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Posts Tagged ‘panic’

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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Maroc (Friday, 2011 December 2)

December 3rd, 2011

Nurse Ann apparently got clearance to get my root canal done locally, in Yaoundé, by the same Adventists that drilled the same tooth twice. I politely asked if I could maybe go to any other dentist in the country, since I didn’t have a lot of confidence left in those. Nurse Ann demurred but the next day (Tuesday) called me to let me know I was going to Morocco (the jackpot of medevacs). Then Wednesday she called again to say that I needed to be in Yaoundé the next day by noon because I was flying out Friday. What about my tests, yet ungraded? There’s no time; hurry. So I graded what I could and assembled as much of everything and Thursday morning left as early as I could manage for Yaoundé. Through luck I was present at the gonging-out of Henry, Richard, Stephen, and a few other end-of-service Volunteers. Left that night at 1 AM, with a Driver taking me to the airport and making sure I got onto the plane. Had to drink my last sachet before going through the security checkpoint. Fell asleep in the waiting lounge for the 4 AM flight; the staff woke me up, got to my seat in the plane and pretty much fell asleep immediately again. Touched down 11 AM WAT which is 10 AM in Morocco. Hour-long drive from Casablanca to Rabat, the capital, where I was able to deal with Admin on their home turf.

The drive was a little eerie, as a vague discomfort settled over me. I found myself a little overwhelmed with the look of the place — Westernized in vague outlines, good-quality highways with proper signage, but with Arabic on all the signs. The vegetation is a little different too. I’m thinking of what Allison said, that adjusting to Cameroon was way easier than adjusting to the UK, because in the UK things are always only slightly different. Morocco is only slightly different. I was uncomfortable to be in a Westernized, "developed" country, finding myself oddly homesick for the redness and dusty roads of Cameroon. One of my early posts on this blog, I wrote that life-changing experiences only have as much power over you as you let them, and that historically I tend not to give that power out — but Cameroon has changed me, and the things I consider "safe" and "home" are way different now from when I first touched down a year and a half ago. On top of that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to run afoul of some nuanced Islam-ish cultural practice, that I was going to give major offense or violate a taboo that I didn’t know about.

All of this discomfort went away when I landed and met some of the local Moroccan volunteers, passing through Rabat on their way to a training next week. So far I’ve met Luis, a guy named Quad (short for "the Fourth", being Herbert Something the Fourth), Gussy (short for Augusta), Donna, Connor, and Lindsay. Within ten hours I was already fully up-to-date on the Organization Gossip Grapevine, providing me with rumors and opinions about every one of the two hundred volunteers I don’t know in this country.

What I’ve seen of Morocco is wildly, unfairly amazing. Rabat in particular is a real place, with sushi places (!) and even a bookstore where I saw a hardcover copy of McCaffrey’s Dolphins of Pern! By contrast Yaoundé is more like someone trying really hard to make a real place without knowing exactly what that would mean. Whereas the Organization has an "office" in Yaoundé, they have a "campus" in Rabat. The stark contrast between their chic-looking wood cafés and restaurants and our "Wood Bar" with its dented pressed-metal chairs and tables is striking — both because of how much nicer everything is here, and because of the important lesson that the Maroc is culturally "dry" due to Islam — although this appears to be a qualified dryness, and it’s not illegal to sell or consume alcohol, and even "au village" the volunteers here say people are definitely drinking, perhaps behind closed doors. But alcohol’s much more expensive here — last night I paid 30 dh (dirham, about 8 dh=$1) for an American-sized beer — versus 500 CFA, about $1, for a Cameroonian 0.65L beer. Something like 7 times more expensive. Morocco’s a shitty place to be an alcoholic, in sum, and I’ve made a lot of friends by promising to start a "sachet of the month" club, to be repaid in local garments.

