybe we can say that’s something I learned in Cameroon, and I think I just said that while I considered her a neighbor and even family, I don’t think she sees me in the same way. And even worse, I explained it when Parfait asked me, the whole affair with Boris and that she really ripped me off on the things I "sold" her (not that it’s unique to her — Pa-Na, Madame Kamga, and maybe even M. Teukeu have done the same thing). I guess I consider that my fault, since Brondone was implicated. So when Brondone came by at 8 o’clock, an hour and a half ago, asking that I come explain to her what was going on, I did it. I knew it was going to be a shitty discussion but I am a grown man.

So I went to explain why I saw the way I did. Marie-Cha, to her credit, though it was 8 o’clock, explained patiently that she had just gotten back from deliberating exams all day and was exhausted and had just started eating and she hadn’t sent Brondone to go find me and she was figuring to talk to me about it in the morning, and how basically all of this that Brondone was doing, she was just watching for the time being. But then she wanted me to explain it all the same, so I explained about how Boris still owes me 2000 CFA and I’m angry that she hasn’t been raising her kid better, and that I’m feeling taken advantage of because she haggled like a demon over the things she wanted from my house.

"Look, it’s not Boris who wants the Linux O.S. It’s me." [Which I don’t really think I buy.] "It’s not even going to be useful to him, it’s for here in the village, whereas he’s going to be in the city going to university. And it’s so easy to format computers in the city, so it couldn’t even be for him. I never sent Brondone to go ask you to burn those CDs, I just asked them to tell me when you got home so I could ask you this favor. That it’s for Boris is just something that maybe Brondone invented. As for the 2000 CFA, did you ever tell me that he owed you?"

"Well, I told Brondone."

"But you never told me. I figured Brondone was just talking about stuff that didn’t really concern him. If you’d come to me, I’d have told you, well, how can we fix this? As for the things I bought from you, I didn’t understand that you were upset about it. It was, after all, you who accepted."

"You know I don’t know how to haggle."

"You mean, in the States, you don’t haggle? When you buy things, what do you do?"

"It’s like the supermarket, right? All the prices are marked."

"You mean to say that in two years, when you go to the market, you don’t haggle?"

"No. People tell me a price, and I either take it or I leave it."

"And those things that other people bought from you, you didn’t haggle with them? What about that mattress?"

"I sold it to M. Lukong. I said I wanted 20,000 for it, that I’d paid 40, and he accepted."

"What about that thing you sold to Mme. Kamga?"

"I said I wanted 7000, and she took it for 5000."

"Look. If you really think I cheated you, and it’s worth more than what I paid for it, then seriously, anything I have here of yours, please, take it back, sell it somewhere else. I don’t want any problems with you."

But all of this is still fucked up. Even if I haggled for stuff at the market, it was as a buyer for stuff that I knew the correct price for. I never sold anything. And you know after two years that I’m forbidden to turn a profit on anything. I’m not the marketplace. I’m your friend and a volunteer. I trusted you, as my friend, to tell me what the correct price was. You told me I’d overpaid and you weren’t going to pay those prices. And when I said I was only trying to get enough money together to send my suitcase home, you told me that surely my mother would help me. Say what you will, but I don’t see how I can see that as something a friend would do.

And now you’re going to offer me to take my stuff back and resell it? In the two days I have left in this village? That isn’t acceptance, that’s coercion.

Fine. I get it now. Once we’re talking money changing hands, there are no more friends. To the Bamiléké, you become a marketplace. I probably should have figured that out sooner. Oops.

And, here’s the fucking thing. She’s probably even right, to an extent. To some extent, this whole goddamned thing is some cross-cultural miscommunication or something. And I’m figuring it out now when I have 11 days, 14 hours left in this country. I don’t even know whether to scream or cry. I’m sick of this place. Nothing makes sense to me. I can’t cope and I don’t even have Internet access.

I still don’t have time to finish this stupid book for 1ere. I was figuring that it would be on the order of the 3e book, which was around 10 kwords, but I am about to break 11 and I’m about 2/3 finished. Today has just been yet another day of relentless interruptions on the day when, out of all the days, I really did not need it.

I’ve learned an awful lot about being a minority here. I hope I’m not.. I don’t know. Like this.

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Echouer (Monday, 2010 August 2)

August 4th, 2010

Got my new language test result back. It’s Intermediate Mid, whereas I need to be Intermediate High to go to post. It’s not fair to say I "bombed" it, but I sure did "fail" it. People here say echouer, "to fail, to fall through".

Earlier today I was so furious I lost my temper at Gaston (language coordinator). He was saying something along the lines of "Oh, it’ll be fine, you’ll be able to pass the test in no time," to which I said something like "No, I was ALREADY able to!" Which shut him up for a minute. I think he was astonished that I successfully constructed a sentence that actually expressed my emotions, but on the other hand he could have been thinking better of correcting my grammar.

I know that if you didn’t know better you could get the impression that stagiaires are indifferent-to-hostile about learning French, but that’s not the fucking case. I speak French chaque fucking jour. I teach two hours a day in the goddamned language. The goal is to be able to communicate and by goddamn, I am fucking communicating. Sure, I mangle the fucking language. But I’m a damn sight better than many of the other stagiaires with higher fucking language levels.

There was a long list of reasons why this is bogus here, but the pertinent part is this: I’ve been thinking about flunking out again today, probably for about three or four hours. It seems like an increasingly good idea:

  • I am fucking tired of French classes.
  • I am fucking tired of the other stagiaires.
  • I am fucking tired of sweating all the goddamned time.
  • I am tired of trying to make things clean using dirty water.
  • I am tired of everything being a fucking ordeal (épreuve).
  • I am not a good teacher. I have no desire to become a good teacher. I have no desire to remain a bad teacher.
  • I do not see how I can make a difference here. I do not see how this program can make a difference here.

In the meantime I have been motivated to study a little bit some useful vocabulary. "Waste of time", une perte de temps. "To waste my time", perdre mon temps. "To prove", prouver. "The proof", la preuve. "Ordeal", as noted above.

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Packing Guide

May 26th, 2010

So there you go.  Hope all that helps. Really, there’s no need to stress as you can either find things you forget here or have them shipped from home.  Good luck with everything, and see you all when you get here.

This is from the packing guide I got by email (as part of a nine-.doc email). Packing has been something of a focus for me over the last few weeks; it’s a little late to say “there’s no need to stress”, especially since I’ve seen four Organization-endorsed packing lists already.

On the other hand (d’un autre côté), this advice is probably pretty sage. There’s no way to prepare for something like this. You can buy things in an attempt to make yourself feel better (as I have), but since you don’t even know where in the country you’re going to go, you’re trying to predict something unknowable. I’m trying not to stress, but the entire Organization process so far has been almost designed to produce stress, from badly-designed forms to arbitrary processes and incoherent instructions demanding answers to obscure and invalid questions. It’s kind of hypocritical to turn around and say “It’ll be fine! Don’t worry!..”

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