Gussy said something about how Rabat is a nice city in the style of a generic European city, but doesn’t have any character. I find this wildly baffling. I’m chowing down right now on a bag of olives and another bag of dates, both of which I bought in the medina (which literally means "city", but actually means the Old City, which is actually actually an open-air market) for presque rien. Does Yaoundé’s ramshackle and aggressive manner give it character? I prefer to think that Rabat’s character is just clean and polite, dignified in a way that Yaoundé definitely isn’t. The local volunteers don’t think I can experience real Moroccan culture or cuisine in Rabat, so I should just carouse and live it up a bit, but I’m pretty sure they don’t appreciate how thoroughly the culture is seeping through the city, like a heart on a sleeve. For them it’s normal, thus uninteresting and bland, that no one call out "white person!" or "foreigner!" to you as you go about your business, whereas for me it’s an exciting mark of serious refinement. The volunteers say that the rest of the country is way worse than Rabat, and I believe it, but I don’t think they realize how good they have it all the same. A large majority of Volunteers here have running water and electricity; in Cameroon most get one or the other, and some neither.

My French serves me well in this country — everyone can speak it, although Dirisia (Moroccan Arabic; sp?) or the variety of Berber tongues would be useful to know too. The accent is pleasant, both a little Frencher in some places and a little lighter, like when Fulbe speak it, in others. And an appalling number of people speak to you in good-quality English, and have no problem with American English. My Cameroonian sense of fashion is a little less useful; no one wears pagne here, everyone wears long sleeves, and there are actual seasons here (we’re coming up on winter). Volunteers in Cameroon very occasionally use words like "summer" as abstract constructions to refer to certain time periods, like the holiday vacation, but more often we just use months, because for us the only seasons that exist are "dry season" and "rainy season". Par contre, here it’s breezy here bordering on chilly, and I’m enjoying the novelty. Dry season can get a little boring so I’m also enjoying the phenomenon of weather, such as rain (last night).

I saw the dentist last night at 4 PM, after having only been in the country for a few hours, and he confirmed the diagnosis of a root canal. That nerve is dead, super-dead, and Dr. Rami decided that we could just start drilling now, and why not skip the Novocaine just to prove that the tooth is dead? So I now have a hole in tooth #5, whence the abscess can drain and be exposed to air and basically get better. My parents will also be happy to know that I am on fucidine 250 mg twice daily. Dr. Rami let me know that the abscess probably stayed mild instead of getting to really incredible swelling because of the doxycycline that I take for malaria prophylaxis. Take your doxy, kids. It’s a wonder drug.

The Organization behaves a bit differently here — there’s no case or transit house, so I’m being put up in a hotel which has adequate, but not incredible, wifi. There’s no Education program — or indeed any programs any more; they’ve changed the whole country over to Youth Development. There are sushi restaurants, plural, in Rabat, and a tram (!), and I expect to be in the country for about a week. Wish you were here.

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Vacances (Sunday, 2011 July 10)

July 10th, 2011

I’m writing this from Boris’s apartment in Douala, where I am kicking it for a few days before flying home. I think technically we’re not supposed to be here if we can avoid it, and certainly not while clandoing for a few days to start your vacation early, but Boris is from my village, and he insisted — "At least three days" — so I couldn’t very well refuse, could I? I’m just being a good Cameroonian. That I love cities, and want to get an insider’s view of this one, is just gravy.

I think I packed everything I wanted. I’m a little afraid I’m going to forget something, but it isn’t the same kind of panic that I had when I was preparing to embark on this whole two year adventure. People can mail things, or you can just buy them, and most of the things I brought from home, I don’t use anyhow. I’m a little worried I’ll fail the people who asked me to bring things for them — either Volunteers, who asked me to bring (for example) hard drives, or Cameroonians who asked me to see if I can’t buy on their behalf computers or cameras or whatever. There are a few, the ones I love best, who have asked for adorable things. Sure, Samuel, I’ll bring you a Rubik’s cube! Sure, Guillaine, I’ll get you some hand sanitizer! Whatever you ask!

I’ve been moody the last few days. I don’t think this is the same "I got dumped" blues I’ve been coping with for the last few months — at least, I hope not, since as Allison says, it’s poor form to spend more time moping than the relationship itself lasted. Instead I think it’s a preview of what I’ll have from leaving this place for good in a year. Partly it’s melancholy, even though this time I know I’ll be coming back. Another part is anxiety coming from a voyage into the unknown. Home is familiar, and I tell myself that this will just be like that time in college when seeing the New York skyline again at winter break, I cried. But even familiar means potentially unknown, and nobody likes the unknown, right? (So then why am I a Volunteer?) Let’s be honest — most probable outcome is that I’ll bore people to death with too many stories that start with "In Africa, …". But I worry about fitting in, about being a foreigner even at home. Service changes you — we all agree about this — starting with our liver, but other organs too. And if home is where the heart is…

Of course, this is all coming from someone who usually goes out of his way to be different from other people. And I’m still planning on wearing a boubou on the flight home. So maybe it’s just the more mundane worries of trying to fit everyone and everything into three and a half short weeks. Given an even more finite timespan than normal, I’m even more terrified of a spare moment than usual, with the predictable result that I’ve already double- and triple-booked some days. Shit! This is why I have a calendar! And I just realized I haven’t contacted Garwood at all! What are you doing, comp sci??

This week’s advice: take a deep breath, and think about root beer floats. I’m going to eat and drink so much, guys. I told Barbara I was going to put on at least 10 kg, which is going to take a certain amount of effort, but I think I’m up to the challenge. I’m going to make hamburger smoothies. I’m going to double fist chocolate soy milk and raspberry vinaigrette. It’s going to be the land of roses.

It’s raining here in Douala — rainy season, you know — which is rendering the terrible, soup-like climate downright bearable. We’re in a neighborhood with a slight Fulbe presence and we ate dinner at a restaurant where we sat on a mat on the floor. You can see the airport from the window, and periodically you can hear a plane taking off.

"I’m sorry, mum and dad and bro
I couldn’t stay. I had to go.
To London. With someone.
Before I come undone.
‘Cause where I’m from’s a humdrum town and I don’t want to die."

—Vanilla Swingers, "I’ll Stay Next To You"

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Sécurité (Friday, 2011 January 14)

January 14th, 2011

The reason we’re here in Yaoundé, of course, is a "workshop" about safety and security procedures, specifically in the case of an emergency. We’ve been arranged largely in "clusters", and I’ve been named the "contact Volunteer" for my cluster. Besides a free trip to Yaoundé, this means I get 2000 CFA a month to maintain the lines of communication. Apparently this position was pretty highly coveted among Volunteers. My postmate Cristina doesn’t understand why she didn’t get it and I did, and frankly I don’t know myself, since us education volunteers have more than enough to do anyhow. But then, I got out of class for two days, so I’m not complaining. The French word "sécurité" does double duty here, meaning both "safety" and "security" (to the extent that you can differentiate the two things anyhow).

The workshop was supposed to be two sessions originally, with one yesterday for a whole day, starring the facilitator Mike, and today for a half day. But Mike was flying in from Togo, and due to the political situation in the Ivory Coast, he wasn’t able to make it in time. (Little bit of a clerical screwup here where Mike fell off the radar for a while, ironic for a security officer. Turns out he was in Nairobi.) So instead we did the half-day yesterday and the full day today, complete with an extremely solid lunch. Uncommonly, the sessions were both quite well-executed and interesting. I think this was at least partly due to the high quality of the people running the session: a volunteer named Stephen who’s been here for, well, a long time, a lady named Ruth, and of course Mike. Part of it is also the subject matter: we get to discuss the realities of what might happen if the shit hits the fan. Mike is especially great for this; he’s a former Organization volunteer himself, also a director for an Organization program, also worked for some NGOs in this area. So basically a crazy old hippie in a position of some solemnity. So, when discussing a coup d’état, he says things like: "Yeah but, a coup, it’s like down and dirty for three, maybe four days, then it’s all over."

There’s a lot of fascinating terminology we use in these discussions. Of course there’s the standard battery of Organization acronyms, but there’s also stand fast, consolidation, and evacuation, which describe various kinds of contingency plans, and other terms, draw down, authorized departure, and ordered departure from the similar plans used by the US mission (to which the Organization’s plans are apparently Appendix L). Areas can be hot in times of crisis.

The material has basically two or three main lessons.

  1. Be in touch with admin. Make sure they know where you are, even when you aren’t supposed to be there. There are mechanisms for making this work, including one called the "whereabouts phone".
  2. In an emergency, your highest priority is being in touch. There is no one "emergency plan", and if there were, we could do better than to sit around memorizing it en masse. The plan is: be available, and keep the grapevine going, so that when the situation has been assessed, we can make it happen. (As elsewhere, it seems that communication and rapid correction trump planning.)
  3. Scary shit can happen.

We started the session with "one of our volunteers is missing", a session which included a few "case studies" of volunteers disappearing, and what went wrong in each case. These situations led to the "whereabouts policy", that volunteers need to be locatable at all times. The stories themselves are a little unsettling, even the happy ones, like the Kenyan Volunteer who had left his post and was playing tourist in other cities, no danger. And then there’s the Bolivian Volunteer who is still missing-presumed-dead now, ten years later. Another one, in the Philippines, was only a few years ago, apparently around the time Stephen was applying to the Organization, and made him realize that "Wow. Volunteers can die."

And against all of this is the background of the 20/20 episode, apparently coming on tonight, about some of the more horrific cases of scary shit in the lives of Volunteers. There’s a particular case that we’ve been talking about, involving a Volunteer in Benin whose throat was slit while she slept. I’m trying to find some support for the stories we’ve heard: this sure seems like part of it. The rumors we’ve heard: this lady blew a whistle on her program’s director, who was sexually abusing children, and when he found out who it was, he hired someone to kill her. This was 2009 (Stephen dates it because a bunch of volunteers from Benin came to Cameroon for a while to try to cope). It’s such a fucked up story that I still can’t really wrap my head around it.

Mike said, cutting to the chase, that everyone’s obviously frustrated with the situation, but nobody can do too much, because it’s a police investigation in a foreign country, and these things don’t proceed on American time. So the Organization is going to waffle about it, and that’s just the way things are going to be. Apparently every country’s administration had a giant conference call this week, presumably to summarize the talking points; Honored Directress, meanwhile, has been doing a great job of being supportive of us personally, and not discouraging us from speaking our minds about our safety, if our conscience calls for it.

Long story short, the importance of safety has been pretty thoroughly hammered home. To top it all off, as we were winding the session down, we were informed that Organization/Niger just evacuated its Volunteers. This is apparently based on the situation where some French nationals were kidnapped and murdered. The principle seems to be that Niger’s local gangs are performing the kidnapping, but then they sell the hostages to groups like Al Qaeda, and although the French are the target, the local gangs may decide that one white person is just as good as another. This makes one fewer safe exit from this country if we, ourselves, need to evacuate — Cameroon is a stable country, without history of political bloodshed, but our neighbors are all increasingly dangerous and hostile.

And now I’m sitting in the living room watching CNN. Apparently the Tunisian government dissolved?? What does that mean? It doesn’t sound great. Nothing sounds great. I’m in a Mood. Maybe a hot shower will make me feel better. If nobody hears from me in thirty minutes, please come looking..

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Maladie (Thursday, 2010 July 1)

July 6th, 2010

So many things to write about. But for right now let’s focus on the big one: being sick.

Discussion of the activities of my bowels follows. Please make sure you are not eating and are proximate to a shower before reading this. The sections about my bowels will be called out.

The day before yesterday, we were wrapping up the workshop with our community hosts when I realized that every time I drank water, I had a little bit of a stomach cramp. I resolved to monitor it, but, since we’re in Africa, I had long since given up on ever feeling completely healthy. Since school got out a bit early, naturally I went to the cybercafe, the market, and the bar with some other trainees. Then, later, when I got home, I realized that the way I was feeling was not typical "fuck this country is too goddamned hot and I’m never going to have a proper shower again" crappy, but more of a "hey I think I have a fever" crappy. And lo and behold, I was at 102 F. Cool beans.

Next paragraph: bowels.

But the medical manual basically says "Hey, most fevers go away within a couple days so hang in there!" I wouldn’t have worried overmuch except the following day we were supposed to go on site visit with our community hosts. So, time passes, diarrhea happens, and the morning of the alleged departure I evacuate my bowels again and this time I get lightheaded in the bathroom, lean against the wall for support, and later realize that I am now on the floor and that I might have blacked out for a second. That caused me a little bit of alarm because if I seriously hurt myself in one of those rooms, I am not sure how long it would take for my host family to discover and get help. Anyhow, I chalk it up to dehydration and resolve to drink a ton of water despite the cramps.

Nevertheless, I am too stubborn to quit, and naturally I have packed my bags for a few days’ journey. So I bring my bag down to the "staging area" (N.B. this is a pun; "stage" is French for "training") and say "Listen, David [training director], I am not feeling very well and I am not sure I am well enough to go on this trip. But then again I might be fine." David asks whether I would ilke to see a doctor, which eventually becomes "You are going to see a doctor". Everyone else leaves on their delightful voyages; my community host seems pretty bummed but also manages to leave; everyone verifies to their own satisfaction that I am being managed; and I wait.

There are two hospitals in the area of training — the Catholic hospital, and the Provincial (government-run) hospital. Apparently there’s one doctor who works at both. I’m not sure if he’s the only doctor, or merely the only doctor that the Organization approves of, but in either case we had to find him, so after first going to the Catholic hospital, we go to the other one, find him, go through a certain amount of medical rigamarole (my current weight is approx 79.3 kg. It’s approximate because I didn’t write it down and didn’t pay close attention because I was suffering from the ague). He prescribes some lab work that has to take place at the first hospital, including blood work, including malaria slides, because every fever in a malarial region is potentially malaria, and also a stool sample if possible.

Interestingly enough, nobody took my temperature at either hospital; I’m guessing sanitation is such that you can’t re-use thermometers, and economics are such that you can’t really use disposable ones. A bright Cameroonian could make a certain amount of money solving this problem. On the other hand, the apparatus to withdraw blood was pretty familiar, but although the nurse said "This will hurt a little bit", it actually hurt like fuck, much more than the needles back home. Duller or perhaps bigger needles? No idea.

Anyhow, the doctor pre-emptively (i.e. before the results came back) prescribed anti-malarial meds, because every fever in a malarial region is potentially malaria, and also an anti-fatigue medicine, because if you can’t treat the problem, you may as well treat the symptoms. I didn’t get all of this the first time around, so we went through a round of sending someone to the pharmacy to figure out what the various medicines were and what they did, and then visiting me at my host family’s, lying crosswise in bed because getting all the way undressed seemed like too much to ask. At this point I was entitled to call the Organization Medical Officers, who have a duty line that is 24/7 for Serious Emergencies, but business hours only for non-emergencies. Naturally it was just after business hours when I earned my 102 F fever, so I had decided to wait it out, but it was business hours now. Anyhow, I got ahold of Chad, who is the best medical officer, perhaps because he is the only American medical officer. He directed me to not fill any prescriptions yet, since we’d be getting the malaria results the same day, so why rush? I didn’t have the capacity to argue with that so that’s where we left things.

Oh, I should interject that by this point I was up to 104 F and had decided that acetominophen was probably something I could work on. Chad agreed; lots of fluids and tylenol every 4-6 hours.

If you are not interested in reading about my feces, you may want to skip ahead until the section marked "Later".

I hadn’t eaten anything since the night before (i.e. since the last time I had diarrhea) but somehow I found it in myself to produce a stool sample. In my medical journal this is recorded as "Shat my brains out. Shat my underwear. Broke the toilet lid. Acquired stool sample." It’s fair to say this was not my finest hour; I was afraid of falling down again so I tried to wait until I felt fairly stable before I stood up, and while I was waiting I leaned back against the toilet lid, which is only a bit of plastic and doesn’t have anything behind it like a toilet tank or a wall, and naturally it broke. I remember staggering back to my room in barely-decent attire including the aforementioned soiled underwear, losing at least one of my flip-flops, perhaps finding toilet paper, lying down on my bed for a minute, hearing my host sister "flush" the toilet (which, remember, is a manual process here) and then say "Ethan, your flip-flop", realizing what a disgusting mess I had created/was a part of, dragged myself out of bed, and attending to myself. Also: realizing that I had been wearing the underwear backwards to begin with.

(After leaving the bathroom here, it is important to "flush" the toilet, i.e. dump some water into the bowl and let it drain — the quantity of water depends on how solid the waste is — and then replace the lid and shut the door on your way out, by way of odor control. I had done none of these things. But I did have a stool sample.)

Later

At about 4 we went to the hospital to receive results. The doctor was not impressed with the fact that I hadn’t taken his pre-emptive malarial meds — in fact he did a completely typical "I’m a doctor and you think you know better than me? Fuck!" thing that was completely intelligible cross-language-barrier — but offered a diagnosis of typhoid fever. Basically: intestinal infection. It sounds grave — or I guess it must sound grave because people keep saying "oh my God, I’m so sorry", but in fact it’s pretty treatable. In my experience I’d say it’s on par with salmonella. So, one for the scrapbook.

Anyhow the doctor decided to prescribe altogether five medicines: the same antimalarial, the same anti-fatigue, because after all if you’re taking five medicines you’re going to be wiped out!, something for typhoid (an antibiotic called "thisbactin"?), an anti-worms drug, and an anti-diarrheal. I asked if I had malaria and he said "Well look, in order to reject the diagnosis of malaria, we need to do slides two times a day for three days, and because we’re in a malarial region, we treat every high fever as though it is malaria, and in other regions like in France that may not be necessary, because there malaria is the exception rather than the rule, etc." And for the worms medicine he said it was standard operating procedure to prescribe worm meds for anyone who complained of abdominal pain in this region (remember: worms are too numerous to mention here).

So I called Chad again and he said: first, that the multiple-malaria-slides thing is a crock of shit, and since I’m already on malaria prophylaxis, medically I’m a completely different animal; second, that the worms thing is equally implausible without evidence, and if he had evidence of either in the bloodwork or the stool sample, he would have said so; third, that guess what, typhoid also gives you a super-high fever; fourth, that there was a (different) antibiotic being kept with the training staff for such a case like this, and if I got ahold of them, I could get my dosage. Chad agreed that it was probably typhoid, and he prescribed also lots of fluids.

So, somehow I made it through the Cameroonian medical system, with a lot of assistance from the Organization. The final diagnosis was typhoid fever. I am now on Ciprofloxem 500mg 2x daily for 7 days, and I feel a lot better (this morning: 98.6). Huge thanks to Mauro the driver (at least, I think that’s his name), who went above and beyond in helping me cope with a medical establishment in a language I just wasn’t up to coping with.

I’m always fascinated by which things people feel necessary to explain to me and which ones they don’t bother. For example, the doctor needed to explain that if we couldn’t find the medicines at the dispensaries under the names he’d given, it might be sold under a different "commercial name", and we could call him for assistance. Well, obviously. But nobody explained why I had to go to the first hospital to get blood drawn.

And as for typhoid: it is a bear of a disease. Last night (after the first dose of antibiotics!) I really wanted to brush my teeth, but couldn’t really talk myself into it. I managed to get as far as finding my toothbrush and toothpaste and placing them on my desk before deciding that really I wanted to lie down again. It was not awesome. I was a little bit worried there. I have memories of thoughts like "What the hell am I doing here? I want to be home. I want to be safe. I want to be with my girlfriend. This sucks."

I think I scared the utter shit out of my host family. Claude went so far as to explain that here in Africa, if you’re sick and you sleep a lot, people take that to mean that it’s a very grave illness. Whereas of course I was operating according to the rules back home — if you’re sick, you should sleep to conserve strength and get better faster. My host mother even said that she didn’t sleep at all last night, and in fact cried because I was so sick. My host family insists that typhoid is only acquired through contaminated water, but the medical manual says food, water, or milk, and everyone’s been trying to figure out how it could have happened. The answer: it’s impossible to say. There just isn’t the sanitation or oversight here that it would require in order to try to narrow it down. I’ll try to clean my filter more often, but I’d put money against it being that.

On another subject. Fun French for today: instead of "collecting" or "picking up" your wages, you "touch" them. "Je voyage pour Yaounde pour toucher mon salaire" — I am going to Yaounde to collect my salary. It’s important to touch your salary because there may not be banks where you live, and besides, you are frequently going to bigger cities to do shopping or otherwise. Also you may not trust the banks. Who knows?

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Sites (Sunday, 2010 June 27)

June 29th, 2010
  • Title: Sites
  • Today’s Date: Sunday, 2010 June 27
  • Instructor: Ethan
  • Purpose: To inform about what has happened in the last few days.
  • Objectives: At the end of this session, readers will be able to:
    • repeat correctly at least one funny thing I’ve written
    • recognize the name of my post
    • feel bad for me

It’s rainy season here, which means in theory it rains sometimes. It hasn’t really so far, but I’m ever hopeful. There were a couple of days last week when it really let loose, but lately it’s just been the occasional drizzle. I love the rain, obviously, because it makes things a little cooler, plus it’s the only time I have running water, so I just don’t feel it’s rained enough.

Going to the bar has continued apace; I’ve gone three or four times this week. Only drank a couple of times; also had a boisson gaseuse (soft drink) called Top. (Top makes lots of sodas; I favor the pimplemousse, grapefruit flavor, which doesn’t taste much like grapefruit.) When I feel up to it I favor a drink called Whiskey Black, which is bottled in the same quantity as beers (0,65L) but is a little stronger (8.5% instead of 6.5%ish). Here one does not order mixed drinks like Whiskey Black and Gin Tonic but instead quaffs from bottles produced by Canada Dry. They’re perhaps not mindblowingly high quality but they’re much more drinkable than e.g. the other exotic Cameroonian beverage, wine in a juice carton.

But one time after the bar I ran across Julia. She needed some help with her regulator, and after that we talked a little bit about the bar and hanging out there. She introduced me to the concept of FOMO, "Fear Of Missing Out", which is a meme that crystallizes a phenomenon I’ve been struggling with for a few years. Julia is the clearest person here; she doesn’t really play simian mind games and it’s really refreshing. She also went to school at NYU, so we can talk about NYC in a real way. I think Gus would really like her. Whereas Jenny for instance has a tendency to start laughing hysterically over nothing, or say things that come a little bit out of left field. She reminds me of VY.

FOMO is what makes you go to the bar even when you didn’t have a good time last time you were there, and even though you don’t expect things to be different this time. FOMO is what makes me read 150 news items every day, even though most don’t interest me. FOMO is what encourages you to keep a list of things you have yet to listen to, even though most of it is going to be garbage.

We received our posts the other day. I’m going to Batié, which is in the West region. The name of my division is Hauts-Plateaux ("high plateaus") which bodes well for me in terms of finding a livable climate. I’ve heard there is a lot of mud there, but I feel like I’ll cope better with mud than with heat. Of course, in reality we’ve learned next to nothing (it’s just a dot on a map). We have a sense of who is near us, and who is far — and, truth be told, I’m a little bummed that so many cool people like Julia and Rosalie and Jessica W. are being sent to the East or to the Extreme North, many hours away — but we really won’t know much about our sites until we go to them this week.

Astride also received her post, it seems; she’s leaving tomorrow for a job in Yaoundé. Nadege was supposed to go with her, but apparently Nadege’s training got bumped to August, so she’ll be here for most of the time I’m here. But Astride’s out of here. She spent some time tonight asking me whether I was sad, happy, or angry. In truth I’m none of these, maybe a little relieved, but mostly it’s a life-goes-on thing. For her it was a big deal; her "last night" here with me. I guess I’m inured to "last nights", hmm?

Lastly: I passed the room inspection, plus or minus. I also seem to be getting better at doing laundry; Claude gave me the "starting to actually clean clothes a little bit well" ranking today. Last night a critter that could have been a giant insect or a small bird got "stuck" in the pool of light on the veranda, causing both me and Claude to flee indoors. I refilled Ben’s bottle of hand sanitizer (which I lent him) from my larger bottle of hand sanitizer (he promised to pay me back when his shipment comes in). We chose Allison to be our "chef du departement" for ICT. And I still have a hard time believing this is a real thing that is really happening.

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

June 17th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Staging

June 3rd, 2010

Staging is done now; tomorrow it’s immunizations and then off to JFK to fly out. I’m taking notes on pen-and-paper again. I spent a half-hour saving pages of the Icehouse wiki as PDFs. The Organization pretty much out-and-out forbids you from writing anything that is negative about the Organization or the country you’re serving, which rubs me the wrong way. I was going to go through the old posts and remove tho country’s name to crudely hide from Google, but hey, there it is in the domain name. Guess I’ll have to robots.txt that bitch before someoene stumbles on this.

Spoke at dinner with a lady whose Swedish husband of 26 years is waiting for her back home, and another lady whose relatively new boyfriend is also. The Peace Corps keeps statistics — “We don’t know why, but for married couples of which only one goes to serve, there is a divorce rate of about 40%”. Scary stuff when your girlfriend is as awesome as mine. The other lady said something like “Actually I kind of like knowing that he’s there. Because after Peace Corps you’re so different, you won’t know what kind of place you’ll want to live in, you won’t know what you’ll want to do, but before I left I wanted to make a life with this guy and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. So to know that I have something nice to look forward to coming home to, that makes me feel good.” The married lady suggested letter-writing as a means to keep romance alive. I have 19 stamps and no envelopes. Please send help.

Otherwise, it’s a lot like college — printed materials, stupid getting-to-know-you games, and the promise of an environment different from any you’ve seen so far.

Turns out you can brush your teeth without toothpaste, but it sucks. Got away with shampooing/conditioning with much less material thanks to my mighty girlfriend’s hair-trimming skills.

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More shopping

May 28th, 2010

Impulse bought today: a Cowon D2+ (personal music player: a little pricey as far as these things go, but rated for 52 hours of music playback, and supports OGG and FLAC) and a Aluratek Libre (e-ink reader: fairly inexpensive as far as these things go, and relatively small/lightweight, and I’m a sucker for anything named “Libre”). Both devices seem capable of charging via USB. I also went shopping for bug spray. The lady behind the counter advised me that a typical usage pattern involves putting on spray in the morning and in the evening, roughly corresponding to a bottle of spray per person per week. That corresponds roughly to 116 bottles of bug spray — not logistically feasible, even a little bit. My new game plan: lots of long clothing.

A part of me recognizes that I’m planning according to fear, and that most of the thing I’m bringing I’m not going to ever use or need. That doesn’t make me any less afraid, but it does put things into perspective. I just hope I haven’t crossed the 80 lbs limit for checked luggage yet (of which my actual suitcases probably take up 15 lbs..).

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